Why Pray the Hours? – Reflections on Reformation

The church throughout her history has kept regular, set times of prayer each day. Should modern Christians reacquire this ancient practice?

Note: this begins a series on my blog called Reflections on Reformation which will be running this year in commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the onset of the Protestant Reformation.

Early on in the history of the church, Christians understood that the 1st century Jewish practice of meeting for prayer at set times of the day was a good and biblical practice to continue. We find references to this in several places in Scripture. In Acts 3 we find Peter and John attending a set prayer at the temple at 3PM. Acts 10 seems to reference Peter continuing this practice in his devotional life as he was praying at the ninth hour (3pm). Later in the story he prays at the sixth hour (noon).  Pentecost occurred at the third hour of the day (9 am). In Jesus’s parable in Luke 18 we find two men going up to the temple to pray. While he does not tell us the exact hour, it was a corporate prayer service they were attending. Simeon and Anna prayed in the Temple continually, it says in Luke 2. We tend to assume this is individual devotional prayer, but it would make more sense if this referred to them participating in the set prayers of the temple service. In Acts 22 we find Paul praying at the temple. In Luke 1:10 we find a multitude praying in the temple courts at the “hour of incense.” In Daniel 9 we find Daniel praying at the time of the evening sacrifice. He did this even though the temple was destroyed and there was currently no sacrificial ministry occurring.

In the Psalms there are multiple references to prayer and times of day. Psalm 88:13 says, “But I, O LORD, cry to you; in the morning my prayer comes before you.” Psalm 141:2 says, “Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice!” Psalm 5:3 says, “O LORD, in the morning you hear my voice; in the morning I prepare a sacrifice for you and watch.” Psalm 59:16, “But I will sing of your strength; I will sing aloud of your steadfast love in the morning. For you have been to me a fortress and a refuge in the day of my distress.” Psalm 119:147, “I rise before dawn and cry for help; I hope in your words.” Psalm 55:17, “Evening and morning and at noon I utter my complaint and moan, and he hears my voice.” Psalm 119:148, “My eyes are awake before the watches of the night, that I may meditate on your promise.” Psalm 134:1-2, “Come, bless the LORD, all you servants of the LORD, who stand by night in the house of the LORD! Lift up your hands to the holy place and bless the LORD!” Psalm 119:62, “At midnight I rise to praise you, because of your righteous rules.” This is not to mention numerous places in the Psalms where specific times of day are referred to with relation to receiving mercy, hearing God’s word, groaning, crying out, meditating on his greatness, etc.

Perhaps this is also what is meant by the several references in the scriptures to praying night and day and praying without ceasing. This would make sense in the context of gathered set times of prayer, which we know were happening at least in the temple and also in an extension of those temple services in private prayers (see Peter and Daniel above).

Are we to take these numerous references to prayer at specific times of day as a descriptive coincidence? Or do the Scriptures intend to prescribe a practice for God’s people? Indeed, the early Christians saw these references as scriptural warrant to offer prayers at set times each day. Based on specific times mentioned in scripture (just before dawn, third hour, sixth hour, ninth hour, sunset, evening, midnight) and based on Psalm 119:164 which says, “Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous rules,” the early Christians established set times of prayer at these times.

https://pastortimlecroy.files.wordpress.com/2017/09/daf9c-xpray-the-hours-pagespeed-ic-msrl-z6coo.jpg?w=840

Not everyone prayed seven times a day in the early church, although for some this was the ideal (see Hippolytus of Rome’s Apostolic Constitutions). Yet the churches called those to prayer who were pastors and workers, those with vocations within the church and those who were able and willing to do so. Eventually communities sprang up who were devoted to prayer, such were the early monasteries. In the Rule of Benedict he lays out the liturgies for the set times of prayer along with the Psalms that were to be sung at them. In the ancient practice of the Benedictine Rule, the monastery was directed to sing through the entire Psalter every week.

