We Become What We Pray: Final Thoughts On Confession

In this concluding post discussing gleanings through the practice of daily confession, I will note four areas of focus:

  1. We become what we pray
  2. Prayer sanctifies us
  3. The epiphany of grace that happens within confession
  4. Confession creates awareness that leads to proper witness.

Firstly, the practice of daily Confession gives fresh meaning to the ancient phrase lex orandi, lex credenda: the rule of prayer leads to the rule of faith/belief.  In other words, we become our prayers. We become what we pray and our prayers shape our orientation to the world.

When I was a child, around the age of 9-17, there was a well-known traveling evangelist that had a profound impact on my life. His revival was one my local church routinely scheduled. During one of his sermons, he said something that has stuck with me all these years. Back then, it had a much different impact on me than it does today, but the words continue to resonate. He proclaimed with divine authority, “to live right, you have to believe right,” words that were followed with a string of loud “amens” back then.

As I repeat that statement, I cringe with all that is wrong with it, not to mention its deep sense of pride. While that statement can be parsed multiple ways, the crux of the matter is that he presumed that right belief produced a rightly formed life. That conception is really, and quite profoundly, a very modern way to construe Christian faith. The irony is it’s quite a liberal theology to ground faith in our right belief, epistemology preceding all else (liberalism is something he would have adamantly denied). So much for revelation. I digress.

Notably, he left out one crucial thing that leads to right living: prayer. In order to live right, one must not simply believe right, since the category of “right belief” is largely subjective. Rather, to believe right one must first pray right. Right prayer leads to right belief, which then leads to right action. Prayer precedes all else in the life of the church because the church prays its theology well before the church commends its doctrines. Long before there was Christian theology, there was prayer. Prayer informed theology and, in turn, theology would then shape prayer. Quite simply, prayer shapes belief.

When we use prayers given to us by the church, the church and its prayers shape us. When our intellect, convictions, or even personal concerns are all that shape our prayers (because they will shape our prayers to an extent), it is not the church that shapes us but our “right belief” and our faith surprisingly looks a lot like us. No wonder so many people live narcissistic or stunted lives of faith.

If you want to know what a church values, listen to its prayers. If you want to know what a church believes, pray its prayers. And unless you personally want to be changed, then never ever pray the prayers of the church. It’s dangerous to your current state of being and threatens to turn you into something you could never make yourself.

In other words, lex orandi, lex credendi: we become what we pray, the rule of prayer leads to the rule of faith. It is a dialectic held in perfect tension within the practices of the church. The daily Confession of Sin teaches us to live into a life of repentance and penance. For the first time in my life, in all my sordid interactions and decisions, the prayer of Confession comes to mind throughout my day, reminding me of the confession and the One to whom my actions testify. My daily journey is thus constantly integrated with a biblical one.

Secondly, in addition to direct prayers of Confession, the Daily Office itself saturates my comings and goings as I am constantly reminded that my life is one sanctified through daily prayer and confessions, which are made perpetually present in my interactions because they are made perpetual in my sayings.

In a way never comprehended, I have begun to understand the importance of praying the hours in the ancient church or what the Apostle Paul may have meant by “praying without ceasing”: when we keep holy time through constant prayer we are constantly acknowledging that time is holy and our lives are sanctified by God. Indeed, we are bought with a price and we are not our own.

I am here reminded of a quote by the 4th century hymnist and saint, Ephraim of Syria, who wrote on prayer, “Virtues are formed by prayer. Prayer preserves temperance. Prayer suppresses anger. Prayer prevents emotions of pride and envy. Prayer draws into the soul the Holy Spirit, and raises man to Heaven.”

In other words, confessional prayer sanctifies us, ridding us of vices, and creating a new heart within us shaped by the church and the resurrected Christ.

Thirdly, while bringing to the fore my own ineptitude and incapacity for anything good, Confession also reminds me of the gracious act of God that is meritoriously extended to me without my having earned any of it. I would that I was a good person. Alas, I am not. I am here reminded of the words of Isaiah the prophet, “We have all become like the one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away” (64.6).

Because Confession makes me mindful of my daily shortcomings, my past indiscretions, and my future failings, I am more concertedly aware that God’s grace is far deeper and greater than anything I can imagine. The boundlessness of God’s love and concern for me, for you, for creation, is unfathomable. I stand at the altar completely speechless in my attempts to understand a grace so deep and wide. I stare at the portraiture of Christ, in stained glass, above the altar, in absolute awe of a love that evades every word, every symbol, every definition.

We come to the moment in the Great Thanksgiving that reminds us He “delivered us from evil, and made us worthy to stand before you. In him, you have brought us out of error into truth, out of sin into righteousness, out of death into life.” (Book of Common Prayer, 368). This love and unmerited grace bends down in the incarnation of God, Jesus Christ, and forgives us because he has always already forgiven us on Calvary. Hence, what the Daily Confession of Sin allows is a deep awareness, and rest, in God’s grace.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is remembered to have said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11.28-29). In daily confessing our sins, we do not stand as people condemned and burdened with guilt; rather, we kneel as ones who are honest and resting fully in the necessity of God’s grace to be whatever we are only through the grace extended to us in Jesus Christ. I confess my sins, how I have missed the mark, not in an attempt to avoid hell, but as an awareness that I need Christ even more, the Christ who desires that no one will be lost but that all will be saved (II Peter 3. 8-10).

Finally, the concluding prayer of the Daily Office is rehearsed with the full awareness that we have confessed ours sins and stand as people enshrouded by the robe of God’s grace.  This final prayer gives thanks to God for his mercies and gifts. One line especially stands out to me that directs us back to the Confession of Sin, “And, we pray, gives us such an awareness of your mercies, that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise.” BCP, 101.

This phrase is a concluding portion of a final office prayer called “The General Thanksgiving.” It is preceded by reference to God’s creation, redemption, and preservation. It’s tone and tenor are one of thanksgiving for all the things God has done. However, during the giving of thanks, the above phrase in this final prayer is one more reminder of our dependence on the meritorious grace of God. The verb in the phrase is passive in tense, “give us such an awareness of your mercies.” Only God can make us fully aware of the mercies, chances, opportunities, and gifts we have received. It is our default setting to forget those things throughout the busyness of life. Unless God shake from out of us the narcissism of our culture and ego-centricity of our worldviews, there is no other means whereby we can be made aware of gifts given to us.

One of the reasons we can, possibly, possess a fully repentant heart yet be stuck between the dialectical tension of what we should and should not do, is because we neglect this portion of prayer.

Our voices and lives must echo repentance because in so doing that vehicle of confession is the vehicle whereby God can continually “make us aware” of those said mercies.

