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If you only had one prayer to pray, what would it be?

In the 19th century Russian tale ‘The Way of the Pilgrim‘ a pilgrim journeys across Russia, seeking to practise Paul’s command to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17) by constantly repeating the ‘Jesus Prayer‘,”Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner“, an ancient confessional long-revered in Eastern churches. More recently, evangelicals became enthusiastic about repeating daily the prayer of Jabez“Oh that you would bless me indeed and enlarge my territory! Let your hand be with me, and keep me from the evil one.” (1 Chronicles 4:9-10).

Inspired by the pilgrim’s tale*, I pondered my own choices: if I had to choose a simple prayer to repeat constantly, what would it be? Not that I disliked the ‘Jesus Prayer’, but curiosity left me wondering if there was an even simpler option. Perhaps “Help me, God!” or “Come, Holy Spirit“? “Abba, father” or “Jesus, let your kingdom come“? What was the most basic, most fundamental prayer of my life? Certainly I would have rated all of these as fundamental at various times. But in musing on this question again recently, I came to a even simpler answer.

I want every prayer that I pray to acknowledge who God is and who I am. For I have authority and agency: what I do and say matters. Yet it is God who loves me, calls to me, rescues me, sets me on my feet, and sends me. It is his Spirit that gives me new life, his kingdom which compels me. How could a single prayer encompass so much? Was there a prayer that would reflect the most fundamental desires of my life: to live in agreement with how God has made me, and what he says about me, to be filled with the Spirit, and to submit my life to his purposes and kingdom rule? When I put it that way the answer seemed obvious: agreement and submission can be summed up in a single word.

I believe that the simplest, and most fundamental, prayer that I can pray is “Yes.”

“Yes” encompasses acceptance and invitation, agreement and obedience, triumph and celebration. It’s agreeing to try something new, and confirming a request. It’s answering the door, and accepting seconds of dessert. It’s admitting blame, and conceding defeat. It’s agreeing to marry! It’s the shout of victory, and the exclamation of an overflowing heart.

With a single word I can say so much. I want to say “Yes” to everything that God says about me; “Yes” to his love and his saving grace; “Yes” to the life of the Spirit and crucifying the old self; “Yes” when he calls my name and asks me to leave everything and follow him; “Yes” to everything he asks from me. I will declare “Yes” to Jesus as Lord and King, and a wholehearted “Yes” to every good thing he has for others. And along the way I want to celebrate everything that he has made and done and purposed with a resounding “Yes!”

Praying “Yes” acknowledges my authority and agency: God asks -not compels – me in all things. And yet by itself the word is meaningless – it is simply a response. In order to respond, there must be first a question or command. Thus with this simple prayer I can profess the reality of God as ultimate source and final question: all of creation must answer. My answer is “Yes.”

I am made to freely respond to God’s love. I am a free agent who finds peace only in surrender. I am an individual made for relationship. I have authority only in agreement. He loves me; I love him. He calls me; I answer. He sets me on my feet; I walk beside him. He gives me identity and purpose. Everything he says about me is true, everything he commands is because he loves me. I can only say “Yes” to him, because he first said “Yes” to me.

So, I was convinced. Simple, yet profound, “Yes” seemed a worthwhile prayer to spend time with – and the nervousness I sensed within me made me confident that it held plenty of potential for wrestling with deeper things. So, how would I go about using this simple prayer?

In a nod to the Russian pilgrim it’s my intention to use the prayer as a meditation during a pilgrimage of sorts. I am planning for this pilgrimage, which I expect to take some time, to take me on a journey through the various questions, statements and commands put before me in the Bible. As I consider each “Yes”, and I expect there to be many different kinds, it will be with the intention of understanding what God is saying or asking in a deeper way than before. As with the practice of the Jesus Prayer, my hope is to hear God’s voice. And I am certain that along the way I shall find many ways to say “Yes”.

Despite the simplicity of the words, and the familiarity of much of the territory I expect to cover, I don’t expect an easy journey – in fact I am sure it will be adventurous, challenging and occasionally scary. Though I remain confident of the value of an intentional journey with God, and in his capacity to surprise me.

Though on the face of it ‘Yes’ is an easy word, it’s often very hard to say. Submitting to authority can be hard; acknowledging responsibility is tough; following Jesus means leaving things behind. Part of me is deeply scared of this word. What parts of my heart are not in agreement with God? And what about all of the ways in which I’m not fully obedient to him? There’s no doubt about it: saying “Yes” to God requires trust. It’s not meant to be easy, but it requires a decision.

