The good news of the Gospel is that God in Christ meets us where we are and accepts us as we are, that God has come to us when we could not go to God, that we are right with God through God’s gift in Christ, that we are justified by faith, by trust in God’s grace in Christ. Therefore, we can come before God as we are, because God sees us as righteous in Christ. This is why even as beginners in prayer we can offer our simple, real, honest prayers to God through Christ, because God in Christ has opened up a new way for us to come in the presence of God as we are. — Owen C. Thomas, “Prayer in Anglican Practice,” Christian Life & Practice, p. 94
–Ta-Nehisi Coates on Moby-Dick.
–Amy-Jill Levine: “A Critique of Recent Christian Statements on Israel“
–From Jeremy at Don’t Be Hasty: Why the church can’t take the place of the welfare state.
–A review of Keith Ward’s recent book More than Matter?
–Lady Gaga: “Iron Maiden changed my life.”
–Grist’s David Roberts has been writing a series on “great places” as a reorienting focus for progressive politics: see the first installments here, here, and here. Also see this reflection from Ned Resnikoff.
–Four different demo versions of Metallica’s early tune “Hit the Lights” (with some, ahem, interesting vocal experimentation by a young James Hetfield).
Given the debate over the last few days about whether it’s appropriate to be happy about, and even celebrate, the death of Osama bin Laden, I thought it would be worth revisiting Ellen Davis’s discussion of the cursing (imprecatory) psalms in her book Getting Involved with God. These psalms, which call God’s wrath down upon the psalmist’s enemies in what often seems like a very unchristian spirit, are frequently glossed over or heavily edited, if not extirpated entirely from contemporary Christian worship.
However, Davis argues that “the cursing psalms are in fact a crucial resource for our spiritual growth, indispensable if we are to come before God with rigorous honesty” (pp. 24-5).
The cursing psalms help us to hold our anger in good faith. Sadly, most of us feel about our enemies more like the psalmist does than Jesus did. We must pray to be healed from our hardness of heart, but healing will not come through a cover-up. Healing for ourselves and even for our enemies requires that we acknowledge our bitter feelings and yet not yield to their tyranny. Rather we must offer them, along with our more attractive gifts, for God’s work of transformation. In several ways, the cursing psalms give us strong practical guidance in making that offering of anger. (pp. 25-6)
What is this practical guidance? Davis says that it comes in three forms. First, the cursing psalms give us words to express our anger. And not only do they provide a means for venting our anger when we are betrayed or victimized, they can help us move past anger. By giving us words with which to externalize our anger, they allow us to look at it more objectively and, perhaps, to recognize the element of self-righteousness it contains. “For the cursing psalms confront us with one of our most persistent idolatries, to which neither Israel nor the church has ever been immune: the belief that God has as little use for our enemies as we do, the desire to reduce God to an extension of our own embattled and wounded egos” (p. 26).
Second, the cursing psalms can be modes of access to God. They teach us that God is known in judgment on evil as well as in mercy. “The God who created us for life together (Genesis 2:18) is, like us, outraged by those who violate trust and rupture community” (pp. 26-7). It is part of our baptismal vows to name evil when we see it and to reject it wholeheartedly.
