On learning the Psalms

This summer I preached a sermon on Psalm 51 as part of a summer series my church was doing on the Psalms. You can listen to it here.

As part of the series, Mark Fox, our pastor challenged us to learn one of the psalms. As I was preaching on Ps. 51, I worked at memorizing that one. This has been particularly fruitful for me, especially as Psalm 51 is one of the great Psalms of confession. I have used it to focus and guide my own prayer life. Often I have said the psalm to God as I have taken my morning jog.

Then about six weeks ago, I read Mark Buchanan’s Spiritual Rhythm: Being With Jesus Every Season of the Soul. In this book Buchanan uses the metaphor of the seasons (Winter, Spring, Summer & Fall) to speak of the various seasons we each go through in our Spiritual life and suggests how in each season, we can cultivate our relationship with God in each season.

In the season which Buchanan calls Fall (colder season, but also the time of Harvest) he writes:

After my winter I knew I needed more. I needed more fat on my frame for the next time I found myself in a cold land with little shelter. So I began to memorize the Bible. I don’t mean bits and pieces of it, favorite verses to suck on like lozenges when my throat was a tad dry. Not that that isn’t useful. But I never found it much. It was for me a pocket of loose change, good for tokens and such, but not something you go trading with. (176)

Buchanan then goes on to describe memorizing Hebrews 12, the Sermon on the Mount, Romans 8 and Phillipians (177). He also makes passing references in the body of his text to Psalms he has memorized.

I decided to take up Buchanan’s challenge to memorize Scripture and since I already got started with the Psalms, I decided to continue there. My insane impossible goal is to memorize fifteen Psalms a year for ten years (which would mean I would learn the whole book of Psalms). This may not be attainable, but its worth a try and at the very least I’ll memorize a bunch of the Psalms. This has several benefits:

1. The Psalms teaches us to pray. In this I am just repeating what I learned from reading people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Eugene Peterson.
2. The Psalms speaks honestly about the human condition in relationship to God. There are Psalms that are pure praise songs (Ps. 100) and others which are full of sorrow and dread (Psalm 88). Walter Brueggemann in his Message of the Psalms usefully categorizes the Psalms as Psalms of Orientation (confidence in God), Disorientation (but there is a lot of crap we have to deal with) and New Orientation (looking back to God in the midst of our crap). [The parentheses in previous sentence are completely my own so don’t go blaming Bruggemann for them :)]. Therefore learning the Psalms should help me have words, no matter what Spiritual season I find myself in.
3. Psalms are the most referred to book of the OT in the NT, especially on the lips of Jesus. Thus learning the Psalms helps me enter more fully into New Testament Spirituality.
4. I have an M.Div and feel called to Pastoral Ministry. Because of the Psalms breadth and depth, they are a treasure trove for pastoral care and direction. That is, learning the Psalms will aid me to more fully live into my vocation as a pastor.

And so I have begun. Thus far I have memorized Psalm 31, 51 and 131. Which is a good start. My plan is to do all the Psalms ending in 1 this year and move up sequentially by number in the following years (that way I don’t have to tackle Psalm 119 for 9 years).

The idea is not just rote memorization, but to really learn these Psalms.

Creative Ministry #1: Teaching

In discussing the function of teaching for ministry, Nouwen distinguishes between violent and redemptive ways of knowing. Violent learning is competitive, unilateral (only from teacher to student), and Alienating. In contrast, redemptive teaching is evocative, bilateral, and actualizing. While actual teaching is usually a mix of violent and redemptive teaching, redemption should be the goal in ministry.

However there are several factors which make us resistant to redemptive learning. First, we operate from the wrong supposition that it is better to give than receive. This prevents us from seeing teaching as a mutual enterprise. Secondly, we operate under the false pressure created by the attention we pay to intellectual and academic accolades. Thirdly, there is the horror of self-encounter. In order to be able to grow in this redemptive mode, it is imperative that we face ourselves, our own weakness and frailty.

Nouwen closes his chapter by pointing to the example of Jesus as one who did not cling to His prerogatives but ‘became one of the many who have to learn. His life makes it clear to us that we do not need weapons, that we do not need to hide ourselves or play competitive games with each other.”
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    Nearly 40 years of educational theory have proven what Nouwen calls redemptive, is good teaching. People in our culture do not learn well when teaching is top-down and one sided. This is particularly true if we look at teaching in a Church context. People learn by sharing in the process. I think I first learned this leading a Bible Study in Inter-Varsity. The Bible study was inductive, all questions were welcome. A better example of where this has worked was the partnership class we have done at Kits. Four weeks of exploring the ideas of partnership and solidarity together, meant that it could not be a top down teaching. People needed to be guided somewhere but there also needed to be space for mutual self discovery.

