Confirmation Sunday: Grace and Grit

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Surrounded by the church, I am genuflecting at the altar rail in front of the seated bishop who is administering the sacramental rite of confirmation.

Even though I have worshipped as an Anglican for many years at Holy Trinity Brompton in London, St. Aldate’s Church in Oxford, Church of the Resurrection in Washington, D.C., Church of the Incarnation in Dallas, and now All Saints Church in East Dallas, today I finally received the sacramental rite of confirmation. The domestic creed of Anglicanism, The Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion (1571), holds that “there are two Sacraments ordained of Christ our Lord in the Gospel, that is to say, Baptism, and the Supper of the Lord.” Confirmation belongs to a different order of sacraments:

Those five commonly called Sacraments, that is to say, Confirmation, Penance, Orders, Matrimony, and Extreme Unction, are not to be counted for Sacraments of the Gospel, being such as have grown partly of the corrupt following of the Apostles, partly are states of life allowed in the Scriptures; but yet have not like nature of Sacraments with Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper, for that they have not any visible sign or ceremony ordained of God.

What is confirmation? Simply put, confirmation is a mature renewal of baptismal vows. The 17th century Anglican cleric, Jeremy Taylor, offers a clear definition in A Discourse on Confirmation (1663) by contrasting baptism and confirmation:

The principal thing is this: confirmation is the consummation and perfection, the corroboration and strength of baptism and baptismal grace; for in baptism we undertake to do our duty, but in confirmation we receive strength to do it; in baptism others promise for us, in confirmation we undertake for ourselves, we ease our godfathers and godmothers of their burden, and take it upon our own shoulders, together with the advantage of the prayers of the bishop and all the church made then on our behalf; in baptism we give up our names to Christ, but in confirmation we put our seal to the profession, and God puts His seal to the promise. . . . In baptism we are made innocent, in confirmation we receive the increase of the Spirit of grace; in that we are regenerated unto life, in this we are strengthened unto battle. 

As a candidate for confirmation, I reaffirmed my renunciation of evil, renewed my commitment to Jesus Christ, and committed to supporting and encouraging my local parish. When my bishop, Philip Jones—the Apostolic Vicar of the Anglican Mission in the Americas—laid his hands upon me, he said: “Christopher, as you enter this new season of life, know this: You are not alone. God will satisfy your deepest hunger.” I needed to hear those words because I am tempted to dine at a table of food that does not nourish my soul. Only the feast of the Eucharist satisfies. Reflecting upon the bishop’s words, this line from the Lord’s Prayer reverberated in my ear: “Give us this day our daily bread.” As the sign of the cross was made on my forehead with holy chrism, the bishop offered this prayer of confirmation from the liturgy:

Defend, O Lord, your servant Christopher with your heavenly grace, that he may continue yours for ever, and daily increase in your Holy Spirit more and more, until he comes to your everlasting kingdom. Amen.

In his sermon, my pastor, Jay Wright, emphasized that this confirmation prayer involves two G words: “grace” and “grit.” The grace language is “heavenly grace” and “Holy Spirit.” The grit language is “continue” and “increase . . . more and more.” Borrowing from Angela Duckworth’s highly popular TED Talk on grit, where she defined it as “the power of perseverance and passion for long-term goals,” Jay said that our long-term goal of union with Christ requires grit but it is only possible through grace. Grace enables grit. And why does the Christian need grit? The liturgy of baptism answers: I am up against “Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God.” I am up against “the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.” I am up against “all sinful desires that draw [me] from the love of God.” For all these reasons, I need to be defended, as the confirmation prayer says, and the Lord alone can defend me in this vale of tears until I come, at last, wearied but not defeated, into his everlasting kingdom. I will not forget this special rite of confirmation.

