My righteousness?

What should we do with those Psalms that are so hard to pray: the ones where the Psalmist protests his innocence and his righteousness. How can we possibly pray them as our prayers?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer answers:

What really concerns us here is not any possible motives behind a prayer, but whether the actual content of the prayer is true or false.This however is where it becomes clear that the believing Christian has not only something to say about his guilt, but also something at least as important to say about his innocence and righteousness. Inherent in the faith of a Christian is the belief that, by the grace of God and the merit of Jesus Christ, he has been made perfectly innocent and righteous in the sight of God, ‘that there is now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus’ (Rom 8:1). And it is inherent in the prayr of a Christian that he should hold fast to this righteousness and innocence in which he has been granted a share, and give thanks for it, relying on the Word of God. So if we take God’s dealings with us at all seriously, we not only may, but we positively must, with conviction and humility make this affirmation:’I was also uncorrupt before him and eschewed mine own wickedness’ (18:23); ‘thou hast proved my heart … and shalt find no wickedness in me’ (17:3). With such prayers on our lips we stand at the heart of the New Testament, in the fellowship of the Cross of Jesus Christ.

The Psalms: Prayer Book of the Bible (Oxford: The Sisters of the Love of God, 1982), 19–20.

The Structure of the Collect

The following was printed in the service bulletin at Our Saviour Lutheran Church on 25 August 2013 (Trinity 13). As far as I’m aware, the mnemonic was invented by the Rev. Bosco Peters on the site Liturgy. At any rate, that’s where I learned it.

The Collect always takes the same form. This form of prayer goes back to very early in the Church’s history, and has stood the test of time. Not every Collect has all these parts, but the structure remains the same.

Address: The prayer opens with an address to God.
Rationale: The church’s prayer isn’t based simply on our perception of what we need. Rather, we appeal to something we know about God and His promises.
Petition: This is the gift we are asking for.
Benefit: Here we name what benefit we ask to have from God’s gift.
Doxology: The conclusion, invoking the name of Jesus and giving glory to the Triune God.

A childishly simple mnemonic for remembering this structure is: You-Who-Do-To-Through.

Here is today’s Collect broken down into its constituent parts:
Address: Almighty and everlasting God,
Rationale: omitted
Petition: give us an increase of faith, hope, and charity; and … make us love what You have commanded
Benefit: that we may obtain what You have promised;
Doxology: through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Tip for the day: Try this at home. It’s a great way to give structure to our prayers, and to root them in God’s own promises.

Prayer: Learning by imitation

So prayer is something we have to learn. A child learns to speak because his father speaks to him. He learns his father’s own language. That is how we learn to speak to God, for God has spoken and still speaks to us. His children learn to speak to him in the language of their Father in heaven. We begin to pray by repeating to God his own words.We are to speak to him not in the false and confused language of our own hearts but in the clear, pure language in which God has spoken to us in Jesus Christ, and in that language he will hear us.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Psalms: Prayer Book of the Bible (Oxford: SLG Press, 1982), 2

A Prayer of the Teacher of a Congregation

Praying HandsLord Jesus Christ, Shepherd of souls, You are highly to be praised! How could I praise you for the inestimable grace and love you have shown me, a poor sinner. You have not only made me a member of Your church and congregation, but You have also installed me in the noble and precious work as Your servant in the wonderful office of the Gospel and as a steward of God’s mysteries. What could be more wonderful than to be saved by pure grace and then proclaim salvation to others—salvation, which You, O Lord Jesus, have purchased for poor sinners?

But though my office is great and wonderful, it also comes with responsibility. It requires a true shepherd’s mind, which is concerned with Your glory and the eternal good of souls purchased at a great price. I do not have such a mind of myself, and no effort of mine will be able to produce it; I need to receive it from You, O Jesus. You need to clothe me with power from on high. You need to equip me with the characteristics required for my calling. Lord Jesus, give me therefore what I need for my noble office.

O grant me both love and faithfulness, humility and strength, wisdom and understanding, endurance and patience. Pour out your love into my empty and cold heart in order that I may be able to love You again and to show Your love by caring for Your sheep and lambs, which You, Lord Jesus, have preciously ransomed. Grant that I show faithfulness in this task by feeding Your flock according to Your will with the word of eternal life and by looking
after it, not for shameful gain but out of love for You. And when danger approaches in the form of false and misleading doctrines, grant that I be alert and gird Your congregation with the protective belt of godly truth.

