Celebration of the Great Tradition (Part 4): The Contemplative Stream of the Church (Prayer-filled Disciple)
Follow Jesus around the dusty roads of Israel and notice a common theme. He was a man of prayer.
As we explore the Great Traditions of the church, we acknowledge the rich contribution of the contemplative, and/or prayer-filled life.
The word contemplative can become a stumbling block for some as it’s been used to develop a spirituality devoid of earthly realities and engagement of culture. We think of monks and monastics chanting and living separated from the broader society.
While the church father’s and many monastic communities through the ages of church history have offered much help in forming our vision for the contemplative tradition. My desire is not to critique this tradition, or any other. Rather find the streams and source of where these traditions developed and took shape. I want to find a common thread for taking part in this tradition in a helpful and balanced way.
*Side note: these great traditions when balanced and working in harmony provide a rich ballast for a deep and coherent Jesus-centered spirituality. You can’t talk about prayer with no concern for justice and compassion. Any life of compassion devoid of discipleship and proclaiming the gospel (Evangelical) is a road to nowhere. Spirit empowered living without the character of love is baseless and confusing at best.
So let’s put aside visions of the contemplative tradition with men and woman cloistered away from people and the culture only concerned with individualistic piety. Instead let’s examine the foundation and stream by which the contemplative and prayer-filled life emerged. The life of Jesus and his own prayer life.
The Prayer-Filled Life of Jesus
The relationship of a disciple and their rabbi in the first century was not purely informational. While the teachings of said rabbi were important, the essence of the relationship was transformational. A disciple following close to their rabbi was to become like them in character and living. The disciple was to harness the way of life, teaching, and wisdom presented by their teacher. Becoming like their Master.
When the disciples followed Jesus around Palestine they were astonished by his prayer life. He was often heading into the wilderness to commune with God the Father. Jesus would take breaks from the busyness of ministry to spend time with God. A seemingly waste of time in our efficient and practical modern culture.
Jesus’ prayer life was so amazing the disciples had to know how he did it. In Luke 11:1-2, Jesus gets back from praying and the disciples must learn the secret of praying:
“Now Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.”
Jesus then taught them the Lord’s Prayer which we also see expressed in Matthew 6:5-15.
The Anatomy of the Soul and More
Don’t check out. I know the Lord’s Prayer is familiar for people inside and outside the church. We’ve said the prayer many times. Maybe in a hospital room praying over a sick person. Funeral, or as a corporate confession in a church worship service. Maybe in a moment of desperation.
Regardless of what you know about the Lord’s Prayer let’s sit with it for a while. This profound prayer is a great introduction into the contemplative and prayer-filled life.
John Calvin said the Psalms, a book of prayers and songs, are the anatomy of the soul. In other words, the needs of every human and the needs of the world are expressed in the canon of the Psalms in breathtaking accuracy.
Ever felt alone? Feel like the bad guys are winning and God seems to not care? Lost a loved one? Can’t seem to beat sin? Ever been betrayed, abandoned, hurt, abused, forgotten… or done these things to others?
Ever felt distant from God and wondered if he even existed? How about overwhelmed with such thankfulness and beauty your heart is ready to burst? Read the Psalms. We all know these raw feelings and expressions of disgust toward self, God, and the world. We know the overwhelming sense of joy and hope too.
If the Psalms are the anatomy of the soul. The Lord’s Prayer is the anatomy of the soul and how to relate to God, others, and the world.
Let me explain.
The Heart Posture of Prayer
Jesus embodies the God-with life. A man walking in a trusting relationship with his Creator. Prayer is not escapism or spiritual elitism. Prayer by definition is asking, pleading, or petitioning for something we don’t have or possess.
When we enter God’s Kingdom, and walk around a bit, we realize how much we lack. Life is hard, God feels distant, and the world appears to be spiraling into nothingness.
Prayer can often move toward a last ditch effort in our desperation for change and help. But Jesus will not let it happen. Jesus designed prayer to work on a different level.
