Monday, June 12, 2017

An Individual, and Corporate Faith


I’VE BEEN PONDERING PRAYER a lot lately. Maybe it’s because I’ve been doing a lot of praying the last six months, agonizing over situations in my life or the lives of my family that need deep intercession. (I’ve been using Stormie Omartian’s great book, Praying for Your Adult Children for a lot of those prayers.) Or maybe it’s because I’m doing a beta reading (draft copy first-review) for an author who’s tackling prayer—and the frustrations and joy of it—in his soon-to-be-released book. Or, because a fellow Guideposts writer, Karen Barber, and I were talking about it at our Savannah Guideposts Writers workshop last month—the importance of prayer and how we can be surprised by it. (She’s written a great book about that subject called Surprised by Prayer.) Then there’s the MercyMe song “Even If” that I talked about last week—how we hang on to God’s promises and Him even when He doesn’t answer our prayers the way we’d like to have them answered.
            And then, the morning I started the draft for this post, what do you think the subject matter ended up being in my Bible study time? You guessed it: prayer!
            It’s a popular topic, isn’t it? The best way to pray, how to pray so your prayers are answered, why doesn’t God answer prayers, (he actually answers all of them), and other prayer points that have filled volumes. People innately know that if they want to “talk” to God, then they have to pray. And they’d like to know that they’re doing it “right”, so their prayers have the most effect.
            It was so important to Jesus’ disciples that they begged him to teach them how to pray. Even they must have felt that their prayers were pretty anemic and fell short of the best-way-to-pray mark.
            So let’s start there. With Jesus’ model for prayer. We might learn some things we’d never noticed before. They’re things that smacked me between the eyes while sitting in church several years ago, our congregation corporately praying this prayer as we did every Sunday morning.
            In Matthew 6:9-13, we find what is commonly referred to as the Lord’s prayer, although some theologians take issue with that title by saying it really wasn’t The Lord’s Prayer. His prayer, a pretty long one, can actually be found in John 17. The prayer in Matthew, though, is how he taught the disciples (and us) to pray, so we could refer to it as The Disciples’s Prayer Model.” It’s a template to use, and it covers all of the basics, the most important issues facing any of us today. And it’s only eleven lines long.

            “Our Father in heaven.
            Hallowed be thy name.
            Your kingdom come.
            Your will be done
            On earth as it is in heaven.
            Give us this day our daily bread.
            And forgive us our debts,
            As we forgive our debtors.
            And do not lead us into temptation,
            But deliver us from the evil one.
            For Yours is the kingdom and the power
                        and the glory forever. Amen.”

            The prayer starts off with a word that always threw me off. Our. Not My Father, but our. As in yours, mine, and ours. I wondered why Jesus did that, and I always felt a bit silly saying “Our” when I was praying alone. Sometimes I even changed it to “My” or started in with “Father.”

            But that Sunday I stopped praying aloud to pray silently and listen to the collective voices of the congregation, praying in unison. And it hit me. This isn’t just about me! (I actually kind of realized that before, but that day it really hit me.) Not only am I in this as an individual; I’m in this with scads of other people—millions on earth now and the millions who have gone before me. Jesus could have said “My” but I’m wondering if it may have sounded self-centered to a group of Jews who have more of a tribal, collective mind-set than we individualistic Americans do. But it also must have stunned them, because they weren’t used to calling God “Father” even though the Old Testament does refer to Him that way numerous times.
            This entire prayer is corporate, as Jesus uses the word “us” over and over and the word “our.” And “we.” Not my, me, or mine. It’s, as the Three Musketeers said, “All for one and one for all.”

            Then the word “Father” grabbed me again. Having a Father implies that you are a child, not in the childish sense (although there’s plenty of that going around), but in the relationship sense. And being a child implies that you are a dependent with a need. And guess who fulfills that need? God. This is a permanent relationship between the two of you, between God and us. And it demands all of the respect due it; and He demands all of the respect due Him, as our Father and creator.

            “In heaven” speaks of his dwelling place. “Hallowed be thy name” tells us that He’s holy, sacred, and revered. And, while He is our Father and friend, we need to treat Him with reverence. We can call him “Daddy” but we must respect him as we respect a daddy.

            “Your kingdom come” has us looking into the future, when God sets up his righteous kingdom on earth and in heaven, and agreeing that it will and should come.

