Prayer in the Word

The Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. (Romans 8:26b-27)

When we hear the phrase “daily devotions,” one of the first things that we may think of are those little devotional booklets that many of us use on a daily basis. Most of these follow a similar pattern, with a quotation from Scripture followed by a brief homiletic reflection, then closing with a prayer. Such resources can serve a good purpose, and are readily available. We are used to such a pattern.

Ironically, when Martin Luther gave his advice on developing a biblical life of prayer, he did not use this familiar format. You might even say that he turned things completely around. In his Preface to the Wittenberg Edition of Luther’s German Writings (1539), Luther provided a simple format for approaching Scripture that reverses the familiar pattern we are used to. Luther described his own three-fold approach. In Latin, the terms he used were Oratio (praying), Meditatio (listening), and Tentatio (struggling).

For Luther, prayer was not an end, but the foundational place where our devotional life begins. As disciples, we call upon God to be the speaker. We ask him to open our ears, hearts, and minds to his Word. We begin by praying that “the Spirit himself would intercede for us,” as Scripture says, that what will follow would be God’s doing in us.

Only then do we approach the biblical text.  For Luther, to “meditate” on the text was not simply to learn about the text, as we might do in a Bible Study group. Neither is “meditation” simply what it is in eastern religions, where people center on their own inner mindfulness. Rather, for Luther, biblical meditation has to do with listening carefully to the words of Scripture, in the confidence that God is actually speaking to us.

Lastly, Luther described the final step: Tentatio. This word is a tough one to translate. It means to “struggle” or “wrestle with”– it can even be translated as “suffering.” Luther assumed that if God indeed is at work on us through his Word, such an experience will not necessarily be pleasant. Like a mighty Potter working raw clay, God pokes and prods us through his Word, squeezing and shaping us into the vessel of faith that he would have us be. We should expect this process to elicit “groanings” from us, just as Scripture promises.

It is this final piece that is Luther’s greatest insight into what a life of daily devotion is like, and it is central to our understanding of what makes discipleship “sacramental.” This is what Luther meant by “daily dying and rising in Christ” – to experience the crushing grasp of the law while at the same time being reformed and renewed by the gospel. This how God himself justifies and sanctifies each one of us in faith and makes us his disciples.

– Rev. Steven E. King

What Are We Building?

They said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered across the face of the whole earth.”  (Genesis 11:4)

The Tower of Babel story from the Book of Genesis always reminds me of my attempts as a child to build the highest skyscraper I could, using Lego building bricks. No matter how high the tower, inevitably, it would come crashing down. Fortunately, I never believed that my value and purpose in the eyes of God depended on how high a tower I could build.

When some people talk about Christian discipleship, however, it is that same tower that comes to mind. By many, the life of discipleship is understood to be a matter of adding spiritual disciplines, one upon another, in an attempt to build our own towers of faith – and thereby, “making a name for ourselves” in the eyes of God and our neighbors.

But in the Scriptures, Jesus breaks this “builder” paradigm and brings us back down to earth. Discipleship, in a biblical sense, is not about working our way up to God, but recognizing that God, in Christ, has come down to us. The direction is not up, but down.

In Lego terms, real discipleship is when the Father comes to sit down on the floor filled with blocks, to build for his children. He invites us to participate in his project, rather than simply to play on our own. His work is collaborative, with each member of the body being added to his creation as a new brick. As Scripture says, “You yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5).

Instead of towers, God builds us into vehicles – things that move – because his goal is to get us moving by faith!  We are a “holy priesthood” as Scripture says.  We become the cars and planes and boats that carry the promise of Christ and his forgiveness to suffering and hurting people, the very “vehicles” through which God acts in the lives of others.

Ironically, God often does his best work in the “scattering” rather than the “building.” He leads us out into the world in service to our neighbor – not to make a name for ourselves, but to give glory to His name. Through our acts of faith and service, we build no towers.  But we do get to take part in delivering His promise to a world in need of the Gospel.

– Rev. Steven E. King

Mary and Martha

The Lord answered her, Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:41-42)

You know the story. When Jesus came to visit the house of two sisters, Mary sat at the feet of Jesus and listened to his teaching, while Martha kept busy with her ministry to the needs of those who had come to her. Overwhelmed by the good things she was trying to accomplish, Martha went to Jesus to admonish her sister for not helping with the work – that is, she came to complain that Mary was not more like her.

