From the Heart

This year I’m using the New Living Translation as my daily reading Bible, and I’m reallyIMG_4692 enjoying its direct and vivid style. I follow the One-Year Bible lectionary, which takes me through the entire Old and New Testaments once and the book of Psalms twice in the course of the year. Here was my daily psalm portion for today, from Psalm 31.9-18:

Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am in distress.
Tears blur my eyes.
My body and soul are withering away.
I am dying from grief;
my years are shortened by sadness.
Sin has drained my strength;
I am wasting away from within.
I am scorned by all my enemies
and despised by my neighbors—
even my friends are afraid to come near me.
When they see me on the street,
they run the other way.
I am ignored as if I were dead,
as if I were a broken pot.
I have heard the many rumors about me,
and I am surrounded by terror.
My enemies conspire against me,
plotting to take my life.

But I am trusting you, O Lord,
saying, “You are my God!”
My future is in your hands.
Rescue me from those who hunt me down relentlessly.
Let your favor shine on your servant.
In your unfailing love, rescue me.
Don’t let me be disgraced, O Lord,
for I call out to you for help.
Let the wicked be disgraced;
let them lie silent in the grave.
Silence their lying lips—

those proud and arrogant lips that accuse the godly.

I’m reminded as I read these verses of two wise things I was taught about the psalms. One of my college professors used to say “The rest of the Bible speaks to us, but the psalms speak for us.” Indeed. And in speaking for us, they give us permission to pray about things we would probably be shy about mentioning if left to ourselves. I don’t usually complain about my neighbours or my enemies in my prayers, but the author of Psalm 31 felt no constraint about this! If he was upset or worried or afraid about something, that made it a valid and acceptable subject for his prayers. And when it comes to the end of the psalm—

‘Let the wicked be disgraced;
let them lie silent in the grave.
Silence their lying lips—

those proud and arrogant lips that accuse the godly.’

—well, I can think of a good few contemporary world leaders, and politicians closer to home, who I’m tempted to pray that prayer for!

And that leads me to the second wise thing I was taught about the psalms. I believe it was Eugene Peterson who said ‘The psalms are not the prayers of nice people!’ Look back at that part I quoted one more time:

‘Let the wicked be disgraced;
let them lie silent in the grave.
Silence their lying lips—

those proud and arrogant lips that accuse the godly.’

‘Let them lie silent in the grave.’ Is the psalmist praying for the death of his enemies? I think he might well be. And before I get on my high horse and quote Jesus to him on loving his enemies, I might like to consider that I’ve lived a pretty peaceful life, in two countries with free and democratic systems of government. I haven’t been forced to flee my home as a refugee, I haven’t seen family members murdered or raped, I’ve never watched as my city is reduced to rubble by bombing or cannon fire. Maybe if I had, I might have nursed a secret desire for wicked and tyrannical leaders to lie silent in their graves, as quickly as possible. And if I’m feeling that way, God already knows I’m feeling it. So I might as well be honest with God about what’s actually on my heart, rather than pretending to be such a nice, mild-mannered person. I believe it was Thomas Merton who once said that two of the most important questions we can ask ourselves about prayer are (1) “Is it the real me who prays?” and (2) “Is it the real God I’m praying to?”

I come from a tradition that prays the psalms regularly, both at public worship and in private prayer. Psalm 31 is familiar to me; I’ve prayed it many times over the course of my life. How do I enter into a psalm like this, when, as I said, I’ve lived a fairly peaceful and secure life?

What I tend to do is to ask myself “Who am I praying this psalm for today?” I may not be a victim of oppression and violence, but for many people around the world, that’s their daily reality. In the psalms I don’t just pray about my own concerns; I pray for the whole world. So when I pray these words, I can think of the Uyghurs in China, or the Rohingya in Myanmar, or the many countries in the world where gay and lesbian people are in danger of their lives. I can think of the nameless and faceless ones I don’t even know about, but who just need someone to pray for them.

I love the psalms and I enjoy praying them, but there’s one more thing I need to say about them. The psalms are prayers we can use, but they’re also model prayers. They don’t just give us words to pray; they also teach us how to pray. And the lesson is: “Be honest, say what’s really on your heart.”

One of the perils of a liturgical tradition is that we don’t get a lot of practice in that. We Anglican clergy are expected to pray Morning and Evening Prayer every day – a formal liturgy including psalms, canticles, Bible readings, and written prayers. There are a lot of strengths to this tradition, but one weakness is that we can get out of the habit of framing our own prayers, in our own words, from the heart.

