A continuation of my last blog post, reflecting on John Wesley’s Covenant Prayer, piece by piece:
“I am no longer my own, but thine.”
Stop right there at the first line. Imagine what this really means, and how our lives would be different if we lived accordingly. This means that we’re not the center of the universe—God is—and so maybe we need to stop asking God to do for us what God created us to do for God! What we like, desire, appreciate, and enjoy, and what we find most convenient, affirming of our own ideas, and comfortable—these are not the ultimate and essential measure of right living or of what is good and acceptable and perfect. Following Christ, accepting the gift and demand of God’s grace, opening our lives to God and making room for God in our hearts—these change us and take us places that may not always be painless and convenient and easy. My body is not my own; it is a temple of the Holy Spirit. My gifts, my work, my leisure, my material stuff—these are not my own to use and misuse as I see fit. They are given me to make a better world for the purposes of Christ for my family, my community, and God’s kingdom. Saying that “I am no longer my own, but God’s” acknowledges that there are two elements to reality: God and God’s; Creator and creature. I’m God’s. And I’m part of God’s creation. Trying to bend all reality to my own purposes is a futile and empty striving.
“Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.”
Faithful ministry calls me to be as gracious, loving, concerned, and engaged with the down and out as I am with the up and coming. While my own personal experiences and tastes make me more comfortable and at ease with some people than with others, God’s way is for me to be as respectful and compassionate with the transient on the sidewalk as with the cashier in the convenience store as with president of the bank. Following Christ means I’m not free to always choose the easy way, or just what feels natural to me. As Ann Lamott writes, “It’s a sign we’ve made God in our own image when it turns out God hates all the same people we do!”
This line in the prayer confronts us with a question, “Are we willing to go places and engage people and experience things that may change our minds and our hearts?” It’s risky business to say, “Here I am, Lord, send me!” Choosing Christ challenges us and changes us.
“Put me to doing, put me to suffering.”
Faith for Wesley was not just something to think about or believe, and not just a feeling we experience. Faith was something we practice; it’s something we do. The prayer does not read, “Put me to thinking, put me to feeling, but put me to doing.” Faith is a vibrant, alive, adventurous practice. It’s creative activity for God’s purposes in response to God’s grace, and not mere reflection and intention.
No sane person desires suffering, or would invite it. “Put me to suffering” reminds us that following Christ brings us into contact with those who suffer, and it wounds us to touch the pain of others. When the Spirit moves us to the side of those who are alone, hurting, unjustly treated, grieving, the victims of violence, poverty, or hopelessness, we can’t go there without receiving our own scars, without putting ourselves at some level of risk. To what extent are we willing to face inconvenience and suffering to follow Christ? Are we able to absorb anger, violence, or rejection in order to serve Christ?
“Let me be employed by thee or laid aside for thee”
Perhaps this line is the most difficult for the earnest and committed follower of Christ to pray. We all want to be useful to God. Often we cling too tightly to our own image of what our usefulness entails. We have our own selfish notion of our essential role in God’s plan. This prayer asks us to consider that being useful to God may involve stepping aside, moving on, or leaving behind certain roles or expectations. There are pastors who can’t let go of congregations when they have moved, and laypersons that can’t let go of pastors. There are people who hold positions of authority on committees of the church who can’t graciously step aside for others, for new people, for younger people. Making room for God’s future in our congregations means making room for others. The prayer reminds us of the special spiritual maturity required to graciously offer others our support and to move along, knowing that both our service and our letting others serve are good things for God’s mission and purpose.
“Let me be exalted for thee or brought low for thee.”
There is an unfairness to life and ministry that we have all experienced: some people are raised up for their faithful and fruitful service, and some are overlooked and pushed aside for their faithful and fruitful service. We’ve all experienced both feelings. The prayer reminds us to let it go, and to stop letting it eat us up. Following Christ is not about public reward and hype but about making a difference in the lives of people.
“Let me be full, let me be empty.”
There are times in ministry when I am filled to overflowing, amazed at the inexhaustibly rich privilege of working with people whose faith is greater than my own, whose suffering more than I could ever endure, whose vision higher than anything I could ever attain, whose service deeper than I shall ever be able to offer. I’m overwhelmed and in awe, and my cup overfills with thankfulness, joy, and delight. There are other times when I pour myself out to utter exhaustion and I can’t find the strength for the next step. There are days in ministry of angry hopelessness, of wanting to quit forever, when we’re empty, tossed to and fro by failures, doubts, and hesitations. The prayer asks, “Are you willing to accept both of these as part of the journey of ministry? Are you willing to scatter seed that falls on rocky ground as well as upon the fertile soils? Are you willing to fail as well as succeed, to experience loss as well as gain? Because you can’t have one without the other.”
“Let me have all things, let me have nothing.”
“I freely and heartily yield all things
To thy pleasure and disposal.”
With these words, the prayer helps us say to God, “It’s all yours, God. My hopes and aspirations, my worries and struggles, my joys and grieving, my laughter and confusion and toil and imperfections and good efforts and false starts…..all that I am and all that I have are ultimately, finally and forever yours. I’m yours, God.”
“And now, O glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
Thou art mine and I am thine. So be it.”
“And the covenant which I have made on earth,
Let it be ratified in heaven. Amen”
Pray with me again Wesley’s Covenant Prayer. Pray for me as I pray it, and know that I’m praying for you as you pray it. It is our covenant to God that binds us to one another in covenant and ministry.
Yours in Christ,