In fact, perhaps more so than moving God to forgive anything in particular, our confessions of sins committed, or omitted, actually serve to bring those mercies top of mind so that we might attain thankful hearts and show forth the praise of God in our lives. We need not always imagine that we confess our sins out of some fear that anything left unconfessed make the trek to heaven harder. Just as we are fallible humans in our doing, we are also fallible in our memory or recollection. The act of confession, rather, binds us to the action of forgiveness given and brings those mercies front and center, God’s very means of providing the awareness we need when we encounter the others that could benefit from pulling up a chair to the table of Christ.

For when we are aware, we a less likely to judge and more likely to empathize. We are less like to be filled with fear, and more likely to be filled with hope. When we are aware, we are less likely to consider our own holy walk with God and more likely to consider the eternally present act of God in Christ that makes even walking itself possible. Just as the Daily Office early on directs us toward our contrite hearts, it redirects us back to that reception of mercy prior to sending us into the world, thereby bookending our beginning and endings of holy time with Confession.

Only as we first realize we are the ones who are forgiven, are we humble enough to go into the world and be symbols of forgiveness to others, ambassadors of reconciliation. Thus, Daily Confession of Sin precedes our ability to be faithful ministers of Christ, for only those who have taken up their own Cross, and spoken their sins into its wood, can heed the call to go into the world, follow Him, and make disciples.

The Daily Confession of Sin, Part 2: Being Mindful

When I mention engaging in a Daily Confession of Sin, I do not mean repeating daily the popularized version of the “sinners prayer,” in which one confesses they are a sinner before God in need of forgiveness, and then “accepts Jesus into their heart.” I am assuming that Daily Confession of Sin precludes that one is already Christian, i.e., baptized and one’s “sins” submerged into the watery grave with Christ and resurrected into newness of life. Confession is a daily part of Christian piety, not strictly something one does one time in order to begin to follow Jesus and then never revisited. Thus, I am not speaking about re-initiating a new walk with God daily. It is assumed that the one praying daily prayers of confession are doing so precisely because Jesus is already “in their heart” and directing their life.

That little bit being cleared up, I’d like to begin this second post by reciting the Confession from Morning Prayer, Rite II, Book of Common Prayer, 79.

“Most Merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart. We have not loved our neighbor as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent. For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will and walk in your way, to the glory of your Name. Amen.”

This is not the only Confession found in The Book of Common Prayer. There are several forms of confessional prayer in the BCP itself, as well as in extant Episcopalian and broader catholic tradition.

While I was initially concerned about the efficacy of saying a Confession of Sin daily, what I found in the experience was quite different. Herein lies my first of two takeaways that provide the content for Part 2 of this brief series.

Far from being empty prayers reciting written words, the practice of confession is life giving because it is life minding.

A regular confession of sin brought forth a mindfulness about life that I had heretofore never experienced. It pulled me into a state of attentiveness. It brought a new awareness of my human actions, even seemingly insignificant ones. Any previous premonition that such regular praying was for folks that wanted to indulge in cheap grace was completely abolished. The last thing folks in search of cheap grace want to do is spend 20-30 minutes praying the Daily Office or utilizing prayer beads or any other means/context within which confessional prayer takes place. Confession is part of a larger story, not an isolated event. More on that in a bit.

Contrary to my bias, I discovered that the experience of daily confession would most likely not be the daily confession of those seeking cheap grace. Assumptions of cheap grace are likely to be followed by a cheapening of prayer life as well. In fact, I discovered that daily confession of sin led to a more profound understanding of grace, a deeper appreciation of the act of God’s forgiveness (because it is engaged/acknowledged more frequently), and my requisite need of it. These were not prayers said in the shadow of deliberative sin, their utterance being a holy check mark, a spiritual firewall against an untimely mortal demise. Instead, they were prayers I said even as I sought to be as faithful as possible, yet still being more keenly aware of my shortcomings. Confessional prayers helped me bring my life to mind, and thereby, to more regularly life mending.

For example, considering my former self, so long as I did not break a “known” law of God, I would keep it moving. No need for an apology or admission of my own shortcomings. I fully acknowledge that maybe I was a bad Nazarene and not in tune with a proper sense of spirituality. It’s totally possible. My story is my own and I cannot project this on the entirety of the tradition. Yet, as I began to trust the catholic Church, and trust it’s prayers, the Book of Common Prayer became a part of my life. I began to be mindful of all my interactions throughout the day. The literal confession of “known and unknown, done and left undone” made me mindful of my actions in a way I had never imagined possible. Suddenly, the ordinary interactions of my day became animated with a confessional prayer seeking God’s grace, and not only my need of it, but of its necessity for daily sustainability in a life that tempts us to forget our state as forgiven and loved people.

I recalled daily communications with my kids, my wife, my employees, and my reactions to folks in public. I recall impure thoughts or times I was filled with anger or pride, or when I expressed values that did not always value what Christ valued. Confessing my sin daily, my known (commission) and unknown sin (omission), made me deeply aware of how much I really do need God’s grace because I am not nearly as sinless as I once thought, which was a bummer by the way.

To be human is to miss the mark, to commit the sort of missing the mark sin described in the New Testament. There is so much I am leaving undone and so much I do that I wish I could undo, or do better, daily. And if such were not the case, I believe I would need forgiveness for the spiritual pride that would accompany such a holy life that knew how sanctified it really was. There is something of a holy humility that characterizes those that bathe themselves in the prayers of the church long enough.

Pelagianism is good in theory, but when I search my heart, mind, and soul, I find I am far from what Christ wants me to be even as my daily prayers make me mindful of the Christ that is within me. Confession allows us to resonate with Paul’s use of Psalms 14 in Romans chapter 3, when he writes that everyone is under the power of sin and there is “no one who does good, no not one.” Yet, before you accuse me of a spiritual masochism, recall that even Jesus said, “why do you call me good? There is no one Good but God.” (Luke 18.19 & Mark 10.18)

It is ironic that my home tradition relies so much on John Wesley for its understanding of sin, yet John Wesley is recalled as an Anglican Divine that prayed these prayers daily even as he spoke of a sanctification that takes place through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, an indwelling that is the presence of the bond of love between the Father and the Son.

For the record, Wesley never confessed to be a sinless human.

Secondly, within the context of the Daily Office, I found that my confessional prayer life was a theological testimony to God’s saving actions in history, in Christ. To pray confessionally is to rehearse the story of God with Israel and of Christ with us, daily. Prayer gives way to theology as we become counterparts with the many biblical characters that also sought forgiveness not infrequently. The prayer of Confession is an admission of one’s need for forgiveness as a part of the larger story of God. Thus, a prayer of confession is a prayer of witness, first to self, and then in order to be a witness to others.

It’s not that we were forgiven once. Rather, God acted definitively in Christ in the past. Then, we were forgiven, and that forgiving action extends into the present. We are forgiven and are being forgiven. Forgiveness is present perfect in tense, being an action that happened in the past with implications upon the present.

