A Prayer for the Future of a Local Congregation

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Gracious God, persevering through the years, persevering to the end,

As we face the future as a community of your people in this place,
May we know afresh your faithful love, and see afresh your loving faithfulness.
May it be these – may it be You –
For whom we yearn in every season.
May it be your words of life for which we listen, and by which alone we live.

Wind of God –
entirely at home in this world, entirely at home here in this place, here among us.
You blow the world out of nothing into abundance.
You blow the church out of hurt and despair into healing and fresh expressions of faith.
You blow to make things new that never were.

Breath of God –
Rush us beyond ourselves,
Rush us beyond our hopes,
Rush us to follow Jesus wherever he may be found in this unstable world and its uncertain future,
Rush us to hold firmly what is too fragile on its own,
Rush us beyond our fears, until we enact your newness in the world.
Come, come, Breath of God.

With lightly-held reverence for our past, and with hearts of true flesh, help us with courage and wisdom and freedom to welcome and to pursue and to participate in the new things you are doing in and around and despite us, and beyond.
Continue to raise up leaders who will serve your people with humility, and with deep humanity bear witness to your Good News.
May we dare to dream and to risk what we have never imagined – free, unencumbered, joyous, just, obedient.
And along the way, save us from empty slogans, from senseless controversies, and from the delusion that we are at the centre of your work around here.

God before and God behind,
For all that has been – thanks.
For all the will be – Yes!

We pray in the name of Jesus, in whom we see you a little more fully and ourselves a little more clearly.

Amen.

An open letter to the Rev Daniel Bullock, Director of Mission & Ministries for the Baptist Union of Victoria

Cairo 2011
Christians protect Muslims in prayer during the 2011 uprisings in Cairo, Egypt. Source: @NevineZaki

A few week’s ago, on the eve of what was anticipated to be a time of conflict and hostility in Melton, one of Melbourne’s western suburbs, the Director of Mission and Ministries for the Baptist Union of Victoria, the Rev Daniel Bullock, sent out a letter to Baptist church leaders inviting them to pray for fellow Baptists in the Melton area. Such a letter was both timely and appropriate.

However, my colleague Terry Falla and I felt that more could have – and ought to have – been said in that letter, and so we sent a brief response to Daniel and to the BUV’s communications department to that effect, hoping that they might be able to find a place to make it public. Unfortunately, Victorian Baptists – Baptists of all people! – have effectively abolished any such avenue for public discourse and discernment. Neither our denominational blog, nor our assemblies (or ‘Gatherings’ as they are now called), nor any other places of which I am aware, offer such opportunities to occur in any meaningful ways. The reasons for this are complex, and do not, as far as I have been able to discern, reflect the desires of either Daniel himself or of the BUV’s communications department. Given this current reality, I have decided to share our letter here instead in the hope that it might encourage further reflection and discussion among my colleagues in ministry:

Dear Daniel,

Your call for prayer for the churches of Melton (20/11/2015) was timely, for there is no doubt that, as incredible as it seems, religious liberty for some minorities in Australia is now under threat. Your invitation has caused us a great deal of soul searching and has given rise to the conviction that, should another town or city be the object of anti-Muslim protests, we as Baptists include those under attack in our call for prayer and find ways of standing in solidarity with them in extremely distressing and stressful days. After all, it is not mostly us Christian churches at this time in our history that are the objects of fear, anger, resentment, and prejudice, but our Muslim sisters and brothers.

Our recommendation is twofold: (i) a call for prayer for those who are the target of discrimination, and (ii) that in our own local contexts some of us meet with Muslim leaders and other Muslims to express our concern for and solidarity with them; to gratefully and graciously receive whatever hospitality might be offered; to share with them how our own faith tradition was itself born of adversity and persecution, and values profoundly the principles of liberty of conscience and freedom of worship for all; and to commit to embark on the journey of learning to celebrate together what Jonathan Sacks calls ‘the dignity of difference’. 

We encourage Victorian Baptists to embrace these challenging invitations with the fear-negating love, faith, hope, and courage that characterises followers of the crucified and risen Jesus. 

We look forward to hearing from you. 

In grace and peace,

Terry Falla & Jason Goroncy

Daniel’s response (published here with his permission) was both gracious and encouraging:

Dear Jason and Terry 

Thanks for your correspondence to the Comms Team with proposed posting for our BUV Blog, expressing your concerns and recommendations around our recent call to prayer regarding the events expected in Melton.

We don’t actually have a forum for this type of posting on the website – neither BUV Blog, nor Baptists on Mission provide a forum for ‘letter to the editor’ type pieces. I do take on board your point though, that although we did ask people to pray for the churches, for safety and peace on the streets, and for those charged with maintaining law and order, we didn’t also include prayer for those who are the objects of fear, anger, resentment, and prejudice. This was an oversight, which we will be sure to address on any future occasion. I agree with the points you are making, it’s a helpful and instructive communication, so again, thank you.

God bless

Daniel

Thinking Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday

 

A few people have contacted me today to ask about liturgical resources for Ash Wednesday. I haven’t got time today to write anything fresh, but here’s a few that I posted a number of years ago.