This may be what Paul had in mind as well when he describes that the widows who are enrolled in the church when he writes in 1 Timothy 5:5, “She who is truly a widow, left all alone, has set her hope on God and continues in supplications and prayers night and day.” Interestingly, Calvin remarked on this in his Institutes in book 4:8:18-19 where he discusses the enrollment of widows as deaconesses to “discharge the public ministry of the church toward the poor and to strive with all zeal, continancy, and diligence in the task of love.” It is interesting because he does not address the apostolic command that these widows continue in supplications night and day. His reaction against late medieval monasticism was too strong to allow him to consider that possibility. In this he was not unlike many of the Protestant Reformers who saw the services of the hours as attempts to “appease God with songs or unintelligible mumbling.”

Despite Calvin’s protestation, the church has continued these daily prayers, the hours or divine offices throughout her history. At the time of the Protestant Reformation one of the main questions that arose was whether and which practices of the ancient and medieval church should be continued. While some protestant traditions continued the daily office in some form (mainly Anglicans and some Lutherans), most of the Protestants jettisoned the daily office in favor of the teaching ministry of the church. Calvin himself taught the scriptures daily, and for that reason we have an expansive collection of his biblical teaching. We might ask though, while teaching the scriptures is obviously a very good thing, should the corporate prayer ministry of the church have been abandoned? If the answer is no, what are ways that we can reincorporate this ministry into the life our churches today?

Evangelical churches have tended to relegate prayer to the private life of the individual believer. The emphasis on alone time with the Lord is in keeping with Christ’s teaching on prayer, and this was the main influence for Evangelical piety. Yet in the 20th century, Pentecostal and Charismatic movements have reacquired this ancient emphasis on prayer, while not taking up the ancient forms. Many charismatic prayer ministries seek to be faithful to God’s word by opening up prayer rooms where there is a sign-up and a schedule to ensure that prayers are being offered around the clock.

While this re-emphasis on prayer is to be commended, it largely focuses on the efficacy of prayer (a true and good notion), but not necessarily on the formative aspects of prayer for the Christian believer. In the early church it was both the efficacious and the formative aspects of prayer that shaped the church’s practices. Could we glean from this formative aspect of prayer today?

There has been much work recently in this area. James K. A. Smith’s work on Christian formation has drawn deeply from prayer’s formative aspect and the goodness of this for Christian formation. Additionally Greg Thompson in his public teaching ministry has made this a focus. Both Thompson and Smith have drawn from the life of the ancient church in its rich liturgies and from the Rule of Benedict which prescribes prayer as a way of life for disciples of Christ. It should be noted that both Smith and Thompson are active in the Reformed context, Thompson being a pastor in the PCA and having given a series of foundational lectures at Covenant Theological Seminary on this topic.

What then are we to make of this? I’m not suggesting that every Christian should pray the seven offices every day. Yet it would be helpful if Evangelicals leaned into this rich tradition to form our congregations in some way. It is also very helpful, if not necessary, that those who are in vocational ministry participate in the daily office as a way to rest, recharge, and fulfill our callings to intercede as ministers of word and prayer.

I’ll offer several practical suggestions below.