Finally, and most importantly, these psalms direct us to give the desire for vengeance or payback over to God. “[T]he cry for vengeance,” Davis says, “invariably takes the form of an appeal for God to act” (p. 27). The cursing psalms don’t authorize us to take matters into our own hands. “On the contrary, the validity of any punishing action that may occur depends entirely on its being God’s action, not ours” (p. 27). Moreover, leaving vengeance in the hands of the Lord means relinquishing control of the outcome:
Through these psalms we demand that our enemies be driven into God’s hands. But who can say what will happen to them there? For God is manifest in judgment of our enemies but also, alas, in mercy toward them. Thus these vengeful psalms have a relationship with other forms of prayer for our enemies. (p. 27)
So, if there’s a lesson here for us, maybe it’s that we ought to bring our feelings about enemies like bin Laden–whatever they are–before God. If I’m happy about bin Laden’s death, then I should say that to God in prayer. But doing so in the spirit of the psalms means that I may come to recognize an element of self-righteousness in my righteous anger and satisfaction. It means naming the evil that he was responsible for and our anger about it. But it also means giving up the position of ultimate judge of his, or anyone else’s, fate. (It’s noteworthy, though not particularly surprising, how many people are confident in consigning bin Laden to hell.) Human justice may have required bin Laden to be killed, or at least to be sufficiently disabled to prevent him from wreaking more terror. But ultimate judgment remains beyond us. Navy SEALs might have been the instrument that drove bin Laden into the hands of the living God, but what happens once he gets there remains a mystery.
Another insightful passage from Ellen Davis on the Psalms:
The preponderance of laments in the Book of Praises is a fruitful contradiction from which we can learn much. But we live with a second discrepancy that should trouble us more than it does; namely, the contrast between the biblical models of prayer and our own contemporary practices in the church. It seems that ancient Israel believed that the kind of prayer in which we most need fluency is the loud groan, and they have bequeathed us a lot of material on which to practice. Therefore it is troubling that most Christians are almost completely unfamiliar with the lament psalms. Except on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, these psalms almost never appear in worship services. Evidently modern Christian liturgists define the business of worship more narrowly than did ancient Israel, and as a result our lives as individual believers and as a church are impoverished. The shape of the Psalter–the fact that the laments are brought to the fore–suggests that our own worship is deformed by our failure to bring the language of suffering into the sanctuary as an integral part of our weekly liturgy. (“With My Tears I Melt My Mattress,” Getting Involved with God, pp. 15-16)
There’s a tendency among Christians to see the expressions of raw emotion in the Psalms–including despair, anger, and longing for vengeance–as sub-Christian and to conclude that they have no place in public worship or private prayer. But as Davis points out, most of the psalms of lament have an internal movement that finishes in praise. “[T]he lament psalms regularly trace a movement from complaint to confidence in God, from desperate petition to anticipatory praise” (pp. 20-21). Bringing the experience of suffering into God’s presence is necessary for that suffering to begin to be healed.
The problem with [many common] notions of prayer is that we cannot have an intimate relationship with someone to whom we cannot speak honestly–that is, someone to whom we cannot show our ugly side, or those large clay feet of ours. We in this culture are all psychologically astute enough to know that honest, unguarded speaking is essential to the health of family life or close friendship. But do we realize that the same thing applies to our relationship with God? That is what the Psalms are about: speaking our mind honestly and fully before God. The Psalms are a kind of First Amendment for the faithful. They guarantee us complete freedom of speech before God, and then (something no secular constitution would ever do) they give us a detailed model of how to exercise that freedom, even up to its dangerous limits, to the very brink of rebellion.
-Ellen F. Davis, “Improving our Aim: Praying the Psalms,” Getting Involved with God, pp. 8-9
Chris at the Lutheran Zephyr has a clear and helpful summary of some of Martin Luther’s teachings on prayer, particularly his commendation of the “fourfold garland” method of prayer and his emphasis on making use of the materials contained in the catechism.
As Chris says, in “A Simple Way to Pray,” Luther advised his barber “Master Peter” to take a verse of scripture, or one of the commandments, or a portion of the creed and make a “fourfold garland” of prayer out of it, consisting of a teaching, a thanksgiving, a confession, and a prayer (i.e., a petition). Not only does this provide ample material for prayer, but it provides a way to “internalize” the words of the Bible or the catechism.
I sense that Chris may be taking a friendly dig at some of our blogospheric cohorts when he writes that “Simplicity is very important for popular prayer practices, as most Christians are not going to consult liturgical books to follow a form of personal daily prayer that was developed in monastaries and intended to be used as corporate prayer.” As valuable as the Daily Office no doubt is, I have to agree that, at least as far as I’m concerned, this is true, and I’ve made frequent recourse to Brother Martin’s prescription.