“Will you trust me?” he asks. It’s the first question. I take a deep breath. “Yes.”

 

It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” JRR Tolkien, in the Lord of the Rings.

*I first came across this story – I think – in Philip Yancey’s ‘Prayer’.

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I’ve been loving the case study of Genesis 1-3 that we’ve been doing in my Hermeneutics MA module this term. We’ve covered textual criticism, historical criticism, biblical theology, reception history and doctrinal interpretation so far… after reading week it’s on to feminist interpretation, literary readings, evangelical interpretation and post-modern interpretation… good fun!

I’m learning more about the first three chapters of Genesis than I ever conceived of and growing in my appreciation of the depths of the text and skill of authorship.

I’ve also been reflecting on my own developing understanding of the bible over the module this year. During this Genesis case study I find myself always coming back to questions of historical context and authorship, finding these particularly fascinating and productive. I’m not sure whether this bias is because I ran that particular seminar (we’re taking turns) or whether the preference was already there (I suspect the latter), but nevertheless it’s the skill and subtlety of the author(s) that keep my main interest.

Questions of meaning, intention and interpretation continue to puzzle me. I’ve been reflecting on the similarities between biblical interpretation and quantum mechanics (a post on this still in progress!) and about how what we think of as truth and reality may be stranger than we think.

I’ve also been reflecting on the conceptual ‘phase changes’ that have occurred in the way I’ve seen the Bible as I’ve begun to study theology over the last few years. I’ve been thinking back, trying to identify some of these moments. For me, they usually hinge on a single diagram or idea, that suddenly makes me go ‘aha’ or ‘wow’ – or just feel the gears shifting in my head. They are the things which once you’ve seen or understood, mean you’ll never see the bible the same way again.
Here are a few simple ones I can think of off the top of my head:
– Looking at the synoptic gospel pericopes side-by-side and first seeing the Gospel writers as redactors.
– Seeing the ‘tree diagram’ of manuscripts and first grasping the complexity of textual criticism and the origin of our biblical text
– Being taught that Genesis was one of the last OT books to be written, which starts the process of thinking about the OT as a text with a literary history
– Picking out the different narratives / sources in the Pentateuch, which opens a world of redaction criticism in the OT

I’m sure there have been others – these are just a few I could think of. I can see now why first year students studying theology for the first time can feel so lost. I’ve been glad to study the little bit of theology I’ve done in a church environment and in the safe place that is St John’s Cranmer Hall, among other Christians committed to the text we’re studying as the Word of God. It hasn’t made our questions any less pointed, but we’ve been working inside a common framework and with something of a common agenda.

I started this post with the intention of writing about some particular ideas that I’ve picked up in the last few weeks of studying Genesis 1-3, but I’ve found myself instead writing about my own hermeneutical journey. I will return to Genesis in another post…

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As I said in a previous post, I keep thinking about Jackie Pullinger-To at Revive this year, crying out ‘There must be justice!’

Like Gary Haugen at the GLS, she forced us to look at the pain and injustice of the world.

“Look at the world,” she cried, “there must be justice! There is so much pain that must be accounted for, retribution that must be made.”

And with that she confronted the questions that every person asks about mercy and forgiveness: How can I forgive? How can we show mercy? Where is the justice in that? There is a price to be paid!

In Deuteronomy 32.35, God famously says “Vengance is mine and retribution” or, as Hebrews 10.30 and Romans 12.19 put it, “Vengance is mine; I will repay.” (NASB)

In fact, as Paul tells us in Romans 12.19, this is why we are not to take revenge ourselves. Because we know that God will judge rightly. And who has the right to judge but God? In fact, God must judge. For otherwise, evil wins. Injustice, pain and suffering cannot have the final say. God will call all things to account. There will be justice, for we have a good God.

But hold on, there’s a problem. What about forgiveness? God loves the slave driver as much as the slave, the rapist as much as the raped. He offers forgiveness to the slave driver, but where is the justice for the slave? Who will pay the debt for her pain and loss? The murderer may be forgiven, but blood is spilt and the deed cannot be undone. The blood defiles the land (Numbers 35.33), crying out for justice (Gen 4.10).

