When praying becomes a spectator sport
I've always thought it was strange that some people are afraid to pray out loud. I mean, I suppose that I've never really struggled with saying anything out loud, since I'm rather verbose (some would say even more than that). My confusion, though, is not just based upon my own personal proclivity to talk. For me, there's always been a bit of a conceptual block as well.
If one does not have a problem talking with one's best friend, brother, sister, mother, or father, why would one have a problem talking to God?
The issue, of course, is much fuzzier than that, and my tendency to lump everything into one, broad view exacerbates my difficulty in understanding. Today's Scripture from Paul's letter to the Christians in Rome, though, adds significant understanding that even I cannot miss.
Paul has been writing to the Roman believers, oppressed and hidden away throughout the capital city of the Empire, about Deep Things: indeed, the depth of the theology upon which Paul has touched can be evidenced by my failure to grapple with any other texts from our Lectionary during the course of the past few posts. There has simply been too much to address from Romans to take on anything else.
Today, though, Paul turns from these theological depths of orthodoxy (right belief), and turns to practical concerns of orthopraxis (right practice).
Of course, Paul does not completely abandon his theological discourse. Certainly turning his narrative from the "spirit of adoption" wherewith believers are able to call out to God as "Abba," Daddy, to the practical implications of such theology makes sense. And Paul, in typical pithiness, hits the nail on the proverbial head.
Here, Paul is making a huge statement that should embolden believers. Many of us struggle with the words to pray, and Paul is determined to remind us that it is not our words but our heart which the Spirit of God listens to. This truth is so profound for Paul that he describes it, "for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words." In our pain, suffering, and frustration with life, with one another, with sin, and (even) with God, sometimes all that we can do is sigh, deep down in our spirit.
Paul assures us that "God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God."
This is good news for those who know Christ, in that our hearts are the substance of our relationship. It is a daily conversation with Him that counts, not some formula of prayer. Certainly, corporate prayer is important, and Christ affirms it in his use of the Jewish forms and in his recitation of the Psalms. At the same time, Paul is calling us to supplement our liturgy with conversation.
God loves our Te Deum's, but he also cherishes our "Help me do good on this test, Lord." Jesus hears our Agnus Dei, and he mercifully answers our, "I'm sorry, Master."
This, then, is the broader implication of Paul's invocation of the Spirit of adoption. This is the context of the famous declaration, "We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose."
It is not so much that God is going to make everything around the believer good. Look at Paul's life for one; look at modern day believers for another. God never promised things would go easy for his children. But, looking closely, he does promise that those "called according to his purposes" will understand that everything works together for Good in the end. Not necessarily today, not necessarily tomorrow.
This test of faith is hard, but it is one that we can accept and understand. Carrying on the adoption analogy, Paul reminds us that this understanding -- and this willingness to talk to God in prayer -- will only continue to grow as we are "conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family." God is our Father, Christ is our Brother, and yet Master, too.
Those who have called upon the name of the Lord have had their names in the Lamb's book of life since the foundation of the world. They are the ones for whom God has prepared a place. Paul writes, "And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified." It is not that God has picked and chosen; instead, it is that God has graciously "read ahead" to the end and went back in the beginning to make everything fit just right.
God wants us to share with him in prayer, and he wants us to claim our new family lineage as his sons and daughters. In claiming our new status, though, God has not called us to pride. Because we, too, have been justified, we, too, remain in need of justification. It is not by my own goodness that I am justified, but by God's calling and salvation.
• Matthew 23:1-12
God's salvation will draw us closer to him, and it will challenge us to remain humble. Because even in matters of faith, where we have done nothing, we will try to rise up and place ourselves on the pedastal that God deserves.
Jesus' relationship with the Pharisees always seems contentious in the Gospels, and today's Gospel lesson further adds to today's theme of true worship and humility.
It is especially humbling to be in the role of the "teacher" when reading this text. To be honest, I am glad that I am not a preacher right now, because it will be very challenging to actually preach a sermon on Jesus' words. "The scribes and Pharisees sit on Moses' seat, therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practise what they teach."
Practicing what one preaches (or teaches, as the translation may be) is hard. Period. But doing so in the face of the Prince of Peace, He who knew no sin and became sin for us, is impossible. Jesus points out that the Pharisees, the people teaching the Way of God as revealed at that time, were doing a good thing in teaching the people to follow the True God, the God of Israel. But Christ's implicit rebuke of the Pharisees' and scribes' actions is stinging. "Do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do ...."
Before we get too haughty about the Pharisees and scribes and their failure to practice what they teach, we must remember that Jesus' rebuke is not just for them: we, too, have "tie[d] up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and la[id] them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them." First we fail to meet our own faith commitments. Then, we point the finger (the only lifting the finger gets, according to Jesus) at our neighbors when they fail to follow where we have gone.
Remember my inability to understand why some people struggle with praying out loud? It is pretty pharisaical of me to point out what some can not do. For in boasting of my own willingness to do so, I am belying my commitment to true prayer and loyalty to Jesus' teaching. "They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their [prayers long] and their [clothes nice]. They love to have the place of honour at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have people call them [Teacher]."
Since it is, as Paul says, the Holy Spirit praying for me, from the depths of my soul, why should I boast of my prayer-life? Jesus says that the Pharisees keep their prayers long and their clothes nice. They would have been the folks on Christian TV today with the $1,000 suits and the 20-minute prayers. But folks doing things "for God" (read "for my own advancement") are easy to find closer to home. The person who has a quiet time or reads his Bible so that he can tell his accountability partners about it later, instead of doing it to spend time with God. The person who sings a solo to the congregation instead of the "Audience of One." The church who builds a giant cross or statue instead of using it to tell others about Christ.
We are to be servants. Humble. Praying in conversation with God. "The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted." And it isn't us who is supposed to do the exalting. It's God.
So let's keep our prayers sincere and our clothes modest. Let's keep our hearts fixed on God and remember that we have been called to a spirit of adoption. And in this family, there's only one Favorite Child.
Heavenly Father, we confess that too many times, our prayer life has suffered while we boast about our religiosity. We admit that we forsake time with you for the distractions of this world. And we repent of putting on religious show instead of truly worshipping you with the unction of the Spirit. We glorify your mighty power, that hears our groanings and lamentations and whispers, "I am." Save us, Lord, from being modern Pharisees. Help us, Holy Spirit, to hear your voice and obey your call to humility. Thank you, God, for hearing our prayers and for saving us from our own selfishness and pride; through Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.