Plato reportedly said that most of his students needed the whip, whereas Aristotle needed the bridle.
“I doubtless hate pious language worse than you because I believe the realities it hides.” – The Habit of Being, (28 June 57)
Our Wednesday night men’s group is reading Tokens of Trust by Rowan Williams. I’ll be posting some thoughts on the book over the next few weeks. I highly recommend it.
Rowan Williams is many things. Poet, pastor, playwright, Welshman, and, until recently, the leader of the third largest Christian Church on the planet. As Archbishop of Canterbury he served the Anglican Church worldwide in the midst of turmoil and division. While serving in that capacity, Williams was able to avoid the fragmentation of his church. Now retired, he is serving as the Chancellor of the University of South Wales.
Williams’ Tokens of Trust is a small, pastorally minded book. It is an introduction to Christian faith not unlike C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity. Writing seventy years after Lewis, Williams speaks to a new generation that is less likely to be convinced as the audience of C.S. Lewis. For the modern person Williams eloquently sets out what “Christians can expect each other to take for granted.”
In his first chapter, Rowan outlines the crisis of trust in today’s world. His vantage point in Great Britain doesn’t keep him from understanding life here in the States. Most of us are skeptics, distrusting other’s motives, and cynical about those institutions, like government and the church, that are supposed to exist for the common good.
The problem of belief in God, trust as Williams describes it, is clear. It is hard to trust in a benevolent and almighty creator when those who represent that creator have behaved so untrustworthily. In a world as our own why would anyone want to believe?
He meets this crisis of confidence with a description of a good God who creates humankind not out of need within himself but out of unselfish love. This is the traditional conception of God. Perfectly content as Father, Son and Spirit, God needs nothing. Therefore, whatever he does beyond himself is simply because of God’s desire to do so. Though we may doubt it from time to time, creation itself is a sign that God is good.
... this means that God can’t have a selfish agenda, because he (God) can’t want anything for himself except to be the way he is. So if the world exists because of his action, the only motivation for this that we can even begin to think of is sheer unselfish love. He wants to give what he is to what isn’t him; he wants difference to appear, he wants an Other to receive his joy and delight. He isn’t bored and in need of company. He isn’t frustrated and in need of help. (pg. 12)
This raises some important questions for people who believe in the God described in Scripture and Christian history. Can we trust someone that doesn’t expect us to fulfill their own needs? What motivation does this kind of someone (in this case God) have?
The best reading raises great questions. In the weeks to come I hope to see you raise some of your own.
Here’s one last quote for the road:
What the Bible puts before us is not a record of a God who is always triumphantly getting his way by doing miracles, but a God who gets his way by patiently struggling to make himself clear to human beings, to make his love real to them, especially when they seem not to want to know, or to want to avoid him, and retreat into their own fantasies about him. (16)
“the health of self-forgetfulness”
Do you remember the poem by Wendell Berry that speaks of the “health of self-forgetfulness?”* It is hard to even consider the concept isn’t it? Self forgetfulness seems impossible. We live in bodies that cry out for food and drink along with all kinds of desire. We grow tired by days end and our bodies and minds cry for rest. How on earth can we forget about ourselves when our very bodies are crying, worn out, hungry and lonely?
Self-forgetfulness is made more difficult through the world of advertising. We are barraged when we turn on the TV or radio, when we look at our laptops or smartphones, and when we drive down the road. Advertisements remind us of what we want more than what we need. They cause us to desire for things we didn’t know we wanted.
So how can we experience the “health of self-forgetfulness” in a world that encourages such self-consciousness and selfishness?
When I answer that question with the word prayer I can’t help but feel trite. But I still think that prayer is the answer.
In Mark 2 we see Jesus getting away to a solitary place in order to pray. Inspired both by this verse and by necessity Christians have learned the practice of getting away in order to pray un-self-consciously. But retreat is not always available in our workaday world.
Fasting is another discipline that assists us in our journey toward self-forgetfulness. Fasting from food or other good things can serve to draw us toward a less self-oriented faith and more mature prayer.
Praying the Daily Office from the Book of Common Prayer
Let me propose another means of praying toward self-forgetfulness. For Wendell Berry, “the health of self-forgetfulness” comes when he is overwhelmed by something greater. In the case of the poem it is creation itself with beautiful sunsets and wintry hills that inspire him to transcendence. Similarly, for people who pray, self-forgetfulness comes when we are overcome with prayer that is greater than ourselves, greater than our immediate needs and desires. Specifically, when we pray the words of those who have gone before us, when we make Scripture itself a central part of our praying, it becomes deeper, richer and a platform from which our own words take on new life.
Like praying the Psalms praying the Daily Office is an experience that takes us out of ourselves, and directs our attention to God. The Daily Office is comprised of four “hours” or “offices” of prayer. There is morning, midday, evening and compline. Compline is a brief prayer time designed for the moments just before sleep.