John Dickinson, in his book The Widow and the King offers this (ironic) observation:

“And as for forgiving – it’s not free, not even for a king. It’s like taking on debt. And a king who forgives too much pays with his life. Remember that.” Aun to the boy-prince Ambrose.

There is a price to pay. Where there is justice, there must be retribution. And when the King forgives, as the quote says, he takes on that debt. The Old Testament law stated that nothing could erase the stain of innocent blood, but the blood of the one who had taken the life (Numbers 35.33). Justice requires a payment for wrongs done.

So God forgives, but it is not without cost. The God of justice cannot let the debt remain unpaid, so he pays it himself. He becomes a man, allowing the world to do its worst, feeling the full force of its injustice and shedding his own blood on the cross. Of this man alone can we ask ‘why do bad things happen to good people?’ This was the truest injustice of all to serve the ultimate justice. Somehow – we don’t understand how – in Jesus, God took on himself the punishment we all deserve and retribution was made, for ever.

“There is no forgiveness without the shedding of blood,” says the writer to the Hebrews (9.22). God did not have to wait for Jesus in order to offer forgiveness. He has always given it when he pleased. But only on the cross was the debt finally paid. Jesus paid the price so that there might be justice and mercy.

When we read those words in Deuteronomy, “Vengance is mine and retribution” we understand it as saying that God’s enemies should watch out because he will have vengance and seek retribution on those who do evil. That he will punish justly. And this is true. But let’s hear another sense in those words, which comes out more clearly in the NT version: “Vengance is mine; I will repay.” We know that every sin, every evil deed, every injustice – God will repay. And every person should tremble because, as Hebrews 10 continues, “it is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God”. But every person can also rejoice, because this massive debt of sin and injustice has indeed been repaid! Retribution has been made for everyone – if they want it. “I will repay” said God, and he did.

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Disturb us, Lord, when we are too well pleased with ourselves,
When our dreams have come true
Because we have dreamed too little,
When we arrived safely
Because we sailed too close to the shore.

Disturb us, Lord, when
With the abundance of things we possess
We have lost our thirst
For the waters of life;
Having fallen in love with life,
We have ceased to dream of eternity
And in our efforts to build a new earth,
We have allowed our vision
Of the new Heaven to dim.

Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly,
To venture on wider seas
Where storms will show your mastery;
Where losing sight of land,
We shall find the stars.
We ask You to push back
The horizons of our hopes;
And to push into the future
In strength, courage, hope, and love.

This reminded me of Gary Haugen’s challenge for us to dare to ‘leave the visitors centre and take the risk of climbing the mountain with dad’.

If we never “dare more boldly to venture on wider seas” we’ll never really experience the wonderful safety of God, his grace and strength to see us through, safe in his hands.

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Herein we glimpse, I believe, the true glory of God as the one who wills and is committed to creatures. It would be far off the mark to speak of it as a diminishing of God’s reputation. This is a God who creates a world that is not just a mechanical expression of his own purposes but an environment for other free, though finite, agents to exist with a degree of autonomy and a measure of real freedom.

This is a God who loves being in covenant partnership with the creature and longs to draw us into a community of love, both with God and among ourselves. God’s perfection is not to be all-controlling or to exist in majestic solitude or to be infinitely egocentric. On the contrary, God’s fair beauty according to Scripture is his own relationality as a triune community. It is God’s gracious interactivity, not his hyper-transcendence and/or immobility which makes him so glorious.

According to the gospel, God is free and self-communicating, not a solitary monad. He is not a supreme will to power, but a will to community in which both life and power are shared. He is the power whose very nature it is to give and receive love, and his rule, as the triune God, is one of love and not force.

The power of God is creative, sacrificial and empowering, not coercive, and his glory consists in sharing life with, not dominating, others. God is for us and with us. He is not a metaphysical abstraction, but the one who makes his presence felt – actively, responsively, relationally, dynamically, and reciprocally. God is transcendent, but does not exist in isolation from the world. He is unchangeable in character, but is not unchanging in his relations with us.

Clark Pinnock in ‘Most Moved Mover‘ pp.5-6

I’m enjoying ‘Most Moved Mover’ even more than I expected. Pinnock expresses his ideas with a real poetry.

The above excerpt is from the Introduction, setting out a picture of God in contrast to the “Hellenic ideal of God as absolute, timeless and unchangeable being, a view which assumes God to be unconditioned, unchanging, impassible and totally in control: a Being that cannot be affected by anything outside of itself.” (p.7) Pinnock asserts that Aristotle’s/Aquinas’ view of the “unmoved mover”, which has influenced so much of what is often called ‘classical theology’, owes more to pagan ideas than to the Biblical picture of God and his “self-disclosure in Jesus Christ”. 