‘Our Great High Priest’, a song by Glen Soderholm

Glen SoderholmGlen Soderholm is an accomplished musician and songwriter, an ordained minister (with the Presbyterian Church in Canada), and a teacher in the area of the theology and curating of worship. He tells me that he is also ‘currently part of a group of friends giving birth to a missional community in his living room and neighbourhood, and that he has a deep and abiding interest in the relationship of trinitarian/incarnational/onto-relational theology to worship, arts, and culture’. 

Following my recent post on James Torrance’s hymn, ‘I know not how to pray, O Lord’, Glen contacted me and shared with me his own song on that theme, ‘Our Great High Priest’. This song, he tells me, was ‘inspired by a life-changing encounter with James Torrance’s book Worship, Community, and the Triune God of Grace. I read it and felt like I’d come home’. Glen gave me permission to share his wonderful song.

Our great high priest now at the throne
You ever live to pray for your own
And to the Father, you make us known
Our great high priest now at the throne

We long to pray, but we don’t know how
We yearn to stay, but lack the power
Our wills are weak, our tongues are tied
Oh lift us now, right to your side

For us you came to this low plane
For us you lived with joy and pain
For us you died to set us free
And rose on high to bear our plea

Glen’s music is available here or through iTunes.

James Torrance on ‘Prayer and the Triune God of Grace’

James Torrance 4In 1997, Professor James Torrance gave four lectures on the theme ‘Prayer and the Triune God of Grace’, a theme beautifully articulated in his essay ‘The Place of Jesus Christ in Worship’ (published in Theological Foundations for Ministry, edited by Ray Anderson) and in his 1994 Didsbury Lectures (published as Worship, Community, and the Triune God of Grace), among other places.

The titles of the lectures were:

1. Prayer as Communion: Participating by Grace in the Triune Life of God
2. Prayer and the Priesthood of Christ
3. Different Models of Prayer: Stages in the Life of Prayer
4. Covenant God or Contract God: Is Prayer a Joy or a Burden?

I posted the links to these just over 4 years ago, but those links are now dead, and a number of people have contacted me recently asking me to make them available again. So here they are, resurrected!

Part 1 [MP3]

Part 2 [MP3]

Part 3 [MP3]

Part 4 [MP3]

Part 5 [MP3]

Part 6 [MP3]

The substance of the lectures – indeed, the substance of JB’s public ministry – is articulated in his hymn, ‘I know not how to pray, O Lord’:

1. I know not how to pray, O Lord,
So weak and frail am I.
Lord Jesus to Your outstretched arms
In love I daily fly,
For You have prayed for me.

2. I know not how to pray, O Lord,
O’erwhelmed by grief am I,
Lord Jesus in Your wondrous love
You hear my anxious cry
And ever pray for me.

3. I know not how to pray, O Lord,
For full of tears and pain
I groan, yet in my soul, I know
My cry is not in vain.
O teach me how to pray!

4. Although I know not how to pray,
Your Spirit intercedes,
Convincing me of pardoned sin;
For me in love He pleads
And teaches me to pray.

5. O take my wordless sighs and fears
And make my prayers Your own.
O put Your prayer within my lips
And lead me to God’s throne
That I may love like You.

6. O draw me to Your Father’s heart,
Lord Jesus, when I pray,
And whisper in my troubled ear,
‘Your sins are washed away.
Come home with Me today!’

7. At home within our Father’s house,
Your Father, Lord, and mine,
I’m lifted up by Your embrace
To share in love divine
Which floods my heart with joy.

8. Transfigured by Your glory, Lord,
Renewed in heart and mind,
I’ll sing angelic songs of praise
With joy which all can find
In You alone, O Lord.

9. I’ll love You, O my Father God,
Through Jesus Christ, Your Son.
I’ll love You in the Spirit, Lord,
In whom we all are one,
Made holy by Your love.

[For those who may be interested, I have included this hymn in my essay ‘“Tha mi a’ toirt fainear dur gearan”: J. McLeod Campbell and P.T. Forsyth on the Extent of Christ’s Vicarious Ministry’, published in Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church (eds. Myk Habets and Robert Grow. Pickwick Publications, 2012).]

Karl Barth: Prayer 18

‘Lord our God, we praise you and thank you that you, in your dear Son, in mercy beyond understanding, would humble yourself so much for our sakes, in order that in him we may be so highly exalted for your sake. We praise you and thank you for his mighty decision regarding your people Israel and the pagan nations from which you called our ancestors. We praise you and thank you for all of your gracious election and calling, that you are also the God of the rejected and the uncalled, and that you never cease to deal with each one of us in a fatherly and righteous manner. Let us never tire of recognizing you and praying to you in all of these mysteries, that we may in faith lay hold of your Word, through which you magnify your honor and give us, with eternal blessing, peace and joy, even in this life. We pray for your church here and in all nations, for the sleeping church, that it may awaken; for the persecuted church, that it may continually rejoice and be assured of what it has in you; and for the confessing church, that it may live not for its own sake, but for your glory.

We pray for the rulers and the authorities all over the world: for the good ones, that you may preserve them; and for the bad ones, that you may either turn their hearts or put an end to their power, all according to your will; and for everyone, that you may advise them that they are and must remain your servants.

We pray that all tyranny and disorder may be fended off, and that all oppressed nations and people may be granted justice.

