I introduced this proposed series on prayer in the context of our wounds, our vulnerabilities. The thought of writing on this topic arose from private correspondence, a young man asking me about prayer in the Gospels. Did Jesus teach us anything about prayer beyond the Lord’s Prayer?
I do believe that the Gospel tells us much about Jesus’ teaching on prayer but that it is situated in a context, a context described by the entire Scriptures.
There is a certain logic to begin with the New Testament; I mean as Christians, it would make sense to begin with the Christian Scriptures. It’s a good starting point but one that will not exhaust this exploration; it’s too easy to forget that Jesus was Jewish, as was Paul, Peter, John, James and all the people whose names are associated with the New Testament writings. This exploration of prayer will necessarily refer to the Jewish Scriptures.
The earliest writings of the New Testament are those of St. Paul, his epistles having been written between the years 50 and 56 AD. Just because they are the earliest compositions does not mean that they are more genuine or authentic than the later writings. Paul’s writings may even be more difficult to interpret since they are “working papers”, composed to respond to what he perceived as the important issues and problems of his day. Sometimes, the immediate context is no longer clear to us; but they do provide one perspective on the practice of the primitive Church.
I propose beginning with his most cogent and developed epistle, his Letter to the Romans, written about the year 56, possibly from Corinth. It was Paul’s introduction to the largely Jewish Christian community in Rome which he hoped to visit soon for the first time.
I would draw your attention to verse 29 in Chapter 8 of the Letter to the Romans: those whom he foreknew, he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son… I am proposing this as a starting point for our consideration of prayer because it tells us who we are when we pray. Of course, not just in prayer, but whatever we do as Christians, we could be conformed to the image of [God’s] Son; but here we are solely considering the Christian at prayer. This nuances my understanding of prayer. Prayer would not just be verbal formulas, recited to influence a distant God. If I am conformed to the image of the Son, then God is not an aloof, disinterested party but someone invested in my life, my growth, my vulnerabilities (certainly) and especially in the relationship between us.
These days we hear much about relationships: they can be intimate, distant, dysfunctional, mature, infantile, healthy, neglected or neglectful…If we ask two people whether they are “in a relationship” we now mean to say: “Are you living together as a unit (emotional, physical, economic, social)?” There is even a degree of mutual commitment implied is such a question. We are no longer talking about a business partnership, from which both parties seek their own gain. That kind of business partnership would better describe the kind of praying that makes requests of God, hoping to receive (beneficial) services in return. Think about it: that kind of prayer is like submitting a request to Social Security for benefits that we are eligible to receive. Would you describe that as a relationship? Even a dysfunctional relationship is more than that, though it certainly includes that: what I can get out of it. Any relationship in any condition implies a mutual identity, an attachment, a circuit of exchanged energies that is more than a pragmatic give-and-take–otherwise there’d be no pain in a relationship that isn’t going well.
To say that we are images of God’s Son implies that our prayer to God might be more like prayer with God, or better, prayer in God. I dare to say that our prayer is essentially our relationship with God.
The final point I’d make here is that Paul’s language echos that of Genesis 1:26: Let us make man in Our image and likeness, as God says when creating the first humans. And here I would quote the contemporary Rabbi, Johnathan Sacks:
What is revolutionary in these words is not that a human being can be in the image of God. That was familiar to the ancient world. Sumerian kings and the Egyptian Pharaohs were precisely that: gods or representatives of the gods, in human form. What was news was not that a human being can be in the image of God, but that every human being is. From its inception, Judaism was a living protest against hierarchical societies that give some, but not all, dignity, power and freedom. Instead it insisted that is any individual is sacred, then every individual is, because each of us is in the image of God. (from The Dignity of Difference, p. 92)
How often in prayer, and probably in the moments we most need to pray, do we feel unworthy, not good enough to pray? From a scriptural perspective, this is nonsense. I’m not claiming that I’m fine and dandy as I am but scripture is telling me that I don’t need to be perfect to pray. Rather, even more than being made to approach God in prayer, I need to pray, to be in relationship with God. This relationship is not a perquisite for the worthy but as necessary as breathing to stay alive. To be truly human, I need a vital relationship with God. If I am trapped in sin, I need it more than ever. But even in my sinfulness, my fundamental, God-given dignity, power and freedom are operative and need to be exercised. Consistently, St. Paul addressed the problematic Corinthians, for all their divisiveness, promiscuousness and spiritual elitism, as “the saints in Corinth”. We are never unworthy to pray and we need to pray. Our scars and wounds do not disqualify us.
(to be continued)