What different views of the divine perfection are found here! It requires us to decide whether God is perfect by virtue of unchangeability, as the philosopher says, or perfect by virtue of relationality, as the Bible indicates.

I’ve often thought that classical theists and the open theists diverge not only on what constitutes perfection, but also on the character of God’s glory. I’ve frequently heard Calvinists talking about the glory of God: for example that we may not understand why God wills things to happen as they do but we can be assured that it is all to his glory. It’s a mysterious and transcendent picture of glory, unrelated to our own perceptions of why and how things happen or what is ‘good’. It implies that our human senses and moral judgements are so shortsighted and imperfect as to be unrelated to the ‘reality’ of God and useless for ‘discovering’ truth. Who are we to say that an act is good or evil? Murder, injustice, rape, disaster… God’s will is mysterious to us. Everything that happens is to his glory – however it appears to us. 

I afraid I just cannot agree with this picture, and how this can be the God I worship in Jesus Christ. Of course, we have very limited vision and we cannot see all the reasons why something happens, but I have to believe that there is a general congruity between what I judge to be good and evil and what is actually true.

This is similar to the way that when we do science we assume a “congruence between our minds and the universebetween the rationality experienced within and the rationality observed without” (Polkinghorne, ‘Science and Creation‘, p.29). Polkinghorne calls this a non-trivial congruence. As creatures made in the image of God, this ‘match-up’ makes sense – without it exploration and discovery is nonsensical. 

I believe in faith as an empirical journey – experienced, explored, tested, related to. We believe in a God who reveals himself. ‘Taste and see that the Lord is good’ says the Psalmist. If our senses and judgements are meaningless then the journey of faith unravels. How can I be in relationship with a God who is so fundamentally different from me that we cannot at a basic level agree on what is good and what is evil? For me, the glory of God has be something that, at a deep level, I recognise as such. 

For a Biblical picture we must start here: at “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor 4.6). There’s glory I recognise: because it’s in a person.

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It’s summer evenings like these when I most crave something of the ‘Eden experience’ of walking with God among the trees in the cool of the day.

Evening walks are so delicious, especially on these light, warm summer evenings, when everything is touched with golden light and there’s such a peaceful stillness in the air. I’d love to go out for more walks on evenings like this but it’s not the same on your own. Walks are meant to be enjoyed with others I think. There’s something about walking and relationships that goes together.

It’s times like this when I wonder what it was like for the disciples to walk with Jesus among the trees on the Mount of Olives in the cool of the evening, away from the crowds of Jerusalem. I know that I want more of that intimacy with God. I want to walk with Jesus among the trees, to talk with him, to listen, to feel his hand on my shoulder and his presence beside me. It feels right to describe the Christian life and our growing relationship with God as a walk, but I find myself longing for more of those times among the trees. If only I had more awareness of the reality of that walk together and was able to relax more often in the Lord’s presence, talk together and know that evening peace.

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Cravings

In my earlier post Henri Nouwen ends the quoted section with the following:

“It is a world that fosters addictions because what it offers cannot satisfy the deepest craving of my heart.”

It left me reflecting on cravings and addictions, and I remembered these verses from Ecclesiastes:

I have seen the burden God has laid upon men. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” (Ecclesiastes 3:10-11)

People often say that we ought to be content, and whilst I acknowledge the futility and ungraciousness of complaining about life, I fear being satisfied. The deep hunger in us, the heart that longs to be satisfied, is not an accident of our fallen human position (except in the sense that we have rejected the source of satisfaction). As Solomon says in the passage above, God has “set eternity in the hearts of men”. He has made in us a heart that desires infinity, a craving that only He will satisfy. The Bible is full of that sense of expectancy: wanting more, being glad that this is not all there is, looking forward to a day when every hunger will be satisfied and every desire fulfilled.

…but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears…Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Not I know in part, then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” (1 Cor 13:10-13)

We often hear repeated that modern fable about the rich man who, despite owning more than we could imagine, still wants more. It is right to recognise that wealth, or any other earthly thing, will never satisfy but setting aside that deep dissatisfaction is not the answer. I want God to increase that craving in me, but at the same time keep reminding me that I will find my thirst slaked nowhere else.

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