Praying Sacramentally

There are typically two types of prayer: prayers of longing, and prayers of supplication (or, request). Both are good. But, it seems like most people prefer one over the other. In many prayer meetings I’ve attended and led, I have learned that attendees desire to be given a list of needs to pray for. This isn’t bad, but what I’ve learned is that the prayer of supplication is safe(r): it has the potential to allow us to pray (a good thing), in a way that is selfless (i.e. pray for other, which is also a good thing), and yet, it very often can be superficial (a not so good thing). The prayer of supplication in this manner is invulnerable, shallow, and obligational. Its function is to merely check off from the list of duties another good thing we did for God. Or perhaps, we think it’s good for us (we’re pragmatists!) and so we do it.

Yet, prayers of supplication (like many of the Psalms), are good and necessary. Essentially, supplications are requests for God’s kingdom to come to his creation he has so generously conferred to us. The prayer of supplication though, as I’ve alleged, can often become superficial and dutiful. The way this happens, I think, is that we think of that thing we’re praying about—a ministry, a neighbourhood, a church—as something unrelated to us. Or, more precisely, we allow a small degree of “relatedness.” The small degree can be illustrated by various articles of clothing. I am a shirt, and you are a hat. We are both part of the same body; there is some degree of relatedness there. But there’s something lacking here.

I started by saying that there are two types of prayer, but what I should say is that they are two in one: they are not distinct, but enhance and enable each other. Two sides of the same coin, I suppose. But I have not yet described the so-called “prayer of longing.” A prayer of longing is when your truest self is exposed before God. A prayer of longing is true knowledge of self and the world, and consequently, a deep desire for God himself. When confession is abounding and repentance is desired, and God is sought in a most honest way, we are praying with longing. So how is a prayer of longing and a prayer of supplication related? Well, as I’ve said, I think there’s a problem when we think we are only barely related to the “external” things we prayer for. We consider ourselves only formally associated to our workplace, the children’s ministry at our church, the people in our community groups, the leaders of our churches.  Do we pray for these things and people because we know them? Because they’re in our lives in some degree? How can our prayers of supplication—prayer for others—truly be a prayer of longing?

Here’s a hint:

“[Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church.”
– Colossians 1:15-18

What preceded these words was Paul’s description of his prayer of longing for the Colossian church (see 1:1-14 for yourself). With special emphasis on the church, Paul believes that all of creation profoundly shares in Christ. In Christ, all things hold together. Paul’s high Christology grounded his understanding of church (his ecclesiology), thereby forming his prayers. Paul could pray for the church without slipping into an obligational superficiality. He didn’t him see himself as merely related to the church, but for Paul, he and the church shared so intimately, so deeply, so profoundly in Christ, that they were one person: one body.

Knowing that all of creation shares in some degree in the work and person of Christ, we can pray for others with a longing that is honest. That honestly views ourself as mysteriously woven, not as separate articles of clothing, but as one beautiful tapestry that includes the ongoing problem of sin, the ongoing gift of salvation, and the ongoing work of new creation, in Christ Jesus.


Cross-Shaped Community

We often seek to be in relationship with people that are like us, in terms of ethnicity, dress, socio-economic status, etc.  But the Gospel transcends these categories. It creates a people that are part of the new creation: “neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation” (Galatians 6:15).  The “how” of the community of this “new creation” requires a posture of self-giving that takes its shape from the Cross. Earlier in the chapter, Paul tells us that we must

Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ (Gal. 6:2)

 So what is distinctive about this new creation community?  What’s the purpose of relationships if it isn’t to meet people that have similar sentiments?  I want to examine three truths from this passage that may help us make sense of Christian life in new creation community, which must take the shape of the cross.

1. We all have burdens.

The easy-road consumer-driven “prosperity gospel”  promises a burden-less wealth-filled good-life, rather than a cross-shaped life. Its popularity is a witness to the pervasiveness of our consumer mentality: it seeks to “sell” the gospel by promising  physical well-being and status. Sadly, it overlooks the Christian life portrayed by the Scriptures. . Jesus instructs his followers  that they too must bear their cross, a prerequisite to being his disciple (Luke 14:27). Peter says suffering is a means of “sharing in the sufferings of Christ.” The church at Corinth suffered from persecution; Paul doesn’t tell them that they don’t have enough faith, but tells of his own suffering and exults in them, claiming that they are to bear the marks of  ministering for a crucified messiah. The reason why I mention the “prosperity gospel” is because I think it has so deeply pervaded our thinking that we have come to believe that sharing our burdens is a bad, faithless thing to do. In reality, we all have burdens, we all have struggles, we all have emotional or physical pain. We must begin with the concession that “we all stumble in many ways” (James 3:2), and therefore, we all have burdens, to be shared within our new creation community.

