Note to My Readers: from mid-June to mid-August (6/18 - 8/20), I will be taking a summer break from posting new articles for my Thursday and Friday slots. This will only affect my Thursday series on the global growth of Christianity, and my Friday series, the "Theological Bestiary" of birds, both of which will resume in late August. During the summer, I'll be dusting off some of my best essays from the first few years of this blog (a decade ago), as well as my verse play "Thus Ends the World," and re-posting them in the Thursday and Friday slots. All other weekdays will continue to feature new material throughout the summer.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Stand in Prayer: Claiming Your Identity

Growing up in a traditional evangelical church, one quickly learned that there was a normative posture for prayer: head bowed, eyes closed, hands clasped, usually while seated (though standing was OK during special group prayers where everyone stood). The outstandingly pious would take it one step further and lean forward in a sort of penitential crouch, elbows resting on knees. You could also kneel in prayer, but this wasn't commonly done--not even at bedtime, though that was the classic conception of the kneeling prayer. Only much later, when I visited Catholic and Anglican church services, did I witness the regular practice of kneeling prayer in action. This is a pose that shows penitence or reverence, the position of a sinner or of a commoner in the presence of a king. 

It came as something of a surprise when I learned that none of these prayer-postures were considered normal (or, in some cases, even appropriate) in the early church tradition. The early church fathers would look at the way we pray and say, "You're doing it all wrong!" It seems that most early Christians said their prayers standing. In the early descriptions we have of prayer, not even the head is bowed or the hands clasped--rather, the hands are stretched out to heaven and the head lifted up. Why would this be so? Well, the early church tradition (and contemporary Eastern Orthodoxy), though acknowledging that we are sinners, did not make quite as big a deal of our sinfulness as we in the Western tradition now do, and so a penitential pose is not the first thing that would occur to them. Rather, their emphasis was on the inherent dignity of the human person as "the image of God." Their belief in the dignity and authority of human beings was so full that they actually forbade kneeling in prayer for certain seasons of the year. 

I'm sometimes asked the question, "Why would God so ordain things such that prayer is necessary?" (Though it's not usually worded exactly that way.) This question assumes, of course, that intercessory prayer is necessary. I suppose some theological schools, such as hardline predestinarians, might make the case that prayer is not strictly necessary, except insofar as God has predestined it to be used as a means of accomplishing his will. But I'm going to take the assumption that intercessory prayer is expected of us, and that certain things happen when we pray that wouldn't happen if we didn't pray. (This seems to me the clearest interpretation of the New Testament's teaching on prayer.) So let's look at that question again--why would God do it this way? Couldn't he just do everything himself, and not rely on the frail and fallible habits of us humans?

Part of the answer to that question, I think, comes to us from this old tradition of standing in prayer. We are to stand in prayer because of our dignity as human beings, because we are "the image of God." This phrase, which derives from the very first chapter of holy Scripture, has a multi-layered meaning. But one of the primary meanings, as most scholarly commentaries on Genesis would tell you, is that man is designed to be God's viceroy on earth, the physical stamp of his own authority towards the created realm. It is clear within Genesis 1-2 that humans are in just such a position of authority vis-a-vis creation. The early church fathers expanded on this idea and argued that because we humans are the only created beings with one foot in the spiritual world and one in the material world (in contrast to both angels and animals), we are "a microcosm of all creation," and thus act as priests of the created order, representing spiritual things to the material world and material things to the spiritual world. It is our duty to take this world and lift it up in perpetual prayer before God, because this is quite simply the identity of all mankind--it is what we were made for. New Testament teachings on prayer also seem to bear out this idea of human authority. Christ himself tells us that whatever we bind on earth will be bound in heaven. So when you go to prayer, pray as if you are the royal ambassador of the King of all creation--because that's what you really are. You bear the seal of divine royalty,  and when you fulfill your calling to represent the brokenness of this world in the heavenly courts, you are being more truly yourself than in any other act. So claim your royal dignity in Christ, and pray with authority and perseverance. God has given us this role not because he is complacent or undecided as to what to do in this world, but so that we may become what he has meant us to be.

(Painting above: "Breton Girl Praying," by Paul Gauguin, 1894, oil on canvas; image is in the public domain)

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