Lift up your hearts with John Calvin

Calvin’s pulpit in Geneva, © Yann Forget / Wikimedia

I’m currently reading a fascinating book called Lifting Hearts to the Lord: Worship with John Calvin in Sixteenth-Century Geneva. It’s part of a series of books, The Church at Worship, which combine essays, illustrations and extracts from primary materials in order to give readers an insight into Christian worship in a particular place and time. The Kindle edition is also currently available at a knockdown price (£1.93, versus an RRP of £18.99), so I heartily recommend grabbing it while you can.

One of the texts provided is a selection of excerpts from Calvin’s commentary on Psalm 9, delivered as a public lecture for trainee pastors. Here are a few points that particularly struck me.

First, on verse 1 (“I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart;
I will tell of all your wonderful deeds”
), Calvin writes:

When he says “with all my heart,” he means with a pure and whole heart, rather than in a duplicitous way. And therefore he not only makes a distinction between himself and those heavy hypocrites who praise God only with their lips, leaving their hearts stone cold, but he also acknowledges that everything praiseworthy he has done so far stems entirely from the pure grace of God.

This underlines what I’ve long believed: that one thing the psalms teach us is that our feelings matter. They are not the be-all and the end-all – it is “the pure grace of God” that matters above all, not our feelings about it – but the idea of a “faith without feelings” is unknown to the psalmist. I am to give thanks “with my whole heart”; we are not to “praise God only with [our] lips, leaving [our] hearts stone cold”.

Next, Calvin turns to verse 11, “Sing praises to the Lord, who dwells in Zion.
Declare his deeds among the peoples”
:

Indeed, it is not enough to honor and venerate some vague divine force, but instead to know how to recognize the one and only true God, whom one should serve appropriately and according to his commands.

As Luther put it: “There is no other God than the one God who is called Jesus Christ.” The God we worship is not “some vague divine force”, but “the one and only true God”, who has revealed himself to us in “his doings”.

Also on verse 11, God is called “the one who dwells in Zion”, but this wasn’t to tie him to one place; on the contrary, we are to “declare his deeds among the peoples”. Calvin draws a lesson from this about the sacraments:

It is very true that God had given genuine signs of his presence in this visible Sanctuary, but the goal was not to bind people’s senses to earthly elements. Instead, he wanted these external signs to serve as ladders to draw the faithful to Heaven. For right from the start God had the same goal for the Sacraments and all other outward practices of the faith, namely, to accommodate the weakness and minimal capacity of his people. Therefore yet today their true purpose is to help us seek God spiritually in his heavenly glory, and not to keep us in this world or distract us with the vanities of the flesh.

As the editor of the volume, Karin Maag, observes in a side note:

This image of the ladder is one of Calvin’s favorite ways of explaining how God uses the elements of this world to draw believers to a deeper and more spiritual understanding of their faith.

And this, I feel, is where I find myself disagreeing with Calvin. While Calvin sees the sacraments as means by which God draws us up spiritually to heaven, Luther sees them as a means by which God comes down to us and assures us that he is with us here on earth.

This is an important distinction, but perhaps we should not force it too much. Perhaps instead we should see it like St Paul’s description of the second coming of Christ in his first letter to the Thessalonians, where we rise to meet the Lord in the air as he descends to us from heaven…

The sacrament that coronavirus can't take away

View of a part of the balustrade/parapet of the northern gallery in the Amanduskirche in Beihingen, a district of Freiberg am Neckar (Germany), seen from the southern gallery. The paintings by Hans Stiegler (18th century) show the baptism of Christ and Martin Luther as reformator. (source)
© Roman Eisele / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0 & GFDL ≥ 1.2

As with pretty much all churches in the UK, our congregation has suspended services until further notice in response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) epidemic. Last week we also omitted the Sacrament of the Altar due to concerns over our ability to administer it safely.

This situation leaves Christians in the distressing position of being deprived of the Sacrament of the Altar – the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, the Mass – at a time when we might feel most in need of it and of its promised benefits of forgiveness, life and salvation. Many of us have become used to a weekly (or even more frequent) celebration of this sacrament.

For many of us, the suspension of public worship also deprives us of the comfort of the weekly general absolution pronounced by the pastor: “As a called and ordained servant of Christ, and by his authority, I therefore forgive you all your sins…”

Last night, though, I came across the following comment on Facebook, which brought home that there is one sacrament that has not been taken away from us at this time:

I’m always stunned and encouraged in such moments by Luther’s appeal to, “I am baptized”. Baptism is the most powerful sacrament in this way, but most forgotten as to its actual power today. It of necessity sustains YOU and me even when the other two, absolution and the supper, are unavailable.

