Nov. 29, 2017: Discovering the Grace of God in Prayer
I learned of this story from Nicky Gumbel, vicar of Holy Trinity Brompton in London and one of the pioneers of the Alpha Course. The distinguished art critic Robert Cumming was studying a painting by the Italian Renaissance master Filippino Lippi that hung in London’s National Gallery. The painting troubled him. There could be no doubting Lippi’s skill, or his use of color or composition in the 15th-century depiction of Mary holding the infant Jesus on her lap, with saints Dominic and Jerome kneeling nearby. But the proportions were slightly wrong. The hills in the background seemed exaggerated, as if they might topple out of the frame at any minute onto the gallery’s polished floor. The two kneeling saints looked awkward and uncomfortable.
Cumming was not the first to criticize this work for its poor perspective, but he may well be the last to do so, because at that moment he had a revelation. It suddenly occurred to him that the problem might be his, not Lippi’s. The painting he was analyzing with clinical objectivity was not just another piece of religious art hanging in a gallery alongside other comparative works. It had never been intended to come anywhere near a public gallery. Lippi’s painting had been commissioned to hang in a place of prayer.
Self-consciously, the critic dropped to his knees before the painting. He suddenly saw what generations of art critics had missed. From this new vantage point, Robert Cumming found himself gazing up at a perfectly-proportioned piece. The foreground had moved naturally to the background, while the saints seemed settled — their awkwardness, like the painting itself, having turned to grace. Mary now looked, intently and kindly, directly at Cumming as he knelt in front of her.
It was not the perspective of the painting that had been wrong all these years, it was the perspective of the people looking at it. Robert Cumming, on bended knee in prayer, found a kindness and a grace that he could not see simply by standing as an art critic.
Prayer has the power to radically change our perspective. Prayer can sound like an added burden or even like law, but on our knees, our perspective changes and we discover that prayer is really all about grace.
Here are three things about the grace of God in our prayer lives.
Prayer: The grace to encounter God and know His kindness — The apostle Paul affirms the truth that God is kind. It is a kindness within which we encounter God’s goodness, forbearance, patience and long-suffering. In fact, at Romans 2:4, Paul wrote of the "riches of His kindness." That means that God is not just a little bit kind but that He has huge resources of kindness to pour out on us. George Muller, on the subject of prayer wrote, “…especially through meditation on the Word of God, the believer becomes more and more acquainted with the nature and character of God and thus sees more and more, besides His holiness and justice, what a kind, loving, gracious, merciful, mighty, wise and faithful [God] He is…”
Prayer gives us this perspective. That is why our prayers in the morning can be so effective. They give us this lens. The Psalmist knew this when he asked the Lord, “Awake, my soul!” (Psalm 57:8 NIV). And again, “As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness; when I awake, I shall be satisfied with your likeness.” (Psalm 17:15 NIV). My own times of early morning prayer are not my paying some sort of “Early Bird dividend” to the Lord, not some mechanistic prayerful practice (“See, Lord, I dragged myself out of bed so you can now bless my day!”). We are invited to meet with the Lord early in the morning so that our souls might be awakened to His presence for the entire day. To make the Lord our first conversation of the day is to awaken our souls to a gracious conversation that will last all day long.
Prayer: The grace to see ourselves and know God’s mercy — One of George Herbert’s most famous and loved poems, “Prayer: The Church’s Banquet,” displays the extraordinary depth of his prayer life. Within the poem, he deploys the intriguing description that to be in prayer is to find “…the Soul in paraphrase.” To paraphrase something is to get the gist of it, to make it accessible. Prayer is learning before God who we really are. For Herbert, an encounter with Jesus was always to bring us into an encounter with our true selves.
Prayer means knowing ourselves, or getting to know ourselves, as well as God does. And, you know what, this can be uncomfortable. But in His kindness, in the riches of His kindness, patience and forbearance, when God enables us to see ourselves that clearly, He takes us firmly by the hand and leads us not into condemnation but into mercy. “This is how God showed His love among us: He sent His one and only Son into the world that we might live through Him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1 John 4:9-10)
Prayer: The grace to participate in the power of God to transform — Saint John Chrysostom wrote: “The potency of prayer has subdued the strength of fire, it has bridled the rage of lions… extinguished wars, appeased the elements, expelled demons, burst the chains of death, expanded the gates of heaven, assuaged diseases… rescued cities from destruction… and arrested the progress of the thunderbolt.” George Herbert would agree. He referred to prayer as “reversed thunder.” Thunder here is an expression of the awesome power of God. Prayer somehow harnesses that power so that our prayers are heard in Heaven not as whispers but as a mighty roar.
On May 27, 1940, King George VI called for a national day of prayer following the realization that the Allied troops in northern France were at risk of “total annihilation.” Three extraordinary events occurred following that day of prayer. First, Hitler overruled his generals and halted the advance of his troops (something that has never been fully explained). Second, a storm of unprecedented scale grounded the Luftwaffe that was poised to attack the evacuating Allied troops. And third, despite the storm, a serene calm settled over the English Channel days later, which enabled a vast armada of boats to come and rescue the escaping men.
With the eyes of faith, we can see that this was more than an extraordinary set of coincidences; from the perspective of our knees, this was the hand of God in response to a nation in desperate prayer.
Personally, I find this a truly compelling story. Still, I cannot use it to convince you that “prayer works.” For every story I could tell you of extraordinary answers to prayer, we always have the opportunity to say “well, that was just a coincidence” or “yes, but what about the prayer I don’t see answered?”. What I can say (borrowing from William Temple) is that the more boldly we pray, the more thunderous coincidences we see.
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