Tag Archives: prayer

Unrepentant Plagiarist

Psalm 13

1      How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?

How long will you hide your face from me?

2     How long must I bear pain in my soul,

and have sorrow in my heart all day long?

How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

3     Consider and answer me, O Lord my God!

Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death,

4     and my enemy will say, “I have prevailed”;

my foes will rejoice because I am shaken.

5     But I trusted in your steadfast love;

my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.

6     I will sing to the Lord,

because he has dealt bountifully with me.

 

I love the book of Psalms. I didn’t always love it. As a child, I found it confusing. I appreciated it, but I did not love it. My Sunday School teachers called it a hymmbook, but it didn’t seem much like the hymnals I was familiar with.

I have grown to love this book, because I learned that it is also a prayerbook. When I learned that I could borrow the words of the Psalmist and use them for my own prayers, I began to love the book of Psalms. I gleefully plagiarize its prayers and grow in the discipline of prayer as I do so.

Psalm 13 is one that is easy to borrow. For starters, I have gone through numerous periods in my life when I felt beleaguered by enemies. I have felt despair, because it seemed to me that God ought to do something about the situation, and I could not see any evidence of improvement.

I have observed of myself that, like everyone else, I view my experiences from within the limitations of time and space. It is hard for me to remember that God views them from the perspective of eternity and infinity. In that point of reference, every point in time is now and every point in space is here. The resolution and completion I yearn for is already working, even as I pray, but I am not able to see it. God does not disdain my fears, my suffering, or my inability to see the culmination that is everpresent with Him. Kohelet, the author of Ecclesiastes, observed that God  has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end. (Ecclesiastes 3:11b)

In Psalm 13, however, David summons up faith to assert, despite all appearances to the contrary, that he will “sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me.” (Psalm 13:6) By the time I reach verse 5 of this Psalm, David’s words of lament have worked like a drawing salve on my fear and frustration. They empty out all the things that make me need to cry out, “Help my unbelief!” I am finally able to step outside my time/space limitations and enter worshipfully into God’s throne room where my vision is expanded beyond the limits of my own worldview. David invites me to worship with the saints who see history from God’s point of view in that heavenly throne room. David’s faithful words nourish my own faith, and I am refreshed and encouraged.

I highly recommend plagiarizing David’s prayers and making them your own.

 

 

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No Rescue for You

The biblical story of Absalom and David is a dramatic tale of broken relationships and the complete inability of humans to heal the breach. Most people know that Absalom attempted to usurp his father David’s throne, but few people take the time to discover that Absalom’s scorn for his father was sparked by his father’s unwillingness to rescue the honor of Absalom’s sister Tamar after she was raped by the heir apparent. David’s unwillingness to sully the image of the crown prince by taking any action on behalf of his own daughter had terrible consequences, capped by Absalom’s attempt to steal the kingdom from his father, whom he doubtless regarded as feeble and useless.

Psalm 3 is tagged as a prayer David wrote during Absalom’s rebellion. The author’s lament that people think his situation is hopeless makes sense to anyone who has read how Absalom spent years building himself up in the eyes of David’s subjects, largely by implying that David was remote and impotent while Absalom was out among the people and ready to do what needed to be done. David had, indeed, avoided knowing what Absalom was doing and was totally unprepared to respond when Absalom moved to seize power. The Psalm is attributed to David, who would probably have tired of hearing people say, “It’s hopeless.”

No rescue for him through God. (Psalm 3:3)

Here is a prime example of the wisdom of ignoring gossip. David knew that people were muttering that God wasn’t going to pull David out of the fire this time. He knew that a lot of people thought it was good enough for him that Absalom had rebelled. Just as a voter might hear a political promise in an election campaign and hope that there would be some reward for his vote, many of David’s subjects likely hoped that Absalom’s fine words would mean good things for them in the future. God had dumped Saul and anointed David. Why think God wouldn’t dump David and enthrone handsome, virile, silver-tongued Absalom?

