Exemplary Prayers – I

Here is an experiment anybody can try. Read through any of the Gospels, paying close attention to things people say to Jesus. By one count, there are about 169 distinct passages in Matthew. In about fifty of them somebody says something to Jesus. If we know Jesus is God incarnate, then in effect each such passage is a prayer.

Not all of them are friendly. Nearly half are questions, not all questions sincere. There are confrontations with Pharisees trying to catch Jesus saying something foolish, to discredit him. There are taunts of Satan, and shrieks of demons. A large number are requests for healing, either for the suppliant’s self or on behalf of someone else.

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On Prayer

It’s a cliché, maybe not a very helpful, to say that looking into the sky is a profound spiritual exercise, because it impresses the seeker with our planet’s smallness over against the vastness of space. We can scarcely imagine the distance to our own moon (about 240,000 miles) or sun (93 million), let alone light years or parsecs. Only yesterday, in the twentieth century, did we learn of uncounted galaxies beyond the one that contains our sun.

All true enough, but suppose we turn the insight around, and contemplate the Psalmist’s question: What is man, that thou art mindful of him? (Psalm 8:4) Now we are in the realm of theology not astronomy. Here we come up with a different insight—or the same insight with a different meaning. If we read back to former times, we find that our forebears confronted their smallness as clearly as we do. “What is man?” to them was a serious worry, which they carried with them to the New World. Why would the Creator God bother with such a vexatious creature; one who has disappointed him throughout their history together?

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A Cainish Cri de Coeur

In what follows I ask the reader to accept rather much of the vertical pronoun; please forgive.

I am not a pious man, but a crooked man  to whom ours is a very wily god (Psalm 18:26–27); a sinner in a relationship with God that reflects the fact: thick, and loaded with ironies.

Acceptance

When I joined my Episcopal parish, I hoped the other members’ acceptance implied communality in some large matters. There is little reason to think so, because we seldom actually discuss ideas—especially not theological ones; as with politics, it’s bad manners to do so. However that may be, I suspect this is more than the predictable letdown the morning after the prodigal’s arrival.

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A Reading of Matthew

The Gospel of Matthew can be read as the Evangelist’s effort make a fractious community cohere. Among other rifts he faces is one between apocalyptic and eschatological thinkers. (This would be hard to explain, because, partly because Matthew was successful, we think of the two things as one.) Between the lines, we can also read the concerns of more factions: the narrative of John the Baptist is tied in respectfully; another of Peter, another of James, another of the women; perhaps another of ethnic Canaanite Christians who had never been Jews.

As he goes, Matthew modulates his tone carefully. Near the beginning we have the Jesus who pronounces the beatitudes. Beyond that, Jesus is sweet-tempered, and every needy person he meets adores him. Is there any whiney, manipulative suppliant with a sense of entitlement to healing?. How about the man at the pool who complains that everybody else gets to the water before he does? Jesus heals him; then, seeing him later, warns him to make the prescribed thank offering lest something worse happen to him. The fellow had proved to be a flake when it came to basic observances.

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Performing Art

People who love painting often talk in the present tense about the figures in pictures. In Masaccio’s Pisa Altarpiece, the Virgin sits on a carved marble throne; the Christ child sucks the fingers of his right hand, and takes grapes from his mother’s hand with his left. Or: in Piero’s Resurrection, one of the four soldiers is falling back in dread; the Christ does not fly, but steps heavily from the sepulcher he is still bleeding; it has been a near thing. This way of speaking reflects an important truth about the pictures we use in worship. They are vital performers; they act; they have a liturgical role of their own which completes ours.

Not much is said about this in books on art history. Scholars dwell on materials, the evolution of technique, and perspective. Or more lately, they talk about sociological issues, such as the status of donors, and their probable political motivations. All these things are interesting, but they do not get to the heart of the matter.

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Uncommon Prayer

One of the greatest gifts of faith is undoubtedly the power of prayer, spanning the gulf between God and us. Perhaps the most elemental kind of prayer is simply waiting on God in silence; quiet the chattering monkey inside, and hope to hear. One’s daily work can be done prayerfully; repetitive work like sanding a board can be a mantra.

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