Prayer: Adoration

My mother was the organist and choir director at our church, so I grew up somewhere near the third pew. During worship, my eyes followed my father’s finger through the hymnal. We sang: Crown Him with many crowns the Lamb upon the throne and Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty. I sat squirming through longwinded pastoral prayers. I stood for gospel readings, I endured the public shame of children’s sermons in the chancel. When the children were dismissed from the worship service, I went to children’s church where I sang songs, made crafts and listened to Bible stories. We learned about God, faith and prayer.

At some point I was taught to pray using the acronym ACTS: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication. It was my formula for faithful discourse, and a way for checking off all the boxes so that I knew I was praying well. ¬†Adoration meant praising God for who God is. When I felt I had sufficiently declared to God His own innate wonderfulness, then I could move onto the next item on the list. Adoration, Confession and Thanksgiving were all prerequisites to Supplication‚ÄĒwhen I finally got to bring my needs and the needs of others to God.

My childhood church taught that I ought to give glory to God and schooled me in the grammar of prayer. I doubt seriously that I was ever taught to go through the letters of ACTS, checking them off as boxes. But the order was held Sacred: Adoration was endued with significance, placed first, in emphasize that our adoration of God precedes all else in prayer.

Later, I discovered my prayers flowed in reverse. I knelt needy and thankful. I confessed. And then on some days, as I bowed my head in prayer, I caught a glimpse of God‚Äôs glory. Praise would pour out of me. Adoration for God was no longer something I conjured up to make sure I was performing rightly my religious duty. It was wonder‚ÄĒawe at God‚Äôs presence–calling my heart to worship. My own existential need would bring me to prayer, when I pressed upstream, Adoration is where my prayers led.


Bernard of Clairvaux’s On Loving God records a similar movement in the Christian life.  He identifies four degrees to our love for God: loving God selfishly; loving God mindful and thankful of His care for us, loving God for his own sake, and finally loving ourselves solely in God alone (chapters VIII through X, XV).  Human love begins naturally self-referential and self-centered. We love the benefits the Other brings to us. Like babies crying for mother’s milk, we love others because they do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. We approach God the same way, loving what we can get from God.

Then our heart enlarges. First we see our own persistent indebtedness, we love and trust God as our light and salvation (Ps. 27:1), and we are filled with joy because ‚Äúthe Lord has done great things for us‚ÄĚ (Ps. 126:3) Then we start love God, not for his benefits but simply for who God is in Himself. I think it is significant that Bernard treats the second and third degrees of love together. The line between thankfulness and pure adoration is permeable. In our final phase, our love of self is transformed: we care for ourselves solely in God. Bernard notes our journey from needy supplicant, confessing and thankful to one adoring. Adoration may precede all true prayer, but this is not where we begin. In God, it is where we end.


I was twenty-three when I visited the People’s Republic of China.  It was my first trip out of North America. With typical nationalistic and ethnocentric blinders on, I regarded my hosts with suspicion, especially in the realm of spirituality. The official religion of the PRC is atheism. Temples and shrines still bear the scars of the Cultural revolution: broken statues, battered structures and bullet holes in the sculpted reliefs. I have heard of a growing and vibrant Christian presence in China, but at least on the face of things, the culture appeared thoroughly secular.

This bothered me.  Never before had I been jealous for the worship of God, but at every museum and historic site I was told the tale of the human triumph of Communism against the shallow religiosity of tradition. Of course there was plenty in my own culture that mitigated against the true worship of God, but I needed an outsider perspective to begin to see it.

I was musing on this while riding a bus through the grasslands of Inner Mongolia when I heard the bleat of sheep in the distance. The words of Jesus play in my mind, ‚ÄúI tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would shout out‚ÄĚ (Luke 19:40). I lifted my eyes to take in the great expanse of the rolling hills. I was given a beatific vision of our Creator. In a moment when all I could see was a culture trying to move past its gods, I was arrested by creation‚Äôs song of praise to its Creator. I was overcome, adoring, I worshipped.


Adoration is our appropriate response from us when we see God for who God is.  Prayer is where we meet God and our adoration bears witness to this encounter.  One who prays but doesn’t praise has yet to meet God. The worshipper enters the heart of true prayer.  My childhood lessons and my adult prayers are both right: Adoration precedes everything else; adoration is the culmination of our time in prayer.  Prayer was not a stream flowing one way or the other but meeting with God in a whirlwind where everything always circled back to praise.