Jesus identifies two postures of prayer exemplified by two groups of people. Maybe you can relate. First, hypocrites who love to be seen by others when praying. Second, Gentiles, pagans, or non-Jewish people who love to heap up many words in prayer. Thinking in their verbal assault God will take notice.
Why does this matter to Jesus? Does the posture of prayer have any bearing for understanding the contemplative tradition? I think so.
Prayer is not about performing for God and others. The hypocrites want to be seen by others and prove their spirituality to be valid. We are invited into the Kingdom by grace and sustained by this same grace. No room for performance in the Kingdom.
Hypocrites are two faced and insecure living with the assumption that the external action of prayer is enough. While inside motivated by an entirely different set of priorities. Jesus will not let us prayer, give, or fast in this manner (6:1-2, 16-17). It is an experiment in missing the point.
The goal of prayer, and the heart and essence of the contemplative tradition is not about the actions of prayer. It’s not about impressing our spiritual and religious counterparts. No way.
Jesus wants to get to the centrality of prayer. Prayer and pleading and asking things from God is not for human reward. Human rewards unfortunately end at applause and back slaps. Jesus presents a more satisfying reward.
Prayer can’t be about earning blessing, favor, or salvation from God either. Again, the Kingdom is about grace not performance. God takes initiative and we respond. Jesus cares about different reward. A reward he sought his entire earthly life. A reward of relationship and presence of God. The heart of prayer is not a religious duty or appearing holy and godly and pious among your church tribe.
Prayer is about a reward of relationship and presence only offered to us by God. Prayer is cultivating a friendship with God.
But let’s not forget about the second group of pray-ers. What about the Gentiles? What about the group heaping up and babbling before God?
The Gentiles were a people who had many pagan gods. Gods for every situation of life. If you couldn’t get pregnant pray to the god of fertility. How about the crops failing? Pray to the god of agriculture. And do it goes.
You could understand why this group would heap up many words into the abyss. Maybe just maybe someone will hear me.
But Jesus in brilliant fashion says the God of heaven and earth is not like this. We don’t heap up empty and meaningless words hoping a deity will hear. He says, “for your father knows what you need before you pray…”
Why does this matter? God is after relationship. He is a good father who takes care of his children, and even his orphans. We don’t pray and heap up many words hoping something good comes of it. God already knows what we need before we utter a phrase. Why pray?
Our praying becomes less about having things made right in our lives and instead cultivating a relationship with God. Instead of trying to perform and prove ourselves worthy and religious and pious we go to the secret place and find a reward no amount of money can put a price tag on. Friendship with God.
Prayer is about asking for what we lack. It’s about rewards of relationship and presence. The contemplative tradition is about developing a close and intimate friendship with God.
But we still must take a peek at the Lord’s Prayer.
Lord’s Prayer in Techno Color
The prayer Jesus taught his disciples exemplifies what we said before about relationship and presence. It describes the anatomy of soul and the needs common to every person past, present, and future.
Jesus grounds the prayer in an address. We address God as Father, Daddy, Abba. No Jew would have ever addressed God in such intimate terms. Another reason the disciples were so intrigued by the way Jesus prayed.
We might have bad connotations with earthly father’s. But this Father is not like our finite and flawed daddies. This father knows every need, every hair on our head, and loves to give good gifts to his kid’s. This father is eternally gracious and never runs out of love for his kids.
If you don’t believe this description look to Jesus. John 14 says if we’ve seen Jesus, we’ve seen the Father, and vice versus. Any conception of God not rooted in Jesus is false.
Our praying to “Father” is also rooted in a place, heaven. We address God as Daddy, and we also remind ourselves he is God of heaven and all things. He is a friend yes, but the ruler of heaven and earth.
Deep communion and warm fellowship with God in Christ and powered by the Holy Spirit begins with addressing Our Father in heaven…
The prayer then moves to the asking, the petitions. First ask: “hallowed be your name.”
