Help me to do the things you want me to do, Know the things you want me to know, Seek the things that you want me to seek, Feel the things that you want me to feel, Think the things that you want me to think, Speak the things you want me to speak.
Nothing more. Nothing less.
For the glory of your coming kingdom, And for the honor of your name, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
The problem with understanding prayer as conversation is that prayer is so much more than communication. Reducing it to conversation makes it simply mental activity–words and thoughts being a product of the left hemisphere of the brain. Prayer includes the mind, but is not limited to it. God invites engagement with more of our brain and more of our being. The glorious truth is that I can be praying to God without speaking to God, or without even consciously thinking of God. If this wasn’t true, how could we ever hope to realize the ideal of continuous prayer that is encouraged by the Scriptures (1 Thessalonians 5:17; Ephesians 6:18)? Obviously we cannot be thinking about God all the time. Nor can we be talking to God all the time. But prayer can be as foundational to our daily life as breathing. It can become a part of living, not just a religious practice or spiritual discipline.
A better starting point for an adequate understanding of the breadth of prayer is to view it as communion with God. Communion includes conversation but is much broader. Because it involves union, not just closeness and connection, it also entails much more intimacy than mere conversation. We are, as Paul reminds us, in Christ, just as Christ is in us. That language reflects the intermingling that is part of true communion. It does not get much more intimate than this–an intimacy that is based on the reality of a mystical union with Christ, in the present moment, not simply something to be hoped for in the future. Our experiential knowing of this reality may be limited. But the union is real, even now. And the communion that we experience in prayer is also real–so real that, more so than anything else that I know of, this prayer communion has the power to transform us from the inside out.
We tend to make prayer the preparation for our service, yet it is never that in the Bible. Prayer is the practice of drawing on the grace of God. Don’t say, “I will endure this until I can get away and pray.” Pray now — draw on the grace of God in your moment of need. Prayer is the most normal and useful thing; it is not simply a reflex action of your devotion to God. We are very slow to learn to draw on God’s grace through prayer.
“[W]hat can perhaps be most fruitfully taken from his work is not so much a set of doctrinal positions as an example of the integration of theological reflection with the life of faith. The Dominican theologian Cornelius Ernst once remarked that theology is, properly understood, ‘engaged contemplation’ (Multiple Echo (London, 1979) 151). Part of the persuasiveness of von Balthasar’s theological writing lies in the fact that it is not primarily critical but contemplative. To describe his work in these terms is not to suggest that it is the fruit of private mystical experience rather than the public self-manifestation of God; nor is it to envisage the theologian’s task as necessitating withdrawal. What is meant is rather that as contemplative theology it is born of a fundamentally receptive attitude of spirit and mind towards God’s self-disclosure. Its origin is not critical inquiry but rapture; its most characteristic attitude is that of being utterly overwhelmed by the splendour of God. It is for these reasons that there is for von Balthasar the closest possible correlation between theological reflection and the life of prayer, and that he has called for more ‘kneeling theologians’ (Verbum Caro (Einsiedeln, 1960) 224). If orthodox theology is not infrequently both unintelligent and unimaginative, it may well be that the fault lies not so much in a defective grasp of the truth as in a defective spirituality.”
I like this idea. But I am among those who believe that the work of theology is first a work of prayer and second a task of service. Theologians do not firstly serve the academy, though they are found there in official capacities, but rather theologians dedicate themselves to a discipline of inquiry that is intended for service to the Lord and, by extension, to the people of God, the church.
As I stumble through this life, help me to create more laughter than tears, dispense more happiness than gloom, spread more cheer than despair. Never let me become so indifferent that I will fail to see the wonder in the eyes of a child or the twinkle in the eyes of the aged. Never let me forget that my total effort is to cheer people, make them happy and forget – at least momentarily – all the unpleasantness in their lives. And, in my final moment, may I hear You whisper: ‘When you made My people smile, you made Me smile.’
The closing words offered in the 2015 documentary “I Am Chris Farley” are “The Clown’s Prayer,” words Mr. Farley carried in his wallet that he would recite before auditions and shows. They are read by Mr. Farley’s friend and fellow actor Pat Finn.
I cannot imagine a more fitting, more perfect ending.
There is a prayer for every vocation, words that might be spoken as one pursues any good endeavor, that God might bless those efforts toward eternally good ends. Even for the comedian. While there has been a great deal of material published in recent years on faith and work and many sermons and talks given besides, I suspect the need to pair these two in the Christian imagination will not soon fade, and that we will need further reminders that the work of God is undertaken by the whole people of God in the fields, offices, workshops and warehouses of our world.
