Wednesday, May 19, 2004

The Practice of Prayer

Creating a Life with God: The Call of Ancient Prayer Practices, a review
Daniel Wolpert (Upper Room Books, 2003). 192 pp.

Wolpert's work is a brief examination of different prayer practices that have endured throughout the history of Christian spirituality. It is not an academic treatise; it is a "how-to" text, peppered with quotations from primary authors, and enlivened by the author's own prayer practices.

Creating a Life with God introduces readers to the following prayer practices:
  • Silent Prayer, as introduced by the Desert mothers and fathers of the Christian tradition
  • Lectio Divina, sacred reading of scripture (not merely "bible study") introduced by St Benedict of Nursia
  • the Jesus Prayer, introduced in The Way of the Pilgrim as a way of continual prayer
  • Apophatic Prayer, contemplative prayer in the tradition of the Cloud of Unknowing (and the model of Pennington and Keating's "Contemplative Pryaer")
  • the Examen, the examination of God's movement in our life and actions, as taught by Ignatius of Loyola
  • Creativity, discovering the play of God in life, following the example of Hildegard of Bingen
  • Journaling, listening for the voice of Heaven in our writings, as taught by Julian of Norwich
  • Body Prayer, finding the breath of God in our own breathing practice, and rediscovering the sacred nature of our bodies (vis-a-vis the Song of Solomon)
  • Walking Prayer, examinging the spiritual life as a true physical journey (includes the Labyrinth)
  • Nature, hearing God in the voice of Nature, as guided by St Francis of Assissi
  • Prayer and Living in the World, putting prayer into our daily lives, following the model of the Beguines
  • Prayer in Community, or creating a true community of faith at work.

What Wolpert does with this book is introduce a practice, discuss very briefly its tradition and history, and then--more importantly-- teach us how to explore this method of prayer. The book ends with an appendix containing step-by-step instructions on how to introduce the prayer in private and group practice.

It is not about making us deeply powerful pray-ers as much as it is trying to find ways to reintroduce the practice of prayer so that it infuses our daily lives. The book is incredible as a short introduction to multiple practices.

What's my take on it? I can tell you now I'm likely to avoid journalling. I already blog; I write a lot. I love writing. Perhaps at times I can find the voice of God in the written words that I produce, but I want to not add to how much I have to write.

I've always liked the Jesus Prayer--in essence, repetition of "[Lord] Jesus Christ, [Son of God], have mercy on me [a sinner]." (As you can see, it can be simpler or more complex to your tastes." I first read about it years ago in J.D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey. When I first read that book, with its reference to some esoteric little prayer text called "The Way of the Pilgrim", I was intrigued--and I was overjoyed in college when I learned that it was a real text. If I were to try some prayer practice routinely, I honestly believe this would be it. I can see a purpose and value ot the others, including lectio divina, but this is the one that draws me the most. We'll see.

Monday, May 17, 2004

Love, God, and Murder

I recently went shopping at Borders for three Johnny Cash CDs: thematic compilations of his music on "Love", "Murder", and "God". (Now available as a boxed set, of course.)

Two of these were available. I couldn't find the third one no matter where I looked.

When I got to the cash register, one of them was on sale.

The moral of the story?

Murder is cheap.
Love is costly.
No matter where you looked, God couldn't be found.

Saturday, May 15, 2004

A Look at the Psalms

The Psalms have played a significant role in personal and corporate Christian worship. One of my current interests is reading the psalms--as devotional literature, as literature of grief and hope, and even as poetry. I'm not reading them as a translator or exegete: any interptretation is phenomenological, resting on the interaction between the text and the reader.

Now I say this but I'm not attempting an unguided reading. My companions through the Psalms are Walter Brueggemann's Spirituality of the Psalms and Denise Dombrowski Hopkins' Journey Through the Psalms. As I gain any insights from these texts, I'll add them.

Because I'm also looking at the language of the Psalms, I'm interested in comparing various translations--not vis-a-vis their linguistic integrity as much as their poetic power, and even simply as examples of how literature in translation can be so malleable.

