Saturday, August 05, 2006

“Our Father” …Oh Brother!

A little over 30 years ago as a brand-new Christian, I found myself at a “prayer meeting” held in someone’s living room. The older folks were seated on the sofa or the chairs; the folks like me with young knees were kneeling on the carpet. Everyone was taking turns praying the “Lord we just wanna” litany so common in Evangelical groups. You know, that’s the one that always goes, “Lord, we just wanna thank You now for Your goodness and mercy toward us, Lord. And Lord we just wanna praise you now that you are gonna grant us [Fill in the request here], Lord, because You know that we need this, Lord. And Lord, we know that You are gonna grant this to us, Lord, because we ask this in JESUS’ holy name. Amen.”

Whatever Evangelical church or prayer group that I visited in those days seemed to follow this exact same form of prayer with only minor modifications, depending on the skill of the one praying, and his tolerance for redundancy in repeating the word “Lord” endlessly. Every group was led by one or two of the more articulate brethren, considered “spiritual” for their ability to make long prayers artfully laced with bible verses and faith lessons, intended more to impress the others in the room than God, who presumably doesn’t require instruction in such things.

Anyway, there I was at that prayer meeting and my turn came up. Out of the blue I decided to pray the Lord’s Prayer. “Our Father, who art in heaven…” I began, and went through the whole thing. As I was praying with eyes closed, I heard a couple of folks shifting uncomfortably in their seats. When I finished, no one joined me in the final “Amen”. There was silence, until one of the elder members cleared his throat and interrupted the meeting to say, “It’s OK people, Michael is one of our new brothers here and doesn’t seem to know that we born-again believers don’t pray formulaic prayers.”

I took that to mean I had committed some sort of spiritual faux pas. Eager to learn the nature of my error, I asked some folks about it after the meeting. Everyone acted embarrassed for me, as if I had shown up to the meeting wearing my underwear on the outside of my pants. “It’s OK,” one or two folks assured me, “We have all done dumb things at prayer meetings before”. Finally one brother flat out told me, “We don’t pray written prayers; God only hears the prayers we offer in our own words”. This was news to me. “But, didn’t Jesus give us this prayer and tell us to pray it?” I asked. “No,” came the reply, “Jesus only meant that it should be viewed as the model for how we pray”.

Well now I was really confused! According to Luke’s account, Jesus said, “When you pray, say, ‘Our Father…’ ” There is no mention of the prayer as being a model; Jesus simply said “Pray this”. Even Matthew’s account, which records the Lord as saying that we should pray “in this manner” does not directly imply that the prayer He taught us was intended as a mere framework to guide us, especially when we take the accounts of Matthew and Luke together as a whole.

But my confusion didn’t end there. I thought to myself that even if we agreed on some ill-defined basis to take the Lord’s Prayer as nothing more than a model, I couldn’t think of anyone I knew who actually followed that model. The “Lord, we just wanna” model I heard almost everywhere bore not even a passing resemblance to the supposed model of prayer our Lord gave to us. And oh yes, if we born-again believers didn’t pray formulaic prayers, how did “Lord, we just wanna…in Jesus’ name” creep in to become the standard Evangelical formula of prayer to God?

Furthermore, I wondered what we born-again believers had against written prayers. Were not the Psalms “written prayers”? Weren’t they used by Israel and by the early Christians in their services? Don’t many Evangelicals privately pray the psalms in their devotionals at home? Haven’t many “praise bands” incorporated the Psalms into the songs they play at church? “But the Psalms are scripture,” one brother suggested to me, “They are the words of God, not the words of men”. OK, that sounded pious. But then I wondered, when we offer our own prayers at our meetings, aren’t those prayers “the words of men”? “That’s different!” he insisted, growing impatient with my endless questions. “God wants us to only pray to Him in our own words!” Summarizing what he was telling me I asked, “So God doesn’t want us to pray in the words of men unless of course they are our own words, and at the same time God doesn’t want us to pray to Him in His words, or in the words of Jesus?” I believe the conversation abruptly ended at that point.

In the years that followed I became more acquainted with historic Christianity and discovered that the strange contempt for “written prayers” so common to Evangelicals was not at all shared by our forefathers in the faith. While frequently praying to God in their own words, the ancient Christians also freely used the Psalms and certain other prayers written by holy and respected men of the faith. The early Church was also liturgical, meaning that it followed a defined structure in its worship services, which eventually was written down and standardized among the churches, together with most of the prayers that had been composed specifically for it. The liturgical structure that the earliest Christians followed was based naturally on inherited Jewish models, but developed a rich Christian content as the Church emerged from Judaism to form its own identity.

Most Evangelicals, while generally taking a stand against the idea of liturgical worship, in fact almost always follow some sort of routine structure in their services. It never occurs to them that this represents a form of liturgy, albeit based entirely on contemporary models rather than on the ancient Christian one.

