“God must not be represented as one who needs to be cajoled, and prayer must not be presented as a device by which we wring from a grudging Father what He does not want to give us. Prayer is not an overcoming of God’s reluctance, for He already wants the best for us. It is not because God’s will needs to be changed, but because of our own weakness and ineptitude that prayer must be continuous and persistent.” (Trueblood, Elton. The Lord’s Prayers. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1965, p. 42.)
When I pray, how do I imagine God’s posture towards me? Do I have a vision of the Father that looks more a human father on a bad day? (Being a father is a hard job, and few are well-prepared for it).
Continual prayer is not about pestering God into doing what we want Him to do. We do not need to jumpstart Him. Praying continually is an invitation to live in constant communion with a measurelessly good God who is always available, always caring, always for me. I have lived so much of my life as though God were distant and rarely available. I have behaved as though I did not have access to all the resources of heaven as a joint-heir with Jesus Christ. I pray continually not to gain favor but to abide in favor.
On the last morning of Journey retreat #1 (which I enjoyed a week ago with Generation 22), I talk about the theme of “Rhythm of Life.” The more traditional idea is a “rule of life.” I came across this recently in my reading:
“[Quoting then Dean of the Episcopal Theological Seminary in Cambridge, MA] The adoption of a rule of life is the declaration of our belief that prayer and personal religion will be developed only as we regularly and devotedly pay attention to them. It is to exercise consistently those parts of our life that have to do with our inner relation to God. This is to recognize that prayer, simply when we feel like praying or “when the spirit moves us,” is never enough to build on, and that progress is never made when all is left to chance or our emotions. A rule of life affirms that, once having decided what is everlastingly true concerning our devotional life, we then commit ourselves to the best way we know of getting there and abide by the rule as well as we can, come what may.” (Trueblood, Elton. The Lord’s Prayers. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1965, p. 28.)
A rule of life, in this sense, is an acknowledgement that merely spontaneous prayer is not a foundation on which to build a deeply rooted communion with God. Growth in prayer is not dependent on a consistent and effusive inclination towards God, but often requires a resolve to place myself before the God I cannot sense or discern in a particular moment (or even season).
In the same way that an athlete seeking after high performance needs a consistent training plan and schedule she remains faithful to whether her “feel like it” is high or low, so we need simple, practicable rhythms to place ourselves before God day-by-day and even moment-by-moment.
If you’d like to explore this theme further, I highly recommend Stephen Macchia’s book on the theme, Crafting a Rule of Life. I had the pleasure of enjoying breakfast with Steve a few weeks ago while he was out here in California. He’s a person who lives what he shares, and shares what he lives.
“What we need in the effort to achieve the unity for which Christ prayed, is not a dull uniformity, but a variety with mutual appreciation. How wonderful if each group, when it makes some discovery, could feel that it holds this discovery in trust for the entire Church and should give every encouragement to others to imitate it. The paradox is that a faithful Christian society nourishes something that is unique, only in the hope that it will no longer be unique.” (Trueblood, Elton. The Lord’s Prayers. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1965, p. 102.)
True Christian unity is not a clonish copying of one influential leader among us. It is a united expression of the many-faceted grace of God that it takes all of the members of Christ’s body to fully express. Variety in concert is the pathway. The person of Jesus is the vision.
This is a vision that pastors can have for their congregations—a vision to help develop the unique expressions of grace that may or may not “get a church program job done,” but may further the kingdom in measureless ways.
How do we learn to pray? The first disciples learned by what they witnessed in Jesus’s life. They asked him to teach them. Listen to this take on that theme:
“Any honest consideration of the life of Jesus Christ is both shaking and humbling. Whence came such power? The chief way in which we can find a reasonable answer to this question is by a continued study of His prayers. His prayers are not the whole of His revelation, but they are elements apart from which the other elements cannot be understood. The few prayers do not constitute the sufficient condition for understanding Christ, but they do constitute a necessary condition. What was His secret? George Buttrick has put it with convincing brevity: ‘The open secret is: His days were steeped in prayer. The missing word is God, and only by prayer can we find it.’” (Trueblood, Elton. The Lord’s Prayers. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1965, p. 125.)
Jesus’ days were steeped in prayer. He lived in continual communion with His Father. He often withdrew, even in the midst of his busiest seasons, to be in prayer. But not prayer as something to do as much as Someone to be with. Am I learning to follow Jesus’s way here? Are my days steeped in prayer—in conversational relationship with my Father in heaven? What do I not have in my soul or heart because I have not asked the Father for this that I need? Do I need more self-control? Am I asking the Father to provide me all that I need in that way? Am I expressing my practical dependence on Him alone in this way?
When I think of my continuing wrestling with the practice of prayer, I continue to also believe that my image of Jesus and of the Father are not nearly as welcoming, loving, gracious, or merciful as the True God is. Father, empower me with the Spirit of Jesus to live in communion with You like Jesus did. Amen.