  1. Offer avenues for daily prayer to congregants. This could be in the form of a prayer guide that the church produces, or suggestions of various smartphone apps which fulfill the same purpose. For example, each year for Advent and Lent my church offers a daily prayer guide to all our congregants to enter into daily prayer. Mind you, this is not seven times a day, but a suggestion and resource for engaging in once-daily prayer as individuals and families. Another option is to offer a page in the weekly service bulletin with all the lectionary readings for that week and encourage congregants to use that week’s service as a prayer guide throughout the week.
  2. Offer a mid week prayer service. Churches with access to facilities during the week could offer a mid-week vespers or matins (or both!) so that congregants who wish could attend to pray together and be shaped by these rich patterns of prayer.
  3. Pray daily as a church staff. If you have multiple staff who office at the same location, gather for morning prayer as you start each day. Make it a priority and block the time out on your schedule.
  4. Seminary Communities. Seminaries are uniquely positioned to enter into the richness of communal prayer. If chapels are more lightly attended than years past, perhaps a shift away from the didactic focus of a chapel sermon to the communal and formative act of prayer will reinvigorate seminary communities. Begin by exposing students and faculty to things like chanting psalms and saying the hours. Do the office for one or two of the chapel services a semester. Pick one day per semester to cancel classes and pray the hours (9am, 12, 3, and at sunset), encouraging the students and faculty to work in between the prayer services. Eventually begin offering morning prayer on a daily basis for those that desire it. Then sit back and see what the Lord does with it.
  5. Individual pastors. I encourage all pastors to say the office at least once a day. I say the morning office every morning (even Sunday before church!) except for my day off. This has been very beneficial for me in a number of ways, which I will detail in a future post.

Won’t this require too much work and take up too much time? The great thing about the office is that once you learn how it works, you don’t need to spend time preparing and practicing like we have done for many chapel services and Sunday services these days. Find someone who can lead it well. Find someone who can chant psalms. Then just show up and do it. Take 15-20 minutes out of your day (minimum) to spend time in community before the Lord. I promise that you will begin to see tangible results in the lives of those who participate.

Martin Luther is supposed to have said, “I have so much to do that if I didn’t spend at least three hours a day in prayer I would never get it all done.” There is no written evidence that he ever said that, though perhaps it was a oral tradition that was passed down through the ages due to its poignancy. Whether he said it or not, we must remember that Luther was a medieval monk who prayed the hours. That shaped him and formed him in his knowledge of the scriptures and in his love and knowledge of God. Augustine prayed the hours. Chrysostom prayed the hours. Anselm prayed the hours. In fact, all the theological giants of the ancient and medieval church prayed them in some form. Our fathers and mothers were steeped in scripture because of this. We often think that we know the bible well and understand it even better. But are we steeped in scripture to the level that our fathers and mothers were? Who recited the psalter by heart once a week? Who read through the bible at least every three years? Who daily spent hours in prayer before the face of God?

 

Want me to help you learn how to chant the psalms? Contact me.

Apps for the daily office
These apps are available in your app store. Note: these apps come from various theological traditions.

  • Mission St. Clare
  • Divine Hours, Vinyard Ann Arbor
  • Universalis
  • Daily Prayer from the COE
  • Do you know of others? Comment below!

 

Ambrose’s Advice to Augustine When Visiting Other Churches

A beautiful example of Christian discipleship

When I was in graduate school preparing for my doctoral comprehensive examinations on the history of eucharistic theology, I came across an insightful passage in Augustine’s letter to Januarius (Letter 54, found here). In this letter, Augustine relays to Januarius a situation he had with his mother who was scandalized when visiting a church in a distant city that did not worship the way she was accustomed. You see, Augustine was raised by his mother, Monica, according to the Roman rite, and during her sojourn with her son in Milan she was confronted with the different practices of the Milanese rite. All that to say that when traveling, she and Augustine went to church and she was putt off by the way they worshiped (the exact details are contained in the text below).

Now when I came across this passage I was a bit younger and more strident in my opinions about worship. To be sure, I still have a developed liturgical theology, but as I have aged a bit and grown from experience, I have softened a good deal. One of the things that softened me was Ambrose’s advice to Augustine (Was Monica’s scruple really his own?), and Augustine’s advice in turn to Januarius.

Here is another example how the wise Ambrose’s shepherding helped the young Augustine to mature. I think it’s a beautiful picture of Christian discipleship. Like Augustine, my own opinions in my younger days were such that I could not truly participate in worship with any sort of true and humble spirit of unity for all the scruples my sinful heart was throwing before my eyes. I’ve had to repent of that, and this passage from Augustine helped me to do that. Perhaps it will help you as well.

