Praying into God’s Will
What is prayer? Mighty theologian and simple peasant alike have pondered that question. Regardless of station in life, it is the act of praying itself, not thinking or theologizing about praying, that teaches prayer: “Lord. teach us to pray” is answered with “when you pray, say . . .” Even if unarticulated, anyone who has ever uttered an “Our Father” has a theology of prayer. For as soon as we address God, we confess who we think he is and what we think he should be doing in the world, in our lives. If we ask for healing, it is because we believe that he has the power to heal. If we thank him for the meal before us on the table, it is because we believe that he has provided it. If we pray for rulers and those in authority, it is because we believe that God works (albeit hiddenly) through them. Conversely, if we pray only for ourselves and not for our enemies, it is because we think that he cannot possibly love those people. If we refuse to pray for a particular ruler, it is because we refuse to accept that God can work through that person–as if he is not Lord over all. Lex orandi, lex credendi – loosely, “what you pray is what you believe” – is true of our worship life, but perhaps even more true of our prayer life. For the content of our prayer is the content of our theology, our beliefs about God and what he is doing in the world. Even more than doctrinal resolutions and well-argued theological treaties, our prayers are our theology.
A friend shared with me recently a collection of prayers that I had not seen before, Martin Franzmann’s Pray for Joy. It was one the greatest gifts I’d ever received. This is a slim little book, published in 1970, of about thirty prayers. They are not suitable for corporate use; I’m not even sure they’re really useful for personal prayer, unless it is to meditate upon the words of a man who drank deeply of the Word and expressed it back in ways that stun and destabilize and deconstruct. These are prayers, indeed; but even more do the words of these prayers capture our inarticulate thoughts and teach us to re-think them from God’s perspective. Consider this prayer “Over a Glass of Wine.” I have often prayed over wine, with friends, but never like this:O Giver of wine to make glad the heart of man, O genial and generous Lord of Cana, O Giver of wisdom and wit and ease and laughter with our friends, we thank You for the winking beauty of this glass, for this common humorous laughter at our too-brittle overseriousness, for this shedding of pretense and pose in the loving raillery of cordial confidence. Give us the grace to enjoy Your good gift without fear and without excess. And give us courage to forgo it when we must, when our own weakness or another’s stumbling step makes giving up this good and wholesome gift something more precious than Your cordial wine.
The Creator gifts us wine (but only wine that doesn’t have animals on the label) so that we may enjoy its “winking beauty” with friends. It is a gift that strips away our “overseriousness;” it is to be enjoyed “without fear and without excess.” But this gift is not always gift. There are times when we do not have the freedom to enjoy it. My own weakness, or even more critically the weakness of “another’s stumbling step” will lead me to leave the glass on the table, the cork in the bottle. Living for the good of another is an even greater gift than the finest of wines. Has a more true summary of Romans 14 ever been written? Each of these prayers is virtually a Bible study.
While out on a bike ride last week, the thought occurred to me that airing one’s prayers publicly like Franzmann did is a bit risky. Franzmann himself, in the preface, feared that publishing his prayers “comes dangerously close to praying at street corners to be seen by men.” But shouldn’t that be the least of one’s fears in prayer? Because who really cares, after all, what other people think? But to have God hear our prayers – to have God evaluate our prayers – now that is risky. Because what is prayer except saying back to God the things that we hear him saying? If we pray for “an abundant life” because “They shall have life, and have it abundantly,” we are speaking back to God his promises. But is that the extent of our prayer? Do we also pray for persecution? Because the same Lord promised, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” So should I pray for “abundant life,” or should I pray that I be persecuted? I have prayed for the former. I don’t recall ever praying to be persecuted, either in my personal prayers or in the gathered church. So in my selective praying, am I saying to God that I cannot trust him to keep me faithful when I face threats? Am I saying that I don’t really think that all this faith stuff is worth risking one’s life over? And given all the prayers that I say for myself, and those around me, does that mean that I am just another selfish American who is worried only about my needs? If you were to write down all your prayers, all the things that you have prayed for over the last week, month, year, what would their collective content say about what you think about God and what he is doing in the world?