It comforts me to know that God did not abandon David just because David was not good at relationships. When I hear the teaching that God’s most important laws are, Love God above everything else, and Love your neighbor as yourself, I know that I am doomed. I am not good at relationships, either. If David had had any skill at building and healing relationships in his family, the tragedy of Absalom’s rebellion could have been avoided. If I were good at relationships, some tragedies in my life might have been avoided, too. I often give thanks that God didn’t dump me. I am reminded in David’s words that God didn’t dump him, either.

You, Lord, are a shield for me. (Psalm 3:4)

When I pray Psalm 3, I tend to paraphrase some lines. Verses 6 and 7 come out as, “Thank goodness, I can get some sleep, because I know God is with me. It feels as if everybody is against me, but I know I can let God take care of me.” I am inclined to skip over the lines about God breaking people’s teeth, because that isn’t the outcome I really hope for.

 

I am inspired and comforted and motivated by the final verse. In the NRSV, Psalm3:8a reads, “Deliverance belongs to the Lord.” Every time I read it, I remember that this was the cry of Jonah from the belly of the fish. Talk about dire straits! David’s rescue from Absalom’s rebellion was dramatic, but Jonah’s rescue after being thrown into the sea was 3-D drama. Of course, David’s cry in Psalm 3 is a statement of faith that we expect from David. When Jonah cried out those words, it was his moment of truth. In David’s story, Absalom was the rebel, but in Jonah’s story, the rebel was Jonah himself. When Jonah cried out those words, it was more of a confession that he had finally seen the light than a statement of his ongoing faith that God was with him. After all, Jonah arrived in the fish’s belly precisely because he had sought to escape God’s presence.

 

All of which is truly comforting. Whether my enemies gang up on me, or whether I gang up on myself by trying to run away from God, I can’t escape God’s presence. Even though God can’t count on me to love him or to love people, and even though God can’t count on me to be where I am supposed to be when I am supposed to be there, God never gives up on me. That is the deep truth that I pray when I pray Psalm 3 in the spiritual company of David and Jonah and all the saints. There is rescue for me, after all.

 

 

 

Pray Psalm 11

Bonhoeffer’s guidance

In his book Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “The Psalms are given to us to this end, that we may learn to pray them in the name of Jesus Christ.”[1] The Psalms would have been the prayers Jesus learned as he was growing up Jewish in Nazareth, and Bonhoeffer writes that in praying the Psalms, we appropriate the language and prayer focus of Christ himself. He advocates that we learn to pray by praying as Christ prayed, saying, “The richness of the Word of God ought to determine our prayer, not the poverty of our heart.”[2]

In that spirit, I prayed Psalm 11 today, and I share that experience with you.

I can trust God – Psalm 11:1a

The Psalmist opened this prayer with the words, “In the Lord I take refuge.”

These words assert faith in God in the face of trouble all around. I can identify with that situation. When I read or hear the daily news, I am overwhelmed with despair and dread. The events of each day are disturbing, and the consequences I foresee in the future are dispiriting. Yet, with the Psalmist, in words Christ himself would have prayed as he faced his ministry challenges, I can pray, “In the Lord I take refuge.”

People without faith counsel running away – Psalm 11:1b-3

It always seems easier to run away from challenges than to confront them. In fact, the strength of civil disobedience is always that their willingness to be confrontational is expected eventually to wear away the resistance of the general population to the change desired by the demonstrators.

Violent rebellions often triumph, as we see in the Middle East, just because people do not want to risk death to challenge them. Unlike a lot of commentators and political pundits, I do not see an outbreak of democracy in the Middle East as the guaranteed result of the violent ejection of some tyrants; there is no evidence so far that the rebels are any more supportive of freedom and democracy than the autocrats they have unseated.

People who see that nations around the world are in chaos will say, “If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?” They accept that evil is winning, because it looks that way at the moment. I hear a lot of people blame God, saying things such as, “If God is so good, why is there war (or poverty, or hunger, or AIDS)?” Just like the people in the Psalmist’s day, they accuse God of weakness and indifference when things don’t go well. When Christ prayed these words, he knew the answer to the question, because he had come to be our defense against evil.

