Friday, December 29, 2006

RESOURCE ~ Knocking on Heaven's Door: A New Testament Theology of Petitionary Prayer

A MHP Interview with David Crump, author of Knocking on Heaven’s Door

Knocking on Heavens Door: A New Testament Theology of Petitionary Prayer

Bob Dylan’s repetitive “Knock, knock, knockin’ on heaven’s door,” is less a call to prayer than it is a call to beckon the hereafter. Nonetheless, the fact that there is a barrier between time and eternity, skin and divinity, asphalt and gold brings the tone of the song in line with of a new book by David Crump that takes the line as its title.

Knocking on Heaven’s Door tries to get at prayer like a savage stabbing the sun. You can get atop a mountain and be that much closer but you’re never going to get remotely close to God. As go the heavenly lights so goes the heavenly Trinity - sometimes evasive, sometimes brilliant. The disciple Thomas got what we all want – a physical reference point for his faith – when he touched Jesus’s wounds. We pray and hope our pleas board rocket ships to heaven’s door – a Polar Express of sorts – and into the unfathomable ears of a God that we understand loves us and wants to hear from us.

Dave Matthews talks about the space between and U2 the gapping wound. For the Christian, the distance between our words and Jesus’s right-hand seat is luminous – two dots in a grand canyon of echoes. That’s why the narrative in the Acts of the Apostles introduces the ghost who hovers around like he did in Genesis and has the charge to comfort travelers who believe in what they’ve never seen. And when we don’t know what we need, the ghost relays our stories to the angels and Jesus.

Well, all this prayer talk and the 300+ pages of reading material that Knocking on Heaven’s Door offers brings up a number of questions. So I contacted David Crump and asked a few questions.

Zach Kincaid: Is prayer a necessity because of the space between earth and heaven, the eternal and temporal, the veiled and the revealed?

David Crump: Christian prayer is a necessity because our God is personal. Prayer is communication with the Father. Communication is essential to intimacy. Since the Father wants an intimate relationship with us, we need to pray. The divine attributes you mention – transcendent, eternal, etc. – make communication with God a unique type of conversation, so it becomes “prayer” rather than mere “talk.”

ZK: Does one have to believe in an omniscient God to pray rightly? Does prayer “work” better if God is not?

DC: First, let me say that I’m always hesitant to talk about “the right” way to pray. Such language easily slips into the magical mindset that I warn against in my book. Second, I’m no more comfortable identifying the best way to make prayer “work.” This slips too easily into an equally dangerous, mechanistic mindset. God is not a machine that has to be made to work in the right way.

On the other hand, the New Testament certainly indicates that personal qualities such as obedience, submission and right motives have a role to play in God’s response to prayer. I am convinced the New Testament teaches that, within certain parameters, God is quite willing to alter what he does or doesn’t do according to his children’s prayers. Regardless of whether one believes that God knows the future through omniscience, or causes the future through omnipotence, or both, I suspect that when the chips are down we all ask him to answer our needs in much the same way.

ZK: Does Philippians 2 answer completely why Jesus had to pray? If we take the Garden wrenched in sweat-turned-to-blood then it certainly was more than an exercise.

DC: [Actually, it’s sweat “like” drops of blood; the reference is comparative. The sweat did not actually change.] Jesus’ life was not a dramatic production; it was real. He wasn’t jumping through a series of heavenly hoops to make a certain impression on his audience. The book of Hebrews insists that Jesus “learned obedience by the things he suffered” and that his prayers were “heard because of his reverent submission.” We cannot ignore those claims, no matter how awkward they may appear. In this light, Jesus’ anguish and prayer in Gethsemane must serve as a genuine instance of human perseverance through prayer.

ZK: I know your text is on New Testament prayer. Do you purposely frame in the New Testament as to say (without saying it) that prayer in the Old was somewhat different?

DC: Although I cannot evaluate the personal experience of prayer in the lives of God’s Old Testament people, the New Testament insists that the theological substance of prayer has radically changed. In the New Covenant, all God’s people (1) are endowed with the Holy Spirit who prays on our behalf, and (2) have a resurrected Savior interceding for us in heaven. Christian prayer involves all three members of the Trinity. The Spirit works to transform believers from the inside out, so that we can learn to pray as Jesus prayed to his heavenly Father.

ZK: No doubt prayer makes us vulnerable – to God, to faith, to each other – but doesn’t it, to some degree, make God vulnerable?

DC: Yes, I believe the New Testament clearly shows that it does, not because human beings have an innate ability to subject God to their whims, but because God has freely decided to engage us in genuinely reciprocal relationship opening himself to its consequences. Anything and everything is not subject to change, mind you, but the Father has decided that some things will be. In a previous book, Feeling Like God: A Spiritual Journey to Emotional Wholeness, I explore the Biblical evidence for God’s emotional vulnerability in tandem with his willingness to change certain aspects of his plans. I know that some theological traditions are hostile to these suggestions, but I have become convinced that such “divine vulnerability” is an essential component of Biblical teaching.

ZK: You talk about the self-confidence of the disciples and their subsequent failure to pray. There seems to be, then, a repercussion if one does not pray. It appears that there is very little repercussion if one does not pray. But, is prayer – that opening dialogue with God – not salvific, at least in part? Is this not why last rights have been so important in the church – to spur the heavenly afterlife closer? Are not the asking and the listening necessary?

