Friday, May 4, 2007

Prayer - Battleground of the Cross

Yesterday was the National Day of Prayer (NDP) and I intended to take that opportunity to reflect on prayer itself. The NDP, according to Wikipedia, is "a day designated by the United States Congress as a day when all Americans regardless of faith are asked to come together and pray in their own way." The NDP appears to be, in intention, much like the World Day of Prayer, in that its primary purpose is that of encouraging broad-based fellowship and ecumenical unity. Unfortunately, since it embraces prayer so broadly as to include the entire Judeo-Christian culture, it has not been of great value to me. Prayer does not unite people in and of itself apart from the Truth and true faith. Although it can give the appearance that it does. That having been said, however, I would never discourage any American Christian from praying. It's always a good thing (assuming it is done according to God's will.)

A national day set aside for prayer does give me the opportunity to reflect on what prayer means, especially within the Christian church and more specifically within the Lutheran church. One of the misunderstandings of prayer that I have seen has been where prayer is misunderstood as a 'means of grace,' that is, a means much like the sacraments. Another problems is that prayer is a "name it and claim it" tool that becomes a way of getting the blessings from God that I would otherwise not receive. On the flip side, though, prayer can also be under appreciated and even neglected, which is certainly contrary to the scripture's injunction to "pray continually."

Some years ago I found a chapter on prayer that was helpful to me in Dr. Harold Senkbeil's book Sanctification: Christ in Action (Northwestern Publishing House, 1989). He entitled the chapter as I did this blog article: "Prayer: battleground of the cross." In it he notes how prayer is not an exercise in trying to find an additional word of God not already revealed, but rather to wrestle in faith with the word He has revealed. He writes:

"We forget that God hides in order to make himself known. In a world in which we are bombarded by talk, we forget that God's silence is his most eloquent way of communicating with us. We keep listening for some word from him, but we forget that God has spoken most clearly in the cross of his Son. What he has said there is simply this, that there is nothing in all creation which will separate us from his love...

This puts prayer in a whole different light. Whenever we pray expected God to speak to us, we will be disappointed. He has already done that; he has given us his Word: 'In these last days he has spoken to us by his Son' (Hebrews 1:2). If we ask for something more we're actually rejecting his Word and promise. Prayers which seek additional evidence from God are prayers of doubt, not of faith. But prayer under the cross is always the prayer of faith....

Prayer then becomes not a comfortable break from the trials of life, but the very place where we do battle against Satan, the world and our own sinful nature. Armed with our own inner resources and spiritual strength we're doomed to defeat. But God supplies the real equipment we need for this combat - the breastplate of righteousness.....

Life under the cross is a joyous life, for it is in our weakness that we can see the grace of Christ most clearly. That's why the most effective prayers are offered with empty hands...Humility, trials, and faith all come together in prayer. We don't expect to hear God speak to us when we pray; he has already spoken in the cross. But prayer is where the Christian lives most intensively under the cross." (pages 144-145)

I believe I heard it somewhere that prayer is not so much about changing God, but about changing us. Which makes sense. For how did Jesus teach us to pray: "Thy will be done." So much of our prayers, I fear, begin with selfish desire uninformed of the will of God. Thus the wrestling if we take seriously the words of our Lord. Our natural flesh wants to turn inward, but prayer inevitably turns us outward, to God again, and to our neighbor. What is it that God desires? He desires that his name be kept holy. He desires that the Kingdom of Grace through His Son come among all, especially those who know him not in faith (missionary prayer). And yes, he desires that we pray for our daily needs, but only for those needed within this given day. There are no prayers for great wealth, although God may grant this. And what else does God desire us to pray for? Forgiveness, the very blessing at the heart of God's Word and work. He desires also that we forgive others as he has forgiven us. He desires that we not be led into temptation and that we would be delivered from the power of Satan and his kingdom. This is his will and certainly includes plenty of material for our prayers.

One wonders how our parishes might change if people prayed the Lord's Prayer seriously, meditating on it in such a way, and wrestling with the implications. For we are often selfish and self-centered and too often looking for that which God has not directly promised. Instead, may this day of prayer remind us of the kind of prayer our Lord Jesus has called us to: a prayer of faith under the cross, seeking his will in his Word, imploring is forgiveness for our sins, and his strength that our life might better conform to his divine will.

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