Friday, November 15, 2019

Patristic Wisdom: Looking to the Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost

But when you hear of wars and commotions, do not be terrified; for these things must come to pass first, but the end will not come immediately.” Then He said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be great earthquakes in various places, and famines and pestilences; and there will be fearful sights and great signs from heaven. But before all these things, they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons. You will be brought before kings and rulers for My name’s sake. But it will turn out for you as an occasion for testimony. Therefore settle it in your hearts not to meditate beforehand on what you will answer; for I will give you a mouth and wisdom which all your adversaries will not be able to contradict or resist. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. And you will be hated by all for My name’s sake. But not a hair of your head shall be lost. By your patience possess your souls. (Luke 21:9–19)

Since all these disorders come, not from the injustice of the one who chastises, but from the fault of the world that suffers them, the Lord first describes the injustice of the depraved men in these terms: But before all this they will lay hands on you and persecute you; you will be dragged into the synagogues, you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. It is as if he were saying clearly: “It is first the hearts of men, then the elements that will be upset.” Thus one sees clearly what this confusion of the order of things comes to punish. For although it depends on the very nature of the world to have an end, the Lord, having in view all the perverse men, indicates which are those who deserve to be crushed under the ruins of the world: They will bring you before the kings and governors because of my name. All these things will come to your testimony. As a testimony against those who put you to death when they persecute you, or who do not imitate you when they see you. If, indeed, the death of the righteous is a help to the good ones, it bears witness against the wicked, so that even that which serves to bring the elect to good so that they live, removes all excuses from the wicked when they perish.

But the hearts of the still weak disciples could have been troubled to hear so many terrifying things; so the Lord adds a consolation, adding immediately: Put this in your mind: you do not have to prepare your answers, for it is I who will give you a language, and a wisdom to which none of your adversaries can resist or answer. It is as if he clearly said to his infirm members: “Do not be afraid; do not be afraid. It's you who go to fight, but I'm the one leading the fight. You say the words, but it's me who speaks.”

The text continues: You will be delivered even by your parents and your brothers, your relatives and your friends; they will condemn to death many of you. Evils cause less pain if they are brought to us by strangers. But they make us suffer more if we suffer them from those we trusted, because to the suffering of the body comes then to join that of having lost a friendship. This is why the Lord, through the mouth of the psalmist, says about Judas who betrayed him: If my enemy had cursed me, I would have endured it; and if he who hated me uttered proud words about me, I would have kept myself hidden from him. But you who were one with me, my guide and my friend, who shared with me the sweet food of my table, we walked in full agreement in the house of God (Ps 55:12-14). And elsewhere: Even the man who was my friend, who trusted me and ate my bread, raised his heel against me (Ps 41:9). It is as if he were saying clearly about the one who betrayed him: “I suffered all the more from his betrayal that I felt it coming from the one who seemed to be all mine.”

Thus, all the elect, because they are the members of the supreme head, also follow in suffering their leader: they must suffer in death the enmity of those whose life inspired them confidence, and they see the reward of their works increase all the more as the loss of a friendship makes more progress in virtue.

But as these predictions of persecution and death are very harsh, the Lord speaks immediately after the consolation and joy of the resurrection: Not a hair of your head shall perish. We know it, my brethren, the flesh suffers when cut, but not hair. The Lord therefore declares to his martyrs: Not a hair of your head will perish, which means in plain language: “Why fear to see the suffering of death when you cut it, since even that which in you does not suffer when you the cup can not perish?”

The text continues: It is by your patience that you will possess your souls. If the possession of the soul lies in the virtue of patience, it is because patience is the root and protector of all virtues. It is through patience that we possess our souls, for it is only by learning to dominate ourselves that we begin to possess ourselves. Patience consists in suffering serenely the evils coming from others and in being tormented with no resentment against the one who inflicts them.

