Prayer of Basil the Great

Here is a prayer from 4th century Greek Bishop Basil the Great (330 – 379):

“Oh Lord our God, Steer the ship of our life to yourself, the quiet harbor of all storm-stressed souls. Show us the course which we are to take. Renew in us the spirit of docility. Let your Spirit curb our fickleness; guide and strengthen us to perform what is for our own good, to keep your commandments and ever to rejoice in your glorious and vivifying presence. Yours is the glory and praise for all eternity.

“We’re Going On a Bear Hunt” (Or Why We Need a Better Theology of Suffering)

We’re going on a bear hunt.
We’re going to catch a big one.
What a beautiful day!
We’re not scared.

Uh-oh!
Mud! Thick oozy mud.

We can’t go over it.
We can’t go under it.
Oh no! We’ve got to go through it!

We probably read this book to our kids dozens if not hundreds of times. This family goes on a walk together and they keep on encountering obstacles to their journey: inclement weather, scary forests, and hard to navigate terrain. Realizing the only way to continue moving forward is to go through and not around the obstacles they face, we get their refrain, “We can’t go over it. We can’t go under it. Oh no! We’ve got to go through it!”

There is wisdom in children’s books.

Somehow a lot of Christians and a lot of churches think that following Jesus and being a person of faith ought to solve all of our problems or take away all of our suffering. They think that the Christian life ought to be a lovely, beautiful, problem free walk. Lots of sunshine, and no clouds. Like the family in the book, we pretend to be going on a bear hunt but we don’t actually expect to come across a bear.

Worse, we tell people who are suffering that they just need more faith and to pray harder. And when it happens to us, we even conclude sometimes that God is mad at us. Our adversity is the consequence of God’s disappointment with us. It’s all our fault.

Now, sometimes we do face difficulties because of our poor–and, yes, sinful decisions–but the rain falls on the just and unjust. Life includes hardship. As the book says, We can’t go over it. We can’t go under it. Like it or not, sometimes we simply have to go through it.

Some of us shake our fist at God, angry that he would allow us to go through such suffering. Often this betrays a kind of works righteousness. We think that if we’ve lived as we should, then God should bless us–which we take to mean being exempt from suffering. If I’m a good person, in other words, God owes me. Our relationship to him turns into a mathematical calculation.

This is why we need a better, more biblically faithful and robust theology of suffering. The problem, of course, is that we’re not always very well equipped to deal with suffering. We mostly want to avoid it or distract ourselves from it or deny it. Or when we are suffering, often we want to downplay it. Someone is always worse off. Which, while true, doesn’t change the fact that we, too, hurt. Indeed, sometimes we hurt a lot.

So what do we do with this? Do we simply put up with it? I suppose in part, yes. Of that we have no choice. Suffering of one kind or another will inevitably come our way. But is it only about surviving the storm? Do we only hunker down, cover our heads, and hope that it passes sooner than later?

What if God allows suffering in our lives so that perhaps we would realize all the more how utterly dependent on him we are? C.S. Lewis, in his book The Problem of Pain, famously wrote: “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” More than that, what if God actually seeks to grow us spiritually in the midst of suffering? What if by permitting hardship he is conforming us more and more to Christ, our Lord who, while now risen, had to undergo the pain of rejection, humiliation, and suffering unto death?

It’s easy for us to live as though we’re self-sufficient or in control–and even to believe it. Times of suffering strip this illusion away. Whether we lose a job, a relationship, or our health, without something else underpinning our sense of self and our place in this world we’ll end up in an existential tailspin that will leave us bitter or hopeless. With our usual sources of comfort and security gone, where do we turn? On what–or who–do we depend?

And in the church we need to do better. We need to handle suffering better. We need to be a safe place where people can process and work through their pain and loss without judgment. We need to quit acting as though everything is ok when it clearly is not. We need to stop telling people to pull their socks up and move on. We need to practice lament. The Psalms, after all, are full of lament, of songs that bring grief, confusion, and even anger into the presence of God through prayer and worship. Because it’s there that we discover and experience the hope we have in Christ.

