We Need Lent

One of the more famous essays written by C.S. Lewis is titled, “On Reading Old Books”, although it was originally penned as introduction to a new translation of the work “On the Incarnation” by the patristic theologian Athanasius.  In this essay, as it’s title suggests, Lewis commends the reading of old books to his audience.  Among the reasons he gives for his commendation is that reading old books gives us a different perspective than our own.  It draws us outside of our own age and plunges into the strange world of the past.  He doesn’t claim that those in the past were necessarily smarter than we are and certainly weren’t infallible in their views.  He puts it this way:

“Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. ”

One of the characteristics of our present time is the flaunting or disregard of tradition.  The most fashionable academic approach to history, be it Church history, American history or the history of Western Civilization, is study as a means of criticizing or pointing out the errors of the past.  It is quite a modern conceit to imagine that by exposing the errors of the past that we are freeing ourselves from those errors.  More often we are only reinforcing our own errors, which may be quite different than those which we see in the past.  We harden ourselves in blindness to our own faults the more we sit in judgment on those who no longer live to defend themselves.  It certainly does not pay to be blind to the errors of those who came before us, much less to defend attitudes and actions that are indefensible.  But when we approach the past, not as a judge but as a student, we may find that there is much that we can learn there which would be much more difficult to learn from looking at our own time.

So what does this have to do with Lent?  The observance of Lent is an ancient Church tradition that began as a means of preparing candidates for baptism through the forty days preceding Easter Sunday for baptism and reception into the Church on Easter.  It is marked by solemnity, fasting, almsgiving, mortifying the flesh through self-denial and repentance for sin.  For contemporary believers in the stream of evangelical and charismatic American Christianity, it seems to be a strange world apart from upbeat praise and worship music, sermons of practical biblical application to relevant life issues such as marriage, finances, parenting and health and the ethos of acceptance, outreach and seeker sensitivity.  Which is exactly why we need it so much.  Can Lenten observance degenerate into a morbid sense of self-criticism, works righteousness and empty ritual?  Of course it can.  But for most believers within the stream of Christianity described above, a bit of solemnity, self-examination and quiet reflection might provide a welcome shock to the system.

In 2nd Corinthians 7, the apostle Paul describes the difference between godly sorrow and the sorrow of the world.  Godly sorrow, he states, “produces repentance leading to salvation” while the sorrow of the world produces death (2nd Corinthians 7:10).  Godly sorrow only results when correction is taken seriously.  It happens when we take an honest look at our faults and deeply consider what damage they have wrought.  It is difficult and can be quite painful.  In our affluence and addiction to pleasure, even the Christian pleasures of good feelings during worship and desire to appeal to outside of the Church as loving and reasonable, we tend to avoid pain at all costs.  It shows in our discomfort with grief and inability to lament evil in the world without degenerating our discussions into political talking points.  Lent involves a lot more silence than talking, and the talking that it does produce involves a lot more confession of sin than pointing out the faults of others.  In other words, it embodies exactly the opposite spirit than that of our contentious times.  I believe that what our time needs more than anything else is not a better set of arguments, not more positive self-affirmations or even better songs and sermons.  I believe that it needs a better people, a Church that is genuinely full of God’s Spirit.  But this cannot happen without serious reflection.  It cannot happen without laying down our weapons of self-justification, defensiveness and self-righteousness.  The ancient practice of Lenten preparation can help strip us of all of this and more.  It’s a lot easier to hear God when we stop our incessant talking.  It’s a lot easier to listen to others when we stop justifying ourselves at every turn.  It’s a lot easier to be filled with the Spirit when we empty ourselves of human pride.

This Lenten season, I invite all of us to a time of embracing a bit more silence, of a lot more listening, both to God and to others and most of all a surrender of our own agendas and half-baked plans.  The best news is that after Lent comes Easter.  Resurrection power is the reward for those submit to God’s time of preparation and waiting.  Sorrow and weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.

