Thursday, 21 February 2008

Praying the Psalms with Bonhoeffer and Brueggemann


Patrick Comerford

We all know from experience the central place the Psalms have in the liturgy of the Church and in shaping our spirituality through that liturgy. Originally, the Book of Common Prayer provided for the Psalms to be read through completely in one month. The Psalms remain the one full, complete book to be bound in with the Book of Common Prayer (2004) of the Church of Ireland.

Many of us own or will have come across separately published Psalters. Even when the New Testament is published in a separate volume, it often has the Psalms bound in with it at the back. Apart from the Psalter, psalms appear throughout the Book of Common Prayer, either as canticles, or as direct quotations “cut and pasted” into the liturgy and the offices.

Pastorally, when visiting people at home or in hospitals, at times of crisis and bereavement, reading to them from the Psalms is a great source of comfort. And when it comes to the great rites of passage, people inevitably have favourite psalms and psalms they expect to be used at weddings and funerals.

In a discussion with students, some of the favourite psalms they identified included: 22, as helpful during Lent and Holy Week; 23, because of its image of the Good Shepherd, and familiarity with it, especially at weddings and funerals; 89, for its praise of God; 95, for its imagery and familiarity; 98, for its joyful approach to music and worship; 104, for its praise of God; 132, which was found comforting when times are difficult – “look at how David of all people felt”; and 150, for its joyful praise of God.

Some Psalms are among the best-known and best-loved passages of Scripture, with a popularity extending well beyond regular churchgoers.

Psalm 23, which begins The Lord is My Shepherd, offers an immediately appealing message of comfort and is widely chosen for funerals, either as a reading or in one of several popular hymn settings.

Psalm 51, Have mercy on me O God, called the Miserere from the first word in its Latin version, is by far the most sung psalm of Orthodoxy, in both the Divine Liturgy and the Hours, during the sacrament of repentance or confession, and in other settings.

Psalm 103, Bless the Lord, O my soul, is one of the best-known prayers of praise (for a popular Taizé setting see Hymn 1 in the Church Hymnal).

Psalm 137, By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, is a moody meditation upon living in slavery and captivity, and has been used in at least one spiritual, as well as one well-known reggae song recorded by Boney M. In the Orthodox Church, this psalm is often used during Lent.

Many of the Psalms have been set to music by the great composers including Moneverdi (Vespro della Beata Vergine 1610) Purcell (Psalm 130), Vivaldi (112 and 117), Bach (51 and 121), Handel (130), Mozart (130), Schubert (23), Mendelssohn (91 and 130), Cesar Franck (150), Brahms (13), Stanford (119), Vaughan Williams (23 and 148), Gustav Holst (148), Benjamin Britten (Jubilate Deo, Psalm 100) and Leonard Bernstein (Chichester Psalms). Even Bono and U2 have their version of Psalm 40.

The word psalms comes from the Greek, psalmoi (Ψαλμοί) originally meaning “songs sung to a harp,” from psallein, “to play on a stringed instrument.”

At the Church of Ireland Theological College, we are committed to daily prayer, morning and evening, during which we read and pray the psalms together. We normally use the Psalter in the Book of Common Prayer as we read and pray the assigned psalms for the day from the Lectionary. The idea is that the office of Morning Prayer should shape my whole focus for the day and that at Evening Prayer I have a chance to offer up the day that is coming to a close in thankful prayer to God.

The Psalms in Christian worship

There are 116 direct quotations from the Psalms in the New Testament, which goes to show that they were familiar to the Judean community and to the first century Christians. New Testament references show that the earliest Christians used the Psalms in worship, and the Psalms have remained an important part of worship in most Christian Churches. The Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Anglican traditions in the Church have always made systematic use of the Psalms, with a cycle for the recitation of all or most of them over the course of one or more weeks.

Eastern Orthodox Christians, and Eastern Catholics who follow the Byzantine rite, have long made the Psalms an integral part of their corporate and private prayers. To facilitate its reading, the 150 Psalms are divided into 20 kathismata (Greek καθισματα, “sittings”), and each kathisma (Greek καθισμα) is further subdivided into three staseis (Greek: στασεις, “standings,” singular στασις). At Vespers and Matins, different kathismata are read at different times of the liturgical year, and on different days of the week, according to the Church's calendar, so that all 150 psalms (20 kathismata) are read in the course of a week. More recently, some among the Orthodox laity have adopted a continuous reading of the Psalms on weekdays, praying the whole book in four weeks, three times a day, one kathisma a day.

