Evangelical Is Not Enough 4

The fourth chapter of Thomas Howard’s book, Prayer: Random or Discipline?, is devoted to his encounter with the Christian discipline of corporate set prayers that began when he returned to the University of Illinois for graduate studies. He began attending the daily Office of Evening Prayer at a small chapel across the street. He describes the building and makes the insightful comment that all buildings are icons. Indeed they are. In fact, I would say that everything we make, to one degree or another, is an icon of something. It seems wired into our being. That, of course, is the doom of every effort we might make at iconoclasm, even if iconoclasm were not itself a denial of the Incarnation. Howard points out again the essentially Buddhist or Manichaean nature of iconoclasm in general and its Christian manifestations in particular. There is also a false dichotomy and an improper perspective of creation that is manifested when beauty is pitted against faith or against “works” or against humility and simplicity.

Before I continue with my thoughts on Howard’s writing, if anyone is looking for something to read on prayer written by an evangelical, there are two books I would recommend (and they are the only two evangelical books on prayer I’ve read that I would recommend). The first is Praying with the Church by Scot McKnight. The second is The Spirit of the Disciplines by Dallas Willard. (Obviously, the latter is on the spiritual disciplines in general and not focused solely on prayer, but it does cover the discipline of prayer well.)

Howard, flowing straight from the criticism of set prayer normally found in evangelicalism, immediately addresses the accusation that such repetition must become routine, bleak, and dead. I found myself nodded at the parallel he chose.

Yes, indeed it does dry up and die, if there is no taproot of life irrigating it. Just as the utter sameness of marriage dries up and dies if love departs, so will any routine. To the libertine accustomed to woman after woman, the man who returns day after day, year after year, to the same spouse, with no variety, appears unfortunate in the extreme. We must ask the man himself how things are. He will tell us that routine is the very diagram of peace and freedom …

Indeed. Interesting is a good term for describing far too much of my life. So much so that even when I was young I understood intuitively and immediately that the wish, May you live in interesting times!, first was a curse and then why it was a curse. This year my wife and I will celebrate our twentieth wedding anniversary. I’ve found tremendous “shelter from the storm” in the peace and freedom and safety of our marriage.

Howard then notes a fact that has long confused me. In their rejection of set prayers, evangelicals are rejecting the very practice of Jesus, the disciples, and the church as described in the Acts of the Apostles. As I delved into Christian belief and practice, I never was able to understand how they did so.

Evangelicalism, encouraging a spirit of individual responsibility before the Bible, had made it possible for me to discount centuries of Christian practice.

Basically, if an interpretation of the Scripture of the New Testament that shows the practice of set prayers is not obvious to an individual’s own interpretation (or that of their interpreter of choice), set prayer can be disregarded, even if that particular interpretation is at odds with the overwhelming majority of historical Christian teaching and practice. (Apparently, the practice in the Old Testament or even what Jesus himself practiced makes no difference since that’s “judaism” and as such has been abolished.) I have to confess that I still don’t really grasp the nature of the mental gymnastics required for that particular chain of reasoning. I do grasp that an overriding focus on individualism seems to be the culprit.

As Howard practiced a daily office, he came to a realization that is perfectly consistent with ancient Jewish and Christian practice.

The more I thought about it, the more it seemed that once a day, far from being too often for devotion, was not enough.

Indeed. I owe a debt of gratitude to Brother Lawrence myself.

Howard next reflects on the way the discipline of prayer (a rule of prayer as it is often called) actually enables a person to pray consistently. The structure and order of the rule frees us to pray. Inevitably, if we approach it as an individual practice, it becomes subject to our moods and whims. Almost all of us will not always feel like praying. And even if we try to make ourselves pray, we’ll find we have nothing to say. Making prayer a rule using set prayers does not ensure that we will pray. But it does not place the burden entirely on our own mood and ability. It helps us make prayer a habit rather than something we struggle to do.

Howard notes that some people can pray freely every day of their life. Some people truly can be consistent with a daily free form quiet time. He even says that as far as he knows, his own father was such a man. But, Howard says, “He was an extraordinary man.” Most of us are not so extraordinary. It’s not just Howard and me. I’ve listened to youth and adults both describe their difficulties praying regularly and consistently over the long haul. This is a problem that permeates evangelicalism and other “enthusiastic” movements. And we do people no favors when we keep prescribing the same solution — an approach that has already failed them multiple times. Instead, we place a crushing load on them.

Howard describes in some detail a particular order of prayer. It’s worth reading, but there are many prayer books available. The first thing is to begin to pray using some sort of prayer book. You’ll still slip in and out of the habit of prayer. The merciful Lord knows I constantly fall away from my own rule of prayer. It’s not some sort of magical panacea. Consistent prayer is hard. Perhaps that’s one reason it’s called a discipline. It requires much effort to pray when you’re tired, when you’re irritated, when you feel distant from God, when you’re angry at God, when life grows hectic, or in a host of other life situations. Set prayer does not make prayer easy. Rather, it makes prayer possible.

I am thankful to the ancient Church for its wise and earthy awareness that we Christians need all the help we can get and for supplying us with so much in its Office and in its other forms of set prayer.

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