And that would be sad. God cares about each of us as individuals; Jesus assures us that even the hairs on our heads are numbered. (My dad used to say “Not just counted, but numbered!”) The psalms give us permission to pour out our hearts to God, honestly and openly:

‘O my people, trust in him at all times.
Pour out your heart to him,
for God is our refuge’ (Psalm 62.8 NLT)

In using the psalms in prayer, it would be tragic if we let ourselves get out of the habit of doing that.

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)

One Thing I Ask

‘One thing I ask of the Lord,
it is the one thing I seek:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
to gaze on the beauty of the Lord
and to seek him in his temple.’ (Psalm 27:4 REB)

I used to be somewhat troubled by this  prayer, for a couple of reasons.

For one thing, the request seems a selfish one to me. ‘Please, Lord, let me spend my whole life in your house looking at you.’ What about all the suffering going on outside? What about serving others and loving my neighbour?

Secondly, I can’t honestly pray this prayer. There are many things I ask of the Lord, not just one thing. I pray for my children and my grandchildren, that God would keep them in his loving care. I pray for my wife, and for my Mum who turned 80 not long ago. As I get older myself, I pray for good health. I pray for the people in my parish, especially those going through struggles. I pray for many things, and in fact Jesus has invited me to do so.

But this prayer doesn’t bother me any more, because as I get older I’m reading a lot more poetry. I think we have to give the psalmist credit for being a good poet. Poems don’t work the same way as devotional books or works of theology. They use metaphor and imagery, exaggeration and hyperbole. I think the ‘one’ thing the psalmist prayed for is the most important thing: that he would know God’s presence close to him, and that when he was in trouble (see the rest of the psalm for details) he would experience God’s presence as a refuge. I don’t think he literally means he prays for nothing else. I think he means this is the most important thing he prays for.

I can get behind that prayer. ‘What do you seek?’ asks St. Benedict in his Rule. That’s a good question for all of us to ponder! This psalm encourages us to seek the presence of God, to rest in the love of God, to ‘abide’ there, to live there. When we know that sense of God’s presence with us, we can turn to our other prayers and our daily works of love, and offer them to God from a place of rest and peace.

(Today’s One-Year Bible readings are Exodus 15:19-17:7, Matthew 22:1-33, Psalm 27:1-6, and Proverbs 6:20-26)

‘I trust in your unfailing love’

‘How long, Lord, will you leave me forgotten,
how long hide your face from me?
How long must I suffer anguish in my soul,
grief in my heart day after day?
How long will my enemy lord it over me?
Look now, Lord my God, and answer me.
Give light to my eyes lest I sleep the sleep of death,
lest my enemy say, ‘I have overthrown him,’
and my adversaries rejoice at my downfall.
As for me, I trust in your unfailing love;
my heart will rejoice when I am brought to safety.
I shall sing to the Lord, for he has granted all my desire.’ (Psalm 13.1-6 REB)

This is one of those prayers that are very useful to have in your back pocket for when you need them. It seems to be written in a military context; the author has enemies who are out to get him, and he’s in real danger of being defeated by them. But of course ‘enemies’ come in all shapes and sizes, not just armies and uniforms. Maybe we’re facing a dangerous illness, the threat of job loss, the scorn of others. Maybe we’re struggling with our own inner demons, sins or addictions. And there’s always the ‘enemy of our souls’.

‘As for me, I trust in your unfailing love’. Lord, for me, that’s something I aspire to. I don’t always trust you as I would like. To be honest, that’s partly because not everyone who trusts you seems to be ‘brought to safety’. I”m on a journey. Each day, for me, is full of opportunities to learn to trust you.

So when I’m facing my fears and struggles and inner demons, help me ‘trust in your unfailing love’. Help me simply turn to you, take your hand, and walk with you through whatever ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ appear to be heading my way. And bless all who are facing enemies who terrify them today, and bring them also to a place of safety. Amen.

(today’s One Year Bible readings are Genesis 31:17-32:12, Matthew 10:24-11:6, Psalm 13:1-6, and Proverbs 3:16-18)

‘May the Lord make an end of such smooth words’

This Old Testament prayer doesn’t seem to need any comment from me today!