Aside from kathisma readings, psalms occupy a prominent place in every other Orthodox service including the Divine Liturgy and the services of the Hours. In particular, the penitential Psalm 50 is very widely used. Fragments of psalms and individual verses are used as Prokimena (introductions to Scriptural readings), and Stichera.

The bulk of Vespers would still be composed of psalms even if the kathisma were to be disregarded; Psalm 118, “The Psalm of the Law,” is the centrepiece of Matins on Saturdays, some Sundays, and of the funeral service. The entire book of Psalms is traditionally read out loud or chanted at the side of the deceased during the time leading up to the funeral, mirroring Jewish tradition.<

The Psalms in the mediaeval Church:

The Psalms have always been an important part of liturgy in the Western Church. The Liturgy of the Hours is centred on chanting or recitation of the Psalms, using fixed melodic formulas known as psalm tones.

The early church employed the psalms widely in individual prayers too. However, as knowledge of Latin diminished, this practice ceased among the unlearned. And yet, until the end of the Middle Ages it was not unknown for the laity to join in the singing of The Little Office, which was a shortened version of the Liturgy of the Hours, providing a fixed daily cycle of 25 psalms to be recited, and nine other psalms divided across Matins.

Post-Reformation Roman Catholic use of the Psalms in liturgy

The revision of the Roman Missal after Vatican II reintroduced the singing or recitation of a more substantial section of a psalm, in some cases an entire psalm, after the first reading of Scripture. This Responsorial Psalm, is usually sung or recited responsorially, although the General Instruction of the Roman Missal permits direct recitation. Similar liturgical insights have been adapted in many other traditions through the modern liturgical reform movement.

The Psalms at the Reformations and in Anglicanism

The psalms were extremely popular after the Reformations, when verse paraphrases of many of the psalms were set as hymns. These were particularly popular in the Calvinist tradition, and often they were sung to the exclusion of hymns. Calvin made some French translations of the psalms for church usage. Martin Luther’s A Mighty Fortress is Our God is based on Psalm 46.

The Psalter is an integral part of the Book of Common Prayer for Anglicans. Originally the idea was to work our way through the Psalter through a one-month cycle of reading the Psalms at Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer each day. But the Psalms are additionally familiar to Anglicans through the Canticles and through the way they have been woven into the liturgy and office, including the verses and responses in Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer.

Personal spirituality and the Psalms

But sometimes I have real difficulties with saying the psalms appointed for the day, never mind singing them, accompanied or unaccompanied by stringed instruments.

I may be feeling down, and find it difficult to pray psalms that say I am rejoicing. I may be happy and content and find it difficult to pray psalms that talk about being surrounded by adversaries and enemies. I may feel insecure and find it difficult to thank God for his abundance. There are some times I may be feeling smug and unable to acknowledge my total dependence on God. And, whenever they come around, I find it difficult if not impossible to pray psalms that wish on people things I would not own up to wishing on my own worst enemy.

In a discussion with students, some of the psalms identified as presenting difficulties include: 22, which describes me as “a worm, and not human” (verse 6), and surrounded by evildoers who are dogs” (verse 16); 58, which was read in the chapel last Monday at Evening Prayer, asking God to break the teeth of ours enemies in their mouths and to dissolve them like the snail that dissolves into slime or the untimely birth that never sees the sun (50: 6, 8); and 109, with its prayer that the prayers of my accusers be turned to sin, their children turned into orphans who are forced to become wandering beggars, and their wives turned into widows (109: 9-10, 20).

Perhaps the most famous example cited is the one provided in Psalm 137: 9: “… happy the one who repays you for all you have done to us: Who takes your little one and dashes them again the rocks” (Psalm 137: 8b-9, Book of Common Prayer, Church of Ireland, 2004), or “Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” (NRSV).

The imprecatory psalms are those which invoke curses against enemies. Examples include Psalm 69 and Psalm 109 – considered the most relevant – while Psalms 5, 6, 11, 12, 35, 37, 40, 52, 54, 56, 58, 69, 79, 83, 137, 139, and 143 are also imprecatory. Some of the ideas we come across in the Psalms are: God will rain fire and brimstone upon the wicked (Psalm 11: 6); if you forget God he will tear you in pieces (Psalm 50: 22 ); if you trust in riches instead of God, he will kill you, and while you're dying the righteous will laugh at you (Psalm 52: 5-6); the righteous will rejoice when they see the wicked being dismembered by God and they will bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked (Psalm 58: 10); God will fill the nations with corpses (Psalm 110:6); God is praised for slaughtering little children in Egypt (Psalm 135: 8; 136:10); and God is asked to burn people to death (Psalm 140: 10).