Psalm 34:18 says that The Lord is near the brokenhearted; he saves those crushed in spirit. And it’s in the presence of the Lord who is near to us when we suffer that we eventually find healing and transformation. That’s what we really need. Suffering will come to each of us. We can’t go over it. We can’t go under it. Oh no! We have to go through it. But not alone. Instead, with one another, weeping with those who weep, in the presence of the Lord who knows our tears and draws near to us through them.

Habits

We all have habits, good and bad. And when I think about what a habit is, I think of a regular pattern of behavior that has become unconscious over time because of frequent repetition. What you deliberately begin doing, if repeated often enough, becomes what you do without thinking. Sometimes this is a good thing. Often, however, it is not such a good thing.

Which brings me to my real question: why are bad habits so often more easily formed than good habits?

In my experience, bad habits kind of start because we’re looking to avoid something that requires more effort and discipline. For instance, someone may develop a habit of going through a drive thru too often for meals because making something at home is too much of a bother. This is a bad habit for obvious reasons.

A number of years ago I had developed the habit of watching TV in the evenings and staying up too late doing so. It began as a way of decompressing, of trying to wind down and get my mind off of whatever stress I was feeling. Eventually I found myself just doing it because that’s what I did. It was a bad habit for at least two reasons. First, I would stay up much later than I would have otherwise–because with a streaming service you can watch episode after episode of your favourite show. Hence, the term “binge-watching.” Indeed, I would often doze off in my chair because I was up too late. Truth be told, that means I wasn’t actually watching TV for the last little while; I was napping in front of the TV. And the result? Not as restful a sleep that night. Inevitably, I felt groggy and less attentive the next day. Not to mention a little guilty.

Second, I would eat more. Yes, I said it. Staying up watching TV later meant I would give in to the munchies. Doesn’t mean I was truly hungry. Doesn’t mean I needed more sustenance. But like a lot of other people, I associated watching a favourite show or movie with having a snack. Again, not a good thing. Mostly because celery and carrot sticks were not my usual snack of choice. In any case, one bad habit opened the door to another.

So that’s me. I’m sure you have your own bad habits to contend with.

The bottom line: bad habits require nothing of me. They often offer gratification in the moment. If I’m depressed or frustrated or stressed, then I can make myself feel better (at least briefly) by indulging in a bad habit, a behaviour that distracts me from how I’m feeling. It’s a temporary fix. Bad habits are often about passively reacting to life. And unfortunately such bad habits involve other unintended, negative consequences.

But a good habit requires something of me. A good habit takes conscious effort and intention. If, for example, regular exercise is a good habit, I have to plan to exercise. It’s not simply going to happen on its own. For many of us, it is very difficult to include exercise into our lives. Lots of things become obstacles to doing so. And the lack of a plan, of a system that incorporates it into our everyday lives, certainly doesn’t help.

Good habits also mean having to defer gratification. A good habit may not feel good. It may not bring immediate relief or satisfaction. Some good habits are very, very difficult to develop. Particularly if you have some life-patterns already firmly set in place that the good habit seeks to dethrone. Most of us have a degree of aversion to change. We don’t tend to be enthusiastic about exchanging unhealthy habits for healthy ones. It’s too much work. Life is already too hard.

Here’s the thing. Sometimes we have a skewed view on what’s good. We might actually fool ourselves into thinking that treating ourselves several days a week by going through the Tim’s or McD’s drive-thru is a good thing, a reward for a hard day’s work or a source of comfort for the stresses of our circumstances. Ever think, I deserve this? Been there, done that, right? The truth is, we deserve better than what our bad habits offer us.

Maybe you’re wondering (but probably not) what this has to do with faith or with following Jesus. Isn’t this all self-help talk? Well, first of all, let’s be careful about separating what we think of as spiritual from what we think of as non-spiritual. Just because something isn’t overtly spiritual or religious doesn’t mean it has nothing to do with what it means to be a Christian. Every inch of our lives concerns God and relates to how we connect with God and live out our faith. Put simply, everything is spiritual: our eating habits, the way we handle our money, the entertainment or media we enjoy and consume. We can’t separate the way we treat our bodies from what’s going on in our hearts. We are whole beings, commanded in Scripture to love God with all that we are. Jesus did say, after all, to Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind (Matthew 22:37).

