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Prayer: You Place a Reservoir Within My Heart

Perhaps surprisingly, given my occupation and the fact that one of my main (and most rewarding) tasks on any given Sunday is leading our congregation in prayer, I often find prayer difficult.  The reasons for this vary.  Sometimes I am paralyzed by the relative insignificance of my own needs when compared by the suffering others are facing (this week has been an especially difficult one for prayer, given the situation in Haiti).  Sometimes I don’t know what to pray for.  Sometimes I don’t know what prayer accomplishes—in my own life and character and for those I pray for.  Sometimes I am simply lazy and undisciplined.  Sometimes the silence of heaven wearies me.

Growing up in a Mennonite Brethren church, the form of prayer I was most familiar with was the extemporaneous variety.  Often these would take the form of long, rambling, stream of consciousness-type prayers where whatever we happened to be concerned about at the moment was brought before God.  These are good, and they certainly have their place, but sometimes, we (I) substituted sincerity for thoughtfulness and theological consistency.  We were not much for using written prayers—at least not those that weren’t part of Scripture.

As I progressed on the journey, I came to become increasingly drawn to some of the prayers used in the more liturgical traditions.  I began to use books like the Divine Hours series by Phyllis Tickle or the Book of Common Prayer or Celtic Daily Prayer.  These resources gave me a language and a form to fall back on when I found prayer difficult, when my own words were lacking.  They were (and are) a guard against the selfishness that so often creeps into my prayers.  I came to draw strength and courage and hope from the words of others.  I have come to deeply appreciate these prayers, and use them often both privately and publicly.

I have decided to include a weekly prayer on the sidebar of this blog.  Often these will come from The Divine Hours but I may mix it up from time to time.  Hopefully these will be of some use to you as you live and love and hope and pray as well.  I share them with you not because they are “super prayers” from “super Christians” or anything like that, but because we are all pilgrims on the same journey and because all of us, from time to time, need to lean on the faith and the words of others.

I conclude with one of the prayers I prayed this morning.  Ultimately, whatever frustrations and objections to prayer happen to be plaguing me at the moment, I do see prayer as a response to the reservoir that God has placed within my heart—within all of our hearts.  I pray because the reservoir is there and because it demands a response.  I pray because I cannot not pray:

You place my feet upon a larger place, Lord,
You give my hands a greater task for You.
You set my eyes upon the far horizon
and in my heart I know Your word is true.

You place a reservoir within my heart, Lord,
that all my tears
would come from a different place:
that all my ways would minister Your Grace
to those who long
to see Your face.

22 Comments Post a comment
  1. Mike C. #

    Thanks Ryan.

    “… sometimes, we (I) substituted sincerity for thoughtfulness and theological consistency”

    Boy did this sentence ring true for me. I often find that instead of simply having a conversation with God I over think things, as if somehow that will please God more than me simply praising him. I also share your feeling that my prayers are at risk of being selfish to my individual perceived needs, which are so insignificant compared with other true needs in this world.

    Having “grown up Anglican” the Book of Common Prayer is well known to me, and I appreciate your comment that sometimes using resources like this allow me to consider the meaning without having to choose the words, if you know what I mean. That can be very liberating.

    I continue to be so thankful for your Blog Ministry, my friend. Don’t stop!

    January 22, 2010
    • Yes, I do know what you mean Mike. It can be a very liberating synthesis to bring together the words of others and our own experience.

      (And thank you very much for the kind words.)

      January 22, 2010
  2. Ken #

    I am wondering how well Episcopal, Emergence, and Celtic (feminist? new age? Celtic can mean so many things today) prayers are working in your MB congregation. Is your congregation evangelical, or liberal, traditional or new age, or what is it like? How do they react to these prayers?

    January 22, 2010
    • Mike C. #

      Hey Ken — Canadians here. You have to say “Anglican” not “Episcopal” 🙂 Just kidding!

      January 22, 2010
    • The reaction is pretty good, thus far. I try to use a mixture of extemporaneous/liturgical prayers in the services, but people have responded very positively.

      January 22, 2010
      • Ken #

        Phyllis Tickle and Phillip Clayton are part of the emergence movement. Are you? Is your congregation?

        January 23, 2010
      • I admire some things about the emergent movement, others not so much. Our congregation would probably be the same. Some gravitate towards certain aspects of it, others do not.

        January 23, 2010
      • Ken #

        I would be interested in reading more about your likes and dislikes related to the emergent movement.