Bonhoeffer and the Psalms

For me, the best introductions to not just reading and studying the Psalms, but praying them, and dealing with the great contradictions I find as I pray the Psalms, have been provided by the great German martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in three books, The Psalms: The Prayerbook of the Bible, which is a classic of Christian spirituality, Meditating on the Word, and Life Together, and by Walter Brueggemann, one of the most prolific writers in the area of Hebrew Scriptures, in his short book, Spirituality of the Psalms.

Like Bonhoeffer, I often find it difficult to pray many of the psalms. We can find their joy too high, their pains too sharp, their sufferings too distant. How difficult it is to pray the psalms of deep lament. How often I find it impossible to pray those imprecatory psalms calling for divine retribution upon the enemies of the righteous. But in his short theological interpretation of the Psalms, Bonhoeffer describes the moods of an individual’s relationship with God and also the turns of love and heartbreak, of joy and sorrow, that are part of the Christian community’s path to God.

Bonhoeffer wrote: “For years I’ve read the Psalter daily; there is no other book I know and love so well as this one. I can no longer read Psalms 3, 47, 70 and others without hearing them in the music of Heinrich Schutz. Knowing them in this way belongs to the greatest enrichments of my life.” Here, Bonhoeffer was writing to his parents on 15 May 1943 from his cell in the Nazi prison at Tegel. Throughout his life, he not only read the Psalms, but was spiritually formed by them as he became one of the greatest prophets and martyrs of the modern Church.

His simple yet rigorous discipline of reading the Psalms daily was instrumental in his spiritual formation and the development of his courageous spirit. His short book, The Psalms: The Prayerbook of the Bible, was written at the same time as he was writing Life Together and The Cost of Discipleship.

Bonhoeffer’s book is only 70 pages long, but in it he manages to set out how he and the community at Finkenwalde – the seminary he ran for the Confessing Church – read the Psalms. In order to find favour with the Nazis, German theologians reintroduced the Marcionite heresy that the Old Testament is dispensable for Christian teaching and New Testament interpretation. At Finkenwalde, Bonhoeffer made the discipline of prayer and meditation a vital part of theological training and the sustaining practice of their illegal Christian community, and their prayer book was the Psalter. After the seminary was forcibly closed by the Gestapo, Bonhoeffer wanted to pass on what he had learned through their life together and his experiences of the communal practice at Finkenwalde of praying the Psalms.

At the time of publication (1940), Bonhoeffer was under severe scrutiny and was required to present any work before it could be published. He was fined heavily when the nature of this work – theological exegesis on the Old Testament – was uncovered and the book was published without consent.

This book on the Psalms made a politically subversive statement. Bonhoeffer argued that the Psalms, regarded in Nazi Germany as a distinctly Jewish book, were the prayer book of Christ and that they are necessary for the Christian practice of prayer. He portrayed Christ as a first century practicing Jew, and his book on the Psalms was a significant political statement.

At Finkenwalde, the staff and students learned how to pray through the Psalter as the canonical prayer book. The daily reading and singing of the Psalms was an essential part of the formation of the students and of the community.

As Bonhoeffer wrote: “Wherever the Psalter is abandoned, an incomparable treasure vanishes from the Christian Church. With its recovery will come unsuspected power.” Against the background of a Europe at war, a church divided, and a nation engaged in genocide, Bonhoeffer’s study of the Psalms was a protest and yet offered hope. Bonhoeffer was concerned that the German Church had abandoned the Gospel for the sake of survival under the Nazis. He called on the Church to return to faithfulness to Christ in the midst of enemies for the sake of the enemies.

Central to Bonhoeffer’s thinking on the Psalms is that we do not know how to pray. When we are left to our own devices, we cannot find words of true prayer. We must join the disciples in asking Jesus: “Lord, teach us to pray!” (Luke 11: 1). With those words, Bonhoeffer begins his book.

Bonhoeffer has a keen sense for our hopelessness without Christ. Sin has permeated our whole being, even to the point of affecting our ability to discern what we really need. Bonhoeffer wrote: “It is not just that for which we ourselves want to pray that is important, but that for which God wants us to pray. Not the poverty of our heart, but the richness of God’s word, ought to determine our prayer.”

We are not the best judges of what we need to pray for. God tells us what we need and tells us how to begin to align our prayers with what God wants us to need. This is why Bonhoeffer turns us to the Psalms. He calls the Psalter “the great school of prayer.” In the Psalter we learn the language of prayer. There is a discipline to the practice of prayer. It does not come easy. Why should we expect learning to talk to God is going to be easy to learn?