We pray for the poor, the sick, the prisoners, the helpless, and the troubled, for all who suffer – perhaps from something only you know – that you yourself may comfort them with the hope of your kingdom. Amen’.

– Karl Barth, Fifty Prayers (trans. David Carl Stassen; London/Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008), 20–1.

BTW: The latest edition of IJST includes an article by A.J. Cocksworth titled ‘Attending to the Sabbath: An Alternative Direction in Karl Barth’s Theology of Prayer’ (13/3, July 2011, 251–271).

A Pentecost Prayer

O God the Holy Ghost
Who art light unto thine elect
Evermore enlighten us.
Thou who art fire of love
Evermore enkindle us.
Thou who art Lord and Giver of Life,
Evermore live in us.
Thou who bestowest sevenfold grace,
Evermore replenish us.
As the wind is thy symbol,
So forward our goings.
As the dove, so launch us heavenwards.
As water, so purify our spirits.
As a cloud, so abate our temptations.
As dew, so revive our languor.
As fire, so purge our dross.

– Christina Georgina Rossetti, The Face of the Deep: a devotional commentary on the Apocalypse (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1892), 155.

One other great Pentecost prayer that comes readily to mind is James K. Baxter’s: ‘Song to the Holy Spirit’.

Ash Wednesday: poems and prayers

Lent darkness

Dragons lurk in desert spaces
Penetrating the mind with evil claw.
Serpent’s teeth seek out the chinks
insidiously, relentlessly, gnawing on the bone;
searching out the interstices of muscle and sinew.

Such is the pain of the wilderness.
Alone, alone, alone,
Christ sits
in the waste place of abandoned pleas and questions
until exhausted
finally
at last
the realisation
comes
that in the end
there is only
God.

In the night-time of our fears
in the present reality of abandonment
when family and friends
turn and run,
be present, ever present God.
Be present with those
camped out in the fields of hopelessness
with refugees and homeless,
those who live lives of quiet desperation.
Be present until the desert places
blossom like the rose
and hope is born again.

– Kathy Galloway (ed.), The Pattern of Our Days: Liturgies and Resources for Worship (Glasgow: Wild Goose Publications, 1996), 130.

◊◊◊

Ash Wednesday

I
Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man’s gift and that man’s scope
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the agèd eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?

Because I do not hope to know
The infirm glory of the positive hour
Because I do not think
Because I know I shall not know
The one veritable transitory power
Because I cannot drink
There, where trees flower, and springs flow, for there is nothing again

Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are and
I renounce the blessèd face
And renounce the voice
Because I cannot hope to turn again
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice

And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain
Because I do not hope to turn again
Let these words answer
For what is done, not to be done again
May the judgement not be too heavy upon us

Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Smaller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care Teach us to sit still.

Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death
Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.

II
Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree
In the cool of the day, having fed to sateity
On my legs my heart my liver and that which had been contained
In the hollow round of my skull. And God said
Shall these bones live? shall these
Bones live? And that which had been contained
In the bones (which were already dry) said chirping:
Because of the goodness of this Lady
And because of her loveliness, and because
She honours the Virgin in meditation,
We shine with brightness. And I who am here dissembled
Proffer my deeds to oblivion, and my love
To the posterity of the desert and the fruit of the gourd.
It is this which recovers
My guts the strings of my eyes and the indigestible portions
Which the leopards reject. The Lady is withdrawn
In a white gown, to contemplation, in a white gown.
Let the whiteness of bones atone to forgetfulness.
There is no life in them. As I am forgotten
And would be forgotten, so I would forget
Thus devoted, concentrated in purpose. And God said
Prophesy to the wind, to the wind only for only
The wind will listen. And the bones sang chirping
With the burden of the grasshopper, saying

Lady of silences
Calm and distressed
Torn and most whole
Rose of memory
Rose of forgetfulness
Exhausted and life-giving
Worried reposeful
The single Rose
Is now the Garden
Where all loves end
Terminate torment
Of love unsatisfied
The greater torment
Of love satisfied
End of the endless
Journey to no end
Conclusion of all that
Is inconclusible
Speech without word and
Word of no speech
Grace to the Mother
For the Garden
Where all love ends.

Under a juniper-tree the bones sang, scattered and shining
We are glad to be scattered, we did little good to each other,
Under a tree in the cool of day, with the blessing of sand,
Forgetting themselves and each other, united
In the quiet of the desert. This is the land which ye
Shall divide by lot. And neither division nor unity
Matters. This is the land. We have our inheritance.

III
At the first turning of the second stair
I turned and saw below
The same shape twisted on the banister
Under the vapour in the fetid air
Struggling with the devil of the stairs who wears
The deceitul face of hope and of despair.

At the second turning of the second stair
I left them twisting, turning below;
There were no more faces and the stair was dark,
Damp, jaggèd, like an old man’s mouth drivelling, beyond repair,
Or the toothed gullet of an agèd shark.

At the first turning of the third stair
Was a slotted window bellied like the figs’s fruit
And beyond the hawthorn blossom and a pasture scene
The broadbacked figure drest in blue and green
Enchanted the maytime with an antique flute.
Blown hair is sweet, brown hair over the mouth blown,
Lilac and brown hair;
Distraction, music of the flute, stops and steps of the mind
over the third stair,
Fading, fading; strength beyond hope and despair
Climbing the third stair.

