Morning, Noon and Night

‘But I appeal to God,
and the Lord will save me.
Evening and morning and at noonday
I make my complaint and groan.’
(Psalm 55.16-17 REB)

The Book of Acts talks about Peter and John going to the Temple to pray ‘at the hour of prayer’. We know that set times for corporate prayer were a feature of Jewish faith, and of course this carried over into Christianity. In monasticism the Daily Offices evolved, and in Anglicanism this expressed itself in daily Morning and Evening Prayer (Matins and Evensong); other hours like Compline and Noon Prayer are also often observed.

So its tempting to make the jump from this psalm to the custom of ‘hours of prayer’, and make the case that they are a good and biblical thing. I don’t want to deny that, but I don’t think that’s what’s going on here. In Psalm 55 the psalmist has been expressing his sense of betrayal at the trouble he’s in, much of it caused by someone he thought was a friend. In verses 16-17 he’s using a poetic form to express the idea that he never stops praying – ‘morning, noon, and night’, as we might say today. He may well join in the regular hours of prayer, but his prayers spill over into the rest of the day as well.

I’m good at observing set times of prayer. I’ve been keeping a morning ‘quiet time’ for decades and it has been a real means of grace for me. But I’m not so good at remembering to pray at other times. This psalm reminds us that whether it’s complaining about our troubles or expressing our thanks and praise, our prayers are always welcome to God. We don’t have to wait for a set time or a holy place. Morning and noon and night we can raise our voices to God in prayer.

God, thank you for this privilege you’ve given us. Help us not to be shy about taking advantage of it. Amen.

(Today’s One Year Bible daily readings are Numbers 16:41 – 18:32, Mark 16:1-20, Psalm 55, and Proverbs 11:7)

Godforsakenness

’At three Jesus cried aloud, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”’ (Mark 15.34 REB)

All humans experience godforsakenness at some point or other in their lives. Even—and perhaps especially—people of faith experience this. Where was God in my hour of need? Why didn’t he rescue me? Why did he abandon me? In recent history an entire people—the Jews—experienced this. The Holocaust caused a revolution in Jewish thought. What did it mean to be God’s people when God so obviously refused to rescue them from the gas chambers?

Christianity teaches that in Jesus, God has come to live among us and shared our human life. No need to get into the intricacies of Trinitarian theology here; it’s enough to remember that Jesus had lived his entire human life in close relationship to the one he called ‘my Father’. But now, in his moment of greatest need, that comforting presence seems to have been withdrawn. He was abandoned, not only by his friends, but by God himself. He died alone.

Hebrews 4.15-16 says of Jesus, ‘Ours is not a high priest unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tested in every way as we are, only without sinning. Let us therefore boldly approach the throne of grace, in order that we may receive mercy and find grace to give us timely help.’ Even our experience of godforsakenness is something he has shared. He knows how it feels. So I can never say, “He’s God, so he wouldn’t understand.” Thanks be to God. Amen.

(Today’s One Year Bible readings are Numbers 15:17 – 16:40, Mark 15:1-47, Psalm 54, and Proverbs 11:5-6)

Desertion

‘Then the disciples all abandoned Jesus and ran away.’ (Mark 14.50 REB)

The Bible is not a book of heroes. It’s a book of ordinary, scared, fallible, imperfect human beings who are touched by God and yet still struggle with our human propensity to mess things up.

Lord, you know that I am not a hero. There have been times when I’ve stepped up to the plate and owned up to my faith in the company of others. But there have also been times when I’ve deserted you. Sometimes when the going got tough and a challenging word needed to be spoken, or a difficult deed done, I’ve preferred to run away, or just keep quiet.

Forgive me, Lord Jesus, for the times I’ve deserted you. Teach me the faithfulness and courage I need so I can follow you in the way of the cross. Amen.

(Today’s One Year Bible readings are Numbers 11:24 – 13:33, Mark 14:22-52, Psalm 52, and Proverbs 11:1-30

Pure and Steadfast

‘God, create a pure heart for me,
and give me a new and steadfast spirit.’
(Psalm 51.10 REB)

The traditional translation is ‘a clean heart’ and ‘a right spirit’. Put beside the REB, ‘purity of heart’ means wanting the right thing – the will of God. The medieval theologians taught us that sin is often disordered love – we love the wrong things and in the wrong way. A pure heart prays truly and sincerely ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven’, and makes that its deepest desire.