The apologetic necessity of holiness and art

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Throughout his life, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) has emphasized that the Gospel will be advanced in our post-Christian world through the via pulchritudinis — or “way of beauty.” Here is a famous quotation from him:

The only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments, namely, the saints the Church has produced and the art which has grown in her womb. Better witness is borne to the Lord by the splendor of holiness and art which have arisen in the community of believers than by the clever excuses which apologetics has come up with to justify the dark sides, which, sadly, are so frequent in the Church’s human history. If the Church is to continue to transform and humanize the world, how can she dispense with beauty in her liturgies, that beauty which is so closely linked with love and with the radiance of the Resurrection? No, Christians must not be too easily satisfied. They must make their Church into a place in which beauty — and truth — is at home. Without this the world will become the first circle of hell. . . . ‘A theologian who does not love art, poetry, music and nature can be dangerous. Blindness and deafness toward the beautiful are not incidental: they necessarily are reflected in his theology.’

Source: Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Ratzinger Report: An Exclusive Interview on the State of the Church, edited by Vittorio Messori (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1987).

Related

Rowan Williams on theological aesthetics

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David Jones, “The Artist” (1927)

In 2005, Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, delivered the Clark Lectures at Trinity College, Cambridge University. For anyone interested in theological aesthetics, these lectures are worth pondering. They were published in a book entitled, Grace and Necessity: Reflections on Art and Love. 

Grace, Necessity, and Imagination: Catholic Philosophy and the Twentieth Century Artist

  • Lecture 1: Modernism and the Scholastic Revival (PDF)
  • Lecture 2: David Jones (PDF). David Jones (1895-1974) was a Welsh Catholic painter, engraver, and modernist poet. T. S. Eliot called him “one of the most distinguished writers of my generation.” W. H. Auden praised his poem In Parenthesis as “the greatest book [ever] about the Great War” and The Anathemata as one of the “truly great poems in Western Literature.”
  • Lecture 3: Flannery O’Connor (PDF). Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964) was an American Catholic novelist and regarded as one of the greatest writers of short fiction.
  • Lecture 4: God and the Artist (PDF)

Reviews of Grace and Necessity

Recovering a sacramental vision

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Majesty, English oak, Quercus robur, in Nonington, Kent, England. One of the largest maiden, or unpruned, oaks in all of Europe grows on a private estate in Kent. Thought to be more than 400 years old, this aristocratic tree boasts a girth of more than 40 feet. At one point, a large branch broke off the north side of the tree, leaving a hole that reveals the cavernous space of the hollow trunk. —National Geographic: “These Ancient Trees Have Stories to Tell.” Photograph by Beth Moon

I grew up without a sacramental vision of the world, and I was poorer for it. Without such vision, the world is flat and familiar—material all the way down. With such vision, the universe is full-orbed and enchanted because of a deep kinship between the sensible and spiritual.

My American literature course begins and ends with the sacramental vision of two writers who, on the surface, could not be more different: Jonathan Edwards, an 18th-century New England Congregationalist pastor, and Flannery O’Connor, a 20th-century Southern Catholic novelist. And yet, both Christians see the world through the sacramental eyes that the contemporary Church desperately needs if we are to honor the goodness of Creation and the scandal of Incarnation.

JONATHAN EDWARDS

From Beauty of the World (1725)

The beauty of the world consists wholly of sweet mutual consents, either within itself, or with the Supreme Being. As to the corporeal world, though there are many other sorts of consents, yet the sweetest and most charming beauty of it is its resemblance of spiritual beauties. The reason is that spiritual beauties are infinitely the greatest, and bodies being but the shadows of beings, they must be so much the more charming as they shadow forth spiritual beauties. This is peculiar to natural things, it surpassing the art of man.

From Images of Divine Things (1728)

That the things of the word are ordered [and] designed to shadow forth spiritual things, appears by the Apostle’s arguing spiritual things from them. I Cor. 15:36, “Thou fool, that which thou sowest is not quickened, except it die.” If the sowing of seed and its springing were not designedly ordered to have an agreeableness to the resurrection, there could no sort of argument in that which the Apostle alleges; either to argue the resurrection itself or the manner of it; either its certainty, or probability, or possibility.

