Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Practices of Prayer in the Early Church: Outreached Hands in Thanksgiving

“May my prayer be set before you like incense, may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice.” (Psalm 140:2)

Continuing from our last blog, we see that during the first several centuries of the church Christians normally prayed as they stood before the Lord with outstretched arms. While they knew that they were not limited to any particular posture in prayer, they chose this as the standard way to come before God. Why?

Our Body Reflecting our Inner Attitude Our bodies reflect our inner attitude. Body language speaks loud and clear. Someone who is closed to input often sits with crossed arms, as if those arms are blocking what is being said. So it is with outstretched hands—our physical actions reveal what is in our hearts.

First, outstretch arms express praise, adoration and thanksgiving. When we lift our hands in prayer and worship, it is as if we are making a wave offering before the Lord. It is as if we are casting admiration and glory before the heavenly throne.

Second, outstretch arms are a universal sign of receiving. Just as children waiting to receive something important, we come with receptive hands before the Heavenly Father who gives good gifts to his children. “I call to you, O Lord, every day,” says Psalm 88:9, “I spread out my hands to you.”

Third, reaching hands reflect the longing of our hearts. “I spread out my hands to you,” cries David in Psalm 143:6, “my soul thirsts for you like a parched land.” If we long for more of the Lord in our lives, those outstretched hands express the cry of our hearts. Indeed, at times we cannot even find words to articulate the deep desires within us: in those times, our outstretched arms can themselves be our very prayer!

One of the early theologians of the church, Clement of Alexandria, expresses this so beautifully: “That is why we also raise our head toward the heights (while praying) and stretch out our hands to heaven and, while reciting the concluding words of the prayer together, stand on tip-toe, in that way seeking to follow the yearning of the mind upward into the spiritual world.” [1]

I love the image that Clement paints—standing on tiptoes with hands straining toward the heavens! At times when I pray as of late, I find my arms outstretched and fingers reaching as far as they can as an expression of my thirst for the Lord!

Not about My Temperament
Often I hear believers today excuse themselves from lifting up hands because that is “not their personality.” If we are honest with ourselves, however, we realize that this argument does not hold water any more than we can relieve ourselves from being witnesses because we have a more-reserved temperament.

Instead, from beginning to end, God’s Word invites us to step out of our shells in order to worship God, pray to him and serve him—even when we are not comfortable. It is not a matter of being outgoing versus shy. It is not a matter of being charismatic or not. Rather, it is about engaging our whole being in our relationship with the One to whom we pray!

This Thanksgiving is an opportunity for us to express our gratitude to God in many ways. We can do so in song. We can articulate our gratefulness in prayer. We can also involve our whole person and lift up our hands in thanks.

Such an offering of thanksgiving need not be showy or emotional; rather it can be respectful and reverent. We can do it with joined hands around the Thanksgiving table, or we can do it in private as we are alone with the Lord. Let us give thanks to God with our body, mind, soul and spirit! Amen.

[1] Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, as quoted in Gabriel Bunge, Earthen Vessels: The Practice of Personal Prayer According to the Patristic Tradition, trans. Michael J. Miller (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2002), p. 152.

© 2012 Glenn E. Myers

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Advent Retreat south of Minneapolis December 1, 2012

Just a quick note to announce the upcoming silent advent retreat led by Restoration Ministries on December. Just click on the link to the left for more information!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Outreached Hands—Orans: Practices of Prayer in the Early Church

“Come, bless the Lord, all you servants of the Lord, who stand by night in the house of the Lord! Lift up your hands to the holy place, and bless the Lord!” (Ps 134:1 RSV).

Lifting Hands Throughout Scripture
Lifting up hands to the Lord is an activity of prayer and worship found throughout the Old and New Testaments. The Psalms offer numerous examples of lifting hands in prayer. “May my prayer be set before you like incense,” cries David in Psalm 140:2, “may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice.”

The Scriptures exhort us to raise our hands in prayer, as Psalm 134 above commands. As well as petition, raised hands signify praise: “I will praise you as long as I live,/ and in your name I will lift up my hands” (Psalm 63:4).