Luther famously emphasised the value of baptism in our assurance as Christians, our confidence in the face of temptation and doubt:

The only way to drive away the Devil is through faith in Christ, by saying: ‘I have been baptized, I am a Christian.’

This is reflected in the Small Catechism, where Luther sees the significance of baptism as lying, not in its status as a mere “initiation rite”, but as the basis for our daily repentance, as something to which we return daily in order to die to sin and rise to new life:

What does such baptising with water signify?

It signifies that the old Adam in us should, by daily remorse and repentance, be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new person should daily come forth and arise, to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.

Small Catechism, Holy Baptism, question 4

Hence our daily prayers should always begin with the sign of the cross and the invocation of the Trinity, in recollection of our baptism:

In the morning, when you get up, bless yourself with the holy cross and say:

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Small Catechism, Daily Prayers

One “Luther” quotation which does the rounds on the internet – “When you wash your face, remember your baptism” – appears to be misattributed. But Luther would probably agree with it (once he’d got his head round 21st century hygiene standards – “Washing your face? Every day?”), and at the moment it’s easy to extend it: “When you wash your hands, remember your baptism (for at least 20 seconds).”

We’re facing a difficult Lent, and perhaps an even more difficult Easter, separated in so many ways from our fellow Christians and from the regular ministry of word and sacrament which we have previously taken for granted. The daily recollection of our baptism, however, can be one source of comfort and encouragement.

Baptizatus sum! I am baptised!

What the prosperity gospel gets right

Image: Robert M. Worsham (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The Financial Times this weekend has a profile of Joel Osteen, “a preacher for Trump’s America”, one of the most successful proponents of the “prosperity gospel” — which the FT describes as a “quintessentially American” blend of Pentecostalism and faith healing, and the only section of the US church that is currently expanding.

The writer, Edward Luce, picks up on Osteen’s ability “to keep sin and redemption out of a Christian message”. Osteen’s response:

It is not my aim to dwell on technicalities. I want to help people sleep at night.

Helping people sleep at night is good for business: Osteen’s church, Lakewood, had revenues of $89 million in the year ending March 2017, with more than 90 per cent coming from its church members. Most church members give at least one-tenth of their income to the church, but those interviewed by Luce seemed to consider it a good investment, one they’d seen repaid in promotions, pay rises, new jobs. “God works fast when you work for him,” one observes.

All this tends to leave most other Christians aghast. As one commentator observes, what the prosperity churches provide is a “deification and ritualisation of the American dream” rather than anything resembling the New Testament gospel. But, despite the evident (and understandable) appeal of such a message for the American super-rich, Osteen’s target market is “the struggling middle class”: a demographic experiencing stagnating incomes, precarious employment, family and community breakdown, a “crisis of loneliness”, addiction to prescription drugs. One congregant comments:

Here is a community that only offered love. Nobody told me that I was bad. The world already tells you that every day.

We don’t have to give any ground to the prosperity preachers’ theology to ask ourselves: is it really just false offers of wealth and security (for those who believe, and give, enough) that keeps people loyal to these churches? Or is there a message here about how the mainstream churches may be failing to address the situations faced by many people?

Which brings me to Fleming Rutledge’s book The Crucifixion, which I am currently reading. At the heart of Rutledge’s argument in this book is that the cross has to be understood in the context of apocalyptic theology. She describes the recovery of the apocalyptic perspective as one of the major developments in New Testament scholarship in recent decades:

[This scholarship] is still not well known in the churches, but it is becoming more prominent in academic circles, and this will begin to filter down to the pews.

(The Crucifixion, p.353)

It’s clear that Rutledge — a self-described “preacher and pastor” rather than an academic theologian — sees her book as part of this process of filtration.

The essence of the apocalyptic framework as outlined by Rutledge is that the gospel — and in particular the crucifixion of Jesus which lies at its heart — isn’t simply a matter of individual salvation from the penalty for our sins. Rather, it is God’s assault on the powers of Sin and Death that hold all humanity captive; a confrontation between two realms, two aeons: the reign of Sin and Death and Satan and the other Powers on the one hand, and the reign of righteousness and grace through Christ on the other.

