Not at our Beck and Call (a Prayer)

Let’s start the work week off with a prayer. The following is Walter Breuggemann’s, and I used it last week in conjunction with my teaching on the divine attributes. I am challenged every time I approach that topic with students for various reasons, not least of which because it is (undoubtedly) an area of Christian theology requiring great humility.

The theologian finds themselves in a territory of Christian confession in which terms and appellates for God are lying ready at hand: love, power, mercy, knowledge, etc. Yet, in taking up and employing such terms what does one expect from them, and what is the reference point one uses for filling out their meaning? The risk is sharp that we unintentionally make God out into a bigger, stronger, version of ourselves, that without some care we find ourselves speaking about God by speaking about ourselves in a really loud voice (as Barth once said of some theology in his day).

In the face of such challenges, Brueggemann reminds us that the triune God “shows himself yet fresh beyond our grasp”:

We call out your name in as many ways as we can. We fix your role towards us in the ways we need. We approach your from the particular angle of our life.

We do all that, not because you need to be identified, but because of our deep need, our deep wound, our deep hope.

And then, we are astonished that while our names for you serve for a moment, you break beyond them in your freedom, you show yourself yet fresh beyond our grasp.

We are – by your freedom and your hiddenness – made sure yet again that you are God . . . beyond us, for us, but beyond us, not at our beck and call, but always in your own way.

We stammer about your identity, only to learn that it is in our own unsettling before you that wants naming.

Beyond all our explaining and capturing and fixing you . . . we give you praise, we thank you for your fleshed presence in suffering love, and for our names that you give us. Amen. (Awed to Heaven, Rooted to Earth, p. 14)

It makes me wonder: what would characterize theology mindful of what Brueggemann portrays so beautifully in this prayer? And how might the theologian go about remaining mindful of it? Are there practices that train their attention in this way and shape the character of their work? Are there also practices and habits that war against it – that is, are there habits the theologian would want avoid cultivating (accidentally) that train them away from the attitude found in Brueggemann’s prayer?

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26 thoughts on “Not at our Beck and Call (a Prayer)

  1. Pingback: links for 2011-02-26 | The 'K' is not silent

  2. I thought this was a very interesting point: “we unintentionally make God out into a bigger, stronger, version of ourselves”. I actually think it is spot on. We make God out to be like us but He is not. He is more than we can ever fathom yet we try to categorize him and put him into this box if you will. This box that we can examine fully but the thing is, God is much bigger than this box. He cannot be contained because He is that Big. And that is something to be feared and respected.

    • I agree with you here! We cannot make God a better version of ourselves. God is so beyond us and our comprehension. But we, as followers of Christ must always press on towards knowing more of Him. For it is by His power and will that He reveals Himself to us and allows us to gain greater understanding of Him. It is when we limit Him that we find ourselves not growing in our relationship with Him.

  3. This prayer makes me stop and think about all the times in life when we “set God to the side.” You know how frustrating it is when we make plans with someone and then they “forget” to meet up? Sometimes I envision that is what we do to God, we “forget” about Him. Yet He is always there offering His unconditional love and grace. No matter how many times we “Forget” because we get caught up in this crazy life, God is always there welcoming us back with open arms. What an awesome God we serve.

  4. We are so trapped in our own lives and wrapped up in our own needs that we are not able to see God in his fullness. When we go to him, He lifts our head, He forgives and restores us and then gives us exceedingly more than we could ever ask for, not because we deserve it ~ but because of who he is.

    • I agree with you completely, the entire beginning of this prayer to me shows how selfish we are in our relationships with Christ. It’s all about making things better in the areas that we need Him. Yet, in this, we limit how truly powerful and gracious God really is. In our struggles, in our sinful nature, God can shine His light into our lives.

  5. This prayer made me think so much about asking and why do we seem to forget about when he’s trying to reveal himself to us? God is doing everything in his part to help us say that God is the only deep hope, deep love, and deep need we will ever need in order to heal the wounds that we placed on God because we forgot about him. Thankfully, God also does another part about how he wants to restore us so that we can see how truly an awesome God he is to all of us.