Take, for example, the well known 23rd Psalm--probably the only Psalm most believers know that they know. (There may be snippets of language from the Psaltery that they are familiar with, but unknowingly so.) Here's the translation from the King James Bible:

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
(Ps 23:1-4, KJV)

Sound familiar? Thought so.

Now let's look at it in other translations.

Next up we have the translation from the Bay Psalm Book--printed in 1640, the first book printed in the United States:

The Lord to me a shepherd is; want therefore shall not I:
He in the folds of tender grass, doth cause me down to lie:
To waters calm me gently leads restore my soul doth he:
He doth in paths of righteousness for his name's sake lead me.
Yea, in valley of death's shade I walk, none I'll fear:
Because thou art with me, thy rod, and staff comfort me.

The cadence seems forced and doesn't sound very smooth or natural. To my ears at least, it is not very successful. It is good if you want a crowd to drone in rhythmic unison but not really care about content. And, to the ears of contemporary readers, a bit too resonant of Yoda grammar.

The KJV and the Bay Psalm Book are examples from the 17th century. Let's look now at five examples of more recent translations, two of them in "contemporary" English.

I'm rather partial to the New Jerusalem Bible (1985) for its readability. (Blame it on my RC upbringing.) How does this translation treat the 23rd Psalm?

Yahweh is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
In grassy meadows he lets me lie.
By tranquil streams he leads me
to restore my spirit.
He guides me in the paths of saving justice
as befits his name.
Even were I to walk in a ravine as dark as death,
I should fear no danger, for you are at my side.
Your staff and your crook are there to sooth me.

Not entirely poetic, and maybe even blandly prosaic--but still quite direct, and even effective as a statement of faith and assurance.

Now let's take a look at the Jewish Publication Society's (JPS) translation, also from 1985.

The Lord is my shepherd;
I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
He leads me to water in places of repose;
He renews my life;
He guides me in right paths
as befits His name.
Though I walk through a valley of deepest darkness,
I fear no harm, for You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff--they comfort me.

Very simple--and to me, lovely. Not overdone, a solid, faithful utterance in a subtle rhythm. (Read it aloud. Pause. You'll see it too.)

Now, what about the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), the translation typically preferred by academics? How does it sound?

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths for his name's sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me.

Not bad, not great. It sounds, to me, like a watered down KJV--an attempt to maintain the language of familiarity.

Finally, we'll look at two translations into contemporary English. First we'll start with Eugene Peterson's "The Message":

God, my shepherd!
I don't need a thing.
You have bedded me down in lush meadows,
you find me quiet pools to drink from.
True to your word,
you let me catch my breath
and send me in the right direction.
Even when the way goes through Death Valley,
I'm not afraid
when you walk at my side.
Your trusty shepherd's crook
makes me feel secure.

It certainly adds a nuance or two that makes the psalm less like a series of metaphors and more like utterances of what God has done. But otherwise...its a bit blah. I don't mind this translation, particularly if you need or want to read more dry parts of the Bible, but keep away for anything poetic. (Sorry, Eugene.)

Finally: a look at Jim Cotter's Psalms for a Pilgrim People, which is not so much a translation as a rewording.

Dear God, you sustain me and feed me:
Like a shepherd you guide me.
You lead me to an oasis of green,
to lie down by restful waters.
Quenching my thirst, you restore my life:
renewed and refreshed, I follow you,
a journey on the narrowest of paths.
You keep me true to your name.
Even when cliffs loom out of the mist,
My step is steady because of my trust.
Even when I go through the deepest valley,
With the shadow of darkness and death,
I will fear no evil or harm.
For you are with me to give me your strength,
Your crook, your staff, at my side.

Wow. I really like that. Poetic in its own right, a translation of ideas more than literal words, what the author calls an "unfolding" and an "amendment". I'm not sure I would use it for regular corporate worship, when I think people should learn the language of the Psalms through a conventional translation--but quite useful for special occasions, and also something I like for personal worship.