Rutledge argues that, far from this perspective overriding or setting aside more traditional motifs such as sacrifice, redemption, substitution and so on, apocalyptic provides the framework within which those motifs can be better appreciated:

This book has been designed to highlight the whole cluster of images surrounding the death of Christ, within the overarching apocalyptic drama that consistently presents God as the acting subject while at the same time enlisting even the humblest Christian (especially the humblest Christian) in God’s band of resistance fighters.

p.393

This in turn can bridge the gap that has often opened up between the gospel of individual salvation and the call to social justice: to confronting the Powers of evil in the world. For Rutledge, the meaning of the cross is twofold: it is both God’s action in making vicarious atonement, and God’s decisive victory over the powers of Sin and Death. Too often, she argues, the former has devolved into an individualistic approach in which “my sins” are somehow “paid for”, giving me the prospect of life with God after death, but in the meantime leaving the wider world largely unchanged. This in turn can have an appeal to those for whom the wider world — however much they (we) may pay lip-service to the idea of societal sin — has shaken out pretty much OK. It has less appeal to those who have been on the receiving end of severe injustice, for whom an apocalyptic message of God’s incursion on a world under the control of alien powers has greater resonance: as Rutledge illustrates with frequent references to the US civil rights movement and the South African anti-apartheid struggle.

So, perhaps this shows us the one thing that the prosperity gospel gets right: its diagnosis that the “mainstream” gospel of individual forgiveness is inadequate to the plight faced by millions of people; that it is not good enough to tell people that they simply need to “bear up patiently” in the face of poverty or suffering or injustice, and certainly not good enough to cite the crucifixion of Jesus in support of this; that God really does want something better for his people, and that he really does intervene in a dramatic way to bring this about, to lay waste to the Powers that oppose him and oppress his creation.

Of course, the prosperity gospel gets pretty much everything else wrong from that point onwards: starting with the idea that how God goes about this is by individually enriching those who show their faith by tithing to Lakewood or whatever. But maybe the answer to this isn’t to be found in telling people that they are wrong to expect God’s intervention in the concrete circumstances of their lives, but rather in developing, at a pastoral and devotional level, the apocalyptic perspective in which the gospel is God’s dynamic assault on all the Powers that oppress us: Sin, Death, poverty, injustice and the rest.

Book review: A More Radical Gospel, by Gerhard O. Forde

Forde_More-Radical-Gospel_LQB_WEB

I’ve just finished reading A More Radical Gospel, a collection of essays and lectures by Lutheran theologian Gerhard Forde (1927–2005).

The essays set out elements of Forde’s vision of “radical Lutheranism”: that is, a Lutheranism that centres its ministry and identity on the proclamation of the gospel as unconditional promise, while sitting relatively lightly to historic Lutheran doctrinal formulations such as the Formula of Concord. Appropriately, the book ends with a set of sermons, allowing Forde to conclude with the direct proclamation of the gospel that is such a critical concept in his theology.

Forde is a stimulating thinker and writer, and I found these essays thought-provoking, often exciting, and (mostly) spiritually energising. What I find most helpful in Forde: his emphasis on the gospel as a first-to-second-person proclamation (“I absolve you”, “I baptise you”); what Forde calls “primary discourse” (“speaking for God”), as contrasted with the “secondary discourse” (“speaking about God”) of systematic theology, exegesis, and so on. This comes through particularly strongly in his sections on eschatology, authority and ecumenism.

Criticisms? The biggest is that I really can’t get my head round his theology of the atonement. As I understand it, Forde argues that it’s not that Jesus died to satisfy God’s justice, demonstrate God’s love or win a victory over evil. Rather, God wanted to forgive humanity unconditionally, we didn’t want it, and so we killed Jesus to keep intact our conditional, law-based approach; only for God then to vindicate Jesus by raising him from the dead.

I like Forde’s emphasis on the “brute facts” of the crucifixion, of reaching an understanding of what the cross means “from below” before we go on to ask what it means “from above”. However, I don’t think he even does justice to the event considered “from below” – do the Gospels really present Jesus’ death simply as a refusal by his hearers to accept unconditional forgiveness? – which makes Forde’s argument about its meaning “from above” feel unconvincing. In the end, one is left wondering how necessary or central the cross is to the gospel, if understood in Forde’s terms. It also seems to leave a lot of biblical data unaccounted for.

To end on a more positive (though still controversial note), I liked Forde’s approach to ecumenism: above all his emphasis on the church’s identity (and hence its true, albeit hidden unity) being found in the activity of the proclamation of the gospel and administration of the sacraments as gospel; an activity which is not confined to any one denomination or tradition. This involves setting aside a confessional Lutheran insistence on full doctrinal agreement as a precondition for altar fellowship (which I know some reading this will disagree with strongly); but it also allows for a distinctly Lutheran approach to ecumenical dialogue, rather than seeking bland compromise formulas in which “every cat is grey”.

After the fold, I’ve posted the brief summary notes I wrote on each essay to aid my own recollection. They may not make much sense without the full text, but hopefully they will whet your appetite to check out more of what Forde is saying in these essays. You can also get a flavour from the quotations I’ve posted on my Tumblr.