    Yet I can see the violent method in me. Even a place as concerned with spiritual formation as Regent College, does bread an Academic Scotosis. It is interesting that the place giving me my M.Div and preparing me for ministry is also teaching me to care about degrees and grades and intellectual achievements without looking introspectively at what is appropriate for Spiritual growth.

Finally Re-learning to Pray.

My thoughts on prayer have been stoked in the past couple of weeks. I did a class on Pneumatology, Ecclesiology, and Eschatology, so I had to abandon my plan of getting through my books on prayer for a couple of weeks.

But Sarah and I are reading Come By My Light which has the private letters of Mother Theresa. We got through the section that deals with her call to form the Sisters of Charity, but haven’t pressed into the section where she deals with fifty-years-lingering-darkness yet.


Her committed prayer life and devotion to quenching the thirst of Jesus is inspiring. I can’t wait to press in farther.

Before my class started I read the late Stan Grenz’s Prayer: A Cry for the Kingdom which presses into the mystery of petitionary prayer. There is some helpful stuff there and thought provoking. In a way this book is king of basic, but I mean that in a good way. Grenz approached the topic thoughtfully. His section on what it means to pray in God’s Will is helpful.

I reread a book by Dutch Sheets which I read years ago. I once found this book awe inspiring, and there are moments, but I am not going to blog about this here.

But even though I haven’t had time to press into reading more books on prayer, I have been able to make daily time to pray. I have had stuff to pray for. My pastor up here hasn’t been doing well lately, so I prayed for him. My unborn child was breech, so I prayed and the head went down (Sarah also did exercises to encourage that). I have prayed through the course material for my class so that I am not just amassing knowledge but entering the deep things of God. I prayed the daily examen and recalled times in my day when I did not act or think graciously about people I met. More than anything it has been nice to enter back into a consistent prayer life again. I hope I can keep it up now that my two weeks of class are over and I have major papers to write and a baby coming. I haven’t attempted a morning prayer time in ages, but I have found that I can take some time in the evening, especially since part of my job requires me to go and check the building locks. I have some private time.

I am preaching next week at my church (because the pastor is out of commission). I think I am going to preach on prayer using one of the psalms. The lectionary text is Psalm 20 which is one of the psalms that is identified as a prayer (Prayer for Victory). For me preaching has always been a prayer soaked activity, but I think it would be useful for me to press into this and see what the implications are for my prayer life. I know I still have to grow a lot in prayer and this could be helpful. I also think I may be able to really say something.

Well there are some convoluted thoughts on prayer. I guess I just wanted to say, I don’t just read about prayer. I also try to do it.

Logos for Catholics

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Catena Aurea, by Thomas Aquinas (8 Vols.)
Catholic Spirituality Collection (12 Vols.)
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Collected Works of John Henry Newman (31 Vols.)
Dogmatic Theology, by Joseph Pohle (12 Vols.)
Douay-Rheims Bible
G. K. Chesterton Collection (15 Vols.)
Lives of the Saints, by Alban Butler (12 Vols.)
The Major Works of Anselm of Canterbury (4 Vols.)
Patrologia Cursus Completus, Series Graeca, Part 1 (Vols. 1–18)
PBI New Testament Studies Collection (11 Vols.)
Summa Contra Gentiles, by Thomas Aquinas (4 Vols.)
Summa Theologica by Thomas Aquinas, English and Latin Bundle (30 Vols.)
Summa Theologica by Thomas Aquinas, English Only (22 Vols.)

And the Collegeville Catholic Library! Read more about it at the Logos blog

Summer of Prayer#2

So so far the prayer has not really materialized. I read Richard Foster’s Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home. I didn’t much like it. Well there are parts I want to come back to, and I feel guilty criticizing a book on prayer by someone who has far-and-away-better-prayer-life than me, but it really didn’t resonate with me. Here is why:

It is divided into three sections which (upward, inward, outward) and Foster relates each section to one of the Trinity. Each section has seven type of prayers which help you achieve one of these dimensions of prayer. It is encyclopedic, and I honestly think I will look back on particular chapters and try the different prayer methods, or suggest particular ways of praying to others I mentor. But despite its usefulness, I found Foster’s whole project wrongheaded. I am not sure if what I need is a taxonomy of prayer, as helpful as it is.

I acknowledge that some of my aversion may come from my own experience in regard to prayer. Once upon a time I was at a Charismatic church because I sensed that God wanted me to be open to the Holy Spirit. That church was a great practitioner of healing prayer and taught about it a great deal. I learned some of that there, and was generally open minded. However, one of the pastor’s would always suggest that if one ‘type of prayer’ didn’t work, simply try another type of prayer. He would say that each type of prayer ‘are tools in our tool box.’ At first, I ate up what he was saying because God was obviously doing something through the prayers of the people there, but something about the toolbox comment made me bristle. Finally I figured out what it was.