Bonhoeffer talks about the Psalms as “the school of prayer.” He writes: “The child learns to speak because the parent speaks to the child. The child learns the language of the parent. So we learn to speak to God because God has spoken and speaks to us. In the language of the Father in heaven, God’s children learn to speak with God. Repeating God’s own words, we begin to pray to God. We ought to speak to God, and God wishes to hear us, not in the false and confused language of our heart but in the clear and pure language that God has spoken to us in Jesus Christ.”

We learn to speak by repeating God’s words to us and for us. The Psalms are God’s gracious gift to us. Through their words we learn how to speak the language of God back to God. We submit our self-centredness to God and allow him to shape our desires. This divine language we find in Psalms is “the clear and pure language that God has spoken to us in Jesus Christ.” Bonhoeffer makes the connection between God’s Word (Holy Scripture) and the Word made flesh (Jesus Christ). The language God speaks is the Word, Jesus Christ. All that God has spoken is through the Word. Thus these Psalms are given to us by God through his Word.

Bonhoeffer writes: “God’s speech in Jesus Christ meets us in the Holy Scriptures. If we want to pray with assurance and joy, then the word of Holy Scripture must be the firm foundation of our prayer. Here we know that Jesus Christ, the Word of God, teaches us to pray. The words that come from God will be the steps on which we find our way to God.”

When we pray in this language of God we are praying with Jesus Christ. When we pray the Psalms, Christ joins us in our prayers. “We pray together with Jesus Christ, prayers in which Christ includes us, and through which Christ brings us before the face of God. Otherwise there are no true prayers, for only in and with Jesus Christ can we truly pray.”

Bonhoeffer found it amazing was that in the Psalms we have both the Word of God and the prayers and songs of human beings. Later he writes that “the Psalter is the prayer of Christ for his Church in which he stands in for us and prays in our behalf … In the Psalter we learn to pray on the basis of Christ’s own prayer [and] as such is the great school of prayer.”

Bonhoeffer explains it this way: “In the first place, we learn here what it means to pray on the basis of the word of God, to pray on the basis of promises … In the second place, we learn by praying the Psalter what we should pray for just as surely as the range of the prayers of the Psalms goes far beyond the experience of any individual, we still pray the whole prayer of Christ in faith, the prayer of the one who was the truly human being and who alone has taken into his life the full range of the experiences of this prayer … In the third place, praying the psalms teaches us to pray as a community … the deeper we penetrate into the Psalms and the more often we ourselves have prayed them, the simpler and richer our own prayer will become.”

In the daily reading of the psalms we can allow our prayers to become expanded and transcendent as we stop focusing on our own wants and needs and begin to give priority to the wants and needs of others.

Bonhoeffer writes in Life Together: “A psalm that we cannot utter as a prayer, that makes us falter and horrifies us, is a hint to us that here Someone else is praying, not we; that the One who is here protesting his innocence, who is invoking God’s judgment, who has come to such infinite depths of suffering, is none other than Jesus Christ himself. He it is who is praying here, and not only here but in the whole Psalter … He prayed the Psalter and now it has become his prayer for all time? … Jesus Christ prays the Psalter through his congregation …

“Now that Christ is with the Father, the new humanity of Christ, the Body of Christ on earth, continues to pray his prayer to the end of time. This prayer belongs, not to the individual member, but to the whole Body of Christ. Only in the whole Christ does the whole Psalter become a reality, a whole which the individual can never fully comprehend and call his own. That is why the prayer of the psalms belongs in the peculiar way to the fellowship. Even if a verse or a psalm is not one’s own prayer, it is nevertheless the prayer of another member of the fellowship; so it is quite certainly the prayer of the true Man Jesus Christ and his Body on earth.”

Bonhoeffer says that the prayers written by and for the Davidic kings are most fully taken up on the lips of the Messiah, the David who was to come. Only he met the truest requirements of innocent suffering, of true righteousness, of just kingship, and of inheriting the covenant promises through his obedience. And so the Psalms are ultimately the prayers of Jesus. As such, they become the perfect prayers of the New Man to whom we belong and in whom we are found. When we pray the Psalms, we pray as Christ's body and in Christ. Our cries and praises come to the Father as if from the Son himself. And when the Son prays, he is never rejected: “Father, I thank thee that thou hast heard me. I knew that thou hearest me always” (John 11: 41-42, RSV).