***

Again, it is apparent and allowed that there is a great and remarkable analogy in God’s works. There is a wonderful resemblance in the effects which God produces, and consentaneity in his manner of working in one thing and another, throughout all nature. It is very observable in the visible world. Therefore ’tis allowed that God does purposely make and order one thing to be in an agreeableness and harmony with another. And if so, why should not we suppose that he makes the inferior in imitation of the superior, the material of the spiritual, on purpose to have a resemblance and shadow of them? We see that even in the material world God makes one part of it strangely to agree with another; and why is it not reasonable to suppose he makes the whole as a shadow of the spiritual world?

***

The Book of Scripture is the interpreter of the book of nature two ways: viz. by declaring to us those spiritual mysteries that are indeed signified or typified by the constitution of the natural world; and secondly, in actually making application of the signs and types in the book of nature as representations of those spiritual mysteries in many instances.

FLANNERY O’CONNOR

“Catholic Novelists and Their Readers” (1963)

The very term “Catholic novel” is, of course, suspect, and people who are conscious of its complications don’t use it except in quotation marks. If I had to say what a “Catholic novel” is, I could only say that it is one that represents reality adequately as we see it manifested in this world of things and human relationships. Only in and by these sense experiences does the fiction writer approach a contemplative knowledge of the mystery they embody.

To be concerned with these things means not only to be concerned with the good in them, but with the evil, and not only with the evil, but also with that aspect which appears neither good nor evil, which is not yet Christianized. The Church we see, even the universal Church, is a small segment of the whole of creation. If many are called and few are chosen, fewer still perhaps choose, even unconsciously, to be Christian, and yet all of reality is the potential kingdom of Christ, and the face of the earth is waiting to be recreated by his spirit. This all means that what we roughly call the Catholic novel is not necessarily about a Christianized or Catholicized world, but simply that it is one in which the truth as Christians know it has been used as a light to see the world by. This may or may not be a Catholic world, and it may or may not have been seen by a Catholic.

***

Whatever the novelist sees in the way of truth must first take on the form of his art and must become embodied in the concrete and human. If you shy away from sense experience, you will not be able to read fiction; but you will not be able to apprehend anything else in this world either, because every mystery that reaches the human mind, except in the final stages of contemplative prayer, does so by way of the senses. Christ didn’t redeem us by a direct intellectual act, but became incarnate in human form, and he speaks to us now through the mediation of a visible Church. All this may seem a long way from the subject of fiction, but it is not, for the main concern of the fiction writer is with mystery as it is incarnated in human life.

Baron von Hugel, one of the great modern Catholic scholars, wrote that “the Supernatural experience always appears as the transfiguration of Natural conditions, acts, states . . . ,” that “the Spiritual generally is always preceded, or occasioned, accompanied or followed, by the Sensible. . . . The highest realities and deepest responses are experienced by us within, or in contact with, the lower and lowliest.” This means for the novelist that if he is going to show the supernatural taking place, he has nowhere to do it except on the literal level of natural events, and that if he doesn’t make these natural things believable in themselves, he can’t make them believable in any of their spiritual extensions.

Jill Pelaez Baumgaertner, Flannery O’Connor: A Proper Scaring (1988)

In an address delivered to a symposium at Sweet Briar College, O’Connor contended that “the real novelist, the one with an instinct for what he is about, knows that he cannot approach the infinite directly, that he must penetrate the natural world as it is. The more sacramental his theology, the more encouragement he will get from it to do just that.” The sacramentalist is anchored in the concrete world—and the source of that anchoring is the Incarnation, God as historical person, God as a sensory entity, God rooted in human experience. The sacramentalist views the things of this world as vehicles for God’s grace. As Frederick Asals has explained O’Connor’s sacramentalism, “It is the natural world that becomes the vehicle of the supernatural, and her characters’ literal return to their senses becomes the means of opening their imaginations to receive it.” The emblems and their accompanying symbols in O’Connor’s work force the characters’ (and the readers’) attention to an immediately apprehensible truth—approachable because it is grounded in everyday reality and can be experienced through the eyes and the ears.