            Then we move into proclaiming that God’s will is the will that takes precedence over all else—our will and everyone else’s. It proclaims Him as the final authority. I think this is where the prayer gets a little hairy for us, honestly, because this is where it hits us the hardest. We so often want God to come alongside us, pat us on the back, and assure us that He’s going to make sure our will is done. Regardless of what He thinks and knows is best. It’s something we’ll wrestle with until the day we pass from this side to the next. Humans are self-focused and selfish. We have a narrow view of life that seldom expands outside of ourselves. “Your will be done” turns it over to Him, and lets him have the final say.
            And, naturally, His will should be done in both heaven and on earth. Why? Because He is the King of the universe and it’s rightful ruler. It’s like the memorable line from the movie “The King’s Speech,” when Geoffrey Rush (playing speech therapist Lionel Logue) looks at his student, Colin Firth, (who plays Prince Albert, the royal who is about to ascend to the British throne as King George VI), and says, “My castle, my rules.”
            It’s all God’s castle, and He gets to set the rules. Consequently, like any rules in a civilization, we need to follow them or suffer the consequences.

            Then Jesus gets to the nitty gritty of our concerns when He tells us the first request (which doesn’t come until the fifth line) should be for daily provision of bread. Nothing fancy; just the basics. And this “bread” can be either the food kind or the spiritual. Preferably both. But I think it’s telling that most of the time Jesus fed, healed, and met physical needs first, before He started preaching and teaching. Something for us to remember.

            Then we move into asking God to forgive our debts, or sins. To do that, we need to recognize what they are. Simply throwing that request out doesn’t cut it. We need to own up to our failures—acknowledge and confess them. Don’t know what your failures are? Ask God. He’ll point them out to you.
            And that request is followed by a qualifier: “As we forgive our debtors.”
            Got anyone you haven’t forgiven? Any act of a perpetrator that you haven’t let go of? And I don’t mean that you have to ignore the sin or have reconciled to the other person. Sometimes that just isn’t going to happen.
            If there is someone that you’re still harboring resentment toward, then it’s time to let it go. For your sake. I think writer Anne Lamott summed it up perfectly when she said, “Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and expecting the rat to die.”

            The next line is a tough one to wrap your head around—asking God to not lead us into temptation. A good way to figure it out is to look at the Book of James that says God does not tempt any man. So some scholars think a closer translation would be: “Leave us not in temptation.” Please, God, once we are knee-deep in temptation, please don’t let us languish there! Give us a way out! He does, and 1 Corinthians 10:13 says that He will provide escapes for us. Big hint, though: We have to take the way out.

            Then the next line says, “But deliver us from the evil one.” There’s that reference to Satan, the destroyer of our souls, our witness, our lives. (Who actually looks like a gorgeous, beguiling being rather than a red guy with a pitchfork.) We are to pray that God delivers us from him. You only need to read the beginning of Job to learn that he prowls around the earth looking for the faithful that he can assail. He looks for our weaknesses and uses them against us. A lot of people say they don’t believe Satan exits. Well, if Jesus believed he did, and says we ought to pray to be delivered from him, then that’s good enough for me. He’s a threat we need to take seriously. He’s a threat we need protection from.

            Finally, we come full circle, right back to where we started, with acknowledging that God is holy, He has the kingdom, and He has the power. Nice bookends to all of the stuff focusing on us weak humans in the middle. It starts with God—not us—and ends with God—not us.

            And as I listened to the congregation praying, the point was driven home to my head and heart that while my salvation is individual, my working out of that faith is corporate. I’m part of the Body of believers. We’re in this together. I want my brothers and sisters to excel in their faith as much I want to excel in it. I want all of us to glorify the Father!
            And then I started to weep, thinking what a beautiful sound it must be to the Lord—all of our voices sending up that corporate prayer of recognizing Him as our Father, of acknowledging where his throne is, calling him revered, publicly acknowledging His Kingdom and agreeing that whatever He decides from Heaven should take place down here on earth.
            Then, after addressing the important things first, we are free to ask Him to provide our daily provisions of both physical and spiritual food. And a request to forgive us, as we go about forgiving others. (A distinct recognition of the importance of our relationships with other people, and how they can affect us.) And then we get to the crux of our issues—our weaknesses, our propensity to sin, to get ourselves knee-deep (or deeper) in the cesspools of life. We ask Him to deliver us from ourselves, and from the one whose goal is to destroy us.
            And then, so we don’t forget whom we’re addressing, we remind ourselves again of God’s position in the universe, and ours. We start humbly and end humbly. And we lift up our hands together.

            Sometimes I find myself going back to that basic prayer, to re-focus my heart and my thoughts. And now I have no problem saying “our”. It shifts the focus from “me” to “us.” There’s a feeling of power and comfort in numbers, a feeling that I'm not in this race alone. That fact makes me feel more secure and bonded to other believers, in my own church congregation and around the world. It takes my American individualism and turns it on its head.
            And that makes me more like the First Century Christians, who lived and survived more in community. That community that turned the world upside down.
            And that, I think, is how God really intended it.

Until next week!

May you prosper in all things and be in health, just as your soul prospers (3 John 2).

Photos courtesy of Google Images