Friday, August 28, 2009
A Substitute Sacrament for those who have None
First of all a disclaimer. I believe in prayer. I believe I pray too little. I believe we spend too little time in prayer on Sunday morning. Prayer is a very important part of the Christian's life and piety. That said, prayer has become a substitute sacrament for those who have no sacraments and that is a distortion of prayer that destroys its purpose and deprives it of its blessing.
Living in a part of the country where the predominant churches do not have sacraments but ordinances and where there are no concrete places where people access the grace in which we stand, I have noticed that prayer is generally treated sacramentally. That is, prayer has become the substitute sacrament for those who do not understand baptism, the Lord's Supper, or the Word to be the means of grace.
Prayer has become for them the chief medium through which they experience God. It has become a conversation more of equals than the humble prayer directed to the Most High. It has become the arena where you argue your case, attempt to change the mind of God, obtain access to the things you want, and feel the presence of God. In this respect, prayer has become something it was never intended to be.
Several conversations of late have shown me what happens without sacraments -- without places to go where God has always promised to be available and where His grace is always accessible to us. I am greatly concerned that Christians in sacramental churches are reading books about prayer published by those who do not have sacraments and our whole understanding of prayer is being distorted in this way.
Let me say it bluntly. Prayer is great but the places where God has made Himself accessible and where He has attached His grace are the Word and the Sacraments. Prayer is not a sacrament. Prayer is the fruit of a rich sacramental life and a faith rooted and grounded in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The purpose of prayer is not to access the grace of God. God invites us to pray so that we may address Him with all the concerns of our heart -- not to change things or to change us, necessarily, but to the intimate conversation of those whose trust the Lord with all that is within -- the good and the bad.
The part of prayer that is its power is the end -- the AMEN that is, for us Christians, the same as Jesus' words, "not My will but Thy will be done." This is prayer's power -- we come with all the burdens of our hearts, we open our hearts to the Lord and address Him with all that is within us, and then we end with confidence in His good and gracious will -- Thy will be done.
Only the Spirit can teach us these words. Only frequent prayer can help us to pray these words with boldness and confidence. Thy will be done. This is not some resignation to the things we fear or abhor but must endure. This is the joyful heart so convinced of God's grace in Christ that we gladly trust ourselves, our needs, our fears, our burdens, our past, our present, and our future to this all sufficient grace. We do not pray to argue for our point of view or to convince God that what we want is really what He wants too. We pray through all our feelings, all our fears, all our burdens, and all our tears so that we can come to the point of saying "Thy will be done."
If you look at the great Psalms of David as prayers, have you noticed how he pours out his soul to the Lord in graphic and blunt terms. He has done down to the pit. He is alone. You know that feeling. I know that feeling, too. He is honest about his attempts to woo the Lord to his point of view and he lays out his cause. But the Psalm does not end there. By the end of the Psalm, his words have turned to praise and thanksgiving for the answer of the Lord. Either this is because he has stopped writing this Psalm and waited to see what God would do and then, when he got what he wanted, he ended his words.... OR it is because he got to that point where he was left with one thing and one thing only -- G0d's all sufficient grace. His final words are a form of what we learned from Jesus to pray -- Thy will be done. Not in resignation but in confidence. God's will is good and gracious. This is our confidence.
The power of prayer is not to change God's mind but to pour out our hearts to Him so that we can leave these burdens and fears at the foot of the cross and leave with a lighter burden... We know that His Word does not return to Him empty handed but accomplishes His purpose... We know that His grace is sufficient... We know that if His kingdom is first in our hearts and minds, everything else will fall into place... We know that God will make all things work together for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose... in other words, Thy Will Be Done.
When I pray this is my goal... whatever I bring to the Lord, I want to bring with the confidence that whatever His answer, it will be the right answer... whatever will come my way, He will enable me to endure and stand... and, dare I say it, grow from it and through it... all I need to learn in this prayerful conversation with the Father is to say what Jesus has taught me.... Thy Will Be Done!