Therefore, this Confession of Sin does not have to be accompanied with a profound sadness or guilt. Perhaps traditions with a narrower sense of sin also have a narrower sense of sorrow that must accompany prayers. Often, our knowledge of missing the mark is simply that, knowledge, and such knowledge can precede new actions apart from a daily crisis experience with God. These daily confessions are not accompanied by tears of oblation as if my trust in God, and God’s trust in me, had been broken and mangled irreparably by evil. It is more that the prayer of confession seeks to acknowledge to God that I am not God, I am not always doing what I should, and that the task before me is larger than my humanity can reasonably perform. The confession places me within the biblical story. I become Israel, one chosen yet also lapsed, and my adoption by God makes me more aware of the mercies extended to me. The confession, thusly, becomes an entrance into active witness and re-enactment of God’s story with us, rather than a means whereby we enter a morally pristine state prepared for heaven, as if Aristotle’s Ethics were the entire goal of the death of Jesus.

Such an acknowledgement is predicated on God’s always already present forgiveness; God’s forgiving all people everywhere, all the time, in the very being of God as God acted to forgive definitively on the Cross.

In Confession, we desire to accept that already given forgiveness, not wrench it from God’s hands if only we are sorry enough. Daily Confession of sin is not a spiritually present means of begging a vengeful God to forgive me. It doesn’t beget some daily spiritual PTSD that hits me as soon as I awake and send me into panic until I have appeased God’s sorrow police (I have suffered spiritual PTSD as a teen and have felt what it is like to be Jonathan Edwards’ sinner in the hands of an angry God).

Instead, Confession is a daily act of acknowledging my incompleteness and then giving thanks for God’s eternally forgiving completed act, given to us, from the Father, through the Son, and manifesting itself in the Spirit.

Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11.28)

Confessional prayers are the literal resting of our hearts, souls, body, and mind in the embrace of Jesus, who carried the heaviest burden of all so that we wouldn’t have to. The Risen Christ knows what we need prior to asking, yet it is in the asking, confessing, and rehearsing that we become one with Christ, and he becomes one with us.

The Daily Confession of Sin, Part I: A very Brief Introduction

It may be news to some that not all Christian traditions embrace a daily routine of confessing sin. Though Forgiveness is part and parcel of Christian teachings, for many, regular prayers of repentance would imply that one is indeed not Christian, or to use an old school nomenclature, that one has “back slid” or “fallen from grace.” Indeed, a quick google search will take you down some serious rabbit holes on this issue. If I had a nickel for every time I back slid as a kid, I would literally have hundreds of nickels, maybe thousands.

This doesn’t mean that these traditions believe people are immune to sin (though some parts of my home tradition would go as far to say that the depraved nature of humans could be “eradicated” by the work of the Holy Spirit. In case you’re wondering, that theology hasn’t aged so well). It is more the case that these traditions are so optimistic about humans (they might even say God’s grace to enable humans) that have been filled with the Holy Spirit that they believe Christians can, and should, live without sin through the power of God. Hence, regular prayers of repentance are eschewed because such would be an indication of a truly non-repentant heart. If one needs to pray for forgiveness daily, then one has a serious spiritual issue. This does not mean there is no room for “growth in grace,” but it does mean that some traditions believe Christians do not have to, and must not, sin daily or even frequently.

Of course, what is often at work in these sorts of distinctions are definitions. Not everyone in the household of Christian faith is working with the same definition of “sin.” For example, some hold to a strict definition of sin, sin proper being confined only to those activities that “violate a known law of God.” These are called sins of commission. While others view sin as a more expansive and systemic human reality that is not as narrow in orientation. Under this category are sins of omission and the tangled web of human depravity around the globe.

The former definition of sin is bequeathed to us from a truncated reading of John Wesley, and the biblical Book of James, if you’re keeping score. Of course, other biblical resources are marshaled as well, but these are notable. Hence, sin under this paradigm would be an outright rebellion, a deliberate act to discontinue following God. Anything not under that paradigm of action would be considered a mistake, a misstep, an opportunity to grow in grace but it would not be a sin because you didn’t know you were sinning. Humans are not perfect, but they don’t have to violate a “known law of God.” Sin, then, is something known and committed. If you do not know it, and did not do it on purpose, then you are living a life without sin.

The traditions that follow this line of reasoning are usually Wesleyan, American Holiness, or even Pentecostal in heritage. Perhaps there are also some non-denominational churches that follow suit. Furthermore, if we go way back into Christian history, say 4th and 5th century, we can even find this sort of sentiment in the teachings of one Pelagius who placed emphasis on human efforts regarding salvation. His contemporary, an early Church Father named Augustine, had some serious problems with his premodern humanism.

Regarding the latter definition, Latin Western Christian tradition has held that sin is more expansive and determinative of the human condition. Sin certainly includes violating a known law of God, but it also includes, to use the New Testament Greek word for sin (hamartia), any area in which we “miss the mark” in our service to God. Suddenly, the ante on sin has been upped. Humans will miss “the mark” daily, both as individuals and as communal wholes. As the Daily Confession of Sin suggests, sin is that which we have done, OR left undone, known and unknown, and includes any intimation or embodiment of not loving God with our whole heart or not loving our neighbor as ourselves. Well, if this is sin, seems we have a little more at stake than muting our resident Jimminy Crickets.

When sin is limited to simply not telling a lie or murdering someone, those boxes are easy to check. Many Christians can fill those requirements, as well as the Pauline lists of heavenly stipulations (though these Pauline Lists seem to leave few of us guiltless). However, when sin is looked at from a more expansive view of “missing the mark,” I would dare say there are precious few among us that would say they hit every target, every day, or even the known targets if we’re honest. Acknowledging this isn’t a bad thing, it’s a humbling thing, and it reminds us of the origin of our salvation as elsewhere than our participation as a day trader in spiritual equities with the God.

I have now been a practicing Episcopalian for a year. As an outsider to Anglican Tradition, and The Book of Common Prayer, this native Nazarene initially read and looked at these Daily Confessions of sin with not a little apprehension. Questions had always been present, such as the following:

What is true repentance if one must repent each day? Does this prayer mean anything if it must be repeated on the regular? Does this prayer drown itself in mundanity because it becomes familiar and spiritually boring, another thing we say because we are Christian but nothing that effectively changes us? Is the prayer written a heartfelt, efficacious one? The word repentance means to turn away from, to be sorrowful for, and then walk differently. If we in fact do that, then why seek forgiveness as a part of the Daily Office?

These were my questions. My premonitions, at first. (I will answer these rhetorical questions in Parts II and III of this series in a more theologically reflective style than I am rehearsing here).

