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)

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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?

On using the Psalms as a regular part of Sunday worship

Our own private griefs are, often enough, quite paltry: but we are invited to join in the gigantic earth-shaking laments of the psalms. Our own criteria for happiness are selfish and small: but we are allowed to share in the magnificent heaven-rending joys of the psalmist. Our own love for God is so feeble that we might forget all about God for days at a time: but our hearts are torn wide open as we join our voices to the enormous lovesick longing of the psalmist’s praise. We are safe, affluent, protected, untroubled by enemies or oppression: but we learn to join our voices to the psalmist’s indignant cries for the catastrophic appearance of justice on the earth.

Read the rest here.