Cross-Shattered Christ

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Salvador Dalí, “Christ of St. John of the Cross” (1951)

The title of Stanley Hauerwas’ meditations on the seven last works of Christ, Cross-Shattered Christ, is taken from John F. Deane’s poem “Mercy”:

Unholy we sang this morning, and prayed
as if we were not broken, crooked
the Christ-figure hung, splayed
on bloodied beams above us;
devious God, dweller in the shadows,
mercy on us;
immortal, cross-shattered Christ—
your gentling grace down upon us.

Listening to Joseph Haydn’s haunting oratorio (1796), I received an epiphany: the seven last words of Christ, a biblical number connoting perfection, are cruciform; they consist of horizontal words (spoken by Christ to man) and vertical words (spoken by Christ to God).

  • First Word (vertical): Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34)
  • Second Word (horizontal): “Truly I tell you today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43)
  • Third Word (horizontal): “Woman, behold thy son!” . . .  “Behold thy mother!” (John 19:26-27)
  • Fourth Word (vertical): “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46)
  • Fifth Word (horizontal): “I thirst” (John 19:28)
  • Sixth Word (vertical): “It is finished” (John 19:30)
  • Seventh Word (vertical): “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46)

For each of the seven last words of Christ, I will offer a favorite passage from Hauerwas’ book.

FIRST WORD
Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing. —Luke 23:34

We think it is very simple: Jesus had to die because we needed and need to be forgiven. But, ironically, such a focus shifts attention from Jesus to us. This is a fatal turn, I fear, because as soon as we begin to think this is all about us, about our need for forgiveness, bathos drapes the cross, hiding from us the reality that here we first and foremost see God.

Moreover, as soon as these words from the cross are bent to serve our needs, to give us a god we believe we need, it is impossible to resist entertaining ourselves with speculative readings of Jesus’s words from the cross. For example we think what a wonderful savior we have in Jesus, who, even in his agony, kindly offers us forgiveness. Of course we are not all that sure what we have done that requires such forgiveness, but we are willing to try to think up something. Ironically, by trying to understand what it means for us to need forgiveness, too often our attention becomes focused on something called the “human condition” rather than the cross and the God who hangs there” (27-28).

***

According to Herbert McCabe, these words, “Father, forgive,” are nothing less than the interior life of the Triune God made visible to the eyes of faith. The Son asks the Father to forgive, a forgiveness unimaginable if this is all about us and our struggle to comprehend the meaning of our lives in the face of death. By this deed, by this word, Jesus rules out all speculative theories that seek to subject these words and this death to our understanding about what is required for the reconciliation of the world (29-30).

SECOND WORD
Truly I tell you today you will be with me in Paradise. —Luke 23:43

Remembrance is quite literally to be re-membered. Through baptism we are given a new body, a body no longer isolated from the bodies that constitute Christ’s body, and we are thereby made capable of remembering that we live through memory. Only Christ, only the Second Person of the Trinity, could promise to the thief and to us that today we will be with him. To be with Jesus, to be claimed by Jesus to be his friend, is paradise, for Jesus is the kingdom of God, the autobasileia, the kingdom of the crucified. We need to know no more than this. To be in paradise is to be “with Jesus,” to be pulled into God’s life by the love made visible on the cross. Our salvation is no more or no less than being made part of God’s body, God’s enfleshed memory, so that the world may know that we are redeemed from our fevered and desperate desire to insure we will not be forgotten.

Here, in this crucified Messiah, we see the love that moves the sun and the stars. To be “with Jesus” means we are not ‘”lost in the cosmos,” but rather we can confidently live in the recognition, with faith, that God is not other than the one found in Jesus of Nazareth. How could we ever think we need to know more than this thief? Like the thief we can live with the hope and confidence that the only remembering that matters is to be remembered by Jesus” (43-45).

