“Pray without ceasing.”
One of the tangible legacies of the 1960’s that continues to impact the churches, is the emphasis on personal experience as the final word in all things. Today, it is taken for granted.
Large elements of contemporary non-denominational Christianity, for example, speak quite openly about the direct experience of God apart from any interpretation of that experience. Theology is a negative term. The bible is a transparent lens that needs no filter. The entire enterprise, in this respect represents a flight away from the belief that religious experience must have some form of interpretation.
A young woman came to see me years ago who had “met Jesus” in some church or another. She had been instructed that her baptism as in infant was invalid. What was ironic is that a large amount of biblical theology and interpretation had to happen, if unwittingly, between her experience and the rejection of her baptism. I expressed my happiness at her new-found enthusiasm for Jesus and suggested that there might be another way to think about what happened to her and her reaction to that experience. She was kind enough to hear me out.
I suggested that we were looking at a question that ran in two directions. Does an experience we call religious necessarily lead us to think primarily about ourselves or about God? Does Christian religious experience take us outside of ourselves or send us into ourselves? It was significant that as an aspect of her recent inner experience she was told to reject the external experience of her baptism. She was supplied with an external biblical theology – an interpretive filter – that removed God from any connection with the external. She was sent to find God within.
I went on to suggest that the Lutheran lens through which we view the bible sees the other side of the question. We believe the experience of God leads not into an interior experience of the self but to a comprehension of God who comes to us in the external word of promise. The Lutheran response to the God who comes to us in His grace is not to write an autobiography but to point back, beyond and outside ourselves to God. It is not my perceived experience of God that is decisive. What is decisive is God’s word of promise to me and for me.
This has something to do with St. Paul’s invitation to “pray without ceasing”, which I take to be an invitation to live every moment in the awareness of God’s presence. But where do I reliably enter that prayerful experience, that dialog with God? Do I look to myself, my decision, my feelings, my inner experience? Do I have to come up with the right prayers, the right words? Lutheran Christians believe it is in the external Word of promise given in baptism, the Lord’s Supper and the preached words of the Gospel, that this prayerful dialog with God takes place.
Your baptism as an infant, I said to her, was never meant to underline your experience of God but to point to God being for you. It began a God-initiated life and dialog. Your recent feeling that something was perhaps lacking in your experience as a Christian was simply an expression of the human side of that dialog with God. For in our experience of living we more often than not keenly feel the depth of our need, perhaps even God’s absence. The faithful response at such times, however, is not to look inward but to move away from self-consciousness toward your baptism. For baptism is a gracious reminder that you are God’s adopted child. Baptism is a reminder that your life moves in and with Christ Jesus in a never-ending dialog of ceaseless prayer where the wavering and wandering words of your quite unreliable experience are always answered by the utterly reliable Word of God’s grace.
“May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.”