Sure, he doesn’t say anything about loving God with all our bodies. But let’s have a moment of honesty. What’s happening with our bodies has a profound effect on our hearts and minds. If I am groggy from staying up too late the night before, it will be harder to focus if I am trying to pray the next morning or to read Scripture. Or I might be more grouchy and impatient with my family.

Consider, also, that forming bad habits is often a result of wanting to avoid dealing with difficult things in a healthy way. Or of simply not wanting to put in the effort to do something worthwhile. What effect is this going to have on our spiritual lives? Do we think that following Jesus ought to be effortless, that we can grow in our faith without any intention or work on our part? Do we think that we will never have to deal with suffering? Is life–including the life of faith–about our comfort and ease? We need to be aware enough to notice how our attitude in one area of life impacts our attitude in other areas. We cannot so easily compartmentalize ourselves.

As far as good habits go, we can often struggle with prayer and other spiritual disciplines (because we all love discipline!) because there’s no immediate payoff in the moment. There’s no instant gratification. It doesn’t automatically make us feel better. Prayer and reading Scripture and engaging in Christian community are not there to distract us from the stuff that stresses us out; instead, they should provide us with the spiritual resources to deal with such stuff in a more healthy, ultimately life-giving way. Does this mean we that we are spiritual failures if once in awhile we have too much Haagen-Dazs or watch a little too much TV? No, but we ought to work towards being more intentional with our lives and the choices we make and the habits we therefore form. In one sense, our habits are our lives. So reflecting on our habits–good and bad–is to reflect on what we want our lives to be like and who we want to be.

“O Prince of Life”

Here is a prayer from Gerhard Tersteegen (1697 – 1769):

O Prince of Life, teach us to stand more boldly on your side, to face the world and all our adversaries more courageously, and not to let ourselves be dismayed by any storm of temptation;
may our eyes be steadfastly fixed on you in fearless faith;
may we trust you with perfect confidence that you will keep us, save us, and bring us through by the power of your grace and the riches of your mercy.
Amen.

A Prayer to Know Jesus

Almighty God, whom truly to know is everlasting life: Grant us so perfectly to know your Son Jesus Christ to be the way, the truth, and the life, that we may steadfastly follow his steps in the way that leads to eternal glory; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Lord, Fill Me

Here is a prayer from Martin Luther (1483 – 1546):

“Behold, Lord, an empty vessel that needs to be filled. My Lord, fill it. I am weak in the faith; strengthen me. I am cold in love; warm me and make me fervent that my love may go out to my neighbor. I do not have a strong and firm faith; at times I doubt and am unable to trust you altogether. O Lord, help me. Strengthen my faith and trust in you.
Amen.

Jesus, You Are . . .

Here is a prayer from Johann Freylinghausen (1670 – 1739):

Who is like you, Jesus?
You are the light of those who are spiritually lost.
You are the life of those who are spiritually dead.
You are the liberation of those who are imprisoned by guilt.
You are the glory of those who hate themselves.
You are the guardian of those who are paralyzed by fear.
You are the guide of those who are bewildered by falsehood.
You are the peace of those who are in turmoil.
You are the prince of those who yearn to be led.
You are the priest of those who seek the truth.
Amen.

Prayer to the Good Shepherd

O God, whose Son Jesus Christ is the Good Shepherd of your people: Grant that, when we hear his voice, we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads; who, with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”

A Prayer from Thomas à Kempis

Here is a prayer from fifteenth century German-Dutch Canon, Thomas à Kempis (1380-1471):

Above all things and in all things, O my soul, rest always in God,
for He is the everlasting rest of the saints.
Grant, most sweet and loving Jesus, that I may seek my repose in You…
For my heart cannot rest or be fully content until,
rising above all gifts and every created thing,
it rests in You. Amen.