Sometimes, in trying to convince people of the importance of discipleship in the Christian life, we can start to sound a lot like Martha. It is not uncommon these days to hear discipleship coaches draw a distinction between those who are “real disciples” with those who are just “church members.” We are told that we must grow beyond the old membership model of church, where people are mere receivers of ministry, to a discipleship model where people are providers of ministry. This change in mindset, we are told, is what will save the church.

But when asked to provide a picture of what this “real” discipleship looks like, it is often someone like Martha who is held up as the model. Contrary to what Jesus does in Scripture, the approach of most modern discipleship gurus is to provide a list of activities and good works for people to be engaged in to show that they have advanced to the level of true disciple. In some settings, this takes the form of being busy with the work of social justice, where Christians are encouraged to move beyond elemental matters of sin and salvation, to engage in the “real” discipleship work of political advocacy. In other settings, the good works are expressed in a more religious manner, as would-be Marthas seek to prove their faith by their standing and reputation in the local congregation.

The biblical definition of faith, however, centers in the Lord himself. Jesus lifts up Mary as the model of discipleship, not because of her good and religious works, but because of what the Lord himself was accomplishing in her through his Word. Indeed, “Faith comes by hearing, and what is heard comes through the Word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). The posture of faith is not simply one of mere busy-ness and activity, but a posture of receiving.

As human beings, our tendency is to always put ourselves at the center of our focus – even when it comes to our life of faith. It is not surprising that we would want to make discipleship about what we do, rather than about what God does in us. But Christ himself has chosen a better portion for us. Through his Word, he has filled us with his Holy Spirit, so that we can confess in the words of Scripture, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” (Galatians 2:20)  This is the good portion, which will not be taken from us.

– Rev. Steven E. King

God-Centered Faith

“The good and gracious will of God is done indeed without our prayer, but we pray in this petition that it will also be done among us.” (Luther’s Small Catechism, Explanation to the Lord’s Prayer)

Just as he did to those fishermen by the Sea of Galilee, Jesus calls us to be his disciples, and to make disciples in his name. But what does that mean?

The truth is, a person’s understanding of discipleship is based on their understanding of faith itself. For example, among many modern evangelical churches that come from the Anabaptist tradition, the emphasis in religious doctrine and practice is on what we do for God. God is the passive auditor, watching what we do in worship for Him. In this view, the meaning of a person’s actions — and the sincerity in which they perform them — is the key to true spiritual meaning.  This same assumption underlies how they speak of discipleship, which is why, most of what is written on the theme of discipleship from this faith tradition are what might be described as spiritual “self-improvement” books.

But just as Lutherans believe that the value and meaning of the Word and Sacraments rests not in our own actions but in the divine action of God on our behalf, you would think that this God-centered understanding of faith ought to guide our understanding of discipleship, as well. We confess, for example, the power of Baptism lies not in our spiritual sincerity, but rather, in the sure and certain Word of God. What if we were to think of discipleship in a similar manner? What if discipleship were not simply a means of spiritual-improvement, but the recognition of God’s active will being fulfilled in us by his power and Spirit?

The disciplines and actions of faith would still be there — prayer would still be prayer, the regular study of Scripture would still be central to our devotional life, and worship would still be the corporate gathering of the faithful. But these things would not be seen as the measure of our spiritual accomplishment; but rather the signs that God is indeed at work in our lives. What if it were indeed true, as Luther says above, that our prayers do not “cause” the will of God to be done in the world, but rather, our prayers are the evidence of God’s own Holy Spirit at work in us and among us? (Romans 8:27)

This is the very thing we see in Scripture. Jesus’ call to his first disciples by the Sea of Galilee was not simply an invitation for these men to engage in the work of personal self-improvement. It was the act of God himself, by which Christ took hold of their lives and created a new future for this handful of hapless fishermen. Christ himself “made disciples” that day, through his own Word and work of faith. The key to the meaning of their discipleship was that God’s will was, indeed, done among them — that day and in the many days that followed. We pray that the same may be true among us.

– Rev. Steven E. King

Master and Disciples

Reprinted from the Jan/Feb 2016 issue of “Connections” magazine:

Not long ago, I remember sitting in the lobby of the health club I belonged to, randomly picking up and paging through a magazine on martial arts. Having no experience in the sport myself, I was interested to read how the author described his experience of having become a master of a particular school of martial arts. He talked about how the modern view of martial arts as a “sport” was not what it once was, when it used to be taught by masters of a specific discipline.  Unique historical styles and methods ― like those of Karate, Jujitsu, Kung Fu, or Tae Kwon Do, which practitioners spent their lives studying and mastering ― are now often jumbled together in the generic instruction of self-defense, taught at the “hobby” level. Almost gone, he said, were the days of masters and disciples, working within a specific set of teachings in a particular school of martial arts.