God knows what is going on – Psalm 11:4

The Psalmist sees beyond the world of time and space into the world of eternity and infinity. The Psalmist sees what John saw when he wrote in Revelation 4:2 – “There in heaven stood a throne, with one seated on the throne!” The Psalmist wrote “[The Lord’s] eyes behold, his gaze examines humankind,” asserting his faith that God, indeed, sees what is happening.

The wicked suffer the consequences of their faithlessness – Psalm 11:5-6

To those who complain that God is doing nothing, the Psalmist responds that God is quite attentive and involved. Christ himself judged evil by his very presence. Religious and political leaders whose lives were evil behind pious facades felt that judgment when they were in his presence. The presence of God in the world fills evil people with guilt and shame which feel like coals of fire in the pit of their stomachs. In Revelation John wrote that the wicked feel so deeply anguished by the judgment that they run to the mountains and would prefer to be crushed under rockslides than endure the judgment of God’s presence, all because they refuse to receive his love and grace. They are not sent to the mountains; they run to the mountains, the very advice that faithless neighbors gave to the Psalmist.

Made righteous by Christ, I can trust God – Psalm 11:7

There is hope for me. When Christ prayed these words, he could stand in his own righteousness before the throne and say, “the upright shall behold his face.” I can never make myself righteous, but I am made righteous through the death and resurrection of Christ. I have no confidence in my own ability to withstand evil. On my own, to see God is to die, but clothed in the righteousness of Christ, I can stand upright and face God. No matter what is going on around me, I can trust God, because Christ has made me worthy.

The world of time and space looks hopeless. I fear that in this world, evil is so pervasive that I see no place to run where I could escape it. My own efforts to defend myself and lead others to reject evil seem completely useless. If I could not trust God, I would, indeed, be doomed. I have hope only in Christ who has redeemed me and rescued me from the evil of these days.

 


[1] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible© 1970 (Augsburg Fortress Publishers, Minneapolis) p. 15

[2] Ibid, p. 15

Plagiarized Prayer

There is another approach to Bible study that is so tightly integrated with prayer that I don’t know what to call it. It absolutely energizes my prayers and often points me to either blessings or problems I have been ignoring. I call it plagiarized prayer. You can call it something else if that word feels uncomfortable.

I came upon this idea many years ago when I read a novel the name of which escapes me now. It was about a man who suddenly and inexplicably began to take the Bible seriously. When a problem in the city required his testimony in court, he took the oath every witness takes, “to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” Then he did exactly that. He amazed himself and everyone else. He put the name of Jesus in front of a community. People began to care for one another in amazing ways. It all began with a plagiarized prayer. (I wish I could remember the name of this book. Does it ring bells with anyone?)

I plagiarize a prayer by putting my own name in it. Here is an example.

Read Philippians 1:9-11

And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight 10 to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, 11 having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.

Now, insert your own name in every possible location in this prayer. Make it a prayer that is all about you.

And this is my prayer, that Katherine’s love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight 10 to help Katherine to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ Katherine may be pure and blameless, 11 having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.

This is a prayer that motivates. The Apostle Paul prayed this prayer for the church at Philippi, where one of my favorite Bible characters lived. Lydia was already a spiritual leader when Paul arrived, and she was among the first people who heard him and met Christ and started the church. When this letter came back after Paul had left, Lydia was among the people for whom Paul was praying.

I see my own name in this prayer, and I think first of Lydia. When she heard this prayer read in church, she must have asked herself how she could grow in knowledge and insight. Somebody needed to do that, because a church without mature leaders will flounder. She had no church history to teach her about that problem, but I do. How, I ask myself, will my church thrive if I fail to grow in knowledge and insight? What will God ask of me if I do grow?

Oh, the answer is that I will be able to determine what is best. That is the point of growing – to become able to discern the best. The best for my church, the best for my family, the best for my country? What? Well, I may need to do some growing before I see where God will have me use my gift of seeing good choices and good strategies and wise words. This is huge. This is not the sort of prayer I pray once and move on. I may need to dwell in this prayer for a few days.

