Pray, in Christ

In 1970, Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich expressed his support for artistic freedom and human rights in a letter to Pravda, the state-run newspaper of the Soviet Union. In response, the Soviets sharply curtailed his ability to travel. After Rostropovich and his wife decided not to return to the Soviet Union when travelling abroad in 1975, the Soviets stripped him and his wife of citizenship.

The political conflict in which the Rostropovich’s were embroiled reflected the larger geo-political strife of the Cold War from the last century.

When Rostropovich later played a Dvorak cello concerto in Chicago, the audience was treated to a brilliant performance. As the last note faded, the audience sat mesmerized. Rostropovich then did an extraordinary thing: he stood up and kissed his cello. The audience erupted. Then he hugged and kissed the surprised conductor. Then he hugged and kissed the entire cello section before moving on to the violins. He hugged and kissed most of the orchestra.[1]

With deeply felt gratitude, especially when circumstances are not ideal. When a home country—betrays, rejects. When suffering the consequences of some internal battle. When divided, separated from our home on earth and true home within. And still feeling grateful and expressing a profound thanksgiving. Does this not describe the experience of prayer?

I must admit upon reading the scripture from 1 Timothy I did not at first catch that this text is fundamentally about prayer. This text from Paul’s letter to Timothy announces the theme of prayer in the first verse: “First of all, then,” writes Paul, “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions and thanksgivings be made for everyone …”[2]

What follows in seven verses reads like a creedal statement of belief. This is what initially distracted me. But without the basic context of prayer undergirding that confession we can easily miss the deeper meaning by getting derailed by arguments about universalism and atonement theories.[3]

Starting with prayer gives us a practical, experiential basis for engaging questions of faith. Because it is in our personal communion with God that sets those questions in better, more productive, perspective.

Basically, religion is about realigning, reconnecting with God—that’s the meaning of the word, religion. Prayer is the means, the way, by which we connect with God. Our journeys of faith begin in the practice of prayer. And that is what we do every week in worship on Sunday. Everything that happens in the liturgy—in the order of worship—is prayer and flows from prayer.

At the Regina convention of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC) this past summer, national bishop, Susan Johnson articulated a four-year vision for “Living our Faith”. She writes that “God is calling us into a deeper relationship …” and invites the church to focus, each of those four years, on one aspect of our spiritual journey. The first is prayer.[4]

Everything else (scripture, worship, love) flows from the beginning point of prayer. Why? Living our faith starts with communion in God, relationship with Jesus, personal connection with the living Lord.

While in worship we find many forms of prayer—different ways to pray (confession, petition, song, silence, sacrament, community, etc.)—there is only one prayer. And it is the prayer of Jesus. At its core, prayer for Christians is, as Paul often describes it, ‘in Christ Jesus.’ Paul uses the phrase, ‘in Christ’ dozens of times in his letters to the early Church. In Ephesians alone Paul uses ‘in Christ’ some twenty-seven times.

Christians believe in the living Lord. Jesus is not dead. Yes, he died on the cross over two thousand years ago. But since then, Christ is alive. And still is! We assert this every Easter season: Christ is risen! And Jesus’ communion with his ‘Abba’ (Father) through the Holy Spirit continues to this day, to this very moment.

When we pray we join in Christ’s ongoing prayer, in our hearts, like deciding to step into a river that continually flows towards the ocean. That river flows through our hearts. That is where the consciousness of Jesus resides through the Holy Spirit. In prayer, we incorporate with, enfold in, the prayer of Jesus with the Creator.

In our verbal prayers we will often conclude our words with, ‘in Jesus’ name.’ We pray ‘in the name of Jesus’. We pray, ‘in Christ’. This is the fundamental understanding of Christ as intercessor, as ‘mediator’ for us and for all people – as Paul writes here to Timothy. “Prayer is not an act resulting from our own autonomous will,”[5]but an act resulting from the good will of Jesus—a prayer that is ongoing regardless of what we do.

That is also why, prayer is not about us. Prayer doesn’t turn us back onto ourselves. Christian prayer may start by consciously locating our attention within our minds, our words and hearts and bodies. But ultimately, prayer leads us beyond ourselves. To others.

