Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Praying and Resting

The mind that comes to rest is tended

In ways that it cannot intend:

Is borne, preserved, and comprehended

By what it cannot comprehend.

Your Sabbath, Lord, thus keeps us by

Your will, not ours. And it is fit

Our only choice should be to die

Into that rest, or out of it.

-Wendell Berry, “Another Sunday Morning Comes” (1979)

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking a great deal about the finished work of Christ—how he, by his work on the cross, has already done everything necessary to affect the restoration of our fellowship with God—and consequently how our lives must be characterized by a certain striving, not one that chases after God’s promises to us seeking to grab hold of them, but instead that rests—a striving that rests, that is—in faith, with an utter reliance upon what has been done already, and upon what will be done in the future, when Christ returns.

I’ve been writing a book (tentatively titled Between the Two Appearings) that expounds on Titus 2:11-14, where the Apostle Paul situates all Christian living and striving within a certain timeline, with the finished work of our Savior behind us, and his work yet to be completed ahead of us. Meanwhile I had been preparing a sermon on Romans 11 that I preached this past Sunday (audio will be forthcoming), in which Paul gets at the question of Israel’s continuing disobedience with a sustained look at God himself—at the creator’s sovereign purposes, in history, to consign everything to disobedience, in order that he may have mercy on it (Rom. 11:32). All that while I’d also been reading Michael Horton’s Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church, which criticizes the tendency in American Protestantism (both liberal and conservative) to eschew the preaching of gospel (the person and work of Christ) in favor of law (what we ought to do to be good, relevant, socially-conscious Christians). To that, add reading Flannery O’Connor’s novel, Wise Blood, in which the character Hazel Motes preaches a “Church Without Christ” (ironically in reaction against what he assumes to be the ‘real’ gospel, which is in fact the Christless Christianity Horton is talking about!), and you’ll be able to see why my recent reflections have been devoted rather exclusively to a single idea, the centrality of Jesus Christ. The purpose of this reflection, though, is not to enumerate all of these reflections, but to focus on one in particular, that I think is of great importance to any one of us: prayer.

For some years now, I have been fairly consistent in following a particular pattern of Christian devotion, that of the Daily Office found in The Book of Common Prayer. (Perhaps you’ve heard this practice referred to by a different name: Daily Prayer, Matins and Evensong, the Divine Office, etc.) In my Anglican tradition, a very precise and rich liturgy determines most of our worship, both communally and often individually as well. At certain times of day—as many as four, usually no fewer than two—a group or an individual may read through the daily prayers in the prayer book, following the format and adding their own personal prayers where appropriate.

As with all spiritual disciplines and practices, this one can be misused—something I realized I’d been doing for who knows how long. It can become a work, a pattern of obedience by which I believe myself to be maintaining my relationship with God through my own action and initiative; if I am negligent—tired and not very attentive one evening, say, or I miss a few times during the week—this may displease him, but if I am diligent, he’ll be very happy and so will I. Of course, if you’d asked me about that danger I wouldn’t have said such things—my fellowship with God is a gift of grace! But had I really believed that, I should not have been feeling guilty when my attention was more prone to wander today, whereas I really prayed good ‘n hard with plenty of feeling and eagerness yesterday.

So as I was reading and writing and thinking about this matter—the objective center of the gospel, this man of Calvary now out of his tomb—I found myself laying the Daily Office aside, and simply pondering daily the mighty work that Christ had accomplished for our sakes, then praying for my needs and those of others I know. The fervency with which I did this varied every bit as much as it did when I prayed the Office, but my feelings were no longer uncertain, the face of God never obscured by the subjectivity of my circumstance. For I had just glimpsed—whether for a long time or a short time, whether with tears or with joy, whether I was tired or wide awake—the agony of a God of self-giving love upon a bloody cross, who I knew in that very moment of prayer embraced me and still embraces me within his very self, hidden in God until his glorious appearing (Col. 3:3-4). I found this to be the anchor of my soul, limiting, as anchors do, the distance that I might otherwise travel in any direction away from the rock-bottom certainty that in Christ, God is utterly, impossibly, irrevocably for me.