Bonhoeffer also advised that “[e]ven if a verse or a psalm is not one's own prayer, it is nevertheless the prayer of another member of the fellowship.” Offering up petitions of sad lament, praises of glad adoration, pleas for justice can have this sort of transforming effect as we put ourselves in others’ shoes. And when the Psalms are joyful and I am not, I can thank God for blessings he is shedding that day on others whom he loves – people I don’t know and don’t see, but who are benefitting from God’s blessings. In that little book, The Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible, Bonhoffer shows us how the laments of the Bible also bring us into the heart of this paradox, this conundrum that seems irreconcilable this side of eternity.

The Psalms, he writes, “do not deny [suffering] or try to deceive us about it with pious words. They allow it to stand as a severe attack on the faith. Occasionally they no longer focus on suffering (Psalm 88), but they all complain to God. No individual can repeat the lamentation Psalms out of his own experience; it is the distress of the entire Christian community at all times, as only Jesus Christ has experienced it entirely alone, which is here unfolded. Because it happens with God's will, indeed because God knows it completely and knows it better than ourselves, only God himself can help. But therefore also must all our questions again and again assault God himself.

“There is in the Psalms no quick and easy resignation to suffering. There is always struggle, anxiety, doubt. God’s righteousness, which allows the pious to be met by misfortune but the godless to escape free, even God’s good and gracious will, is undermined (Psalm 44: 24). His behaviour is too difficult to grasp. But even in the deepest hopelessness, God alone remains the one addressed. Neither is help expected from men, nor does the distressed one in self-pity lose sight of the origin and goal of all distress, namely God. He sets out to do battle against God for God. The wrathful God is confronted countless times with his promise, his previous blessings, the honour of his name among men.

“ … There are no theoretical answers in the Psalms to all these questions [about God’s justice and motives], as there are none in the New Testament. The only real answer is Jesus Christ. But this answer is already sought in the Psalms. It is common to all of them that they cast every difficulty and agony on God: ‘We can no longer bear it, take it from us and bear it yourself, you alone can handle suffering.’ That is the goal of all of the lamentation Psalms. They pray concerning the one who took upon himself our diseases and bore our infirmities, Jesus Christ. They proclaim Jesus Christ to be the only help in suffering, for in him God is with us.

“ … But not only is Jesus Christ the goal of our prayer; he himself also accompanies us in our prayer. He, who has suffered every want and has brought it before God, has prayed for our sake in God’s name: ‘Not my will, but thine be done.’ For our sake he cried on the cross: ‘My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?’ Now we know that there is no longer any suffering on earth in which Christ will not be with us, suffering with us and praying with us – Christ the only helper.

“On this basis the great Psalms of trust develop. Trust in God without Christ is empty and without certainty; it is only another form of self-trust. But whoever knows that God has entered into our suffering in Jesus Christ himself may say with great confidence: ‘Thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me’ (Psalms 23, 37, 63, 73, 91, 121).”

Bonhoeffer was eventually executed in a Nazi concentration camp. He knew more than many about the difficulties in forgiving those who hate us. He wrote: “No section of the Psalter causes us greater difficulty today than the so-called imprecatory psalms … Every attempt to pray these psalms seems doomed to failure. They seem to be an example of what people think of as the religious first stage toward the New Testament. Christ on the cross prays for his enemies and teaches us to do the same. How can we still, with these Psalms, call for the wrath of God against our enemies? …

“The enemies referred to here are the enemies of the cause of God. It is therefore nowhere a matter of personal conflict. Nowhere does the one who prays these psalms want to take revenge into his own hands. He calls for the wrath of God alone (see Romans 12: 19). Therefore he must dismiss from his own mind all thought of personal revenge; he must be free from his own thirst for revenge. Otherwise, the vengeance would not be seriously commanded from [that is, prayed for from] God …

“God’s vengeance did not strike the sinners, but the one sinless man who stood in the sinners’ place, namely God's own Son. Jesus Christ bore the wrath of God, for the execution of which the psalm prays. He stilled God’s wrath toward sin and prayed in the hour of the execution of the divine judgment: ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do!’ No other than he, who himself bore the wrath of God, could pray in this way. That was the end of all phony thoughts about the love of God which do not take sin seriously. God hates and redirects his enemies to the only righteous one, and this one asks forgiveness for them. Only in the cross of Jesus Christ is the love of God to be found.