  6. Breuggemann’s line about God being “Beyond us…for us, but beyond us, not at our beck and call, but always in your own way” resonated with me. I am guilty of thinking Christianity will cater to my needs, and in doing that, I put God in a box. In reality, it is the most ridiculous thought for me to assume that I (a sinful, frail, weak human) can shape the Creator God to what will benefit ME. I appreciate the reminder that God is infinitely beyond my grasp, and always will be. It is good to be reminded that my sinful desires are not making the calls. Praise the Lord that in His mercy and loves, he saves us from ourselves.

  7. Brueggemann’s line “beyond us, for us, but beyond us, not at our beck and call, but always in your own way” resonated with me. I am guilty of thinking that Christianity should cater to my needs. In doing so, I am putting God in a box and putting myself at the center. In reality, it is ridiculous to think that I (a sinful, frail, weak human) can shape the Creator of the Universe to fit what I want Him to be. Praise the Lord that despite the fact we severely minimize Him, he saves us from ourselves.

  8. “We call out your name in as many ways as we can. We fix your role towards us in the ways we need. We approach your from the particular angle of our life.” I feel that this applies to my life and so many other people’s lives. God is a constant in our lives and remains the same, but we see God however we want to see God. God is beyond our understanding and we break Him down into something much smaller then what He is. We limit Him. I always find myself going to Him only when I feel I need Him, but in reality I need Him to be the center of my life and to work the other things in my life around Him.

    • I definitely agree with you, Jake. I think we as humans are so scared of what we don’t understand and can’t put into a “box” that it ends up pushed into our relationship with God also. It’s easy to say that God is limitless and sovereign, but saying and walking in that truth are two different things. God is so faithful, and he never ceases to bless us more than we deserve, but he is ultimately the source we need – not the blessing. He is the one who deserves the honor and the glory, despite our feelings (which are not facts), our circumstances, and our lack of understanding. Amidst our categorizing and limiting of God, like it was said in the prayer, he blows our definitions and limits out of the water and shows himself in new ways, putting us, yet again, in a place of awe and wonder.

  9. “Brueggemann’s line about God being “beyond us, for us, but beyond us, not at our beck and call, but always in your own way” resonated with me. I am guilty of thinking that Christianity should cater to my needs. In doing so, I am putting God in a box and putting myself at the center. In reality, it is ridiculous to think that I (a sinful, frail, weak human) can shape the Creator of the Universe to fit what I want Him to be. Praise the Lord that despite the fact we severely minimize Him, he saves us from ourselves.”

  10. I agree with what Megan and Thani said about our selfishness when it comes to our relationship with God. Also, the last half of this prayer is a reminder to me that we cannot limit God to a single “portrait.” It makes me think of how must of us, if not all tend to view God as this grandfather looking person with a long, probably white, beard. I believe that we do this because like Brueggemann said in the prayer, “we stammer about your identity, only to learn that it is in our own unsettling before you that wants naming.” It’s in our own unsettling that we look for this “grandfather” figure or we want to believe that God is like us because some people are afraid of beings that are different. I’m not saying that it is necessarily wrong to view Him in that way, but we can’t limit God to something so small and only from our angle of life and from our limited ectypal knowledge.

  11. I can recall times in my life where the section in Brueggemann’s prayer that says, “beyond us, for us, but beyond us, not at our beck and call, but always in your own way.” came true. Just this past summer, I prayed that God would show me areas where I could grow, and He did, just not in the way I was expecting. It was a much tougher learning experience than I was expecting, but I came out of the summer stronger in my walk with Him and knowing more about myself as well.

  12. The part that most resonated with me in the prayer is when Brueggemann says, “beyond us, for us, but beyond us, not at our beck and call, but always in your own way.” It stood out to me because just this past summer, I was praying that God would show me areas where I needed to grow, and He did, just not in the way I thought He would. The experience was a lot tougher than I thought is would be, but I came out of it with a better understanding of who I was and areas where growth needed to happen.