Eschatology: The Last Word First 

  • Radical Lutheranism: Lutheranism should find its identity in the religious landscape by doubling down in proclaiming the gospel in all its radical unconditionality, a proclamation that takes seriously both justification by faith and the bondage of the will. Not that these will always be the content of our preaching, but that they inform and undergird the unconditional proclamation of forgiveness in Christ.
  • The Apocalyptic No and the Eschatological Yes: grace as an eschatological breaking-in of the new, not an ontological infusing of power into an old being.
  • Lex semper accusat? The Reformation perspective – that the law always accuses, and that the gospel is the end of the law – paradoxically frees us up to have a positive view of the law in the civil/political/ethical sphere, not as an end in itself, but as a tool to assist us in taking care of this world.

Legal and Evangelical Authority

  • Authority in the Church: The Lutheran Reformation: “The preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ is the highest exercise of authority in the church”; “scripture interprets itself” means that the Word acts upon us rather than sitting as a passive object of our subjective interpretation.
  • Scriptura sacra sui ipsius interpres: Reflections on the Question of Scripture and Tradition: Sola scriptura can only be understood properly in the light of the sui ipsius interpres, that the Word acts on the hearer rather than vice versa. Only this can resolve the dilemma between the supposed need for an infallible interpreter on the one hand, and individualistic subjectivism on the other.
  • The Irrelevance of the Modern World for Luther: Never mind what the modern world should make of Luther: what would Luther make of the modern world? He’d decry its lack of distinction between human judgment and divine judgment, reducing everything to the former and ignoring the latter; and its superficiality as regards sin, death and the devil.

Atonement and Justification: Christ Unbound

  • Caught in the Act: Reflections on the Work of Christ: Why is the death of Jesus necessary? Understanding Jesus’ death “from below”: he was killed for proclaiming an unconditional forgiveness and mercy that we do not want (“…and you would not,” Matthew 23:37). Understanding it “from above”: God cannot have mercy on us “in the abstract”. Christ’s death satisfies God’s desire to have mercy on whom he will have mercy, because it creates believers, and thus “actualizes the will of God to have mercy unconditionally in the concrete.” [I found this Forde’s argument in this essay quite hard to follow, tbh]
  • Loser Takes All: The Victory of Christ: We want to turn the story of Jesus and his cross into the story of a “winner”; but the story of Jesus is the story of someone determining to follow the path of being a loser in a world of winners. The resurrection is not God snatching victory from defeat, but his vindication of Jesus’ following the loser’s path.
  • In Our Place: Forde engages with a feminist critique which accuses all theories of atonement as valorising suffering (“divine child abuse paraded as salvific”); he agrees with some aspects of the critique, but emphasises that any understanding of the cross in terms of its moral purpose is mistaken, and leads to an “us vs them” mentality (“had we been there, it would all have come out differently”). Rather, Christ’s death is a “happy exchange”: he takes our place and gives us his.
  • Forensic Justification and the Christian Life: Triumph or Tragedy?: We don’t progress morally in the Christian life, our lives approximating more and more closely to the righteousness imputed to us in Christ; rather, imputation is an eschatological breaking-in of the new world, and this attack on sin from without is then worked out more and more fully in our lives.
  • Luther’s “Ethics”: stop thinking ad modum Aristotelis (“in the manner of Aristotle,” in which the fundamental human story is one of ethical development aided by grace), start thinking ad modum scripturae (“in the manner of scripture,” in which grace alone determines our relationship with God): “good works do not make a good person, but a good person does good works.”

Unecclesiological Ecumenism 

  • The Meaning of Satis Est: Article 7 of the Augsburg Confession is not a “counsel of despair”, an attempt to patch together a minimal definition of unity in a splintering church. It’s a redefinition of the church in a manner consonant with justification by faith. Hence the church is defined by its activities of preaching the gospel and administering the sacraments, not by any human rites, ceremonies, institutions or offices; and hence its unity is an invisible object of faith, not a visible institutional or ceremonial unity.
  • Lutheran Ecumenism: With Whom and How Much? Ecumenism, for Lutherans, should not be a matter of “political correctness” or “ecclesial correctness”, but of confessional integrity: contributing our distinct understanding of the preaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments, rather than either working to concoct bland compromise statements in which “every cat is grey” and for the sake of which legitimate theological questions and concerns get steamrollered in the name of “repressive tolerance”. Let’s recognise one another as Christians and as churches on the basis of preaching the gospel and administering the sacraments, and then discuss our theological differences.
  • The Catholic Impasse: Reflections on Lutheran-Catholic Dialogue Today: Lutherans and Catholics need to stop papering over the cracks in ecumenical discussion and acknowledge that fundamental differences remain between them. Postliberal Lutheran theology rejects both ecclesiastical infallibilism and biblical infallibilism in place of the living, present-tense gospel declaration. This is what roots it in catholic tradition, since the paradigmatic expressions of that proclamation are the concrete, catholic practices of preaching, absolution and the sacraments; Lutherans are not (contrary to widespread Catholic belief) “subjectivists” preaching an unmediated gospel.

