Preparing for Advent with Paraclete Press: Part 2

Advent starts this coming Sunday, December 3, though less liturgically minded congregations (such as the one I worship at) may have started their countdown already (this year, the Fourth Sunday of Advent coincides with Christmas Eve). And as always, the supermarket Advent Calendars with waxy, cheap chocolate countdown the days to Christmas, beginning on December 1.

So maybe, just maybe you are still on the hunt for an Advent devotional to ground you in the midst of the hurly burly of holiday cheer. I mentioned in my “Part 1” post that Paraclete Press has some great Advent devotionals for the season. These include titles like  God with Us (edited by Greg Pennoyer and Gregory Wolfe), Light Upon Light: A Literary Guide to Prayer for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany (Compiled by Sarah Arthur) and Sybil Macbeth’s The Season of the Nativity: Confessions and Practices of an Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany Extremist

Here are three other titles worth considering:

Time to Get Ready

time-to-get-ready-an-advent-christmas-reader-to-wake-your-soul-6Along with God with Usthis devotional by Mark Villano I’ve used in the last couple of Advent seasons (here is my post from two years ago). Villano is a Catholic, campus minister, with an MFA in Cinematic Arts from USC and an M.Div from Catholic University of America. As such, Villano blends scriptural insight with personal reflections, peppered with pop-cultural references. Villano illustrates the biblical story, connecting Advent and Christmas to life.

His entry for the first day of Advent closes with this exhortation and invitation:

Do we ever feel like we’re sleepwalking through life? That we’re just going though the motions? Is this just another day at work, at school, at church? Just another Christmas? Are we so caught up in the routines and the preparations of these dates on the calendar that we miss what’s most important about this time in our lives? How does our soul try to warn us? Do we see the possibilities that exist now, the new beginnings that can only happen now?

Advent comes and says “wake up” to these new possibilities. Listen to those cries of the soul. Be open to God’s saving mercy breaking through . Be open to what it is calling you to do (6-7)

In the rest of the devotional, Villano shows us how to be open to God’s movement, to receive the season as kairos (God’s time), to attend to the story of Jesus’ advent and reimagine its implications for our life today.

This devotional is meaty without being too heady. Young and old will appreciate it.

My Soul Waits

my-soul-waitsThis is a new devotional, but the author isn’t new to me. This will be the third book I’ve read from Fr. Martin Shannon, including a similar devotional he produced on the Psalms for the Lenten/Easter season (reviewed here).  Fr. Shannon is an episcopal priest, liturgist and a member of the Community of Jesus (the ecumenical, Benedictine community that operates Paraclete Press).

Steeped in Benedictine spirituality, Fr. Shannon lives and prays the psalms in community. The 41 psalms (which take us from Advent to Epiphany) include psalms of praise, psalms of lament, penitential psalms, psalms of thanksgiving, orientation, disorientation, reorientation.  Shannon writes:

Except for a few places (such as the first day of Advent and Christmas Day), the forty-one psalms in this collection are not presented in any particular order. This is because neither your life nor my life goes in any particular order either. The ascending and descending notes of life are sounded mostly without warning and part of my learning to get ready and to make room is to go with the ups and downs as they come, to find in each one a new chord for the “new song.” The Psalms are tried and true instruments upon which the songs of my life can be played out while in Advent and every other time, my soul waits (viii).

Shannon’s daily reflections on the Psalms, describe the world of the psalmists, the theology of the psalms and their significance for us, with an eye especially for this season. Each entry also ends with a word “from the Fathers” (notable saints from the early centuries of the church).  Shannon also includes short profiles of the Church Fathers quoted in this book (125-131).

The Psalms are the prayerbook of the church, and Fr. Shannon is a good guide to take us through this season!

