Learning to Pray :: A Lenten Reflection

“This is a dangerous error,” warns Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “to imagine that it is natural for the heart to pray.” The great theologian, who lost his life in a Nazi concentration camp in 1945, was no stranger to unanswered prayer. He wrote:
It can become a great torment to want to speak with God and not to be able to do it—having to be speechless before God, sensing that every cry remains enclosed within one’s own self, that heart and mouth speak a perverse language which God does not want to hear.
This may have contributed to the reason Bonhoeffer did not believe it was possible to pray without the power of God:
We confuse wishing, hoping, sighing, lamenting, rejoicing—all of which the heart can certainly do on its own—with praying. But in doing so we confuse earth and heaven, human beings and God. Praying certainly does not mean simply pouring out one’s heart. It means, rather, finding the way to and speaking with God, whether the heart is full or empty. No one can do that on one’s own. For that one needs Jesus Christ.
Not wanting “needs Jesus Christ” to devolve into mere platitude, Bonhoeffer explains how to pray the words of God—Scripture—through the power of God—Spirit:
Jesus Christ has brought before God every need, every joy, every thanksgiving, and every hope of humankind. In Jesus’ mouth the human word becomes God’s Word. When we pray along with the prayer of Christ, God’s Word becomes again a human word.

If we want to read and to pray the prayers of the Bible, and especially the Psalms, we must not, therefore, first ask what they have to do with us, but what they have to do with Jesus Christ. We must ask how we can understand the Psalms as God’s Word, and only then can we pray them with Jesus Christ. Thus it does not matter whether the Psalms express exactly what we feel in our heart at the moment we pray.

Perhaps it is precisely the case that we must pray against our own heart in order to pray rightly. It is not just that for which we ourselves want to pray that is important, but that for which God wants us to pray. If we were dependent on ourselves alone, we would probably often pray only the fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer. But God wants it otherwise. Not the poverty of our heart, but the richness of God’s word, ought to determine our prayer.

Today’s Reading
Job 22 (Listen – 2:54)
1 Corinthians 9 (Listen – 4:04)

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Beethoven’s Anguish :: A Lenten Reflection

Ludwig Van Beethoven began going deaf at age of 28. For the next decade and a half the master would suffer from excruciating ringing and pain as his auditory register eroded.

In a letter to his brothers Carl and Johann, Beethoven lamented not simply his loss in hearing, but what it meant socially, “No longer can I enjoy recreation, refined conversation, or mutual outpourings of thought. Completely isolated, I only enter society when compelled to do so.”

Early on, Beethoven’s physician sent him to a small town outside of Vienna to rest his hearing. It was during this respite the young maestro came to terms with his hearing loss—and almost committed suicide. He wrote of the experience in the Heiligenstadt Testament, named for the village in which he stayed:
What humiliation when any one beside me heard a flute in the far distance, while I heard nothing, or when others heard a shepherd singing, and I still heard nothing! Such things brought me to the verge of desperation, and well-near caused me to put an end to my life.

Art! Art alone deterred me. Ah! How could I possibly quit the world before bringing forth all that I felt it was my vocation to produce? And thus I spared this miserable life—so utterly miserable that any sudden change may reduce me at any moment from my best condition into the worst.
The letter seems to be a record of Beethoven working through his suffering in real time—finding new meaning and depth in life. In the Testament he instructs his brother to:
Recommend Virtue to your children; that alone, and not wealth, can ensure happiness. I speak from experience. It was Virtue alone which sustained me in my misery; I have to thank her and Art for not having ended my life by suicide.
In addition to the Heiligenstadt Testament, Beethoven would pen Symphony No. 3—the profound turning point in his career. The depth and vitality of the third symphony parallel the note Beethoven scribed on the outside of his Testament:
Almost as I came, I depart. Even the lofty courage that so often animated me in the lovely days of summer is gone forever. O Providence! Vouchsafe me one day of pure felicity! How long have I been estranged from the glad echo of true joy! When! O my God! When shall I again feel it in the temple of Nature and of man? — Never? Ah! that would be too hard!

Today’s Reading
Job 19 (Listen – 2:48)
1 Corinthians 6 (Listen – 3:03)

This Weekend’s Readings
Job 20 (Listen – 2:52)  1 Corinthians 7 (Listen – 6:09)
Job 21 (Listen – 3:05)  1 Corinthians 8 (Listen – 1:54)


Contemplating the Cross :: A Lenten Reflection

Rejection of God is not limited to irreligion; it is possible to refuse the grace of Christ through religion. Because the heart of Christianity isn’t morality, the nature of temptation isn’t a draw toward immorality.

The irreligious version of this is obvious: the systematic or categorical rejection of God. Life apart from God through religion is more difficult to see. The religious atheist is observant—even outwardly impressive in his adherence. The religious atheist sees his efforts of living like Jesus as sufficient and acceptable to God.

The cross is perplexing to someone earning their acceptance through works. It seems cruel and vulgar—pointless in affecting daily life and practice. To the faithful—who place their trust in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ—the cross, while no less cruel, is also beautiful because on it we see the depth of God’s love.

