Random Lent Thought for Sunday March 26th: Inflated Speech

Jesus said, “All you need to say is simply, ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one” (Matthew 5:36, NIV 2011).

A few years ago a machine left a message on my answering service. The machine said, ‘Alberta Liberal leader Raj Sherman would like to personally invite you to…’ At that point I stopped listening, because I realized that if Raj Sherman and I can’t even agree on what constitutes a personal invitation, I probably don’t want to attend whatever it is he’s inviting me to. A personal invitation is an invitation delivered by one person to another person. A machine programmed to make robocalls cannot deliver a personal invitation.

This is an example of how inflated speech has crept into our vocabulary. Another example, one that has become to common that it would be laughable if it wasn’t so meaningless, is for people to describe themselves as ‘passionate’ about something. “I’m passionate about reconciliation’, or ‘mission’, or ‘building community’. Personally, I’ve always thought it was better to let other people describe me as passionate (or not), rather than making that claim for myself. But nowadays you can’t just be ‘interested’ in something, or even ‘quite good at it’ – you have to be ‘passionate’ about it!

Another example is in the baptismal liturgy in the (Canadian Anglican) Book of Alternative Services (that we took over lock, stock, and barrel from the American 1979 Prayer Book), in which we are asked ‘Do you promise to obey (Jesus) as your Lord?’ I am absolutely certain that no one who has made that promise has ever kept it; the absolute best that I, infected as I am by original sin, can promise is to TRY to obey Jesus as my Lord. Once again, inflated speech.

From Anabaptist and Quaker friends I’ve learned about the deep desire for truthfulness, for simple speech, that makes us reluctant to speak more than we can deliver. An oath is dangerous because it gives us the illusion that we’re in control of the future, when we’re not even completely in control of our portion of the future (all sorts of calamities beyond my control can effect my ability to deliver on the oath). To simply say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’, or ‘I’ll do my best’, is to acknowledge our human finiteness and the fact that we’re not ultimately in control. To say “I’m actually quite interested in church growth and I’ve done a lot of reading and learning about it” (if it’s true) is probably (for 90% of the people who say it) more modest and honest and accurate than to say “I’m passionate about church growth”.

It concerns me that our politicians have been using inflated speech for so long that they don’t realize that they’re making the language meaningless (and you all know who I’m thinking about right now, although he’s only the latest manifestation of this). But that isn’t what should concern me the most. What should concern me the most is the number of times I myself treat language like this. God is not impressed with my outrageous exaggerations. God, the psalmist tells us, ‘desires truth in the inward parts’ (Psalm 51:6, KJV). May the Lord deliver us from inflated speech, and may he teach us the virtue of truthfulness and modesty.

‘We British: the Poetry of a People’

29958072This book isn’t quite a history of British (i.e. English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish) poetry from Caedmon to the present day; it’s more a sort of annotated anthology, with poems and excerpts from poems giving a representative sample of each period. As such, it’s an excellent introduction for the person who enjoys poetry but isn’t well-informed about the history of the craft in the British Isles.

For me there were lots of old favourites here, but also many with whom I was unfamiliar (old and new). Like all poetry fans reading the book, I was ticked off by the omission of some of my favourites (John Masefield, R.S. Thomas), but a book of 640 pages attempting to introduce the reader to 1,350 years of British poetry is bound to offend in that way. Overall I thought the book was brilliant. And I’d give this one word of reading advice: read it aloud, and with a spouse or partner or friend if you can. Marci and I read it in coffee shops and we thoroughly enjoyed this treat for the ears as well as the eyes. Five stars, and well-deserved.

Andrew Marr: We British: the Poetry of a People (Fourth Estate, 2016).

Random Lent thought for Saturday March 25th: ‘Father’

I think we can probably take it for granted that the prayer life of Jesus was formed by the psalms. In one respect, however, he departed radically from that model: his name for God. In the psalms God is usually addressed by such titles as ‘Yahweh God of Israel’, or ‘God the King’, or ‘Yahweh my rock’. Very rarely, however, is any sort of parental metaphor used. Jesus, however, takes the parental metaphor and makes it absolutely central to his way of understanding and addressing God. ‘Father’ is not just one title for God among many for Jesus. In fact, there is only one time in the entire gospels where he talks to God using any other name, and that is when he was nailed to the cross and was quoting from the psalms: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me’.

So Jesus’ way of addressing God is entirely simple and unpretentious. He doesn’t make speeches to God; he simply comes to God and says, ‘Father…’ And he encourages us, his followers, to do the same. ‘One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples”. He said to them, “When you pray, say: ‘Father…’ ” ‘ (Luke 11:1-2a, NIV 2011).

The liturgical tradition in which I was raised (Anglican) has a long history of making beautiful poetic speeches to God (‘O Lord our Heavenly Father, Almighty and Everlasting God…’). Many of us Anglicans have been intimidated by the poetic genius of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and his Book of Common Prayer. Jesus does not encourage us to make speeches to God. Nor does he appear to be in favour of long prayers. He encourages a simple and unpretentious approach to God.

What’s the most important thing we can know about God? That he is our parent (which means that he loves us more than we love ourselves; that he will die rather than not provide for our needs; that he is a role model for us; that he guides and teaches us, and that he disciplines us because he loves us). We can be entirely secure and confident in his love for us. Children who are secure in their parents’ love don’t make speeches to them; they talk to them naturally, simply, and without any sort of prevention.

“When you pray, say: ‘Father’ “. What a privilege!

The Lost Pyx: a Mediaeval Legend

(Nobody can persuade me that Thomas Hardy wasn’t a lover of traditional folk songs; not when he wrote poems like this one!)