Gregory the Great, Homilies on St. Luke 15.2-4

Friday, November 8, 2019

Patristic Wisdom: Looking to the Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost

Johannes Brenz
Jesus answered and said to them, “The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage. But those who are counted worthy to attain that age, and the resurrection from the dead, neither marry nor are given in marriage; nor can they die anymore, for they are equal to the angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection. But even Moses showed in the burning bush passage that the dead are raised, when he called the Lord ‘the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ For He is not the God of the dead but of the living, for all live to Him.” (Luke 20:34–38)

And thus much for our own argument in refutation of the infidelity of the Jews: but let us see also what Christ said unto them: “The children indeed of this world,” He says, those, that is, who lead worldly carnal lives, full of fleshly lust, for the procreation of children “marry and are married:” but those who have maintained an honorable and elect life, full of all excellence, and have therefore been accounted worthy of attaining to a glorious and marvelous resurrection, will be necessarily raised far above the life which men lead in this world; for they will live as becomes saints, who already have been brought near unto God. “For they are equal with the angels, and are the children of God.” As therefore all fleshly lust is taken away, and no place whatsoever is left in them for bodily pleasure, they resemble the holy angels, fulfilling a spiritual and not a material service, such as becomes holy spirits; and are at the same time counted worthy of a glory such as that which the angels enjoy.

But the Savior also demonstrated the great ignorance of the Sadducees, by bringing forward their own authority Moses, as well and clearly acquainted with the resurrection of the dead. For he has set before us God, He says, as saying in the bush, “I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” But of whom is He God, if, according to their argument, these have ceased to live? for He is the God of the living: and therefore certainly and altogether they will rise, when His almighty right hand brings them thereunto; and not them only, but also all who are upon the earth.

And for men not to believe that this will happen, is worthy perhaps of the ignorance of the Sadducees; but altogether unworthy of those who love Christ. For we believe in Him who says, “I am the Resurrection and the Life.” For He will raise the dead, “suddenly, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump. For it shall resound, and the dead in Christ shall rise incorruptible, and we shall be changed.” For Christ, our common Savior, shall transfer us unto incorruption, and to glory, and to a life incorruptible.

Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on the Gospel of St. Luke 136

Friday, November 1, 2019

Patristic Wisdom: Looking to All Saints’ Sunday

Jean Duvet, “The Apocalpse: An Innumerable Multitude
which stand before the Throne”

After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” All the angels stood around the throne and the elders and the four living creatures, and fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying:

“Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom,
Thanksgiving and honor and power and might,
Be to our God forever and ever.
Then one of the elders answered, saying to me, “Who are these arrayed in white robes, and where did they come from?” And I said to him, “Sir, you know.” So he said to me, “These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation, and washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve Him day and night in His temple. And He who sits on the throne will dwell among them. They shall neither hunger anymore nor thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any heat; for the Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to living fountains of waters. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (Rev 7:9–17)

The innumerable myriads of the nations who received the faith of Christ and who had gained their share in blessedness were allotted the honored place of standing before the Lord and his Father’s throne, as was said earlier. Being clothed in white robes is a description of their purity during their life. The palm branches, which are a symbol of victory, indicate that they are promised the victory of Christ over their spiritual and earthly enemies. And they cry out, “Salvation belongs to our God and to the Lamb!” confessing that salvation is with them, because they had preserved the servants of God who had been sealed from the total destruction of the world. At the end of this act of thanksgiving, the ranks of worshipers in heaven, together with the elders, answered Amen, giving their approval to what was said. Then the divine angels, too, offer their own praise to God, honoring him seven times with their worship, which, as has been mentioned earlier, symbolizes the ceaseless nature of the adoration of the angels; for seven is a perfect number.

When one of the elders asked the evangelist who these were from the nations who were clothed in white robes, he did not ask out of ignorance but as a challenge to find out about them. So he goes on to say, These are they who are coming out of the great tribulation. For it was not a slight contest but a truly great one which the righteous had in overcoming the Antichrist. He says, And they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Yet it should follow that robes dipped in blood would turn out to be scarlet rather than white. So how did they become white? Because baptism enacted into the death of the Lord, as Paul in his great wisdom said, purges all filth resulting from sin and renders those who are baptized in it white and pure. But participation in the life-giving blood of Christ also bestows this favor. For the Lord says concerning his own blood that it is being poured out “for many” and “on behalf of many, for the forgiveness of sins.” Thus these serve God for ever, and God dwells among them. Indeed, the dwelling-place of God, said one of God’s saints, is where the souls of his saints continually remember him; therefore God naturally dwells with those who serve him day and night.