Your Light Gives Us Hope: 24 Daily Practices for Advent

your-light-gives-us-hopeGerman Benedictine Monk Anselm Grün, of Cellarer of Münsterschwarzach Abbey is a teacher and spiritual director. His 2015 devotional, Dein Licht schekt uns Hoffnung, is presented here in translation. The daily entries take us from December 1 to 24 (like the chalky chocolate calendars) and emphasize practice. Grün includes introductions for each week of Advent, and reflections on Saints days, and brief reflections on the lectionary text; however half (or more) of each entry describes a ‘practice’ designed to help us press into the rebirth, renewal and the arrival of God in our midst.

These practices are mostly moments of personal reflection, lighting a candle, mindfulness meditation, long walks and prayer. Grün gives us an outline of practices and topics to reflect on for each day of the season.

Grün is a new author to me, but evidently a well known spiritual writer in his native Germany. I am excited to dig into this one and allow these practice to form me while I wait.

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of these books from Paraclete Press in exchange for my review (or preview in this case).

A Commentary on the Psalms: a book review

I’m enthusiastic about the Kregel Exegetical Library.  I have read several volumes from the series and have been impressed by its depth and its usefulness for expository preaching. The first volume I ever read, was Allen Ross’s A Commentary on the Psalms: Volume 1, which in addition to providing solid commentary and textual notes for book one of the Psalms, also provided a superb introduction to Psalm’s literary genres and Hebrew poetics.  In Volume 2, Ross explored books two and three of the Psalms. With A Commentary on the Psalms: Volume 3 Ross completes his journey through the Psalter, this time exploring books four and five (Ps 90-150).

9780825426667I have been eagerly anticipating this volume. This last third of the Psalm’s have some of my favorite Psalms. I love Moses’ communal lament in Psalms 90, the assurance of divine protection in Psalms 91, the joyous praise of Psalm 100, the lengthy meditation on God’s law in Psalm 119, and Psalms of Ascent, the comprehensiveness of God’s plan in Psalm 139, and the way lament is swallowed up by praise in the concluding five psalms. These are Psalms I turn to, to cement my courage and commitment to God.

I came to trust Ross’s voice when his Introducing Biblical Hebrew gave me a basic understanding of Hebrew syntax.  As with Allen’s other Psalms volumes there are a number of Hebrew word studies here, and this volume provides an index of them (including those in Volume 1 & 2). Allen is conversant with the scholarly literature but this commentary is accessible to the working pastor. Ross isn’t too technical but he is not light on detail either (at 1018 pages!). One-hundred-eighteen pages are devoted to a single psalm, Psalm 119, where Ross walks through each stanza in the Hebrew acrostic (by way of comparison, Leslie Allen’s devotes about thirty pages to that Psalm in WBC, Psalms Vol. III). For each psalm, Ross provides a translation of the psalm with textual notes, a discussion of composition and context, an exegetical analysis, and a discussion of the Psalm’s message and application.

The preface relays that Ross’s approach to the Psalms was shaped by a class he took in seminary which was co-taught by Bruce Waltke and Haddon Robins. Waltke graded the exegesis, Robinson graded the exposition. Ross tells us that Waltke said he didn’t think it was a good class, but the experience was transformational for Ross. He still strives to hold exegesis and exposition together in his interpretation of the Psalms (12). I appreciate the detail and passion that Ross brings to his task. This volume is a fitting conclusion to his Psalms commentary. I give this five stars.

Note: I received this from Kregel Academic in exchange for my honest review.

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

Singing the Lord’s Song in a Foreign Land: a book review.

I love the Psalms. They reveal and revel in the goodness of God for his people Israel. The point to the coming Messiah. They  are ‘a mirror for self-understanding,’ exploring the whole range of human emotion and offering it back to God.  Athanasius, one of the Church Fathers,  said that in the Psalms you find depicted “all the movements of the soul, all its changes, its ups and downs, its failures and recoveries” (xv).  He saw that the psalms had words appropriate for the whole range of human of experience, and that by praying these words, we are taught how to speak to God about our life. We become involved in a ‘self-involving discourse with God’ (xviii).