But in all this, preserve in me a humble mind, which seeks in all things only Your glory and the advance of Your kingdom. Always remind me that without You I am “an unworthy servant”, who know and understands nothing. Give me a deeper sense of my spiritual poverty and the great misery of my sin. Help me also to show humility in my outward relations with my neighbours, not taking the part of a lord but that of a servant. But grant that there is also strength in my humility, that I am always mindful that I am in Your presence and about Your business. If, therefore, I need to present truths which are not so pleasant to speak or to hear, let not embarrassment or the fear of people tie my tongue. Rather, give me the grace in Christian humility to speak as Your servant what You want to be spoken through me, so that I wouldn’t be “a mute dog on the walls of Zion” (Isa. 56:10), but a fearless witness of the truth who  proclaims all your truths without regard for persons, be those truths punishing or comforting. Grant that I always remember that I am a watchman on the walls of Zion and that, therefore, my responsibility is to proclaim equally publicly that the godless must die on account of his sins and that the repentant may live on account of your merit. In short: give me grace to preach in accordance with Your will repentance towards God and faith in You, O highly praised Lord Jesus Christ. Grant me also wisdom and understanding to present your truths in the right manner in love, that I would not diminish their good effects and power with foolish zeal. Lord Jesus, allow the Christian “innocence of the dove” be united in the most excellent way with the Christian “wisdom of the serpent” (Matt. 10:16), so that I would not harm but advance the matter that I want to defend. Besides which, give me endurance and patience, that I do not become downcast by opposition, angered by persecution, or worn out by sorrow. If I do not get to see the fruit of my work immediately, grant that I nevertheless endure; the time of fruits,too, will come for me. Even if I am to sow the precious seed in tears, I will one day reap with joy (Ps. 126:5). Help me. Lord Jesus, to be diligent and tireless until then, because in You my work is never in vain. Grant me grace that I take up every opportunities in which to sow the seed of Your holy word. And if I sometimes tire, which happens easily enough, then come and give strength to the weary and sufficient power to the powerless. When I am sorrowful, gladden me, O Jesus, with Your love. When the world gives me angry looks, refresh me with Your friendly countenance. Spare me, O Jesus, from the wearisome burden of livelihood. “give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is  needful for me” (Prov. 30:8). Protect me from the spirit of greed and all other sins, and grant that by your grace I may bring my life and conversation to perfect harmony with the doctrine I preach. And at the last, O Jesus, grant to Your wearied servant at the end of his life a place in heaven among Your elect ones. Crown me at Your coming with the imperishable crown of glory for Your own sake. Hear, Lord Jesus, the prayer of your unworthy servant for the sake of Your grace and Your promise. Amen.

From Johannes Bäck, A Sojourner’s Home Life. Translated from the 1947 Finnish edition.

Translation: Creative Commons License
This work by Tapani Simojoki is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Letter from Iranian pastor on death row

This is a letter from Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani written from prison in Iran earlier this year. Pastor Youcef currently faces the death sentence for apostasy – conversion from Islam to Christianity – and is waiting for the court’s final verdict. Please continue to pray.

This message has been translated from Farsi to English.

Dear brothers and sisters, Salam.

In the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ, I am continuously seeking grace and mercy to you, that you remember me and those who are bearing efforts for his name in your prayers. Your loyalty to God is the cause of my strength and encouragement.

For I know well that you will be rewarded; as it’s stated: blessed is the one who has faith, for what has been said to him by God, will be carried out. As we believe, heaven and earth will fade but his word will still remain.

Dear beloved ones, I would like to take this opportunity to remind you of a few verses, although you might know them, So that in everything, you give more effort than the past, both to prove your election, and for the sake of Gospel that is to be preached to the entire world as well.

I know that not all of us are granted to keep this word, but to those who are granted this power and this revelation, I announce the same as Jude, earnestly contend for the faith that was once delivered to the saints.

We are passing by special and sensitive days.They are days that for an alert and awake believer can be days of spiritual growth and progress. Because for him, more than any other time there is the possibility to compare his faith with the word of God, have God’s promises in mind, and survey his faith.

Therefore he (the true believer) does not need to wonder for the fiery trial that has been set on for him as though it were something unusual, but it pleases him to participate in Christ’s suffering. Because the believer knows he will rejoice in his glory.