“Thus the imprecatory psalm leads to the cross of Jesus and to the love of God which forgives enemies. I cannot forgive the enemies of God out of my own resources. Only the crucified Christ can do that, and I through him. Thus the carrying out of vengeance becomes grace for all men in Jesus Christ …

“Even today I can believe the love of God and forgive my enemies only by going back to the cross of Christ, to the carrying out of the wrath of God. The cross of Jesus is valid for all men. Whoever opposes him, whoever corrupts the word of the cross of Jesus on which God’s wrath must be executed, must bear the curse of God some time or another …”

It is in the knowledge that God’s judgment is faithful and just that we can pray for his avenging of our enemies’ sin. For their evils will either be mercifully transferred unto Christ on the Cross or they will be brought to nothing in the working out of God’s eternal plans, for God does not wish “for any to perish but all to come to repentance” (II Peter 3: 9) – and as recipients of his grace and love we must share that same desire.

Walter Bruegemann and the Psalms of Negativity

Walter Brueggemann, who is one of the most prolific writers in the area of Hebrew Scriptures, has produced two interesting books in this area: Spirituality of the Psalms (2001), which runs to 76 pages, and his longer The Message of the Psalms (1984), which runs to 205 pages.

In the later version, Brueggemann seeks to offer words of comfort and understanding in light of the changes the events of 11 September 2001 have made on Western Biblical interpretation. Brueggemann states in the preface “these tragic events suggest how urgent the descent into disorientation is for the practice of faith.” He reminds the reader of the vibrancy of the Psalms for practical faith in today’s world.

Brueggemann looks at the Psalms from three major perspectives. Firstly, many of the Psalms relay a picture of “orientation.” Repeated psalm types among these psalms are Creation psalms, Torah psalms, or Wisdom psalms. These psalms each reflect an order present in the world. God is in God’s place and all is well in the world. A serenity of hope, or confidence in a divine order, permeates the psalms of orientation.

Secondly, Brueggemann says, certain psalms relay a different message, namely “disorientation.” He lists the individual and communal laments as examples of this type. Common among these Psalms is the sense of disarray that arrives when we encounter problems or storms in life. He says that the hymnody of Israel changes in many instances from confidence in a divine order to abject confusion or consternation on behalf of the psalmist(s). The psalms of disorientation play a vital role in the development of an informed, honest faith; a faith that allows the God of Israel and of the Church today to still be God in the midst of confusion or disarray.

Brueggemann rightly discusses the dilemma that most present day Churches frequently avoid the psalms of disorientation in favour of psalms of orientation.

The third major perspective he finds in the Psalms is in what he calls the Psalms of “new orientation.” These psalms are filled with images of God’s grace prevailing itself through times of peril, often emerging unexpectedly in aid of the psalmist(s) or the community at large. The hymns of praise along with songs of thanksgiving are afforded a place in this category. These describe words of joy, hope, and assurance of God’s continued presence in the world of the worshiper.

Brueggemann also seeks to address the issue of theodicy throughout the Psalms. For him, the issue of theodicy is best seen as reflecting various distinct “dimensions.” He states that theodicy is a religious crisis about the character of God. Theodicy is also to be viewed as a social crisis when evaluating life’s social inequities. Finally, theodicy can be seen as a revolutionary action seeking to change the rules of the game. Theodicy provides the arena for the implementation of the scheme necessitating a variety of psalms, including psalms of orientation, disorientation, and reorientation.

Brueggemann clearly accepts the limitations of categorising psalms in a convenient system. The varied psalms defy the interpreter to conveniently domesticate them into a pre-arranged order or category. Spirituality in the Psalms is his attempt to make his earlier work The Message of the Psalms meaningful to a broader audience.

The “psalms of negativity” are largely neglected by us because they sound so harsh and are so embarrassing. Yet they remain so relevant to the personal, pastoral, and public dimensions of Christian life today. Brueggemann claims that today “much Christian piety and spirituality is romantic and unreal in its positiveness ... But such a way not only ignores the Psalms; it is a lie in terms of our experience.”

And so, the “psalms of negativity” are profoundly subversive because they help us to embrace what we try so very hard to deny – the darkness, self-deception, and overall disorientation that characterises much of life. Our culture prizes success and control, and even does not like surprises. But the Psalms, says Brueggemann, point us to a two-fold movement of faith. First, we move from a settled orientation to a season of disorientation. Then, we move on to a new orientation that comes to us as a surprise gift of God’s grace.

Of course, this cycle continues and repeats itself throughout life. The “stunning fact” for Brueggemann “is that Israel does not purge this unrestrained speech but regards it as genuinely faithful communication” with God. That is no less true today than it was 3,000 years ago when the Psalms were first written. Far from being a literature that we should shun or explain away, the Psalms offer us a unique “healing candour.”