I serve in a seminary. How and where we teach is often conducted with methods and in settings very similar to other, more familiar educational settings. The teacher or professor delivers content, and we sit and listen, much like in a public school or a college lecture hall. We know answers to test questions are being given, and tests must be passed to move on to the next level. We take notes. We study. We produce those answers. And we move on.
This is all fine and good. We do a lot of good work. But the church is a different kind of setting, with different educational modalities and formational aims.
We have a problem when we get our wires crossed and begin thinking that the church is identical with the seminary, and how we’re led and taught effectively in one place is identical with the way we’ll lead and teach in the other. In the seminary, we’re taught all kinds of facts about the Bible, history, theology, and the practice of ministry. Those things are important. But we mistakenly assume that it is these facts, and these points of emphasis, that we’re supposed to stress while with the congregation. When we do this, there is something more central, more important, and more essential that we miss. What are we missing?
In The Contemplative Pastor, Eugene Peterson writes about his discovery that his educational outlook for pastoral ministry was very different than that of a previous generation of pastors, who throughout church history had learned “on the job” within the life of a parish. Seminaries, either as independent institutions or embedded within university systems, are more recent innovations. How we learn now, and how we teach, isn’t the only way to do it, nor is it the only way it has been done.
Peterson discovered both our problem and a different way to approach the pastoral task as a Christian educator. He writes:
My secularized schooling had shaped my educational outlook into something with hardly any recognizable continuities with most of the church’s history. I had come into the parish seeing its great potential as a learning center, a kind of mini-university in which I was the resident professor.
And then one day, in a kind of shock of recognition, I saw that it was in fact a worship center. I wasn’t prepared for this. Nearly all my preparation for being a pastor had taken place in a classroom, with chapels and sanctuaries ancillary to it. But these people I was now living with were coming, with centuries of validating presence, not to get facts on the Philistines and Pharisees but to pray. They were hungering to grow in Christ, not bone up for an examination in dogmatics. I began to comprehend the obvious: that the central and shaping language of the church’s life has always been its prayer language.
Out of that recognition a conviction grew: that my primary educational task as pastor was to teach people how to pray. I did not abandon, and will not abandon, the task of teaching about the faith, teaching the content of the gospel, the historical backgrounds of biblical writings, the history of God’s people. I have no patience with and will not knowingly give comfort to obscurantist or anti-intellectual tendencies in the church. But there is an educational task entrusted to pastors that is very different from that assigned to professors. The educational approaches in all the schools I attended conspired to ignore the wisdom of the ancient spiritual leaders who trained people in the disciplines of attending to God, forming the inner life so that it was adequate to the reception of truth, not just the acquisition of facts. The more I worked with people at or near the centers of their lives where God and the human, faith and the absurd, love and indifference were tangled in daily traffic jams, the less it seemed that the way I had been going about teaching made much difference, and the more that teaching them to pray did.
The educational task of the pastor is to teach, or to invite, people to be in relationship with God. It is to invite, model, instruct, and encourage them in the life of prayer. There are other facets to teaching, of course. But prayer is central.
Bishop Augustine was preaching his series of homilies on the Trinity in the cathedral of Hippo. Between services he would walk to the seashore to meditate and rest his mind. He saw a boy on the shore digging a hole and then filling the hole with a bucket of seawater. He did this repeatedly. Finally Augustine walked over to the boy and asked, “Son, what are you doing?” The boy replied, “I am going to take that big ocean and put it in this little hole.” The wise and fatherly Augustine said kindly to the boy, “My son, the ocean is too big to place in that little hole.” The boy looked up at the bishop and said, “Easier for me to take that big ocean and put it in this little hole than for you to take the big Trinity and put it in your little mind, Bishop Augustine!” At that the boy disappeared. He was an angel sent by God to remind Augustine that sublime as his teaching might be, he could never fully understand or express the divine mysteries of the Trinity (or the incarnation, for that matter).
The words we utter about God should always be spoken with humility, for the reality is far greater than that which the human mind could ever comprehend or behold. And yet, on this night, Christian people proclaim that this God came in the form of a child, in the person of Jesus, and in and through him, delivered salvation to the world.
While browsing for a resource on family devotions I came across these prayers for couples, and this one, I liked:
A Prayer for a Couple About to Marry
“O God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, bless these Your servants. Sow the seed of eternal life in their hearts, so that whatever they learn in Your Holy Word they will profit from it, and bring their learning to fulfillment by their deeds. Look, O Lord, mercifully on them from heaven. Bless this couple. As You sent Your blessing on Abraham and Sarah to their great comfort, so send Your blessing on these Your servants. Help them to obey Your will and always live in safety under Your protection. May this pair live in Your love to the end of their days. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, we pray. Amen.”