Those of us engaged in either paid or voluntary ministry often feel overwhelmed by the needs that surround us. It can feel ever-present. In light of that experience, these words of Elton Trueblood about Jesus become critical for us:
“It is a little shocking to realize that Christ, on occasion, actually neglected the needy populace for a while in order to pray. The striking instance of this phenomenon is that of going apart from the clamoring crowd to the Mountain of Transfiguration. All three of the Synoptics tell the story, but only Luke, who stresses prayer more than do the others, says that He went up to pray (9:28). Most of the disciples remained on the plain below, continuing to meet with, and trying to help, the needy people. Yet Christ Himself, with His inner circle, actually seemed to avoid, at least for a time, the human miseries which He could have relieved had He been there. We know of the miseries because the needy people were there waiting for Him upon His return.
Here is the finest example of the rhythm of withdrawal and encounter. It would have been a mistake to remain always on the mountain, but it would also have been a mistake never to ascend the mountain. Service is important, but service is not the only thing that is important. In so far as we try to imitate the life of Christ, we need to be reminded that the quality of service depends primarily upon what we have to offer, and that we do not have enough to offer when we are always offering. Christ left the needy people in order to engage in prayer, not because He did not care, but because He cared so much that He had to have times apart for conscious communion with the Father. The duty to pray is as crucial as is the duty to serve.” (Trueblood, Elton. The Lord’s Prayers. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1965, p. 29.)
What concerns or responsibilities in your life seem so large as to make time for prayer feel somehow beyond possibility? How do you want to step away with Jesus into places of encountering the Father?
“Christ is saying [in describing the church as the salt of the earth] that mild religion, far from being of partial value, is of utterly no value. We can lose our Christianity! It is easy to go on with the motions; it is easy to continue a structure; it is easy to go on with a system. But Christ says it isn’t worth a thing. Eroded religion is of no value at all. The consequence for us is that the Christian religion must mean more, or it will eventually mean nothing.” (Elton Trueblood. “The Salt of the Earth.” The Yoke of Christ and Other Sermons. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1958, p. 29.)
Lukewarm faith is not mildly valuable, but worthless. Would you pay half-price for a lukewarm Starbuck’s coffee? Would you pay half-price at the market for milk that had been unrefrigerated for just a day or two? Are we living in vital, vibrant relationship with Christ? Or, are we going through motions that were once vital and alive, but have since become empty habit?
“That Christ was completely realistic about the possibility and the seriousness of failure of any society, including a Christian society, is shown by His use of another parable that of the barren fig tree-to make the same point as that of the worthlessness of the pile from which the true salt had been drained away. There is no virtue, He taught, in continuing to be patient with what is hopelessly unproductive.” (Elton Trueblood. “The Salt of the Earth.” The Yoke of Christ and Other Sermons. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1958, p. 29.)
There comes a point that any Christian ministry or movement may cease to be fruitful. This certainly doesn’t mean that it will cease then to exist. We can keep lifeless Christian structures or gatherings going on life support for years after they have ceased to have any real life in them.
Where is God working in your life and ministry to renew what has faded? Where are you sensing His fresh life breaking in? How might He be inviting you to deeper communion with Him in this new year?
“The best prayer is seldom a hit-and-miss matter, but grows by the glad acceptance of discipline, which, far from being its antithesis, is the price of real freedom. Herein lies the deep wisdom of the Yoke passage (Matt. 11: 29, 30). Just as an empty freedom inevitably turns into bondage, so the acceptance of Christ’s yoke sets men free. It does not eliminate burdens, but because the yoke fits, the burdens actually seem light. In Christ’s teaching the practice of devotion is the first item of a series in which freedom is the final consequence. “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:31-32).” (Elton Trueblood. A Place to Stand. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1969, p. 103.)
How is God inviting you to take on His well-fitting yoke these days? What rhythms of discipline are there that you may not often feel like practicing that would actually cultivate a way of life in you that you deeply desire? How may God be drawing you to regular practices of prayer?
Having awakened very early to make the 100+ drive up to Ventura from Mission Viejo, I thought a post from last December might help. There, I quote Elton Trueblood’s practice of “A period of deliberate receptivity at…the beginning of the conscious day.” This has helped me a lot…
One of the most difficult practices for busy North American Christians and, therefore, one of the most needful is the regular habit of solitude and silence. I’ve included a link today from a post last August where I talked more about this.
Yesterday was full and good day of ministry. I began by enjoying coffee with a worship pastor friend with whom I meet every other Thursday to share our lives with one another. Then, I helped lead a day retreat in Orange, CA for a number of Christian leaders from the area. I never cease to be amazed at the creative compassion of God in how He expresses Himself to His beloved sons and daughters. Then, I ended the day speaking to the InterVarsity chapter at University of California at Irvine. I came home tired and grateful.
Tomorrow, I’ll lead another one of our “An Unhurried Day with Jesus” events at Creekside Christian Fellowship in Irvine, CA. Then, I’ll preach at the three Sunday services at the Ventura (CA) Vineyard on the theme of “Prayer: A Relationship with God”. I’d be grateful for your prayers.
I so long to be part of a wider movement of Christ followers who share a common life of intimacy with God, love for one another and shared engagement in Christ’s work in His world. Below is a link to a post from January on what such a movement might look like.