Asking for forgiveness was not a good thing in my theological book, or anyone’s theological book that I knew, unless of course one was asking the forgiveness of another person that had been wronged by hurtful words, wrongful conduct, or some other form of moral lack unbecoming a follower of Jesus. Those “mistakes” deserved an apology, but they certainly did not amount to needing God’s saving and forgiving involvement all over again. Mature Christians knew how to seek the forgiveness of others, but mature Christians certainly shouldn’t seek God’s forgiveness on the daily. After-all, we’re only human and are born to make mistakes (by the way, the 1980’s called and The Human League wants its theology back.)

Then, I started praying them, these daily prayers of repentance. This happened as I integrated the Daily Office into my prayer practices. There is nothing like personal experience to expunge bias and provide understanding.

At first, the prayers were odd, tough to say, as the new words of old prayers had to be pressed from my lips. It’s hard to pray a theology that rubs against the humanism of a former theological sense of self. The only thing I knew to do, even with my years of study, a couple degrees, and pastoral experience of two decades in another tradition, was to trust the prayers of the Church and pray them. There is nothing like doing that changes our being. When we are unsure of our own faith, or what to do, it is not bad advice to lean into the faith of the Church for help. Sometimes we need others to pray and believe for us. If these daily utterances contained a truth that shaped saints of ages past, they are powerful enough to change us. As my grandmother was not wont to tell me as a child “Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.” Touche grandma, touche.

Thus, I began to pray the prescribed prayers and internalize the language. I memorized them, much as I had memorized scripture as a child. The prayers became me, and I became my prayers. In praying them, I have learned a few things that I would like to share. So I welcome you back in the days ahead as I share my experience of seeking forgiveness again for the first time on the daily. Please see the schedule below.

*Part II of this series will be published Wednesday, February 19, and Part III will be published Sunday, February 23. Thank you for joining me in these reflections and following*

Part 2: Becoming an Episcopalian: Using Written Prayers, Memorizing Prayer/Scripture, & Worship Space

St Lukes Caricature

*This post is part 2 of the previous post/reflections on my foray into Episcopalian piety. Please read part 1 for the theological context from which I come prior to being an Episcopalian. I below note three areas of piety that have been quite formative for me (two were noted in the previous post). I offer these reflections as one with a theological education yet one who has only begun to scratch the surface of liturgical theology and Anglican forms of life. These reflections are submitted for the edification of the church and in thanksgiving for the work God is doing at St. Lukes and in my family.*

3. Written Prayers are Powerful Tools of Formation.

A common misconception about saying written prayers is that they are not sincere or authentic, that saying written prayers or rehearsing the same words over and over can result in a mundane routine that stagnates the soul. Many folks in the lower church tradition prize spontaneity and instantaneous reactions to God as more authentic than carefully considered words of prayer. The former is considered real and the latter considered fake or “going through the motions” having a form of spirituality but denying the power thereof (2 Timothy 3.5). I have discovered this to be a shallow criticism.

There is great power in using written prayers. First, it should be noted that the Prayer Book itself is mostly composed of scripture. Many of the prayers recited, and words rehearsed, come directly from scripture. Other words and prayers come from Christian tradition, some prayers themselves literally going back to the Augustinian Era. When we pray the prayers offered in the Book of Common Prayer we are literally praying with the Apostles, with the early church, and with the most recent historical tradents. Thus, in using prescribed prayers we are embodying (hiding) scripture in our hearts and continuing in the teaching of the Apostles. What better way to internalize text than to pray it?

Second, using written prayers removes me from my own spiritual formation. The prayer book forces me to pray away from myself, they very act of praying being formative. Too often in Nazarene life I was lost at prayer, unsure what to say, how much I needed to say it, how often I needed to say it, and what words I needed to use. I would often confuse lengthy impromptu prayers with “good praying” or when leading congregational prayer as a pastor feel the pressure of using powerful words so that our prayer time wasn’t wasted by the rambling of my mind. As I got older, my prayers became shorter and less verbose (as I realized the waste of too many words and the powerful simplicity of a few meaningful words). Again, I may have totally missed Nazarene piety, but I felt lost on a sea of emotions and needs when I would consider how to pray.

My prayer was rarely focused on anything except what was top of mind to me. I was the all-important deciding factor on what I prayed and what/whom I remembered in my prayers. I was the all-important deciding factor when deciding what scripture to read in personal devotions or even what to preach (though I did follow church seasons). The Prayer Book solves that problem through Morning and Evening Prayer, as well as the Daily Offices. I am no longer responsible for my own spiritual formation by deciding the content of my prayers. There are times in the prayers where I can make my own petitions or thanksgivings, but the prayers now are the church’s way of shaping me, not my way of shaping myself. In other words, the Prayer Book showed me to my own spiritual humanism in my Nazarene days. This is not a blanket criticism of my former tradition; it is a personal awareness via reflection.

Further, the Prayer Book is concise. It is not the literary version of standing on the street corner so that we can be seen and heard with our long prayers. Too often in my former tradition (and other low church embodiments) prayer becomes a sermonette, a lengthy demonstration that is mostly mini-sermon in prayer form, telling the congregation in the prayer what was also (or in addition to) hoped to be understood in the sermon.

To the contrary, prayers in the Book of Common Prayer are short, concise, and easily memorized. We say what we need to say and then silence our mouths before the one Whose presence ought to have our undivided attention. I no longer feel guilty about what I did or did not say in a prayer. I pray with the saints of the church and then I stop, believing that I have joined my voice with saints past and present, and believing that as these very words shape me as they fall on the ears of God in ways that the words themselves even fail to express. With Paul, God hears my groaning through the prayers given to us by the history of the Church. It cannot get any more real or authentic than deliberately raising my voice with these voices. In sum, my daily prayer routines went from something I prescribed to something prescribed for me by the church, shaping me according the body of Christ.

4. Memorizing Prayer/Songs/Creeds.

I have memorized more prayers, songs, creeds and texts in these 7 months than I have in several years. Memorizing words can have one of two impacts. First, it can either become of such a secondary nature that it eventually is done without thinking and therefore meaningless, or secondly, it can become something that continually inhabits your spirit through its repetition. For me, the second has happened. I would argue that even in the case of the first scenario, the tradition is kept so close to your heart that even though you take it for granted the Spirit still uses it to remind you of who you are in God (see Proverbs 22.6)…but I digress. I am beyond thankful that I have hidden so much prayer, psalm, and text in my heart in the last 7 months.

I have memorized multiple forms of prayer in the morning and evening prayers, the Nicene Creed (yes, the long Creed), all the songs in the Prayer Books’ Rite II order of worship, most of Rite I, the proper responses therein, and also the post communion prayers. A friend of mine also gifted me with St Augustine’s Prayer Book and I have memorized several prayers therein. I have also begun memorizing smaller prayers that can be used with prayer beads.

