Wednesday, March 29, 2006

The Jesus Prayer: Even reformed folk should approve

For more than a millenia, Christians, especially those of the Eastern Orthodox tradition, have been praying a simple and effective prayer: "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner."

Can there be any harm in such a prayer? The elements of the prayer are certainly in keeping with reformed theology. It affirms the lordship of Christ, affirms that we cannot depend on our own goodness to save us but are ever in need of God's grace and mercy, and acknowledges that even though Christ has accomplished salvation for us all, we still sin and need forgiveness. We reformed Christians (Calvin's miserable worms in need of God) are like the apostle Paul in that we know what we should do and don't do it and know what we shouldn't do and do that very thing. The content of this prayer is hopelessly reformed in nature.

So, if noone of the reformed faith can object to the content, why haven't we taken to this prayer? Two reasons come to mind. First, this is generally a prayer said by Christians outside of the context of community and worship. Since reformed folk ascribe to the view that God's revelation generally comes to us in the context of worship as the Word is rightly preached to the community, we have shied away from individual spirituality. We understand the wisdom of such a view in light of David Koresh and Jim Jones and others who have thought they received a word from the Lord that led to disaster as no community held them accountable or insisted that they examine their revelation in the context of worship, scripture, and tradition. But Jesus himself affirmed the rightness of this prayer when he condemned the self-righteous prayer of the pharisee and upheld the virtue of the tax collector's simple prayer: "Lord, have mercy on me a sinner." In this story, each of these figures was coming to pray to God individually and not in the context of communal prayers. So, surely we can pray such a prayer to God on our own in our prayer closet, whether it be our car on the way to work or in a magnificent cathedral.

The second reason reformed people might reject the use of this prayer is that it is generally said as a "breath prayer," repeated over and over with each breath as a way of entering into God's presence in an embodied way. Reformers rejected much of the formulaic prayer of the Catholic tradition and questioned ritual for ritual's sake, taking seriously Jesus' injunction against the use of "vain repitition" in prayers. But how can calling on the name of the Lord, asking for mercy, and acknowledging our place before Christ and our need of Him be a vain repition? Certainly, at the very least, it is no worse than the weekly thoughtless repitition of the Lord's prayer many in our congregations engage in. And, at best, it serves as a grounding, a spiritual centering in Christ that over and over asserts in our very souls the need for Christ, "in whom we live and move and have our being."

On a personal note, this prayer has gotten me through some tough times. When I received news that my father had suffered a heart attack and jumped in the car to drive the 250 miles between us, I recognized that all things are in God's hands and that I personally was powerless to affect the situation save through prayer. I needed my Lord desperately and depended on his mercy and care in the same way I depend on him for my salvation. So when something inside me prompted me to pray, it was quite natural that much of my prayer for those 4 hours in the car took the form of the Jesus prayer. The result of praying in this way for me was a deep sense of peace, a sense that God was in control, and that whatever I would face on my arrival at the hospital would be alright because Christ would stand beside me.

Fortunately, my father ended up being fine. But I was transformed by that time in prayer and have come to include the Jesus Prayer as a frequent part of my own devotional life in God. Each time I pray this prayer, I experience the peace of knowing that "in life and in death, I belong to God." And I am reminded that we are called to participate in God's ministry in the world through Christ and to get in on what God is doing rather than coming up with our own ministries and hoping God will approve.


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