Monday, May 10, 2004

The Vineyard and the Prison

I have been reading over the American mistreatment, neglect, abuse, and torture of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib, and I am disgusted. I don't have time to reflect on a deeper commentary, but I'm not sure what this says about the human condition or about what the culture of war breeds in its warriors.

However, since the Invasion of Iraq is touted by its supporters as an act of liberation in the cause of justice, I am forced to turn (again, and again) to the Song of the Vineyard (Isa 5:1-7).

How does this mesh with our supposed acts of justice?

Read it for yourself.

The Song of the Vineyard

I will sing for my beloved
my love-song about his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard
high up on a fertile hill-side.

He trenched it and cleared it of stones
and planted it with red vines;
he built a watch-tower in the middle
and then hewed out a winepress in it.

He looked for it to yield grapes,
but it yielded wild grapes.

Now, you who live in Jerusalem,
and you men of Judah,
judge between me and my vineyard.

What more could I have been done for my vineyard
that I did not do in it?

Why, when I looked for it to yield grapes,
did it yield wild grapes?

Now listen while I tell you
what I will do to my vineyard:

I will take away its fences and let it be burnt,
I will break down its walls and let it be trampled underfoot,

and so I will leave it derelict;
it shall be niether pruned nor hoed,

but shall grow thorns and briars
Then I will command the clouds
to send no more rain upon it.

The vineyard of the Lord of Hosts is Israel,
and the men of Judah are the plant he cherished.

He looked for justice and found it denied,
for righteousness but heard cries of distress.

(Isiah 5:1-7, NEB)
He looked for justice in Abu Ghraib and found it denied,
for righteousness but heard cries of distress.

Sunday, May 09, 2004

Building Bridges

This morning I was one of the speakers at Universalist National Memorial Church , which had a "Bridging" ceremony as part of its Sunday service. I gave the Young Adults reflection, since I have some sort of special relationship with the Young Adults at church. (I'm the token fun adult perhaps.)

Here's the text for my untitled reflection. It was relatively well received (at least by the adults!)

We have come here today to celebrate the young adults in our family who are making transitions in their lives, and it is my privilege to offer a few words of reflection for these young adults. I specifically call these words of “reflection” and not “wisdom,” because I strongly believe in uplifting the wisdom of our youth, who have a sense of openness and a willingness to experience both the joys and anxieties of change as they leave behind the comfort of familiar places and move into unfamiliar territories.

I think it is fair to say that “young adulthood”—a fairly relative and vague designation!—is a time filled with these transitions. Some people like to say that this is a time of “growing up”, of leaving childhood behind and entering the equally vague territory called adulthood. This concept of growing up can be presumptuous, and I’ve never liked the feeling that “growing up” is something you do between 15 and 25 and then bam! You’re there, you’re a grown up. Certainly we can speak authentically about the need of growing into individuality and responsibility, but I’m not sure that this comes at a certain age. We’re all under the obligation to continue learning and growing, even a little bit, day by day. And let’s recognize that young adulthood is a time filled with expectations from family, friends, and society—expectations made all the more difficult as they are trying to meet the demands of school, work, and struggles over questions of identity. It is a time of many transitions and many stresses, and it takes some wisdom to navigate this perilous odyssey through an undiscovered country.

I can remember these earlier days in my own life distinctly: from my later years in high school, into my early years after college, I was constantly trying to figure out who I was. This wasn’t a terribly philosophical question as much as it was practical: What did I want to learn? Where do I want to work? What did I want to do with my life? (Footnote: fifteen to twenty years later, the questions haven’t changed much. There’s just less anxiety with the lack of specific answers.) During this time, I sought the advice of friends and elders, but ultimately what I had to learn was to hear my own voice. This is why, perhaps the best thing I can tell the young adults who are reaching new bridges on their journey, is to be open to the experiences of others who’ve crossed ahead of you, but the journey is still yours. Their mistakes are their lessons, and not your own. Be keen to your own wisdom. Be patient with yourself, give yourself the chance to make mistakes (and you will make them!) and be confident that you can learn your own lessons in life and grow into true wisdom.

