Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Learning to Be Prayed

The good news (with a little “g”) is that I'm feeling better. The throbbing throat is largely behind me, albeit I'm still rather weak and tire quickly. One of the assets to being sick for nearly two weeks is that I was forced to have a lot of “still” time, time when I'm not busy running like a headless chicken after every little next task that I think might need to be done. The end result of this was that I managed to begin reading a few books that I hadn't planned on. One of these books was the latest volume in the American Edition of “Luther's Works,” which has only just been translated (this is part of a new project by CPH to bring more of the nearly 2/3 of his writings that are as yet only available in German.)

It didn't take long before I had my highlighter out and was thinking, “wow, this is great stuff.” There is a reason that the Reformation rallied around this man – and it wasn't his charming good looks. The guy simply had a way of cutting through the pretense and the defense systems that we set up in order to lay bare the Scripture's Truth that we need to hear. How rare it is a man can tell you you're a sinner in a way that you say, “Yes, sir. Please, give me more.” But that's the gift this Doctor-Father was to the Church. Here's just a taste:

Our mind and thoughts are so uncertain, slippery, and inconstant that even if we wanted to begin to pray in earnest or to think about God without the Word and Scripture, it inevitably happens that before we realize it, we have strayed a hundred miles from our first thoughts. Let anyone who will, give it a try, and tell me how long he is able to stay with his intended thought. Or take one hour and promise to tell me all your thoughts. What will be the result?...Such a miserably divided thing is the human heart. It is so vacillating, so shifting, and changeable.... I must tell an example of this.

We read about St. Bernard, who made an attempt. He once lamented to a good friend that he had such difficulty praying as he ought that he could not even pray through the Lord's Prayer without having other thoughts intrude. This took the friend by surprise, for he thought it would take no particular skill or effort. St. Bernard wagered him to try it, with a good stallion as the stakes, if only he would speak the prayer straightaway. The friend presumed that he would accomplish it without any trouble and began to pray, “Our Father...”, but before he completed the First Petition, he was struck by the question of whether, if he won the horse, he would be due the saddle and bridle as well. In short, his thoughts strayed so far that he had to stop and admit that St. Bernard had won.

I confess I laughed out loud in the reading of this, and not because I am somehow above it, but because of the fantastic accuracy with which the story describes me. Week in, week out, even as I lead the entire assembly in worship to pray the dear words our Lord taught us, I ever find myself missing the greater portion of it. It vexes me, and fight to do better, only to fail before I've even begun. If I'm lucky I find myself drawn back in the knick of time so that I can manage to really, really mean the words “For thine is the Kingdom...” (which aren't actually part of the the prayer as Jesus' taught it) and then maybe the “Amen” (also, not in the original text.) But, oh, how impossible it seems for me to give to God the fullness of this Prayer! In the end I manage nothing more than a fervent wish that he, after all, knows what the prayer says, and will know that I, having been taught the matter, really want him to hear and answer it, even if I can't quite manage to spit it all out before him like any good, pious man should.

But as Luther tells us the story of St. Bernard, there is great Gospel for us and our vexing habits of the mind. What does this mean? It means that you are not alone. You, just like me and St. Bernard, are a only sinners. And our sin is no “pie in the sky” idea, but a real fact of who you are as a person – of what you are and are not capable of, especially in spiritual things. See how quickly Luther teaches us that in this horrible habit of ours, you are not alone and Jesus already knows it.

For Luther, all of this has been an introduction to Jesus' prayer in John chapter 17, for where our miserable attempts to pray are the problem, Jesus' prayer is the answer, for Jesus is, in fact, the one man who ever actually managed to pray his prayers all the way through, perfectly. He meant them, and he meant them in such profound and complete faith that they were always answered. He was the human we all ought to be before God. Even better, John 17 gives us even more comfort, for there we see that his prayer is not prayed for himself, but for us, for all who would come to believe that his Word is from God, and that he and his cross are the answer to all our sinful, desperate needs.

How much more enlivened by Jesus' perfection are our own rather white-washed attempts to pray the Lord's Prayer?! Next time you are struggling and kicking yourself to let his Word have its way with you for fifteen seconds during the height of being Church, relish that your struggle is the very fact that his Word is already having its way with you. His Prayer has refused to let go of you, even if you cannot quite hold onto it. As you chastise your wandering mind and heart, his Words are still there being prayed only because he has already prayed them perfectly, once for all, on your behalf.

He went to the cross with these same words on his lips, “My God, my God,” “forgive them,” and “into your hands I commend myself.” From beginning to end he was being who he is so that in the power of his resurrection these Words might come and pray us. Sinners that we are, we are gathered by the calling of these Words and we are prepared by their power to receive the answer to their petitions in the gift of the Holy Sacrament. In the body and the blood, in the bread and the wine, by Jesus' merit and from his grace, the Kingdom comes among us to do his will, which is to distribute the forgiveness we can barely bring ourselves to pray for and this is deliverance from evil once and for all. Faith, when it is born in us adds nothing. At best we meagerly nod, “Amen.” That is, “yea, yea, it is so.”


Josh said...

Just out of curiosity, what volume is that from? I have Luther's Works in digital format (For Libronix) and have been trying to find this quote only to realize it is part of the newly translated portion of his works. Thanks!

RevFisk said...

It is from volume 69 which has only just been released in printed format. I'm not at all sure it is even available in the Libronix version. You might have to go back to paper for this one! XD


Thanks for the comment!

boddenj said...

Thanks! Yeah...I may have to pony up the cash. The biggest problem is the shelf space! I much prefer the digital format. I've heard this Luther quote before but didn't know if it was one of those "falsely attributed" quotations. Guess I've just heard it from German scholars! Nice blog by the way. Nothing much better than reading some Luther to help pass the hours...other than Scripture of course!

Thanks again.

RevFisk said...

I actually inherited 2/3 of the original collection in hardback. Shelf space is no joke, but Luther is the kind of read I prefer in paper. Now...if I had a Kindle...and if Libronix was friendly with Kindle.....

Thanks for the comments! I dont get enough of 'em around here. Quite a few happy lurkers...hey you all! Say something! XD

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