Reading this article made me think of my own experience as a pastor, teaching the Christian faith from a specific historical tradition ― in my case, the perspective of a biblical and confessional Lutheran. I began to wonder if something isn’t lost among us in our modern day, when so many seem satisfied with being generic disciples of a generic religious faith.

In the New Testament, “disciples” were followers and students of their Lord, Jesus Christ, whose faith was shaped by Him, as they lived out this faith in their everyday lives of trust and obedience to Christ himself. From their master, the first biblical disciples were given more than a list of tasks to perform. Christ opened up for them a whole new way of life ― including a new understanding of their place, purpose, and mission in the world which flowed from specific theological convictions their Lord had given them.

Recently, there has been renewed interest in the Church in the area of Discipleship, and what that means for our lives as modern-day Christians. This is a good thing to talk about.  But much is said these days about the importance of “discipleship” and “making disciples” without really defining what it means for us to be genuine disciples in our own individual lives of faith.  Often “discipleship” seems to be treated as something that needs to be added on to the foundation of our faith, rather than speaking of discipleship as living out the faith that we have already been given.

Is discipleship nothing more than a generic program that can be inserted into a person’s life of faith ― like a preprogrammed computer app, compatible with any operating system?  Or is there a specific content, shape, or goal to our lives as disciples of Christ that flows from the particular faith we confess?

For example, does discipleship mean the same thing to those who believe they are “working their way to heaven” as it does to those who understand themselves to be saved by the grace of Christ alone? Does being a disciple look the same in the lives of those who think of themselves as “former” sinners, rather than recognizing their life as the struggle of one who is simultaneously saint and sinner? Is discipleship merely a means of spiritual self-improvement, or is it a deeper matter of self-giving that reflects Christ’s own mission in the world? St. Paul writes in Philippians 2:5-8:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

Following our Lord Jesus challenges us to ask not simply whether we are disciples, but what manner of disciples we will be. To use Martin Luther’s categories: Will we be disciples who seek a vain and worldly “Theology of Glory,” or will we follow our Master as disciples who hold to a biblical “Theology of the Cross”?

This is the question we hope to address in this new regular column in Connections magazine. Beginning with this issue and continuing into the future, this series will seek to look at the nature of Christian discipleship through Lutheran lenses.

What would it look like for us to speak of discipleship in a way that is informed and shaped ― from the ground up ― by the specific convictions and perspective of Lutheran theology? What unique gifts and insights from our faith tradition can be brought to bear on the mission we share with all our Christian brothers and sisters? How might our historical Lutheran theological confessions reveal a unique perspective on how we live a life of faith in Christ?

Our goal will be to provide a basis and framework for discussing the theme of discipleship in ways that reflect our Lutheran faith and heritage. For example, the series title for the column, “Sacramental Discipleship” is intended to call to mind what we Lutherans recognize as the true direction of salvation in our lives ― from God to us  ― and how God uses earthly means of grace to accomplish his will and communicate his Word in our lives. We believe that God is the actor in our faith, and that by the power of his own Holy Spirit, the Lord himself produces the fruit of faith in us.

As Lutheran disciples, we confess that we are united in a sacramental union to the death and resurrection of Christ himself, as the pattern by which we live (Romans 6). As Luther said in the Small Catechism regarding the call to discipleship we’ve been given in our Baptism:

What does all this mean for daily living? It means that our sinful self, with all its evil deeds and desires, should be drowned through daily repentance, and that day after day a new self should arise to live with God in righteousness and purity forever.

As disciples of the cross, we follow our Lord in a life of daily dying and rising, trusting in his Word alone as the way in which God creates and reveals faith. Daily discipleship is not a method by which we attain a righteousness of our own, but rather, being a disciple of Christ means that we give testimony to His righteousness and what He is able to accomplish in us (Philippians 3:9).

Through this down-to-earth faith in Christ, we recognize that our lives serve as a kind of “means” by which God accomplishes his will in the world. God uses us as his earthly instruments to serve our neighbors in love and carry his saving message of the gospel to others, as we live out our faith as disciples of our Master, Jesus Christ.

– Rev. Steven E. King