Neither denial nor despair

habakkuk
Statue of the prophet Habakkuk (or “Zuccone”), by Donatello

Walter Brueggemann has some timely thoughts in his book A Pathway of Interpretation (pp.85f.), where he turns his attention in one chapter to the poem that concludes the book of Habakkuk:

Though the fig tree does not blossom,
    and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails
    and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold
    and there is no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
    I will exult in the God of my salvation.
God, the Lord, is my strength;
    he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
and makes me tread upon the heights.

Habakkuk is believed to have been writing in the late 7th century BCE, as Babylon’s regional power increased and began to threaten the kingdom of Judah, culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE. Brueggemann writes:

There were in Jerusalem, perhaps, two prevailing moods. On the one hand there was, concerning the coming disaster, a sense articulated by Hananiah in Jeremiah 28, a refusal to be realistic about the coming calamity. On the other hand, there may well have been, as the calamity became clear and unavoidable, a sense of hopelessness that always lost.

This looming prospect of political and social catastrophe leads to two possible attitudes, both of which will be familiar to us today:

The twin temptations of denial and despair may have been very powerful in Jerusalem, denial rooted in Jerusalem theology, despair grounded in the awareness of Babylonian power.

“Against both temptations the poet speaks,” continues Brueggemann. In the first half of the stanza quoted above, Habakkuk is blunt in his rejection of denial: the disaster is going to happen, no use pretending otherwise or taking refuge in false comfort. But that is not the end of the story: Habakkuk drags us up out of despair with his insistent “yet,” his affirmation that Israel has not, despite appearances, lost their “ultimate resource and guarantor,” YHWH.

Brueggemann concludes:

The whole is an insistence when YHWH is confessed to be the primal actor in the life of the world, neither denial nor despair is appropriate. Either temptation makes perfectly compelling sense when “the world is without God.” The poem insists, to the contrary, that the world is not “without God.” YHWH is present as strength and saviour.

It is this “alternative rendering of reality” that is the role of this poet and prophet, and a continuing task for the church.

Word, bath, meal: the raw materials of Christian spirituality

luckau_nikolaikirche_abendmahlsbild
Abendsmahlbild, St Nikolai’s Church, Luckau

Christians meet for worship on Sunday. Christians pray, together or singly, on all days of the week at morning and evening, perhaps also at noon or night. They pray in praise and intercession. In their Sunday meetings Christians gather around the scriptures. They also hold a meal. They teach faith to those who would join community, then they bathe them. These are the root elements of an ordo, of a pattern of scheduled rituals.

Gordon Lathrop, Holy Things, p.35 (src)

I came across this quotation the other day, and it’s been bouncing around my head ever since – partly because it resonates with me, partly because it leaves me feeling that more needs to be said (and to be fair, Lathrop does describe this as just the “root elements” of a Christian ordo: more needs to be added).

Lathrop’s structure of “word, bath, meal” is helpful, though there is a risk of reductionism in saying, simply, baldly: “they hold a meal”; “they bathe them.” After all, Luther tells us in the Small Catechism that baptism “is not simply water [a ‘bath’], but it is the water included in God’s command and connected with God’s Word” (emphasis added). Similarly, in the Sacrament of the Altar, “it is not the eating and drinking [that is, the ‘meal’ in and of itself] that do these things, but these words: ‘Given and shed for you for the remission of sins.’” It is the word that makes the bath and the meal what they are; it is the bath and the meal that thus become indispensable means of bringing that word to us.

But as a reminder of the deep structure of Christian spirituality, corporate and individual, there is a lot to reflect on in Lathrop’s words. There are three patterns at work here:

  • a pattern of corporate worship, in which Christians meet together each Sunday to “gather round the scriptures” and share in the Lord’s Supper;
  • a pattern of personal devotion, in which we pray, either alone or with others, in the morning and the evening, with an emphasis on praise and intercession;
  • a pattern of spiritual formation, in which Christians are taught the faith and baptised.

These three elements are not wholly separate and distinct, but are intertwined together in the day-by-day, week-by-week life of the church.

This reminds both of the threefold Rule described by Martin Thornton, and also of Thornton’s emphasis on the Book of Common Prayer as the basis of a spiritual “rule” rather than simply a set of liturgies. More practically, immediately and personally, it has also highlighted that in recent months I’ve probably let the element of “praise and intercession” slip away in my own patterns of personal devotion: a useful corrective.