I first learned to adore God somewhere near the third pew of my childhood church. I have grown since then and understand more what adoration means. I’ve been instructed by Scripture and the Christian tradition. I’ve met God in prayer and my heart has been drawn into praise. However, I have yet to mention my most important teachers: my children.

Jesus said, ‚ÄúTruly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven‚ÄĚ (Matthew 18:3).¬† He praises a child for his humility and commends us to learn from children. In the Psalm 131 we are given a picture of what adoration looks like‚ÄĒa weaned child content to sit with her mother.

I am not a mother myself but I remember gathering each of my children as babies to comfort them from crying, only to be met with a look of disdain. I was the wrong one. I had no milk to offer.  I could change diapers, distract them with play and give them comfort, but I could not feed them.  There were moments when that was all that mattered.

But when my children were weaned and something different played in their eyes.¬† They no longer craved only mother‚Äôs milk. My daughters would look at me adoringly, smiles in their eyes. ¬†They would come close and sit with me, just to enjoy being with me. My four-year-old son would interrupt stories, activities, ¬†and even stern lectures just to say, ‚ÄúDad. I really love you.‚ÄĚ As I look in their eyes, enjoy their presence, and hear their wonderment in their voice., I understand more what adoration is, and what our adoration of God should look like. ¬†

Of course this stage doesn‚Äôt last. My kids will soon see my faults and no longer be overawed by me. My eight-year-old daughter has now entered the stage where I begin to embarrass her in public (usually on purpose).¬† I am a poor substitute for God.¬† As they grow to adulthood, their wonder and sense of awe for me diminishes. Appropriately so. But I hope they grow as I am growing too, who sees God through the eyes of a child‚ÄĒin humility and wonder, in awe, adoring.

 


 

*painting above by¬† Albrecht D√ľrer,¬†The Adoration of the Trinity¬†(or¬†Landauer Altar),¬†1511.

Notes on Ps. 131 (Poem)

Psalm 131, A Song of Ascent, of David.

 

 

I kick and rage–

proud heart, haughty eyes

I thought I’d

made my mark

already.

 

Insides spinning–

a hope deferred–anxiety

throbbing through my thighs.

¬†It’s ¬†all¬†too great for me,

I cannot

bear it.

 

Teach me to be-

To know who holds me

upon Her knee, and then

I’d drift contentedly

to peace.

 

I stop kicking and sit, still

proud-hearted-haughty;

yet there is no need to

make a mark

today.

 

You hold me

¬† ¬† there is hope–now,

and when

forever comes,

with You I will rise.

 

©James Matichuk, 2016

Praying God’s Attributes: a book review

The problem with reviewing devotionals is that a timely review demands that you turn around a review before you’ve had time to live in the book. ¬†Such is the case for Anne Spangler’s¬†Praying the Attributes of God.¬†Spangler followed up her previous devotionals,¬†Praying the Names of God¬†and¬†Praying the Names of Jesus¬†by producing a devotional which focuses on the Divine attributes. She draws inspiration from A.W. Tozer’s books on the attributes of God, ¬†to produce a 17 week long devotional which focuses on the attributes and the character of God.

What makes Spangler’s devotional good is that she doesn’t throw around ten-dollar-theology words. ¬†She talks about God’s immutability, omnipresence, omnipotence, transcendence, and immanence, but her chapter titles are much more user-friendly than that. ¬†Her first chapter is a week of devotions focused on God’s love entitled ‘God Cares For You.’ Other chapter titles include: God is Better Than You Think (God’s goodness); God is Bigger than You Think (God’s infinitude); God is Not Moody (God’s immutability); God is Not Weak (God’s Omnipotence); God is Never Surprised; (God’s Omniscience); God is Never Frustrated (God’s Patience); God Always Knows What to Do (God’s Wisdom); God Has No Limits (His eternal, self sufficiency); ¬†God is a Lover (the Jealousy of God), God is Always Fair (God’s Justice); God Leans Towards Compassion ( God’s Mercy); God Never Gives Up (His Faithfulness); God is Better Than Anyone You Know (God’s Holiness); God is an Artist (God’s Creativity); ¬†God is Above All (His Transcendence).

Each chapter has a week’s worth of devotions (Monday-Friday). Mondays have a key scripture passage and a brief Bible study which unpack that particular attribute. Tuesday-Thursday have brief devotions which help you pray through particularly scripture passages related to that attribute. ¬†Friday’s reflections relate God’s attributes to a particular passage.

