The gift of ears

“I will hear what the Lord God speaks within me”

Thus begins Book III of The Imitation of Christ (Book IV in some editions). The words are actually a paraphrase of Psalm 85:8 – restated by the author in the pure gold of personal inner experience. The Bible verse is more general:

“Let me hear what God the Lord will speak,

for he will speak peace to his people,

to his saints, to those who turn to him in their hearts.”

In my opinion, Book III of The Imitation is the spiritual heart of the whole work. It contains writing so high and unusually bold that it is easy to imagine that it was purposely placed after the admonitions and warnings in Books I and II – so that potential readers might be ‘screened’ for humility.

“Blessed is the soul that hears the Lord speaking within her, and receives from his mouth the word of consolation.  Blessed the ears that catch the pulse of the divine whisper, and take no notice of the whisperings of this world.” (Bk III, Chap 2)

I want to suggest that ‘the gift of ears’ ought to be among the spiritual gifts listed by Paul – which of course it is not. But I think the New Testament does much to suggest the importance of inspired hearing.

What is most important to understand is that the “divine whisper” is never given for group prophecy – they are never a means by which a listener may lord it over neighbor or church. Always are they to be received as personal admonition and enlightenment.

For example, a prayer like this one, which the author makes, clearly evokes a level of responsibility which everyone must choose for himself. It cannot be forced upon members of the group who are not prepared:

Let not Moses, nor any of the prophets, speak to me;

Speak Thou, rather, O Lord God, the inspirer and enlightener of all the prophets;

For Thou alone, without them, can perfectly instruct me; but they, without Thee, will avail me nothing…

They give the letter, but Thou dost disclose the spirit.

They announce mysteries, but Thou dost unlock their secret meaning.

They declare the commandments, but Thou dost enable us to fulfil them.

They point out the way, but Thou givest strength to walk in it.

They work outwardly only, but Thou dost instruct and enlighten the heart.

They water without, but Thou givest the increase. (Book III, Chap 2)

 

I think the ‘gift of ears’ – rightly used – is a likely candidate for an expanded list of spiritual gifts – I would go so far as to say it is the master-key to all gifts of the Spirit:

Do Thou speak, O Lord my God, the eternal Truth,

lest I die and prove fruitless,

if I be admonished outwardly only, and not enkindled within;

lest I be condemned at the Judgment

because the word was heard and not fulfilled,

known and not loved,

believed and not observed. 

(Book III, Chap 2)

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The last 2,302 words from the cross (Pss 22:1 to 31:5)

if Jesus was in fact praying the Psalms on the cross, Mark supplies the origin (Ps 22:1) and Luke the terminus (Ps 31:5) of the Lord’s final conscious string of prayer.

According to Mark, Jesus is heard by bystanders to have spoken from the cross words which are found in Psalm 22:1, “My God, My God, Why hast thou forsaken me?” (Mk 15:34).  Most commentators will admit (even if they disagree) that an old interpretation of this text claims that Jesus might well have been ‘praying the Psalms’ to himself in Aramaic during that last forsaken hour.

However, Mark further relates that these bystanders believed Jesus was calling Elijah, and offered Jesus a sop of soldier’s wine, waiting to see if Elijah would come for him.  It is not until after this interlude that physical death comes when, as Mark writes, Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last (Mk 15:37).

According to Luke, the addition at Mk 15:37 doesn’t tell the whole story.  Luke has reason to report that the last loud cry which Mark reports on the lips of Jesus just before he breathed his last was in the form of actual words:  “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit!”  Unbelieving Jesus scholars won’t like this, but I think Luke’s report of more speech is easier to accept than the idea of Jesus letting rip with one of those hideous screams that actors use when playing the bad guy falling off the cliff – AAAAUUGH!  Seriously?

Luke has given us a beautiful devotional window opening onto the mind of Jesus at the hour of his death.  Because these words reported by Luke are also from the Psalms (31:5).  This means that if Jesus was in fact praying the Psalms on the cross, Mark supplies the origin (Ps 22:1) and Luke the terminus (Ps 31:5) of the Lord’s final conscious string of prayer.

For Lent, then, it might be worth a shot to try ‘praying the Psalms’ with Jesus from the cross (Ps 22:1 – 31:5).  In faith imagine that you are experiencing a bit of what was actually passing through the mind of the Christ in the last few minutes of his material existence.  Put a little cheap wine on your tongue somewhere in the middle of it all.

PS – My word-count 2,302 is based on an English version I found online and copied to word processing for tabulation (minus choir directions and verse numbers).  I don’t know what it is in Aramaic.

Prayer, hard work, and God’s unchanging providence

With help from Kierkegaard I advanced some ideas last month about prayer to an unchanging God, and here I want to start some related thoughts about God’s providence.  A theology with no theory of prayer is a study without a method.  All real theologies describe and account for the function and object of prayer, and this always relates back to their theories of divine providence.