Sufficient unto the day: Brexit and emotional health

Sermon On The Mountwith the Healing of the Leper Cosimo Rosselli, 1481
Sermon on the Mount with the Healing of the Leper, Cosimo Rosselli, 1481

‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

‘So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.’

Matthew 6:25-34

It’s probably a measure of how sheltered and privileged a life I’ve led that it’s taken the Brexit vote to really bring home to me the value of what Jesus is saying in these famous words – particularly the final sentences, rendered in the Authorised Version as:

Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.

Is this really good advice? Can Jesus really be telling us not to buy insurance (as some Christians apply this) or not to save for a pension? After all, “take no thought for the morrow.”

I don’t interpret Jesus’ words that way, but that’s an argument for another day. However, I think at least a part of what Jesus is telling us here is about maintaining healthy patterns and habits of thought. I know I’m not the only one who has spent more time than is healthy in the last few days reading and arguing about the implications of Brexit and the likely consequences and outcomes. And one of the things that has become apparent to me is how easily my thoughts run away with themselves, as I go chasing off down some line of thought about all the dire possibilities of one or other of all the vast complexity of issues now to be addressed as we prepare to leave the European Union, and end up anxious, jittery, scared.

Who knows how all these matters will be resolved, but it’s probably unlikely that all the worst case scenarios my fertile imagination can come up with will come true. In the meantime, these are not healthy patterns of thought.

I dare say that in the days and weeks ahead there will be reports on the impact of the Brexit vote on people’s mental and emotional health. The shock and uncertainty and confusion is likely to be having a highly detrimental effect on some people, especially those who already suffer from mental health problems. But perhaps there is a specific danger for those of us, lacking experience (so far) of mental illness, who don’t realise the mental and emotional risks of obsessive concern over matters in which we feel powerless and confused.

So it’s at this point, as our mental terriers go chasing another Brexit rabbit down another rabbit hole, that we need to listen to Jesus’ words here: “Today’s trouble is enough for today.” Worrying about tomorrow weakens our mental and emotional resilience to deal with what we have to do today – let alone the effects it has on our trust in God.

Yesterday I ended up having to turn off my phone and tablet during the afternoon to recover my emotional balance. In the evening I listened to classic disco music, processed holiday photos and started reading Three Men in a Boat (which I’ve never read, and which I discover – who knew? – is utterly hilarious). Whatever you need for your own #OperationHappyPlace, if you are distressed and anxious about the Brexit result, I commend a similar approach. Yes, engage with the news of what’s happening, but keep a watchful eye on your emotional state and your patterns of thought, and make sure you switch off and do something else when you need to (bearing in mind that, if you feel thirsty, that means you’re already dehydrated). Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.

Heaviness, weeping and joy

Title_Page_of_Coverdale_Bible
Title page from Miles Coverdale’s Bible (1535)

Today’s appointed psalm in the lectionary was Psalm 30. This is one of my favourite psalms, especially the celebrated lines:

Sing praises to the Lord, O you his faithful ones,
and give thanks to his holy name.
For his anger is but for a moment;
his favour is for a lifetime.
Weeping may linger for the night,
but joy comes with the morning.

Lines that will be familiar to P.G. Wodehouse fans, for starters.

We were at the Savoy Chapel this morning (our middle son sings in the choir), where they sang the Prayer Book version, in which these lines are rendered by Miles Coverdale as follows:

Sing praises unto the Lord, O ye saints of his :
and give thanks unto him for a remembrance of his holiness.
For his wrath endureth but the twinkling of an eye, and in his pleasure is life :
heaviness may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.

That word “heaviness” also appears later in the psalm, where the words translated in the NRSV (following the Authorised Version) as “you have turned my mourning into dancing” become:

Thou hast turned my heaviness into joy :
thou hast put off my sackcloth, and girded me with gladness.

What I love about this word “heaviness”, as an alternative to “mourning” or “weeping”, is how specific it is in rendering a feeling we surely all know from time to time: that heaviness in the limbs that gives physical form to our sad, weary, despairing emotional state.

Above all, this precision of language creates a strong sense of connection with the translator: a translator who uses the word “heaviness” here is someone who is intimately familiar with this state of mind and body. And this should come as no surprise, given Miles Coverdale’s years in exile, and his proximity to early Reformation martyrs such as Robert Barnes and William Tyndale: enough to give anyone an abundance of “heaviness”; though Coverdale also clearly knew what it was to be “girded with gladness” by the grace and promise of God.