I have not lived in this devotion enough. I have only read through the first couple of weeks and skimmed other parts of the book. However I appreciate Spangler’s ability to root her reflections in scripture and get her readers to pray passages. ¬†Praying and reflecting on God’s love and goodness were good for me. I need to spend more time reflecting on this and ¬†This was helpful. ¬†Tozer’s books are meatier, but the way that Spangler gets us to pray ‘God’s attributes,’ takes us from passive readers to active participants in the life of God. This is a very good thing.

I am unsure what I would think of later chapters. Briefly skimming through the book, I think that at places, Spangler’s account of God’s attributes seems overly simple. ¬†This is probably unavoidable in a devotional. This is, after all, not a theological tome. But the passages from the Bible are carefully chosen to illustrate particular attributes. ¬†Reading the Bible in this way means that you are not wrestling with apparent counter-testimonies. ¬†To say, for example, that God is never frustrated and is a patient God is true. Scripture reveals a God who is slow to anger and abounding with love and faithfulness (Exodus 34:6). However, readers of the Pentateuch will also encounter passages where God’s anger burns against his obstinate people. ¬†In Exodus 32, God wants to destroy his people and start over but stops because of Moses’ intercession). ¬† This passage also challenges our understanding of immutability (God’s non-moodiness) because God apparently can change his mind.

Passages like this challenge the categories we place on God. If we want to understand who God is and how he relates to his people, than we discover it in our engagement with the Biblical story. ¬†I agree with Spangler’s categories and like the scriptures she chose but I worry that dependence on devotionals like this rob people of encountering the God of the Bible who sometimes defies our expectations and acts in ways we do not fully understand. ¬†The narrative of scripture is the story of God’s relationship to his people. ¬†‘The attributes of God’ is a framework borrowed from systematic theologies and imposed on the Bible to help us understand what sort of God we worship. ¬†This is helpful and I really like Spangler’s use of it. I just want readers of her book (and other devotionals) to go beyond the pages of her devotional and read the Bible with it (all of it!).

That is a rather lengthy qualifier but I would recommend this book and I think it can be used fruitfully by those seeking to grow in their prayer life and in their relationship with God. Philippians 4:8 says, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable‚ÄĒif anything is excellent or praiseworthy‚ÄĒthink about such things.” ¬†What is ¬†a more excellent and praise worthy thing for us to think about than God? I give this book 4 stars.

Thank you to Tyndale books for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Beyond Self-Referential Freedom: a book review

In our me-centered universe we define terms like freedom, dignity and God by looking inward. We understand freedom as our ability to act autonomously to achieve our own desires. Dignity describes our right to self-determination. Because we have made God in our own image, his freedom necessarily impinges on our own. He is like us, only more powerful and more present (more able to act with total freedom). When what he wants isn’t what we want, He is free while we are not.

Ron Highfield, the Blanche E. Seaver Professor of Religion at Pepperdine¬†University, ¬†provides an incisive look at this modern me-centered culture in¬†God, Freedom & Human Dignity.¬†Building on the works of Alisdar MacIntyre and Charles Taylor, Highfield describes the ‘inward turn’ and the subjective self-understanding of contemporary culture. He describes our tendency to regard God as a threat to our own self-actualization. Contemporary people respond to God with defiance, subservience, or indifference (or some combination of these three attitudes). ¬†We secretly fear that God’s omnipotence and omnipresence thwarts our own self-realization, self-determination and self-perfection. In short, God is seen as the enemy of ¬†all human freedom and dignity.

Yet the gospel and Christian ¬†theology¬†tells a different tale. In part two, Highfield unfolds a picture of the triune God whose freedom consists not in His ability to achieve His every whim, but in self-giving relationship (within the Trinity and towards us in Christ). When Jesus comes in the flesh to bring salvation to humanity, He doesn’t impinge on human freedom but gives us real hope and provides the means by which we become our true selves. The love of God for provides for us the basis for all human dignity because we become secure in the fact that we are loved. As we grow in the grace of God we attain true freedom in relationship with Him. The sign that the love of God is formed in us is that we reach past our self-referential¬†love where we love God for our own sakes but love God for God’s own sake (cf. Bernard of Clairvaux).

This brief summary does little justice to the richness of Highfield’s text. His description of the me-centered culture insightful. Too many approaches to spirituality (even Christian spirituality) devolve into self-referential¬†naval-gazing. ¬†And if we are honest, there is something in the water which causes us to suspect that God is out to spoil all our fun and prevent us from doing what we want when we want. ¬†Highfield repudiates the modern vision that makes humans gods and remakes God in our own image. He calls us to experience God on God’s terms and to trust His love for us.