When Paul writes to Timothy that prayers “should be made for everyone” because God “desires everyone to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth”, the emphasis is so made because of the real conflicts in the lives of those early Christians. The Christian community of Timothy’s time was persecuted for proclaiming Christ; they were not an accepted part of the social fabric in Gentile or Jewish community.[6]

I opened with a real story of conflict in the context of the Cold War. We can only understand our lives of faith in the context of our real lives which daily encounter some conflict—whether within ourselves, with our spouse, our children, our grandchildren, our neighbours, our hockey coaches, our teachers, our community leaders, our politicians, and whomever we label ‘our enemies’.

It is in the context of conflict and yes even strife where the instruction to pray bears down upon people of faith. “Love your enemies,” Jesus instructed more than once I am sure.[7] “Pray for those who persecute you,” he said.

We follow a God who is not immune from controversy and confrontation. Remember his earthly destination was death by a state-sponsored, capital punishment on the cross. This God we follow stretches us beyond our comfort zones and calls us to love in surprising situations. This God calls conservative evangelicals to pray for their liberal sisters and brothers, and vice versa. Trudeau Liberals are called to pray for Scheer Conservatives, and vice versa!

Maintaining healthy boundaries are important. And, some hurts go so deep that so much work and time are required in the process of healing. Without minimizing nor denying the harsh consequences of divisions …

“When you’re able to open your heart to your ‘enemy,’ allow God’s love to flow through you to them. Picture their face and send them warmth and tenderness. If this is a struggle, begin by focusing on someone that is easy for you to love, for whom you feel natural affection. Then broaden that circle of compassion to friends, acquaintances, and strangers.  [Because] no one is outside the embrace of God’s loving presence!”[8]

 

 

[1]William P. “Matt” Matthews in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year C Volume 4(Kentucky: WJK Press, 2010) p.89; www.britannica.com

[2]1 Timothy 2:1

[3]For example, God ‘desires everyone to be saved’ (verse 4); and, ‘Christ Jesus … gave himself a ransom’ (verse 6).

[4]www.elcic.ca

[5]Stephane Mar Smith in Feasting on the Word, ibid., p.88.

[6]Jane Anne Ferguson in Feasting on the Word, ibid., p.86.

[7]Matthew 5:44; Luke 6:27

[8]Richard Rohr, “Following Jesus” in Daily Meditations (www.cac.org, January 26, 2019).

Rekindle what’s hidden


I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you. For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you … (2 Timothy 1:5-6)

In his affectionate and encouraging letter to Timothy, Paul uses language that suggests Timothy’s faith is as yet undisclosed. Or, his faithfulness is in question. Paul uses a rhetorical, emphatic form of speech — “I am sure” — in the middle of his affirmation. In the letter Paul exhorts Timothy “not to be ashamed” of the gospel.

Paul then validates Timothy’s faith by appealing to his elders — his mother and grandmother. Surely theirs was a robust faith! Surely their faith was recognized by the community, evident by some religious standard:

Perhaps Eunice and Lois both worshipped every Sunday, in the community. Perhaps Eunice and Lois both were the generous type with their money, their time, and their treasures. Perhaps both women of the faith served as deacons, helped the poor, taught the young, reached out to the wayward. Surely, these were women of faith!

But, Timothy? He doesn’t seem to be doing the same things or in the same way his parents and grandparents did. What’s wrong? Is Timothy able to take on the mantle of leadership for which Paul is grooming him? Surely the apple couldn’t have fallen too far from the tree! Surely, this faith that so lived vibrantly in his family must also be somewhere in him. Paul even exhorts Timothy to take some responsibility in fanning the flame of faith in his own life — to ‘rekindle’ this gift of God hidden, up to this point in time. Bring it out to the open!

When we meet Timothy here, he has not yet expressed his faith in a way recognized by the community. Or in himself. And obviously he needs encouragement to get going. This first chapter in Paul’s second letter to Timothy is all about encouraging Timothy and building him up by reminding him of the seed hidden deep within his heart.

