January Reverend Reflections

Hello First Presbyterian Church,

This evening we will resume our service of prayer and sacrament called the Evening Office. It takes place at 6 p.m. in the Sanctuary and I hope to see you there! As a church we want to cultivate a renewed engagement in the spiritual discipline of prayer, and the Evening Office is one of the ways we hope to encourage you to engage in what Tertullian calls “the buttress of faith, our armor and weaponry against the enemy that watches us from every side.”

Having received a scolding from Mr. GK Chesterton (“Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.”), I have been reading what a few of the ancients taught those preparing for baptism (what they called “catechumens”) about the Lord’s Prayer. 

I just completed Tertullian’s (160—220 A.D.) instruction on the Lord’s Prayer and I am left feeling impressed by the seriousness with which the ancients approached God and the life of faith, particularly prayer. There are a few things Tertullian said which left this impression on me. 

Towards the end of his instruction Tertullian writes, “It is fitting that the faithful should neither take food nor enter the bath without first interposing a prayer. For the refreshment and sustenance of the spirit should take precedence over those of the flesh, because heavenly things have priority over earthly.”

In another place he writes, “Do not let a brother (or sister) who has entered your house depart without prayer.”

Finally, he makes the thought-provoking that “Prayer alone conquers God.” 

Can you imagine the intimacy that would develop between us if before each parting we spent time praying for one another? Can you imagine the feeling of belonging that would grow in the church if a brother or sister not only asked how they can pray for you, but then proceeded to pray that very moment?

Can you imagine the increase in our sense of dependence if before every snack or meal we asked God to similarly feed and satisfy our souls? Can you imagine the joy that would fill us if each shower was preceded with an expression of thanksgiving to God for washing us clean by the blood of Jesus?

Can you imagine the commitment we would make to prayer if we truly believed that prayer alone conquers God, because he desires to be conquered in this way? He desires to have his children tell them their struggles and desires so that he might guide and form them through the activity of prayer and his benevolent replies. 

Did not Jesus tell us in Matthew 7, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? 10 Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”

But let us, his children, also be content with what the Father gives in return for our prayers. Tertullian, in his instruction on prayer, remarks at the effectiveness of the prayer that had been “given shape by Christ.” “How much more effective is the Christian prayer [than the prayers offered by the saints in the Old Testament]?” he asks. “It does not situate the angel in the middle of the fire (Daniel 3:49-50), nor blocks the mouth of lions (Dan. 6:22), nor brings a peasant’s dinner to the hungry. By delegated grace it turns away no feeling of pain, but it arms with endurance those who are suffering and knowing pain and grieving. It increases grace with bravery so that faith might know what it obtains from the Lord, understanding what it is suffering for the sake of the name of the Lord. In times of old prayer summoned plagues (2 Ki. 6:18), put to flight enemy armies (Exodus 17:8), withheld the benefits of rain (Jas. 5:17). But now the prayer of justice turns away the entire anger of God, keeps watch on behalf of foes, and makes supplication for persecutors.”

The prayer that Jesus taught us (what we call “The Lord’s Prayer”) asks for nothing apart from satisfaction with Christ (our daily bread), the advancement of God’s kingdom and will, the grace to forgive and be forgiven, and protection from any temptation that might harm our faith and draw us away from Jesus. This prayer sets our priorities and expectations and should inform the content of all prayers offered beyond the directions he has offered. As Tertullian warns, “We must be mindful of his directions, since our distance from his directions is our distance from the ears of God.” 

It seems GK Chesterton was right to direct us to listen to the ancients, for having read them it strikes me that we have a lot to learn about prayer, and that we “who merely happen to be walking about” have actually been wandering from the seriousness that befits Christ and benefits his church. I hope you will join me this evening (or another Wednesday in the near future) as a first step in our return to this much-neglected discipline.

Grace and peace,
Jonathan +