Readings:

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1970).
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Meditating on the Word (ed David McI. Gracie, Cambridge MA: Cowley, 1986).
Dietrich Bonhoffer, Life Together (London: SCM, 1954).
Walter Brueggemann, Spirituality of the Psalms (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2001).
Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1984).

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation at the Church of Ireland Theological College. This essay is based on the discussions at a seminar with Year I students on 21 February 2008 in the course on Christian Spirituality.

Abraham and Nicodemus: following God’s call

Patrick Comerford

RCL readings for the Second Sunday in Lent:

Genesis 12: 1-4a;
Psalm 121;
Romans 4: 1-5, 13-17;
John 3: 1-17.

May I speak to you in the name of the + Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.


For weeks, another preacher had been arranged for this evening. But family circumstances have called him out of the country today, and instead the lot has fallen on me.

During the last term, we had a series of testimonies here in the chapel, when students and staff members shared their own experiences of how they felt God’s call and how they responded.

Our readings this evening show us that God’s call can come in the most surprising places, and at the most surprising times. And how people respond to that call has consequences far beyond their expectations and imaginations.

Old Abram must have felt that he and Sarah were settling nicely into old age and into a nice home when the call came to him to get up and go, to leave his family home, and to move once again. It’s one thing to have young men seeing visions. It’s very disturbing for families when old men start to have dreams they want to act on.

At that age, what woman would want to get up and go on an old man’s whim, even if there is a nagging suspicion that her husband’s whim is founded on a call from God?

Nicodemus too may have been in advanced middle age when he comes to visit Jesus at night during Passover, and finds Jesus’ comments puzzling in the light of what may have been looming old age.

But the call to follow God can come at any time and at any age. The wide variety of ages and backgrounds in our student body shows that the Holy Spirit is neither chronologically nor socially prejudiced when it comes to calling us.

Although I wasn’t quite as old as old Abram, or as wise as Nicodemus, I was what they once called a “late vocation” when I was ordained at the age of 48. But on the morning I was ordained, Barbara turned to me and said she saw that day coming even when we were getting married over 25 years before that.

God’s call came to me not in advancing middle age, but in my late teens. As a brash and over-confident 19-year-old, I was trying to break into the competitive world of freelance journalism, getting my first breaks with the Lichfield Mercury in the English Midlands.

I am no wandering Aramean. But I had spent a few days hiking through Wenlock Edge and rural villages in Shropshire. I returned to Lichfield, and after dropping off my bags decided to head back into the centre of the cathedral city. I was enjoying life, and if you asked me my religious views they probably wavered between sceptical agnosticism and posed atheism.

And as I strolled in (looking forward to a good evening on the town), for the first time my imagination was taken by the tall Tudor chimneys of Saint John’s Hospital at the corner of Birmingham Road and Upper John Street. It is a centuries-old establishment, under church management providing sheltered housing for the elderly.

I was simply interested in it as an historical building. But once in the courtyard I decided to look into the chapel. It is an old building, with old pews. At first it appeared dark and I hesitated for a moment before making my way down a few steps and into the main body of the church.

Something was beckoning me on; it was as if I was being called to come closer to the Holy. And as I sat down to pause or think in the closing shades of evening, I was conscious for the first time ever that my life was filled with light and that this was the light of God.

I emerged dazed. I know that no matter how I responded, no matter what happened after that, I would know for the rest of my life that God loves me, that God loves me unconditionally, and that God loves me no matter what happens to me or in my life, whatever decisions I was to make.

What was I to do?

I didn’t know. I made way on down John Street, up Bird Street past the offices of the Lichfield Mercury, and into the Cathedral Close. I settled into the choir stalls in the cathedral, and sat through Choral Evensong, still tingling – rejoicing, leaping inside myself – happy being in the presence of God, and God being with me. It was if I had been born all over again, and my whole life was before me.

Outside afterwards, I was taken aback when one of the canons who greeted me at the door put his two big feet in it and asked whether I had come along because I was thinking about ordination. A few hours earlier, Christianity, commitment and the Church were as far away from my mind as you could imagine.

At the time, I thought he had put his two big feet in first. But as a monk in Glenstal Abbey says, coincidences can often be God’s way of giving us stage directions.

It was another 29 years before I was ordained. I didn’t know where God’s call was leading me that late afternoon in the summer of 1971.