DC: In part, the answer is a matter of perspective. Many aspects of Christian prayer appear paradoxical, but the apparent contradictions loom largest when we try to analyze how prayer works or doesn’t work, as if it were part of a cosmic mechanism. The paradox diminishes, however, when we remember that prayer is, first and foremost, personal communication with a personal God. Do the Spirit’s prayers make our prayers redundant? Why pray at all if the Spirit always intercedes on our behalf according to the Father’s will? Well, if prayer were simply a matter of getting things from God, we could easily conclude that it is redundant, and there is no reason for us to pray. However, since prayer is about personal relationship, both the Spirit’s prayers and ours coexist in a complementary fashion. While the Holy Spirit intercedes for us, we still need to draw close to our Father.

With regard to salvific prayer, I’m firmly Protestant and see no biblical evidence for the efficacy of such rituals as the last rites. Yet, every relationship with Christ must begin somewhere in space and time, so that initial prayer of repentance/acceptance, wherein the sinner receives God’s grace through faith, could certainly be called a salvific prayer.

ZK: The early church was influenced by its culture. In the use of Jesus’ name in prayers you make mention of the magical spells that at least one parchment indicates. You end this section with a warning to be on guard about magic entering our prayers. Is it really the exactness or the expected fulfillment of magic as you reference earlier? Are not Chants are used throughout church history and this idea of words being attached to petitions seems magical?

DC: Different Christian traditions embody different expressions of piety. Some chant, others don’t. Those differences can be an expression of healthy diversity in the body of Christ. Problems arise when we imagine an equation correlating the power of prayer with proper technique. It is one thing to say, “I prefer to chant my prayers.” It is quite another to say, “Chanted prayers are the only effective prayers.” The first is an expression of cultural diversity; the second is magical thinking.

ZK: Is there an importance of using Scripture in prayers? I know Jesus often did this. Why is it or is it not important?

DC: Scripture reveals the mind of God, the God with whom we seek true intimacy. It makes sense, then, that Christian prayer should be directed and informed by scripture. The psalms are prayers that can teach us a great deal about interacting with God. The New Testament is filled with hymns of praise and prayers of thanksgiving that offer valuable instruction to anyone willing to learn. As long as we stop short of turning biblical language into a charm that makes prayer more powerful, scripture offers important direction for every aspect of the Christian life.

ZK: Hebrews talks about a great cloud of witnesses and the transfiguration brings out Moses and Elijah. Are these, combined with the orthodox view of the perpetuation of time, at all suggestive to the idea that petitions could be made to those who have “run the race”?

DC: No, not at all. Certain branches of second temple Judaism had developed the notion of heavenly mediators, such as Abraham, Moses and certain of the prophets, interceding for God’s people in the heavenly court. The New Testament does pick up this idea but emphatically limits the role to Christ alone. The New Testament writers would be aghast at any suggestion that believers could address their prayers to someone besides the Father and the Son.

ZK: You end with the hiddenness of God, that he is most clearly revealed when he hides inside our discomforts. Is that to prove our dependence, be okay with hanging upside down between the now and yet to be, or simply a way of understanding of what God wields and what he does not? Or is it that we’re not calling down or asking the widow to fill her jar one more time or watching out for parting waters or water rich rocks or – leap forward – earnestly praying for the marks of Jesus as St Francis did. We don’t have because we don’t ask… no? And aren’t we tasked to do even greater things? Is it that we don’t really have faith or subjugate faith to hobble around with crutches? Prosperity Gospel – all that – I don’t buy. Here, I’m talking about holy and wholly believing not for gain but for a working out of our salvation. It’s praying for apartheid to end and knowing that Mandela’s jail cell will be flung open or praying for Iran’s leadership to find Jesus on their road to Emmaus or that a third great awakening might spread across this entire nation and rescue saint and sinner from mega buildings and multi media. Again, not to sell what would jesus do bracelets but to die trying to call down the spirit of God like Wilberforce did in the 1820s or Mueller did, in very different ways, later on.

DC: Of course, I can’t predict what God may or may not do in the future, but we should never forget that God’s most profound self-revelation is seen in the crucified Lord, not because God is a sado-masochist but because such insight requires the eyes of faith. Yes, on one day Jesus prayed and saw Lazarus rise from the dead. But on another day, he prayed again and was led to the cross. We should not recall men like Wilberforce without remembering the severe ostracism and hurtful opposition he endured. We can’t read about Mueller’s miracles without remembering the tremendous self-sacrifice and hardship of his life. God works miracles among those who first pick up their cross and follow Jesus in self-denial.

ZK: What did you think of prayer before writing this book and what have you learned about prayer since its completion?

DC: It’s something I’ve been trying to live out, learn about and experience more deeply for many years. Over the past 35 years or so, I’ve learned not to trust my feelings; that simple obedience today is more important than grand schemes for tomorrow; that if I wait for “proof”, I’ll never take the next step; that the immediacy of this world is the greatest temptation to sin; and that the love of Jesus Christ is my only hope.

ZK: What is your “wish” prayer as you say toward the end of the book?

DC: I wish that everyone who reads my book “may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:18-19).

© October 2006

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