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Prayer of the Day

O God, the strength of all who put their trust in You, mercifully grant that by Your power we may be defended against all adversity; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. 

Intro:  The following meditation is for this day, 22 January and is cited from the excellent A Year with the Church Fathers:  Meditation for Each Day of the Church Year (Pastor Scott Murray).  The lessons for this day are:  Psalmody: Psalm 69:19-23,32-33;  Old Testament Reading: Joel 2:1-17 New Testament Reading: Romans 11:1-24.  For those unfamiliar, there is a daily lectionary of readings with the Lutheran Service Book.  I do not think it necessary to go farther afield than these resources for daily devotions and prayer by going hither and yon looking for such.  The Treasury of Daily Prayer is another  closely related resource.  We need this because the Lord is explicit in His Word that, “…we do not know what to pray for as we ought” (Romans 8:26) but the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness even in our sighs with God’s Word.  The disciples were constrained to ask Jesus to teach them to pray,see Luke 11:1.  The Lord has so taught us to pray and prayer in His Word:  see the Psalms!  If you sense that you do not pray as you ought, then you are in agreement with Scripture and seek out the mentioned sources in order to help your  praying.  If you think you do pray well and that  you are spiritually rich, then thank the Lord and this meditation below by Pr. Murray, who then cites St. Augustine, is for you, as it is for us all!

Meditation

Sometimes we suffer from a spiritually swollen head. If that happens, the crown of righteousness will no longer fit. If we get spiritually puffed up or proud, then we defeat the very gift of grace that comes to those who are in need of it. If our heads swell on account of the crown of righteousness, the crown will slip off our pates and be lost. The nature of the Christian faith is counterintuitive in that just when we think we can reach out and grasp it, that is exactly when we can be sure the faith has slipped from our grasp. When we are feeling most unworthy of the divine gift of forgiveness in Christ, that is when are most likely to have it.

What we think of as our own merits are really Christ’s gifts. Who shows pride of accomplishment in a gift? Only the deluded. Watch out for your head size.

“After redemption from all corruption, what remains but the crown of righteousness? This at least remains, but even in it or under it, do not let your head be swollen, so that it may receive the crown. Hear and mark well the psalm: that crown will not fit a swollen head. After he says, `Who redeems your life from the pit,’ he says, `who crowns you’ (Psalm 103:4). Here you were ready at once to say, -‘Crowns you” is an acknowledgment of my merits. My own excellence has done it. It is the payment of a debt, not a gift.’ Give ear rather to the psalm. It is to you again that it says, ‘All mankind are liars’ (Psalm 116:11). Hear what God says: `Who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy.’ Out of His steadfast love He crowns you. Out of His mercy He crowns you. You had no worthiness that He should call you; being called, that He should justify you; being justified, that He should glorify you. `There is a remnant, chosen by grace. But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace’ (Romans 11:5-6). `Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due’ (Romans 4:4). The apostle says, ‘Not counted as a gift but as his due.’ But you He crowns with steadfast love and mercy. And if you think your own merits have preceded this, God says to you, `Examine well your merits, and you will see that they are My gifts”‘ (Augustine, Sermons on Selected Lessons, 81.8).

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The Gospel for Ash Wednesday is usually St. Matthew  6: 1—6,   16—21 .  This is Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount preaching on fasting, almsgiving praying.  The refrain is:  “And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”  This Word suggests both solitude and promise, the Lord’s promise to reward us.  Reward us with what?  I think Himself and not the acclamation of the world for our piety, for “then we have our reward”.  Solitude is key.

“Oh, you’re pouring?  Yes, I’ll have another cup of coffee” Then holding out the cup in hand, it moves and so risking 2nd degree burns.  “Please, put the cup down…thanks”.  Resting on  a sure foundation so the host can fill your cup.  A moving cup can not be filled. The Lord will fill us by His Word but like a cup we need to be still for the Lord to fill, to clean the cup of the stain of sin and fill us with His Word, Himself, His forgiveness, the blood of the new testament.  “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46: 10). The Gospel writers tell us that Jesus prayed and so stayed the course.  He needed to be still to hear His Father’s will.  So us.   Still, alone, with the Lord He will reward us, in secret and yet not alone.  During the day, we all need to be monks, alone with Him alone. Then His Word, stable and sure like a table, like an altar’ so  that the fragile coffee cup is steadfast, resting in Him alone, He can fill us.  The hunger in our stomach to remind us the hunger in our soul that only the Lord can fill, the emptiness of our neighbor that our love in Christ can fill, the fullness of prayer to the Lord who prays for His Church.

