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Do You Pray Naturally?

In Devotional on December 29, 2013 at 9:05 pm

PrayerPrayer is Supernatural

The last book Bonhoeffer published in his lifetime was “The Prayerbook of the Bible.”  He writes this book while in prison for his participation in a plot to kill Hitler, and the subject of the book is the Psalms.  Remember, the Psalms of the Old Testament are Jewish literature.  You can bet that the Nazis weren’t all that thrilled with publishing books celebrating Jewish literature.  Apparently he was unaware that such material had to be submitted to the Board for the Regulation of Literature before publication.  Bonhoeffer was sticking it to The Third Reich at the same time he was teaching Christians how to come closer to Christ Jesus.

I read about Bonhoeffer’s thoughts on prayer in Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas, a book I received from my parents last Christmas.

In this book, Bonhoeffer suggests that we naturally wish, hope, sigh, lament and rejoice—but we should not confuse these things with prayer.  Unlike these internal and natural impulses, prayer is supernatural in that it must be initiated from outside of us, by God.  For this reason, he encourages Christians to pray the Psalms as Christ did.  Our own prayers would travel to heaven along with those of Christ.

Metaxas points out that praying the Psalms was much too Jewish for the Nazis, and probably too Catholic for the Protestants, who don’t go for recited prayers, but Bonhoeffer was insistent that Christians must pray the Psalms.

Because of this publication of this little book, he Bonhoeffer was forbidden to publish anything again.

Whether you accept Bonhoeffer’s imperative on the praying of the Psalms, it is important to understand that prayer is a supernatural activity.  My problem is that I usually forget this and do what comes naturally: “wishing, hoping, sighing, lamenting and rejoicing” (Metaxas 368).

Praying with the Psalms—which means praying with Christ (as well as the historical Church)—will at least externalize the source of my own prayers and once again remind me that my ability to approach God at all is his gift of grace.


 

Doing the Dishes and the Gnashing of Teeth

In Devotional, Worldview on October 21, 2013 at 3:57 am

DishesWhen my kids were younger they had chores—one of which was doing the dishes. It should have been as simple as everyone taking a turn on a rotating basis, but was never that simple. Lacrosse games or ballet practices meant that somebody would miss their turn. To ask another child to take care of it resulted in anguished lamentations. These were even louder if the prospective dishwasher could conjure up a scenario where this debt might not be repaid. Then there was the was wailing and gnashing of teeth over the unfairness of having to do dishes on a night when we had a roast, as opposed the other night when a sibling had only to contend with the remains of a meal of bread and soup. I got so sick of it that sometimes that I just did them myself.

I wouldn’t have been any happier if I had their silent obedience either.  It certainly would have been quieter, and possibly less frustrating, but it wouldn’t have lead to their happiness, and in my better moments what I wish most for my children is fulfillment regardless of the circumstances.

The problem in both of these responses is that doing the dishes are only seen as a duty.  The idea of duty or obligation or requirement is set in opposition to happiness and joy.  For my young children, happiness and joy could only be achieved through doing what they wanted as opposed to what they had to do.  My kids put freedom first

All this was a long time ago.  My children have all grown up. The great thing now is that when they come over for a meal, they joyfully do the dishes. It’s the same activity, but their attitude is completely different.

What accounts for this difference?  Surely, it’s maturity.  They’ve lived away from home and know how much money and work it takes to put a delicious meal onto the table.  But it’s more than maturity; the most important thing for them is no longer freedom from duties and obligations, but a relationship with me.  I cook for them a delicious meal because I love them and they wash the dishes because they love me.   

If we think that Freedom is more important than anything else in order to live the good life (read more here), our focus will usually be hostilely directed toward those things which limits ones freedom—duties, obligations, responsibilities.

If relationship is more important than freedom, our focus will be lovingly directed toward other persons who we love.

It’s obvious which leads to greater joy and happiness.

It’s all there in Deteronomy 10.  The writer implores God’s people to

 12 . . .walk in obedience to him, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, 13 and to observe the Lord’s commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good.