I am reminded of the words from a Chicago Tribune article made famous through an Internet hoax and then a song by Baz Luhrmann. This text, a commencement address (misattributed to Kurt Vonnegut via the Internet hoax), basically advises caution about advice: It suggests, “Be careful whose advice you buy, but be patient with those who supply it. Advice is a form of nostalgia. Dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it's worth.”

Now, before anyone pulls me aside and accuses me of encouraging rebellion or recklessness, I’m not saying to be foolhardy. I’m not saying that all advice is something to categorically ignore. I am saying, listen to it, and weigh it against your own life story and your needs. I would dare suggest that if our elders had not made the mistakes that they made they would not be the very wise people that they are today trying to sagely give advice and offer guidance. Mark Twain once said (if I can quote roughly), “Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment”. Wisdom is a capacity open to all people, and it can only be cultivated by immersing ourselves in life’s many experiences, by crossing the bridge into unknown lands.

I wish we had a different concept, a metaphor other than “bridging”. Certainly, it is a metaphor that works well with the notion of life as a journey. It implies transition and a very distinct movement from one place to another, a changing of territories and terrains. Graduation certainly suggests this. Moving into or out of a faith community, a college, or a home certainly suggest this. And while crossing a bridge is a useful metaphor for entering a new territory, it also implies leaving something behind.

A close friend suggests different language is more useful. She prefers the metaphor of a book: In your life changes, you are closing one chapter of your life, and opening another chapter. But it is a chapter that builds upon the previous chapters, creating a fuller, richer story. You’re going to meet new characters, open new plot-lines, and reconsider the lessons of the prior chapters; but you’re adding to your story and enriching it, carrying those completed chapters into the future. Nothing is left to the wayside or consigned to the past of yesterday’s journey.

So I stand here with our congregation and honor the chapters you’ve already written, and say to you, go with courage and a sense of adventure. Write a new chapter to your life, and remember that at any point you can turn back to older pages and read them with a new perspective. Realize and claim your own voice of wisdom in these pages. And realize, as you move forward into your unexplored future—we’re all moving with you as well, writing our own chapters, creating with you a shared story of life and love and wisdom. We haven’t crossed the bridge ahead of you: we’re all on it together. Amen!

Saturday, May 01, 2004


Yes, a moment of domesticity.

Here's the new doggie, Andi, in his sporty new doggie goggles (a.k.a. doggles).

Derek and I got Andi through Coast-to-Coast Dachshund Rescue on April 17, 2004. His name was Andy but we had to personalize it somehow. Andi is the Hindi word for the plant that produces the Camphor bean, a.k.a. Palma Christi.

He's 2 years old, and he's spoiled rotten.

The Mother of Theology

Apocalypse, a review.
Pablo Richards (Orbis Books, 1995). 184 pp.

The Revelation to John is a hard book to swallow. Constructed of a symbolic language and presenting an arcane cosmology, it seems to belong to another world entirely. Indeed, many Christians today are left wondering what to do with this final book of the New Testament. For some, it is an interpretive oddity, offering nothing of value for contemporary Christians struggling to live their faith in a post-modern world. For other Christians, it is a blueprint for God’s plan for the end of time, and its language is decoded to understand what signs and symbols will usher in Christ’s Second Coming. There is, of course, a range of interpretive possibility with Revelation, and Pablo Richard’s Apocalypse: A People’s Commentary on the Book of Revelation offers an uncommon way of examining Revelation through liberation hermeneutics. It is a compelling interpretation, though one not likely to be endorsed by many fundamentalist or literalist interpreters. For Richard, though, Revelation is neither futuristic doom-saying or ancient oddity; instead, apocalyptic is so foundational to understanding the Christian revelation, that it is the mother of theology. It is through this lens that he reads and interprets Revelation, and Apocalypse offers a radically different, and hopeful, way of reading Revelation and understanding the future.

If you're interested in the review (5 pages, written for a class), send me a note.