Ancient Answers


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How shall we pray?

 

“Lord, teach us to pray!” the disciples asked of Jesus. Why? They were Jews, they were taught to pray three times a day. Why were they asking? Perhaps because they felt something new was happening. Jesus was not like the Pharisees or the priests. He was teaching a new way, so they wanted to pray in a new way! And perhaps they also had in mind the parable that they heard Jesus speak:

5445613926_85169104aaHe also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:10-14)

They asked because they didn’t want to pray like the Pharisee, who boasted how many times he prayed, how much he fasted, how much he tithed, but who also looked down on other people – perhaps people like them! They heard Jesus extol the prayer of the tax collector – a simple prayer, God be merciful to me a sinner!

So they asked. We all ask. Every Orthodox Christian at one time or another, or often, has asked someone, a priest, a fellow church member – how do I pray?

Jesus’ immediate answer to the disciples (see Luke 11:1-4) was to teach them the Our Father – but in Luke’s shorter version:

Father,

hallowed be your name

your kingdom come.

Give us each day our daily bread.

Forgive us our sins.

for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.

And lead us not into temptation.

Notice what’s missing: No “who art in heaven”; no “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”; no “deliver us from evil.” And notice that Luke’s version says “forgive us our sins – αμαρτίας,  not οφειλήματα as in the familiar version from Matthew which the church has adopted. And of course neither version has the conclusion that the church added: “For yours is the kingdom….”

51pcwtc-47l-_sx331_bo1204203200_It is a simple prayer that covers all the essentials – both heavenly and earthly.

But in addition to this prayer, the Bible has a profound group of prayers that are available to us to pray in every situation. I’m referring to the Psalms, of course. The great German theologian and martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, wrote a beautiful short book, The Prayerbook of the Bible. He identifies many different types of psalms; I’ll focus on some of the types he identifies.

Creation psalms

Ps 8 O Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth….

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,

the moon and the stars that you have established;

what are human beings that you are mindful of them, that you care for them?

Ps 104 and others

 

The Good life

Ps 63 O God, you are my God, I seek you,

my soul thirsts for you;

my flesh faints for you,

as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.

Because your steadfast love is better than life,

my lips will praise you.

So I will bless you as long as I live;

I will lift up my hands and call on your name.

My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast,

and my mouth praises you with joyful lips

when I think of you on my bed,

and meditate on you in the watches of the night;

for you have been my help,

and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.

My soul clings to you;

your right hand upholds me.

But then comes a change of tone:

But those who seek to destroy my life

the_parable_of_the_pharisee_and_the_tax_collector-1024x737

The parable for today. Where are you? Who are you? The one up front, or the one in the back? What is the attitude we bring to prayer?

shall go down into the depths of the earth… (this also is prayer. The Psalms are very honest, they expose the full range of our emotional and spiritual states – all our weaknesses, including our desire for revenge. But this is not like the Pharisee in the parable. Because here and elsewhere the psalms ask for God’s punishment of enemies, of those who have hurt us. Remember, David wrote many of these!)

Ps 103 Bless the Lord, O my soul,

and all that is within me,

bless his holy name.

Bless the Lord, O my soul,

and do not forget all his benefits—

who forgives all your iniquity,

who heals all your diseases,

who redeems your life from the Pit,

who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,

who satisfies you with good as long as you live

so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

 

Suffering

Ps 13 How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?

How long will you hide your face from me?

How long must I bear pain in my soul,

and have sorrow in my heart all day long?

Ps 22 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?

O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;

and by night, but find no rest.

 

God speaks

Ps 46 “Be still, and know that I am God”

 

Confession of sin/guilt

Ps 51 Have mercy on me, O God,

according to your unfailing love;

according to your great compassion

blot out my transgressions.

Wash away all my iniquity

and cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions,

and my sin is always before me.

Against you, you only, have I sinned

and done what is evil in your sight…

the cleansing:

Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean;

wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.

Let me hear joy and gladness;

let the bones you have crushed rejoice.

Hide your face from my sins

and blot out all my iniquity.

Create in me a pure heart, O God,

and renew a steadfast spirit within me.

Do not cast me from your presence

or take your Holy Spirit from me.

Restore to me the joy of your salvation

and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.

then what?

Then I will teach transgressors your ways,

so that sinners will turn back to you. (Notice how beautifully this Psalm captures the sequence: Guilt – Confession of sin – Forgiveness & Restoration – Witness to others. That last part is crucial. If we receive forgiveness we are to help others find the same peace and restoration.)

 

Life beyond death

Ps 16 Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices;

my body also will rest secure,

because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead,

nor will you let your faithful one see decay.

You make known to me the path of life;

you will fill me with joy in your presence,

with eternal pleasures at your right hand.

Ps 118 I will not die but live,

and will proclaim what the Lord has done.

The Lord has chastened me severely,

but he has not given me over to death.

Open for me the gates of the righteous;

I will enter and give thanks to the Lord.

This is the gate of the Lord

through which the righteous may enter.

I will give you thanks, for you answered me;

you have become my salvation.

