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

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