I can do this at times, but I easily give up, so the prayer is also for ‘a new and steadfast spirit’. God’s steadfast love is utterly reliable. Mine is not, but the Holy Spirit can strengthen it.

God, create a pure heart for me, and give me a new and steadfast spirit. Amen.

(Today’s One Year Bible readings are Numbers 10:1 – 11:23, Mark 14:1-21, Psalm 51, and Proverbs 10:31-32)

Don’t Fret

‘Do not be vexed because of evildoers
or envy those who do wrong.
For like the grass they soon wither,
and like green pasture they fade away.
Trust in the Lord and do good;
settle in the land and find safe pasture.’

(Psalm 37.1-3 REB)

Lord, I often get vexed (or ‘fret’, as other versions say) about evildoers. All I have to do is open the newspaper and their acts of wickedness and/or stupidity are paraded for all the world to see. So many leaders seem to be more and more blatant about acting only in the interests of their own power and wealth. I admit it, I find it hard not to fret.

But here I’m told ‘Trust in the Lord and do good.’ The great thing about this, of course, is that it’s something I can do. I can’t change the leaders (except to vote them out of office, but I’ve discovered that’s not always an infallible answer, as high office has a curious way of corrupting people of all political stripes!). I can, however, work on learning to trust you, and doing the good things that are set before me each day.

Today, Lord, teach me not to fret, but to trust in you and do all the good I can. Amen.

True Repentance

“Let all pray with fervour to God, and let them abandon their wicked ways and the injustice they practice.” (Jonah 3.8b Revised English Bible)

I note that most other translations (including the REB’s ancestor the New English Bible) have ‘violence’ rather than ‘injustice’, although I would argue that injustice is a form of violence.

These are the words of the King of Nineveh. In the story of Jonah, after Jonah has been swallowed by the fish and given three days to think over his situation, he repents of his disobedience and goes to Nineveh to warn them of the oncoming judgement. No doubt he hopes they won’t repent—after all, they are Israel’s enemies and he’d love to see God wipe them out! But to his surprise they listen to what he has to say, and they repent and turn to God. I love the way the author of Jonah spells out what repentance means: praying with fervour to God, abandoning our wicked ways and our injustice/violence.

Our Canadian Book of Alternative Services liturgy regularly asks us to tell God ‘we humbly repent’. The danger of this is that we can fall into the trap of thinking that just by saying the words ‘we repent’, we have in fact repented. But of course, if we haven’t actually done anything about it, we haven’t really repented. Feeling sorry is not the issue. Changing the way we act is the issue.

So it might be a good start for us to ask ‘What evil ways do I need to abandon this Lent? What acts of violence/injustice?’ Remember that ‘evil ways’ can include good things we’ve neglected to do, as well as bad things we’ve done. Note also that acts of injustice and violence are often social sins we’re implicated in by our participation in the political/economic machine, so unravelling them can be a challenge. Also, since abandoning an evil act generally means replacing it with a good practice, what are the good practices I need to take up to replace the old ways?

Merciful God, grant to each of us this Lent a true repentance, that we may abandon wickedness, violence and injustice, and follow with you the way of compassion, justice, and love. Amen.

Drifting off course

‘That is why we are bound to pay all the more heed to what we have been told, for fear of drifting from our course.’ (Hebrews 2.1 REB)

I really like the REB translation ‘drifting from our course’. I suppose that in the days of sail, when holding to a course involved careful trimming of sails and sometimes steering as close to the wind as possible, ‘drifting from the course’ was an ever-present reality. It certainly is in my Christian life! Jesus has given me the course heading pretty clearly—love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself, in response to God’s love for you in Christ—but I seem to be oh so talented at drifting off course into fascinatingly esoteric religious practices and discussions, not to mention the glittering distractions of a world drunk on materialism.

Lord Jesus, as Lent begins, help us not to drift off course. Help us pay all the more heed to what we have been told—to the teaching you gave us—so that we may stay on the right path. And when we are distracted, please alert us to the fact, and show us the way back. Amen.

