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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Prayer

Professors question each other about this fundamental act

Editor’s note: This series is intended to be a public conversation among teaching theologians of the ELCA on various themes of our faith and the challenging issues of our day. It invites readers to engage in dialogue by posting comments online at the end of each article at www.thelutheran.org.

The series is edited by Philip D.W. Krey, president of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, on behalf of the presidents of the eight ELCA seminaries.

 

Mark Oldenburg: What does it mean to pray “in the name of Jesus”?

Cláudio Carvalhaes: It is to pray in the name of God Emanuel, the one who connects heaven and earth, the one who is God triune and a human being from Nazareth, the one who is just like me and beyond myself.

It’s to be reminded of whom we serve, follow, live with and adore. It reminds us that we belong to God, from the waters of our baptism, the eating of the meal, the witnessing of our liberator, into eternal life back to God’s embrace. It’s to commit to a way of living that is fundamentally to serve the poor. It’s to be able to cast out demons and see miracles happening. It is to love my brothers and sisters and be challenged by them. Ultimately, it’s to be thankful for what God has done for us. 

Oldenburg: Does prayer need to be in words?

Carvalhaes: Yes and no. While scholars remind us that prayer is the grammar of our faith, it entails other forms of communication such as symbols, gestures and feelings. Art is a way of praying that stretches us beyond our culturally used words. Dance dedicated to God in our church is a form of prayer. Keeping silence can be a form of prayer.  Words are fundamental to us and the prayers written throughout history teach us about the manifestations of God in history.

To pray without ceasing means more than words. Listening, paying attention to somebody, feeding the hungry, meditating, offering forgiveness, sharing Jesus Christ, being gentle, attending to the suffering, working for justice — these actions are prayers too.

It was Francis of Assisi who said to his friends as they entered cities: “Go preach the gospel, and if necessary, use words.” The same is true for prayer.

Oldenburg: Can I pray using someone else’s words?

Carvalhaes: Yes. It’s our task to learn ancient traditions and what Christians across time and places have prayed. We must pray prayers from across the globe. If we pray the words of only one culture or tradition, we turn God into a specific image, making our cultural format the only way to God. The whole process of colonization is a witness to that.

Different words portray different ways of understanding God, and we are challenged to pray each other’s prayers. The work of our own Lutheran liturgical theologian, Gail Ramshaw, addresses the power of language. In books such as God Beyond Gender, Treasures Old and New: Images in the Lectionary (Fortress Press, 1995) she helps us all reimagine God. The metaphors she offers, the words she chooses, always guard the wisdom of ancient traditions and help us learn about the God whom many of us didn’t know before. She expanded the grammar of my faith.

We pray ecumenically and can learn from the prayers of other religious traditions too. That is a little more complicated. But as we open ourselves to the ways in which other people pray, our own grammar and understanding of praying in Jesus’ name grows.


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