They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more: formerly those from the nations went through every trial; but now they will be sated with innumerable good things. He says, Nor shall the sun strike them: in some places of the divine Scripture the sun metaphorically stands for temptation, as when the prophet says, “The sun shall not burn you by day, neither the moon by night,” or as when the evangelist writes that the sun shone and scorched the seeds which had sprung up on stony ground, interpreting the sun as temptation. Therefore he now says that temptation would in future never harm them, for they had been found worthy to be shepherded by Christ and nourished at the waters of life. And God, he says, will wipe away every tear from their eyes. So those who have lived and struggled with unprofitable cares have no need of a tear, nor of “weeping and gnashing of teeth,” but deserve everything good and wonderful.

Oecumenius, Commentary on the Apocalypse 5.3

Friday, October 25, 2019

Patristic Wisdom: Looking to Reformation Sunday

God is our refuge and power;
A help in afflictions that severely befall us.
Therefore we will not fear when the earth is troubled,
And when the mountains are removed into the hearts of the seas.
Their waters roared and were troubled;
The mountains were troubled by His might. (Ps 45:2–4 LXX [Ps 46:1–3])

Because of the weakness present in him from nature, every man has need of much assistance, if many troubles and labors befall him, Seeking a refuge, therefore, from all precarious situations, like one fleeing to a place of sanctuary or having recourse to some sharp summit surrounded by a strong wall because of the attack of the enemy, so he flees to God, believing that a dwelling in Him is his only rest. Therefore, because flight to God was agreed upon by all, the enemy produced great illusion and confusion concerning the choice of the Savior. Plotting as an enemy, again he deceives the victims of his plots into thinking that they should flee to him as to a protector. Consequently, a twofold evil surrounds them, since they are either seized by force or destroyed by deceit. Therefore, the unbelievers flee to demons and idols, having the knowledge of the true God snatched away by the confusion which is produced in them by the devil.…

God is the true aid for the righteous man. Just as a certain general, equipped with a noble heavy-armed force, is always ready to give help to an oppressed district, so God is our Helper and an Ally to everyone who is waging war against the wiliness of the devil, and He sends out ministering spirits for the safety of those who are in need. Moreover, affliction will find every just man because of the established way of life. He who avoids the wide and broad way and travels the narrow and close one will be found by tribulations. The prophet formed the statement vividly when he said; “In troubles which have found us exceedingly.” For, they overtake us like living creatures, “working out endurance, and through endurance tried virtue, and through tried virtue hope.” Whence also, the Apostle said: “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” And “Many are the afflictions of the just.” But, he who generously and calmly endures the trial of affliction will say: “In all these things we overcome because of him who has loved us.” And he is so far from refusing and shrinking from the afflictions that he makes the excessive evils an occasion of glory, saying: “And not only this, but we exult in tribulations also.”

Basil of Caesarea, Homily on Psalm 45(46)

Friday, October 18, 2019

Patristic Wisdom: Looking to the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Then He spoke a parable to them, that men always ought to pray and not lose heart, saying: “There was in a certain city a judge who did not fear God nor regard man. Now there was a widow in that city; and she came to him, saying, ‘Get justice for me from my adversary.’ And he would not for a while; but afterward he said within himself, ‘Though I do not fear God nor regard man, yet because this widow troubles me I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me.’” Then the Lord said, “Hear what the unjust judge said. And shall God not avenge His own elect who cry out day and night to Him, though He bears long with them? I tell you that He will avenge them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will He really find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:1–8)

For the Son of God is high priest of our offerings and our Advocate with the Father. He prays for those who pray, and pleads along with those who plead. He will not, however, consent to pray, as for his intimates, on behalf of those who do not with some constancy pray through Him, nor will He be Advocate with the Father, as for men already His own, on behalf of those who do not obey His teaching to the effect that they ought at all times to pray and not lose heart.

For it says, “He spoke a parable to the end that they ought at all times to pray and not lose heart. ‘There was a certain judge in a certain city,’” and so on; and earlier he said unto them, “Who of you shall have a friend, and shall go unto him at midnight and shall say to him: Friend, lend me three loaves since a friend of mine has come to me after a journey and I have naught to set before him”; and a little later, “I tell you, even though he will not rise and give him because he is his friend, he will yet because of his being unabashed get up and give him as many as he wants."