Memorization is not the end all and be all of piety. Long ago I quit thinking that my spiritual health was contingent what bible verses I memorized, exact verse memorization not being equivalent to hiding the word in my heart. However, it is a tacit way of making prayer/scripture an integral part of one’s constitution, able to be rehearsed or remembered when necessary. We are what we eat and if we consume Christian spiritual things our body will begin to look like that which we place into it: we will begin to look like Christ. And there is nothing wrong with using the same material over and over until we become what we say. The Bible itself is a great repetition meant to sanctify its recipients through the repetition of its content.

5. Worship Space Matters.

This has been a contentious issue for hundreds of years. Let me simply communicate my experience.

I worship in a historic church built in the 1870’s. It is a beautiful brick building, with a stone slate roof (with a cross pattern spread on top), and all the furnishings in the inside are original. It is located on a downtown courtyard gifted to the Episcopal Church by the founding family. Inside the sanctuary is beautiful hand carved word work everywhere you look, old wooden floors, hand carved pews, and stained glass that takes one into the corridors of heaven. One’s attention is drawn to the front of the church where beautiful ornate stained-glass windows portray Christ and two disciples flanking his right and left. It is a Emmaus Road like scene over the communion table (see Luke 24). The church now houses a restored organ built in the 1950’s that fills its space with the work of matchless composers. Its intonations place you at the stairway of heaven on any given Sunday. The transition from nave to chancel is under a hand carved arch that resembles the curvature of an old maritime vessel, Noah’s ark even, marking this space as a transition into that which houses the arc/k of salvation. I have the privilege of using this space each Sunday.

I firmly believe, and partially agree, with many critics of such places that money can be better spent than in making ornate buildings to God. In fact, Jesus and Paul make clear that God does not reside in the temples of men, but that the temple and body of Christ are those who gather as leftovers of the resurrection of Jesus. We are the church. One does not need a certain space to do church, to be church, to have church. I have personally promoted in my previous pastoral assignment a contemporary approach free from the trappings of expensive worship spaces. I believe Jesus when he says he is present where two or more are gathered together and I hear the prophets when they remind us that God desires a heart rent in repentance rather than a people lost in their legality or forms.

Yet, when I enter this church each Sunday I am instantly reminded of Isaiah 6 and space makes deep spiritual sense, “In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple…” In other words, this space communicates to me the majesty and otherness of God, the train of God’s robe brushing against my spirit as I gather here to pray.

The door to the church is a line of demarcation; it is a transition from one reality and into another, another Holy reality that seeks to impress its holiness upon me when I exit this “holy” space later in procession.

I enter and am reminded I am to be reverent because I am in the presence of the maker of the world.

I enter in silence because I am a human that stands before God, my words failing to contain God.

I sit with attention to my surroundings because through these symbols God visits me.

I sit in the shadow of the arc/k, knowing that the table at the front is an extension of divine hospitality to me as a sinner and in need of grace. I frequently consider Noah and the early church allegorical interpretations of this story.

I hear the organ and piano because I know it’s a representation of the eternal heavenly throng that circle the throne of God filling infinity with the sound of beauty and adoration.

In this space, I kneel on benches where hundreds before me have knelt and petitioned God. My prayers join theirs.

At the rail before the table, I kneel and extend my hands to receive the body and blood of Jesus…hanging on the same rail as parents that untimely lost their daughter (the remembrance of whom dedicated this church) and countless sinners seeking a grace they did not understand but gazing a savior above them that made himself known in the breaking of the bread.

I dip my hands in the holy water of the font and remind myself of the baptism with which I was born. This space matters because it is a physical incarnation of the majesty of God and the connection of myself with the people of God throughout history, the space itself taking architectural inspiration from the Old Testament Temples.

Do we need this space to be Christian? No. But in a world where so much is casual and narcissistic, where nothing is sacred, spaces like this provide a visual reminder that God seeks to adorn us, and the world, with the same life and beauty that is exhibited in this carefully crafted place. Whenever I am tempted to believe my life is all about my own desires, this space reminds me I am invited to participate into something much greater than the fleeting nature of my aspirations.

*Part 3, the conclusion of my brief reflections, will be posted later this week…

 

Becoming an Episcopalian: Observations on Spiritual Practice In The Episcopal Church- Part 1

Confirmation Picture April 7, 2019

Confirmation Picture: St Luke’s Episcopal Church, Cleveland, TN, April 7, 2019.

*This is Part 1 of a 3 part post. This series will offer observations on the following 8 subjects, the first 2 covered in this post: Praying the Psalter, The Role of Scripture, Praying Written Prayers, Memorizing Prayer/Scripture/Songs/Creeds, Worship Space, Role of the Sermon, Crossing Oneself, & affectionately Smells and Bells.*

In January I embarked on a Spirit led journey into Anglican tradition via the Episcopal Church. My place of departure was the Church of the Nazarene, a specific branch of the Methodist tradition that is a precarious balance of 18th century Wesleyan Theology and 19th century American Holiness theology.

At the local level, the Nazarene church has been greatly influenced by both Baptist and Pentecostal forms of spirituality, at least within the South and within my context in East Tennessee. For many, the University is the first exposure we ever had to a deep sense of what it means to be not only Nazarene but also part of the Wesleyan tradition. It should be noted that Wesleyanism has its roots in Anglicanism.

To be sure, there are aspects of Wesley that are alive and well in Nazarene Church, the extent of which typically depends on congregational context and the education of the local pastor. For the most part, however, theology and doctrine have taken precedence over spiritual practices as major influences in Nazarene Tradition (which I should also note is a young Church, founded in 1908 as a result of the Holiness movements of the 19th century).

As far as Nazarene life goes, the parts of Wesley most dismissed, or simply not even known, have been his spiritual practices and any form of spiritual routine that reflects a history in the Book of Common Prayer or even historical vestiges of Methodist societies. When it comes to personal piety, however, it is often subjective, up to the individual on what they say or do. Further, when congregants are admonished to memorize and learn scripture, there are few opportunities built into worship or communal life that would help anyone memorize anything beyond the routine order of service or hymns/music, good and noble to be sure but not scripture, prayer, or creedal. Of course, this varies on context.

This is a brief sketch of the place from which I came as I encountered Anglican spirituality, not merely as an academic, but as a participant. Through the years my course of study exposed me to catholic tradition. It is one thing to know some facts about a tradition; it is quite another to know a tradition by living within it and allowing it to shape you. For most of my life I have been shaped by the American Holiness tradition as embodied in Nazarene life. For another large portion, University professors and teachers shaped me and offered me Wesleyan roots that lay dormant underneath the American Holiness influences. And now, as one who has left my homeland, I have begun to be shaped by another rich tapestry of Christian tradition: Anglicanism & The Book of Common Prayer.