Be mindful that Augustine uses some strong words at the end of the passage, but we can forgive him as he was confronted by violent schism in his native diocese of Hippo and the surrounding areas near Carthage in Northern Africa.

There are other things, however, which are different in different places and countries: e.g., some fast on Saturday, others do not; some partake daily of the body and blood of Christ, others receive it on stated days: in some places no day passes without the sacrifice being offered; in others it is only on Saturday and the Lord’s day, or it may be only on the Lord’s day. In regard to these and all other variable observances which may be met anywhere, one is at liberty to comply with them or not as he chooses; and there is no better rule for the wise and serious Christian in this matter, than to conform to the practice which he finds prevailing in the Church to which it may be his lot to come. For such a custom, if it is clearly not contrary to the faith nor to sound morality, is to be held as a thing indifferent, and ought to be observed for the sake of fellowship with those among whom we live.

I think you may have heard me relate before, what I will nevertheless now mention. When my mother followed me to Milan, she found the Church there not fasting on Saturday. She began to be troubled, and to hesitate as to what she should do; upon which I, though not taking a personal interest then in such things, applied on her behalf to Ambrose, of most blessed memory, for his advice. He answered that he could not teach me anything but what he himself practised, because if he knew any better rule, he would observe it himself. When I supposed that he intended, on the ground of his authority alone, and without supporting it by any argument, to recommend us to give up fasting on Saturday, he followed me, and said: “When I visit Rome, I fast on Saturday; when I am here, I do not fast. On the same principle, do you observe the custom prevailing in whatever Church you come to, if you desire neither to give offence by your conduct, nor to find cause of offence in another’s.” When I reported this to my mother, she accepted it gladly; and for myself, after frequently reconsidering his decision, I have always esteemed it as if I had received it by an oracle from heaven. For often have I perceived, with extreme sorrow, many disquietudes caused to weak brethren by the contentious pertinacity or superstitious vacillation of some who, in matters of this kind, which do not admit of final decision by the authority of Holy Scripture, or by the tradition of the universal Church or by their manifest good influence on manners raise questions, it may be, from some crotchet of their own, or from attachment to the custom followed in one’s own country, or from preference for that which one has seen abroad, supposing that wisdom is increased in proportion to the distance to which men travel from home, and agitate these questions with such keenness, that they think all is wrong except what they do themselves.

SOURCE: Augustine, Letter 54 to Januarius, CCEL (accessed here).

IMAGE: Gozzoli, Ambrose baptizing Augustine with the words of the hymn Te deum (Source: Wikimedia Commons) 15th c.

To Ash or not to Ash

To Ash or Not to Ash - Theopolis

Today is Ash Wednesday, and as many Christians of the Protestant formerly “low church” persuasion are reacquiring some of the good and ancient practices of the church, one question in particular comes to the front: to ash or not to ash? That is, while many of us are finding great spiritual value in keeping Lent, we are also wondering, what about the whole ashes on the forehead thing?

So, why even make ashes an option? Here, briefly, are the reasons. Let me first say that I resonate with the idea of not offering ashes on Wednesday. The practice is not commanded in scripture, and it is not something that I consider to be essential to the life of the church. Therefore, I do not judge those who abstain from the practice any more than I do those who practice it.

That said, I do believe the imposition of ashes to be a good and right thing to do. My reasons are that the symbolism is taught in the scriptures, the practice has a very ancient heritage in the church, and that rituals are important to us as human beings and especially as Christian believers.

>>To read the rest, click over to the Theopolis Institute Blog.

Why We Need Advent, Now More Than Ever

Not feeling the Christmas spirit this year? That’s what Advent is for. Let’s keep the season of Advent to mourn the brokenness of this world and to prepare our hearts properly for the celebration of Christmas.

Advent-Christmas-candle-10

I don’t know about you, but I’m having trouble summoning up the Christmas spirit this year. Thanksgiving is over and now our culture is trying to force us into full on Christmas celebratory mode. Our culture wants us to give into the swelling wave of sickening consumeristic bacchanalia. But, I want to ask a question: is it the time for feasting yet? Is it a time for emptying our pocketbooks on ourselves just yet? Should we push back against our culture just a little, this year of all years?