        It is easier for me to imagine a movement towards emergence from some of the more contemporary evangelical churches than it is for me to imagine this movement in MB. It is equally hard to imagine liberal churches moving towards emergence.

        While I do find the idea of exploring the possibilities for theology within an emergence paradigm related to evolution quite interesting, the emergence movement within churches seems to not be that deep into that kind of emergence, theologians like Phillip Clayton notwithstanding. Even the idea of emergence as a religious paradigm is paradoxical considering the interpretations of religion offered by anthropologists. Transcendence, yes, emergence, no. I think emergent churches are still after the transcendent. This makes their use of the term emergence quite ironic, even nonsensical. It is as if they don’t understand what the term denotes or connotes in its more important scientific context.

        January 23, 2010
      • It is easier for me to imagine a movement towards emergence from some of the more contemporary evangelical churches than it is for me to imagine this movement in MB.

        Why do you say this? I’d be curious to hear a non-MB perspective.

        January 24, 2010
      • Ken #

        I guess I think of MB as having a rich tradition, whereas I think of the contemporary evangelical churches (those started in the latter part of the twentieth century) as not having a deep tradition to draw from and being more likely to always look for something new.

        Similarly, liberal churches are so invested in their origins and theology in the enlightenment that it is hard to imagine them adopting the emergent movement, to the extent that it is truly postmodern, and yet remaining what they are. The emergent movement is contra-enlightenment, if it is serious about being postmodern. On the other hand, I think there are few people left in the liberal denominations who have liberal theologies. They are mostly now former evangelicals who want Christianity with liberal social and political values.

        I think the emergent movement serves as a vehicle for contemporary evangelicals to keep something of their past while justifying the adoption of liberal political stances. Liberal churches don’t need this. Liberal theology more naturally tends to justify liberal politics.

        When I first immersed myself in postmodern philosophy and literature, I thought it weakened the power of atheism over me. Now I find it has the opposite effect. At first, the insight that truth depends so much on language, and that it is socially constructed, seemed so full of possibility to the romantic in me, so liberating. (And it is as a writer, in some ways.) But now, it seems like the insight reveals our imprisonment. I don’t see how we can escape this imprisonment.

        I would not have thought postmodern ideas would appeal to MB.

        January 24, 2010
      • James #

        Hi Ken
        I think that in the Modern/Post Modern categories MBs might have more “Pre-Modern” roots than either of the other 2. That comment might just confuse the topic more but I think it explains some of my puzzlement in these conversations.
        On another point, there are times when you link “emergent” and “emergence”. I’m not convinced that is correct. I don’t doubt that some in the Emergent Church movement might also toy with “emergence theology” but I suspect that it is not typical- especially among those I have read. Maybe I’m wrong on that point but I would not have made that association.

        January 24, 2010
      • Ken #

        Re: “I think that in the Modern/Post Modern categories MBs might have more “Pre-Modern” roots than either of the other 2. That comment might just confuse the topic more but I think it explains some of my puzzlement in these conversations.”

        That’s fine. Not confusing.

        Re: “On another point, there are times when you link “emergent” and “emergence”. I’m not convinced that is correct. I don’t doubt that some in the Emergent Church movement might also toy with “emergence theology” but I suspect that it is not typical- especially among those I have read.”

        In the previous comment I was not linking the two. I was writing only of the church movement called emergent, emerging or emergence. And, I agree that most writers in this movement do not embrace a theology built on the idea of emergence (the scientific term) like the process theology advocated by Phillip Clayton.

        In my view, the emergentists (meaning the church ones – emergent, emerging, or emergence) mainly embrace a limited version of postmodernism and show little or no appreciation of the scientific idea of emergence. Their use of the term seems, in that sense, nonsensical. Phillip Clayton is, perhaps, an exception.

        Postmodernism, understood as being related deeply to the idea that reality is a social construction founded in language, is a materialist idea, one that is more compatible with evolution by natural selection and more compatible with the scientific idea that the universe is emergent. In this view, transcendence is only illusion. On that ground alone, it would surprise me if MB could embrace it and keep their faith. But if you can, that is fine.

        The emergentists vary in their perspectives. Their theologies are eclectic. For the most part, they embrace postmodernism or postmodernity only superficially, as if as a matter of style. I think it is analogous to movements related to pop music in the evangelical world. It sort of sounds the same as pop music, but has been Christianized and sanitized.