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A Culture of Righteousness for All the World to See

Super Bowl Sunday is not just the day when the champion of the National Football League is decided.  It’s also the biggest day of the advertising year.  Many people enjoy the commercials every bit as much, if not more, than the game itself.  This year, as is true every year, many memorable commercials attracted attention.  Some were funny, others provocative, and others were just odd.  One that drew my attention was the Ram Truck commercial, featuring a lengthy recorded quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. regarding servanthood and greatness.  There were other commercials that were “cause” related (T-mobile’s “equal pay” themed commercial and Kraft’s “family” commercial come to mind) beyond this one example.  What interested me most about these commercials is that the product itself (Trucks, Mobile Phones, Kraft foods) were not the focus of the ads.  Nothing about the ads touted the features, superiority or reasons for buying the products in question.  My first thought was, “what are these ads selling”?  But I immediately knew the answer to my question as soon as I asked it.  What were the ads selling?  Righteousness.

All advertising contains a moral element.  What is the implicit message of all advertising?  Buy fill-in-the-blank product or service and your life will be better.  You will be prettier, healthier, happier, thinner, stronger, smarter and the list goes on.  But the ads that aired on Super Bowl Sunday that are referenced above signal a shift in some ways.  The ad makers of these particular ads moved the emphasis from a product or service being the source of the betterment of life to these products or services being in alignment with what is considered right.  The claim now isn’t that this product or service will make you better.  It’s that the company in question is worthy of your dollars and support because they are on the right side of things.  Buy from us and you are on the right side as well.  It’s righteousness as a consumer product.  But why the shift?  Why did these ad makers (who generally are among the most savvy observers of what resonates with a moment in time in our culture) think that this kind of messaging would be effective?  I think it’s because our culture has shifted in the way it thinks about what it means to be righteous.

Righteousness in American culture today has less to do with actions than at any point in my lifetime.  Righteousness is about what side you are on.  It’s about what viewpoints you hold in the public sphere.  And it’s not just about what those viewpoints are – it’s that they are seen to be held in a public way.  One of the most clear indicators of this can be seen in the observation of social media behavior.  Much of the content on any social media feed consists of viewpoints.  It’s a shared link, it’s a comment about a current topic or a rant about the latest outrage in the political world.  People create, over time, a clear identity or image of who they are and what they think on whatever social media platform they frequent.  For some, it’s an image of “look at how great my life is” complete with the latest pictures of fun times on vacation, family or cool events.  For others, it’s an image of humor with the latest funny dog video or clever meme.  For many others it’s an image of the passionate crusader for justice or righter of wrongs through sharing of provocative articles or responding to the daily news cycle.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of this kind of content sharing or creation.  But when I see an ad on Super Bowl Sunday that is explicitly selling righteousness as a consumer good it gives me pause.  What does that tell us about ourselves?

One of the many provocative themes in the teachings of Jesus can be found in the sixth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew.  The first verse reads as follows:

“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.” (ESV)

The next few paragraphs of the chapter apply this to prayer, almsgiving and fasting.  I wonder if it could be applied just as easily to social media behavior.  Are we fostering an atmosphere not only in our culture, but in our churches and in our own lives, where we are substituting “correct opinions shared publicly” with hearts and lives that are surrendered to Christ in a way that is content to love and serve others even if no one else ever sees or notices?  Have we blurred the lines between who we are on a public social media platform and who we are at home with the people who know us the best, when we are alone or when we are with people who have no incentive or clear path to make our lives any better or easier?

There really isn’t a way to live your life in a completely private fashion.  Some of who we are will always be public for the world around us to see.  We all have a circle of relationships where we exert influence one way or another.  No person is an island.  But we are influenced by the culture around us as well and there is a spirit to the age we live in, just as there is in every time and every place.  I wonder if one of the most counter-cultural things that we can do is to take Matthew 6:1 seriously.  I wonder if spending less time making sure that everyone out there knows that we are on the “right side” and more time loving and serving those in our circle of influence would produce a righteousness, not that the whole world knows about, but that the whole world can see.  It’s easy to rail against the culture around us and take stands to try and change the world.  But more often than not, the culture around us is also telling us some uncomfortable truths about ourselves and the change that we might want in the world around us begins with change in the world within us and goes out from there.