Promise, need and faith in the Lord’s Prayer (2)

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Image: Unsplash (CC0)

In my previous post, we looked at how Luther applies the principles of promise, necessity and faith to the first three petitions of the Lord’s Prayer — where we exercise our faith in God’s promise to meet our dire need for the proclamation of the gospel, the Holy Spirit’s gift of faith, and protection from temptation and doubt. Now let’s turn to the second half of the prayer.

Give us this day our daily bread

What does this mean?
God gives daily bread to everyone, even those who are evil,  without our prayers; but we pray in this petition that he would lead us to know this, and to receive our daily bread with thanksgiving.

What is meant by daily bread?
Everything that belongs to the support and needs of the body, such as food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, property, fields, animals, money, goods, a believing spouse, believing children, believing servants, believing and faithful magistrates, good government, good weather, peace, health, discipline, honour, good friends, faithful neighbours, and so on.

Once again, we see how our prayer is not needed to persuade a reluctant God, but is founded on an unconditional promise: “God gives daily bread to everyone, even those who are evil,  without our prayers.”

As for the “dire need” that is addressed here: well, it amounts to pretty much every need we have in our everyday lives; “everything that belongs to the support and needs of the body,” ranging from the basics of food, drink and shelter, to the need for “good government,” “peace,” and so on.

Many expositions of the Lord’s Prayer would put matters such as social justice (“good government”) and peace under the first half of the prayer: the coming of God’s kingdom, the doing of his will. However, there is something refreshing about Luther’s perspective here, particularly in a time where world events can otherwise lead us to despair. For those of us who feel that a President Trump or a vote for Brexit would be the opposite of “good government,” perhaps even (in our more despairing moments) the opposite of “peace,” it is healthy to be reminded that all these are matters of “daily bread,” not “the kingdom.”

And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us

What does this mean?
We pray in this petition that our Father in heaven would not look upon our sins, or deny our prayers on account of them; for we are not worthy of any of the things for which we pray, nor have we deserved them. Instead we pray that he would grant all our petitions by grace; for we sin greatly every day, and all we deserve is punishment. In the same way, for our part, we will sincerely forgive those who sin against us, and readily do good to them.

Luther’s exposition of this petition is the first not to include an explicit statement of promise — but then, the promise on which the forgiveness of our sins is based has already been set out in the first half of Luther’s exposition.

Indeed, what we find in this petition is a personal appropriation of the promises of the first three petitions: that the promise of forgiveness held out in the proclamation of the Word, which we receive by the faith worked in us by the Holy Spirit, would be ours; and that we would lead a “godly” life as a result, at the heart of which is our imitation of God in extending to others the same forgiveness and goodness that he has shown to us.

And lead us not into temptation

What does this mean?
God tempts no one. However, we pray in this petition that God would guard and keep us, so that the devil, the world, and our flesh may not deceive us, or seduce us into false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice; and that, though they may attack us, we may finally overcome them and gain the victory.

Again, the promise: “God tempts no one.” But again, the dire need: “that the devil, the world, and our flesh may not deceive us, or seduce us.” And again, the faith we exercise as we pray, confident in God’s promise that “though they may attack us, we may finally overcome them and gain the victory.”

But deliver us from evil

What does this mean?
We pray in this petition that our Father in heaven would deliver us from every evil of body and soul, property and honour; and that in the end, when our last hour comes, he would grant us a blessed end, and graciously take us from this vale of tears to himself into heaven.

Again, the promise is implicit here, this final petition being based on everything that has gone before, and with our every dire need encompassed in that single word “evil”. The need for salvation, for daily bread (in all its multiple aspects), for forgiveness, for preservation from temptation, and — finally — from the fear of death itself. In this final petition, our faith develops into hope as we look forward to “our last hour,” the promise of “a blessed end,” and the hope of being taken from “this vale of tears” to be with God forever. (Note that the Creed has already reminded us that our ultimate hope is not “going to heaven” but the resurrection of the dead.)

Amen 

What does this mean?
That I should be certain that these petitions are acceptable to our Father in heaven, and that he hears them; for He Himself has commanded us to pray in this way, and has promised that He will hear us. So we say “Amen, Amen”; that is, “Yes, yes, it shall be so.”

The promise that has undergirded every word of our prayer has been the promise that “these petitions are acceptable to our Father in heaven, and that he hears them”; a promise that addresses the direst need of all when we pray, our need to be heard, for us not to be talking into the air. So we make our final affirmation of faith in that promise by saying “Amen”: “Yes, yes, it shall be so.”

 

Promise, need and faith in the Lord’s Prayer (1)

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Photo: Greying_Geezer (CC BY-NC-SA)

In my previous post, we saw how Luther describes the five ingredients for “valid” prayer:

  • the promise of God;
  • our dire need;
  • faith;
  • earnestness;
  • praying in and through Christ.