Each of these “offices” includes Psalms, the Lord’s Prayer and a variety of other Scriptures. In addition, the Morning and Evening “offices” include a prayer of repentance and the Creed.
Praying the Daily Office provides scaffolding around which our own specific prayers, even the ones focused solely upon ourselves, can be built. We not only pray for ourselves but for our neighbors and our friends. We even pray for our enemies. We pray not only for our needs but for the needs of others. At least twice a day we pray that God’s Kingdom would come; that what happens in heaven would happen on earth. Would we pray this on our own without Jesus telling us to?
Praying the Daily Office can be intimidating. Most of us don’t own a copy of the Book of Common Prayer. Those of us who do don’t always know where to go in the book to find what we’re looking for. Let me recommend thetrinitymission.org to you. This website is created by a new friend of mine who lives in Central Texas whose goal is to make the Daily Office accessible to all kinds of people. It is designed for those who have experience praying the Office and for those who have never heard of the practice.
The Trinity Mission: Audio Daily Office
Simply go to thetrinitymission.org and you can read a version of the Daily Office. I recommend the tab that says 1979 Rite II. This is the version of Daily Office that we occasionally pray in our worship services.
After opening that tab you’ll discover two things. First, the text of the Daily Office will open in front of you. All you have to do is scroll down the text on the screen. One nice thing about it is that the Scripture readings and Psalms are already prepared for you. You don’t have to look them up or look up which verses or Psalms are to be read for the day. You would have to do this if you had a hardcopy of Book of Common Prayer.
Second, at the top of the page, you can click on an audio file where you will hear that version of prayer prayed. You can pray along or you can simply read along. If you’re the type of person who listens to audio files while you exercise you can even listen to the office while you run.
If you are like me you didn’t grow up in an environment where praying this way was encouraged. For many of us it is a little strange. You might question the value of praying ancient poems like the Psalms or the prayers composed by others as in the Daily Office in the Book of Common Prayer. This is understandable.
There remain several good reasons for praying the Daily Office or praying the Psalms. Let me highlight just two:
1) Praying the Daily Office reminds us that we belong to “the great cloud of witnesses” (Heb 12:1) and reconnects us to our spiritual roots. Christianity didn’t just emerge in the last 100 years. Our faith has deep roots and a rich tradition and our practices should reflect this.
Some Psalms are almost 3000 years old! The Book of Common Prayer is a collection of Psalms, Scripture readings and prayers written by our spiritual forbearers and is almost 500 years old. Praying the Office and praying through the Psalms is one way for us to participate in the “communion of saints” by sharing in the very words that our sisters and brothers have prayed through time and history.
2) Praying the Psalms or Daily Office enhance our prayer lives by creating structure for our experience. Imagine these modes of prayer creating that scaffold around which our prayers rise to God. Each is a form of worship that prepares our hearts to pray and gives us words when we struggle with what to say. Further, the Psalms and the Office are a way to get us into prayer when our words just don’t seem adequate or when we simply have nothing to say.
We are more than halfway through the Lenten Season. Easter is only 19 days away! There is still time to make this Lent a time where you not merely fast but where you pick up a new practice of prayer, one that may last a lifetime.
Click here for thetrinitymission.org.
Lent is not only a time of fasting but it also, and most importantly, a time for prayer. The hunger pangs of lent are there to inspire us toward prayer and repentance.
Let me encourage you to think deeply about your prayer life this Lent. How might you invigorate it? Let me suggest two things that might enhance your praying this season.
First, pray the Psalms every day. I’ve attached a sheet drawn from the Book of Common Prayer that provides you with the Psalms to read every morning and evening of the month. I’ve actually penciled these into my Bible. (For example: M11 equals morning prayer on the 11th and E28 stands for evening prayer on the 28th of the month.) This order is known as the canonical praying of the Psalms and it takes you from Psalm 1 through to Psalm 150 each month. You’ll find yourself reading more than one Psalm at a time but each selection is roughly the same length.
At times you may find that the assigned Psalm doesn’t share any point of connection with your life. It is still good to read and pray the Psalm because it may become a source of encouragement or strengthening at a future time. More often though, you will discover that the Psalm for the morning or evening fits your life perfectly. You may find the Psalm praying for you—putting into words what you were wrestling with but couldn’t describe.
Click here for the Daily Psalm readings: Psalter~Morning and Evening
Another approach to prayer is a little bit more involved. On Monday I’ll discuss the value of praying “The Daily Office” from the Book of Common Prayer.
I know for a while again,
the health of self-forgetfulness,
looking out at the sky through
a notch in the valley side,
the black woods wintry on
the hills, small clouds at sunset
passing across. And I know
that this is one of the thresholds
between Earth and Heaven,
from which I may even step
forth from myself and be free.
~ Wendell Berry, Sabbaths 2000
those who have learned
to love one another
have made their way
to the lasting world
and will not leave,
~ Wendell Berry, Sabbaths 1998