I found this book personally¬†edifying¬†and it got me to examine my self understanding, and my view of ¬†God. I affirm Nicene Orthodoxy and believe ¬†that God has acted¬†decisively¬†in Christ for our salvation, and yet if I am honest there is a part of me which doubts how much God is ‘for us.’ ¬†I wasn’t expecting such an academic book to give me such a strong and passionate picture of the love of God but this one did. Far from being a threat to human freedom and dignity, God is the ground for true freedom and dignity. Our¬†identity¬†is rooted in him

I give this book five stars: ‚ėÖ‚ėÖ‚ėÖ‚ėÖ‚ėÖ

Thank you to InterVarsity Press for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

NOTE: as I was preparing my review I noticed that my friend Elliot also reviewed this book on his blog, you can read his review here. If my review leaves you unconvinced, read Elliot’s. He’s smarter than me.

Blessed is the One Whose Sins Are Forgiven: Psalm 32 (Seven Penitential Psalms)

The Seven¬†Penitential¬†Psalms were chosen because they teach us about confession; yet they do not all teach us in the same way. Our first psalm (Psalm 6) lamented personal suffering and sadness which comes from sin. The tone of Psalm 32 is different. It is not a lament at all. Instead this is a psalm of thanksgiving for God’s forgiveness. ¬†At the end of Psalm 6, the psalmist feels heard and awaits the Lord’s sure deliverance. Here the psalmist sings of a lived reality. ¬†His sorrows were swallowed up by the mercy of God. Here is Psalm:

Psalm 32 (NIV)

Of David. A maskil.

1 Blessed is the one

whose transgressions are forgiven,

whose sins are covered.

2 Blessed is the one

whose sin the Lord does not count against them

and in whose spirit is no deceit.

3 When I kept silent,

my bones wasted away

through my groaning all day long.

4 For day and night

your hand was heavy on me;

my strength was sapped

as in the heat of summer.

5 Then I acknowledged my sin to you

and did not cover up my iniquity.

I said, “I will confess

my transgressions to the Lord.‚ÄĚ

And you forgave

the guilt of my sin.

6 Therefore let all the faithful pray to you

while you may be found;

surely the rising of the mighty waters

will not reach them.

7 You are my hiding place;

you will protect me from trouble

and surround me with songs of deliverance.

8 I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go;

I will counsel you with my loving eye on you.

9 Do not be like the horse or the mule,

which have no understanding

but must be controlled by bit and bridle

or they will not come to you.

10 Many are the woes of the wicked,

but the Lord’s unfailing love

surrounds the one who trusts in him.

11 Rejoice in the Lord and be glad, you righteous;

sing, all you who are upright in heart!

The psalmist is aware of the isolation and loneliness of being a sinner. He remembers how his bones ached and his spirit withered. He knew that he was the¬†recipient¬†of God’s wrath. But then he confessed his sins–did not hold back anything but declared them all. And then he experienced absolution, freedom, total forgiveness and joy. With confidence he exhorts us to shed our¬†obstinance¬†and petty¬†pretense¬†and seek forgiveness from the God of grace.

Have you experienced what the Psalmist describes? There was a time when I felt the weight of my sin and resented God’s goodness (if God weren’t so good, he wouldn’t demand so much would He?). But then I experienced God’s goodness afresh–His Grace abounding to my sin-sick-soul. And in that moment I felt loved by God and the freedom of forgiveness. But I am from a people of unclean lips and I have unclean lips. I don’t do confession well. I bet you don’t either.

I feel like our gut response to sin in our lives is to pretend it isn’t there. Sure we aren’t perfect but we really aren’t that bad either, right? So we excuse our faults and make sure that we do more good than bad. We hide from the ugly parts of ourselves and we hide from one another too. And God. When God and others see us for who we¬†truly are we feel exposed. We are naked and ashamed so we run and hide.

What this Psalm suggests to me is that another way is possible. To the extent that I have bared my soul to God in confession I am able to latch on to the forgiveness He offers through Christ. ¬†It is when confess our sins that we know the freedom of forgiveness. ¬†What we hold back from God, God will not bless. What we give to Him is transformed in His hands. I pray for myself that I would be bold in my confession and honest with myself about where my thoughts, words and deeds hurt the ones I love. In better moments I pray that for you too. Join me in confession and let us experience the freedom of God’s forgiveness together!