Obedience certainly restricts our freedom, but washing the dishes after a good meal is a loving and joyful response to a great meal prepared for you in joy and love, and it’s all for our own good anyway.  My kids were miserable when they were focused on the duty and they are happy now that they are focused on the relationship.  God wants what’s best for his people, and it turns out that is obedience.

But it’s not just simple obedience.  That’s for the simply religious, and they are miserable–it’s joyful obedience that God is after and that will be a blessing to us.  In verse 16 of the Deuterononmy 10 it says 

Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer.

Circumcision was a duty for the people of God and if they understood it only as an obligation, they’d be stiff-necked.  God certainly didn’t want disobedience, but silent and grudging obedience wasn’t any better; he wanted their hearts so that we can flourish.

Human flourishing is not about freedom, nor is it about fulfilling religious obligations, it’s about relationship. 

 

Made for Freedom?

In Devotional, Worldview on October 12, 2013 at 8:31 am

RelationshipsWhen I got married, I was no longer free.  I couldn’t play League of Legends whenever I wanted.  I couldn’t eat chicken wings in bed.  I had to tell my wife that I was going down to the store to get a jug of milk.

But I don’t mind.  Not at all.

I’m not sure why exactly.  It’s not because I’ve somehow gained more than I’ve lost–it’s more like I’ve gained what I lost as well as gained what I’ve gained.  It doesn’t really make sense but that’s the way it is.

I don’t think I’m alone in this.  I think that this sort of counterintuitive accounting occurs when anyone is in a good relationship.

A. C. Grayling  recently presented the first of eight  “Fragile Freedoms” lectures on CBC’s Ideas.  In it he said that there is no possibility of living the good life if one is not free.

Grayling, along with most other modernists, would be right if human beings were made for autonomy.  But what if we weren’t primarily made to be free?  What if we were made first for something else?

What if we were made for relationship?  Not just in marriage, but in friendship and family, and not just with people but with animals and even the physical world.

The Biblical story suggests human beings are made to be in relationship, first with their Creator and, after, with everything else.  We were made to be the objects of God’s love.  He says through Jeremiah, “I have loved you with an everlasting love” (31:3).  Suppose we were made to receive and the to return his love and to spread it out to the rest of the creation?

If this is the purpose for which we were made, freedom is still a very important part of who we are.   Love is impossible without freedom.  There is no possibility to love someone if there is no freedom to reject their love.  It’s all there in Genesis 1-3.  Humanity was created for relationship with God (and with each other and with the world).  We had a choice and chose to reject God’s love.  This didn’t change our purpose, just our ability to fulfill it.

So who is right about human nature?  The modernists like Grayling or those who adhere to the Biblical view of man?

There is a simple test:  Who experiences more fulfillment in life?  The person whose freedom is expressed through relationships or the one whose relationship is subordinate to his freedom.

In my experience, freedom is best enjoyed in the context of relationships, even though you surrender it most of the time.  I think this is a universal experience when we are talking about “good” relationships.  Those who insist on freedom first will be able to eat chicken wings in bed, but they won’t have anyone who cares that they stepped out for a jug of milk.

The Dom in Salzburg — It’s not about ME

In Devotional, Worldview on August 30, 2013 at 3:17 am

153Attending mass in the Salzburg Cathedral was the most memorable experience of a wonderful trip to Europe this summer.  The building’s interior was beautifully ornate, but not gaudy.  The music included organ, orchestra and, I think, more than one choir.  Add to that, awareness that this was the very church at which Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was christened.   In his role as Court Organist, Mozart composed much of his sacred music almost exclusively for this Cathedral.  

I had two very strong impressions during this mass.

The first impression–It’s not about me.

The organ, choir and orchestra are placed behind the congregation.  This placement reinforces the idea that I am not the primary audience for their performance. 

Back home, it’s not about me either, but the praise band occupies the same place as a performance band, so I have to remember that they aren’t there to please me.  It doesn’t matter if I don’t like the style in which the third song was presented.    Nor does it matter that I don’t “feel” like praising God today, he’s worthy of my praise regardless of how I feel.  The sermon’s relevance to me is not the standard by which it ought to be judged. Everything in any church service is directed toward the worship of the triune God.  But back home, sometimes I forget.

In Salzburg Cathedral, I had no trouble remembering that this service wasn’t for my pleasure.