‘Save us, Lord, for no one who is loyal remains;
good faith between people has vanished.
One lies to another:
both talk with smooth words, but with duplicity in their hearts.
May the Lord make an end of such smooth words
and the tongue that talks so boastfully!
They say, ‘By our tongues we shall prevail.
With words as our ally, who can master us?’
‘Now I will arise,’ says the Lord,
‘for the poor are plundered, the needy groan;
I shall place them in the safety for which they long.’
The words of the Lord are unalloyed:
silver refined in a crucible,
gold purified seven times over.
Lord, you are our protector
and will for ever guard us from such people.
The wicked parade about,
and what is of little worth wins general esteem.’ (Psalm 12 Revised English Bible)

(Today’s One Year Bible readings are Genesis 30:1 – 31:16, Matthew 10:1-23, Psalm 12:1-8, and Proverbs 3:13-15)

 

 

‘Therefore we will not fear’

This morning in my devotions I read Psalm 46 and came across these words:

Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble in its tumult (Psalm 46:2-3).

I don’t know what potentially cataclysmic military or political event the writer of Psalm 46 was referring to here, but I’m betting that it wasn’t an earthquake so severe that it caused the mountains to collapse into the heart of the sea. Maybe it was a foreign invasion that threatened Jerusalem; maybe it was the death of a righteous king and his replacement by his useless son. Whatever it was, the writer saw it as what we would call today an ‘earth-shaking’ event (although the earth is not literally shaken).

Some people (of a particular political stripe) would see the election of the NDP as the Government of Alberta, or the Liberals as the Government of Canada, as such an event. Many people would see the potential nomination of Donald Trump as the Republican candidate for President of the United States – and even more, his election to that high office – as such an event. In ancient time, the sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410 A.D. was seen in those terms – causing St. Augustine to write his famous book ‘The City of God’ – and so was the Fall of Jerusalem to Roman armies in A.D. 66-70.

The point the writer is making – the point the writer is praying to God in this psalm – is that though elections go badly (as we would say today), though kings and governments fall, though society goes to hell in a hand basket, it’s still true that ‘God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear…’ (vv.1-2a).

What is our true fortress? Is it the walls of Jerusalem (built on a mountain that might crumble one day)? Is it our military might or political systems? Is it the election of a government we approve of? Is it our financial security or our excellent health-care system? No – when push comes to shove, none of these can guarantee our safety. Our cities may fall, our governments may do asinine things, and one day (violently or peacefully) all of us will die. And so we cry out with the psalmist,

The LORD of hosts is with us,
the God of Jacob is our refuge (v.7, v,.11).

Lord of hosts, help us today to ‘Be still, and know that you are God’ (v.10). We know that the more we wait on you and seek your face, the more we will be reassured in the face of disaster. So help us to put our trust in you today, and know that you alone are God. Amen.

In Awe of the Psalms

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‘We should be in awe of the Psalms, they have lasted thousands of years, translate into multiple languages, and were a staple diet for our spiritual ancestors. Ninety Psalms are quoted in the New Testament, and short quotes are like headlines that say ‘go back and read the whole thing’. Augustine called the Psalms a school for people learning to pray. Ambrose called them a ‘gymnasium’. Athanasius said that whereas most of scripture speaks to us, the Psalms speak for us, they give us a language, a vocabulary of engagement with God for every kind of circumstance and condition.

‘We would do well to increase their use in public worship, but the setting from which I would suggest the ‘jewel’ is most absent is not so much the public as the private.

‘I believe that the Psalms are gifted by God to enable every Christian to do much better what most Christians find most difficult – to pray and worship daily with gritty honesty, consistency using words inspired by the Holy Spirit. What if that daily habit became established in every worshipping community?

‘One of the strongest arguments for using the Psalms is both simple and profound – it was what Jesus did. The Psalms were Jesus’ prayer book, songbook and meditation manual, and if he needed them how much more do we? The Christian community was early convinced that he continues praying them through us as we pray them: “we recite this prayer of the Psalm in Him, and He recites it in us.” [Augustine]. We can take the Psalms on our lips as God’s gift of words to sing or pray back to him, knowing that they are fulfilled in Christ.’

 – Graham Kendrick.

Read the rest here. And no need for Anglicans to feel all smug and self-satisfied about the fact that we still use the psalms in our public worship. How many Anglican Christians use the psalms regularly in their private prayers?