  13. In my reading of this prayer. I agree with Megan Nathanael, and Connor that God restores us and goes beyond our expectations in His greatness in gracious forgiveness to us. Also Jake agree we can’t limit God “We call out your name in as many ways as we can.” I noticed the repeated theme of the word ‘name’, our actions of defining God himself fall short. Yet, Brueggemann’s prayer doesn’t end there.. it ends with reference to Christ “your fleshed presence in suffering love,” Then it turns, ‘and for our names that you give us.” Now that curious to me. Why is it more important for a theologian to be mindful of what ‘name’ God call us? Daughter, Son, Co-heir with Christ. I think this is the starting point in training our attention in this way, it’s not our inability to name God, rather his greatness through Jesus to give us names.

  14. The third paragraph of the prayer seems to really exalt God’s power and inability to be limited to a certain thinking or description. It says that although we put God in his “place” in our minds, he only stays there for a short while before he breaks through that and becomes so much more. God is so much more than we can ever know and the more we learn and come to know about him, the more we realize there is so much more we don’t know. We serve a truly amazing God.

  15. My favorite line is the one about stammering God’s Identity. I have found it true in my life that God calls for me to identity in myself my insecurity in order for him to heal and restore me. This was a really insightful prayer.

  16. “The risk is sharp that we unintentionally make God out into a bigger, stronger, version of ourselves, that without some care we find ourselves speaking about God by speaking about ourselves in a really loud voice.”

    This, I think, is very common today (and likely has been for all history). Instead of giving worship, adoration, and praise to the God of the universe, our gods tend to be ourselves as we wish we were. We spend so much time wishing we were better or even striving towards that goal. When we fail, we are brought to a place of darkness. It is only by acknowledging (and re-acknowledging) that we are saved only by the blood of Jesus that we are brought into the light. We must recognize that our own power is not sufficient, but the power and awesomeness of the Triune God (Father, Spirit, and Son) far surpasses mere sufficiency.

    I really like Brueggemann’s statement in his prayer, “We are – by your freedom and your hiddenness – made sure yet again that you are God”

    I, myself, would make a terrible god, and the world should be glad that I am not He.

  17. “We stammer about your identity, only to learn that it is in our own unsettling before you that wants naming.” This line struck a particular chord for me. There is something about God that reflects our need back to us. We encounter Him, and in the attempt to know Him, to call on Him, to interact with Him, we become more keenly aware of our wounds. His glory and majesty highlights our brokenness, but even more incredibly, they begins to heal it as well.

  18. I am amazed by how often I want to do the very thing that Barth was talking about, make God into a bigger better version of myself. I desire to be like Christ, yet it seems so unattainable that I change Christ’s nature to something closer to mine. I think the best way to train myself out of that is to be constantly amazed by God, like we have learned over the past 2 weeks.

  19. Wow! He says we “stammer” about God’s identity. Yet our identity is in Christ, who is God. I am identified as one of God’s children, made in God’s image. This is probably the first time I have thought about how amazing that is!

  20. This post, has caused me to ponder how do I see God and how have I seen God since committing my life to HIm? We know that God is so much greater than the human mind can comprehend so we believe it is easier to break God down into smaller parts and into the parts that we need at our convenience. I agree with Jake in the sense of going to God only when I need Him but that is not what this life is about. It is about letting God truly change your life and lifestyle.

    • I find myself thinking back to our analogy of the tide and really expanding on it because this prayer really makes one think about just how deep God goes, and, like the ocean, we can only get so deep. I especially love this prayer because we can’t possibly imagine all that God is, we can only get a small glance of Him. I think Kelsey really hit home for me when she said “Life is about letting God truly change your life and lifestyle.” We can’t get to God on our own, we need Him to show Himself to us and reveal things about Him to us in order for us to even understand His depth even a little bit.

  21. I really like this prayer; it illustrates the frustrated feeling I get sometimes because right when I think I understand a little bit about God, I remember that what I am capable of comprehending is only the smallest fraction of who he is.

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