On Prayer: Our First Vocation

By Taylor Burton-Edwards

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Aymara Christian woman praying in Bolivia. Public Domain.

"So I urge first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions [and] thanksgivings be made for all human beings" (I Timothy 2:1, translation mine).

As a general statement of good Christian action, this seems a reasonable enough bit of advice for someone like Paul to offer to someone like his protegé, Timothy.

But this isn't a general statement of good Christian action.

Instead, it's at the very top of Paul's to do list for Timothy whom Paul has specifically sent to "straighten out" the congregations in Ephesus and environs that had, evidently, begun to wander from their true mission.

Prayer-- and getting prayer right-- is "job 1" on that list!

"First of all" isn't just a way to start a list. It's a way to say, "This is the most important thing you can do and you need to get this done first."

Get folks praying-- actively! And get them praying for everyone!

Praying here doesn't mean "thinking good thoughts." It also doesn't mean offering a brief mention during joys and concerns or on a printed list in a worship service.

Instead, Paul specifies four different actions in praying-- supplication, prayer, intercession and thanksgiving-- and he specifies they are all to be offered for all human beings. Each of these is distinct-- and all require active participation in one form or another by those praying.

Supplication (deesis) pictures actions of "begging," (from the Greek, deomai, to beg), bowing low if not falling prostrate before a superior to ask for help, and would likely have meant those praying in this way assumed this kind of bodily posture and energy in such praying.

Prayer (proseuche-- literally, "well-wishes on behalf of others") could have been "set prayers"-- some of which may have been inherited from synagogues, and others of which may have been adapted or newly composed by these or other Christian communities for specific situations. Such prayers could have been offered standing or kneeling, but most likely standing.

Intercession (enteuxis < entugchanein, to encounter) is a specifically priestly ministry, a meeting or encounter with God where one is "standing in the gap" on behalf of others, holding others intentionally before the gaze of the Most High and commending them to God's keeping. It is usually performed standing.

Thanksgiving (eucharistia, the origin of the English transliteration, Eucharist) would also have been offered standing, though likely also while moving about (dancing at times!) with joy and gratitude. A "eucharistia" could have been pre-composed or spontaneous, or a combination of the two (e.g., the presider offers generic reasons for thanksgiving and the whole assembly names specific people or things for which they are thankful).

Together, these four ways of praying were a full embodiment of our priestly calling and work as body of Christ-- to offer ourselves before God in every form of prayer we can for everyone else on the planet.

These take time. And they are real work, priestly work. They are part of our "reasonable sacrifice."

One doesn't come by these "naturally." They are all learned, requiring practice.

They are physical, intellectual, "soul-full" and emotional outpourings-- sacrifices if you will-- not just by those who lead worship, but by the whole of the worshiping community-- and not just at the worship of the whole assembly (such as on Sunday morning), but personally and in other group settings as well.

And again, Paul says these are "first of all." Order your prayer life aright-- personally, in groups and as a congregation-- and do that first.

And that's just verse 1!

More to come...

Questions for Reflection and Conversation
How does prayer where you are compare with these four ways of praying Paul urged Timothy to help the congregations around Ephesus practice "first of all"?

How much time is spent in prayer when you gather for worship?

What steps have you already taken to make prayer "job 1" in your setting?

Which have been effective? Which did not work? What are you learning?

And what will your next steps be?