Now I hope that touches your heart, because here is the point: I’ve stumbled clumsily across a method of prayer that I think all of us would do well to emulate in one way or another, whatever our particular tradition might be. My temporary vacation from the prayer book has reminded me of what must lie at the heart of all our prayers: Almighty God, glorified in the person and work of Christ, on whom we fix our eyes and to whom we hold fast by the power of the Holy Spirit. If the celebration of this God and what he has done does not have primacy, I am convinced that our praying, our ‘quiet times,’ our disciplines of any kind will inevitably incline more and more toward selfishness, toward self-reliance, and consequently to anxiety.

I say “temporary vacation” from the prayer book because I eventually discovered, to my astonishment, that this is exactly what the Daily Office does—I hadn’t been able to realize it until I’d taken a step back from what I thought I understood! The prayers begin with readings from the scriptures, celebrates the gospel through the songs of Luke, which are assigned to different times of day (Lk. 1:68-79 AM; vv. 46-55 PM; 2:29-32 before bed—try it!), recites the Apostle’s Creed and the Lord’s Prayer, and concludes with the various prayers and petitions that the group or individual may have. The name “Daily Office,” a translation of the Latin name for it that we might otherwise render “Daily Duty” creates a misleading impression of what the purpose of the prayers actually is: to center those who pray them around a God of grace and glory and righteousness, revealed through Jesus Christ for all who have faith in him, a God before whom we may therefore be utterly confident in Christ.

I say this not to advertise the prayer book itself (though I would recommend it to many), but instead to ‘advertise’ what I have found to be of the utmost importance, whatever form our prayers take. The gospel of Jesus Christ—the good news that God has vindicated Jesus of Nazareth, crucified for the sins of the world, by raising him from the dead and enthroning him over all creation—must take the center stage in all of our praying and thinking about God, because we understand the identity of God himself nowhere so truly as in this event: Jesus crucified, lifted up upon an instrument of torture, giving himself in total love for his enemies and drawing all the world to himself (Jn. 12:32-33). Knowing this, and knowing yourself to be such a one, drawn to this bleeding God of love in spite of your rebellion, means knowing peace, joy, and confidence of a kind that no power or principality can thwart.

As I’ve reflected on these things, I’ve also been reading poetry by Wendell Berry. The last two stanzas of one of his pieces is quoted above, taken from a series of “Sabbath Poems,” all of which address the topic of rest in one way or another. It occurred to me that Berry’s picture of the mind that comes to rest, that has rested from its works by trusting in the gospel of God’s grace (Heb. 4:9-11) and is subsequently cared for and preserved in ways that it cannot even fathom, is a picture of exactly the sort of mindset I am talking about with regard to prayer. Read the stanzas: when it comes to your devotions, your quiet times, or whatever you may call them, do you believe that you are doing something with God, or that God is doing something with you? Your task is not to mount up to God and grab a hold of his arms when you pray, but to see his arms already open to you upon the cross, and then as Berry says, “to die into that rest”—to know yourself crucified with the Messiah but consequently alive to God, as the Messiah is, and resting in what Christ has already accomplished.

Prayer that we offer day by day, then, might be called a microscopic Sabbath of sorts. It is not a work, but a resting from our works, a resting in the beauty of the works of a God who did not spare his own Son but gave him for us all, and will therefore not hesitate to give us all good things (Rom. 8:32). Whatever our tradition, we are all prone to the self-reliance which thinks it is our duty to drag Christ down to us day by day if our prayers are to be fulfilled, when all the while the word of faith, by which we have absolute assurance before God, is close by (cf. Rom. 10:6-9). True prayer is not merely an address to God, but an address in response to Jesus Christ—God’s own address to us, as Karl Barth called him. In short, all our speaking to God must be undertaken in an awareness of the fact that God has already spoken to us previously and decisively in Jesus Christ, who perfectly represents and embodies his character to us (Heb. 1:2-3). Rest is the most natural posture of the soul for this kind of address, because prayer is, at its root, an acknowledgment that I do not run the world and God does—I rest so that I may trust his power to work, power far beyond mine. In your prayers, consider it and consider him: who is this God with whom I must reckon? What do I know of him… a self-giving savior, rich in grace and keeping every hair on my head numbered? Only in that knowledge do I dare ask him anything.