Wednesday, March 7, 2018

The Perfect Lenten Prayer


Dear Friends,

Lent is a time of quietly coming before God in preparation for Easter. It’s a time of asking God to help us look deep within to honestly assess where we are missing the mark. It’s a time of repentance and renewal. And for those of us who may be looking for a new, fresh way to participate in Lent, we might want to consider looking back to ancient times and see what we can borrow for our own journey.

They call him Saint Ephrem the Syrian and he was born around the year 300. Ephrem was not a bishop but an ordained deacon and is known by Bible scholars and historians because of the monumental quantity of writings he left behind. Ephrem wrote sermons, commentaries and hymns to combat the gnostic heresies that were leading people away from God’s Word and the teachings of the apostles. But he is best known in the Eastern churches by his prayer for Lent. This is not a catholic prayer – most Catholics have never heard of St. Ephrem or this prayer. But it’s prayed by Orthodox believers everyday during Lent. And some of us who have been worshiping in Protestant churches all our life, (three fast praise songs, two slow medleys, pastor’s prayer, offering, 40 minute sermon, announcements, dismissal and donuts) are exploring historical Christianity  to see what can be recovered for our use today. In doing so, we are discovering spiritual treasure in these ancient church prayers and practices.

In the Orthodox church, the prayer of St. Ephrem is considered to be the most appropriate summation of the season of Lent. You could call it a Lenten Checklist and I’m giving you two versions. The Orthodox English version that is translated from the original Greek has been prayed in the Eastern churches for nearly two thousand years and that's the one I'm using for my commentary below. But if you are not comfortable with the King James English, you also have the Pastor John Contemporary Version. At the bottom of this post, you'll see a link to a PDF file of both versions of the prayer that you can print out if you'd like.


“O Lord and Master of my life, give me not..” We are saying, “Keep me from succumbing to these evil thoughts and deeds. Lord keep me from falling prey to “..the spirit of sloth, meddling, lust for power, and idle talk.” Sloth brings a spiritual poverty to the soul. Someone at church once told me that they were just too lazy to pray. At least he was honest! We come up with all kinds of excuses to not spend time in worship, prayer and God’s Word but if we also were honest about it, many times it simply comes down to sloth. Paul says we should not be lagging in diligence, but should be fervent in spirit, serving the Lord. Romans 12:11 Spiritual sloth will starve our soul! 

The next sin is “meddling” and in 1 Tim 5:13, Paul says that we must not be idle gossips and busybodies, and go around town saying things which we shouldn’t. 

The prayer of St. Ephrem continues with a petition to keep us from the “lust for power” – a self-centered attitude. When we love power and control, we fight to elevate ourselves over others. Lord, take away our tendency toward self-centeredness and show us everyday how to be more other-centered in our lives.

We next pray that God would take away our “idle talk.” Lord, clamp Your hand over my mouth and keep me from idle chatter and empty words. Keep me from talking just to hear myself talk. Keep me from negative and complaining words that are empty of anything positive and life-giving. 

It’s too easy to give up chocolate or red meat for Lent. It’s much more difficult to give up laziness, meddling, a self-centered attitude and idle chatter empty of edifying and encouraging words. The only purpose of a Lenten “fast” is to give up what comes between us and God. So really..is it the chocolate that’s coming between you and God? The prayer of St. Ephrem asks our Holy Father to remove from us that which keeps us from living the joyful and abundant fullness of life in Him. 

“But grant unto me, Thy servant, a spirit of chastity..” Chastity is not just used in the narrow sexual context but in the larger sense of living a wholesome life. Then “..humility..” Much of our sinful behavior is due to pride and the antidote to pride is humility. A heart of humility will take away any sense of entitlement we have. Next is a request for “..patience..” You may be blessed with the patience of a Saint or you may be more like me. Patience means accepting things as they are and not how you want them to be at that moment. 

And finally we ask in this Lenten Prayer for “..love.” Not the touchy-feely love that makes us feel all warm and fuzzy inside. You don’t even need people for that. You just need a cat. But this is God’s agape self-sacrificial love. This is the love that truly cares for another person’s needs and we willingly give of ourselves for them. This is Christ-like love. When Jesus said, “love your neighbor as yourself,” Mark 12:31 He really meant that.

And that leads us to the last part of this prayer. “Grant me to see mine own faults (sins) and not to judge (others).” We tend to worry, obsess and rage over the sins of others while ignoring our own. You can’t force others to change, but through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, He will show you your sins and give you the power to change yourself. And then finally we bless, extol, exalt and glorify God as the Orthodox Christians say “unto the ages of ages.” For 2,000 years, this prayer, mostly unknown to Protestants and Catholics, has been the “perfect” Lenten prayer in the Orthodox church. Perhaps it should be our prayer too. Amen?

If you'd like to pray the Prayer of St. Ephrem during Lent, click HERE for a PDF version that you can print and cut out.

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