2. A personal relationship with Jesus does not mean a private relationship with Jesus.

We love our privacy. I know I do. But a close relative of privacy is a subtle resolution for self-sufficiency. Culture  tells us that we must seek to be self-made men and women. As a result, we establish a framework in which we view people as tools to serve our independent purposes rather than as humans to share life with. It’s time to stop living as though a “personal relationship with God” means doing Christian life alone. In verse 6 (in Galatians 6) Paul warns, “if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself.” Something who “thinks he is something” thinks it too menial a task to bear the burden of another, and will keep their own burdens private, since that would require an acknowledgment of need. If we’re not careful, we will use the language of “having a personal relationship to Jesus” as a justification for pride, and thereby avoid participation in the new creation community. 

3. Burden bearing, not being the morality police, fulfills the law of Christ.

In Galatians, Paul addresses the moral imposition of the so-called Judaizers. They wanted circumcision to be the identifying mark of the Christian, a scheme that sought to salvage a defining ethnic element of the Jewish tradition.  Paul, annoyed, writes: “I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!” (5:12).  It seems the Judaizers cared little for the burdens of the people.  They focused their energies instead on keeping their ethnic tradition intact and so imposed many laws and instructions  in a burdensome manner.  The question for the new creation community is: Will we impose burdens on each other, or will we bear each others burdens?

The Canadian way tends to be the private way, and as a result, we don’t know the deep struggles, temptations, and sufferings of those in our church communities. Despite this, within the new creation community, we are directed to bear each others burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. This requires a cross-shaped  faith and lifestyle that seeks to acknowledge our own failures, embrace the way of humility, and lovingly fulfills the law of Christ, that is, the law of love. 

Finding Rest: Identity and Belonging in Authentic Community

A recent article by Donald Miller (which can be found here), urged me to see the movie The Way Way BackAnd, it did help to see that a favourite of mine, Steve Carell, plays a major role in the film. Miller writes about the difficulty and messiness of relationships — the coming to terms with the fact that “life and love aren’t perfect” and that “choosing to be lonely over a bad relationship is radical self-help.” These are good thoughts, and are helpful in directing us to finding the main thrust of the film.

This is a movie about identity. About self-perception, and how one views him/herself in the world.

In the opening scenes, Trent, (a part played by Carell, and whom we soon discover is the antagonist throughout the story), asks his girlfriend’s son how he views himself on a scale from 1 to 10. “I want to know how you think of yourself,” he states, with his eyes glaring in the rear view mirror. Duncan, the boy, only 14, disapprovingly frowns at this question, and reluctantly gives himself a 6. Trent disagrees, snobbishly declaring him a 3. All this is happening in a station wagon; Duncan is seated in a back seat facing the rear of the vehicle – he is sitting in the “Way Way Back,” looking into the [perhaps?]  past, and with unrest not looking forward to the future.

The future doesn’t look too appealing. Duncan, his mother, Trent, and his daughter, are off to Trent’s summer cottage, with the hopes of–in Trent’s words–“becoming a family some day.”  This is the second major theme in the film: family/community.

Duncan’s transition from socially awkward to socially confident occurs as he finds his place in a family/community. Duncan finds a community — at a water park — where his gifts and abilities are discovered and put to use. Ultimately, he claims that “this is the only place where I am happy.” The filmmaker juxtaposes the organic and pure (though imperfect) community life at the water park with the abnormal and artificial attempt to “being a family” amongst the four who are actually related (or have the potential to be through marriage). The water park family has fun, they laugh, play games, have parties: they celebrate life. The four don’t get along when they’re together, they argue and fight over a silly board game: a failed attempt at family. Ironically, the relational friction and unrest grows at the summer cottage, the very place intended for rest.

The film does not end with any ‘happily-ever-afters’ but it does end with a sense of hope. It ends with a drive back home, and Duncan is back where he was at the opening scene, sitting in the “Way Way Back” of the car and sadly realizing that he is leaving the community that helped him find himself. This time though, his mother jumps over to the back seat to sit with her son, and wordlessly, she lets him know that it will be okay. 

Miller is right to say that “life and love aren’t perfect” – but more curiously it seems that the creator of this story is aware of the inherent human longing to belong. The place of belonging requires commitment to the imperfect community, thus creating the space for individual flourishing. It is not perfect, but the community provides a space where one finds his/her identity, and is empowered to not only receive but to give himself to the cause of that community.

More crucially, for my purposes, it seems that community/family cannot be artificially and programatically created. Authentic community matters greatly, and for it to happen it requires truth, commitment, giving,  and receiving. In these things one can hope for the flourishing of the individual and the community, potentially reaching a place of inner and outer rest – attaining in some degree the human calling to make shalom.