And who that believes the guileless lips of Jesus can but be stirred to unhesitating prayer when He says, “Ask and it shall be given you for everyone that asks receives,” since the kind Father gives to those who have received the spirit of adoption from the Father, the living bread when we ask Him, not the stone which the adversary would have become food for Jesus and His disciples, and since The Father gives the good gift in rain from heaven to those that ask him.

Origen, On Prayer 6

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Made Clean and Whole

All of Jesus’ miracles are remarkable, but one that stands out to me involves ten lepers that He encountered on a journey to Jerusalem.
Now it happened as He went to Jerusalem that He passed through the midst of Samaria and Galilee. Then as He entered a certain village, there met Him ten men who were lepers, who stood afar off. And they lifted up their voices and said, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” So when He saw them, He said to them, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And so it was that as they went, they were cleansed. And one of them, when he saw that he was healed, returned, and with a loud voice glorified God, and fell down on his face at His feet, giving Him thanks. And he was a Samaritan. (Luke 17:11–16)
Why does this particular miracle stand out so prominently? Because the healing was topsy-turvy and backwards. Jesus came into an unnamed village when this small band of men living near, but outside (see Lev 13:45–46), the city asked for mercy from their affliction—an expected reception from those with incurable infirmities who had heard of the Miracle Worker. Jesus’ response is another matter.

Go, Show Yourselves

Moses had received specific instructions on Mt. Sinai for the cleansing of one no longer afflicted with a leprous disease. In summary, the process from Leviticus 14:1–32 was:
  • Priest meets a formerly leprous person outside the camp for examination.
  • Kill one bird in an earthen vessel to capture its blood.
  • Dip the live bird, cedar wood, scarlet, and hyssop in the blood; sprinkle the person to be cleansed; release the bird.
  • Person shaves his head, washes clothes, and bathes.
  • Person lives outside his tent seven days, after which he shaves all hair, washes clothes, and bathes again.
  • On the eighth day, the priest makes the atoning sacrifice based on what the person can afford and anoints the person similarly to the priest.
Jesus told the ten men to take the first step of initial examination, and as they went, all were cleansed: the leprosy had been healed. We can imagine the joy the men felt when they discover what had suddenly occurred. Probably their pace quickened as they began their trek to Jerusalem; however, there was a complication for one.

He Was a Samaritan

Jesus told the Samaritan leper to go to the priest as a witness. While there were no specific Levitical laws which forbade an outsider from going through the cleansing ritual, there were some preventing foreigners from being part of the worshiping community. In view of this restriction, Jesus’ command to the men becomes more stark. While the Lord’s favor might have been expected toward the Jews, none was toward outsiders, especially the despised Samaritans. This man would become a witness to the priests that divine favor was not reserved for the Jews, but would be extended to all who believed in the Father and the One whom He sent. The Samaritan not only had a physical healing but a complete one through faith.
So Jesus answered and said, “Were there not ten cleansed? But where are the nine? Were there not any found who returned to give glory to God except this foreigner?” And He said to him, “Arise, go your way. Your faith has made you well.” (Luke 17:11–19)
Jesus told a different Samaritan that something new was in the offing. While journeying from Judea to Galilee, Jesus took His disciples through Samaria rather than going around the region as most Jewish travelers would do. His encounter with a Samaritan woman of ill repute (John 4:1–26) made clear that worship before God would no longer be dictated by location and ancestral lines but in spirit and truth through faith (John 4:21–24).

The Way Made Open

One does not need to dwell long on these accounts to understand their poignancy and application. Here were two individuals—separated from God by both blood and uncleanness—made clean and whole through Jesus’ word and promise. These serve as a precursor for our own entry into the family of faith. We who had no place as unclean outsiders are made presented clean and holy through faith by virtue of the great transaction on the cross at Golgotha. There a new and living way was made open, so that all who are baptized into Christ and believe on Him are now full beneficiaries of God’s abundant grace. What a blessing! May we also with a loud voice glorify God and worship Him who made us clean and whole.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Patristic Wisdom: Looking to the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Now it happened as He went to Jerusalem that He passed through the midst of Samaria and Galilee. Then as He entered a certain village, there met Him ten men who were lepers, who stood afar off. And they lifted up their voices and said, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” So when He saw them, He said to them, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And so it was that as they went, they were cleansed. And one of them, when he saw that he was healed, returned, and with a loud voice glorified God, and fell down on his face at His feet, giving Him thanks. And he was a Samaritan. So Jesus answered and said, “Were there not ten cleansed? But where are the nine? Were there not any found who returned to give glory to God except this foreigner?” And He said to him, “Arise, go your way. Your faith has made you well.” (Luke 17:11–19)