THIRD WORD 
Woman, behold thy son! . . . Behold thy mother! —John 19:26-27

In the New Testament Jesus is often designated or assumed to be the new Adam, the new Moses, or the new David, but he is never called the new Abraham . . . The reason Jesus is not associated with Abraham is very simple—Mary is our Abraham. Just as Abraham did not resist God’s call to leave his father’s country to go to a new land, so Mary did not resist God’s declaration that she would bear a child through the power of the Holy Spirit. Abraham’s faith foreshadows Mary’s “Here am I” because just as we are Abraham’s children through faith, so we become children of the new age inaugurated in Christ through Mary’s faithfulness (51-52).

***

God restrained Abraham’s blow that would have sacrificed Isaac, but the Father does not hold back from the sacrifice of Mary’s son. Jesus’s command that Mary should “behold your son” is to ask Mary to see that the one born of her body was born to be sacrificed so the that we might live. As Gregory of Nyssa puts it, “If one examines this mystery, one will prefer to say not that this death was a consequence of his birth, but that the birth was undertaken so that he could die.” When God tested Abraham by commanding the sacrifice of Issac, Abraham’s “Here I am” (Genesis 22:1) did not result in Isaac’s death. Mary’s “Here am I,” however, could not save her son from being the one born to die on a cross (52-52).

FOURTH WORD 
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? —Matthew 27:46

Jesus’s being handed over, Jesus’s obedience even to the point of death, Jesus’s cry of abandonment makes no sense if this is not the outworking of the mystery called Trinity. This is not God becoming what God was not, but rather here we witness what God has always been. Here, as the Second Council of Constantinople put it, “one of the Trinity suffered in the flesh.” The Word that was in the beginning, the Word that was with God, the Word through whom all things came into being, the Word that shines in the darkness, the Word that assumed our flesh, suffering even unto death, is God. The cross, this cry of abandonment, is not God becoming something other than God, is not an act of divine self-alienation, instead this is the very character of God’s kenosis—complete self-emptying made possible by perfect love (62-63).

***

God is most revealed when he seems to us the most hidden. “Christ’s moment of most absolute particularity—the absolute dereliction of the cross—is the moment in which the glory of God, his power to be where and when he will be, is displayed before the eyes of the world,” says David Bentley Hart. Here God in Christ refuses to let our sin determine our relation to him. God’s love for us means he can hate only that which alienates his creatures from the love manifest in our creation. Cyril of Jerusalem observes that by calling on his Father as “my God,” Christ does so on our behalf and in our place. Hear these words, “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?” and know that the Son of God has taken our place, become for us the abandonment our sin produces, so that we may live confident that the world has been redeemed by the cross (65).

FIFTH WORD 
I thirst. —John 19:28

The work of the Son, the thirst of the Son through the Spirit, is nothing less than the Father’s thirst for us. God desires us to desire God. We were created to thirst for God (Psalm 42) in a “dry and weary land where there is no water” (Psalm 63). Such a desire is as “physical” or real as our thirst for water, our thirst for one another, and our desire for God. Surely that is why our most determinative response to those who ask how we can ever come to worship this Jesus is to simply ask, “Do you not need to eat and drink?” Our God, our thirsty God, is the One who is capable of saying to us: “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water'” (John 7:37-38).

Through the waters of baptism we have been made God’s body for the world. We thirst for one another so that the world may know that the world has been redeemed and that this redemption is as real as the water we need to survive. That redemption is found in the body and blood of our Lord that forever slakes our thirst. So refreshed, we become for the world the reminder that God has not abandoned us, and we can, therefore, trust in his promise that just to the extent we take the time—in a world that believes it has no time—to care for those who thirst for God’s kingdom, the kingdom will be present.