The righteousness that Jesus offers isn’t something that we can buy or something that we can produce by cultivated image.  But thankfully, it is something that we can receive and hopefully shine so that others might glorify our Father who is in heaven.

 

How Praying the Psalms Has Changed Me

This morning as I prayed, I prayed Psalm 2 and Psalm 110.  Both Psalms emphasize the kingship of God’s anointed Son.  As I prayed, my eyes opened to the reality of the majesty of Jesus Christ in a way that I believe will be just what I need today.  This experience has become a common occurrence for me.  It describes something of the shift I have seen in my daily walk with God since I began praying the Psalms.  In this post, I would like to highlight three ways that shift has happened.

Praying the Psalms has increased the variety of my prayer life.  It has expanded my spiritual vocabulary in a way that has allowed me to escape the routine, the default and the trite in my prayers.  Doesn’t that seem a bit ironic?  The disciplined practiced of reading aloud words that I didn’t think of or write has not led to rote, monotonous recitation.  It has done exactly the opposite.  This is the parable of liturgy.  It allows us to cash in the treasures of centuries of the experiences of God’s people.  It frees us from the limitations of our own thoughts, our own words and our own experiences.  Praying the Psalms has added new categories to my time with God.  Depending on the day, it has brought celebration, lament, remembrance, desperation and awe into my time in God’s presence in ways that I could never generate out of my own mental resources.  The best way I know how to describe it is that I have become more well-rounded in my prayer life.

Praying the Psalms has made me more honest in God’s presence.  For many of us, we tend to labor under the delusion that there are just things that we can’t say to God.  Right now, I am walking through a time of job transition and that brings a specific set of feelings and thoughts with it.  There are moments and days that I feel alternatively, uncertain, hopeful, angry, fearful, excited or confused.  The Psalms contain language that express all of these things and more.  As I pray the Psalms I express all of these things to God in ways that I didn’t before.  I’ve asked God where He is in the middle of hard times, why things are taking so long to resolve and why things have happened in the first place.  I’ve also confessed my faults, my lack of faith and wrestled with my own tendency to make the same mistakes over and over.  And I’ve thanked God for His blessings, praised Him for the many ways that He has helped me in the past and expressed trust that He will take care of me today and into the future.  The Psalms make sure that I don’t avoid the tough questions or wrestle with confusing experiences.  They help me not to hide from His presence.

Praying the Psalms pull me out of myself.  It shows me that my struggles are not unique.  For centuries God’s people have fought the same battles that I am fighting today.  And as a result, I know that I am not alone.  It helps me to realize that others are finding themselves in the same struggle that I am experiencing.  The more I engage these experiences in prayer, with the people of God from times past, the more likely I have found myself to reach out to others for help and support.  God did not intend us to walk out this life in Christ alone.  He wants us to live it out in the community of others who are walking down the same road.  The Psalms were written to be both individual and communal prayers.  It is impossible to engage these prayers as an individual and not feel the tug toward community.

I have written these past few posts about praying the Psalms to encourage each of you to step into this ancient practice.  My hope is that as you do, you will experience some of the same life-changing shifts that I have.  In the final post in this series (which will be forthcoming a bit later this week), I will offer a resources on how to get started.

 

Praying with the Psalms – How to Pray the Psalms

It is one thing to be convinced that it is necessary and good to pray with the Psalms.  But the next question is simple.  How do I pray the Psalms?  Let me offer a few thoughts that can help make the experience of praying the Psalms rich and effective.

The first thought is deceptively simple, but of vital importance.  The first step to praying the Psalms is to read them OUT LOUD in a prayerful attitude.  The practice of reading to ourselves silently, with the entire experience happening using only the sense of sight and entirely in our conscious mind, is a modern innovation.  All written literature, for much of human history, was created to be read out loud in the context of a community.  The Psalms are no different.  In ancient Israel, in worship in the synagogue and in the use of the Psalter in the Daily Prayer Offices of most Christian traditions the experience of the Psalms are meant to be the experience of words spoken and heard.  If you want to pray the Psalms, pray them out loud and hear the rhythm and cadence of the words themselves not just in your mind, but in your senses and with your feelings.  This allows the possibility of the next thought to become a reality.

