Milo of Croton was incredibly strong. He was a wrestler by profession and was well-celebrated by his Greek fans for his fearlessness, strength and his acumen in the ring. Outside the ring, however, he was not so bright. One day in the 6th century BCE, Milo decided to go for a stroll in the forest. He was enjoying the fresh air and the solitude, but then he spotted something that just called his name. It was a tree, tall and strong. But this one was being split. At some point not too long ago, a lumberjack had tried to split the tree while it was still standing (I was taught that, first, you fell the tree, then you split the tree; but this lumberjack was trying to skip a step). But all this logger accomplished was to get his wedges buried deep in the tree. Yes, it was partly split, but not nearly enough to break it apart. But you could get your hands inside the tree right below the wedges. And that is what Milo saw. What an opportunity for a feat of strength. He would reach into the tree with his hands and then rip the half-split tree in two. It would be a feat worthy of Hercules! Now people don’t have a sense for how strong the wood of a tree is, but Milo was amazing. He put his hands into the gap as far as they could go and then actually began to pull the tree apart. He actually pulled so hard that the wedges became dislodged and fell to the ground. But as soon as the wedges were free, the tree snapped shut, pinning Milo’s hands between the two parts of the trunk. And there Milo stood with his hands caught in the cookie jar (or in the middle of the tree). And although he pulled and pulled, he could not get free. Fortunately, he was found long before he expired of starvation. Unfortunately, he was found by a pack of wolves. Poor Milo.
How do you pray with strength and vigor without getting your hands stuck in the “praying for show” jar? Last week, we took note of one way, namely we address God in a thoughtful and meaningful way (instead of just blurting out a name of God, we choose one that fits the prayer and adds some depth and richness). We introduced this prayer (a prayer for Palm Sunday) last week by discussing the importance of the names for God we use, and now we want to consider the meat of the prayer itself this week. You may recall this prayer begins with these words, “Almighty and everliving God.” Now granted, that seems like an odd way to address God. Scan the Bible and you will find many times God described as the “Living God,” but never as the “everliving God.” But that gives us a clue as to how the BCP shapes its prayers. See, the name that the prayers use for God often ties in to the request that will made so that the entire prayer stands as one cohesive whole. Let me show you what I mean (and let me say at this juncture, that I am relying here very heavily upon material from Scot McKnight’s very insightful book, To You All Hearts Are Open, Paraclete Press, 2021).
We usually read the address of God first (because it shows up at the beginning of the prayer); and by the time we get to the end, we have forgotten all about it. But more than likely, the collects began, not at the beginning with the address, but with the petition. And if we were honest, most of our prayers do the same thing. We start praying because we want or need something. But the designers of these prayers don’t just leave it at that. Instead, they add a further question: “What about God makes what we want something God would want to answer?” (Note that asking this question also eliminates selfish and self-absorbed prayers). Now, look at how the answer to that question ties in to the address. In short, the address is followed by a statement of God’s character that, together, provides a reason why God should answer our request. In this particular prayer, this works out as follows (if you will allow me to rearrange the prayer so as to bring out these elements.
What is the request? (Hint: you can often identify the request in these collects by the words “grant” or “keep.”)
Mercifully grant that we may walk in the way of his [Jesus’] suffering
and also share in his resurrection;
What is the address?
Almighty and everliving God,
Why would God answer this request? (just add a “because” here. . . .)
in your tender love for the human race,
you sent your Son our Savior Jesus Christ
to take upon him our nature
and to suffer death upon the cross,
giving us the example of his great humility:
Why should God respond to our request to walk in the way of the cross and to share in his resurrection? Because just as God delighted in the humility and the obedience of his Son, so he will also delight in us as we follow in the footsteps of Jesus.
And why do we start this prayer by addressing God as the “Almighty and everliving one?” Because “Almighty” and “Everliving” are resurrection terms that speak of God’s omnipotence and his eternality and our being raised in Christ Jesus by the power of the Spirit so that we may have everlasting life. In other words, the whole prayer ties together from start to finish. And that is a beautiful thing.
But there is still one more component that we haven’t examined: the end. Every prayer in the BCP ends with a statement like this:
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
There is such theology here. We begin these prayers by addressing God, the Father, and conclude them THROUGH the Son IN the power of the Spirit. We don’t offer these prayers on the basis of our goodness or through the merits of our holiness, but through Jesus. McKnight writes:
“We are privileged to offer these petitions solely through the merits of Jesus Christ who, in his life, death, burial, and resurrection, has provided redemption for us and access to the God of all creation.”
And to this trinitarian doxology, we add “Amen.” Originally, it was commonplace for those hearing the prayer to add the “Amen” (“Amen” means “I agree” or “So be it”). The one praying would end with “one God, for ever and ever”; and then the congregation would add their agreement by adding the “Amen.” But all that aside, we come to the end of the prayer by stating that we only have access to God through Jesus in the power of the Spirit. It’s not about our effort in prayer or how well we pray or the exquisite way we form our prayers, but about the grace of Jesus.
But beyond how this prayer is constructed, this is a great prayer for our spiritual health. It asks that we would follow Jesus in the way of the cross and walk in the way of his suffering. Now, honestly those are not two requests I make very often, and I especially wouldn’t think of asking God to “mercifully” grant them. But Jesus tells us plainly that unless we lose our life, we will never find it. Jesus says in Luke 9:23-24:
“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves
and take up their cross daily and follow me.
For whoever wants to save their life will lose it,
but whoever loses their life for me will save it.”
There is no resurrection life without us first taking up our cross. There is no joy without first enduring suffering. See, I need to be reminded to pray for things like this, things I don’t relish, but things I desperately need. On my own, I would never even think of praying for suffering. That’s another advantage of having written prayers. And I also need to be reminded that Jesus endured suffering and the cross for us because of God’s tender love for us. I always need to be reminded of that. See, most of my prayers are for things I want. I love this prayer because it overflows with things God wants for me.
The Book of Common Prayer is filled with ancient prayers that speak to us as if they were just written for us. And these are not just beautiful prayers, although they are that. They are cohesive. They are short. They are bold. They ask one thing. And all the elements tie together so that it flows from one element to another. That is a beautiful thing. But here’s the sad thing: My prayers don’t exhibit such depth of thought or cohesion or preparation. Now, I’ve always thought my prayers were okay. But maybe I’ve got a mixed-up notion of what okay is, just like we have a mixed-up notion about what a starfish is or what almonds are. Yes, we call it a starfish, but it is not really a fish (it’s an echinoderm) and we think of an almond as a nut, but they are actually a part of the peach family. Yes, I call my prayers okay, but maybe that’s only because we’ve all agreed that whatever we do in prayer is okay. Now, in one sense that is true. John Bunyan said:
“In prayer it is better to have a heart without words than words without a heart.”
That’s true, but isn’t it better still to have words and heart and head and feet all working together in prayer? Throughout this series, I’ve been recommending various prayers to you. Now, I realize I need these prayers for my own good, too. But even more than that, I think it is obvious that I need to start putting more effort into my prayers because, as I am beginning to see, there is a lot of work to praying well. Amen and amen!