Alone but with the Church, His Body, our brothers and sisters in the Lord, each one of us crucial.  Pr. Dietrich Bonhoeffer makes this so clear in Life Together:

Is the invisible presence of the Christian fellowship a reality and a help to the individual? Do the intercessions of others carry him through the day? Is the Word of God close to him as a comfort and a strength? Or does he misuse his aloneness contrary to the fellowship, the Word, and the prayer? The individual must realize that his hours of aloneness react upon the community. In his solitude he can sunder and besmirch the fellowship, or he can strengthen and hallow it. Every act of self-control of the Christian is also a service to the fellowship. On the other hand, there is no sin in thought, word, or deed, no matter how personal or secret, that does not inflict injury upon the whole fellowship. We are members of a body, not only when we choose to be, but in our whole existence. Every member serves the whole body, either to its health or to its destruction. This is no mere theory; it is a spiritual reality.

We do not go to ‘church’, we go as the Church, Christ’s Body.  As Pr. Bonhoeffer makes plain, we are not alone even in secret, but are ever walking in Thy sight, O Lord and with His brothers and sisters in His Church.  This is seen by God so His love may be seen by many in the world in the preaching and teaching of His Word.

Lord, keep us steadfast in Your Word.                                                    (Martin Luther)

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Mr. Tebow’s discussions of his faith and Christianity, John 3:16 under his eyes and public prayer on the field has been all over the media.  I think his public witness has to be distinguished from the ‘tebowing’, the mocking reference to his praying, that is personal praying which the Lord has some pointed things to teach (along with alms-giving and fasting):

 1“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven… 5“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 6But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (St. Matthew 6)

Now giving one’s witness in a press interview and John 3:16 under his eyes is his option as an American with 1st Amendment rights (and personally I think it is great to stick it to the rather anti-religious media), and so is praying.  But in terms of what the Lord teaches about praying, especially personal prayer, He has a stern caution for those whom He has called when personal praying is seen by others as we just read in His Sermon on the Mountain.

First:  I think it is important to make a distinction between two forms of praying. 

  • There is praying together as the Church in public which is our part of our vocation of as His Church, His Body.
  • There is praying individually, or in private, which is also part of the Lord’s vocation and command to pray.  Our Lord makes an important distinction about private praying:  it is private and not to be seen by “men”.

Such personal public praying, as done by Mr. Tebow, is obviously done on the rather immense “street corners” of national media. There is a great spiritual danger in such displays of personal public praying for the person so praying and our Lord is quite explicit: he has his reward.  He is showing us his piety and so has his reward.  But the true and only reward of prayer is the Lord.  The Lord is our reward.  Go your room.  Shut the door.  The only eyes watching that count are His and He delights that His sons and daughters pray and talk with Him.

Seeing a person so individually praying in public results in one of two responses: “I’m not a good person like he is, I’m no good” or “Boy, I want to be a good person like he is and I will”.  The result is despair or pride.   But notice:   Who’s missing?  What prompted this posting was something I heard on the Today Show this morning after the Denver Broncos upset victory over the Steelers, the reporter, Natalie Morales said, “I guess we are all Tebow believers now.”  I took that to mean: believing in Timothy Tebow.  The Lord is missing.  The issue of prayer is God not the one praying and an individual taking private prayer public does not engender the true issue of prayer: the Lord. Instead, as the Lord said, that man has already received his reward. Again:  The only eyes watching that count are His and He delights that His sons and daughters pray and talk with Him.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer commenting on the cited text from Matthew regarding alms giving: “The Pharisee who rendered thanks to God for his own good deed (Luke 18: read here a touchdown: not in Bonhoeffer!) was still the man who lived in the knowledge of good and evil…the situation is clear: knowing of Jesus a man can no longer know of his own goodness, and knowing of his own goodness he can no longer know of Jesus.” Praying private prayer in public shows forth my good deed for others and I do not want to know of Jesus Christ alone, but  MY spirituality, for even my spirituality and  my “goodness” is redeemed in Him alone and becomes no longer the issue.  The issue is Jesus Christ alone.