The prayer continues. I want to know what is best and make the best decisions because I want to be ready for Christ’s return. It is like the story Jesus told about people being ready for the return of their master. He wanted to find them busy about the work he had given them, not dawdling and napping and taking advantage of each other. Or the one about the foolish maidens who failed to have oil to light their lamps when the bridegroom arrived. When I know what is best and do what is best, then I will be busy about the work Christ wants me to do. I will be ready for him to appear at any time. He will be pleased with me, and I certainly want that.

The prayer concludes. It isn’t really all about me. The point of it all is a harvest of righteousness that points people to God. If I am doing what Christ calls me to do, I will inspire people to praise and glorify God. I can’t expect a Nobel Prize or a big appreciation dinner at church. I can expect what Paul received – stonings, beatings, imprisonment, shipwreck and curses. When God called Paul to do the work he was created for, God told Ananias to tell Paul that he would have to suffer for Christ. I feel confident that if I actually mature in faith and choose what is best and serve Christ to the glory of God, then I can expect suffering and sorrow along the way, too. It won’t all be victory parades.

So I need to live in this prayer. I need to examine what it means to have knowledge and discernment, two very different things. I need to learn how to grow up and become an adult servant of Christ, eating the meat of the word, having moved past milk and pablum.

Putting my own name into this prayer makes it personal, but amazingly, the prayer is less about me than most of my prayers. This prayer is not “I,” “me” “mine.” Rather it points me at all times to Christ and to the great commandments to love and serve God and to love and serve people.

Try putting your name into a prayer, and see where it leads your Bible study. As you meditate, I recommend you write down the things you discover. They may lead you to look up words and check out cross-references and commentaries, in other words, they may lead you to do some research. That is how you will grow in knowledge. Immersed in prayer is the very best way to research the Bible in order that your study opens your heart to the transforming work of the Holy Spirit.

We All Need To Study The Bible

I have friends who tell me that they really want to study the Bible, but they don’t have time. Or they don’t have a place to do it. Or they don’t have any reference books for it. Or they have tried and they don’t understand it. I can’t argue with any of these explanations, but I can tell everyone the same thing: we all need to study the Bible.

The reason we need it is that life is terribly messy. If you think it is hard to understand the Bible sometimes, I can’t dispute your experience. However, I am sure that you think life is hard to understand sometimes, too, but you don’t opt out. In fact, I will hypothesize that if you made time to study the Bible, you would almost certainly get a better grip on life.

Notice that I don’t use the word “read” the Bible. I do that on purpose. You can’t study it without reading it, but you can read it without studying it. I use the word “study” because we need to read the Bible with the intention of learning and growing. There are all sorts of ways to do that, and today I will describe one of them. Yesterday I explained the TRIP method. Today I will introduce lectio divina.

Lectio divina is a Latin term which means “divine reading.” I use the Latin term instead of an English translation, because this approach to Bible study has its roots in the era when Latin was the language of the church. This method was first devised as a way for a group of people to study together in a formal way. That is the origin of this practice. However, it can be a lovely way to study the Bible all by yourself.

I recommend that you record your thoughts in a notebook during this process. There is something about writing down your thoughts that inspires more critical and attentive study. The Holy Spirit can use your writing to teach you things you did not think you knew. But even if you don’t choose to journal, lectio divina provides a form and discipline that can lead you to grow in deeper faith and the practice of your faith.

The method of lectio divina is simple:

  • Read a passage and think about it
  • Read the passage again and think about it
  • Read the passage again and pray about it

This is the high level explanation of lectio divina. Let’s dig deeper.

First, choose a passage. You can use the Daily Texts as selected by the Moravian Church and published annually by Mount Carmel Ministries. (By the way, I don’t get any commission for talking about this book so much. I just love it. I have used it for more than ten years. It is the backbone of my own daily devotions. Click here to visit the site. ) You can use some other reading plan. You can choose a book of the Bible and read it by chapters or smaller passages. Any choice is fine. I do recommend that the passage be not more than six or seven verses and reasonably confined to one topic, but you can set your own standards.