The New Testament continues the rhythms of daily prayer and the active participation in prayer found in the Old Testament. Thus when Paul calls us to pray for all those in authority he states, “I want men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer, without anger or disputing” (1 Timothy 1:8).

Orans—the Praying Person
Standing before the Lord with outstretched arms was the standard posture of prayer for the early Christians. Reaching out their hands to God in praise and petition was not something that just a few believers did; rather, it was the norm for Christians, as well as Jews and even pagans in the ancient world. Prayer was not some detached cognitive exercise, but instead it engaged the whole body, soul and spirit of the one crying out to God. Extending arms in prayer was the norm in the church of the first centuries.

Artwork of Christians at prayer and gravestones of believers help to give us a picture of what praying for the early followers of Jesus looked like. The Latin word for “praying” or “praying person” is orans. Do a search on Google Images or another search engine for “orans” and you will find dozens, if not hundreds, of pictures of Christians standing with outstretched arms in prayer.

In addition, key Christian leaders wrote about this common practice of prayer. One of the first theologians, Origen, writes about this. “Nor may anyone doubt that of the countless postures of the body, the posture with hands outstretched and eyes uplifted is to be preferred to all (the others), because one then carries in the body too, as it were, the image of that special condition that befits the soul during prayer.” [1]

Trying it Today
Physical postures of prayer invite us to engage our whole being as we come before the Lord. This helps to make prayer meaningful and keeps us focused. Especially if our routine of prayer has grown dull, it would be worthwhile to try standing with outstretched arms. This posture is significant to us because it connects us with believers from nearly 2000 years ago! As I have begun spending some of my prayer time this way, I find that my physical posture is a reflection of my inner attitude in prayer—which will be the theme of the next blog.

[1] Origen, On Prayer, as quoted in Gabriel Bunge, Earthen Vessels: The Practice of Personal Prayer According to the Patristic Tradition, trans. Michael J. Miller (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2002), p. 152.

© 2012 Glenn E. Myers

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Practices of Prayer in the Early Church: Standing before God

Minnesota Landscape Arboretum

“Who may ascend the hill of the Lord?
Who may stand in his holy place?” (Ps 24:3)

Early Christians
When we think about Christians during the first several centuries, persecution and martyrdom are probably the first things that come to mind. Their radical commitment to Christ and bold witness offer a model for contemporary Christians, and they challenge us to live a life of uncompromising faith.

Early believers also present us an example of fervent prayer. Prayer was the very pulse or their relationship with the Lord. Indeed, during times of persecution, prayer is essential. These Christians either pursued God with their whole heart and life, or they quickly renounced their faith and chose to fade into the pagan world.

Although information on the prayer of the early Christians in sparse, we know that for them the standard posture of prayer was standing. In writings on prayer—as well as etchings on early Christians grave stones—we consistently see them standing before God when they prayed. Instead of sitting comfortably in a chair during prayer, as so many do today, the early believers got onto their feet.

This makes sense. Since most of the first Christians were Jews, they simply followed the practices of the Old Testament. Prayer and worship in the Old Testament were active, to say the least. “Come, bless the Lord, all you servants of the Lord,/ who stand by night in the house of the Lord!” (Ps 134:1 RSV). Indeed, if we visit Jerusalem today, we see devout Jews and Christians alike standing and offering prayers at the Wailing Wall.

Attitude of Attention and Respect
What is the significance of standing? First, standing is a sign of respect. Our culture has lost much of this. One setting where standing in respect has continued, however, is in the courtroom, where everyone is still required to stand out of respect for the office of the judge and she or he enters the room. How much more, then, should I show respect to the Judge and Creator and Ruler of the Ages?

Standing is likewise a position of attentiveness. Sitting in a comfortable chair, how easy it is to let my mind wander. When I stand at attention, however, I am more alert and engaged. My posture declares that I am fully present and ready to move as God gives direction for my life.

Over the past couple months as my wife and I have read about the early Christians and their practice of prayer, it has challenged me to stand before the Lord in prayer during morning devotions and at night before bed. Certainly we can pray any time and any place and in any position—and I will continue to do so throughout the day. However, when I have the opportunity to stand before God in prayer, I want to do so as a statement of my utter awe and respect for him and as a posture of attentiveness, listening and engaged presence.

© 2012 Glenn E. Myers