And why did He not rather say, “I will, be cleansed,” as he did in the case of another leper; but commanded them rather to shew themselves unto the priests? It was because the law gave directions to this effect to those who were delivered from leprosy: for it commanded them to show themselves to the priests, and to offer a sacrifice for their cleansing. He commanded them therefore to go, as being already healed, and, that they might, so to speak, bear witness to the priests, as the rulers of the Jews, and ever envious of His glory, that wonderfully, and beyond their hope, they had been delivered from their misfortune by Christ’s willing that they should be healed. He did not heal them first, but sent them to the priests, because the priests knew the marks of leprosy, and of its being healed. He sent them to the priests, and with them He sent also the healing.… The nine then, as being Jews, falling into a thankless forgetfulness, did not return to give glory to God: by which He shows that Israel was hard of heart, and utterly unthankful. But the stranger was of foreign race being a Samaritan, having been brought there from Assyria: for the phrase is not without meaning, “in the middle of Samaria and Galilee.” He returned with a loud voice to glorify God. It shows therefore that the Samaritans were grateful, but that the Jews, even when benefited, were ungrateful.

Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on the Gospel of St. Luke 113–116

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Catechetics: Fixing Confirmation by Lincoln Winter – Book Review

Winter, Lincoln. Catechetics: Fixing Confirmation. 2019. 452 pp.

At the outset, it is only fair to tell the reader that my name can be found on the acknowledgments page as one of three prepublication review editors.

Christians of all backgrounds have wrestled with the issue of instilling the faith into recent converts and subsequent generations. How do we teach so that doctrine is planted deeply into souls that remain faithful to the end? For centuries, the proscribed solution was catechesis: a system of questions and answers designed to give the learner the basics of the faith. In the modern western church, the most well-known of these are Catechism of the Catholic Church, Westminster Shorter and Larger Catechism, and Luther’s Small and Large Catechism. Lincoln Winter recognizes that though the historic catechetical instruction methods are of great benefit, their purpose has been co-opted through the adaptation of modern educational methods and goals, thus impairing authority and weakening effectiveness. Because he is an ordained pastor in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS), this book is written from his observations within that church body; however, I have read and interacted with pastors of other church bodies giving the resulting anecdotal consensus that the problem knows no denominational boundaries, and the solution is identical: return to classical instruction of Scripture and confessional documents.

The opening four chapters are devoted to the definition and history of catechesis. He demonstrates how it has roots solidly in the pages of Holy Writ and extends to the post-apostolic period in documents such as The Teaching of the Twelve (or Didache), Apostolic Traditions, and Cyril of Jerusalem’s Catechetical Lectures. This is important as it helps the uninformed to understand that catechesis did not begin during the Reformation. As part of this, there is also a brief historical look at confirmation, which aids in understanding the author’s thesis. Winter then focuses on the Lutheran catechisms and educational developments in the LCMS to the present.

Chapters five and six look at the practical value of Luther’s Small Catechism (SC) as instructional material for doctrine and use as a prayer book, after which attention is turned toward the inherent interconnected nature of the Large Catechism (LC) as explanation for  the SC versus the synodical decision to write and subsequently update explanations to the SC. This useful study demonstrates the strengths and weaknesses of both SC-LC and SC-Synodical correlation. This has implications for those outside Lutheranism, because even though the confessional and instructional documents may vary, caution must be given when attempting to improve on foundational methods, however well-intended.

Chapters seven and eight attempt to define the goal of catechesis and its relation to confirmation. Catechesis and confirmation have been linked for several centuries with the instruction initially being given prior to baptism but now is reserved for a particular age (in the case of a child) arbitrarily set by the denomination. This begs the question: is this model appropriate? While we are accustomed to such a model in our public school system, the author demonstrates that this is woefully inadequate in spiritual things and needs to be addressed.

