The rabid individualism of our culture infects and spoils our lives in a myriad of ways, not least in the life of prayer. We are told that we need to “have a personal relationship with God”, which is true enough, but does not tell the whole story. And if our prayer life is only seen through the lens of our own “personal relationship with God”, more will be lost than gained.
Every word of the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-14) is crucial. Most people I think would agree with this. Most Bible teachers would even agree with this. Yet a pivotal word of the prayer is often overlooked. It is the first word of the prayer in English, the second in Greek:
Jesus does not counsel us to pray, “MY Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name”; he counsels us to pray “OUR Father who art in heaven…”, and this is important, for it conditions us to see that (as a friend of mine recently put it) while we are called to know the God Jesus called “Father” FOR ourselves, we are at the same time not called to know him BY ourselves.
When we pray, we pray in the company of the faithful, across space and time and down through history. “The whole communion of saints in heaven and on earth…”
This has at least three important implications, as far as I can see it:
1) We never pray alone. When we bring ourselves to God in prayer, we are not simply having private intimate conversation with Jesus, like two lovers (though that will sometimes happen). We are joining with the people of God who are lifting up their voices day and night to their Lord and Maker. The life of prayer, then, is less like an isolated act that we do every so often, schedule permitting, and more like a river, a chorus that is constantly being sung and said before God, which we occasionally join with, adding our voices to. The Church was praying long before we arose for prayer, and long after we finish. She carries it. We join it. This is why the Psalms have always been treasured among the People of God. When we lift our voice through the Psalter, we are praying “in the fellowship of the saints.” Following from that…
2) We are called pray out of the Great Tradition of the Church. It has been an IMMENSE help to me to use, for example, the Book of Common Prayer in my own personal prayer life. It saves me from wandering around in circles with my speech and prevents my prayer life from devolving into a laundry list of narcissistic items for my life. It shapes my devotion (and hence, it shapes me) to embody the beliefs and concerns of the People of God down through history. The Great Tradition teaches me to address God as Trinity, to run to Christ Jesus as the Great High Priest, the Mediator, and the Last Adam, and to walk in the illumination and power of the Holy Spirit. It teaches me that I am to pray for “city to which I am sent in exile” (America), which includes its leaders, something I would simply not do on my own. It calls me, on a daily basis, to remember in prayer the poor (“let not the needy O Lord be forgotten, nor the hope of the poor taken away…”) and those around me who have not yet touched or tasted the kingdom. It teaches me that the first and most appropriate response of the creature to the Creator is worship and gratitude, and not bellyaching about my crummy life.
In short, when I pray with the Church out of her Great Tradition, it molds me in ways that smack of the Kingdom of God, and it makes that molding far less haphazard than it would have been otherwise.
3) We pray in, with, and through Jesus. Paul wrote in Galatians 4:6 that “God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit who resides in us is the Spirit of the Son who leads us – all of us, his people – through his own Sonship into fellowship with the Father. Through the Spirit we all are caught up into and shaped by the Son’s life, a life that he lives forever to the Father. The “our” of the “Our Father” finds its Christological grounding and fullest meaning in Jesus and in our participation in his Sonship.
That is to say, the energy of our devotion is the energy of the God the Son’s love and obedience to God the Father.
“In him we live and move and have our being.” And even pray.
This also has been an immense help to me. I do not always want to pray. But the Spirit draws me to prayer. And when I come, the opportunity that stands before me is the same as it always is – to die and rise again with Christ, into Christ, and then to live and pray and worship THROUGH Him… to let his life and energy animate my life of devotion, making it warm and rich and robust.
“I have been crucified with Christ” Paul wrote, “and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal 2:2).
May you find yourself praying in the company of all God’s people, in, with, and through Christ Jesus today. And may you be strengthened in so doing.
Grace and peace…