The second thought is to imaginatively enter into the world of the Psalmist as you pray.  Put yourself in the shoes of the Psalmist and seek to pray along with what that Psalmist was thinking and feeling when they penned their song.  It is certainly helpful to do a bit of research on what the background of the particular Psalm was historically and theologically, but it is not strictly necessary to effectively pray the Psalm. All it really takes is the use of your imagination to look at the words themselves and think what it might have been like to be that Psalmist.  The words themselves provide all of the context necessary to do that.  If it is a Psalm of lament or of celebration or contemplation, it’s fairly easy to pick up.  Just enter into that spirit as you pray.  It will enrich your experience and open your heart and soul to receive from the Holy Spirit God’s comfort, correction and counsel as you pray.

The final thought I have to share is to read Christologically.  This simply means to read and pray through the lens of the reality of Jesus Christ.  While it is true that these Psalms were written hundreds of years before the coming of Christ into the life of the world, for the Christian believer, all of Scripture is meant to be interpreted through the lens of Jesus.  This doesn’t mean that you need to try and shoehorn some New Testament meaning into the Hebrew scriptures or torture the text to say something that it clearly doesn’t say.  But it does mean that as we pray the Psalms, we pray with the foremost thought that it is Jesus Christ himself who is the answer to our prayers.  It means that as we experience the same doubts, fears, questions and anxieties as the Psalmists experienced we are asking for the presence of our Savior to touch us right where we are.

In the next post, I will share a bit of my own experiences of praying the Psalms and how this practice has changed the way that I worship, think and live.

Praying with the Psalms – Why Pray the Psalms?

So why pray the Psalms at all?  Why would repeating the words of poems written hundreds of years ago by persons whose experience is foreign to ours help us draw closer to God?  The answer to those questions could stretch a lot longer than a blog post, but let me offer a few thoughts that I believe are compelling.

The Psalms were the prayer book of ancient Israel.  They were vital to the pattern of synagogue worship that nurtured Jesus, all of the first disciples and the apostle Paul.  When we pray the Psalms, we are quite literally walking in the footsteps of Jesus.  The words of the Psalms provided the grammar of prayer that are the foundation of early Christian worship.  Through these songs of faith, Jesus learned to pray and worship the Father.  What better avenue for you and I to learn the same thing?

Throughout the book of Psalms, the whole range of human experience and emotion are explored in the context of conversation with God.  Joy, sadness, grief, betrayal, anger, relief, love, the desire for revenge and more are all expressed in bold and raw fashion in the words of these ancients songs and prayers.  Praying with the Psalms teaches the believer not to censor themselves in the presence of God.  It encourages honesty and realistic self-examination before God.  These are not hook-filled, catchy tunes to give the faithful a warm fuzzy.  At times the Psalms are filled with anguish and confusion, asking God questions such as why and for how long.  If we are going to grow in prayer, we must bring our whole selves to God and pour out who we are and what we are feeling.  The Psalms give us a language to do just that.  But the Psalms do more than just give us an outlet to vent to God.  They put those human experiences in the context of the larger story of God’s love for His people.  They contextualize grief and joy in the rhythms, not just of human life, but of God’s divine purposes. It embeds our story in the biggest story of all.

Praying the Psalms joins us in the communion of the saints in a tangible way.  Even the most cursory study of the history of Christian worship demonstrates the centrality of the Psalms to the worship of the Church throughout all of history, in every corner of the globe.  When we pray the Psalms we join with the body of Christ that goes far beyond our own four walls, our own local church or even our own denominational (or non-denominational) background.  It knocks down the misconception that the life of prayer is merely private, that spiritual growth is simply a personal responsibility or an individual journey.  It is a participation in the building up of the body of Christ across all the boundaries of geography and time.

Praying with the Psalms provide for each of us a grammar for prayer and worship, a path to bring our whole selves before God and a plunge into the river of God’s work in His people across centuries and continents.  How do I pray with the Psalms?  Well, that’s for the next post.