We don’t use this phrase often except maybe at Halloween. But it means to set apart, treasure, make holy, or sanctify God’s name. In this petition we ask that God’s name be made great in our lives and the world.
Christian spirituality is not concerned with an individualistic piety devoid of the world. This prayer is asking for God’s name to be our treasure and center of our existence, and where God’s name is not treasured it would not be so. We pray for our lives to represent God well, and for the world to acknowledge the Father of Heaven and Earth.
The Lord’s Prayer is the anatomy of our souls and for the soul of the world.
A second ask, similar to the first: “Your Kingdom come and your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
A prayer for the individual, but just as much for the world. God’s kingdom is his rule and reign. A rule and reign that takes place now on earth. This kingdom inaugurated when Jesus came to preach good news and when he died and resurrected from the dead defeating sin, death, hell, and Satan. The Kingdom is at hand, near, repent and believe.
So praying, “Your kingdom come,” is to allow God’s rule and reign and agenda to come more fully in our midst. If God is a loving Father than he must have loving means and ways of restoring his broken creation. If God is all wise and powerful and merciful, his Kingdom must be this way.
The parables of Jesus give a taste of what the Kingdom of God is like. A kingdom where grace rules and everyone is invited to the table. A kingdom operating in love and forgiveness. A kingdom where prodigals are welcomed home. A kingdom where the oppressed and voiceless are given help and hope. I could go on.
But that’s what we’re praying. That God’s Kingdom would break in and we’d get glimpses of his work in our midst. On earth, as in heaven. We could say, God make heaven come more fully on earth. We are not praying for a future reality, but a here and now further breaking in of God’s rule.
Not to be Mr. Obvious, but the prayer is also a way to fight our own selfish kingdoms. We pray “Your will… not my will…”
Left to our own devices we pray for our kingdoms to come and our wills to be done. The Lord’s Prayer disarms our sinful and selfishness and reorients our hearts to God and his ways on the earth.
Third, we ask for daily bread. This can be for literal bread, food, and sustenance. Or, it could mean all the physical needs our lives must have for the day. Notice the word daily.
God’s giving of gifts is daily. His grace is enough for today. I find it interesting that a few verses later in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus addresses anxiety and worry (Matt. 6:25-34). An unhealthy worry about a future that does not exist yet.
Praying for daily bread is to ask God for sustenance, provision, and help for today. He is a good father who loves to give what we need for the day. Imagine living today present and fully aware of God’s presence and provision for our daily needs? Not worried and fearful about tomorrow.
We ask in the fourth petition for forgiveness, and to forgive our enemies. Do I need to comment? Our lives are broken and we fall on our faces daily. We need forgiveness and we need to forgive and not hold the sins of others against them. As Jesus has done for us.
The prayer is acknowledging our need for grace and forgiveness.
In the fifth we acknowledge the world in which we live. How things really are. A world where evil and the Evil One come to tempt us and destroy everything. A spiritual world at war.
The Lord’s Prayer is a true anatomy of our souls and gives us spiritual resources to pray for just about anything in our lives and world.
The prayer addresses our spiritual, moral, and physical needs in breathtaking fashion. A prayer designed to cultivate a friendship with God and give language to pray for the needs of others and the world.
Any spirituality that does not combine intimacy with God and care for neighbor is lacking. Our contemplative tradition at her best is always trying to build a deeper adherence to the Great Commandment to love God and people well.
Quick Tips on Praying the Lord’s Prayer
My suggestion in growing in the prayer-filled tradition is to start right here with the Lord’s Prayer.
But the prayer is not meant to be a magic formula or magic incantation. Pray it slowly, think about the words, and fill in the gaps based on the petitions.
Contemplate God being our Father. Ask God for forgiveness and ask for the strength to forgive others. The prayer is honest. These are petitions because we lack what only God can provide.
We aren’t holy all the time. We struggle to not fall into temptation. We get anxious over daily life. We see the ways God is belittled in our lives and in the lives of others.
Pray it often. Pray it slowly. And God will give us many things to pray about. And… reward us with his friendship.