Puritan Prayers: The Trinity

Valley of VisionWith the PhD thesis officially submitted, I’m hoping to eek out a few blog posts now. My wife recently gave me a copy of The Valley of Vision, a collection of Puritan prayers and devotional reflections. It has been a joy to read thus far for several different reasons.

Probably the most significant aspect of it for me is its way of reminding me of who God is and why it is such a blessing to have a place among the saints. Even when devoting oneself to the doctrine of God in systematics, one can never take in enough thoughtful pastoral statements about the goodness and wisdom of God. These nourish and stabilize our faith (certainly mine, at least).

The meaning of the name of the volume is glimpsed in the opening prayer:

You have brought me to the valley of vision, where I live in the depths but see you in the heights; hemmed in by mountains of sin I behold your glory….Let me learn by paradox…that the valley is the place of vision….Let me find thy light in my darkness…thy glory in my valley.

The book is excellent not only for personal reading but also as a resource for crafting pastoral prayers to be used in corporate worship. Here is a longer portion of the prayer entitled “The Trinity”:

O Father, I thank you that in fullness of grace you have given me to Jesus, to be his sheep, jewel, portion; O Jesus, I thank you that in fullness of grace you have accepted, espoused, bound me; O Holy Spirit, I thank you that in fullness of grace you have exhibited Jesus as my salvation, implanted faith within me, subdued my stubborn heart, made me one with him forever. O Father, you are enthroned to hear my prayers, O Jesus, your hand is outstreched to take my petitions, O Holy Spirit, you are willing to help my infirmities, to show me my need, to supply words, to pray within me, to strengthen me that I faint not in supplication. O Triune God, who commands the universe, you have commanded me to ask for those things that concern your kingdom and my soul. Let me live and pray as one baptized into the threefold Name.

The book of course isn’t designed for the lenten season, but it does include a series of morning and evening daily prayers as well.

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?

Praying for the Kingdom with Grace and Impatience

Not long ago I preached on the Lord’s Prayer, actually just its first line: “Your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6.10). And I explored the question, “What is required of us to pray this?”

Murillo, Bartolome Esteban.La Cuisine des Anges.1646You can read a little of the sermon below, and I would be happy for your thoughts and interaction, but let me highlight first a couple resources I found quite rich. Telford Work’s book Ain’t Too Proud to Beg was a happy surprise and the most engaging book on the Lord’s prayer that I have read.  Timothy Bradshaw’s Praying as Believing: The Lord’s Prayer and the Doctrine of God  has not received the attention it deserves (small British publisher), yet it is a great example of first rate theology written for the church. Brueggemann’s collection of prayers, Awed to Heaven: Rooted to Earthecho the same impulse I see in the Lord’s prayer, an impulse that jostles me out of complacency toward a living awareness of the drastic incompleteness of the “time between the times”. A time that requires us to pray with grace and impatience.

To speak of God’s “grace” is to put feeble words in the service of describing the infinite goodness and love of God which reaches out to his creatures prior to their own reaching (Ephesians 2:4-5; Romans 5:8). To speak of God’s grace is to speak of God’s capacity to initiate and complete his work of restoring a broken world and reconciling alienated people. As the kingdom of grace, it does not come because we pull it into the world, but because God unceasingly works toward its consummation with Christ’s return.

Yet, we get the wrong picture altogether if we forget the unique shape of God’s ongoing activity. God chose to create a world in which his ordinary, inadequate creatures – you and me – are invited to participate in the drama of God’s kingdom activity. He invites us to discover and play our role, a role that always follows after at a distance, but a genuine role nonetheless.

So we might say this: Continue reading

Forgetting God in the Midst of Theology

We have been exploring the inner life of the theologian (and the theological student) from various angles over the last couple months. Most recently, James challenged us to consider Lent a season for ‘setting aside’ areas of our calling in order that we might take them up again in renewed awareness of their dedication to God. Toward this end, James is setting aside scholarship (and TF) for Lent because, ‘I can sit and think all day about God without ever really thinking about God.’

divinehoursvol3_150For the same reason, I began praying the daily offices, or ‘divine hours’, at the turn of the year (Morning, Midday, Vespers, and Compline). I found the rythms of my days dictated entirely by my research and writing and, like James, I could almost entirely forget God in the midst of theology.  So I began using Phyllis Tickle’s seasonal guide to praying the daily offices in order that a rhythm of dialogue with God might order my day rather than my self-prescribed schedule. I have found it both refreshing and frustrating.

Why frustrating? Continue reading

Should Theologians be Spiritual? Part 1

There is a sense where this question is obvious. Of course theologians should be spiritual, shouldn’t everyone? hans_urs_von_balthasarBut the question is a bit deeper than this. In taking upon oneself the task of being a theologian under the Word, for the church, is part of the task holiness? In so doing, we will be asking a further question, namely, does personal holiness in any way affect the quality of theology?

I will do a handful of these posts looking at this question as somewhat of a follow up to my previous post on the seven deadly spiritual sins for theologians. In this post, I will look at Hans Urs Von Balthasar’s Word and Redemption to see what insight Balthasar has for this question.

The Great Divide: Theology and Spirituality

Balthasar starts his chapter entitled “Theology and Sanctity” with: Continue reading

Praying with Karl Barth – “Fifty Prayers”

Karl Barth, Fifty Prayers. Translated by David Carl Stassen (London/Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008), 63 pp.+xii, $10.36.

Lord, our God, you know who we are: People with good and bad consciences; satisfied and dissatisfied, sure and unsure people; Christians out of conviction and Christians out of habit; believers, half-believers, and unbelievers…But now we all stand before you: in all our inequality equal in this, that we are all in the wrong before you and among each other…but also in that your grace is promised to and turned toward all of us through your beloved Son, Jesus Christ (p. 1).

So begins the first of fifty prayers by Karl Barth in this delightful little collection by Westminster John Knox. With the exception of a few unprinted prayers, those here are taken from Karl Barth, Predigten 1954-1967, third edition (Theologischer Verlag Zürich, 2003) which reissued them from two earlier volumes long out of print, Fürchte dich nicht and Dem Defangenen Befreiung. Although I did not cross check all of them, at least one of the Pentecost prayers was previously translated and published with twelve others in Prayer:50th Anniversary Edition (Westminster John Knox, 2002).

From his 1962 forward to Fürchte dich nicht, Barth describes his longstanding dislike for liturgy and all manner of worship formalities. The formalism and distance in language between the liturgy and the modern worshipper both chaffed and prompted him to begin replacing the prayers of the liturgy with those of his own crafting. Continue reading

Providence & Prayer (2) » Molinism

If Molinism was a TV show I think it would be Quantum Leap. Ok, a few adjustments would have to be made here and there (and ‘by a few’, I mean a lot and by ‘here and there’, I mean everywhere).

According to Molinism, people act with complete freedom, yet God has knowledge of the future and this future only comes into being through divine and human actions. In fact, Molinism proposes that before time God had perfect knowledge of every possible world and the outcomes included within that existence and chose our world based on the decisions and actions we would make. Still following?

Molinism is the attempt to reconcile the absolute autonomy of the creature, on the one hand, and God’s sovereignty, on the other. While Luis de Molina was a sixteenth century Spanish Jesuit, his ideas are alive and well and can be found in the work of contemporary thinkers like Alvin Plantinga and William Lane Craig, so we cannot simply shed this belief as something expired.

The question remains: How exactly is this reconciliation between human autonomy and divine sovereignty accomplished for the Molinist? Continue reading