How can we feast while a great American city burns? While a family mourns the reality that no one will be held accountable for the death of their son? While brothers and sisters cry out against what they see as systematic oppression, and folks across the racial and socio-economic divide struggle to listen? How can we feast while Ebola ravages the people of West Africa and threatens to move in on other parts of our world and while now the bubonic plague is becoming a threat to the people of Madagascar? How can we celebrate when campus rape culture has been exposed to be a system where victims are not always protected and the reputations of venerated institutions are instead? How can we go into full on Christmas mode when tanks continue to line up in Ukraine and heads continue to roll in Syria and Iraq? How can we feast when millions upon millions of poor immigrants and refugees in our own country struggle to meet the basic necessities of life? How can we be so tone deaf as a culture? Before we feast and celebrate, would it be appropriate to stop and pray and fast for the many sad things we see around us?

The great history and tradition of the Church may have an answer for us. You see, traditionally there was a preparatory season of prayer and fasting that preceded Christmas. Christmas is not just a day, but a season of the Church year and a time of celebration in the life of the Church. And while we are seemingly always ready to remind others to keep the Christ in Christmas, let us also remember that this feast of Christmas must also be kept in its proper season and its proper proportion. As long as there has been a feast of Christmas, there has also been a preparatory time that preceded the great feast, a period that the Church has called Advent.

Traditionally, the Christmas celebration season followed Christmas Day, while the season that preceded Christmas Day was set aside for preparatory prayer, meditation, and fasting. So while we are keeping the Christ in Christmas, let us also remember to keep a holy Advent to prepare for his coming.

What is Advent? In short, Advent is a season for us to cry out against the brokenness, the injustice, the sin, the disease, the hurt, the oppression, and the fallenness of this world. Advent is a time for us all to hit pause for a moment and as a church, as a human race, to pray and cry out to God to come and fix our broken world. Ultimately God, the All-Powerful Creator and Sustainer of all things, is the only one who can fix our world in a lasting way. But we must not forget that God, while he can intervene supernaturally, almost always uses people to meet his ends in this world. So while we are praying and fasting, let us also be doing. James says, let us not be hearers of the word only, but also doers. Pure religion he says is to serve widows and orphans – to love the poor and the foreigner; the oppressed and downtrodden – to welcome, to host, to listen, and to serve. In short, to love my neighbor as myself. Who is my neighbor, you ask? Friends, who is not your neighbor?

So Advent is a time to pray, a time to fast, a time to listen, and a time to do. If it seems that feasting may be inappropriate this year, or any year, let us first prepare our hearts for the feast. We will feast – we will eat and drink and celebrate the incarnation of the Son of God into our flesh – but before we do that let us first press pause for a moment. Let us first pray and mourn awhile. It will be good for our souls and it will be good for our world.


Here are some resources for praying, listening, and doing:


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The Importance of Reading Scripture in Worship

Al Mohler comments on a Mark Gali article in Christianity Today remarking on modern Christians’ lack of appetite for hearing passages of Scripture read in church.

This is why we keep the traditional set of scripture readings in our services at Christ Our King. I often tell our people that my opinion as an expositor and preacher may be informed by education, wisdom, and experience, but my sermons are not inspired by the Holy Spirit. We need to read and hear Scripture so that we can make space in our worship for the Lord to work in changing our hearts and lives.

One way to look at it is that the reading of Scripture should be the main event. The sermon is simply explaining and applying what we have just read from God’s holy and inspired Word. All too often, it is the sermon and not the Scriptures (or communion!) that is the main event. This is a modern aberration in the history of Christian worship. Christian worship has always made the reading of Scripture the primary event, as it should be. In the standard worship service of most of the 2,000 years of Christian worship, passages of God’s Word were read from the Old Testament, The New Testament, and the Gospels. These lessons, as they are called, are often thematic to the time of the church year. At other times they relate to each other as one main text is being moved through sequentially (the Gospels, for instance).