Some say the spot is banned; that the pillar Cross-and-Hand
Attests to a deed of hell;
But of else than of bale is the mystic tale
That ancient Vale-folk tell.

Ere Cernel’s Abbey ceased hereabout there dwelt a priest,
(In later life sub-prior
Of the brotherhood there, whose bones are now bare
In the field that was Cernel choir).

One night in his cell at the foot of yon dell
The priest heard a frequent cry:
“Go, father, in haste to the cot on the waste,
And shrive a man waiting to die.”

Said the priest in a shout to the caller without,
“The night howls, the tree-trunks bow;
One may barely by day track so rugged a way,
And can I then do so now?”

No further word from the dark was heard,
And the priest moved never a limb;
And he slept and dreamed; till a Visage seemed
To frown from Heaven at him.

In a sweat he arose; and the storm shrieked shrill,
And smote as in savage joy;
While High-Stoy trees twanged to Bubb-Down Hill,
And Bubb-Down to High-Stoy.

There seemed not a holy thing in hail,
Nor shape of light or love,
From the Abbey north of Blackmore Vale
To the Abbey south thereof.

Yet he plodded thence through the dark immense,
And with many a stumbling stride
Through copse and briar climbed nigh and nigher
To the cot and the sick man’s side.

When he would have unslung the Vessels uphung
To his arm in the steep ascent,
He made loud moan: the Pyx was gone
Of the Blessed Sacrament.

Then in dolorous dread he beat his head:
“No earthly prize or pelf
Is the thing I’ve lost in tempest tossed,
But the Body of Christ Himself!”

He thought of the Visage his dream revealed,
And turned towards whence he came,
Hands groping the ground along foot-track and field,
And head in a heat of shame.

Till here on the hill, betwixt vill and vill,
He noted a clear straight ray
Stretching down from the sky to a spot hard by,
Which shone with the light of day.

And gathered around the illumined ground
Were common beasts and rare,
All kneeling at gaze, and in pause profound
Attent on an object there.

‘Twas the Pyx, unharmed ‘mid the circling rows
Of Blackmore’s hairy throng,
Whereof were oxen, sheep, and does,
And hares from the brakes among;

And badgers grey, and conies keen,
And squirrels of the tree,
And many a member seldom seen
Of Nature’s family.

The ireful winds that scoured and swept
Through coppice, clump, and dell,
Within that holy circle slept
Calm as in hermit’s cell.

Then the priest bent likewise to the sod
And thanked the Lord of Love,
And Blessed Mary, Mother of God,
And all the saints above.

And turning straight with his priceless freight,
He reached the dying one,
Whose passing sprite had been stayed for the rite
Without which bliss hath none.

And when by grace the priest won place,
And served the Abbey well,
He reared this stone to mark where shone
That midnight miracle.

by Thomas Hardy

Random Lent thought for Friday March 24th: ‘Hallowed be your name’

“Father, hallowed be your name” (Luke 11:2, NIV 2011).

I once preached a Lent series called ‘Living your life as a prayer’. It was a series on the Lord’s Prayer, considered not so much as a prayer, but as a guide for daily discipleship. What would it mean to ‘put legs on our prayers’, and live our lives so that we are part of the answer to our prayer?

‘Hallowed be your name’ means ‘May your holy name be honoured’. How do I live my life in such a way as to make that happen? Or, as someone once put it, how do I live in such a way that God’s reputation in the world is enhanced, and not diminished, by my life?

Once when I was going to an Alberta registries office to renew my vehicle registration, the agent called up my driving record on the computer and was shocked to discover a list of drunk driving convictions! For a few minutes we had a rather tense conversation; then she tried to call the list up again, and was unable to do it; it had all been some sort of computer glitch! But for a few minutes I experienced what it was like to have your reputation in the world diminished and your good name dragged through the mud!

What am I doing to God’s good name? How can I live today in such a way that his reputation is enhanced, and not diminished, by my behaviour? Father, hallowed be your name in our lives today. Amen.

Random Lent Thought for Thursday March 23rd: ‘Teach us to pray’

‘One day, Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray,just as John taught his disciples”‘ (Luke 11:1-2).

There was no such thing as privacy in the time of Jesus, and there wasn’t much silent praying either. People prayed in public and they prayed aloud. Jesus’ private prayer life was often not private, except when he withdrew to lonely places to pray.

I’ve learned a lot about prayer through books, but I’ve learned more from people who’ve been open about their prayer life and have been willing to invite me into it. I’ve learned the most from good friends who have ended significant conversations by offering to pray with me, and modelling for me what genuine, unpretentious prayer really is.

Jesus’ prayer life was attractive to his disciples; they wanted to learn to pray like that. And if the prayer that follows is any indication of the way Jesus habitually prayed, we can describe it as short, simple and unpretentious, focussing on God’s concerns first, not greedy for things we don’t need, but focussing on our real needs (daily bread, forgiveness, strength in times of testing).

Lord, teach me to pray as your prayed. And Lord, help me to teach others too. Amen.

Random Lent Thought for Wednesday March 22nd: A Selfish Lent?

It seems strange to say it, but Lent can easily become a very selfish and self-centred time of year. During Lent, we are encouraged to examine ourselves, make changes, and try to draw closer to God. In our emotion-driven age, we can often fall into the trap of interpreting ‘draw closer to God’ as ‘have a deep feeling of peace inside’. It’s a short step from here to spending Lent monitoring our feelings and focussing on our emotional well-being.

Jesus offers a better way to draw closer to God.

‘Then the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me”.

‘Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?”

‘The King will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me”‘. (Matthew 25:34040 NIV 2011).

Lord, deliver us from the snare of a selfish Lent.