In the late 19th century Edward Monro composed a five-part hymn, The Story of the Cross. In the fifth to eighth stanzas Monro writes:
Follow to Calvary;
Tread where He trod,
He Who forever was
Son of God.

You who would love Him stand
Gaze at His face:
Tarry awhile on your
Earthly race.

As the swift moments fly
Through the blest week,
Read the great story the
Cross will teach.

Is there no beauty to
You who pass by,
In that lone figure which
Marks that sky?
Monro wrestles with the weight of the cross, “For us Thy blood is shed, us alone.” Yet he is overwhelmed by the grace of God in this sacrifice. The cross is transformative in daily life because on it we see that God’s acceptance is not based on our work, but on his own—that God’s grace has no limits—that God’s love is sufficient where every earthly affection has failed.

In the final three stanzas Monro reflects on the daily impact of Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf:
Yea, let Thy cross be borne
Each day be me;
Mind not how heavy, if
But with Thee.

Lord, if Thou only wilt,
Make us Thine own,
Give no companion, save
Thee alone.

Grant through each day of life
To stand by Thee;
With Thee, when morning breaks
Ever to be.

Today’s Reading
Job 18 (Listen – 1:54)
1 Corinthians 5 (Listen – 1:58)


Wandering Anger :: A Lenten Reflection

“Christians build up little gods, little temples of Baal. We begin to worship them. And we must tear them down, destroy them,” author Madeleine L’Engle told Christianity Today. The interview was conducted late in L’Engle’s career (she passed away in 2007), during a time when her writings were highly controversial.

Readers outside the church complained that she talked about Christ and faith far too often. Her most vocal opponents, however, were inside the Christian community. Part of the frustration, according to one book review, was that she eschewed evangelical language.

One of L’Engle’s poems, Love Letter, begins with the arresting words:
I hate you, God.
Love, Madeleine.

I write my message on water
and at bedtime I tiptoe upstairs
and let it flow under your door.
Her honesty—“When I am angry with you, I know that you are there”—seems to channel David’s in the Imprecatory Psalms. Most beautifully, L”Engle’s thorough examination reaches into the depths of her own heart; “I cannot turn the other cheek. It takes all the strength I have.” In her interview with Christianity Today, L’Engle continues:

The gods we erect are easier to worship than the Creator of the universe. They’re more comprehensible. We don’t like having to depend on that which we cannot control, manipulate, dominate.

Freedom comes on the other side of work. If I want to play a Bach fugue, I must practice scales. If I hope for any transcendent experience in prayer, I have to have just done my ordinary, everyday prayers, which is the same thing as practicing my scales. I have to write every day.

Freedom and discipline, rather than being antithetical, are complementary. Permissiveness, either from others toward you or toward yourself, ends up being restricting and crippling. If you choose to be a writer and a mother, you have to be incredibly disciplined. Otherwise you won’t manage. Discipline does not imprison you.
Idols are destroyed through spiritual discipline, hearts transformed through prayer. None more-so than L’Engle’s in Love Letter. After pouring out her frustration, lament, and confession L’Engle, with her final words, cries out:
Let me hear you roar.

Today’s Reading
Job 16-17 (Listen – 3:40)
1 Corinthians 4 (Listen – 3:15)


How to Live as a Christian :: A Lenten Reflection

Fasting is as much about dedicating time and energy to activities that refresh the soul as it is about divesting from the facades we have come to rely on in place of the gospel. Discovering how to engage our faith in daily life is best done, as Miroslav Volf writes, when faith is “nourished more on its own intrinsic vision than on the deprecatory stories about others.” Volf, who we read yesterday, continues:

Notice the significance of the new birth for Christian social identity. Christians do not come into their social world from outside seeking either to accommodate to their new home (like second generation immigrants would), shape it in the image of the one they have left behind (like colonizers would), or establish a little haven in the strange new world reminiscent of the old (as resident aliens would). They are not outsiders who either seek to become insiders or maintain strenuously the status of outsiders.

Christians are the insiders who have diverted from their culture by being born again. They are by definition those who are not what they used to be, those who do not live like they used to live. Christian difference is therefore not an insertion of something new into the old from outside, but a bursting out of the new precisely within the proper space of the old.

The question of how to live in a non-Christian environment, then, does not translate simply into the question of whether one adopts or rejects the social practices of the environment. This is the question outsiders ask, who have the luxury of observing a culture from a vantage point that is external to that culture. Christians do not have such a vantage point since they have experienced a new birth as inhabitants of a particular culture. Hence they are in an important sense insiders. As those who are a part of the environment from which they have diverted by having been born again and whose difference is therefore internal to that environment.

Christians ask, “Which beliefs and practices of the culture that is ours must we reject now that our self has been reconstituted by new birth? Which can we retain? What must we reshape to reflect better the values of God’s new creation?”

Today’s Reading
Job 15 (Listen – 3:23)
1 Corinthians 3 (Listen – 3:05)