The whole thing was in German, and I don’t speak German.  I ended up thinking about how the audience of every service, is God; he speaks German.  He also “speaks” Evangelical, and Reformed and Catholic.  I imagined how rich God’s experience of worship must be when he is being praised simultaneously in every language and cultural expression that there is and ever was. 

And the benches.  Even in this most beautiful of churches, the uniquely carved benches are quite uncomfortable.  The seat is set at 90 degrees to the back, which has a board running across it as a elbow rest for the kneeler behind me.  This makes it very uncomfortable to lean back.  These seats were definitely not designed with my comfort in mind.  It certainly is not about me. 

Second impression–the mass and the cathedral represent the very best of human ability in craftsmanship, beauty, engineering, art and music.

Putting my two impressions together:  the excellent music and building, which I so  enjoyed because of their excellence, don’t exist for me at all.  That I can see, hear and enjoy them is pure grace. 

The grace I receive through the worship service in my home church is no less than that with which I was overwhelmed that Sunday morning is Salzburg; the only difference was my awareness of it.

 

The Evening Sky

In Devotional, Worldview on July 1, 2013 at 3:11 am

Calvin-and-Hobbes-HD-night-sky 

Calvin of Calvin and Hobbes, once said, “If people sat outside and looked at the stars each night, I bet they’d live a lot differently.”

It wasn’t that long ago when people did sit outside and look at the stars each night.  This is certainty one of the reasons why anyone who lived before Edison had an entirely different view of reality–both of themselves and the world around them–than we do.  

This passage from Psalm 8 is but one example.

When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place, 
what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them? 

When we look up at the night sky, we are seeing a tremendous distance through both time and space.

How far away is the farthest star? 

Here are a few of the answers.

  1. The Milky Way galaxy is about 120,000 light years in diameter.  We’re about 25,000 light years from the center.  So, the most distant stars in our galaxy are about 95,000 light years away. 
  2. The most distant known object has a redshift of just over 5.  That means that the light from this object started its journey toward us when the Universe was only  30% of its current age.  The exact age of the Universe is not known, but is probably roughly 12 billion years.  Thus, the light from this object left it when the Universe was a few billion years old.  Its distance is roughly 25 billion light years. 
  3. Existing observations suggest that the Universe may be infinite in spatial extent.  If so, then the farthest star would actually be infinitely far away!

There’s a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon in which Calvin is lecturing Hobbes on astronomical truth.  He explains, “That cloud of stars is our galaxy, The Milky Way. Our solar system is on the edge of it. . . .  We hurl through an incomprehensible darkness. In cosmic terms, we are subatomic particles in a grain of sand on an infinite beach.”  Then, after glancing at his watch he says, “I wonder what’s on TV.”

A regular submission to the night sky will certainly leave us impressed by our smallness.  In the modern world, we know it, but we no longer experience it.  Not with any regularity anyway.

Another Calvin and Hobbes cartoon has a similar theme.  Again, while looking at the night sky, Calvin says, “Just look at the stars! The universe just goes out forever and forever,” prompting Hobbes to say, “It kind of makes you wonder why man considers himself such a big screaming deal.”  Calvin explains, “That’s why we stay inside with our appliances.”

When you are in your family room, it’s not difficult to consider yourself to be a big screaming deal.  You are almost God-like in this context. 

Omnipotent in your ability to create light.

Omniscient in your access to the internet.

Omnipresent because you have Google Earth.

Which perspective is the more real?  The one from your family room, or the one from the campfire? 

One of my favourite quotes comes from Robertson Davies’ novel, The Fifth Business:  “You have made yourself in to a god, and the insufficiency of it has turned you into an atheist.”

 

 

(Bad) Theology on a Bookmark

In Devotional, False Dichotomies - the lines between on June 5, 2012 at 4:02 am

I couldn’t find my copy of The Screwtape Letters which I have been reading with my English class so I picked up a Bible that was sitting close by.  As I was turning to Psalm 51 I came across a little slip of paper that someone had presumably used as a bookmark.  What was written on this bookmark caused a bit of a rant, and I never did get around to reading Psalm 51.