It’s worth looking at how the first three of these, in particular, undergird Luther’s exposition of the Lord’s Prayer in the Small Catechism (the final two are more pervasive in nature). Let’s look at each petition, and see how Luther’s exposition can be related to God’s promise, our need, and our faith in the promise.

Hallowed by thy name 

What does this mean?
God’s name is certainly holy in itself, but we pray in this petition that it may become holy among us also.

How is God’s name kept holy?
When the Word of God is taught in its truth and purity, and we as the children of God lead holy lives in accordance with it. Help us to do this, dear Father in heaven! But anyone who teaches and lives other than as taught in God’s Word profanes the name of God among us. Preserve us from this, Heavenly Father!

This establishes the pattern found throughout Luther’s exposition of the Lord’s Prayer. First, a clear declaration of God’s promise: “God’s name is certainly holy in itself.” As we saw in my previous post, it’s the assurance that our prayer is, in a sense, unnecessary — because God’s love and goodness towards is so unshakeable in any event — that gives us the confidence to pray in the first place: “that it may become holy among us also.”

So there is the dire need we face: the need for God’s name to “become holy among us also,” a need that is met “when the Word of God is taught in its truth and purity.” Our greatest need, Jesus tells us in teaching us this prayer, is the Word of God; and not just the Word of God in the abstract, but the Word of God “taught”, the Word proclaimed in the life and ministry of the church. And to pray this petition is itself an act of faith in God’s promise that this Word will be taught and proclaimed among us.

Thy kingdom come 

What does this mean?
The kingdom of God comes by itself even without our prayer, but we pray in this petition that it may come to us also.

How does God’s kingdom come?
When our heavenly Father gives us his Holy Spirit, so that by his grace we believe his holy Word and lead a godly life here in time and there in eternity.

It’s one thing for us to hear the Word of God, the gospel of Christ, taught and proclaimed, but to receive the benefits of that gospel we need faith — and that is the work of the Holy Spirit. It is in the coming of the Holy Spirit, working faith in us, that the kingdom of God comes to us, Luther tells us; echoing here, perhaps, Christ’s words in Luke 11:13.

In telling us to pray this petition, Christ assures us of the promise that “the kingdom of God comes by itself”. He also shows us our “dire need” for the Holy Spirit to work faith in us. After all, as Luther has told us in his exposition of the Creed, to confess my faith in the Holy Spirit is to admit that I am incapable of such faith under my own steam:

I believe that I cannot … believe.

So we pray, confident in the promise that as we hear Christ’s promise, the Holy Spirit is working in us the faith that enables us to pray at all.

Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven

What does this mean?
The good and gracious will of God is done even without our prayer, but we pray in this petition that it may be done among us also.

How is God’s will done?
When God breaks and hinders every evil plan and intention which do not want to let us hallow the name of God or to let his kingdom come, such as the will of the devil, the world, and our flesh; and when he strengthens and keeps us steadfast in his Word and in faith until our end. This is his gracious and good will.

Again, Luther starts with the unconditional promise that is implied by Christ’s instruction to us to pray this petition: “the good and gracious will of God is done even without our prayer.” But our dire need is “that it may be done among us also.”

Above all, our need is for protection from the opposition that the proclamation of the Word of God (first petition) and the Holy Spirit’s working faith in us (second petition) arouse: every “evil plan and intention” of “the devil, the world, and our flesh”; the temptation and doubts of Anfechtung, which undermine our ability to keep us “steadfast in his Word.” Once again, Christ’s instruction to pray this petition gives us the confidence to do so in faith, assured of the promise that “the good and gracious will of God is done even without our prayer.”

So we reach the halfway point in Luther’s exposition. In my next post, we’ll look at his explanations for the final four petitions, but in the meantime, let’s review where we’ve got to so far.

To be honest, in the past I have found Luther’s exposition of these petitions somewhat narrow and repetitive in scope. Other, more modern, expositions of the Lord’s Prayer cover a seemingly wider vision for these petitions, including a lot of material — social and political transformation, the needs of those around us, and so on — which (as we’ll see) Luther compresses into the single petition “give us this day our daily bread.”

But I don’t think Luther’s intention here is to give an exhaustive explanation of what these petitions mean, but to focus our attention on what is of first importance in them, and in our lives as Christians. The dire needs we have that we can otherwise so easily overlook; the promises of God we can so easily take for granted: for the Word of God to be proclaimed, for the Holy Spirit to work faith in us, and for us to be protected from the assaults of “the devil, the world, and our flesh.” A prayer we need to repeat, for our own sake, morning, noon and night.