Praying with the Psalms

I’ve been a Christian for a long time.  Nearly 35 years in fact.  During that time frame there are many lessons that I’ve learned, forgotten, relearned and started all over again.  Maybe the most important lesson that fits into this category is the practice of prayer.  As a young believer it was exciting to be able to speak to God spontaneously, to say whatever was on my heart and mind.  As I heard others that I admired pray, I instinctively picked up the phrases, rhythms and expressions that I heard and saw them employ.  One thing that I didn’t do is use pre-written prayers or a specified program or liturgy for prayer.  In fact, with the exception of repeating the Lord’s Prayer during worship each Sunday, I tended to look down on the practice of using something that seemed “pre-packaged” or “rote”.  It seemed somehow less spiritual or authentic.  This idea stuck with me for many years.  I could not have been more wrong.

As years go by, my confidence in my own ability to spontaneously express my heart and mind to God in prayer has been tempered by seasons of life that have at times made it seem very difficult to pray at all.  Some days the words still seem to flow easily as I speak to God.  Other days easy would be the last word that I would use to describe the fluency of my prayer life.  It’s a great blessing to know that the effectiveness and maturity of my prayer life doesn’t depend on my own ability to put the right words together in just the right way.  God has graciously provided many resources that anyone can access to enrich and empower their life of prayer.  One of the most powerful of these resources is the Book of Psalms.

Over the next few posts I will discuss several topics relevant to why every believer (or the not-too-sure I’m a believer but I feel a desire to pray) should pray with the Psalms.  They are:

  1.  Why pray with the Psalms?
  2.  How does one use the Psalms in prayer?
  3.  What have I learned by praying with the Psalms?
  4.  Where does one start?

Let me finish this introduction to this rich topic with one thought.  Learning to pray is a life long process.  It’s the primary path to knowing God, truly knowing oneself and growing as a disciple of Jesus Christ.  It would be a tragedy to spend a lifetime failing to access the rich resources that God has provided for each one of us.  The Psalms are an invaluable tool for the journey.

New

I love the beginning of a new year.  To be more specific, I love the thought of newness.  The idea of a clean page of paper, a new beginning, the opportunity to start over creates (or at least rekindles) great hope.  The older I get, the more that I appreciate the rhythms and seasons of life.  As the Preacher wrote in Ecclesiastes, for everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven (say that out loud without the words, “turn, turn, turn” running through your mind – I dare you).  People make resolutions at the beginning of a new year, but that isn’t what gives me hope.  Hope isn’t a time or a season for me.  It is a Person.  God gives times and reasons and is the Author of the rhythms of life.  He has many purposes, but for you and I He has one great purpose that the new year reminds me about.  He makes us new.  New is good, isn’t it?  We love receiving new things.  Watching my boys at Christmas demonstrates the joy of receiving something new in technicolor and stereo.

Maybe as we get older we lose a bit of that ability to receive something new with such abandon.  But we don’t have to.  That may just be my greatest aspiration for this new year.  To recover the capacity to receive God’s newness with greater joy and abandon.  Remember, in Christ we are a new creation (2nd Corinthians 5:17).  Not just our lives, but all of creation and history consumate in the newness of God.  Among the last words in all of Scripture God declares, “Behold, I make all things new” (Revelation 21:5).  Do you want that for yourself this year?  I know that I do.  It may just be that the key to experiencing this renewal is embracing the repetition of times and seasons in our lives that we take for granted.  God placed the capacity to receive within each of us, but all too often we let it become jaded and atrophied.  We don’t celebrate the newness that already surrounds us.  Each day, each breath, each smile from people that we love, each sunrise or raindrop is a gift, something new.  In a strange way, patience and novelty work hand in hand, as we experience the same things over and over, we are actually experiencing something new.

G.K. Chesterton, unsurpisingly, expressed something of the heart and character of God as the Great Renewer in a quote that I certainly can’t improve upon.

“Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”

I want to experience more of the newness of God in my life and I think that the path to that involves the monotony of acknowledging and embracing the ultimate monotony of human experience, the presence of God.  If I tune my heart (or allow my heart to be tuned) to recognize His presence in the monotony of every moment, then it and I become new.  This really is what meditation is all about.  It is choosing to think deeply about God’s presence inhabiting this moment in my life.  Today, this year, let us choose it more often.