First principles should be simple and biblical, and I think a good theory of material providence can be founded on a saying of Jesus about the manner of God’s care for the birds.

“…look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them” (Mt 6:26).

Most importantly for any good principle of providence, this one does not rule out hard work.  Because anyone who follows the advice of Jesus and actually takes a ‘look at the birds’ will see that they work their little tails off all day long seeking and finding all their free provisions.

An abundance of seeds and water, of insects and other prey are available to the birds by their habitual conformity to material laws as they find them.  This kind of material providence doesn’t feature a ‘system’ designed by the birds nor a being who is propitiated by the birds.  It is instead a system which supports the very possibility of material good.  In my view, God’s perfect material providence works for us in the same way (I’ll get to the spiritual later, and the problem of evil).

Why does Jesus give no place in his material providence to purposeful (anxious) work such as sowing, reaping, and storage?  Doesn’t God help those who help themselves?  But sowing and reaping are not despised – Jesus built plenty of teaching material around the whole subject of agriculture.  And yet no farmer brings in a good crop if his acts are not in conformity to the same unchanging laws as God has laid out for his feeding of the birds.

In the same verse Jesus asks, “Are you not of more value than they?”

Divine material providence (like competition between species) is one of those delicate situations calling for this kind of rhetorical question which invites us to join the teacher’s thought on the next level (i.e. we don’t take these words as justifying any dissing of the avian races 🙂 ).

For Jesus I think ‘the next level’ is the level of our material anxiety, especially our vain hopes and false fears for tomorrow.  But he’s not giving in to these.

1.  He doesn’t suggest that we have in fact a claim on God’s love to bind him to special provisions of material needs.

2.  He’s not suggesting that any laws are subject to change to suit these needs.

3.  And in no way is he suggesting that special consideration is due to any farmer as reward for ‘good behavior’ that is not related simply to good farming.

This providence gives no place to ancient pagan beliefs – that a farmer or his priest may request dispensations of rain, or sunshine, good germination, absence of pests, tall corn, efficient harvest, and a fine excess.  This providence suggests only gracious prayers of thanksgiving for God’s loving foundation of unchanging material and spiritual laws.

(to be continued)

Kierkegaard – Praying to an unchanging God

“Prayer does not change God, but it changes the one who offers it”

– Soren Kierkegaard (1847)

We misunderstand Kierkegaard’s meaning here if we think he’s saying prayer doesn’t reach God.  Neither is he calling prayer a one-way street, or a futile method of venting hope and desire, or a technique of problem-solving by self-hypnosis.

We Christians know that ‘God does not change’ (Mal 3:6); ‘shows no partiality’  (Rom 2:11); ‘nor shadow of turning’ (Jas 1:17).  But we have also been invited to pray (Mat 9:38 & etc.).  How’s that going to work then?

The average person might admit the Bible teaching but not recognize the theo-logical importance of a concept of an unchanging God.  The point is that prayer  invoked with the idea that God may be changed or show partiality tends to move our worship in the direction of an imaginary being of our own creation – a man-made god.  A prayer made in expectation that God will fulfill our needs and desires is a wish to make God more like us.  This is opposed to that faith which would make us more like God.

Kierkegaard recognized the religious need to reach God – to be heard – and the theological value of the concept of an unchanging God.  He preached an address in May, 1851, entitled “The Unchangeableness of God” (Jas 1:17-21), in which he developed the religious sense of this paradoxical situation – the human need  for change from a God who must be – by the Bible and the best theological definitions – unchangeable in nature.

From the opening prayer to the 1851 address:

“… Even that which we human beings call an insignificant trifle, and pass by unmoved, the need of a sparrow, even this moves Thee; and what we so often scarcely notice, a human sigh; this moves Thee, O infinite Love!  But nothing changes Thee! O Thou who art unchangeable!  O Thou who in infinite love dost submit to be moved, may this our prayer also move Thee to add Thy blessing, in order that there may be wrought such a change in him who prays as to bring him into conformity with Thy unchangeable will, Thou who are unchangeable!”

I think Kierkegaard’s insight was to recognize that impassibility (freedom from suffering) was not a necessary quality of divine immutability when considered in the context of an unchanging love.

What God gets in this arrangement is a man who seeks in his prayer time the  next move in the continuous change he should be making in the direction of more and more God.

What man gets is a God that hears him, and even suffers affliction with him (if need be) in unchanging love.

Note:  Top quote,  Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing (2. “Remorse, Confession, Repentance”) – ET D.V. Steere, 1938; 1851 address, in For Self-Examination and Judge for Yourselves! (Princeton, 1941)