Lord, I am not worthy
Lord, I am not worthy

but speak the word only.

IV
Who walked between the violet and the violet
Who walked between
The various ranks of varied green
Going in white and blue, in Mary’s colour,
Talking of trivial things
In ignorance and knowledge of eternal dolour
Who moved among the others as they walked,
Who then made strong the fountains and made fresh the springs

Made cool the dry rock and made firm the sand
In blue of larkspur, blue of Mary’s colour,
Sovegna vos

Here are the years that walk between, bearing
Away the fiddles and the flutes, restoring
One who moves in the time between sleep and waking, wearing

White light folded, sheathing about her, folded.
The new years walk, restoring
Through a bright cloud of tears, the years, restoring
With a new verse the ancient rhyme. Redeem
The time. Redeem
The unread vision in the higher dream
While jewelled unicorns draw by the gilded hearse.

The silent sister veiled in white and blue
Between the yews, behind the garden god,
Whose flute is breathless, bent her head and signed but spoke no word

But the fountain sprang up and the bird sang down
Redeem the time, redeem the dream
The token of the word unheard, unspoken

Till the wind shake a thousand whispers from the yew

And after this our exile

V
If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spent
If the unheard, unspoken
Word is unspoken, unheard;
Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard,
The Word without a word, the Word within
The world and for the world;
And the light shone in darkness and
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the centre of the silent Word.

O my people, what have I done unto thee.

Where shall the word be found, where will the word
Resound? Not here, there is not enough silence
Not on the sea or on the islands, not
On the mainland, in the desert or the rain land,
For those who walk in darkness
Both in the day time and in the night time
The right time and the right place are not here
No place of grace for those who avoid the face
No time to rejoice for those who walk among noise and deny the voice

Will the veiled sister pray for
Those who walk in darkness, who chose thee and oppose thee,
Those who are torn on the horn between season and season, time and time, between
Hour and hour, word and word, power and power, those who wait
In darkness? Will the veiled sister pray
For children at the gate
Who will not go away and cannot pray:
Pray for those who chose and oppose

O my people, what have I done unto thee.

Will the veiled sister between the slender
Yew trees pray for those who offend her
And are terrified and cannot surrender
And affirm before the world and deny between the rocks
In the last desert before the last blue rocks
The desert in the garden the garden in the desert
Of drouth, spitting from the mouth the withered apple-seed.

O my people.

VI
Although I do not hope to turn again
Although I do not hope
Although I do not hope to turn

Wavering between the profit and the loss
In this brief transit where the dreams cross
The dreamcrossed twilight between birth and dying
(Bless me father) though I do not wish to wish these things
From the wide window towards the granite shore
The white sails still fly seaward, seaward flying
Unbroken wings

And the lost heart stiffens and rejoices
In the lost lilac and the lost sea voices
And the weak spirit quickens to rebel
For the bent golden-rod and the lost sea smell
Quickens to recover
The cry of quail and the whirling plover
And the blind eye creates
The empty forms between the ivory gates
And smell renews the salt savour of the sandy earth

This is the time of tension between dying and birth
The place of solitude where three dreams cross
Between blue rocks
But when the voices shaken from the yew-tree drift away
Let the other yew be shaken and reply.

Blessèd sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit of the garden,
Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will
And even among these rocks
Sister, mother
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,
Suffer me not to be separated

And let my cry come unto Thee.

– Thomas S. Eliot, ‘Ash Wednesday’ in The Waste Land and Other Poems (ed. Helen Hennessy Vendler; New York: Signet Classic, 1998), 66–76.

◊◊◊

A Prayer on Ash Wednesday

Most gracious and loving God, I seek this day to remember that I am dust and to dust I shall return.

God, why do I fear being mortal? Perhaps I think it diminishes me in your sight.

And yet …

the flower that is here today and gone tomorrow is no less precious to you simply because it is transitory.

the sparrow that falls to the ground is no less precious to you simply because of its frailty.

So with me. I am precious to you even though all too soon my body will be food for the worms.

Thank you, Lord, for assuring me of my infinite worth.

I can now face the real truth about myself – namely, that I am dust, and to dust I shall return. And after … the resurrection of the dead!

Amen.

– Richard Foster, Prayers from the Heart/Celebration of Discipline/Money, Sex & Power (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1995), 22.

◊◊◊

Vision and mirage

Lord Jesus, you have faced temptation;
you know how difficult it can be
to distinguish between vision and mirage,
between truth and falsehood.

Lord, help us when we are tempted:
And save us when we fall.

Help us in the church:
when we confuse absence of conflict with the peace of God;
when we equate the shaping of ecclesiastical structures with serving you in the world;
when we imagine that our task is to preserve rather than to put at risk;
when we behave as though your presence in life were a past event rather than a contemporary encounter.

Lord, help us when we are tempted:
And save us when we fall.

Help us in the world:
when we use meaningless chatter to avoid real dialogue;
when we allow the image presented by the media to blind us to the substance that lies behind it;
when we confuse privilege with responsibility, and claim rights when we should acknowledge duties;
when we allow high-sounding reasons to cover evil actions.

