A New ‘Jesus Prayer’ (complements of NT Wright)

July 29, 2013 — Leave a comment

For many years I’ve commended The Jesus Prayer as a form of learning continuous prayer. In my time away this week I was reminded of a beautiful modification by N. T. Wright emphasizing the Trinity. I’ll post the main part of it here:

I want, in this brief epilogue, to suggest one form of prayer in particular that seems to me to encapsulate all that I have been trying to say.  It grows out of several concerns and backgrounds, and I believe it may be helpful to some who are wrestling with these issues and seeking to do so in a Christian way, that is, not by mere intellectual effort alone, but through prayer, meditation, and a settled and steady seeking of God’s will and way.  I am aware that prayer and temperament are intertwined, and there may well be some who, for perfectly good reasons, will find my suggestions incomprehensible or unnecessary.  I trust that they will excuse this short chapter, and leave it for those who may find something in it to their profit.

A word, first, about the traditions of prayer upon which this form seeks to draw.  The Jews, at least as early as Jesus and probably much earlier, used various prayers on a regular basis.  One such may well have been that in which, in Isaiah’s great vision in chapter 6, the angels were chanting: “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.”  Another, which formed the basis of regular Jewish daily prayer, was the Shema, which starts: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength” (Deuteronomy 6:4).  This might strike us as something of an odd “prayer”; it looks more like a credal formula followed by a command.  (The rest of the Shema, which continues to verse 9, and then adds Deuteronomy 11:13-21 and Numbers 15:37-41, includes still more commands.)  But by Jesus’ day it had already sunk deep into the consciousness of the Jewish people, not only as a formula to be repeated three times a day but as a badge of loyalty, an agenda to be followed, a statement of faith that set the compass for another day, another hour, another minute of following the true God wherever he might lead.  The noble old Rabbi Akiba, one of those who stood against the Emperor Hadrian’s anti-semitic legislation and died horribly at the hands of his torturers, went on reciting the Shema quietly until he could do so no more.  Like the angels ceaselessly chanting “Holy, holy, holy,” the Shema had become, for Akiba, as habitual, and as vital, as breathing.

A different tradition is that of the Eastern Orthodox church, which I mentioned in chapter 12.  There the “Jesus prayer” has been rightly popular: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  (There are variations, but this is perhaps the best known.)  This, like the Jewish Shema, is designed to be said over and over again, until it becomes part of the act of breathing, embedding a sense of the love of Jesus deep within the personality.  This prayer, again like the Shema, begins with a confession of faith, but here it is a form of address.  And instead of commandments to keep, it focuses on the mercy that the living God extends through his Son to all who will seek it.  This prayer has been much beloved by many in the Orthodox and other traditions, who have found that when they did not know what else to pray, this prayer would rise, by habit, to their mind and heart, providing a vehicle and focus for whatever concern they wished to bring into the Father’s presence.
I have a great admiration for this tradition, but I have always felt a certain uneasiness about it.  For a start, it seems to me inadequate to address Jesus only.  The Orthodox, of course, have cherished the trinitarian faith, and it has stood them in good stead over the course of many difficult years.  It is true that the prayer contains an implicit doctrine of the Trinity: Jesus is invoked as the Son of the living God, and Christians believe that prayer addressed to this God is itself called forth by the Spirit.  But the prayer does not seem to me to embody a fully trinitarian theology as clearly as it might.  In addition, although people more familiar than I with the use of this prayer have spoken of its unfolding to embrace the whole world, in its actual words it is focused very clearly on the person praying, as an individual.  Vital though that is, as the private core of the Christian faith without which all else is more or less worthless, it seems to me urgent that our praying should also reflect, more explicitly, the wider concerns with which we have been dealing.
I therefore suggest that we might use a prayer that, though keeping a similar form to that of the Orthodox Jesus Prayer, expands it into a trinitarian mode:
Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth:  Set up your kingdom in our midst.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God:  Have mercy on me, a sinner.
Holy Spirit, breath of the living God: Renew me and all the world.
I would like to say a number of things about this composite prayer by way of explanation.  First, as to its emphases.  Its opening echoes that of the Lord’s Prayer itself, which catches up Israel’s longing that her God should bring in his kingdom of justice and peace, and extends these petitions, in the light of Jesus’ whole work, to the whole world.  Paul does much the same in Ephesians 1, turning older Jewish prayer formulae to new use with a focus on Jesus, meditating on and exulting in God’s work in Christ until, with the mention of the Spirit, the trinitarian picture is complete.  In the same way, in the prayer I am suggesting, we invoke the one Creator of the whole universe, the one who alone is the source of all things, the one parodied by so much paganism.  As we do so, and pray for the coming of his kingdom, we enfold within that prayer our hopes and longings for justice and peace, for the hungry to be satisfied, for the poor to have their needs supplied.  This prayer can be used wherever one faces a situation that cries out for God to come and reign as King.  In particular, of course, it can be used in what we call evangelism.  To present Jesus as the Lord who claims the allegiance of men and women is to seek to bring the kingdom of God to bear on their lives.