        I think the reason that someone like Walter Brueggeman is attractive to emergentists is that his concern is the world within the Bible – it is a postmodern concern. He does it with a style that does not jar the faith of liberal evangelicals or generally raise the suspicions of liberals that he is an evangelical. But if one takes seriously the assumptions that underly his method, then one would need to take seriously the idea that the universe is emergent (scientific term.) And when one does that, it is tough to sustain the idea of a transcendent God because such ideas are incompatible. Atheism is a more compatible belief, as is an ironic paganism.

        January 25, 2010
      • I think the emergent movement serves as a vehicle for contemporary evangelicals to keep something of their past while justifying the adoption of liberal political stances.

        I think there is certainly some truth to this statement. I agree with both you and James that often proponents of the emergent church often use the term in a very vague way with little or no connection to or awareness of the theory of emergence (in biology or theology). More often than not, “emergent” just means Christians who have embraced a broader understanding of soteriology, a more pronounced social ethic, a more grateful appreciation of science, and a more ecumenical approach to other parts of the church.

        Re: MBs stance to the emergent church, I think that the reason some in our tribe are drawn to it are many and diverse. Some see in it a recovery of a social ethic that runs deep in our Mennonite DNA. Some welcome it’s emphasis on discipleship to person of Jesus and following his teachings. Some welcome the epistemological humility it advocates for reasons that have less to do with desperately finding ways to be “relevant” or “postmodern” than they do with our own theological anthropology (we are fallen, finite creatures who only ever see in part). Some see in at a recovery of the important Anabaptist emphasis on reading and interpreting Scripture as a community. Some just want to embrace the latest thing :). And, of course, some see little redeeming in the movement whatsoever. They see it as accommodating, compromising, hopelessly vague and amorphous, and dangerous.

        I suppose if I had to pick a “side,” I would lean more towards appreciating the insights while retaining a healthy degree of skepticism (I found myself nodding and mmm-hmming in parts of this assessment). I see a good deal of fear and defensiveness in the rhetoric against the emergent church and I don’t think either are healthy vantage points from which to evaluate the movement.

        Not surprisingly, I am not willing to grant that the insights and challenges of postmodernity lead inexorably or even lean heavily towards atheism. I think it is entirely possible to believe that reality is partly socially/linguistically constructed while retaining belief in a transcendent God. I think it is entirely possible (even obligatory) to take the social world of the Bible seriously without coming to the conclusion that there is no guiding hand at work in the cosmos. Whatever else we may say about the Christian story, central (at least as I see it) is the conviction that God enters the raw material of the cosmos and redeems from within.

        January 25, 2010
      • James #

        It seems to me that a lot of time has been spent on the Emergent Church and Post Modernism because of their confusing labels. There is something behind each that is belied by their names. Post Modernism is well over 150 years old and appears to me to be a spent force- and yet has a name that implies it is something new. I have spent a bit of energy railing against this mislabeling but no one seems to care 🙂
        I notice that Ryan has GK Chesterton’s “Orthodoxy” on his reading list. Written 100 years before Taylor, it could have been a response to him. Chesterton attacks what we now call Post Modernity- while its key writers were at their prime. I think it would be an interesting read for you, Ken. He also addresses emergence theology quite extensively.
        And he is a writer’s writer with a turn of phrase that would make Dickens or Twain proud.
        Paul, you should also read this book, if you have not. He did convert to Catholicism which will warm your heart. We Anabaptists, of course, think it is only because he had not met a Mennonite 🙂

        January 25, 2010
      • Ken #

        Ryan – Your summary of emergentism helps me understand its attraction to MB, as well as to evangelicals. It appeals to the liberal in me that would feel inauthentic and confined in much of evangelicalism, although it is less appealing than either the enlightenment or the more pure postmodernism explored in the university.

        Re: “I am not willing to grant that the insights and challenges of postmodernity lead inexorably or even lean heavily towards atheism.” On this topic I hope we have a chance for more discussion. I wish I could see it as you do, but I cannot.

        Re: “I think it is entirely possible to believe that reality is partly socially/linguistically constructed while retaining belief in a transcendent God.” I agree with this statement. The key word is, of course, “partly.” It depends on what that word means. I don’t think the division can be made where it is most important – the linguistic turn is of a coherent whole with an emergent (scientific term) universe, not with a transcendent cosmos like that of Christianity.

        Re: “Whatever else we may say about the Christian story, central (at least as I see it) is the conviction that God enters the raw material of the cosmos and redeems from within.” Emergence (scientific term) and redemption are not compatible. If we say the emerging universe redeems itself, then we are reducing redemption to emergence. If we say God redeems (or will redeem) the emerging universe, we are letting in teleology and that means that emergence is illusion.