Earlier Christianity’s easier acceptance of written prayers was rooted in their understanding that the Holy Spirit was the guide of the Church. The same Spirit which guided Israel in the formation of its Temple worship and various feasts was also immediately recognized in the New Testament era as the guide of the “Christian Israel” in its worship. While not equating the prayers and liturgy of the Church with the scriptures, the early Christians nevertheless recognized the same Author behind them, and received many prayers written by “holy men of old” (2 Peter 1:21) into its experience if they had gained the universal “Amen” of all God’s people. Over time the Church gained many prayers by this process, which represented God’s ongoing direction to His people and His instruction in how they ought to approach Him in Christian worship.

Evangelicals today are largely unaware of this entire period of historical development representing God’s work within His Church. They tend to see the only true historic Christianity as existing in the book of the Acts of the Apostles (Most of which they misinterpret in an effort to make the practices of the apostolic Church resemble their own as much as possible) and then leapfrog fifteen centuries or more ahead to whatever point in the Reformation aftermath that they can again comfortably identify with. Anything between those two periods of time—the great “flyover country” in contemporary Evangelical understanding—is tragically dismissed by them as “tainted by Catholicism” and therefore untrustworthy.

Such an unrealistic approach to Christian history has locked Evangelicals into a vicious cycle. Considering the historic Church to be untrustworthy, they ignore it. By ignoring it, they never learn the truth about it. They exist entirely within an historical vacuum of their own making, which is the only environment capable of preserving both their skewed views of earlier Christianity and their post-modern interpretations of scripture.

As a former Evangelical Protestant myself, I deeply understand the rationale behind this mindset. But I can also vouch that when one bravely sets it aside and engages in an unbiased study of Church history, often against the solemn warnings of fellow believers, an entirely different picture emerges than the one painted by Evangelical leaders determined to maintain their positions. “The truth shall set you free” goes the adage, and seldom is this better proven than when one learns the truth about the Church.

The history of Christianity, best understood when traced from its origins forward through time, reveals not only the schisms and departures from apostolic orthodoxy, but also that very orthodoxy itself. Every believer I know who has made such a study was shocked to learn that the Church and the true belief it embodies did not entirely disappear off the face of the earth until Martin Luther happened along, but continued healthy and intact through the entire first century and into the second, third, and fourth centuries and well beyond that even to our very day in the form of Eastern Orthodoxy. The Evangelical teaching that the Church lost its bearings after the apostolic age until being entirely corrupted by Constantine is proven by actual history to be a modern fable designed to justify Evangelical theological innovations and rejection of the Church. A study of history not only proves this, but something else as well.

A study of Church history proves that Jesus kept His promise that the gates of hell would not prevail against His Church. The witness of the Holy Spirit can be clearly seen in the life of the Orthodox Church in every generation. The ancient liturgical worship of the Church, rooted in Judaism and filled with many Christian prayers written by holy men inspired by the Holy Spirit, reveal to us nothing less than the Mind of God in the midst of the Body of Christ. It is this which has largely become “The Abandoned Mind” in modern Evangelicalism. Seeking to reinvent the Church according to their own understanding, Evangelicals have abandoned far too much of the patient work of the Holy Spirit in God’s people, which represents their own Christian inheritance. They fail to recognize the great spiritual poverty this has brought upon them. Acting as if the only relevant work of the Holy Spirit is what happens in their lives, they fail to give proper respect to the work of the Spirit in all generations and thus, in a very real sense, oppose Him.

“The Abandoned Mind” of God must be recovered by Evangelicals if they are to reunite with their Christian heritage and the Church founded by Christ. The flap over my praying of the “Our Father” at an Evangelical prayer meeting was the catalyst that helped me begin to recognize how out of step we had fallen with the Mind of God revealed in history. When sincere Christians strongly react against reciting the very prayer which Christ Himself gave us, you have to see that something has gone terribly wrong, and Evangelical traditions have overshadowed and nullified the very testimony of God Himself.

Lord have mercy!


At 8/05/2006 2:04 PM , Blogger Jim said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 8/05/2006 4:10 PM , Blogger Trevor said...

I agree with your overall argument here. In fact, the hypocrisy of "non-liturgical" worship is one of the things that first started to bother me about Evangelicalism. I don't think it would ever have been enough on its own to send me looking elsewhere, but I always thought it ironic that we called it non-liturgical, when it was just as much a liturgy as anything else.

I should add, however, that there is a significant strand in contemporary Evangelicalism that you might have missed in your experience. The church that we have been attending is probably about as "non-liturgical" as they come, but the worship leader they had when we first arrived would write out his prayers each week. He didn't use prayers written by others, but he did believe that the role of worship leader requires a level of thoughtfulness that is difficult to achieve with pure spontaneity. We also occasionally throw in responsive prayers in the service even now, after he's no longer in that role.