SIXTH WORD
It is finished. —John 19:30

“It is finished” is not a death gurgle. “It is finished” is not “I am done for.” “It is finished” will not be, as we know from the tradition of the ordering of these words from the cross, the last words of Jesus. “It is finished” is a cry of victory. “It is finished” is the triumphant cry that what I came to do has been done. All is accomplished, completed, fulfilled work.

The work that is finished, moreover, is the cross. He will be and is resurrected, but the resurrected One remains the One crucified. Rowan Williams reminds us of Pascal’s stark remark that “Jesus will be in agony until the end of the world.” This is a remark that makes unavoidable the recognition that we live in the time between the times—the kingdom is begun in Christ but will not be consummated or perfected until the end of the world. Williams observes that Pascal’s comment on Jesus’s ongoing agony is not an observation about the deplorable state of unbelievers; it is instead an exhortation to us, those who believe in Christ. It is an exhortation not to become nostalgic for a supposedly less compromised past or take refuge in some imagined purified future, but to dwell in the tension-filled time between times, to remain awake in our inability “to stay in the almost unbearable present moment where Jesus is.”

***

God has finished what only God could finish. Christ’s sacrifice is a gift that exceeds every debt. Our sins have been consumed, making possible lives that glow with the beauty of God’s Spirit. What wonderful news: “‘It is finished.’ But it is not over.” It is not over because God made us, the church, the “not over.” We are made witnesses so the world—a world with no time for a crucified God—may know we have all the time of God’s kingdom to live in peace with one another.

SEVENTH WORD
Father, into your hands I commend my spirit. —Luke 23:46

These words, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit,” have been repeated by countless Christians on their way to death. We Anglicans pray, at the Commendation in the Liturgy for Burial, “Into thy hands, O merciful Savior, we commend thy servant.” Christians repeat these words in imitation of Jesus and because we assume they are words of comfort as we face the unknown that death names. These words can and should comfort, but that these words comfort us should not hide from us that these last words of Jesus before his death name his willingness to embrace the ice-cold silence of hell. Accordingly, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit,” are every bit as frightening as Jesus’s prior cry of abandonment. Jesus is not comforting himself; he is gesturing to the Father that he is ready to face the final work that only Jesus can do.

Jesus began his time on the cross praying to his Father. We should, therefore, not be surprised as his death draws near that he again prays as only the Son of God can pray. He prays to the Father. This should remind us that we can only imitate Jesus’s prayer. We can repeat his words only because Jesus had no one to imitate. Jesus is the Christ, but the Christ is known only in the one called Jesus. Jesus is not a “Christ-figure” if by Christ-figure we mean the exemplification of a universal pattern of sacrifice for the goods of others. Jesus is no “Christ-figure” if we mean that his death is an exemplification of how we should all die; that is, we should die with the confidence that we have nothing to fear from death. No, this is the real and specific death of Jesus, the Savior of all that has been, is, and is to come, who submits to death by our hands—”Having said this he breathed his last.” Dead. Jesus is dead.

We are told in John 1:18 that without the Son no one can see the Father. Von Balthasar, therefore, reminds us “when the Son, the Word of the Father is dead, then no one can see God, hear of him or attain him. And this day exists, when the Son is dead, and the Father, accordingly, inaccessible.” This is the terror, the silence of the Father, to which Jesus has commended himself, this is why he cried the cry of abandonment. He has commended himself to the Father so he might for us undergo the dark night of death. Jesus commends himself to the Father, becoming for us all that is contrary to God. Christ suffers by becoming the “No” that the salvation wrought by his life creates. Without Christ there could be no hell—no abandonment by God—but the very hell created by Christ cannot overwhelm the love he has for us.