Chapters nine through twelve deal with the responsibility of catechizing: first by examining the spheres of influence and authority within each, then looking at both the catechist and catechumen. Winter does a good job establishing the father, and by extension the mother, as chief catechist in the home. Here is where the foundational training will occur. Within the church realm, the pastor or chief catechist will add to this instruction. Finally, school will undergird (and add to as needed) what has been taught and interconnect that with the world around. The issue at this point becomes what is age-appropriate catechesis? When do parents begin, and when does the pastor examine or complete it? The author acknowledges the typical timeline ending with confirmation in the mid-teens, but advocates that the instruction can and should be earlier in life and be fluid in relation to the readiness of the catechumen. Finally, there is a comparison of classical versus progressive catechetical models, demonstrating the superiority of the former.

Chapters thirteen through fifteen examine the multilayered nature of catechesis and how that interacts in and with church life through preaching, liturgy, and ceremony. Many understand the first of these three, however, the format of worship and actions performed within that framework teach more than is commonly acknowledged. If teaching is more caught than taught, as the old saying goes, the entirety of the worship meeting must be examined. Chapter sixteen, then, examines he life of the catechumen and how his or her spiritual disciplines add or subtract to catechesis. Finally, chapter seventeen offers obstacles to catechesis.

In all, I found this to be a solid work, rightly examining the issues and challenges of catechesis while offering solutions for going forward. While this book addresses the need in a specific Lutheran synod, someone from any denominational body could glean the benefits of the research found herein to formulate and develop better a instruction methodology based on solid, historic practice rather than current trends. Also, there is a helpful appendix giving a good, practical framework for catechesis.

My only disappointment in this book has to do with typography and English mechanics. While going through the manuscript, I addressed errors where they might be found, but upon reading the finished work, many more came to light. With more time, I could have proofread the material more closely. Alas, all involved were under a time crunch, so some things slipped through. Perhaps these can be updated for future printings.

Friday, October 4, 2019

Patristic Wisdom: Looking to the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Eugène Burnand
And the apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith.” So the Lord said, “If you have faith as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be pulled up by the roots and be planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. And which of you, having a servant plowing or tending sheep, will say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and sit down to eat’? But will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare something for my supper, and gird yourself and serve me till I have eaten and drunk, and afterward you will eat and drink’? Does he thank that servant because he did the things that were commanded him? I think not. So likewise you, when you have done all those things which you are commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do.’” (Luke 17:5–10)

For if you do not say to a servant who has plowed or grazed the sheep, go on, put yourself at the table—where you hear that no one sits down if he does not pass first: Moses first began to move to see the great vision—so if you not only do not say to your servant: sit down to table, but you claim from him another service and do not thank it, so the Lord does not admit that you are giving Him a single work or work; for as long as we live, we must always work. Recognize, therefore, that you are a servant of many services. Do not worry about being called a child of God—you must recognize grace, but without forgetting nature—do not boast if you have served well: you had to do it. The sun does its work, the moon obeys, the angels do their service. The instrument chosen by the Lord for the Gentiles says, “I am not worthy to be called an apostle, because I have persecuted the church of God;” and in another place, after having shown that he is not aware of any fault, he adds: “But I am not justified for that reason.” So we, too, do not pretend to be praised for ourselves nor anticipate the judgment of God; and let us not prevent the judge’s judgment, but reserve it for his time, for his judge.

Ambrose, Exposition of the Gospel of St. Luke 8

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Excellent Article on Prayer

Photo by Ric Rodrigues at
The following article is written by Pastor David H. Petersen of Redeemer Lutheran Church, Ft. Wayne, IN and published in the current issue of Gottesdiendst: The Journal of Lutheran Liturgy (Volume 27, Number 3). I offer it for your edification. And as an aside, I highly recommend John Kleinig’s book referenced below.

Thoughts about Prayer

One of the explicit duties of Christian pastors is to pray. It is the very last vow in the LSB [Lutheran Service Book] Ordination rite: “Will you be constant in prayer for those under your care?” The vows also require that pastors faithfully instruct both young and old in the doctrine and practice of prayer, for it is among the chief articles of Christian doctrine. While not in the vows, it is also a duty of the ministry to lead the prayers of the Church. For all that, it is more difficult to find a comprehensive definition or description of prayer than might be expected, and yet how we think about prayer matters greatly. There is much popular literature on the topic, but it is mostly saccharine and cliché-ridden, often misleading the reader into the idea that Christian prayer is nothing more than thanks and praise with a few requests and that the efficacy of prayer is driven by the petitioner’s sincerity, strength of faith, or committed will. In search of a more dogmatic definition that would aid my own practice and teaching, I found two sources, in particular, most useful: John Kleinig’s book Grace Upon Grace (2008) and Peter Selby’s article on ‘prayer’ in The New Westminster Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship (1986).