Prayers For Ordinary Time- Week 12 after Pentecost

Today marks the second consecutive Sunday that I am missing church because I have to work. In this day and age, this is a reality for many people, my experience is hardly unique but I hate missing church. But as I look at the Lectionary for today I am greeted by the opening of the Psalm 111: “Praise the¬†Lord! I will give thanks to the¬†Lord¬†with my whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation.” Despite not being there in body I am there in Spirit and I am thankful for the truth of the rest of this psalm which proclaims all the God has done on behalf of his people, his covenant faithfulness to them and exhorts us to practice the ‘fear of the Lord’ (reverent awe and deference to God in how you live your life). ¬†This prayer is my own meditation on this psalm.¬†

 

Creator, Sustainer and Lover of My Soul–

As your people gather today and lift their voice as one in praise for your name,

count my voice among their chorus. I give thanks to You!

It is your mighty work and righteousness that endures forever,

And you are famous for your wondrous deeds and abundant mercy.

Look at all you have done!

 

Thank you that you have blessed us with an inheritance among the nations,

we are your people and we live in light of All you have done for us.

We have seen your faithfulness in all that you have done–

in your mighty works,

in your tender love towards us,

in all your judgments and precepts.

Teach us to walk in your ways, ever following the paths you have laid out.

You are are Redeemer, our Savior and the one that has brought us into Covenant-Relationship with You!

All praise to Your Name for all You are, and all You do.

Teach me to follow and honor You in all I do.

Praise to You Forever.

Amen.

What’s in a Word?: Why I don’t have ‘prayer tools’

Occasionally I post these ‘What’s in a word?’ posts because I am convinced that how we talk ¬†is important, and the way we name things and speak of them effects what we see. ¬†Sometimes I think certain metaphors fall short of the truth and end up communicating something damaging. This is how I feel about the language of tools.

I have heard people talk about prayer tools, relational tools, pastoral care tools, missional tools, evangelistic tools, and discipleship tools. In these contexts ‘tool’ is shorthand for strategies, set forms, techniques or patterns of relating. However, by employing the language of tools, we end up saying what we ought not say. ¬†We employ a metaphor and the metaphor reshapes our understanding.

Years ago I attended a church that had a regular healing service. It became a major outreach activity at our church– people would bring family members or co-workers for prayer and through that ministry people experienced God’s healing. ¬†But something didn’t sit quite right with me about it. ¬†The leader of the service had several ways of praying that he encouraged the intercessory prayer teams to pray, different prayer strategies, “Tools in your ¬†prayer toolbox,” he called them. The idea was that by praying in different ways, you might hit the ‘healing sweet spot’ or build the faith of the person enough that God could really do something in their life (God sometimes obliged). ¬†Prayer, in these meetings ceased to be a conversation where we presented our requests before God, but became a technique which would produce a desired result.

This is the problem with the language of tools. What is a tool? In the traditional sense, a tool was something you hold in your hands and ¬†manipulate to complete a particular task efficiently. In our highly technological age, ‘tools’ are what you use to change part of a document or image, or ¬†where set your preferences for surfing the web. In either case, tool is not a relational term (even ‘relational tools) but when used of prayer, relationships, conversations, it reduces it to a formula: if you apply x to y with enough torque, ¬†you get desired result z ¬†or x+y(t)=z. ¬†In¬†Technopoly, Neil Postman characterized our society as being so enamored with the tools we’ve made, that our tools have started to remake us. Shouldn’t we cultivate a sensitivity to the way ‘tool metaphors reshape the way we relate to God or one another?

Strategies and modes of prayer should not be called tools but ways of relating. When we use our ‘prayer tools’ we relate to God in an I-It relationship rather than I-Thou (to use Martin Buber’s typology). ¬†It isn’t that technological metaphors can never be used for aspects of the Christian life, or our relationship with God and others, but it should never be our primary metaphor for life with the Divine. The scriptural metaphors that speak most meaningfully about pray are organic (think Psalm 1 or John 15) or relational (John 10 Shepherd and sheep, Luke 15-the Prodigal Father). ¬†We are living beings and created for relationship and we don’t learn to relate better by depersonalizing prayer and relationships. How you talk about God matters and how you talk about talking to God matters!

Does this mean that we shouldn’t strive to pray effectively or pray strategically? Well yes and no. Sure it matters how you pray for something and prayer methods (i.e. ACTS, prayer books, etc) can be helpful. Certainly I know that if I ask my wife for something the wrong way, I’m never going to get it. But the heart of prayer (and all relating) is not technique but intimacy. ¬†Tools are only effective when appropriately¬†wielded and can only take you so far; prayer is more about faithfulness, trust, worship, speaking honestly without shame and placing your whole person in God’s care. ¬†I don’t know of a tool or technique that gives you that sort of intimacy with God, but I know that God is always there to meet those who keep coming to meet him.