In the historical worship service, the reading of scripture is highlighted and glorified by being interspersed with the singing of Psalms, Scripture Songs, and Hymns. In this kind of service, it is God’s Word that is magnified and honored, not the opinions and self-importance of one person. Is it any wonder that as the practice of reading scripture has lessened in our churches that the cult of personality has increased with celebrity pastors and mega-churches? What would happen if we read more scripture, sang more scripture, celebrated communion more often and had a shorter sermon? GASP!

Are we afraid to let God’s word to take precedence in our worship? Isn’t it a bit conceited and even idolatrous to think that my sermon could ever do a better job of edifying and strengthening the flock than the Holy Spirit working through the Word of God?

Knox on Baptism

We utterly condemn the vanity of those who affirm the sacraments to be nothing else than naked and bare signs. No, we assuredly believe that by Baptism we are engrafted into Christ Jesus, to be made partakers of his righteousness, by which our sins are covered and remitted, and also that in the Supper rightly used, Christ Jesus is so joined with us that he becomes the very nourishment and food for our souls.

-John Knox, The Scots Confession, 1560

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scots_Confession

An Ancient Homily for Holy Saturday

What is happening? Today there is a great silence over the earth, a great silence, and stillness, a great silence because the King sleeps; the earth was in terror and was still, because God slept in the flesh and raised up those who were sleeping from the ages. God has died in the flesh, and the underworld has trembled.

Truly he goes to seek out our first parent like a lost sheep; he wishes to visit those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death. He goes to free the prisoner Adam and his fellow-prisoner Eve from their pains, he who is God, and Adam’s son.

The Lord goes in to them holding his victorious weapon, his cross. When Adam, the first created man, sees him, he strikes his breast in terror and calls out to all: ‘My Lord be with you all.’ And Christ in reply says to Adam: ‘And with your spirit.’ And grasping his hand he raises him up, saying: ‘Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.

‘I am your God, who for your sake became your son, who for you and your descendants now speak and command with authority those in prison: Come forth, and those in darkness: Have light, and those who sleep: Rise.

‘I command you: Awake, sleeper, I have not made you to be held a prisoner in the underworld. Arise from the dead; I am the life of the dead. Arise, O man, work of my hands, arise, you who were fashioned in my image. Rise, let us go hence; for you in me and I in you, together we are one undivided person.

‘For you, I your God became your son; for you, I the Master took on your form; that of slave; for you, I who am above the heavens came on earth and under the earth; for you, man, I became as a man without help, free among the dead; for you, who left a garden, I was handed over to Jews from a garden and crucified in a garden.

‘Look at the spittle on my face, which I received because of you, in order to restore you to that first divine inbreathing at creation. See the blows on my cheeks, which I accepted in order to refashion your distorted form to my own image.

‘See the scourging of my back, which I accepted in order to disperse the load of your sins which was laid upon your back. See my hands nailed to the tree for a good purpose, for you, who stretched out your hand to the tree for an evil one.

`I slept on the cross and a sword pierced my side, for you, who slept in paradise and brought forth Eve from your side. My side healed the pain of your side; my sleep will release you from your sleep in Hades; my sword has checked the sword which was turned against you.

‘But arise, let us go hence. The enemy brought you out of the land of paradise; I will reinstate you, no longer in paradise, but on the throne of heaven. I denied you the tree of life, which was a figure, but now I myself am united to you, I who am life. I posted the cherubim to guard you as they would slaves; now I make the cherubim worship you as they would God.

“The cherubim throne has been prepared, the bearers are ready and waiting, the bridal chamber is in order, the food is provided, the everlasting houses and rooms are in readiness; the treasures of good things have been opened; the kingdom of heaven has been prepared before the ages.