Retired pastor of our church and former chaplain general of the Canadian Armed Forces, the Rev Stanley Johnstone, wrote recently about something unexpected that was found during a restoration project of a Hawker Hurricane aircraft. A Hawker Hurricane was the main fighter aircraft of the Royal Air Force and other British Empire air forces early in World War Two.

During the restoration process of this aircraft, which had been recovered from the bottom of the English Channel, the workers found something in the engine compartment that was not supposed to be there. It certainly was not in the original technical specifications. On a small chain was a medallion of Saint Joseph — patron saint of travellers, workers and the universal church. This medallion had been very carefully installed such that it was not visible and would not interfere with the aircraft during its service life.

You can only imagine the day this aircraft was first assembled, when it received its engine: The worker had placed this medallion hidden deep in the engine compartment. She (the great majority of factory workers were women) did a very deliberate and purposeful thing. Had this addition been discovered by an inspector, no doubt she would have been seriously reprimanded about putting foreign objects into an airframe. 

She took a risk, and did it anyway. She had obviously thought through it carefully. Cleary, her prime concern was for those who would have to fly this machine under grim and stressful circumstances.

In a sense, this was the worker’s way of expressing her faith. She was offering, in her own way, a prayer for wartime pilots, many of whom were just out of high school. It’s wonderful to contemplate that we, some seventy-five years later, would be able to appreciate her prayer — her expression of faith — that at first did not go recognized. Even the pilots who flew that Hawker Hurricane didn’t know about the prayer being offered for them, but was still hidden close to them, in their most dire circumstances. (1)

In Paul’s letter to Timothy not only do we learn about the nature of faith — as a gift from God — we also are challenged to consider how this faith is demonstrated from generation to generation.


This morning we baptize baby Sebastian. Infant baptism is a practice that first and foremost recognizes faith as a gift from God, supported through the faith of parents, grandparents and the community of faith surrounding him. In time, and with support, we pray the seed of faith planted in Sebastian will grow and flourish. We may not be able to see this faith according to our adult standards as yet. But that doesn’t mean the seed isn’t there, or even that Sebastian isn’t expressing his faith in his own, baby way.

Many of us who have been around the church for decades are concerned that younger generations today aren’t doing their share anymore, or doing faith in a way we have come to recognize it.

Younger generations, we say, aren’t committed to the same projects we have always supported. Younger generations aren’t buying into ‘doing church’ in ways that for many of us have been a source of great comfort and meaning over the years.

But, as Marshall Goldsmith expressed in his book, “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There” (2). Perhaps we should borrow his title as a good mantra for the church today when it comes to the variety of ways we can express, and give form, to our faith, moving into the future.

Making adaptive change in the community of faith doesn’t mean the gift of faith is not present anymore, deep within the hearts of our children and youth. It doesn’t mean there isn’t a deep longing for connection with God among younger generations, to find meaning and making a difference in the world today.

We will sometimes confuse the form of faith with the function of faith. And, the church today may very well be challenged to consider a more public, outward/external expression of faith. Thinking, for example, of our programs as how they meet a public or specific community need rather than an internal need.

What our younger generations need is to be encouraged, like Timothy was by Paul, to appreciate the gift of faith within them. And to find ways of expressing that faith that are meaningful to them. And to support them in their initiatives. That’s a worthwhile cause! It starts by asking them: What would you like to do? And then supporting them in doing that.


I pray Sebastian will grow in a community of faith that will honour his gifts, his unique passions. I pray Sebastian will grow in a community of faith that will encourage the expression of his faith, even though it might look differently than what we are used to. I pray Sebastian will grow in a community of faith that he is not afraid of, because “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice”; rather, that each of us can be emboldened to express our faith in “a spirit of power, love and self-discipline” (v.7)

Because each of us has the gift of faith buried deep within our hearts. Yes. And this gift is just waiting to emerge and flower into a beautiful reflection of God’s love, power and truth in the world. The gift of faith is already given you. The gift of faith has already been offered. We have it. Each of us has it. It’s time we give each other permission to exercise that gift of faith.

(1) Stanley Johnstone, “Johanniter Herald” (Vol. XXXIII, No.3, 2016), p.3-4

(2) Marshall Goldsmith, “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There” (Hyperion, 2007)