John Kleinig explains that his own theology of prayer is mainly “some rather obvious lessons from bitter experience” (153). His “bitter experience” is largely disappointment and frustration that arose from being misled by popular piety. His bitter experience is that Christianity, in contrast to popular piety, is not meant to help us “live in the best of all possible worlds where God’s rule is largely unchallenged” (184).

Kleinig’s experience has led him to see prayer as more than just thanks and praise or to place its hope on anything in the Christian’s will or faith. He understands prayer as a greater reality than simply talking to God and even listening to God, but of actually being in the presence of God. The purpose of this presence is conversation. God speaks and we respond and He speaks again and so forth. God speaks, of course, in His Word. Kleinig asserts that the way that Jesus teaches us to pray “overcomes our fears about our performance and acceptability” (170). He unpacks this as follows:
In Mark 11:22–25, we find the most frequently quoted passage on the power of faith in prayer. There Jesus has this to say:

“Have faith in God. Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, “Be taken up and thrown into the sea, and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive your trespasses.”

Here Jesus speaks about the connection between the proclamation of God’s performative judging and saving Word and prayer. Both depend on faith. In both the disciples of Jesus exercise their faith in God.

These words of Jesus are often misunderstood and misapplied in two different ways. First, people isolate verses 23–24 from verse 22 in order to stress the need for confidence in prayer. Therefore they misinterpret what is meant by faith. Faith is not some kind of presumptuous self-confidence that makes demands on God and expects to get what it demands, That would make the power of prayer dependent on our faith in our own abilities rather than on our faith in God. The issue is not whether we are confident enough in what we pray for and in how we pray, but whether we rely on God’s grace rather than on ourselves. When Jesus speaks about confident prayer, He directs our attention away from ourselves to the faithfulness of God. Both the certainty of faith and the consequent power of prayer derive from God and His goodness.

Second, people isolate verses 23–24 from verse 25 in order to urge people to be more confident in their prayers. Jesus admits that uncertain faith leads to hesitant praying. Such uncertainty impairs a person from praying with boldness and confidence. Jesus does not, however, urge the hesitant vacillator on to stronger faith as if faith depended on the willpower of the person. Rather, He gets to the root of the problem. Hesitant and uncertain prayer is the mark of a troubled conscience. It usually stems from resentment against those who have hurt us, and our reluctance to forgive them. Resentment and anger sabotage faith and prayer (see also 1 Timothy 2:8) and must therefore be rectified. So the power of prayer rests not only on our confidence in the grace of God but also on our graciousness to those who have hurt us. Prayer has nothing to do with any kind of presumptuous self-assurance and self-assertion. The faith that moves mountains does not come from our confidence in making our demands on God but on our self-effacing reliance on His grace in prayer. (195–196)
All of our prayers are prayers with Jesus, in His presence. He is our intercessor, loaning us His words and power so that we might approach the lather with boldness and confidence (160–162). Prayer isn’t simply formed in conformity with Scripture but is a response to the God who speaks in Scripture. This must therefore be rooted in the context of the sacramental and liturgical life of the Church. The power and grace that God gives in response to our requests in prayer is not distinct from prayer, the way that, say, a piece of bread is distinct from a hungry child’s request that his mother feed him. Rather, what God gives through prayer comes, according to God’s promise, through the means of grace, through Word and Sacrament, and is part and parcel of prayer because prayer is prayer with Jesus and by Jesus.

Kleinig doesn’t actually give a definition of prayer, but it is clear that he understands prayer to be a sweeping and all-encompassing reality of the Christian who is a temple of the Holy Spirit and who is in the presence of Jesus. Prayer is a synonym for faith. Christians are at prayer—rejoicing always, praying always—even when they are not conscious of it.