By itself, this first clause could become triumphalistic.  It could lead us to imagine that we knew exactly what the kingdom would involve, and that we were merely enlisting the Creator of the world as the necessary power to achieve the program we had mapped out.  How wrong such prayer would be.  Indeed, it is as we pray the heartfelt prayer for the kingdom that we are faced, if we are honest, with the deep realization of our own confusion, inadequacy for the task, rebellion, distortion of God’s will, and frank, no-nonsense, old-fashioned sin.  It is therefore vital that we keep the middle segment of the prayer much as the Orthodox use it.  If, by itself, this part could become self-centered, without it we could become hollow.  No Christian can afford to lose the daily and hourly sense of dependence on the free mercy and love of God, mediated through the extraordinary love and grace of Jesus.  This prayer, too, can of course be used in the context of particular penitence for particular sin.  God knows we will have enough need of it.

But we cannot stop there.  Once we have been grasped afresh by the love of God in Jesus liberating us from our own idolatries so that our work for the kingdom may be free from distortions of our own making, then we must lift our eyes to the world around and see the new work that awaits us.  Faced with this, we can and must pray to the Spirit, as Ezekiel was commanded to call for the wind that would come and make the dry bones live.  We must pray to the Spirit who alone can give life not only to us but to all the world. And with that prayer we are praying at least three things.  We are praying that we ourselves may be healed and renewed, in and from the depths of our own beings, with a healing that will culminate in the Resurrection, but which may be anticipated in all kinds of ways during the present life.  We are praying, secondly, that others may come to abandon their idolatries and find the truth about the world and its Creator in worshiping the God revealed in Jesus.  And we are praying, as we must, that the whole creation, nonhuman as well as human, may find the full rejuvenated life for which it was made.  We are praying, that is, for the final coming of the kingdom, only this time seen in terms of the living God flooding his creation, by his Spirit, so that it becomes as a whole what the temple in Jerusalem was supposed to be: the place where he is present, where he is worshiped, where he meets his human creatures in love and grace, the place from which there flow rivers of living and healing water.  This is the reality, glimpsed in hope in the gospel, which is parodied in pagan pantheism.  This prayer would be as appropriate in ecological as in evangelistic work.  It would be appropriate as part of a healing ministry, and would be equally at home in the context of the quest for personal or communal renewal and revitalization.

Second, a word about the use of this prayer as a whole.  Obviously anyone is free to use it as he or she wishes, but two ways in particular have commended themselves to me.