In Athanasius’ letter to Marcellinus he exhorts his friend to take hold of the Psalms and to pray the words written on the page:

Each person sings what has been written as about himself or herself, not at all as if receiving and reciting what was intended for someone else, they take it as their own, as if the words were theirs and offer it to God as though they had composed the words themselves (xviii)

He goes on his letter to suggest different psalms for prayer in particular circumstances. Unfortunately Athanasius’ letter remains opaque to many ordinary, western reader. In part this is do to how he lists off references to Psalms, almost haphazzardly on a range of topics.  Also his numbering of Psalms follows the Septuagint (which differs from modern translations which follow the Masoretic text).

Benjamin Wayman has done us a service in his presentation of the Psalms employed by Athanasius in his pastoral counsel. In Make the Words Your Own he provides a brief overview of Athanasius’ theology of the psalms (and the importance he places in the actual words of the psalms for our own growth in virtue), and Athanasius’ litany of psalms under eight headings: (1) Psalms of suffering; (2) Psalms for the Betrayed; (3) Psalms for the Harassed; (4) Psalms for the Guilty; (5) Psalms for the Thankful; (6) Psalms for Reflection; (7) Psalms for instruction; (8) Psalms for Daily Life. The Psalms in each section have as their heading Athanasius’ own words from his letter to Marcellinus.

Because these Psalms are arranged topically, they do not fall in Athanasius’ original order; however this makes a useful guide–directing readers to particular psalms which address their physical circumstances or emotional state.  Wayman also follows the contemporary (Western) numbering of the Psalms with the versification from the Book of Common Prayer Psalter.

Athanasius’ headings are generally insightful, though occasionally awkward for modern ears. For example, he introduces Psalm 2 with, “If you want to condemn the evil plot of the Jews against the Savior you have Psalm 2” (145).  Centuries of Antisemitism have proven that ‘condemn the evil plot of the Jews’ is a rather bad shorthand for the Jewish priesthood’s plot againt Jesus. Wayman lets Athanasius’ word stand without comment. I wonder at the wisdom of this.

In general I think this is a really useful presentation of Athanasius’ pastoral insights of the Psalms and a accessible guide to the psalms for prayer. I recommend this to anyone interested in the spirituality of the psalms and wants to deepen their prayer life. Lay readers interested in patristics will also find this useful. I give this book five stars: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Notice of material connection: I received this book from Paraclete Press in exchange for my honest review.

A Commentary on the Psalms: a book review

Thus far I am highly impressed by the Kregel Exegetical Library. I  have reviewed Robert Chisholm’s commentary on Judges and Ruth and Allen Ross’s commentary on book one of the Psalms (Psalms 1-41). Both of those volumes combined exegetical depth with homiletic insight. These are commentaries which are sensitive to genre, literary style, and the historic setting of the text. They also are written by critically engaged confessional scholars and chock-full of insights. Now Allen Ross has returned with a second volume on the Psalms. A Commentary on the Psalms: Volume 2 (42-89) examines books two and three of the Psalms.

Because this is volume two of a proposed three volume treatment on the Psalms (Volume three planned for November 2014), this volume does not include the extensive and helpful introduction to the Psalms. Instead Ross jumps right into commenting on the text. Like the previous volume, Ross begins his commentary on each chapter with a fresh translation, notes on textual variants, a discussion of the composition and context, and an exegetical analysis. Then he provides a verse by verse commentary on the text. and concludes with  a brief section on the message and application of the text. This format allows Ross to dig deeply into the language, history and message of the Psalms while drawing out the implications for our life now.

This is a great follow up to Ross’s Volume One and makes me look eagerly ahead to the next installment. I recommend this book for scholars, students and pastors. Anyone who is interested in exploring in-depth the Psalms, will find Ross an insightful guide [Ross wrote my intro to Biblical Hebrew text, so I am grateful to the ways he has opened up the Hebrew Scriptures to me]. The strength of this commentary is in its attention to exegetical details. I give this commentary five stars: ★★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received this book from Kregel Academic for the purposes of my honest review.