Did Abram know what the consequences were of answering God’s call to uproot himself and to leave his own country? Later Sarah would laugh, not with a sense of humour, but at the sheer absurdity of what she was being askied to take part in.

How could she possibly have children, let alone believe that she and Abram would be ancestors to a great nation, that his descendants would inherit the whole world (Romans 4: 13), and that through their descendants they would be a blessing to the whole world, to the whole created order.

Abraham believed. He didn’t live long enough to see the consequences. Yet look at what happened eventually over the course of time. Our Gospel reading this evening translates a well-known verse by saying “God so loved the world” (John 3: 16) – in China, I was shocked to see this verse translated into Chinese in a way that it means “God so loved humanity” – “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.”

But the original is not as limiting as that Chinese translation; it is not even as limiting as the NRSV translation: the original tells us that God so loved the κόσμος – the whole pulsating, created order as imagined by Pythagoras and the philosophers – God so loved the cosmos that he sent his only son … [Οὕτως γὰρ ἠγάπησεν ὁ Θεὸς τὸν κόσμον, ὥστε τὸν Υἱὸν τὸν μονογενῆ ἔδωκεν …] Not that he gave insipidly, but that he sent actively, sent him on a mission.

When Nicodemus came to visit to Christ in the dark, during the feast of Passover, he too was surprised at the challenge he was offered to him at his age. I get the feeling that Nicodemus already feels he is growing old (John 3: 4). But he is invited into the Kingdom of God, he is invited to that new fresh invigorating feeling that the Spirit offers, the feeling that life is just starting now. He is called into the light (see John 3: 21 later).

We are not told immediately how Nicodemus responded to this call in his advancing middle age. Instead, after a lengthy reply from Jesus, the narrative moves swiftly in verse 22 to a new location and a story about baptism. The consequences of new life, and the gifts of the Spirit are entry into the Church and to move on to journey to a new location, the Kingdom of God.

So what were the consequences for Nicodemus?

Nicodemus is a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin. He appears again on two further occasions in this Gospel: when he risks his status and is pilloried as a Galilean when he defends Jesus before the Pharisees and priests (John 7: 45-51); and after the Crucifixion, once again at the Feast of the Passover, when he helps Joseph of Arimathea in preparing the body of Jesus for burial (John 19: 39-42).

In anointing the body of Christ for burial, Nicodemus provides us with a prophetic action. In his lavish preparation of the body for burial, he prepares him just as Lazarus had been wrapped in linen before his burial and his being raised to new life. In claiming the body of Christ for burial he is performing a priestly act, for at the heart of our priesthood lies presenting the world to God through Christ, and presenting God to the world in Christ, and doing this in word and sign.

The Nicodemus who came to Christ at night now claims his body before night falls. He moves from being concerned about his own safety to taking risks in faith.

Nicodemus in his careful though hasty preparation of the body is doing precisely what the women came to do on the morning of the Resurrection. He is about to find out what new life in Christ really means.

Nicodemus provides the link between the best in Judaism of his time and the Church of the future and the Kingdom of God (John 3: 5). He points us from the Cross to the Resurrection, from Good Friday to Easter, from darkness to light, from concern for myself and my own safety to engaging with God’s plans for the Church, for the world and for the whole pulsating created order, the κόσμος, which is invited into the Kingdom through the Church.

The Body of Christ is the Church. Nicodemus claims his place in the Church. He acts on his faith. But he could never have known what the consequences would be for him, for the Church and for the world because he first came to Jesus in the dark, because he engaged with the fact that this Jesus would die, because he claimed the Body of Christ and because he engaged in an Epiphany-like moment, revealing that the Christ who became his teacher, the Christ who was to be betrayed, the Christ who was executed, is also the Risen Christ.

Like Abraham and Nicodemus, we do not know why we have been called, where we were being called to, and what the consequences were of responding to that call, even when the future looks uncertain or insecure, no matter what age we are. All we are asked to do is to respond in faith and to be faithful. And in our faithfulness, we can pray that the God who has called us, the God we respond to, will use that call and response for his own great purposes for the Church, for humanity, for the world, for the κόσμος, and for his kingdom.

Sometimes, it is only in working through how we follow that call as disciples that we realise how God has been calling, prompting, leading us on, through all the days.

And when we are old and dream dreams, we can be thankful that when we were young we saw visions and responded (Genesis 40; Joel 2: 28; Acts 2: 17).

And now, may all our thoughts, words and deeds be to the glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological College. This sermon was preached at the College Community Eucharist on Wednesday 20 February 2008.