Lord, help us when we are tempted:
And save us when we fall.

We pray for all who have been brought to the edge of their endurance;
for those whose pain is unending;
for those for whom the earth is a cruel desert and existence a constant struggle against overwhelming odds;
for those who suffer through their own folly or through the malice or folly of others.

Lord, help us when we are tempted:
And save us when we fall.

Lord Jesus, you have passed through the test of suffering,
and are able to help those who are meeting their test now.

Lord, help us when we are tempted:
And be with us to the end.

– Terry C. Falla, ed., Be Our Freedom Lord: Responsive Prayers and Readings for Contemporary Worship (Adelaide: OpenBook Publishers, 1994), 306–7.

◊◊◊

Marked by Ashes

Ruler of the Night, Guarantor of the day …
This day – a gift from you.
This day – like none other you have ever given, or we have ever received.
This Wednesday dazzles us with gift and newness and possibility.
This Wednesday burdens us with the tasks of the day, for we are already halfway home
halfway back to committees and memos,
halfway back to calls and appointments,
halfway on to next Sunday,
halfway back, half frazzled, half expectant,
half turned toward you, half rather not.

This Wednesday is a long way from Ash Wednesday,
but all our Wednesdays are marked by ashes –
we begin this day with that taste of ash in our mouth:
of failed hope and broken promises,
of forgotten children and frightened women,
we ourselves are ashes to ashes, dust to dust;
we can taste our mortality as we roll the ash around on our tongues.

We are able to ponder our ashness with
some confidence, only because our every Wednesday of ashes
anticipates your Easter victory over that dry, flaky taste of death.
On this Wednesday, we submit our ashen way to you –
you Easter parade of newness.
Before the sun sets, take our Wednesday and Easter us,
Easter us to joy and energy and courage and freedom;
Easter us that we may be fearless for your truth.
Come here and Easter our Wednesday with
mercy and justice and peace and generosity.
We pray as we wait for the Risen One who comes soon.

– Walter Brueggemann, Prayers for a Privileged People (Nashville: Abingdon, 2008), 27–8.

And, finally, because, like Luther, I’m exhausted from all the pious and sentimental and non-christologically-determined navel-gazing dribble that is so-often associated with Lent, here’s one of my favourite prayers. It comes from Stanley Hauerwas:

Free Us from Self-Fascination

Lord Almighty, we say we want to serve you, we say we want to help others less fortunate than ourselves, we say we want justice. But the truth is, we want power and status because we so desperately need to be loved. Free us from our self-fascination and the anxious activity it breeds, so that we might be what we say we want to be – loved by you and thus capable of unselfish service. Amen.

– Stanley Hauerwas, Prayers Plainly Spoken (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 49.

You may also like to check out some previous posts on Lent, there’s a great reflection on Ash Wednesday here, and Garry Deverell has a helpful post here too.

While praying for the people of Christchurch …

Christchurch quaked again this afternoon. And even here in Dunedin, some 360 kms away, there were not a few who felt the earth rumbling, giving way, somewhere beneath us.

And this afternoon, many of us paused to pray again for those who have for many months lived with uncertainty and amidst regular aftershocks. Somewhat stuck for words, I turned to two prayers in Walter Brueggemann’s Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth to help me find a voice and to give me somewhere to start.

Even on such a day

We prattle about your sovereignty … especially we Calvinists;
all about all things working together for good,
all about your watchful care and your severe mercies.

And then we are drawn up short;
by terror that strikes us, in our privilege, as insane;
by violence that shatters our illusions of well-being;
by death that reminds us of our at-risk mortality;
by smoke and fire that have the recurring smell of ovens.

We are bewildered, undone, frightened,
and then intrude the cadences of these old poets:
the cadences of fidelity and righteousness;
the sounds of justice and judgment;
the images of Sodom and Gomorrah;
the imperatives of widows and orphans.

Even on such a day we are not minded to yield on your sovereignty,
We are, we confess, sobered, put off, placed in dread,
that you are lord as well as friend,
that you are hidden as well as visible,
that you are silent as well as reassuring.

You are our God. That is enough for us … but just barely.

We pray in the name of the wounded flesh of Jesus. Amen.

While reading Isaiah 1

◊◊◊

The terrible silencing we cannot master

Holy God who hovers daily round us in fidelity and compassion,
this day we are mindful of another, dread-filled hovering,
that of the power of death before which we stand
thin and needful.

All our days, we are mindful of the pieces of our lives
and the parts of your world
that are on the loose in destructive ways.

We notice that wildness midst our fear and our anger unresolved.

We mark it in a world of brutality and poverty and hunger
all around us.

We notice all our days.

But on this day of all days,
that great threat looms so large and powerful.

It is not for nothing
that we tremble at these three hours of darkness
and the raging earthquake.
It is not for nothing
that we have a sense of our helplessness
before the dread power of death that has broken loose
and that struts against our interest and even against our will.

Our whole life is not unlike the playground in the village,
lovely and delightful and filled with squeals unafraid,
and then we remember the silencing
of all those squeals in death,
and we remember the legions of Kristy’s
that are swept away in a riddle too deep for knowing.

Our whole life is like that playground
and on this dread-filled Friday we pause before
the terrible silencing we cannot master.

