Monday, July 26, 2010

The Counter-Cultural Prayer Life

“Lord, teach us to pray.” Isn’t it interesting that prayer is something we have to be taught. Unlike say language – which you learn largely by listening to others speak – prayer requires instruction. Or maybe it is like language. We all know how to pray, kind of, because we have all been exposed to it. We are formed by the prayers of this worship service. We know how to say grace and bedtime prayers. Some of us can offer extemporaneous prays at a bible study, or fellowship gathering, or as a healing ministry. Still, just as the disciples discerned by being around Jesus, we sense that there are depths and aspects of prayer that elude us just as we know our command of the language is limited when we listen to a great speaker or playwright or poet.

“Teach us to pray.” Let me highlight several things about Jesus’ response.

This first one you may already know. Jesus teaches His followers to address God as ‘Father’ using the Aramaic word for ‘daddy’ or ‘pa-pa.’ God, the One who is Holy Other, is intimate, open, loving, available, and accessible. Think how revolutionary this approach to prayer really is, given that it emerged from a religious tradition that taught you could not even speak or write God’s Name.

“Abba” – da-da – “hallowed be your name.” Hallowed: we have lost just how subversive and counter-cultural this part of the prayer is. Let me explain.

In the Greek and Roman world of Jesus’ era, it was commonly held that the emperor was a god. Adherents to this notion were part of what is known as the Roman Imperial Cult. Several rulers took the title ‘Epiphanes,’ meaning ‘god manifest.’ Ptolemy V, who came to power as a youth, is described with these glowing terms: “great in glory,” “restorer of the life of man,” “king like the sun,” “child of the gods,” “living image of Zeus,” and “the god manifest for whom we give thanks.”

When Octavian defeated the forces of Anthony and Cleopatra in 31 BC he became Rome’s first emperor, the Caesar. A few years later the senate conferred on him the title ‘Augustus’ – a Latin word meaning “hallowed” or “revered.” Listen to this typical proclamation made to the August or Hallowed One:

Whereas Providence, which divinely ordered our lives, created with zeal… the most perfect good for our lives by producing Augustus [the hallowed one] and filling him with virtue for the benefaction of humankind, sending us and our descendants a savior to put an end to war…, and Whereas when Caesar appeared he exceeded the hopes of all who had anticipated his good tidings [in Greek, euangelion or ‘gospel,’ ‘good news’]”

All of this points to the culture and climate of that era. It was a time when the political, military, and economic leader was proclaimed at “hallowed” or “revered.” He was god manifested among humans. His acts and proclamations where evangelisms. Now, not everyone believed this, but everyone had to give homage to it. And the more you give homage to something, the more you live in to the reality it creates.

So do you see now how Jesus’ prayer life was counter-cultural and subversive? As Jesus prayed so Jesus lived. He lived in this life in warm, intimate relationship with God and acknowledged God’s kingdom as the supreme reign and reality in this world. Jesus was engaged in what the poet Czeslaw Milosz called “the passionate pursuit of the real.” His prayer life was aimed at exposing pretenders and rejecting contenders to the kingdom of the real.

So what does a passionate pursuit of the real look like? Well, in prayer, Jesus said it looks like asking, searching, and knocking. The writer Evelyn Underhill makes this observation:

“Note how all of them are attached to something done by us. The question of whether we will commune with God is left to us… God gives out of God’s treasury what we really ask, seek, and long for. God’s supply is infinite: it is our demands which are shallow, mistrustful, and vague.”

I see in this three-fold formula a pattern to the evolving, maturing life of prayer. At the earliest stage our prayer life revolves around asking: “God, give me this,” “God, fix that,” “God, get me out of a jam.” There seems to be no limit to what we can ask of God, to what we want from God. But somewhere along the spiritual way we may come to see and sense how we often ask for the wrong things. We are like a little child who for dinner wants ice cream, cookies, and popcorn. That may be want we want, but it is not what we need. It is not what is good for us.

In my own life of prayer I have sensed a movement from asking toward seeking. I began to wonder more about God’s way, God’s word, God’s wisdom, and God’s will. I knew I was asking for the wrong things, but I did not know what exactly were the right things. Consider what Jesus teaches us to ask:

…that we have the food we need (not want) for this day.

…that we be forgiven.

…that we not be alone in the midst of life’s trials and challenges.

Searching for what is right – for what is real - it seems to me is a near life-long process.

Emerging in my prayer life is more of what I think Jesus meant by knocking. It involves wanting to enter into the presence of God through silence, through meditation, through holy reading, and through being attentive to the world around me and the relationships of my life. It involves a conscious and deep desire to leave the hallowed world of today’s Caesars in order to enter the kingdom of Abba.

It is hard for me to sustain this desire for extended periods of time or as a daily practice and these times of knocking don’t happen as often as they could. I realize more and more that I am just a toddler in the life of prayer. But every now and then I find myself in line with the Prayer of St. Theresa of Avila:

Let nothing trouble you
Let nothing frighten you
Everything passes
But God will never change

Patient endurance
Will obtain everything
Whoever has God
Wants for nothing at all.

Now that is a counter-cultural notion indeed. It is subversive to the core of this age. It is a beautiful description of the real and whenever I attach myself to it I know that my prayer life is on the right track, especially when my actions follow.