        After I write these words, I feel like erasing them. I wish they were not true – which is only to say that I wish the conflict was less serious.

        James – I agree that postmodernism began in the nineteenth century. It began with Nietzsche and Darwin, in my view – maybe even with Rousseau. At the same time, it advanced significantly in the latter half of the twentieth century.

        And I will read Orthodoxy. I love the humor in the last sentence.

        Meanwhile, I am headed to the bookstore in search of Bonaventure – I have Franciscan ideas in my head, or passions in my heart. I don’t want the world to be emergent (scientific term). I want to converse about God with the birds.

        January 25, 2010
      • Emergence (scientific term) and redemption are not compatible. If we say the emerging universe redeems itself, then we are reducing redemption to emergence. If we say God redeems (or will redeem) the emerging universe, we are letting in teleology and that means that emergence is illusion.

        I wonder how a universe that is dysteleological in origin and in its ongoing unfolding can produce (and has, apparently) creatures who cannot help but think in teleological terms. Obviously, I think teleology is a huge part of the picture, whether we “let it in” or not. Your (and my) not wanting the world to be emergent (scientific term) obviously does not make it false, but a whole species that seems unable to live with the implications of the process that brought them into being is suggestive to me. I don’t think the scientific understanding of emergence tells the whole story. I think there are stranger (and more wonderful) things possible in our universe than we are prepared to allow in our philosophies…

        January 26, 2010
  3. Paul Johnston #

    Exploring less discursive and more mystical forms of prayer can help. I can’t imagine still being able to pray avidly if all my prayers were reasoned, voiced and mostly petitional.

    John Cassian’s “Cloud of Unknowing” is the earliest expression of Christian meditative/contemplative prayer that I am aware of. Discalced Carmelites, St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila probably offer the most detailed accounts of the processes;John Main one of the most direct and accessible accounts and Thomas Murton is perhaps the most intellectually sound, if one can describe a purposeful attempt to transcend the intellect in such a way.

    There are lots of Catholic spaces and prayers that help with the process but you might not be comfortable with their envioronments. If you were willing, I would suggest sitting in the “Blessed Sacrament” or before the Tabernacle. Try imagining yourself as a first century Jew before the “holiest of holies”. I was told by a non Catholic friend that such a perspective helped him to get comfortable. Praying the Rosary and the Divine Mercy Chaplet are also excellant means of growing into Christian meditation. You may not be comfortable at all with the Rosary though, given it’s Marion perspective.

    January 23, 2010
  4. Well done. This week is a special one, Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, and offers us the opportunity to prayer for the church catholic/communion/community of saints around the globe. If you have been involved in any ecumenical prayer service this week, I’d love you to comment on my blog post and share it with the online community. Thanks, and shalom.

    January 23, 2010
  5. Paul Johnston #

    Everyone converts to Catholicism in the end, James. Even Catholics!! Though they tend to be some of the most stubborn opponents. 🙂

    Thanks for the reading suggestion, though I don’t think I will persue it. The apologetic/theorizing phase of my faith journey is over, for now anyway. It is more about discerning, discovering and living holiness now. Intellectual understandings are fine insofar as they lead to an honest effort at relationship with God through the Holy Spirit. More often than not though, at least as I have experienced them anyway, thinking my way to faith has lead me back towards myself. My own ideas, my own convictions, my own desires for what my life and the lives of others should look like.

    I’m coming to understand that silence in prayer/communion with God doesn’t just teach, it imbues. I don’t so much learn abstract somethings with the potential to still accept or reject;live or not live their principles, rather I become something different; differently principled; living a different life.

    I suspect a time will come again when I am drawn back to books and more discursive processes. When that happens I believe I will draw from them in a way that God wants me too and less in the way that I would have once done.

    I hope the above makes some sense to you, it is more as, Ryan would say a “stream of consciousness” perspective than it is meant to be a cogent arguement.

    January 25, 2010
    • Ken #

      You have a good path, Paul.

      January 25, 2010
    • James #

      “Everyone converts to Catholicism in the end, James. Even Catholics!!” Good point, Paul. I agree.

      January 25, 2010
  6. Thanks for this, Ryan. I, too, have been on a similar journey, and am enjoying the opportunity to prepare prayers from the Divine Hours etc.

    January 28, 2010

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