Entering Deeper into the Psalms: a book review

I know that I’m not alone in loving the Psalms. Many of us have found comfort, strength and words for prayer. My own love for the Psalms was whetted years ago when I read Eugene Peterson’s devotional works (especially The Long Obedience in the Same Direction and Answering God). Since that time I’ve read many good many more books on the Psalms, some devotional, some academic. I have a short list of books I really like on the Psalms, and am happy to add a new book to my list!

The Psalter Reclaimed: Praying and Praising with the Psalms by Gordon Wenham

So I was excited when I saw Gordon Wenham’The Psalter Reclaimed: Praying and Praising with the Psalms. Wenham is one of my favorite commentators  and is an adjunct professor at Trinity College, Bristol. I have appreciated his writings but have never read his treatment of the Psalms. In the Psalter Reclaimed,  Wenham culls together his lectures on the Psalms delivered between 1997 and 2010. Despite the occasional nature of these essays, there is a remarkable cohesion to the book as a whole. Wenham examines the liturgical use of Psalms and their personal devotional use in prayer. He also discusses the Messianic nature of the Royal Psalms (and in what sense they are Messianic), the ethics of the psalms, the value of praying the imprecatory Psalms, the vision of God’s steadfast love as expressed in Psalm 103, and the Psalm’s vision of the nations (enemies of God who at last lift their voice in praise).

This may be one of the greatest introductory books on the Psalms for the sheer breadth of what Wenham is able to cover in a short book. He comes from a strong Reformed Anglican tradition and therefore has a lot to say about the liturgical use of Psalms  to enrich our corporate worship and to provide moral instruction.  He discusses the various genres of Psalms in his section on ‘praying the Psalms’ and demonstrates how the various types (i.e. Pslams of Lament, praises,  Royal Psalms, etc.) speak to the various seasons of the Christian life.  This emphasis on the liturgical and personal use of the Psalms makes this a great introductory book for anyone seeking to enter deeper into the Spirituality of the Psalms

But Wenham is not simply writing a lay introduction. These essays also discuss how current scholarship enriches our understanding of the text.  And so he shows how speech-act theory helps describe the performative nature of the Psalms, Canonical l criticism reveals the meaning behind the Psalm superscriptions and the internal organization of the book,  he proposes a theological hermeneutic which takes the Royal Psalms past their historical-literary context into the realm of New Testament fulfillment, and he reviews historic and current discussions  of the imprecatory Psalms and whether they may be  appropriately prayed by Christians. Wenham’s skill as an exegete and a scholar are evident throughout.

I especially liked his treatment on the ethical import of the Psalms because Wenham’s Story as Torah was the book that alerted me to the way ethics were embedded in Hebrew Narrative. In abbreviated form he gives a compelling case for the ethical use of Psalms to provide moral instruction and encourages modern readers to mine the Psalms for what it tells us about Biblical Ethics.

Because this book is an edited collection of earlier lectures there is some overlap in the chapters which you wouldn’t expect in a full length monograph. Wenham also doesn’t say everything that needs to be said on the Psalms (though he points us to some great resources). But this book is an introductory text and I think that anyone’s understanding of the Psalms will be enriched by reading this. I recommend this book to scholar, student, clergy and lay-person alike. I give it five stars: ★★★★★

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

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.

Blessed is the one

whose transgressions are forgiven,

whose sins are covered.

Blessed is the one

whose sin the Lord does not count against them

and in whose spirit is no deceit.

When I kept silent,

my bones wasted away

through my groaning all day long.

For day and night

your hand was heavy on me;

my strength was sapped

as in the heat of summer.

Then I acknowledged my sin to you

and did not cover up my iniquity.

I said, “I will confess

my transgressions to the Lord.”

And you forgave

the guilt of my sin.

Therefore let all the faithful pray to you

while you may be found;

surely the rising of the mighty waters

will not reach them.

You are my hiding place;

you will protect me from trouble

and surround me with songs of deliverance.

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

I will counsel you with my loving eye on you.

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!