On the paper was the following information:

 

 

 

Sleeping – 7                                       God:

Eating – 2 hrs

School – 6 8 10

TV – 30min

Hobbies – 5 hrs

Total 1 = 24.5                                      Total 2 = 2hrs. per week

Between the list of daily activities on the left and God on the right, they had drawn a heavy line.

On the back the calculations continued:

Calculations

Other things:                                       God:

Total 1: (24.5) x 365= A                     Total 2: (2) x 365 = B

A = 8942.5                                          B = 730

Minus 5 years from age                       – 5 years from age

A x 12 = 107310                                 B x 12 = 1251

Again, between these two sets of calculations was this heavy line.

I don’t claim to know the reason for these calculations.  My guess is that some well-meaning adult was trying to make the point with a group of young people–the point being they weren’t giving enough of their life over to God.  Sadly, this sort thinking is all too common in Christian circles and the young people have picked up on it, even if someone isn’t deliberately teaching it to them.  It starts with the premise that the things of God—spiritual things—are distinct from the things of life.  The child that made these calculations predictably fell far short of what God demands—God demands a lot, more than 1%.  Whether it was intended or not, the certain result was guilt.  With this approach, you could never escape the guilt.

What if this seventeen year old spent an hour a day in prayer and meditation instead of doing homework or wasting time on that hobby?  That’d certainly improve things, for now God would receive 5%.  Two and a half hours a day would get God around 10%; that’s like the tithe–would that be enough?

No.  God demands our all—everything–so 10% just won’t do it.  The problem is the line.  Unless you engage in some sort of focused devotional activity every minute of the day, every day of the week, every week of the year, you’d never be able to satisfy God’s demand on your life.  But, even Saint Theresa went to the bathroom.

So get rid of the line!  Hobbies and homework can’t be any less about God than singing and supplication.  The only way to give everything to God is to remove the line and let him have education and eating.  When stop separating the sacred from the secular, he can have both.  Or, to put it another way, when we give him both, the line disappears.

That morning in class, after I finished this little sermon, one clever image bearer asked, “How I can include God in my sleep—I can’t have Godly dreams every night.”

After a pause an idea came to me, and I turned to Psalm 1.  That didn’t help me a bit, because what I was looking for was in Psalm 4.

. . . crossing the line between sacred and secular

My thought is that our sleep becomes sacred when we adopt a Hebrew concept of the day.  This ancient concept is apparent in the ordering of Psalm 4 and Psalm 5.  Psalm 4 includes these lines: “I will lie down and sleep in peace, for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.”  Psalm 5 says, “In the morning, O Lord, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait in expectation.”  The editors of the Psalms placed the evening poem before the Psalm of morning.  In Genesis 1 we find the same pattern.  The first day of creation is described and then it says, “And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.”  A few verses later, the same thing, “And there was evening, and there was morning—the second day.”  You get the idea; the day begins in the evening.  Anyone who has watched Tevye hurry home before nightfall in Fiddler on the Roof knows that the Sabbath starts on Friday night, but it’s not just the Sabbath Day that starts in the evening; in the culture from which the Bible came, every day starts in the evening.

Notice the difference that this configuration of the day makes regarding the significance of the individual human being.  In our culture, the day begins with me.  I wake up, and then the day begins.  I must be pretty important if the day—and you might as well say, the universe—doesn’t start until I roll out of bed.  It would be quite appropriate to declare upon waking, “I am here, and, thus, the day may now begin.”

Consider the Hebrew concept of the day starting in the evening.  The day starts when I stop.  The first seven hours of everyday have transpired while I drooled on my pillow.  But God hasn’t slept; He’s been at work through the night.  He has a plan and a pattern for the day and I join it, already in progress and fit into that plan.

I’ve been trying to live in Hebrew time for at least 10 years now, and every morning when I wake up, well almost every morning, I say, “Good morning, Lord.”

Understanding the day in this way reframes the seven hours that I sleep in that it reminds me of my cosmic insignificance in the context of His divine Providence.    It also reframes the hours I am awake.  It is a quotidian reminder and that the all-powerful king of the universe loves me because he’s there every morning to hear me say, “Good, morning Lord.”