What I find most intriguing, and helpful, about Franzmann’s prayers is their tentativeness. These prayer are not confident–they do not presume to give God the answers. They probe, they question, they admit uncertainty, they acknowledge weakness, they do not always know what to pray. Rather than specifying the results, they wait for wisdom. Rather than acting as if God were the servant and we the commanding master they acknowledge that the Lord does his will, and they ask that his will be done among us (in us and through us) as well. They entrust the uncertain future to the Lord, and let the Lord work out the specifics of what his future will look like. Take, for example, his prayer “For Men in Protest”:O furious Cleanser of the house of God, O Blaster of the fruitless tree,
look in mercy on these men whose love compels them to spell out in act their anguished impatience at the sloth of law, their no to legal illegalities, their militant compassion for the wronged and all the nameless, faceless poor and dispossessed. Keep them from intoxication with their rightness. Give them charity toward those who cannot be as militant as they, who walk down other, longer roads toward the same goal. Preserve them from driving the wedge of power so deep into the grain of structured equity that all goes crashing. Bid them guard with care the flame that breaks so quickly into a fire that makes an indifferent holocaust of all the works of Your judicial hand. Lord, give us all a heart of quick compassion, wisdom to plan and execute before the too-late of our action breeds the swarms of scorpions whose sting shall make us all long for death we cannot find.
Keep in mind, this was written around 1970. Not long after race riots had engulfed American cities, not long after the 1968 protests/police riots in Chicago at the Democratic Party National Convention. He acknowledges, perhaps uncomfortably, that the protestors might well be right. There are “legal illegalites” in every age, in every place that must be stopped. “Militant compassion” (ever seen those words together before?) is, at times, needed “for all the nameless, faceless, poor and dispossessed.” Yet, in every age and place, “militant compassion” can devolve into militancy. The result might be “an indifferent holocaust of all the works of Your judicial hand.” And every age and place has seen this also. But the prayer ends with his own tentative self, asking for strength to act before the hour has passed, before the scorpions overwhelm with their stings and it is too late for passive compassion. What is God doing in the world? We don’t always know (even though we like to think we do). We don’t always have the answers to exactly what is “best” for us, or for the church, or for the world. So we pray.
Franzmann teaches us that we cannot be confident about exactly what we expect God to do, today or tomorrow. We live in the midst of uncertainty. Oh, we have our plans. Plans for our children and their futures. Plans for our financial security. Plans for our church, to turn it into what we would have it be and do and look like. We are confident, perhaps too confident, in knowing what we should do, in what we think God should do. We “boast in our arrogance.” But, as an apostle warns us (James 4:13-17), “all such boasting is evil.” For it places our confidence in our plans, our desires, our machinations. Instead, our confidence is in Christ. Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again! is the foundation of all praying, all believing. But as we live in the in-between, we make our plans, always, humbly. For we are “a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” And so our prayer is always a servant’s prayer, an uncertain “’If the Lord wills . . .”
I’ll leave you with one more prayer, one that expresses this perfectly. We live between the Cross and the Great Day, pushed, pulled, and cajoled by the Spirit through the Word into ever more fruitful places, because otherwise there we would not go:
“That the Word May Work in Us”O God, almighty and all-merciful, once chaos gave way before Your command, and Your creation stood forth structured, wonderful, to call forth melody from all the singing stars. Our wild rebellion shivered and blackened all that, called a chaos down more fearful than the first; and You have spoken a Word more powerful, Your Word of love, Your Son, and You have made us — ah, gift intolerable — the firstfruits of Your new and righteous world. You have made us sons. Ah, gift intolerable — how shall we show forth the splendor of the world to come, the home of righteousness which shall one day live here unbroken and entire? We cannot —but Your Word can. Oh, let it work in us, that Word implanted in our midst, Your creative Word, and let us bring forth summer fruits for You.
Franzmann’s little book is still available via print-on-demand from Concordia Publishing House. Buy it, read it, reflect on it, pray.