During the season of Lent, our church community has taken up a practice of gathering together at 6:30am on Wednesday mornings for intentional reflection and prayer. Drawing from the monastic tradition, we are experimenting with some different prayers and disciplines. The prayer to which we are consistently returning throughout the season of Lent and throughout the week between our gatherings is the prayer known as "The Jesus Prayer."
"Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy..."
We have taken the prayer up as something like a breath prayer, a way of posturing ourselves and 'tethering' ourselves to God in our everyday and otherwise mundane activities. As one in our community described it, the prayer can serve as "background music," coloring everyday dealings and orienting them toward God. Throughout the day, to simply repeat the prayer, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy...," has a way of transforming our posture and our attitude toward a specific person or situation. It has a centering effect. When this discipline eventually becomes habit, it will certainly change us as individuals and as a community.
It's important, in order for the prayer to have its transforming effect, to think about its object. To what God are we being tethered? What is it we are actually praying and why does it orient us in the way that it does? One simple way to get at the object of this prayer and to understand its effect is to examine each word in the prayer to see what we mean when we pray it.
The first word in the prayer is the word "Lord." Beginning with this word already has huge implications for how it will posture us. To say "Lord" in reference to anyone is often counterintuitive for us, especially for us democracy-loving Americans. We don't particularly like being submissive, we don't enjoy subjecting ourselves to authority. It rubs against our value for self-determination and autonomy. Even in the church, we are attracted to the concept of leadership—think of how many books and conferences center themselves around leadership. And yet, the paradigm in scripture has hardly anything to do with leadership. Jesus himself favored the concept of followership (discipleship). "Come, follow me," he said—not, "here's how to be a good leader." So when we say "Lord" we are essentially forcing ourselves to set aside our aversion to submission and our affinity to taking authority for our autonomous selves.
But "Lord," in the Christian tradition does not stop simply at submission to authority. It is not an arbitrary sense of submission to some divine imperial authoritarian. It is, however, submission to a special kind of authority, an authority that is intrinsic to itself. "LORD" as we know it from the biblical narrative, is actually a reference to the very name of God—Yahweh. This is a God who is less of an authoritarian and more like a loving mother. This is a God who opposes imperialism, a God who demonstrates power through liberation rather than subjugation. This is also, and more profoundly, a God who cannot be grasped, cannot be domesticated or restricted or forced to discriminate, cannot be possessed or made into an object—a God to whom we are, by reason of God's own essence and existence, already subject.
When we say "Lord," we are referring to an unconditioned and transcendent reality which cannot and will not be localized to any religion, ritual, or reason. We are confessing to the reality of something beyond us, to our respective finitude, and to the reality to which we are already subject before we even get started. This confession of our own finitude, "Lord," must posture us toward the realization that whoever we come in contact with, whoever we deal with, no matter how complex our relation to them might be, we are together with them in submission and dependence to the same transcendent and liberating reality. We are on even ground, and therefore we are on proper grounds to accept them and to love them as a fellow subject of The Lord, the God who will not be wielded as an object of judgment or condescension.
When we say "Lord," we orient ourselves to the humility to love our neighbors.