Revealing God Where He Already Is

Roland Bainton on Martin Luther’s view of communion:
“The sacrament for him was not a chunk of God fallen like a meteorite from heaven. God does not need to fall from heaven because he is everywhere present throughout his creation as a sustaining and animating force, and Christ as God is likewise universal, but his presence is hid from human eyes. For that reason God has chosen to declare himself unto mankind at three loci of revelation. The first is Christ, in whom the Word was made flesh. The second is Scripture, where the Word uttered is recorded. The third is the sacrament, in which the Word is manifest in food and drink. The sacrament does not conjure up God as the witch of Endor but reveals him where he is.”

to behold the sweet glory of God in these things

Jonathan Edwards:

“God’s excellency, his wisdom, his purity and love, seemed to appear in everything; in the sun, moon and stars; in the clouds, and blue sky; in the grass, flowers, trees; in the water, and in all nature; which used greatly to fix my mind. I often used to sit and view the moon, for a long time; and so in the daytime, spent much time in viewing the clouds and sky, to behold the sweet glory of God in these things: in the meantime, singing forth with a low voice, my contemplations of the Creator and Redeemer.”

more than thin air and thoughts

Eric Metaxas, in Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, on Bonhoeffer’s instruction to his students while a lecturer in theology  in 1932-33:

“Bonhoeffer was not interested in intellectual abstraction. Theology must lead to the practical aspects of how to live as a Christian. Karding was surprised when Bonhoeffer asked his students whether they sang Christmas carols. Their answer was noncommittal, so he said, ‘If you want to be pastors, then you must sing Christmas carols!’ For him, music was not an optional part of Christian ministry, but de rigeur. He decided to tackle this deficiency head-on. ‘On the first day of Advent,’ he said to her, ‘we will meet each other at noon…and we will sing Christmas carols.’ She remembered that he ‘played the flute wonderfully’ and sang ‘magnificently.'”

Just one of the ways that Bonhoeffer’s faith had a wonderful practicality, an earthiness. He would later write to his fiancee that,

human beings were taken from the earth and don’t just consist of thin air and thoughts.”

Pursuing piety as it’s own reward

Richard Lovelace, Dynamics of Spiritual Life: An Evangelical Theology of Renewal (154):

“Puritan piety sometimes re-created the counsels of perfection in monastic spirituality in what it required of the normal Christian prayer life. It was considered good for the young Christian to be challenged with the marathon records of Jesus and the saints. This could be humbling, but it could also cause the young prayer-warrior to buckle under the weight of the armor he felt bound to assume. In such cases prayer was not an expression of faith in God’s grace, but a monument erected to attract his attention. Trust was not centered on the God who constantly oversees our paths and knows our needs, but on prayer itself, which must be used as a magical lever to pry answers from an unwilling God.”

The pursuit of marathon prayer-sessions persists.

Six or so years ago when we began a monthly prayer meeting at our church (after a period without any such meetings), one of the people helping to plan the meetings – filled with sincere passion – suggested that we set aside two full hours for each and every meeting. If we’re going to pray, let’s challenge people to really pray, was the sentiment I recall. Raise the bar. Based on his passion, and following the assumption that marathon prayer is better (I mean it has to be more holy, doesn’t it?), we went for it. 2 hours, on a Friday night, all prayer, straight up.

This was diving in to the deep end, to say the least. At the time (and to this day) Jesus was still in the process of teaching us what it even meant to gather God’s people in dedicated prayer. So we were setting out a goal (2 hours in prayer) that we didn’t even know how to meet. But we were also operating on a flawed understanding of what was most necessary about prayer in the first place. Subtly, subtly, the expectation works in that prayer is necessary not because of our utter need for the presence and power of God. Rather, we begin to believe it is necessary because of what it says about us or what it provokes from God – in Lovelace’s words, prayer becomes either a monument or a magical lever.

