Monday, October 3, 2011

Penance, Prayer and Depth

Penance is a really old fashion word that we historically associate with punishment, and that understanding is reinforced by the dictionary definition of the word.  I'd like to draw your attention to a few of the descriptive words in the definition:  "sincerely repent, confess and perform acts required".  I really got to thinking about this word as I read through chapter 5 in John Ardt's True Christianity (just a quick note if you decide to follow the link and read this yourself-it looks like it is all one big document but it does break down by chapter, you just have to look for the start of a new chapter in the body of the text).  Back to the topic at hand!  John Ardt made this statement:
 "For true conversion does not consist in putting away great and outward sins only, but in descending deeply into your own self, searching into the inmost recesses of the heart, the secrets and closets, all the windings and turnings thereof; changing and renewing them throughout, with the grace, that is given you..."
For an individual to really embrace the gift of grace, they need to understand that they have a need for forgiveness in the first place.  That's why we see Peter in Acts chapter 2 of The Message paraphrase saying:
"Change your life.  Turn to God and be baptized, each of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, so your sins are forgiven." 
 Many did repent and were baptized.  Yet, we find Paul talking in chapter 5 of Hebrews about the fact that those who should be eating "solid food" are still drinking "baby's milk."  They understood on the surface, but they had not gone into the depth that John Ardt talked about.

We have the same problem in the modern church!  Think about it-why make the effort to go to church, or to fellowship with other believers if it does not make a significant difference in your life?  Depth matters!  I was reminded of this at a workshop that I participated in at the Church of the Resurrection's Leadership Institute.  Rev. Constance Cherry led the workshop and it's focus was on prayer-specifically corporate prayer.

Rev. Cherry asked a question that we should all ask and seriously consider: "if the people in this congregation only had me to teach them to pray, what would their concept of God be like?"  As leaders, we need to remember the importance of teaching others how to pray.  Corporate prayer is a conversation between God and people and what we say, the words we use, should reflect that understanding.  And true conversation not only involves speaking, but it also involves listening.  It involves acknowledging that God is present. Corporate prayer done well can be a model for individuals to use in their personal, private prayer time.  It can help us move towards a deeper relationship with God.

As I reflect on the information that I gleaned from this wonderful workshop I realize that prayer is one of the things I struggle with personally.   Particularly the quiet "listening" part and the admitting my shortcomings and mistakes and asking for forgiveness.  When was the last time that I sincerely repented, confessed and changed my ways?  It's not that I don't want to do these things, it's making the time to do them!  I long for that spiritual depth but I honestly didn't know where to begin!  I have the distinct impression that I am not the only one out there that struggles with the this issue!  The further down the road you go, the more you realize, the less you know!  Nothing like a little reminder that nails you squarely between the eyeballs!  (Yes, Virginia, God does have a sense of humor!  He puts up with me, that should be proof enough!  hee hee hee!)

So two lessons learned from this particular workshop.  One is that I need to work on my own prayer life and listen more and ask for forgiveness for my mistakes more often.  The second is that corporate prayer is important and I hope that my church will make this small change in our services to include more prayer time.  Modeling prayer in a corporate setting may be just the thing that an individual needs in order to make a significant change in their own life.  Isn't that what our faith walk is about?  Penance, prayer, grace and change.  Seeking depth rather than superficiality.  I pray that our faith community chooses to lead the way by example because it is a powerful and meaningful way-following in Jesus footsteps!

Time for me to go eat some more humble pie!

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