This month marks the 7th month I have been in the Episcopal Church and the 4th month since my confirmation. My family was baptized into the church on Refreshment Sunday (3/31/19), an odd day traditionally for a baptism, but one that makes sense theologically. I offer these remarks as one who had heretofore only observed from the outside, while now on the inside and doing them daily. I further offer them as one with a theological education (and now pursing doctoral studies) yet one who has only begun to scratch the surface of liturgical theology and Anglican forms of life. Thus, my sentiments may be true to intent, or slightly off, but these are my impressions of the piety I have thus far encountered and experienced without any Anglican academic credentials.

1. I never knew the power of praying the Psalter until this year.

Prior to Anglican spirituality, the Psalter was Israel’s prayer and song book; it was also a book I never used for those purposes. Maybe I was a bad Nazarene. I’m not sure, but the Psalter wasn’t a central part of any piety or practice offered to me and I was raised, educated, and ordained in the Nazarene Church. The Psalter is one of the ways the Holy Spirit confirmed to me that I was in the right place.

I had never chanted the Psalms until my first Sunday at St Lukes. I didn’t even know how to chant them. As we came to the Psalm after the first lesson, suddenly the Holy Spirit came over me in an unanticipated way. The Holy Spirit is an old friend, one that I know is present when it comes around, and in this strange new place my old friend, the comforter, came alongside of me and confirmed in my spirit I was in the right place.

The beauty of the Psalms words, the collective chanting of these ancient signs with the contemporary people of God, and the way God spoke to me through this means of worship, was palpable. Tears gently filled my eyes as the chant filled my mouth and my eyes focused on the Christ making himself available through his visible presence in the stained glass at the head of the chancel. The psalm had brought me into the sanctuary, and I caught a glimpse of majesty I had never seen, nor did I expect to encounter.

This sort of experience does not happen every Sunday, in fact, it hasn’t happened since, but the chanting has become something I look forward to each Sunday and praying the Psalms are something I regularly do in my morning/evening prayer. They are a powerful source of divine communication, constantly reminding me that my own words are unnecessary, and I can lean into the words of the Psalmist to say what I often feel but cannot describe. It is has been described as the prayer book of ancient Israel and now it has also become my own.

2. The Bible is Everywhere.

Church historian Jaroslav Pelikan made a notable statement when he remarked, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. And, I suppose I should add, it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name.” (The Vindication of Tradition: The 1983 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities).

It is often noted by those in more “spirit filled” (experientially spontaneous) religious traditions, that more formal churches are cemented to their tradition and shackled to their structure, not having the freedom to respond to God in worship. Authentic worship is measured by a person’s ability to respond at will, at any moment, to the moving of the Holy Spirit in the service.

Further, it is believed by many that these formal traditions are not “biblical” and are more faithful to their traditions and liturgy than to scripture. In other words, it is believed that many in Anglican and Catholic churches are living out traditionalism (the dead faith of the living) and calling it faith.

While I could compose a treatise in response to these non-reflexive prejudices, I will simply note my experience. As a confirmed Episcopalian I engage more scripture in church each Sunday than I ever did as a Nazarene. Scripture is literally everywhere in the Episcopal church. We pray it. We read it. We sing it. We responsively say it. I find myself rehearsing it at work because of my frequent recitation of it.

Most of the prayer book is composed of scripture. Scripture and prayer are central; in fact, it is this commonality of practice and commitment that unites the church over any doctrine or theology. Many that find their way to the Episcopal Church, after being in lower church settings that claim a high view of scripture, are surprised to discover the centrality of scripture in the Anglican Tradition. The bible is not dead here. It is alive and well.

Further, liturgical structure does not imply a dead spirit. Quite the contrary; it is in the very structure of worship that I have had the Holy Spirit commune with my spirit in unexpected ways, God not needing my “freedom” to respond in a charismatic fashion. Tradition, like scripture, provides time tested avenues through which God can commune with the us.

The freedom so touted by experiential expressivist spiritualities is not found in the anarchy of spirit but in the order of creation and ordered response, a case that can be made theologically and biblically. There is, therefore, freedom to be obtained within the structure. As in any institution, freedom happens inside of limits. I quote Augustine loosely at this point, “Love God and do what you please.” The love of God being the structure within which our freedom is expressed.

I do not get the sense of cold traditionalism in the church I attend nor in any I have attended (which at this point is 5 different Episcopal churches). I get the sense of a deep commitment to the tradition handed down, a deep commitment to preserve it as a means of communication used by the Holy Spirit, and a deep sense of holy awe inspired within in the liturgical offerings. Of course, this may rely upon the participant and I do not deny that things can become routine and dry or that some churches are “cold.” But no tradition holds that tendency hostage. One can even become numb to Pentecostal ecstasy when those modes of worship become too familiar or normative, no longer having the power to allow the Word to be made Strange and, therefore, no longer alluring.

Stay tuned for Part 2 to be posted Sunday…

Roots

root-steps (1)

As a young boy, my grandmother would often tell me, with her full blown mid-western Michigan accent “pick up your feet.” I would often turn around, look at her, my face becoming flush with embarrassment that I did not in fact “pick up my feet.” It was such stupid advice, common sense. A person cannot walk unless they pick up their feet. I am not sure if I was a lazy walker, wore shoes too big, or as many children was just prone to not watching where I was going, but my grandmother was correct on more than one occasion. I had stumbled many times, in her presence or otherwise, and the stupid, easy, solution to avoid it in the future was “picking up my feet.”

There is nothing like the wisdom of grandparents, and nothing like their passing, and our aging, to make us appreciate their words. Now, at 38 years old, I hear her words echo in my heart, “Nathan, pick up your feet.”
Back then, she was concerned about my physical well-being; today, her words dig a little deeper.

This week, I found myself as many of you have at least once in your life, on a narrow walking trail. It was one of those windy, bumpy, spider web riddled trails that tempt you to question why you made the walk in the first place. I have been on many of these trails, no more than 1-2 feet across, weeds infringing on the path, trees toppled over as their large root systems leave a gaping hole where the path once was. I used to walk them with my grandfather and father. I have walked them with friends. This one, I was walking alone.

This was a new path (here’s an analogy we can all sermonize over), one traveled by many but never by me. I decided to follow this trail because I needed to listen. I am not sure what I was listening for, but I needed to listen.
The path is on the property of a retreat center, a place where intentional space is crafted and fostered in order to provide the silence one needs to hear God. One of the mottos here is: Here God is in the Silence; Hear God in the Silence. The retreat space is replete with holy reminders of an All-Other that seeks to speak to us if we can be still and silent enough to listen. I had suspected earlier in the day that my soul was ready to listen, but I did not expect all I would hear.