So we come in our helpless candor this day …
remembering, giving thanks, celebrating …
but not for one instant unmindful of dangers too ominous
and powers too sturdy and threats well beyond us.
We turn eventually from our hurt for children lost.
We turn finally from all our unresolved losses
to the cosmic grief at the loss of Jesus.
We recall and relive that wrenching Friday
when the hurt cut to your heart.
We see in that terrible hurt, our losses
and your fill embrace of loss and defeat.

We dare pray while the darkness descends
and the earthquake trembles,
we dare pray for eyes to see fully
and mouths to speak fully the power of death all around,
we dare pray for a capacity to notice unflinching
that in our happy playgrounds other children die,
and grow silent,
we pray more for your notice and your promise
and your healing.

Our only urging on Friday is that you live this as we must
impacted but not destroyed,
dimmed but not quenched.
For your great staying power
and your promise of newness we praise you.
It is in your power
and your promise that we take our stand this day.
We dare trust that Friday is never the last day,
so we watch for the new day of life.
Hear our prayer and be your full self toward us.
Amen.

Good Friday, 1991

Around: ‘And I am dumb to tell a weather’s wind/How time has ticked a heaven round the stars’

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.

The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is even beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction
of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying
that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted,
knowing that they hold future promise.

We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation
in realizing that. This enables us to do something,
and to do it very well. It may be incomplete,
but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results, but that is the difference
between the master builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.
Amen.

 

 

A prayer for refreshed sensibilities

‘O Lord, refresh our sensibilities. Give us this day our daily taste. Restore to us soups that spoons will not sink in and sauces which are never the same twice. Raise up among us stews with more gravy than we have bread to blot it with, and casseroles that put starch and substance in our limp modernity. Take away our fear of fat, and make us glad of the oil which ran upon Aaron’s beard. Give us pasta with a hundred fillings, and rice in a thousand variations. Above all, give us grace to live as true folk – to fast till we come to a refreshed sense of what we have and then to dine gratefully on all that comes to hand. Drive far from us, O Most Bountiful, all creatures of air and darkness; cast out the demons that possess us; deliver us from the fear of calories and the bondage of nutrition; and set us free once more in our own land, where we shall serve thee as though hast blessed us – with the dew of heaven, the fatness of the earth, and plenty of corn and wine’. – Robert Farrar Capon, The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection (Garden City: Doubleday, 1969), 278.

We celebrate Spring’s returning …

Dear God,

We celebrate spring’s returning and the rejuvenation of the natural world. Let us be moved by this vast and gentle insistence that goodness shall return, that warmth and life shall succeed. Help us to understand our place in this miracle. Let us see that as a bird now builds its nest, bravely, with bits and piece, so we must build human faith. It is our simple duty; it is the highest art; it is our natural and vital role within the miracle of spring; the creation of faith.

Amen

– Michael Leunig, When I Talk to You: A Cartoonist Talks to God (Riverside: Andrews McMeel, 2006), np.

A prayer for the meeting of the General Assembly

As the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand prepares to gather for its General Assembly next week, it’s a time not only for reading through hundreds of pages of reports and recommendations, but also to be praying. So …

Almighty God,
in Jesus Christ you called disciples
and, by the Holy Spirit, made them one church to serve you.
Be with members of our General Assembly.
Help them to welcome new things you are doing in the world,
and to respect old things you keep and use.
Save them from empty slogans or senseless controversy.
In their deciding,
determine what is good for us and for all people.
As this General Assembly meets,
let your Spirit rule,
so that our church may be joined in love and service to Jesus Christ,
who, having gone before us,
is coming to meet us in the promise of your kingdom. Amen.

– Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Book of Common Worship, prepared by the Theology and Worship Ministry Unit for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Cumberland Presbyterian Church (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993), 805.

Around: ‘Love seeketh not itself to please’

‘The Clod and the Pebble’

‘Love seeketh not itself to please,
Nor for itself hath any care,
But for another gives its ease,
And builds a heaven in hell’s despair.’

So sung a little clod of clay,
Trodden with the cattle’s feet,
But a pebble of the brook
Warbled out these metres meet:

‘Love seeketh only Self to please,
To bind another to its delight,
Joys in another’s loss of ease,
And builds a hell in heaven’s despite.’

William Stringfellow, Instead of Death – Part II

In Chapter Two of Instead of Death, William Stringfellow turns to a reality that affects us all; namely, loneliness. ‘Loneliness’, he writes, ‘is as intimate and as common to humans as death. Loneliness does not respect persons, but inflicts all – men and women, those of status and the derelicts, the adolescents and the old people, the single and the married, the learned and the illiterate, and, one might add, the clergy and the laity’ (p. 23). Stringfellow proceeds to note that loneliness is neither a unique nor an isolated experience, but is rather the ‘ordinary but still overwhelming anxiety that all relationships are lost’ (p. 24). While neither denying nor negating the existence of lives other than the life of the lonely person, ‘loneliness so vividly anticipates the death of such other lives that they are of no sustenance or comfort to the life and being of the one who suffers loneliness’ (pp. 24–5).