The first is its use within a litany.  The first line of each part can be used as a versicle, and the second as a response.  Put together, the three sections cover so many of the areas that the church should be praying for that it would make sense to group different areas of petition under the three heads, repeating each phrase as often as necessary to effect a good rhythm and balance in the whole.  The singular “me” in the second and third clauses could of course become “us.”  And the prayer, thus used, could include praise and confession as well as petition.  There are many possibilities here that could be explored, which could help a congregation to turn the concerns of the present book into serious corporate prayer.
The second relates to more personal use.  I have spoken of the way in which, in the Jewish and Orthodox traditions, some prayers have become, as it were, embedded in the personality by constant use.  I appreciate that some Christians might initially be alarmed by this, for reasons discussed in chapter 13.  Personally, I can see no reason for anxiety, and every reason for welcoming such a practice.  If the angels constantly repeat their “Holy, holy, holy,” I cannot see why Christians should not repeat words about the threefold and glorious God.  It is vain repetitions that we are called to forswear.  I suggest that, for some Christians at least, a prayer such as the one I have suggested can become, by constant repetition, the very center of their human existence.
This is in part because it builds on two features that are common to humans in general.  The first of these concerns human breathing.  In Genesis 2:7, it is said that God breathed into human nostrils the breath of life, so that Adam became a living being.  There is a strange truth here which we do not usually grasp.  If we even think about the act of breathing, we probably regard it as a purely “natural” or “scientific” phenomenon. Genesis regards it as part of the gift, to humans, of God’s own life.  Breathing sets up a rhythm that quietly gets on with the job of enlivening and energizing us.
This habit of prayer, with phrases such as I have suggested, takes up this fact and builds on it.  The first clause of each couplet can be said in the mind while breathing in. We are drawing in God’s breath. God’s gift of life:
Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth . . .
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God . . .
 and particularly, of course,
Holy Spirit, breath of the living . . .

Then, having in each case, as it were, “inhaled” the truth and life of God himself, the miracle occurs.  God’s own life becomes ours. Just as God’s breath becomes our breath, so the prayer that has invoked the living God becomes prayer that is both God’s own prayer, part of the constant, loving, and joyful prayer of the Trinity, and our own prayer.  As John 14 makes clear, the closer we come to understanding the threeness of God, the more we are summoned to fully Christian prayer.  We respond, exhaling the breath that has become our own:

Set up your kingdom in our midst.
Have mercy on me, a sinner.
Renew me and all the world.

If we thus capture the God-given rhythm of breathing itself, a new wholeness results.  It is as though breath becomes more fully what it already is by becoming prayer, and as though prayer becomes more fully what it already is by becoming breath.

The second feature upon which such a practice can build concerns the human semi-conscious mind.  Most humans, most of the time, have comparatively empty minds, which fill themselves from moment to moment with vague snatches of memory, of odd words and phrases, odd hopes and fears, odd snatches of songs or music.  Indeed, it can be a thorough nuisance to have something, as we say, “in the head” and not to be able to get rid of it.  The use I have suggested for this prayer gently takes this fact about our humanness, this habit of the mind to be continually murmuring on to itself, and woos it with the gospel.  It takes responsibility for the times when the mind is “in neutral.”  It replaces the casual, irrelevant, involuntary mental chatter with a quiet, glad repetition of words whose content is incalculably challenging and at the same time incalculably consoling.
Such a manner of praying is not acquired overnight.  Indeed, for many people, such a habit might well be inappropriate.  For such, there will be other prayers, or other methods of praying this one.  But it could, I suspect, be of help to many more than have at present tried anything of the sort.  Paul, after all, tells us to “pray constantly,” and though he may simply have meant “morning, noon, and night,” the regular times of Jewish prayer, he may also have had in mind the sort of praying I am describing.
The important thing is to start.  Perhaps the best way is to use the phrases one at a time: either the first during the morning, the second during the afternoon, and the third during the evening; or possibly the first one day, the second the next, and the third the next.  There are no rules.  Having begun, perhaps during a regular time of prayer, one can return to the prayer, quietly drawing strength from God in the process, during the busyness and the idleness of the time that follows.  Gradually, if we persevere, we shall discover that the prayer rises unbidden to the mind and the heart.  It has become part of who we are.  And the potential results of such a gradual and quiet change are incalculable, both for oneself, for the church, and for the world!

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