I've also been in various prayer services where prayers were written out, at least as a guide, sometimes to recite. Before Easter this year, they had a prayer service that was, if I recall correctly, entirely written out. People were assigned different portions to read, some was read in unison, and there was even a point when we all knelt together. (I decided to be rebellious and prostrated :-)

Anyway, my point is that there is something of a range in Evangelicalism, and I don't think everyone would have reacted to your faux pas quite so negatively. In fact, I recall a prayer meeting that used to convene weekly in the basement of the library at the Bible college I attended. It was something of an underground affair, in more ways than one, considering that the school was staunchly anti-charismatic, but several of the leading participants of the meeting were charismatic pastors. Anyway, it was the epitome of free-form, spontaneous prayer, but aside from the laughing and clapping and shouting and crying, there was also (by some of the same people) fervent reading of psalms and other passages of Scripture as prayer. It's still a far cry from an Orthodox congregation reciting the trisagion prayers in unison, but I think it would have room for what you did.

At 8/05/2006 4:25 PM , Blogger Fr. Michael Reagan said...

Indeed. As you know it is impossible to scoop all the little fishes in one or even a dozen nets, as there are nearly as many variations of Evangelicalism as there are opinions within it. I have known Evangelicals who, when exposed to Orthodox prayers, were grateful for the experience and even gladly incorporated some of them into their personal devotions. But there remains a deadly strain of the Evangelical virus that has mutated an extreme resistance to all forms of traditional Christianity, even toward the “Our Father” as an acceptable prayer. One need not look far to find folks so infected.

At 8/05/2006 7:58 PM , Blogger John said...

This is some of the best writing on this subject that I can remember.

Your experience with the "Our Father" brought back memories of my own. In my particular evangelical church, we could have never prayed the Lord's Prayer. It was seen simply as a "model," but as you noted, a model we never followed! The incident happened to me not as a new Christian, but almost 25 years on, when I was a leader in our congregation.

One Wednesday night we had a special prayer service. By this time I was beginning to come around to an Orthodox mindset, and had started memorizing and praying certain Psalms. When my turn came, I prayed the 143rd Psalm. Afterwards, I was accosted by a church lady who told me, "You didn't say In Jesus' Name." I just looked at her, somewhat stunned. She continued, "You have to say, In Jesus Name." I mumbled something like "well, I think He heard it." Thankfully, this came near the end of my evangelical Protestant career; 3 months later I was a free man.

Thanks again for this timely article.

At 8/06/2006 1:21 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is indeed unfortunate that in an attempt to return to the "original" church that Evangelicalism has focused on "reformation" rather than "restoration." St. Theophan's guidance for prayer (my paraphrase)is to pray from the heart and he advised that using written prayers was a catalyst for "drawing out" the attitude of the heart. I often begin with the revealed prayers of the saints and fathers of the church and then find myself silently, or in my own words, personalizing their petitions in my heart. Thanks for your wise words. May I never return to those prayers that turned God into Santa Claus!!

At 8/07/2006 2:11 PM , Blogger Aaron said...

Pelikan summarizes it succinctly, "The only alternative to tradition is--bad tradition."

I would highly recommend downloading and listening to his interview on the show Speaking of Faith:
The interview is titled, "The Need for Creeds", but the subject covers a great deal of helpful information?

At 8/11/2006 10:37 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is there a "wrong" way to pray? Is there some magic to endlessly repeating the same words over and over again?

Of course not, Prayer is a man chance to connect with God, to speak with him to say what one feels or needs.

"Make you requests known with all prayers and supplications" and yes, indeed, prayer shoudl be in the name of Jesus, thusly granting Glory to Him as one glorifies the Father.

There is no "wrong" way to pray, for instance when Bread was broken, did Jesus say the liturgy? Or did he give thanks to the Father for providing?

At 8/12/2006 7:29 PM , Anonymous Bruce said...

There are definitely wrong ways to pray! I've done it for years. I know so little. A lot of my prayer life now consists of thanking God for in His mercy perhaps ignoring many of my previous selfish laden prayers.

At 8/13/2006 5:48 PM , Blogger Fr. Michael Reagan said...

Yes there are wrong ways to pray. One can pray mindlessly, sporadically, or out of habit; one can pray selfishly or in seeking vengeance toward another; one can pray only out of superstition or appeasement; one can pray in ignorance while claiming knowledge. Only God knows how He will sort out these various prayers. But far more important is the fact that there are right ways to pray as well; ways that are guided by the Holy Spirit and represent the mind of God as revealed within His Church since apostolic times. These are the prayers and the way of prayer that God-loving Christians would want to learn, if only they knew of them.

At 8/13/2006 6:14 PM , Anonymous Bruce said...

That's why we pay you the big bucks Father! Why can't I articulate like that??