Treating each type of prayer as a different tool in your prayer tool box, suggested that if you just prayed the right way, God was obligated to answer you the way you wanted him to. Now, nobody said this, and they would nuance this by saying that sometimes God doesn’t heal, or answer our prayers. But the use of the tools in the toolbox image was technological and it promoted a sort of formulaic idea of prayer. I found it difficult to jump from the idea of prayer as a tool to prayer as a conversation or communion with God.

Now I know this is a lot of baggage to dump on Foster. But I remain skeptical of lists of ways to pray, in order to achieve this or that objective. I understand that some understanding of the multiple dynamics of true prayer means that you end up talking about it in different ways, but I struggle with this approach.

Summer of Prayer #1

I am a Regent student. I am highly intelligent. I am three-fourths of a way through my M. Div. I am talented. I have a good singing voice. I am personable and have good people skills. I am a good leader. I am a damn hot preacher (humility demands that I speak the truth here). But one major thing I lack. I am not a good pray-er.

Every one of the great leaders in Church history, the movers and the shakers, those that really made things happen, we’re pray-ers. I also pray, but I pray paltry prayers. I don’t prayer, except as either as a last resort or because I want to make sure I did all that I am supposed to do (i.e. I pray about worship when I lead, I pray through sermon preparation, when those I love are hurting and I don’t know what to do, when people ask me too, etc.). What I am not, is a habitual pray-er.

I lost my rule of prayer when I was doing urban ministry. Every morning, I and those with whom I lived with in community, would gather together and pray for the day. Often this involved reading a Psalm, because the Psalms show us how to pray (thank you Bonhoeffer). But we got burned out. It is hard to pray and intercede for people when you don’t see God’s hand outstretched to heal. We prayed for our neighbors, the abused, the addicted, those relegated to a sub-par-existence by virtue of their socio-economic status and neighborhood. We struggled to be faithful but lost our hope and expectancy. My prayer life suffered.

Since being at Regent for three years, there have been some recoveries. I have recaptured and grew into a sense of wonder when I think about the Triune God and about the Incarnation. I can worship and have hope. I have thought through Biblical difficulties and have reflected on theology and ministry. I have been healed in the process. But I have not fully recovered my prayer life.

This summer I have decided to read through all the books on prayer on my shelf. I know reading of prayer is not the same as praying. But my hope is to recover my praxis and theology of prayer. I want to be a minister of the Gospel who lives his life in relationship with the triune God of whom I preach. I want to be a person of pray-er. I want to be one who intercedes and prevails. I want to a fire with spiritual power, and not just work out my calling on my own power.

I know that there is something a little bit, super hero-ish about my wanting to succeed and conquer the realm of prayer. Yeah, I know there is an immaturity in that that does not exhibit itself in the lives of those who are real pray-ers. Oh well. Certainly, they must have also had the hunger I do, even if they could describe things more altruistically. I really believe as I press into prayer, God will straighten me out, humble me and save me from myself.

I have read one of the books on prayer this weekend. It was Kenneth Leech’s True Prayer. It was probably too advanced of a book on which to begin. The strength of the book was the way it utilized the framework of the Lord’s Prayer to explore the multiple dimensions of the Spiritual life and the life of prayer. There are things I want to come back to here. Leech is a spiritual director and a master of grounding his theology of prayer in the Christian tradition. There was a lot of deep things I want to press into. It probably was wrongheaded to read a book like this so quickly, but I now have the lay of the land, and I will traverse this terrain again. Leech was good about showing both how to practice prayer and what practices nurture the life of prayer.

Several other books which I will read, also follow the outline of the Lord’s prayer. I think I will enjoy reflecting on how the prayer Jesus taught us, forms us into the faith.

Meeting Marcus Borg Again For the First Time.

I’m finally reading a book by Marcus Borg (Meeting Jesus Again For the First Time). Being somewhat theologically conservative I never bothered before and so my knowledge of Borg was based upon the way people like N.T. Wright and Luke Timothy Johnson deal with what Borg writes. Now I have read him for myself and have actually quite enjoyed it.

Just because I enjoyed Borg doesn’t mean I am going to join the collective. There is a great deal that he says that I would object to (i.e. a strong distinction between the pre-Easter and post-Easter Jesus, his critical view of scripture, his relativizing of christological and Trinitarian formulas, etc.). But I have tried to read generously and I see some worthwhile insights. Here are some things that get me thinking:

1. The importance of compassion in the ministry of Jesus
2. Jesus critique of the purity system which developed in First Century Judaism.
3. The inclusiveness of Jesus ministry
4. The alternative vision of Jesus and its critique and reversal of conventional wisdom.
5. His exploration of other Christological images in the New Testament (especially Sophia of God and logos of God ).

Unfortunately the good is mixed with the bad in Borg and he takes things in directions I wouldn’t. But there is much that is challenging and even worshipful in this volume.