Right here dear friends is the gate of the Lord, where we enter into his presence. And his presence will be eternal joy beyond the suffering and troubles of this life. But let us be grateful for this life. Sometimes prayer is nothing more than listening to the God who tells us, “Be still and know that I am God.”


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Which church will survive?

I came across a provocative article, A Church for Exiles, by Carl Trueman in the August issue of First Things, a periodical of conservative Christian thought. The author of this article sees Christianity overwhelmed by secularism and entering a period of “exile” in the United States. He asks the question as to which church (or Christian tradition) is best equipped to survive in this age of exile. He briefly surveys the situation for Evangelicalism and Roman Catholicism (he doesn’t even bother with mainstream Protestantism and he shows no awareness of the Orthodox Church), and then presents the case for his own Reformed tradition. This is the type of Protestantism that originated with Calvin and other Protestant Reformers in the 16th century. This is the type of Christianity practiced by the Pilgrims who established the first colonies in what is today the United States.

According to Trueman, the Reformed Church “cultivates a practical simplicity: Church life centers on the preaching of the Word, the administration of the sacraments, prayer, and corporate praise.” I like the idea of “simplicity”; but I find his summary of what is most important to be severely limited. And what exactly does “administration of the sacraments” mean for a church where baptism has been intellectualized and watered down from its original rich cosmic mysticism, and where communion is just the sharing of ordinary bread and grape juice? That’s the answer this author has for the challenge facing Christianity in the 21st century? I find it pretty bland.

The author’s thought becomes even more alienating as he goes on to describe Reformed faith and worship. He offers the following thoughts in response to the question, What about Liturgy?

The Gospel according to the Reformed faith is straightforward: We are dead in sin and need to be united to Christ, the God-man, who lived and died and rose again for us and for our salvation. United with him, we look beyond the ephemera of this world to the eternity beyond.

Reformed worship places the Word at the center because the declaration of the truth of the Gospel is central. Ideally, this truth shapes the liturgical actions of the Reformed community. For example, in the church service, the minister reads the Decalogue and brings words of judgment down on God’s people, reminding them of their death in Adam. He leads them in a corporate confession of sin and then reads words from Scripture, pointing toward the promise in Christ of comfort, forgiveness, and the final ­resurrection to come. Fall, death, forgiveness, resurrection: The basic elements of the Christian message find concise and precise expression in Reformed liturgical practice.

The congregation, reminded of who they are—sinners who stand before God condemned for their ­unrighteousness and uncleanness—receive the promise in Christ that, grasped by faith, seals forgiveness upon their hearts and moves them to praise and thanksgiving.

This singular focus—the drama of sin and redemption inwardly known—is a great boon in times of exile. To retain an identity in the face of a hostile culture, one must belong to a vibrant community of people who know who they are. This is the New Testament pattern of Christianity. When we hear, in clear and unequivocal words, who we are declared to us in the sermon each week and when we participate in liturgical action embodying that identity, we are well prepared for the hostile liturgies and gospels of the world we encounter from Monday to Saturday.

This is the Reformed formula for surviving in this age of exile, to remind people at every service that they are sinners, condemned for all eternity? Isn’t this precisely the reason why so many people reject Christianity? Because of this constant emphasis on sin and sinners? Even the Orthodox Church is not immune to this obsession with sin. The most common way we refer to ourselves in Orthodox services is “us sinners,” “me a sinner,” “I a sinner,” etc. We sing the same Memorial service, with the same prayers for forgiveness of sins, even after the departed has been dead for 50 or 100, or 1,000 years! Don’t you think that at some point we should stop reminding the dead and the living that they are sinners?

Despite this weakness, however, the Orthodox Church does not present the same bleak view of humanity as the Reformed tradition, but instead unfolds a broader vision of Christian essence. Our Liturgy is much richer than what Trueman describes here. The Sermon is not the center of the Liturgy; it’s important, but it’s not the reason for the gathering on a Sunday or feast-day. The Eucharist is the center, the remembrance of Christ’s global significance, his offering of his body and blood not just for my salvation, which is the Reformed preoccupation, but for the salvation of the world! Trueman quotes the Heidelberg Catechism, one of the main summaries of Reformed faith:

What is your only comfort in life and death? That I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Saviour ­Jesus Christ; who, with his precious blood, has fully satisfied for all my sins, and delivered me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head; yes, that all things must be subservient to my salvation, and therefore, by his Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me sincerely willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto him.

It’s me, me, me all the way. Christ died for me. Nothing about the world, nothing about sanctification and transfiguration of the world. What about my neighbor? The Reformed person would answer, he can be saved too, if he accepts the same faith that I have. I find this to be extremely limited and narrow thinking. The Orthodox tradition has a healthier, fuller vision of the world – a world that is not just fallen, but also capable of transfiguration by the sanctifying and deifying presence of Christ and his people. Of course, this Orthodox understanding is often a well-kept secret in our churches, as we become more and more conformed to our own brand of American commercial Christianity. And this brings me to one troubling aspect of Orthodox history.