The Way Up is Down

‘So they came to Capernaum; and when Jesus had gone indoors, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” They were silent, because on the way they had been discussing which of them was the greatest. So he sat down, called the Twelve, and said to them, “If anyone wants to be first, he must make himself last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a child, set him in front of them, and put his arm round him. “Whoever receives a child like this in my name,” he said, “receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but the One who sent me.” (Mark 9.33-37 Revised English Bible)

In recent years there have been literally hundreds of books published about church leadership. Many of them say that the proper role of a pastor is not actually to be a servant, but to be a leader. You need to let others do the serving, while you cast a vision, inspire them, equip them etc. etc.

I find it interesting that Jesus led by example, and the example he gave was not just teaching and vision casting, but included huge helpings of serving others. He never seems to have thought that he should get out of the healing business himself so he could organize the healing roster and start new classes for healers. No, he chose a few disciples, let them watch him heal the sick, and then invited them to follow his example.

Jesus says, ‘If anyone wants to be first, he must make himself last of all and servant of all.” (v.35) When Jesus was looking for leaders, he looked for those who had the potential to be good servants (Even though their hearts were sometimes seduced by the leadership bug too). Looking at the political chaos in many parts of the world today, it strikes me that Jesus was onto something. The world is plagued by leaders who only want to be leaders—to build their own empires and line their own pockets. To Jesus, in contrast, the way up is down. He’s looking for people who are competing with each other to get to the back of the line. I need to hear that this morning.

Lord Jesus, deliver me from the love of power and prestige and help me follow you in the way of loving service. Amen.

(Today’s One-Year Bible readings are Leviticus 22:17 – 23:44, Mark 9:30 – 10:12, Psalm 44:1-8, and Proverbs 10:19)

Listen to him

‘Six days later Jesus took Peter, James, and John with him and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And in their presence he was transfigured; his clothes became dazzling white, with a whiteness no bleacher on earth could equal. They saw Elijah appear and Moses with him, talking with Jesus. Then Peter spoke: “Rabbi,” he said, “it is good that we are here! Shall we make three shelters, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah?” For he did not know what to say; they were so terrified. Then a cloud appeared, casting its shadow over them, and out of the cloud came a voice: “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.’” And suddenly, when they looked around, only Jesus was with them; there was no longer anyone else to be seen.’ (Mark 9.2-7 REB)

Lord Jesus, help us today to listen carefully to you, and to shape our lives around your teaching and your example. Amen.

(Today’s One Year Bible passages are Leviticus 20.22 – 22.16, Mark 9.2-29, Psalm 43.1-5, and Proverbs 10.18)

‘Leave them for the poor and the alien.’

‘When you reap the harvest in your land, do not reap right up to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your crop. Do not completely strip your vineyard, or pick up the fallen grapes; leave them for the poor and for the alien. I am the Lord your God.’ (Leviticus 19.9-10 REB)

Leviticus 19 is full of instructions about how to love your neighbour as you love yourself. Much of it concerns what we might call ‘social righteousness’—how to live together justly in society.

Verses 9-10 address the plight of the poor and landless who have no way of feeding themselves. In a situation where there are no government social programs, how are they to be fed? One way is for landowners not to be greedy about how they bring in their crops. Let some of the grain continue to stand around the edges, and don’t pick up the stalks that fall from the workers’ baskets. Then the poor can follow behind and ‘glean’ what they need.

I find it interesting that no thought is given to the question of whether or not the recipients of this help are genuine. How do you guard against con artists? The author of Leviticus doesn’t seem to be interested in the question (indeed, no one in the Bible is interested in that question!). He’s concerned with our own actions and attitudes, not those of the people we help.

I live in a very different world. Still, how do I make room in my regular budgeting to help those who have nothing? Presumably, obeying this law would have had an economic impact on farmers and landowners. What economic impact does my generosity have on me?

God, you have a special care for the poor and needy. Help us learn the joy of true generosity. Amen.

(Today’s One Year Bible readings are Leviticus 19:1 – 20:21, Mark 8:11-38, Psalm 42:1-11, and Proverbs 10:17)