“Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” This sentence, or a variation of it, represents the “Jesus Prayer” that has a long history as a meditative prayer within the Christian tradition. It finds its roots in the parable Jesus tells in Luke 18:9-14 of the contrasting prayers of the Pharisee and tax collector.
As I wrote last month in this place, I developed a “Trinitarian Prayer” as a result of my sabbatical study in the summer of 2006. I had prayed the “Jesus Prayer” for several years, finding it rich in meaning and a valuable centering exercise for my devotional time and spiritual life in general. Then, for reasons I could not explain, it seemed to no longer be as vibrant an experience when I prayed it. After my sabbatical study I felt the Spirit’s nudging to expand it to more fully represent the breadth of the Trinity that I had been studying.
Last month I wrote about the importance of our attitude toward God, the first Person in the Trinity. Our attitude of worship toward a powerful God that is both transcendent and immanent is vitally important.
This second phrase takes a good, honest look at self. Unlike the Pharisee in Luke 18, we are not to compare ourselves to our neighbors as much as we are to truthfully examine both our accomplishments and our flaws.
I used to read the Old Testament book of Judges and get discouraged. When were the Children of Israel ever going to learn? It seemed hard for them to remember what God had done for them and their promise to be obedient. And then, “Another generation grew up after them, who did not know the LORD or the work that he had done for Israel” (Judges 2:10). Thus begins a repeated cycle of faithlessness, calling out to God to deliver them, God calling forth a judge to deliver them, their remaining faithful for a time and then falling back into faithlessness, only to repeat the cycle again and again and again.
Surely that does not happen today! But the more experience I have in living this life of faith, the more it seems the Christian community has in common with the Children of Israel in the Old Testament. Our spiritual journey is not one of a continuous progression of greater and greater faithfulness. There are many fits and starts, with some forward steps but also many sideways or backward steps as well.
The second phrase of my Trinitarian Prayer seems more and more necessary. We need to honestly confess our shortcomings, our stumbling and our failings as we seek to follow Christ.
Psalm 136 has been a profound comfort to me as I analyze my checkered journey of faithfulness. In my impatience, I found myself wanting to write in my journal after reading this psalm, “All right already! I get it, God. Your steadfast love endures forever. Can we go on to something else?” But as if God were sitting beside me, ready for some engaging conversation, I heard the response, “No, you haven’t got it yet. You see, my steadfast love endures forever. And I will keep repeating it until you do get it.”
Suddenly the book of Judges took on new meaning for me. As we truly recognize who we are and how we journey toward God in fits and starts — even with our best intentions! — we see that God never gives up on the people of God. Relentlessly and patiently God delivers us (not without consequences oftentimes, but delivers us nonetheless) time and time again. As I pray this second phrase of my Trinitarian Prayer, I am reminded of how much I am (and all the rest of us are) in need of that relentlessly patient and forgiving God. For when we pray in this way, we can receive the words Jesus spoke at the conclusion of this parable: “This man went down to his home justified…”