Jesus is really dead. He is on the way to Holy Saturday. Hell will be hallowed. Jesus goes to those who dwell in isolation from themselves, one another, and God to overcome the silence of their lives. He is the Word who alone can make communication possible between those who can speak but not hear. Only the Son of God is capable of this, that is, to submit fully to death and yet redeem the destruction death names. For this the Son of God came, to assume our nature, making possible the proclamation of the gospel, as we told in 1 Peter 4:6, “even to the dead, so that, though they had been judged in the flesh as everyone is judged, they might live in the spirit as God does.” Because Jesus, the Son of God, has done this great work, he can tell us in the book of Revelation: “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades” (Revelation 1:17-18).

Related

  • Gramophone: Haydn, Seven Last Words. Review of recording with Nikolaus Harnoncourt (conductor), Arnold Schonberg Choir, and Concentus Musicus Wien (period-instrument band).

Bonhoeffer’s “Prayerbook of the Bible”

A close friend and I have completed reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Prayerbook of the Bible (1940). Here are my take-aways and questions.

3 Take-Aways

  1. God hears us “not in the false and confused language of our heart but in the clear and pure language that God has spoken to us in Jesus Christ” (from “The Introduction”).
  2. “All the prayers of the Holy Scriptures are summed up in the Lord’s Prayer and are taken up into its immeasurable breath” (from “The Introduction”).
  3. “The same words David spoke, therefore, the future Messiah spoke in him. Christ prayed along with the prayers of David or, more accurately, it is none other than Christ who prayed them in Christ’s own forerunner, David” (from “Those Who Pray the Psalms”).

5 Questions

  1. What impact does a Christocentric theology of prayer have on the Trinity? “Only in and through Jesus Christ can we truly pray” (from “The Introduction”).
  2. “Whoever has begun to pray the Psalter earnestly and regularly will ‘soon take leave’ of those other light and personal ‘little devotional prayers and say: ‘Ah, there is not the juice, the strength, the passion, the fire which I find in the Psalter. Anything else tastes too cold and too hard’ (Luther)” (from “The Worship Service and the Psalms”). Should I only pray the words of the Psalter and the Lord’s Prayer?
  3. “Jesus Christ himself has offered the perfect worship service, in that he fulfilled all the ordained sacrifices in his own voluntary, sinless sacrifice. In his own person Christ offered God’s sacrifice for us and our sacrifice for God. For us there remains only the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving in prayers, songs, and in a life lived according to God’s commands (Ps. 15, Ps. 50). So our entire life becomes the worship service, the thank-offering. God wishes to acknowledge such a thank-offering and to show salvation to those who are thankful (Ps. 50:23). These psalms wish to teach us to become thankful to God for the sake of Christ and to praise him in the congregation with heart, mouth, and hands” (from “The Church”). How do I cultivate a life that becomes the worship service? 
  4. “Even in the deepest helplessness, God alone remains the one addressed. Help is neither expected from other people, nor does the sufferer in self-pity lose sight of God, the origin and goal of all affliction. The one who suffers sets out to battle against God for God. God’s promise, God’s previous redemptive deeds, the honor of God’s name among all people, are again and again held up before the wrathful God” (from “Suffering”). How do I battle against God for God without blasphemy?
  5. “If I am guilty, why does God not forgive me? If I am not guilty, why does God not end my torment and demonstrate my innocence to my enemies (Pss. 38, 79, 44)? There is no theoretical answer to all these questions in the Psalms any more than in the New Testament. The only real answer is Jesus Christ. But this answer is already being sought in the Psalms. It is common to all of them that they cast every difficulty and tribulation upon God: ‘We can no longer bear them, take them away from us and bear them yourself, for you alone can handle suffering.’ That is the goal of all the psalms of lament. They pray about the one who took upon himself our sickness and bore our infirmities, Jesus Christ. They proclaim Jesus Christ as the only help in suffering, for in Christ is God with us.” Should projects of theodicy be abandoned, referred instead to the work of Jesus Christ?  

Poetry and pain

What do a poet and a theologian have to say about being diagnosed with incurable cancer in the prime of life? Listen to the conversation between American poet Christian Wiman, author of My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer, and Reformed theologian J. Todd Billings, author of Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer & Life in Christ

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