I made my way upon the entrance to the path, and followed a steep trail down worn out wooden steps, over rotting supports that provided steps in the dirt, and through bridges slowly deteriorating. The dirt on the path was smooth and soft beneath my feet once I made it to the bottom. It was a rich, dark, top soil, that had been pressed down as smooth as pavement, and giving off a wet, earthy, mossy smell. At one point, I stopped to notice an earthworm that was crawling across the moist earth.

As the trail progressed, I came to a flat bottom just a few feet from the river. The sun was piercing the canopy of the trees, a butterfly had flown across my path, and I could hear birds sing their choruses in the swaying branches. I was almost entranced by the natural beauty of the forest, allowing myself to be lost in its system of life, until my foot hit a familiar obstacle: a root. I noticed that on this part of the trail the path was riddled with roots. With each intentional step, it seemed I had to play hopscotch with the forest root system. Some were large, some small, and some multiple, but none of them were going to move on account of me.

Suddenly I heard my grandmother say, “Nathan, pick up your feet.” A smile came over my countenance. There, in the woods, I stopped. I began to listen.

I heard a still small voice say, “In life, we can be so attentive to the good things of the world, of creation, the good things we are doing, that we can still stumble, even on a path clearly worn and already traveled…a path left for us to follow.”

Roots may be a fact of forest trail exploring but sometimes we wish we could curse them the way Jesus does the fig tree that refused him lunch. The last thing we need is harmless forest foliage to deter our progress.

I was on this trail being intentional about taking in EVERYTHING around me, not wanting to miss the voice of God, but I still had to watch where I was walking! Stumbling along the path of life can happen even as we engage in good things. The lesson was this: never take your eyes off the path, even when you have your eyes rightly on other tasks. There is a destination calling to all of us, but even as we are doing our best to get there, we can still stumble along the journey and prolong our final arrival. There could be a pesky root, sticking up in a well-worn path, waiting to break your toe even as you think you are making a full stride.

The smoothest of trails and most beautiful scenery can still be filled with silent treachery.

After having my moment, my theophany of the root, and I began to press on, thankful that I had allowed myself to be attentive. The path eventually began to wind back up the hill and along-side a small waterfall. I had made my way through the flat surface and its occasional roots without scuffing my shoes or tripping over myself. Now, as I made my way up a small ravine, the roots were larger and more damaging to the path ahead. Some of the path was clearly not a path at all. It was more a less a used to be, washed out path, that was now a hazard for elementary age school children.

I pressed on through the lost trail and noticed something different about the roots.

In the first half of the trail, the roots were hazardous. The roots were rises in the smooth path that led down a steep ravine and through a flat forest bottom. Those roots could have caused me to stumble, fall, and perhaps ruin my best pair of jeans (or worse). But then as I began to walk back up an opposite side of the hill, I noticed I was using the roots as steps. The roots here were still roots; they were still hard objects, jutting out from beneath the soil, but their incidental function was different. These roots were not hazards; these roots were helpers. The path, being severely washed out in places, didn’t have formerly man-made steps, but it did have roots that would become steps. There very things that could have once caused me harm, were now helping me get to my destination. Hegel would call these roots dialectical; I’ll just call them paradoxical grace.

Roots became helpers, coming along side me on the path, acting as stepping stones. These roots allowed me to move forward along the path.

Just two weeks ago, I was confirmed in the Episcopal Church. This was an unanticipated transition for me even a few short months ago, but in January, at the very strong leading of the Holy Spirit, I felt compelled to enter this new path. I was raised in the Nazarene Church, and therefore come from a low church evangelical background. I was dedicated, raised, baptized, educated, and ordained in the Nazarene Church. My roots run deep.

At the pre-confirmation meeting, the Bishop of East Tennessee met with all future confirmands and blessed our presence in this new congregation. He noted that many of us, including himself, come from other rooms in the house of faith. He equally noted, however, that something had brought us all together and was about to make us a part of a deep Anglican tradition: another strong root system. But before we would join, he said, we need to acknowledge and bless your roots wherever and whatever they are. The roots from which you came matter because they had provided grounding heretofore in our lives and they would further function as the foundation upon which this new Anglican tradition would be grafted.

In other words: roots can become obstacles, but they can also provide support for the journey ahead.

At times we may want to curse our roots, or a root system, that would just assume have us fall as have us arrive. At other times, though, we would be stuck in the bottom of some of life’s deepest ravines without the steps provided by our roots.

Roots are powerful extensions of beauty that simultaneously have the power to give life and the power to make a once well-worn path a travel hazard. Where there are deep, muscular roots, prying open a sidewalk or pressing through a forest trail, one is acutely aware that these roots are what they are because they have survived and thrived. By extension, so too has the tree connected with them.

This week, I was walking along a forest trail, uncertain of what I would find or what I would hear. I was trusting that God was here in the silence and that I would hear God in silence. I discovered that the path upon which I stood didn’t just lead me beneath a beautiful forest canopy and through the playground of cardinals and squirrels, but it was indicative of the path upon which I now travel, a path that I will only be able to walk because of my roots.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Gutless Grieving: Taking Lamentations Seriously

lamentations

Today, I have been fatherless for one month. 

 

Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine my father dying of heart attack (no family history of them), suddenly leaving us without any opportunity to say “goodbye,” speak final words of love or simply say “thank you” for being a great father, a wonderful granddad to my kids. 

Just as I did not choose my father at birth, and I could not speak to him as the newborn he held, so he left this world with me unable to look him in the eye, hug him, and tell him I love him.  In birth, and in death, I had no choices with him.

 

His life was jerked out of ours without warning leaving a new, albeit strangely desolate creation, in its place. 

 

Being unprepared for his departure, I immediately felt a range of emotions which vacillated between anger, sorrow, disbelief, and regret to name a few.  I have felt things in my core I didn’t know was humanly possible and my entire body has ached from the loss, intellect being united with emotion and biology.  I have moaned, and wept, and shouted.  I have sat at my father’s desk, in his chair, and held my heart in my hands.  

 

Even a month after his death, standing in my mom’s kitchen Saturday night, I broke down as if it was February 27 all over again. 

 

I have entered lament.  Not by choice or by desire, but by accidental necessity.

 

For comfort, I turned to my faith.  I didn’t turn, however, to the book of Revelation that promises “streets of gold” or the Letters of Paul that reminds us “to be absent in the body is to be present with the Lord.”  I didn’t turn there first because to do so is to not understand that death is death…and I am experiencing death.  When we skip to some “ever after” we neglect the reality that death is a cessation of brain activity and consciousness.  To be dead is to enter a state wherein the faculties that give us life have left us, hence, we are dead.  These faculties are not carried with us into some undead state; they die with us and what happens after that is up to God.

 

I am living death, sudden death, and to think death as “not really death” is a cop out. 