Dears, the “ judgment must begin at the house of God: and if it first begin at us, what shall the end be of them that obey not the gospel of God? And if the righteous scarcely be saved, where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear?”

Therefore those who are enduring burdens by the will of God, commit their souls to the faithful Creator. Promises that he has given us, are unique and precious. As we’ve heard he has said: “Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you”

How can it be possible for a believer to understand these words?

Not only when he is focusing on Jesus Christ with adapting his life according to the life Jesus lived when he was on earth? As it is said ” O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken: Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory? And it is easier for heaven and earth to pass, than one tittle of the law to fail.”

Have we not read and heard: Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it. Many attempt to flee from their spiritual tests, and they have to face those same tests in a more difficult manner, because no one will be victorious by escaping from them, but with patience and humility he will be able to overcome all the tests, and gain victory.

Therefore in the place of Christ’s followers, we must not feel desperate, but we have to pray to God in supplication with more passion to help us with any assistance we may need.

According to what Paul has said: In every temptation, God himself will make a way for us to tolerate it.

O beloved ones, difficulties do not weaken mankind, but they reveal the true human nature.

It will be good for us to occasionally face persecutions and abnormalities, since these abnormalities will persuade us to search our hearts, and to survey ourselves. So as a result, we conclude that troubles are difficult, but usually good and useful to build us.

Dear brothers and sisters, we must be more careful than any other time. Because in these days, the hearts and thoughts of many are revealed, so that the faith is tested. May your treasure be where there is no moth and rust.

I would like to remind you of some verses that we nearly discuss everyday, (Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.) but as long as our human will has priority over God’s will, his will will not be done.

As we have learned from him in Gethsemane, he surrendered his will to the father, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”

What we are bearing today, is a difficult but not unbearable situation, because neither he has tested us more than our faith and our endurance, nor does he do as such. And as we have known from before, we must beware not to fail, but to advance in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, And consider these bumps and prisons as opportunities to testify to his name. He said: If anyone is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.

As a small servant, necessarily in prison to carry out what I must do, I say with faith in the word of God that he will come soon.”However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”

Discipline yourself with faith in the word of God. Retain your souls with patience. For there is no man that doeth anything in secret, and he himself seeketh to be known openly.

May you are granted grace and blessings increasingly in the name of Lord Jesus Christ.

Yusef Nadarkhani
Lakan Prison in Rasht

2/June/2010

HT: Cyberbrethren

The trouble with short hymns and services

These shortened forms of hymnic versions of the Lord’s Prayer are symptomatic of our modern age, which is impatient with hymns longer than three or four stanzas and with services of worship that last longer than fifty-nine minutes. But worship and prayer require time if we are to become attuned to what we are doing and why. Luther and his generation have much to teach us about hymns that have more to do with faith, rather than simply evoking feeling, hymns that are sometimes expressions of prayer, instead of always being thought of as expressions of praise, hymns that make us take time in worship and prayer to consider who God is, what God has done for us, what God continues to do for us, and what our real needs — as opposed to our wants — are. The catechesis of prayer not only defines what prayer is but also expresses itself in prayer, which is what Luther’s catechism hymn on the Lord’s Prayer takes time.

Robin A. Leaver. Luther’s Liturgical Music: Principles and Implications. Lutheran Quarterly Books. Grand Rapids & Cambridge: Eerdmans, p. 133–4

Denial

[I was reminded of this, one of my all-time favourite poems, by today’s Gospel reading, Luke 18:1–8.]

When my devotions could not pierce
Thy silent ears;
Then was my heart broken, as was my verse:
My breast was full of fears
And disorder:

My bent thoughts, like a brittle bow,
Did fly asunder:
Each took his way; some would to pleasures go,
Some to the wars and thunder
Of alarms.

As good go any where, they say,
As to benumb
Both knees and heart, in crying night and day,
Come, come, my God, O come,
But no hearing.

O that thou shouldst give dust a tongue
To cry to thee,
And then not hear it crying! all day long
My heart was in my knee,
But no hearing.

Therefore my soul lay out of sight,
Untuned, unstrung:
My feeble spirit, unable to look right,
Like a nipped blossom, hung
Discontented.

O cheer and tune my heartless breast,
Defer no time;
That so thy favors granting my request,
They and my mind may chime,
And mend my rime.

