Proper 12(C): Orienting Ourselves Toward the Divine
By: The Rev. Ben Day
In the rural North Carolina churches where my faith was formed, I was taught to pray. I do not recall which Sunday school teacher at which of the churches where my mother served as senior pastor, first told me to pray as someone who “ACTS,” but the lesson stuck hard in my mind. Prayer was said to be speaking to God in a conversational tone while being sure to offer Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication every time we spoke to God—A-C-T-S; ACTS. I was told that this is how Jesus taught his disciples to pray in the Gospels.
Today’s Gospel text is that very teaching on prayer, and while technically everything is there (though the thanksgiving section would need to be far more explicit in many a southern parish, to be accounted for properly), I find the formulaic ACTS lesson an unsatisfying explanation of Jesus’ message. Technically correct, but somehow lacking flavor and robustness. A fine cheese without its cracker, if you will.
Instead, I prefer an analogy to high school mathematics. In geometry, a curve whose line approaches zero as it moves toward infinity is said to have an asymptote. But the curved line never actually reaches zero. Put another way, the curve bends toward zero without intersecting at any point with the axis it is approaching.
Jesus is making prayer into a spiritual asymptote. In prayer we orient our lives toward the Divine presence, without coming into direct contact. We speak to God, describing our nature and relationship to the axis (“Father, hallowed be your name…”). We express our intended destination of the axis we are bending toward (“your kingdom come…”). And then we express our needs to get us moving down the line (…give us our daily bread and forgive us our sins, as we forgive those indebted to us). Finally, we hope to move without impediment toward the axis (… do not bring us to the time of trial).
In geometric terms then, prayer is the slope of the line, rather than the line itself. Jesus goes on in the text to encourage persistence in prayer, telling a parable of receiving bread not from a special relationship, but from the persistence of a neighbor in asking. Slopes are constant equations that guide the line in an absolute direction. Drawing on that analogy, prayer is a persistent oblation of time and attention to God in order to find and orient us toward God and God’s kingdom among us. Persistence in prayer helps us establish the slope of our own line, bending toward the divine presence and opening ourselves to God’s intersection as we move ever closer to the will of God in prayer. Prayer is an approach and a process, then, rather that a transaction or solution.
What would it look like to preach prayer as a guide rather than an answer, or as a story, rather than transaction? For many modern Christians this idea may feel unsatisfactory, as we are so accustomed to transactional notions of grace, mercy, and divine providence. The wise preacher will go slowly with these concepts, and offer space for everyone who hears their words to reorient slowly and cautiously away from formulaic or transactional prayer and toward orienting and guiding prayer. Modeling prayer that seeks to orient the congregation toward God and the will of God, through the liturgy can be a powerful tool to augment this week’s Gospel text. That may mean asking more questions in prayer than we answer, and dwelling in a world of ambiguity and divine mystery.
The Rev. Ben Day is Priest Associate at Saint Columba Episcopal Church in Johns Creek, Georgia where he has served part time for the last two years while pursuing a bi-vocational ministry alongside his work in the freight and logistics industry. In August, Ben will return to full time ministry as Rector of Christ Church in Kennesaw, Georgia. He is married to Amanda with a 9-month-old son, Marshall, and two rowdy dogs, Augustine and Beckett.