Stringfellow then names some of the fictions of loneliness: that it is unfilled time, that it can be satisfied in erotic infatuation, and that it can be answered in possession. Of the latter, he writes: ‘At worst the fiction that one’s identity is to be found in another is cannibalistic – a devouring of another; at best it is a possessive, if romantic, manipulation of one by another in the name of love’ (p. 28).

The reason that none of these attempts have the power to answer loneliness, Stringfellow insists, is because they fail to comprehend the severe nature of loneliness – namely, that it is a foretaste of death. Work, excessive drinking, sex, psychotherapy, marriage, positive thinking (otherwise known as self-hypnoses), suicide, self-pity and leisure are all capable of filling the time but not the void. And not even prayer provides any magic solution. Still, it is the last resort:

‘Prayer is nothing you do, prayer is something you are. Prayer is not about doing, but being. Prayer is about being alone in God’s presence. Prayer is being so alone that God is the only witness to your existence. The secret of prayer is God affirming your life. To be that alone is incompatible with loneliness. In prayer you cannot be lonely. It is the last resort’. (p. 31)

In prayer we approach the lonely, unwelcome, misunderstood, despised, rejected, unloved and misloved, condemned, betrayed, deserted and helpless Christ. Only in the radically-lonely Christ who suffered loneliness without despair – and who descended into hell – is the assurance that no one is alone, and the reality and grace of God triumphant over the death that masquerades as loneliness and the loneliness that anticipates death.

‘In the event in which you are alone with your own death – when all others and all things are absent and gone – God’s initiative affirms your very creation and that you are given your life anew. In the moment and place where God is least expected – in the barrenness and emptiness of death – God is at hand. It is in that event that a person discovers it is death which is alone, not he’. (pp. 32–3)

Wipf & Stock have offered readers of Per Crucem ad Lucem 40% off the retail price of any of the Stringfellow volumes. To obtain the 40% discount, just include the coupon code STRINGFELLOW with your order.

Praying with Camus

Tonight I watched Breaking the Silence: Burma’s Resistance by Canadian filmmakers Pierre Mignault and Hélène Magny. It documents the continuing resistance to Burma’s military junta by political and humanitarian activists.

And when I got home, Camus led me in prayer:

‘Hope had returned and with it a new zest for life. No man can live on the stretch all the time, with his energy and willpower strained to the breaking-point, and it is a joy to be able to relax at last and loosen nerves and muscles that were braced for the struggle’. – Albert Camus, The Plague (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1967), 229.

Richard Lischer’s Open Secrets: Part IX, On Lutherans

We’ll make this the final post on Lischer’s, Open Secrets. Fittingly, it’s on Lutherans:

‘Lutherans fill their vacancies more deliberately than any of the churches in Christendom. Vacant congregations go months without thinking about choosing a new leader, and pastors, once they have received a call, may sit on it for additional months before hatching a decision. The time isn’t used for negotiating more favorable terms; it is simply filled with prayer and dormancy. The President-elect of the United States names a Cabinet faster than the smallest Lutheran congregation picks a pastor, because Lutherans consider the latter process far more important. All is left to prayer and the brooding of the Spirit, and everyone knows the Spirit always works slowly’. – Richard Lischer, Open Secrets: A Memoir of Faith and Discovery, 220.

Here’s a list of the earlier posts:

October bests …

Draw the LineFrom the reading chair: Celtic Christianity: Making Myths and Chasing Dreams by Ian Bradley; The Quest For Celtic Christianity by Donald E. Meek; Banner in the West: A Spiritual History of Lewis and Harris by John Macleod; Why Study The Past?: The Quest For The Historical Church by Rowan Williams; Loving God With Our Minds: The Pastor As Theologian edited by Michael Welker and Cynthia A. Jarvis; Why Your World Is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller: Oil and the End of Globalization by Jeff Rubin; Liberating Reformed Theology, Christianity and Democracy: A Theology for a Just World Order and Theology & Ministry in Context & Crisis: A South African Perspective by John W. de Gruchy; Witness to the World: The Christian Mission in Theological Perspective by David J. Bosch; Black and Reformed: Apartheid, Liberation, and the Calvinist Tradition by Allan A. Boesak; Praying with Paul by Thomas A. Smail.

Through the iPod: Kind of Blue (50th Anniversary) by Miles Davis; Looking for Butter Boy by Archie Roach; Daughtry and Leave This Town by Daughtry; Draw the Line by David Gray (this is easily in my top 10 for 2009); X&Y by Coldplay; Christmas In the Heart by Bob Dylan (Judy says that it won’t be being played in ‘our’ house this Christmas, so does anyone want me over for lunch).

By the bottle: Mt Difficulty Long Gully Pinot Noir 2007; Carrick Josephine Riesling 2007.

James B Torrance on ‘Prayer and the Triune God of Grace’

This post has been updated to here.