 

So I turned to the places where God’s people are honest: Pslams and Lamentations.

 

 I turned here because I knew in these books the people of God didn’t gloss over their anger, hurt, destruction, loss, or fear with promises of a better eternity.  In these pages, people are honest and they say things “good Christians” aren’t supposed to say. 

 

Can it get any more real than Lamentations 4.10?  “The hands of compassionate women boiled their own children; they became food for them because of the destruction of the daughter of my people.” 

 

Sure, the Lamenter blames this on the wrath induced disobedience of Zion, but does that really solve the problem that God almighty, who had power to stop this, allowed it to happen to teach his people a lesson?  God would rather his children cannibalize their children to teach them a moral lesson?  Really?

 

So we find honestly horrific things in Lamentations, confessions that became Inspired Scripture and were kept in our Bibles for a reason.

 

In turning to Psalms and Lamentations, however, I discovered that until I had felt loss to the core of my being, displacement from my world, a rupture of God’s goodness to me, that I had never understood the Psalter or Lamentations.  They didn’t read or sound the same after my father’s passing.  I was no longer reading them as an academic or a preacher that needed a sermon; I was reading them as one that felt their words.

 

The Psalms and Lamentations weren’t, and are not, simply informing me; They are praying for me when I am speechless.  They are speaking on my behalf the admixture of anger, complaint and praise that often live uncomfortably together. 

 

They allow me to be honest with God and myself…and they allow me to see death for what it is: death.

 

Only when we realize what deep crap we are in can we really lament as scripture does.  Seeing death as a not death cheapens tragedy and it cheapens the part of our Bibles when God’s people could do no other but sit on the earth under the covering of sackcloth and heap the ashes they would eventually become on their heads.  Their tears being consumed by the dust.

 

If we really think it’s going to turn out “ok” on the other side, then why even lament?  It’s just stupid and a waste of energy.  Lament comes from a place that is deeply human as we react to something that isn’t “ok,” that has taken creation and uncreated it. 

 

Until we have experienced uncreation we probably have no idea what it means to lament because the lament is not something we choose.  It chooses us.  

 

Therefore, many people refrain from seeing the honesty in the Psalter and perhaps ignore Lamentations and Ecclesiastes altogether.  Many simply cannot relate to the horror of its confessions.  Many people are raised to deny their human reactions and never question God.  They are taught to think God has a plan and every event of our lives is part of that plan; who are we to question the plan?  They are taught that while their salvation may not be predestined, their lives certainly are.

 

If I have heard it once this past month, I have heard it a thousand times, “we can’t understand God’s way.” 

 

This line of thinking is absurd because it implies that God’s ways are nonsense (or at least above our sense which is the same thing since sense is a human idea to begin with) and if I know anything about God it is that God is not in the business of nonsense.  The very bible we quote begins with a book called Genesis in which creation is the goal.  God is not an uncreative God.  You cannot call uncreation creation any more than you can call sin virtue.  To think that what we call bad, God calls good, or vice versa, is to enter the same complaint of St. Augustine “how then can we know anything of God at all if what is good is not good and what is bad is not bad?”  It renders our speech meaningless.

 

Such a faith doesn’t make any sense and I wonder why we open our mouths at all if that is the case.

 

Lamentations and the Psalter, however, do not fall into this trap.  They are expressive.  They are honest.  They pray deep groanings of the human spirit and they do so with the authority of inspiration.  They also authorize us to speak to God similarly.  We do not have to gloss our feelings or dismiss our hurt; a being by the very name “God” has the capacity to hear whatever we say and not feel threatened by such “impiety.” 

 

In a time in which I never knew I would need scripture to be so honest, Lamentations and the Psalter have been my comfort even as they rehearse my pain.  

 

I confess, however, the sudden loss of my father most likely is nothing compared to a foreign army killing my relatives, razing my home, raping my daughter and forcing my wife to boil our children out of hunger.  That is a level of hell I never want to experience…but in describing that hell the Lamentations have given me liberty to live in the one in which I find myself. 

 

In the process, it has taught me that some of us will  never find grief as the Lamenter.  Our losses will be normal.  We will say goodbye to loved ones in appropriate ways, we will leave behind homes via our choosing, our families will never be impacted by suicide, rape, murder, or the sudden death of a father, mother, child, we only just had lunch with. 

 

Some of us will never deal with these things…and perhaps, never need Lamentations. 

 

But for those of us who have felt our lives jerked out of our lives, our lives ruptured instantly and our bodies wanting to bend over and hurl uncontrollably…the good news of Lamentations is that you are not alone.  God has given us the prayers to speak the unspeakable, to carry our sorrow, to embody our grief.

 

God does not expect us to pretend death isn’t death and tragedy isn’t tragedy.  We are not doomed to gutless grieving, a grief that isn’t really a grief.  Rather, we are taught through scripture that there are moments in our lives when praise and thanks take a back seat to anger, complaint and lament. 

 

And that is ok…because when all we can do is lament at least we are still being honest with God.  And that is still a form of worship.

 

A Prayer of Lament &  Forgiveness 


How Lonely sits the city where silence now resides 

The doorways are clean and empty, the water basins full 

Yet, there are no ripples in the water 

No footprints in the walkways 

The corridors are silent- only filled with the tears of lament 

The joy of my heart has ceased, our dancing has been turned to mourning (Lamentations 5.15)

My eyes fail because of tears, my spirit is greatly troubled

My heart is poured out on the earth because of the destruction of my home  (Lamentations 2.11)

Oh Lord, forgive us for taking this place for granted

For abusing our life with nonsense and frivolity 

Forgive us for being so sure of our life 

Forgive us for not loving one another as we should 

Shame us for our stupid arguments and selfish spirits 

For dwelling on problems rather than love 

Forgive us for valuing things over people 

Forgive us of our laziness toward one another and your world 

Forgive us for not loving you by loving to the fullest those whom you have given us 

Forgive us for not seeing our families as grace, as gift 

The gift is now gone; it is no more

You have given, You have loved

Our Father loved us as you loved us, he loved us as you loved the world 

Forgive us for thinking the city would be filled with laughter forever 

My soul has been rejected from peace. I have forgotten happiness

So I say my strength has perished and so has my hope from the Lord (Lamentations 3.17-18)

He has walled me in so that I cannot go out, He has made my chain heavy (Lamentations 3.7)

O God, we have taken our breath for granted

We have worshipped at the idol of invincibility 

We were asleep – we are awake – to an empty city

Our Father is gone, He is with you 

Remember what has befallen us, Look and see our reproach! (Lamentations 5.1a)

Create in us a new heart and purge us of our filthy presumptions 

Our haughty unloving selves 

Do not hide your ear from my prayer for relief (Lamentations 3.56)

Amen.