Christian faith from its very beginnings has declared that God is able (Jude 24). Early Christian witness was to a God who, not only was able but who was wholly other and supreme to all things. Irenaeus declared that God 'is not as men are...the Father of all is...a simple, uncompounded Being, without diverse members, and altogether like, and equal to himself, since he is wholly understanding, and wholly spirit, and wholly thought, and wholly intelligence, and wholly reason, and wholly hearing, and wholly seeing, and wholly light, and the whole source of all that is good.' (Against Heresies, II.XIII.III) God's supremacy over all things and his Lordship over the whole cosmos (Colossians 1:15-18) was powerfully witnessed to and affirmed by the early church in face of fierce persecution and demands upon them to swear their allegiance to Caesar, something that they refused to do; God is able was their ringing testimony.
However we live in a time when many would seek to convince us that humanity is able on its own without any need for God. Certainly this is not a new concept with history littered with human desire to 'go it alone', be masters of their own lives and discover a perceived freedom from religious conviction and faith in God. Many have come to believe that God is an unnecessary part of human life, that our own advancement's and achievements have made God an irrelevance and that there is no need for God.
Without doubt our continued discoveries in the sciences, anthropology and cultural hermeneutics, amongst other things, has enabled many exciting and revolutionary changes to take place within our societies. Yet as advanced as we appear to be, as able as we think we are, we are left with the reality that, compared to God, we simply are not able;
'Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades, or loose the cords of Orion? Can you lead forth the Mazzaroth in their season, or can you guide the Bear with its children? Do you know the ordinances of the heavens? Can you establish their rule on the earth?' Job 38:31-33Prayer calls us to a dependency upon God, a recognition that God is able and that we are continually in need of his 'able-ness' to enable us to go on each moment of each day. Bonhoeffer in The Cost of Discipleship says, 'Prayer is the supreme instance of the hidden character of the Christian life. It is the antithesis of self-display. When we pray, we have ceased to know ourselves, and know only God whom we call upon. Prayer does not aim at any direct effect on the world; it is addressed to God alone.' (p. 163) Yet in an increasingly self-serving, individualistic, independent world, prayer as abandonment to God and example of total reliance upon God is easily sacrificed on the alter of our own abilities. In a viral video for the film Prometheus Peter Wayland highlights the advances humanity has made since the dawn of civilization concluding that 'we are the gods now.'
This celebration of our own abilities can all too easily impact our churches and ministry in that prayer becomes less and less of a priority. Our ability to 'do stuff' well means that we can grow our churches, establish our ministries and make an impact upon our communities without any real need to pray. A minister can easily live their life and go about their weekly tasks as though they were an atheist if ministry is simply about getting 'stuff' done.
Prayer however causes us to see that God alone is able. Prayer causes the minister to see why they are here and what they are called to. Prayer shapes the church to see her highest calling. Prayer is about and for God. Prayer calls us not to try and reach the heavens with our own abilities and somehow try and establish our own godless kingdom, but to surrender ourselves and all that we bring to God and to see him as the source and total of all that we are. We may not be worthy as to gather up the crumbs from under God's table, yet his nature is gracious and merciful desiring to feed us on his very presence.
Prayer, therefore, is not a means to an end, a vending machine spirituality but communion with Father, Son and Spirit, time to be shaped and moulded by the Spirit evermore into the image of Christ. This is the ongoing work of God by his Spirit who, 'through His transcendent love, become what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself.' (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, V. Preface).
Certainly we should be encouraging ministers to be better at what they do, to take seriously their calling by going through rigorous training, theological, spiritual and practical, but what we need to guard against is the self-sufficient attitude and belief in our own abilities to 'run a church' as though this is what ministry is all about.
The place of contemplation was significant for Jesus in his own ministry. Mark's gospel records that 'while it was still very dark, Jesus got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.' (Mark 1:35) It is important that ministers see prayer and taking ourselves off to quiet places and praying as an integral part of their ministry and not simply a yearly thing that happens on retreat. The desert fathers and mothers were only too aware of the need to pray, to find space for divine opportunity and to seek God in the desert of our own hearts. Prayer in the all and everything meant a slow and gentle shaping of the Spirit. They believed that God would use our prayers to shape us and 'little by little' until we eventually become what we are 'meant to become'. (Rowan Williams, Silence and Honey Cakes p. 87).
This commitment to prayer, to contemplation and a way of prayerfulness is incredibly difficult in a world of speed violence and constant activity where success and usefulness is measured by 'growth'. Ministers have a difficult task to stay true to a life of prayer and recognising themselves that prayer truly is the first and best thing that they should be engaged in. The temptation is to see your worth and usefulness according to how big your church is and how busy you are. I am all too aware of these thoughts and temptations and so keeping prayer as foundational and first in my own ministry is difficult at times. Yet I am convinced that prayer is without doubt the very best and first calling of a minister and when it is neglected your ministry will suffer in various ways.
Within my own ministry I am regularly seeing various people from all walks of life with all kinds of circumstances and situations being played out. The very best thing I can do for each of them is pray. But more than that, if I am not a person of prayer then I will not be the person and presence I need to be for them. Ministry is about the cure of souls therefore the ministers soul needs daily renewal through a spirit of prayerfulness. This I hope will always be my greatest desire, a recognition that God alone is able and, through prayer, God's power, not our own, is perfected.