George Herbert (1593–1633)

Everyone who asks receives

Sermon preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church on the 8th Sunday after Pentecost (25 July 2010)

Luke 11:1–13

Rosie was one of the more memorable students I had early on in my teaching career. A teenage girl more blessed with a quick tongue than with a reliable sense of when and how to use it. What Rosie was thinking was very rarely a secret to anyone nearby. From the point of view of a teacher, you could say that it made Rosie hard to ignore or to forget.

One particular outburst of frankness from Rosie sticks in my memory. We were studying the subject of wealth and poverty from a Christian perspective, and were looking at biblical teaching related to it. And one of the passages we studied was the Lord’s Prayer and what Jesus had to say about asking God to supply our needs in Luke 11. Having got to the end of the reading, her voice rang loud and clear from the back of the room: “That’s just stupid! ” “What do you mean stupid? ” “Well it is, isn’t it, sir! Completely stupid.”

It turned out that her objection was this: If you look around the world, there are lots of Christians praying for good things, even things they really need, and not getting them. It’s not like the Christians of a particular region are immune to natural disasters, famines or wars in those places. The Boxing Day tsunami didn’t leave Christians unscathed. Many Christians must have prayed fervently for their loved ones to be rescued, to no avail. Many weren’t even fortunate enough to have a body to bury at the end of it. They asked for a fish, and were given a serpent, for an egg and received a scorpion.

“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.”

Try telling that to someone watching a loved one die of a terminal disease, in spite of endless prayers for healing. Try telling that to the man or woman, desperately pleading for the joy of human warmth and companionship, seeing their life slip by in unrelenting loneliness. Try telling that to the long-term unemployed, reduced to enforced idleness and hardship, who receive the dreaded note—“I’m afraid we are unable to make you an offer”—not only from every potential employer but also from the heavenly Father. I could go on.

If you feel that your prayers are not being heard, that the words of Jesus in the Gospel don’t ring true in the hard school of human experience, you are hardly alone. This is a dilemma that has plagued the saints of God at all times. Just hear the anguished cries of the Psalmist:

How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?

How long will you hide your face from me?

(Ps. 13:1)

Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord?

Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever!

Why do you hide your face?

Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?

(Ps 44:23–24)

Or most famously of all:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?

O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer,

and by night, but I find no rest.

(Ps 22:1–2)

And met by this barrage of silence, of prayers unanswered despite Jesus’ clear words, we are quickly given to despair. Some despair of God’s goodness, and turn away from Him, in anger or despondency, taking the advice of Job’s wife: Curse God and die.

Other’s despair of themselves, certain that it is some defect in themselves—faith that is too weak, the lack of some necessary ingredient in the prayer, a hidden sin—that is preventing God from answering their prayer.

Either way, God’s apparent silence drives us to doubt Jesus’ clear promise: “Everyone who asks receives and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.” Everyone, that is, except I, and the dozens of others I know who are in the same boat with me, who hasn’t received, who hasn’t found, to whom the door appears forever shut. And so, we are left with that terrifying question of another another Psalm: “Has God forgotten to be gracious? ”

But as is so often the case, when we doubt God’s word, it is not because of a defect in God’s word but because of our defective attention to it, together with our mistaken notions of how things ought to be.

Jesus’ teaching in Luke 11 is in response to a request from His disciples: Lord, teach us to pray. And so He taught them, not so much how to pray but what to pray. In other words, Jesus didn’t give us some general rules and suggestions for godly, or effective, or successful prayer. He didn’t say: “When you pray, do it in this sort of way.” Rather, He gave us the very words to pray, the prayer itself: “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name, etc.”

And it is to this prayer He attaches the promise:“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and it will be opened to you.” It is this prayer that He likens to a friend asking for help in the night. It is a prayer for good things, which a loving father would never refuse a son—the ultimate good gift from God being the Holy Spirit. It is the Lord’s Prayer: the prayer given by the Lord, the prayer addressed to the Lord, the prayer accompanied with the promises of the Lord.

This takes us back to where we left off last week with Martha and Mary: with the question of what is necessary and truly good, the difference between Jesus’ priorities and what are ours. In worship, as we learnt from the experience of Martha and Mary, what is necessary and truly good is what God gives us in Christ. And so it is in prayer as well.

What Jesus teaches us in the Lord’s Prayer is what we truly need from God: spiritual gifts. That His name is kept holy among us, that His kingdom come, that we receive bread from Him, that our sins are forgiven, that we are preserved from temptation. And as a friend wouldn’t dream of ignoring the urgent request of his neighbour, much less will God ignore our petition for our needs.

