20170310

Beethoven’s Anguish

Prayer—though it is often draining, even an agony—is in the long term the greatest source of power that is possible.

―Timothy Keller

Lenten Reflection: Beethoven’s Anguish
By Steven Dilla

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!

Prayer: The Small Verse

Let me seek the Lord while he may still be found. I will call upon his name; while he is near.

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Springtime by Phyllis Tickle.

Full prayer available online and in print.

Today’s Reading
Exodus 21 (Listen – 4:44)
Luke 24 (Listen – 6:16)

This Weekend’s Readings
Exodus 22 (Listen – 4:23) John 1 (Listen – 6:18)
Exodus 23 (Listen – 4:44) John 2 (Listen – 3:02)

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20170309

Contemplating the Cross

The road is narrow. He who wishes to travel it more easily must cast off all things and use the cross as his cane. In other words, he must be truly resolved to suffer willingly for the love of God in all things.

— St. John of the Cross

Lenten Reflection: Contemplating the Cross
By Steven Dilla

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 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.

Prayer: The Refrain

Send forth your strength, O God;* establish, O God, what you have wrought for us. — Psalm 68:28

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Springtime by Phyllis Tickle.

Full prayer available online and in print.

Today’s Reading
Exodus 20 (Listen – 3:21)
Luke 23 (Listen – 6:39)

 

20170308

Finding Words to Pray

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.

― Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Lenten Reflection: Finding Words to Pray
By Steven Dilla

“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. He 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.

Prayer: The Small Verse

Today if you shall hear His voice, harden not your heart.

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Springtime by Phyllis Tickle.

Full prayer available online and in print.

Today’s Reading
Exodus 19 (Listen – 4:04)
Luke 22 (Listen – 7:58)

 

20170307

How to Live as a Christian

God acts differently. God continues to give, refusing to make giving dependent on our receiving things rightly.

― Miroslav Volf

Lenten Reflection: How to Live as a Christian

By Steven Dilla

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 one’s 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?”

Prayer: The Request for Presence

Early in the morning I cry out to you, for in your word is my trust. — Psalm 119.147

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Springtime by Phyllis Tickle.

Full prayer available online and in print.

Today’s Reading
Exodus 18 (Listen – 3:54)
Luke 21 (Listen – 4:18)

 

20170306

The Soft Difference

The true God gives so we can become joyful givers and not just self-absorbed receivers.

―Miroslav Volf

Lenten Reflection: The Soft Difference

By Steven Dilla

The Lenten season’s focus on inward sin is meant to be catalytic—a renewal of self, through Christ, for the benefit of the world. Through holiness, the faithful are rooted, nourished, and able to bear fruit. Sin saps the branches—a gospel-centered understanding of sin promotes human flourishing. Forming a distinctly Christian understanding of sin is essential.

Religious identities rooted in their rejection of a particular social environment are inherently violent. Miroslav Volf notes that it is only when faith is “nourished more on its own intrinsic vision than on the deprecatory stories about others” that it is able to live in and not of the world. Volf, a theologian at Yale, continues:

It is Christian identity that creates difference from the social environment, not the other way around. When identity is forged primarily through the negative process of the rejection of the beliefs and practices of others, violence seems unavoidable, especially in situations of conflict.

We should keep in mind, however, that the call to follow the crucified Messiah was, in the long run, much more effective in changing the unjust political, economic, and familial structures than direct exhortations to revolutionize them would ever have been.

The New Testament’s call to meekness, something which Volf calls “soft difference”—becomes the key to winsome and transformative faith:

People who are secure in themselves—more accurately, who are secure in their God—are able to live the soft difference without fear. They have no need either to subordinate or damn others, but can allow others space to be themselves. For people who live the soft difference, mission fundamentally takes the form of witness and invitation. They seek to win others without pressure or manipulation, sometimes even “without a word.”

Soft difference is not simply a missionary method. Rather, the soft difference is the missionary side of following in the footsteps of the crucified Messiah. To be a Christian means to live one’s own identity in the face of others in such a way that one joins inseparably the belief in the truth of one’s own convictions with a respect for the convictions of others. To give up the softness of our difference would be to sacrifice our identity as followers of Jesus Christ.

Prayer: The Greeting

Show me your ways, O Lord, and teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; in you have I trusted all the day long. — Psalm 25.3–4

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Springtime by Phyllis Tickle.

Full prayer available online and in print.

Today’s Reading
Exodus 17 (Listen – 2:30)
Luke 20 (Listen – 5:07)