05 November 2015

Short prayers

My relationship with prayer began before I became a Christian. A few years ago I told the story (towards the end of this post) of how, in my mid-teen years, I used to listen to the radio broadcasts of the First Church of Deliverance in Chicago. Growing up in an atheist family, I had no exposure of any kind to church culture before listening to these Sunday evening broadcasts, which happened to be on the radio station that played my Top 40 hits the rest of the week.

My mother was especially allergic to any mention of religion, so I kept my mouth shut about my Sunday evening habit. I certainly could not have explained to her or anyone else how my heart was warmed by these broadcasts and specifically by pastor Clarence H. Cobbs' weekly prayer for the sick, the shut-ins, and "all those who love the Lord."

Source: Brother Sun, Sister Moon
Source: Brother Sun, Sister Moon
This sheet was what I posted on my factory workspace. Source.
A scene from my daily walk to work.
Shortly after I arrived at Carleton University, Franco Zeffirelli's semi-fictional biography of St. Francis of Assisi, Brother Sun, Sister Moon was released, and a college friend invited me to see the film with him. I was extraordinarily shaken by that experience, which confirmed my desire to live a simple and contemplative life.

After my first year of college, I went back to the USA, to the Western Electric telephone factory assembly line in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, where I'd worked during the year between high school and university to earn my tuition money. At my work station, where I spent all day taking apart old touch-tone phones to be refurbished further down the line, I pasted a copy of the prayer attributed to St. Francis, "Make me an instrument of your peace." I know that this added to my reputation as a somewhat strange factory worker, but I often found comfort in repeating those seven words.

I had to walk eight miles a day, through beautiful rolling Pennsylvania countryside, to and from the point where I had a ride between East Brandywine Township, where I was living, and King of Prussia, so I had plenty of time to repeat those words, "make me an instrument of your peace." Though I had not yet made a Christian commitment, I think those seven words qualify as my first prayer.

Not long afterwards, at age 21, I did make that explicit commitment, as a result of an encounter with Jesus in the gospel of Matthew. (Details here.) Not long after that, I came upon the place in Paul's second letter to the Corinthians, where he basically says "Jesus is the Yes to all of God's promises." (That's my paraphrase of 2 Corinthians 1:20; context.) From that comment of Paul's I drew the one-word prayer, "Yes." For years, that one word was the prayer I used to center myself whenever I felt distracted or uncertain.

(That "yes" prayer perhaps inevitably led me to think about what we needed to say "no" to. Those thoughts, along with the example and support of a dear colleague, Gordon Browne, started me on the path to war tax resistance -- the refusal to pay taxes for the military part of the national budget.)

For years, I had heard about the so-called Jesus Prayer, but hadn't paid much attention. Then, on one of my earliest trips to Russia, I found copies of Anthony Bloom's amazing collections of radio talks on prayer, entitled О встрече (On Meeting) and Беседы о молитве (Conversations on Prayer). I've quoted from these books several times over the years. Bloom was one of the first writers to open up the Jesus prayer and help me apply it to my life. The shortest version of that prayer ("Lord Jesus, have mercy") became my next short prayer, and I cherish it to this day. I've found that the classic writers on this prayer are right; after you've been using this prayer for a while, it begins to pray itself, and you can actually imagine coming closer to that place where you begin to "pray without ceasing" (1 Thessalonians 5:17; context.)

One of Bloom's discussions of the Jesus Prayer is here.

Finally, just a couple of weeks ago I was revisiting a post I wrote some time ago about introducing Quaker open worship to newcomers. A quotation from Psalm 90 leaped out at me with fresh power: "Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations." I'd just been thinking about what it meant for us to claim God's constant care and provision for us. I don't think an honest believer can pretend that the "dwelling place" mentioned in the Psalm is some kind of bunker or lifeboat in any normal sense, protecting believers from the hazards of life. As Emmanuel Charles McCarthy says, history is a butcher's bench, and believers are no safer than anyone else from natural disasters, ruthless tyrants, or bombs on airplanes. I've converted the first verse of this psalm into a prayer of honest desire: "I want to dwell in you." Just in the last week or so, I find myself constantly resorting to this simple prayer when confronting despair or distraction.

As always, when I write about prayer, I don't want you to be fooled: I'm absolutely no more pious or spiritually accomplished than anyone else you're likely to run into in the Christian life. I write not to show off but because I find it helpful to learn how others pray, and would like to return the favor. Today I wanted specifically to focus on short prayers we can resort to at any conscious moment when we might need a Godward reorientation, which for me happens more often than I'd like to admit.

Make me an instrument of your peace.


Lord Jesus, have mercy.

I want to dwell in you.

Here's a Guardian article that links directly in with last week's point about "disaster evangelism": Giles Fraser writes about the fact that not all asylum seekers may be describing themselves totally honestly ... but should this awkward fact change our response to asylum seekers?
I sought out a friend, himself a refugee from Iran. And what he told me I really didn’t want to hear. Claiming Christianity, he said, is the No 1 justification for dodgy asylum applications from Iran. It’s the best way of getting into Britain.
U.S. political candidate Ben Carson and the Bible: Pete Enns thinks that maybe Dr. Carson should get a second opinion.

The U.S. public seems to be becoming less religious, according to the Pew Research Center.

The Archbishop of Canterbury congratulates and thanks the Elim Pentecostal Church on the occasion of their centenary. (I remember the Elim Christian Life center about half a block from Selly Oak Quaker Meeting in Birmingham, UK. I loved attending worship at the Quaker meeting during my Woodbrooke year, and also loved visiting the Elim church, whose actual social and ethnic diversity seemed to embody the ideals of inclusivity that Friends theorize about so well.)

Katie Comfort of our church talks with Yazan Meqbil on the documentary Detaining Dreams.

Confession of a Russian Internet provider.

Here's a blues to make me truly homesick!

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