But notice the word “needs”. Not desires, wants or wishes but needs. Jesus promises to us that our heavenly Father will give to us what we need, and He will do so with delight. We run into difficulties when we define our own needs from our perspective and then measure God’s goodness and faithfulness against whether He gives us what we think we need.

This is not to say that our requests are frivolous, or that we should not ask for things in our times of need. Of course we should. Elsewhere, in John’s Gospel, Jesus encourages the disciples to ask for “anything” in His name. However, as Jesus reminded Martha when she was distracted by her serving from the word of Christ, there is only one thing that is necessary. Because there is only one thing that lasts beyond the grave.

Everything else, all the other good gifts of God: health, family, friendships, mortal life itself, will all come to an end. They may come to an end peacefully, at the end of a long and contented life; or they may come to an end suddenly and violently, or unexpectedly, or at the end of a life of hardship and suffering. We may enjoy God’s temporal blessings abundantly or sparingly. But the end of all of them is the same. And so is the end of them who put their trust in them as their only good.

By contrast, God’s kingdom is an everlasting Kingdom. The word of the Lord endures forever. The heavenly bread, together with those who eat it in faith, is imperishable. When Jesus fed the 5,000, the crowd went wild and wanted to crown Jesus as their king, and He had to remind them:

“I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” (John 6:35)

Now, I am sure that my erstwhile pupil Rosie would greet this saying of Jesus with the same exclamation: “That’s just stupid! ” Because it’s not difficult to demonstrate that there are plenty of Christians among the hungry and thirsty of the world. And plenty of Christians who go short on the temporal gifts of God, gifts of clothing, housing, family, income, health.

But it is not stupid. Because the true daily bread, which Jesus invites us to pray for, is the bread of life, the imperishable and life-giving bread. What would be stupid would be to place our hope in things that have no hope of lasting, and to judge God’s goodness by them. To decide whether God loves us by whether we survive this particular illness, whether we overcome this particular pain, or whether we live in wealth or poverty, is to miss the point. Jesus Himself knew this: on the eve of His own great anguish—an anguish greater than that of any human before or since—He too prayed for relief: “Father, take this cup away from me. But not my will but Your will be done.” For He knew that the Father’s will is the best—and we are the beneficiaries both of the Father’s good will and the Son’s obedient submission to it, God’s ultimate gift to us.

And now, we live in the happy world where we can both have our cake and eat it. All the good gifts we receive come as tokens of our Heavenly Father’s love for us, to be received and enjoyed with gratitude. But even when He withholds the earthly gifts, either for a time or for good, we are nevertheless blessed beyond all measure: children of the heavenly Father, heirs to His kingdom, raised to life in His Son, eating here the bread of heaven as a foretaste of the Kingdom to come, sanctified by His Holy Spirit and kept from the Evil One until sin, death and the devil are destroyed and we will live forever in pure enjoyment of His love for us.

Now that doesn’t sound so stupid, does it?

Prayer before the study of the Word

Praying-hands

I thank You, my God, that You have prepared for me, a poor sinner, a treasure house full of all kinds of spiritual goodness and nourishment. This treasure house is Your holy and precious Word, which You have given me in the blessed Scriptures. Guide me, therefore, dear Father, and take me into this treasury. Let Your Holy Spirit lead me so that I find everything my soul needs. My needs are so many, and You know them best yourself; meet them by Your grace. You see how poor my soul is, and how hungry, sick and naked; so give out from the storehouse of Your Word riches to the poor, food to the hungry, riches to the poor and clothes to the naked. And since these endless riches of Your grace are held in Your dear Son, Jesus Christ, my Saviour who is highly to be praised, I pray for the grace of Your Holy Spirit that I may hear, read and study Your Word in such a way that I always find Jesus therein. Grant that, as I again study Your Word at this time, the fruit I gain is that I clothe myself more and more with the Lord Jesus Christ, both as my righteousness and as my example, and thereby grow in grace and in the knowledge of my Saviour who is highly to be praised. Hear my prayer, O God, for the sake of Jesus. Amen.

A hasty and rough translation from Johannes Bäck (1850-1901), Muukalaisen kotielämä [The Sojourner’s Home Life], a wonderful book of prayers. I hope to post more of these.

(Please feel to re-distribute, but with proper attribution, please.)