If I can be a bit presumptuous, I’ve found it helpful recently to add a strand to the garland, namely a question: since I’m often unsure what a verse of the Bible or part of the creed means or how it pertains to my life or even if it’s true, I ask God as part of my prayer. Not that I get–or even expect–an answer, but I think it’s good to give voice to what we’re uncertain about and not to piously pretend that we’ve got this all down pat.
Not the one we actually sang today, but I like this one better:
Jesus Christ is risen today, Alleluia!
our triumphant holy day, Alleluia!
who did once upon the cross, Alleluia!
suffer to redeem our loss. Alleluia!
Hymns of praise then let us sing, Alleluia!
unto Christ, our heavenly King, Alleluia!
who endured the cross and grave, Alleluia!
sinners to redeem and save. Alleluia!
But the pains which he endured, Alleluia!
our salvation have procured, Alleluia!
now above the sky he’s King, Alleluia!
where the angels ever sing. Alleluia!
As usual, my high aspirations for improving my practice of prayer during Lent haven’t lived up to expectations. Still, I recently picked up a small book called The Jesus Prayer Rosary by the late Fr. Michael Cleary that I’ve found helpful. Although I’m wary of mix ‘n’ match approaches to spirituality, I love the Rosary and have been looking for a way to incorporate the Jesus Prayer into my practice of prayer beyond ad hoc use.
In the introduction, Fr. Cleary says that he wrote the book precisely to bring these two traditions together. Particularly, he suggests it could be a valuable way of praying for those who are uncomfortable with the Marian prayers of the traditional Rosary.
The Jesus Prayer Rosary differs from the traditional (Dominican) Rosary in about the ways you might expect. Here’s what the structure looks like:
On the cross pray
We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you.
Because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.
Holy and strong,
Holy and immortal,
have mercy on us.
On the first large bead pray the Lord’s Prayer.
On the three small beads pray
i. Jesus, son of David, have pity on me.
ii. You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.
iii. Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
Pray the “Glory Be…”
On the next large bead, announce the first “mystery” or meditation and pray the Lord’s Prayer.
On each of the ten following beads, pray the Jesus Prayer.
After the ten beads, pray the “Glory Be…” and the Concluding prayer for each meditation.
Repeat this for all five decades; on the centerpiece pray one of the concluding prayers (the book offers several, including the traditional Lukan canticles).
Pray a concluding prayer.
The book offers a series of Bible passages and meditations that correspond roughly to the traditional mysteries of the Rosary: Meditations on the Infancy of Jesus, the Ministry of Jesus, the Passion, and “Life in Christ,” which include the Resurrection, Ascension, the Holy Spirit, the Life of Grace, and the New Jerusalem.
For each meditation, the book also provides a clause to use when praying the Jesus Prayer that resonates with the mystery being meditated upon. For instance, the form of the Jesus Prayer given for the meditation on the Last Supper is
Jesus, Lord and Christ,
Son and Word of the Living God:
you make yourself known to us
in the breaking of bread,
have mercy (on us).
I’ve only used this form of the Rosary a couple of times so far, but I’ve found it to be conducive to focusing on Jesus, which, according to Fr. Cleary, is what it’s for:
Concentrating on Jesus is what this little work is all about. It’s also a pretty good description of what Christians down the years have called ‘meditation.’ Making it possible for people to do so, in a way that changes their lives, what they have called ‘evangelization.’ At least, that’s the way St. Paul understood it: ‘For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness”, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ’ (2 Corinthians 4.6). And, staying focused on that face is for the apostle the secret of the spiritual life, the life of transforming grace: ‘beholding the glory of the Lord, [we] are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit’ (2 Corinthians 3.18). (pp. ix-x)
I’m not at all uncomfortable with the traditional Marian rosary, but I do find this version’s more intensely Christological focus to be appealing.