The Service of Intercession

Moses MosaicKarl Barth once noted that ‘Even within the world to which it belongs, it [the Church] does not exist ecstatically or eccentrically with reference to itself, but wholly with reference to them, to the world around. It saves and maintains its own life as it interposes and gives itself for all other human creatures’ (CD IV.3.2, 762). There can be no doubt that this ministry of intercession certainly involves prayer, but prayer without diakonia is not true prayer, even as diakonia without prayer is not true diakonia. Authentic intercession also involves a struggle against evil, identification with those who are estranged and alienated, and an ‘argument’ with God on behalf of those who have become disenfranchised from God, from human community and from creation. We might recall here Moses’ intercession for those who have worshipped the golden calf:

On the following day Moses said to the people, ‘You have committed a great sin. But now I shall go up to Yahweh: perhaps I can secure expiation for your sin.’ Moses then went back to Yahweh and said, ‘Oh, this people has committed a great sin by making themselves a god of gold. And yet, if it pleased you to forgive their sin …! If not, please blot me out of the book you have written!’ (Exodus 32:30–32)

Inherent in this intercession of responsible action is a sharing of guilt. This recalled something that I read recently in Bonhoeffer’s Ethics, (the implications of which we might also profitably tease out with a copy of TF Torrance’s The Mediation of Christ in hand). I cite Bonhoeffer:

[The] structure of responsible action includes both readiness to accept guilt and freedom.

When we once more turn our attention to the origin of all responsibility it becomes clear to us what we are to understand by acceptance of guilt. Jesus is not concerned with the proclamation and realization of new ethical ideals; He is not concerned with Himself being good (Matt. 19.17); He is concerned solely with love for the real man, and for that reason He is able to enter into the fellowship of the guilt of men and to take the burden of their guilt upon Himself. Jesus does not desire to be regarded as the only perfect one at the expense of men; He does not desire to look down on mankind as the only guiltless one while mankind goes to its ruin under the weight of its guilt; He does not wish that some idea of a new man should triumph amid the wreckage of a humanity whose guilt has destroyed it. He does not wish to acquit Himself of the guilt under which men die. A love which left man alone in his guilt would not be love for the real man. As one who acts responsibly in the historical existence of men Jesus becomes guilty. It must be emphasized that it is solely His love which makes Him incur guilt. From His selfless love, from His freedom from sin, Jesus enters into the guilt of men and takes this guilt upon Himself. Freedom from sin and the question of guilt are inseparable in Him. It is as the one who is without sin that Jesus takes upon Himself the guilt of His brothers, and it is under the burden of this guilt that He shows Himself to be without sin. In this Jesus Christ, who is guilty without sin, lies the origin of every action of responsible deputyship. If it is responsible action, if it is action which is concerned solely and entirely with the other man, if it arises from selfless love for the real man who is our brother, then, precisely because this is so, it cannot wish to shun the fellowship of human guilt. Jesus took upon Himself the guilt of all men, and for that reason every man who acts responsibly becomes guilty. If any man tries to escape guilt in responsibility he detaches himself from the ultimate reality of human existence, and what is more he cuts himself off from the redeeming mystery of Christ’s bearing guilt without sin and he has no share in the divine justification which lies upon this event. He sets his own personal innocence above his responsibility for men, and he is blind to the more irredeemable guilt which he incurs precisely in this; he is blind also to the fact that real innocence shows itself precisely in a man’s entering into the fellowship of guilt for the sake of other men. Through Jesus Christ it becomes an essential part of responsible action that the man who is without sin loves selflessly and for that reason incurs guilt. – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics (ed. Eberhard Bethge; trans. N.H. Smith; London: SCM, 1955), 209–10.

BonhoefferBonhoeffer (who my wife often confuses with Jason Alexander, a.k.a. George Costanza) then turns to consider the implications of this theology of Christ’s vicarious humanity for the human conscience and its relationship with law:

When Christ, true God and true man, has become the point of unity of my existence, conscience will indeed still formally be the call of my actual being to unity with myself, but this unity cannot now be realized by means of a return to the autonomy which I derive from the law; it must be realized in fellowship with Jesus Christ. Natural conscience, no matter how strict and rigorous it may be, is now seen to be the most ungodly self-justification, and it is overcome by the conscience which is set free in Jesus Christ and which summons me to unity with myself in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ has become my conscience. This means that I can now find unity with myself only in the surrender of my ego to God and to men. The origin and the goal of my conscience is not a law but it is the living God and the living man as he confronts me in Jesus Christ. For the sake of God and of men Jesus became a breaker of the law. He broke the law of the Sabbath in order to keep it holy in love for God and for men. He forsook His parents in order to dwell in the house of His Father and thereby to purify His obedience towards His parents. He sat at table with sinners and outcasts; and for the love of men He came to be forsaken by God in His last hour. As the one who loved without sin, He became guilty; He wished to share in the fellowship of human guilt; He rejected the devil’s accusation which was intended to divert Him from this course. Thus it is Jesus Christ who sets conscience free for the service of God and of our neighbour; He sets conscience free even and especially when man enters into the fellowship of human guilt. The conscience which has been set free from the law will not be afraid to enter into the guilt of another man for the other man’s sake, and indeed precisely in doing this it will show itself in its purity. The conscience which has been set free is not timid like the conscience which is bound by the law, but it stands wide open for our neighbour and for his concrete distress. And so conscience joins with the responsibility which has its foundation in Christ in bearing guilt for the sake of our neighbour. (pp. 212–3)

This got me thinking: What might be some implications of Moses’ prayer, and Bonhoeffer’s words, for pastoral ministry? And for that of the people of God as a whole?

I’m still thinking …