The Orthodox Church has had a very troubling tendency to accommodate itself to state power. We saw this in the Byzantine Empire, in Czarist Russia, and in all the national churches. In recent decades we’ve seen this in Greece and Serbia, and today we see the Russian Orthodox Church allying itself with the militaristic policies of the Putin government. The Moscow Patriarchate itself is practicing a dirty game of political maneuvering to become Number One in the Orthodox world. Does no one in Moscow ever read the words of Jesus in Luke 22:24-26?

A dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest. But he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves.

Quite frankly, does anyone in the Orthodox world think of these words when they jostle for rank and order and for proper titles? One would have expected that the Orthodox in America would resist the temptation of acquiescence to state power. After all, America has no tradition of a state church and there is a separation of church and state here – at least in theory and formal law. But here, too, Orthodox hanker for recognition from politicians and for a prominent place at all state functions. This has the effect of making Orthodoxy just another American religion instead of being the transformative message of God’s liberating power over all creation.

Trueman does have wonderful things to say about the Psalms. I can relate to this:

The Psalms’ many notes of lament, of longing for future rest, and of present discomfort and disillusion with the status quo… provides realistic horizons of expectation for this world—and for the next. It gives us a vocabulary with which to praise God in the midst of the contradictions of life… the very songs of David we sing speak of exile—and of hope for the better country we seek.

This recognition of exile and the hope we find in the Psalms… is not so obvious in other Christian traditions. For example, the worship of the American Evangelical Church of the last few decades has been marked by what one might call an aesthetic of power and triumph. Praise bands perform in churches often built to look more like concert venues than traditional places of worship. Rock riffs and power chords set the musical tone. Songs speak of tearing down enemy ­strongholds. Christianity does, of course, point to triumph, but it is the triumph of resurrection, and resurrection presupposes prior suffering and death. An emphasis on triumph, often to the exclusion of lament, will not prepare people for life this side of resurrection glory. It will not prepare us for a life of exile. I fear we are laying the foundations for disillusionment and despair.

These are good thoughts and they are not alien to me as an Orthodox Christian. The Psalms with their contrasting reactions to life in all its joys, sorrows and dangers, are a powerful means of living in this age of exile. One friend who is going through a major calamity in her life recently asked me to help her find expression for her feelings in the Psalms, especially number 119. And this is what the Psalms do: they heal by allowing us to voice even thoughts of hatred and revenge. They heal because they allow us to voice those negative thoughts in the presence of God. God does not consider any thought taboo, as long as it’s presented to God by an honest heart that is open to insight and transformation.

So what church will survive in this age of exile? Trueman thinks it’s his church, the Reformed Church. I don’t agree. Do I think it’s the Orthodox Church? I don’t worry about such things. The Orthodox Church will “survive” as long as God has use for it. In this country, we are small and still connected to the umbilical cords of our ethnic origins. But God can still use us for good, and it’s happening at many levels, if not always where it should be happening the most.

The problem with Trueman’s article is that it represents a remnant theology. Instead of casting his nets far and wide like Jesus did, Trueman wants to limit survival to one brand of currently existing Christianity. He sees no need for change in his Reformed Church; it will survive because it is what it is and it tells people who they are, namely sinners. Good luck with that. There are people like that in the Orthodox Church as well, who see the church as being perfect as it is, with no need to change anything. These people cannot separate the church from its Byzantine or Czarist past.

What the Orthodox Church has to offer – once we cut the ethnic umbilical cord – is a broader vision than the one Trueman presents, but which nevertheless is not complete for today’s world, and we can learn from our brothers and sisters. We can learn from the Catholic commitment to social justice. We can learn from the Reformed and Evangelical encounter with Scripture – though serious encounter for us does not mean fundamentalist. The Orthodox Church has a rich tradition of creativity. The creative way Scripture has been interpreted in our iconography and hymnography is a shining example of how the words of Scripture can be made understandable in a post-Christian society. And this is the key, with all due respect to Mr. Trueman.

In Christ’s vision of life, no one can survive or be saved on their own. Why should it be any different for a church? No matter how beautiful, how all-encompassing our Liturgy, our theology, our iconography, we must be willing to practice what we preach: a willingness to be transformed, to be transfigured – and transfiguration requires change and movement, not standing still – especially when that standing still is in a past that no longer exists. And change does not mean going with the flow of what is popular in society. Change should come from within our rich experience of faith; but above all change can only come from taking Jesus Christ seriously. And sometimes that means that we have to change or abandon something that contradicts the plain words of Jesus.

I know I’ve written some challenging things here that will upset some, and perhaps this article has been too long for some people to read, but if you want to talk about survival, don’t think small and exclusive. Think big and inclusive. Quite frankly, I don’t care to answer Trueman’s question. I don’t think survival is what Christ preached. Thriving is what Christ is all about. “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). The only reason why some of us even have to worry about survival is that we have ventured far outside the vision of Christ. To talk about survival is to make Jesus a liar.

So let’s forget about exile and survival in a post-Christian world. Let’s stop seeing the world as the enemy. There is enough enemy talk all around us, we don’t need to contribute to it. Present to the world the message of life; live that message of life. That’s all that God asks of us.

But at night an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors and brought them out and said, “Go and stand in the temple and speak to the people the whole message of this life” (Acts 5:19-20)