October 15th, 2015
Let me begin this Backstory with a confession and a corresponding concern.
For most of my life as a Christian I have found it difficult to keep a sustained practice of prayer; calling it a “practice” may ennoble it too much.
For all the books I’ve read on prayer, for all the sermons I’ve heard extolling its virtue, for all the devotional guides I’ve picked up, and in time laid down–the discipline of prayer which Jesus enjoins to his disciples (and lives before them) has remained elusive to me. But for no one’s fault but my own.
The concern derived from that confession is that I believe prayer to be akin to, not a requirement one must satisfy, but a practice one cultivates as both a privilege and a preparation. Just as a runner trains in increasingly longer stints so as to prepare his body for the greater loads the road holds for him, so learning to pray is in part for the sake of when life does its level best to knock the wind out of you. Only having apprenticed oneself in the habit of praying can one be prepared to withstand the inevitable onslaughts of disappointment, ennui, affliction, and sorrow. Jesus not only instructs us in prayer; He demonstrates that very instinctual move toward it when the wind has been literally knocked out of him: “My God, My God, why has thou forsaken me?” (Psalm 22).Only by learning to pray both our fears and our tears can we hope to emerge from those circumstances that gave rise to each with sturdier, not weaker, faith.
Rather than just wring my hands though, I’d like to suggest a way forward–for myself, and perhaps also for you if you share (or have ever shared) in the same struggle I speak of.
In a couple weeks I’ll give a talk at Redeemer Seminary on an issue that speaks to the importance of the seminary and its work. I’ve struggled to find a viable topic that would resonate with those who have an appreciation for what seminaries do, but sometimes wonder what its priorities are or should be. The topic I’ve (finally) landed on arises from where we began our series in Acts way back when.
If you remember that first sermon, (while the earth was still cooling), we referred to a study recently completed by the Pew Foundation on, as it called it, the changing religious landscape in America. Like no other time in recorded American history have so many chosen to identify themselves as religiously unaffiliated.
Whether that reveals a true diminution of the population of believers, or only an increased courage to refuse identification with a faith with which they formerly felt a social-compulsion to do so, the fact remains that former allegiances to Christian notions, real or feigned, have decreased appreciably. What that bodes for the future of the church or the culture becomes the topic of growing interest.
One response to that changing landscape has been to call the church to recalibrate its focus and practice, not with an innovation or change in messaging, but with a turn toward an ancient and enduring approach to the spiritual life. That approach has been termed the “Benedict Option,” taking its guidance from the 5th century monastic St Benedict whose “Rule” served not just to form myriad monastic communities but to permeate the whole Christian ethos of his day.
The primary exponent of this Option has been journalist and author Rod Dreher. Dreher was reared in the Methodist Church in southern Louisiana, converted to Roman Catholicism in the 1990s, only to enter the Eastern Orthodox communion in the wake of the priest-abuse scandals. A former op-ed writer for, among other publications, The Dallas Morning News, he now writes for The American Conservative.
He’s been noodling for over a decade on the notions that finally crystallized into the Option. But it’s only been in the last two years that he’s made it a something just short of a cause. (If you’ve attended one of our recent membership classes we make brief (and subtle) reference to his work.)
I’ve no intention here of unpacking all that Dreher means by the Benedict Option. Nor will I speak about how a seminary might respond to a church contemplating a recalibration to what Dreher envisions (you’re welcome to attend the free lunch if you have any interest in that).
But I do want to note one way how the Option represents a (re)turn to a practice that has implications for my (and perhaps your) struggle in prayer–as both a privilege and preparation.
Benedict’s rule had elaborate guidance for both personal and communal prayer. In that effort to provide direction in prayer he is not alone (including the Lord himself!).
It wasn’t that long ago we began a sermon with a reference to Thomas Cranmer and his famous work which came to be known as the Book of Common Prayer. Its 1662 publication remains the traditional guide within the Anglican (and, in America, the Episcopal) Communion, for daily, evening, and night prayer–as well as scheduled readings in the bible’s entirety. (You may remember a laminated bookmark we distributed some months ago that provided a monthly reading plan through the Psalms; that was taken from the BCP.)
But just to pick up any version of the BCP as a way for guidance into a sustained practice of prayer is daunting. At nearly 900 pages, the nearly five hundred year old prayer book can seem too unwieldy to lead a heart toward tender praying. You need a guide to the guide–and one who will be patient with you in the process.
Well, do we have a Personal Assistant for you.
Bill and Robin Harris’ son-in-law Adam–husband to Katherine–is rector of Christ Church Anglican in the Main, in Wayne, PA. It just so “happens” that Adam has recently taken up a three week series on, yes, how to use the Book of Common Prayer as a guide for your own practice of praying.
With his permission we are posting both the audio talks and the accompanying summary sheets. (The third talk, which he’ll give this Sunday, we’ll post next week.)
Praying the Daily Office, an overview
Praying the Daily Office, part 1 (and summary documents)
Praying the Daily Office, part 2 (and summary documents)
Praying the Daily Office, part 3 (next week)
Some of you might be wondering why a good presbyterian pastor is borrowing so much from an Anglican prayer book? For one, our tradition has more in common with our fellow Protestant denomination than you might imagine. One anecdotal but indicative example is that every time we say at the end of a sermon passage reading, “This is the Word of the Lord,” to which you respond, “thanks be to God,” you’ve just recited verbatim a versicle and response of the Book of Common Prayer. Furthermore it was Presbyterians who, in collaboration with Anglican clergymen in the 17th century, sought to reach a compromise in how Presbyterian churches might employ the BCP in some of their own congregations. It was those Presbyterians who lobbied the Anglicans to allow for more freedom in the prayers given, rather than reciting the beautiful but scripted liturgy alone. (Alan Jacobs’ biography of the Book of Common Prayer contributes that behind-the-scenes tidbit.)
Secondly, as soon as you begin looking into how the BCP provides guidance in prayer you will likely feel a bit ovewhelmed–even alarmed perhaps–at just how sophisticated is the Daily Office. Some might wonder if this approach to prayer is more like a law that burdens than a practice that liberates.
Our sermon passage this Sunday is Acts 15:36-16:15, another traveling passage that I will argue is held together by the subtle presence of grace. Marilyn Robinson and Brennan Manning will help us make sense of the grace underlying the text. The latter (of whom a movie is about to be released it seems) said this of grace:
The confessing church of American Ragamuffins needs to join Magdalene and Peter in witnessing that Christianity is not primarily a moral code but a grace-laden mystery; it is not essentially a philosophy of love but a love affair; it is not keeping rules with clenched fists but receiving a gift with open hands.
Whatever practice of prayer one cultivates, the praying itself is not the end, but the grace it means to help us both connect with and live into. So take or leave what you find in the BCP. But we pray not to prove something but to find something.
Meanwhile, we eat together this Sunday directly following worship. Here are the details on The City, which if you, as a member or regular attendee, haven’t registered with, can do so here. There you can learn, among other things, whom it is we can weep and rejoice with.