Christian prayer is not a conversation meant simply to obtain information or obtain favors but is a familial, intimate conversation, where all involved rejoice in one another and enjoy deep fellowship and comfort with one another. This is a conversation like that of parents and children, of husband and wife, and of friends in every kind of situation. Prayer must be conversation with God and not simply toward Him. So also, it cannot be merely passive listening. When God speaks, He demands a response. Thus, again, prayer must not simply be informed by Scripture but should include Scripture and meditation, listening, contemplating, questioning, searching, praising, complaining, listening again, and so forth.

While not as extensive as Kleinig’s chapter, Peter Selby’s article on prayer in The New Westminster Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship may be the most comprehensive and useful definition of prayer in English. He writes: “Prayer is the generic term for all aspects of humanity’s conscious relationship to God” (140). Selby also lays out a five-fold division of prayer: adoration, confession, petition, praise, and thanksgiving. Before going into the details of each, he writes that these acts are all relevant “whether they involve specific acts of prayer or not because they describe essential components of man's relationship to God” (441). Despite my glowing praise, it must be noted that Selby does not seem to tie prayer to the Word of God or meditation on the Word, nor does he name lament as a type of prayer.

Kleinig’s chapter on meditation in Grace Upon Grace deals with prayer as well. Here he advocates not for turning inward for meditation but, rather, for focusing on the Word of God. He writes: “When we meditate on Christ and His Word, the power of His Word and our attitude to it determine what happens to us as we meditate” (100). He uses an excerpt from Luther’s 1521 pamphlet “A Brief Instruction on What to Look for and Expect in the Gospels” as an example. In this way, without using the word ‘pray,’ he outlines out how to use a text for prayer. First, he says, the reader uses all five senses to imagine the scenario of the event. The reader pays attention to the details. He concentrates on the Word of God, what is described, or what the Word states. Next, he ponders the story or statement as he identifies himself with the characters, seeing how it applies to him and his situation, how he is like the humans in the story or the humans who made the statement—both in his sins and unworthiness, and also in his faith. Finally, he considers how he might respond in obedience to Christ (102–103).

Kleinig does not spell out what obedient responses might be, but it is easy to recognize that they will often be a confession of sins, a request for help, and thanksgiving to God for His mercy. This is to say that an obedient response will always, in some fashion, include petitions, but whether they do or not, they might be termed simply “prayer.”

Later Kleinig is explicit regarding the relationship of prayer and meditation and the particular usefulness of the Psalms. He writes:
The Psalms … link our meditations with prayer to God. Thus many of them either begin or end with prayer, They remind us that Christian meditation is always done in God’s presence, even when He seems far from us. As we attend to the Psalms, they place us before God and open us up to His gracious scrutiny. The words by which we meditate on God and His deeds are even regarded as a verbal offering to God that is pleasing to Him (Psalm 19:14; 104:34). So, the speakers in the Psalms move readily from speaking to God to speaking about God and from speaking to their enemies to speaking to themselves about all subjects. And vice versa! And this is how it is and how it should be when we meditate. Mediation begins and ends with prayer. Ultimately, it cannot be separated from prayer. In both we respond to God’s Word and exercise our faith in His word. (140)
A full prayer life is a life that is engaged in an ongoing conversation with God. It is possible only because the Christian has been made a child of God by the sacrifice of the Son for the life of the world and enjoys the familial privilege of real conversations, conversations that encompass the spectrum of human emotion and experience. Our prayers include petitions, intercessions for loved ones and others, thanksgiving, praise, and even complaining or lamenting. When God speaks, the Christian must respond. Prayer is necessary. Prayer is best understood as an activity or state of being that is closely connected to, and never apart from, the Word of God that God Himself initiates and encourages, not simply as an act of faith but as faith itself. It is conducted in God’s presence, with God, and not merely to or toward Him. It includes hearing, proclaiming, contemplating, and meditating on the Word of God, as well as asking and talking and even ruminating. For prayer to be full, it must be to the God who speaks and desires our prayers. For all this to be possible, Christians, like the disciples before them, must be open to being taught to pray. It does not come naturally to men on this side of glory, even after conversion. We must abandon the vanity that expects prayer to be easy, obvious, or natural to the Christian. We must learn to listen and learn to be honest. We must learn to wait in trustful obedience based solidly upon God’s promises.