Pray as though everything depended on God.
Work as though everything depended on you.
~ St. Augustine __________________________________________________________________________
I have been intrigued by the way that the results of last week’s election have exposed the roots of some of our most basic spiritual practices and convictions. Some of my best Christian friends and most valued colleagues in ministry have been busy issuing calls for action after the election, while other good Christian friends and respected ministerial colleagues of mine have been busy issuing calls for prayer. And I have noticed that in lots of subtle and not so subtle ways, some of my activist colleagues and friends have accused my prayerful colleagues and friends of a kind of pious irrelevance, or worse, an evasion of responsibility by calling people to pray before anything else. Meanwhile, I have detected in some of my more prayerful colleagues and friends a suspicion that their activist colleagues and friends are guilty of confusing commotion with clarity, of doing something, doing anything, rather than doing something that is truly constructive and redemptive. This is a familiar enough fight. It’s been going on between Christians for millennia. It’s that old contemplative/activist argument – the familiar pattern of the Mary/Martha divide, you know –
The Lord and his disciples were traveling along and came to a village. When they got there, a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat down in front of the Lord and was listening to what he said. Martha was worried about all that had to be done. Finally, she went to Jesus and said, “Lord, doesn’t it bother you that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her to come and help me!” The Lord answered, “Martha, Martha! You are worried and upset about so many things, but only one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen what is best, and it will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42)
I myself posted two things on the day after the election – some of the liturgical resources that we used at our Tuesday evening Election Day Prayer & Communion Service at the church (borrowed and adapted from several sources), and a quote from John Stonestreet at the Colson Center –
Chuck Colson often shared: “Salvation doesn’t come on Air Force One.” The hope of the world is not dependent on an election outcome. Hope is secured because God is sovereign and Jesus Christ is risen.
My postings on the day after the election placed me squarely in the “call for prayer” camp, and some of my friends and colleagues in the “call to action” camp did not let this pass unnoticed or uncommented upon. The gist of their critique was that while I sat in a quiet corner somewhere thinking big thoughts about God that they would actually be out on the street trying to change things. And my response to them is that this is a false spiritual dichotomy.
Going back to that familiar Mary/Martha story from Luke 10, here’s the detail that we routinely miss –
The Lord answered, “Martha, Martha! You are worried and upset about so many things, but only one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen what is best, and it will not be taken away from her.” (10:42)
The standard sermon on this text says that some of us are busy Martha’s while others of us are thoughtful Mary’s, and that the church needs both. And that’s a good message, completely true, but it’s not what this text says. No, this text says that Mary alone, sitting attentively at Jesus’ feet, chose “the one necessary thing.” To preach a sermon on the diversity and necessity of diverse gifts within the church go to I Corinthians 12. The story of Mary and Martha makes a different point.
I think that it’s the same point that Jesus Christ made in the Sermon on the Mount when He said –
But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. (Matthew 6:33)
What’s being taught here is not the substitution of piety for action, but rather their proper sequence. First it’s prayer, then it’s action. Oh, I certainly understand the concern with this. In the practice of the church prayer has often taken the place of action. E. Stanley Jones observed that the “usual church climate” is – “We see a need; we pray about it; we discuss it.” Then he offered a more Biblical alternative, the one he said that he saw operative in the YMCA Movement of his day – “We see a need; we pray about it; we go out and do something about it.”
Carroll Simcox in his wonderful little book on prayer (Prayer: The Divine Dialogue. IVP. 1985) called this “Pecksniffian Praying” after a character in a Charles Dickens story who said “a short and pious grace, invoking a blessing on the appetites of those present, and committing all persons who had nothing to eat to the care of Providence, whose business (so said the grace, in effect) it clearly was, to look after them.” Fr. Simcox explained, “Mr. Pecksniff’s grace is painless piety… the Pecksniffian will pray for the hungry as long as it is understood that God, not he, will do the feeding of the hungry” (36). This is a “sanctimonious evasion of duty.” Prayer is not our sole duty as Christians, but it is our first duty. The relevant question is why? Why pray first?
Well, just this week I read something that George Bullard, the church consultant, wrote about vision. He observed that the commonly accepted position today is that it is a visionary leader who is singularly responsible for vision. S/he sees something that others do not see, and then s/he casts that vision. The image is that of a solitary prophet who alone sees and speaks, often at great personal cost. But George Bullard argued that “our Triune God is the only appropriate source of vision,” and that the first responsibility of spiritual leadership is to encourage the exercise of the spiritual disciplines, not as ends in themselves (that is “Pecksniffian Praying”), but rather as the way that we get informed of, and then captured by the compelling and empowering vision of the Triune God.
A few weeks ago on Facebook I posted a quote from Scott Cormode’s essay “One Basic Idea: Get People to See What the Scripture Says” in hopes of driving people to the full article at https://fullerstudio.fuller.edu –
In a liberal congregation, everyone is entitled to an opinion and the preacher’s is just one voice among many. But in a conservative church, we have agreed on a standard. We all appeal to Scripture. In the evangelical churches I have known, we have all agreed that we should change our behavior to conform to Scripture. We may argue about what the Bible means (and, boy, can we argue), but we all come with a common commitment to obeying the voice of God as conveyed in Scripture.ch, we have agreed on a standard. We all appeal to Scripture. In the evangelical churches I have known, we have all agreed that we should change our behavior to conform to Scripture. We may argue about what the Bible means (and, boy, can we argue), but we all come with a common commitment to obeying the voice of God as conveyed in Scripture.
I am an evangelical Christian. This is not the only way to be a Christian, and it’s not even the dominant way that most Disciples are Christian, but it is the way that I am a Christian. And, in part, it means that my confidence that people can change in real and substantial sorts of ways does not reside in the passion and persuasiveness of the person making an argument and then calling for a specific action, but rather it rests on the power of what the Scriptures can be shown to teach to change the behavior of Christians through the convicting work of the empowering and indwelling Spirit of God applying it in their hearts. Why do I believe this? Well, I believe it because I think that it’s what the Scriptures themselves promise (Hebrews 4:12), and I believe it because it’s been my own personal experience of being changed. My own convictions about race, gender and sexual orientation have all been challenged and changed through years of serious engagement with the Word in a faithful community of interpretation.
The contrast between Paul’s ministry in Berea where people “welcomed the message very eagerly and examined the scriptures every day to see whether these things were so” (Acts 17:11) and his oratory in Athens where people “sneered,” and said “we shall hear you again concerning this” (Acts 17:32) is instructive. In Berea people were actually changed through their own personal engagement with the Word. But in Athens people were only provoked by the passionate voicing of the convictions of one solitary visionary leader. Because I’m interested in change, I’m invested in the Berean strategy, as evidenced by my “Soundings” in recent months –
“We All Want to Change the World” (August 29)
Why Teaching Bible Study is the Most Important
Thing I do each Week (September 6)
The Dock and the Boat; Being “Biblical” in a Changing World (September 19)
The “Strange Silence” of the Bible (October 10) A “Christian” Vote? (October 24)
I believe that people who seek the mind of Christ through a serious and sustained engagement with Scripture nurtured by a diverse community of interpretation accompanied with prayer will begin to act in ways that serve the interests of justice and righteousness, life and peace, and equality and freedom. It’s the truths fully considered by the head that distill into the passions that are embraced by the heart that direct the hands to act and the feet to move. It’s because the need is so great right now for Christians to act out of the Gospel’s truths, that the call to prayer is so urgent. DBS +