Now the spiritual danger for us watching such a public display of private prayer, to be seen by men, is, yes, we see it.  And despair over our own spiritual lacks can quickly turn into disdain and even hatred of the one misusing private prayer.  We can become a kind of Pharisee in this:  “Oh, I’m glad I’m not that holy-roller!”  And the feelings become worse and it’s devilish. And so pray, Lead us not into temptation and deliver us from the evil one.

Mr. Tebow looks like the Thinker by Rodin!  Yes, such displays of private prayer in public (BTW:  this goes for every tele-evangelist who so prays in front of a camera) makes one think about personal prayer. And I hope and pray that we all go to our rooms,  shut the door and seek the Kingdom and  your Father who is secret will reward you with the greatest gift possible in prayer:  Himself.

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Next week Wednesday, March 9th,  is Ash Wednesday.  Fasting does not mean eating fast food!  It also does not  mean a divine diet.  It is part of the trinity  including alms-giving and praying.  The Gospel for Ash Wednesday is the Lord Jesus’ teaching on this trinity in Matthew 6:  please read it.  A couple of comments

  • Notice that this discipline covers three aspects of everyday living very near and sometimes too dear to us in the wrong ways:  food, money and words (fasting, giving to the poor and praying).
  • Our Lord says When you fast etc.  not if.  It is not restricted to Lent!
  • St. Augustine said that the two wings of prayer are alms-giving and fasting. Our reward is the Lord and in the fullness of all things will be.
  • Notice that the Lord does not want us to talk about our fasting, etc. with others and why. Well, why?   The article below, “Fasting from Fasting?”,  is from cyberbrethren, and it speaks to our Lord’s teaching especially about “talking about it”  and  other good points:

I just read a blog site that was sarcastically observing that fasting is nothing but works-righteousness and has no spiritual benefit, at all.

Now, granted, fasting has been turned very much into a “brownie point with God” kind of thing among many who practice it. I was observing recently the horrendously complex regulations, rules, requirements and even food choices that some Eastern Orthodox folks are subjected to by way of fasting. Aside from being entirely ridiculous and absurd, it is downright heretical to lay such a legalistic burden on folks. Why take all the joy out of a blessing by creating codes of canon law about it?

Fasting is fasting. You choose not to eat a meal or two during the day or abstain from something else for a period of time. I’m not a big fan of “fasting” from non-food things. Fasting means not eating. But that’s another discussion. I mean, fine, if you want to “fast” from watching TV, ok, but…don’t think you are actually fasting, you are abstaining from something, not fasting. Here’s a hint. When you fast your stomach will let you know it. If you don’t feel hunger pangs, you aren’t fasting.

It strikes me there are two problems with fasting though.

First, what’s with all this talking about our fasting? When we fast, says Jesus, we are to do so in such a way that nobody can tell we are fasting! But I often read posts from people declaring that they are fasting and from what they are fasting. That’s not right. So, please, when you fast, we don’t have to know about it. It’s between you and God. Talk to Him about it, not us. So, when you fast, anoint your face and do not act like the hypocrites who disfigure their faces to be seen by others. Prayer and fasting have always gone together in the Bible and in historic Christian piety. It’s ok to fast, but just don’t talk a whole lot about your fasting, ok? Talking about fasting is fine, talk about *your* fasting, no-no.

Secondly, there is another problem. When Lutherans rightly blasted Romanists for their legalistic views of fasting that was very well and very good. But…we have nearly lost sight of an important sentence in the Small Catechism. “Fasting and bodily preparation are certainly fine outward training.” Read that again. “Certainly fine outward training.” And please note what the Blessed Apostle St. Paul said, “But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” 1 Corinthians 9:27.

So, what about fasting? In our haste to avoid any problems with it because of mistaken practices, have we thrown out the baby with the bath water? I sure think so. Let’s get fasting under control, but not by fasting from fasting.

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