At 8/13/2006 8:25 PM , Blogger Fr. Michael Reagan said...

The big bucks...yep.

Why, just the other day I lit a cigar with a fifty dollar check I wrote out myself.

Didn't cost me a dime.

At 8/14/2006 9:42 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

"For we pray not what we should, but he holy spirit intercedes for us with groanings"

surprisingly, there is not a huge amount of biblical prohibitions against prayer, but many for prayer.

James speaks to that subject as does some OT scripture. And Luke warns against pride.

BTW, if the holy spirit is leading the prayer and interceding on our behalf, then why the Lord's Prayer in all times and seasons? Surely the indwelling of the holy Spirit will teach one to pray what one should, and even intercedes for us when we don't.

At 8/14/2006 10:38 PM , Anonymous ruth said...

Well said! I'm keeping a copy of this one. Ruth

At 8/15/2006 4:09 AM , Anonymous Bruce said...

To anonymous, Ahh... the foolish notion that any spirit I feel must be the Holy Spirit. Wouldn't it be wonderful if this were true. This is the same "holy spirit" (small letters) that is leading the p church in their understanding of the Bible. You would think he would be a bit more consisitent wouldn't you? Remember, there are lots of spirits my friend!!

At 8/15/2006 8:41 AM , Blogger Fr. Michael Reagan said...


From your responses I have to take it that you agree with my post. If, as you contend, there are few wrong ways to pray, then the prayer group leader who censured me for praying the Lord’s Prayer must have been badly mistaken, right? Furthermore, the general Evangelical prejudice against written prayers must be misguided as well, correct? I’m glad we have so much to agree on here.

You may not have carefully read the entire post, but I did point out that traditional Christians not only use written prayers but also pray in their own words as well. The Holy Spirit is the author of all true prayer, whether that prayer is a simple cry of “Lord, help me!” or the wonderful liturgical prayers of St. John Chrysostom. The great thing about the work of the Holy Spirit is that it never grows “old” or becomes outdated. God’s work is eternal and everlasting. Thus prayers that the Spirit authored in the 4th century are just as fresh and valid as any prayer He inspires today.

I think it is this perspective and appreciation for the timeless quality of the work of the Spirit that Evangelicals demonstrate a lack of by their knee-jerk reaction against the written prayers of the Church. The notion that only spontaneous prayer is valid is a flat out rejection of the work of the Holy Spirit throughout the history of God’s people. Evangelicals tend toward pronouncing this rich treasury of the Spirit’s work as “wrong” which, given your stated feelings on such things, I must assume you regard as a mistake.

I am delighted we can agree on this.

At 8/15/2006 2:46 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Anyhting that you ask in my name, it shall be done for you"

That passage (paraphrased poorly from John) is one of the reasons why Protestants and Evangelicals insist on using the name of Jesus in prayer.

Why not? A simple "Help me Jesus" does indeed bring glory to the both Jesus and the Father's name.

And my goodness how can the prayer that Jesus the Christ Himself have prayed be somehow "formulaic"? As if Christ isn't the original "man of prayer"?

Now if the prayer does take the palce of honest man to God communications, that I would strenously disagree with. Prayer is mankind's "telephone" to our Creator, and to make sure that we prayed correctly the Holy Spirit even intercededs for us.

We serve a mighty God indeed!

At 8/15/2006 2:48 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a follow up, when i went to a local Church, everyone was saying Hallejhah, wereas i was saying "Hosanna".

We just didn't get along very well after that....

At 8/15/2006 3:57 PM , Anonymous Bruce said...

Have you actually found a Church that you can worship in consistently??

At 8/17/2006 4:55 PM , Anonymous Justin said...

Fr. Michael,
I don't think I will ever forget when Fr. Wayne made a certain comment before the Catechism even began. He said, "I can try to pretend to be a tree all I want" as he waved his arms through the air in attempt to pose as a tree, "but" he said, "I can never be a tree."
At that time, being a 'student' at an Evangelical seminary, it was a relief to begin to understand that the wheel didn't need to be reinvented. All the experiences you shared, I can, at very least, only confirm the same for myself. As you pointed out, in large part, that claiming to not have a liturgy but at the same time, only to have a 'modern liturgy' and the vicious circle created when one assumes the Ancient Church is untrustworthy and should be ignored, and when it is ignored, the Truth about the Church is not found.
Even more, I began to discover more deeply that in order to become part of the 'tree' one must go further than mere rational... he must cleanse himself from certain passions, humble and be more honest with God. It seems one could spend so much time arguing against Ancient Christianity, but in essence, go nowhere because he has not humbled himself enough to search for the Truth (or, rather, have it revealed to him), but only to what he wants to see- or maybe insofar as he feels confortable.
Anyways, I will be going back undercover, behind the lines again soon for a short time, apparently with many more weapons, thank God.


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