Second, pray for understanding. All Bible study must be immersed in prayer. When Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would come, he said that the Spirit would lead us into truth. We need to be sensitive to the presence and the guidance of the Holy Spirit when we study the Bible. We have a Bible, because the Holy Spirit inspired the writers and acted through many people over thousands of years to preserve the texts. The Bible is the work of the Holy Spirit, and we need his guidance to understand it.

Then begin the process of lectio divina.

  • The first reading:

    You may read the passage more than once. As you read, listen for a word or phrase that speaks to you. Don’t be too critical. Listen with your heart as the Holy Spirit guides. Don’t choose a word. Rather, listen for a word. You want to hear God’s word to you, not to choose some word for technical analysis.

    If you are journaling, write down the word or phrase and any thoughts that arise from your understanding that this is God’s word to you. Some of your thoughts may be questions you cannot immediately answer. That is fine. Just write them down and come back later to deal with them.

  • The second reading:

    Again, you may read the passage more than once. As you read, listen for God’s invitation to you. Remember, your objective is to hear God’s invitation, not to try to figure out what it might be. As you read, listen with your heart. Let the indwelling Holy Spirit invite you to action or contemplation or commitment.

    If you are journaling, write down this invitation and your thoughts about it. Would it be hard for you to respond to this invitation? Does it seem like a strange invitation? Does it make you laugh, or cry, or ??? Be honest with yourself in your reactions to it. Be honest with God.

  • The third reading:

    Read the passage, maybe more than once. Now it is time to pray for help in living out God’s invitation and guidance.

    If you are journaling, the process of writing your prayer can be a time of great catharsis, or vision, or even confusion. Pray honestly. Use normal words, not “holy” words. Talk with God the way you talk with any good friend. Get things out on the table and name them. Listen. Listen. Listen.

The process of lectio divina is very simple, but it can help you to discover some profound truths.

You may have been wondering when I would get around to talking about dictionaries and commentaries. After all, don’t people need such things in order to understand the Bible?

Yes, they do. And No, they don’t.

When Martin Luther was translating the Bible into German, his goal was to get it into the hands of people so they could read it for themselves. He knew that the Bible was simple enough for anyone to read and understand. The lesson to “love your neighbor as yourself” is pretty simple. Any three-year-old can immediately comprehend that lesson. Living it is quite another matter.

Martin Luther never expected that the common people of Germany would have libraries of study aids for the Bible; he simply hoped that each one could have a Bible and read it. His advice to everyone was not to worry about any parts that were hard to understand. There was plenty of material that was clear and simple for all. The real challenge, after all, was to live like Christ, and there was plenty of guidance on that subject that did not require post-graduate education.

However, study aids are wonderful to use after you have become committed to study. The first reason to study the Bible is to grow your relationship with Christ, and as you grow and mature in your faith, you will certainly want to study more and more deeply in the truths of the Bible. Then you should acquire Bible dictionaries, commentaries and so forth. These study aids are all wonderful and enlightening and even inspirational. None of them, however, must be permitted to pre-empt the place of the Bible in your study.

If you don’t have a commitment to study the Bible and pray every day, that is the thing you need to develop. If you have a Bible and you decide to study it, then you have all the equipment you need to start growing in faith. Don’t burden yourself with some worry that you don’t understand everything you read. Worry that you don’t live what you do understand.

Think about this: Jesus said, “Love your enemies.” If you could read that sentence in koine’ Greek or in Aramaic, it would be a wonderful thing, but it would not help you to love people who treat you like dirt. In the plain English translation, those words set up a standard for daily life that is pretty hard to achieve. When someone calls you a dimwit Bible-thumping hillbilly, because you trust Christ and are not ashamed to say so, it is very hard to respond with love. That challenge is daunting enough for most of us.

Do not defeat your own desire to study the Bible by making it harder than it has to be. Let the Holy Spirit nourish your faith and help you make the time. The blessing you experience as a result will be carrot enough to bring you back the next day.