Suddenly the focus is on prayer and how it works, rather than on the God who bids us call Him Father, and invites us in to freely ask and freely receive. But to focus on prayer itself is to miss the point. Lovelace reminds us of how Jesus rebuked the elaborate prayers of the Gentiles in Mt. 6:7 – 8, and of the simple prayer He then taught His disciples. Just think of the simplicity of the Lord’s Prayer in contrast to the serious piety of marathon prayer! Lovelace writes that Jesus’ words critiquing elaborate, marathon prayers, combined with

“the short formula of prayer which follows, might seem almost dangerously indulgent to many who have been schooled in a more laborious piety”.

Dangerously indulgent indeed. Scandalous to the seriously self-righteous. Just like grace itself.

All of this, of course, is not to dismiss the need for prayer. No indeed. But it is to say that we should make sure we understand the proper basis of all prayer and what it is we are actually doing as we pray.

In my experience, the announcement of a dedicated time of prayer is not usually greeted with anticipation, as a gift, but with a sigh, as a burden. We think, “I don’t pray well enough“. We think, “I don’t pray long enough“. We think, “I don’t really enjoy sitting awkwardly in a room, ignoring the silences“. But we think, “I know I should. So I hope I’m already busy that night“.

This isn’t just our sinful nature or lack of discipline; it’s also a misunderstanding of the whole endeavor, right from the start. We may not enjoy prayer because we are thinking of prayer as something that it isn’t. One shouldn’t enjoy seriously pursuing piety as it’s own reward.

He stands ready to teach us

Luke 11:1 (NIV): “One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.'”

Gordon Hugenberger in his book on the Lord’s Prayer, writes of this question and Jesus’ response:

Jesus’ response to this question is remarkable. He might have said, ‘The ability to pray as I do is a spiritual gift: it cannot be taught.’ It is apparent, however, that this was not Jesus’ opinion of the matter. The ability to pray is not just a special gift reserved for a select few. For this reason it is not included in any of the lists of spiritual gifts…If we are followers of Christ and we want to learn how to pray, he stands ready to teach us.

This is the starting point for Andrew Murray’s With Christ in the School of Prayer. In the first chapter, he writes,

‘Lord, teach us to pray.’ Yes, to pray. This is what we need to be taught. Though in its beginnings prayer is so simple that the feeblest child can pray, it is at the same time the highest and holiest work to which man can rise. Prayer is fellowship with the Unseen and Most Holy One. The powers of the eternal world have been placed at prayer’s disposal. It is the very essence of true religion and the channel of all blessings. It is the secret of power and life not only for ourselves, but for others, for the Church, and for the world. It is to prayer that God has given the right to take hold of Him and His strength. It is on prayer that the promises wait for their fulfillment, the Kingdom waits for its coming, and the glory of God waits for its full revelation.

Yes, teach us to pray indeed. And again, there He stands, ready to teach us.

Jesus never taught His disciples how to preach, only how to pray. To know how to speak to God is more than knowing how to speak to a man. Power with God is the first thing, not power with men. Jesus loves to teach us how to pray.

The Savior of my prayers

Paul Miller, in his book A Praying Life:

Imagine that your prayer is a poorly dressed beggar reeking of alcohol and body odor, stumbling toward the palace of the great king. You have become your prayer. As you shuffle toward the barred gate, the guards stiffen. Your smell has preceded you. You stammer out a message for the great king: ‘I want to see the king.’ Your words are barely intelligible, but you whisper one final word, ‘Jesus. I come in the name of Jesus.’ At the name of Jesus, as if by magic, the palace comes alive. The guards snap to attention, bowing low in front of you. Lights come on, and the door flies open. You are ushered into the palace and down a long hallway into the throne room of the great king, who comes running to you and wraps you in his arms.

The name of Jesus gives my prayers royal access. They get through. Jesus isn’t just the Savior of my soul. He’s also the Savior of my prayers.

It is not the end, but it is the road.

In 1521 Martin Luther wrote:

This life, therefore, is not righteousness, but growth in righteousness; not health, but healing; not being, but becoming; not rest, but exercise.

We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it. The process is not yet finished, but it is going on. This is not the end, but it is the road. All does not yet gleam in glory, but all is being purified.