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Unto You

Walter Brueggemann’s Prayers for a Privileged People arrived in my mailbox this morning.  On page one, I read these words:

The pastor says, “Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open…”  We rush to the next phrase, but now we linger there.  We ponder our hearts… our deepest feelings of love and devotion, our closest organ of vitality, our place of deep decision-making, our instrument of being fully ourselves.

Our hearts—that throb for contact with you—our hearts are open.  They are not always open by our choice, for we would sometimes like to close our hearts and our minds and our hands.  But they are open, because our hearts cannot resist your steady care and address.  Our hearts are open for you, very God.  You are the one who has made us so that our hearts are restless till they rest in you.

Do your mysterious, majestic God-ing with our hearts: reclaim, renew, re-enliven, that we may leave your presence transplanted, transformed, transposed, become by your attentiveness whom we have not yet embraced, open and receptive, honest and undefensive, unafraid and committed to obedience.

Let the pulse of our heart throb now, according to the cadences of your rule; command and we will obey, overrule and we will yield, lead and we will walk where we never thought to go.

Unto you… not unto each other, not unto our pet projects, not unto our favorite charity or passion.  Unto you… our hearts are open; we are yours; be our God—yet again.

I’m going to like this book.

11 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ken #

    What is it about this prayer that you like?

    Brueggemann’s prayer is like a Psalm, or many Psalms, but has a more modern sound, more modern concerns. To me, it is a Psalm for an age that no longer believes, at least not in full the way our ancestors did.

    I just acquired the Heavenly Harmonies CD by Stile Antico and was listening to it when I read your posting here.

    One of the songs in Heavenly Harmonies is a variation of Psalm 5:1-2, a variation written for a home Psalter in the 1500’s – for private prayer: “Expend, O Lord, my plaint of word in grief that I do make. My musing mind recount most kind; give ear for thine own sake. O hark my groan, my crying moan, My King, my God thou art. Let me not stray from thee away, to thee I pray in heart.”

    This prayer is similar to Brueggemann’s prayer, but not the same. In the Parker prayer, the voice is concerned that it might stray from God. In other prayers of that era this alludes to yielding to the enemy of God. In Brueggemann’s prayer, the voice declares its heart open to God and wants to be ravished by God – ravished, as in Donne’s poem/prayer, Batter my heart. But in Donne’s poem, as in many other prayers of his time, the fear is imprisonment of the soul by the enemy of God. In Brueggemann’s prayer there is no such fear. Instead there is longing, just longing. Brueggemann’s prayer is the voice of one who feels abandoned, which is one of the feelings that accompanies the death of God, the age of disbelief.

    Psalm 5 is different from both of these prayers and from Donne’s poem in that the enemies in the Psalm are the nations that surrounded and oppressed Israel. It is not the soul or the longing of the heart that is at stake. It is, I think, as Taylor observed, that we have made of the faith of Israel something different and inward.

    September 29, 2009
    • I think it does read like a Psalm for a world that can no longer believe—or at least finds it difficult to believe. I think it also represents an acknowledgment that sometimes we don’t want to believe, and we don’t want to live according to the belief that we do have. As I read it, there is a recognition that the heart is prone to wander and to follow rival gods—that we humans are and have always been inventive avoiders of God. I suppose the prayer grabbed me because I see both of these dynamics at work in my own life.

      September 29, 2009
  2. Paul Johnston #

    Like Psalms are, I think this is an important type of prayer for a man. It seeks to stretch him beyond the security of self contained rational understandings and move him towards an emotional intuit authored and orchestrated by the Lord his God.

    I believe for myself that, loving tenderly as scripture encourages, has helped give substance to the notion of personal surrender to the Lord. My natural disposition, apart from efforts towards this state of surrender, seems by comparison, to be so much less untowards my God, my self and my brothers and sisters on earth.

    Whatever this love thing truly is, of this I’m certain; It is something outside of me that I am priviledged (I really like that understanding) to share in. It’s origions aren’t with me.

    Ken, maybe the Christian understanding of “inwardness” is the neccessary precursor to outward expressions of love. When our understanding, through Christ, that “Israel” is more than one place and one people but rather all places and all peoples, outward unanimty, tribal custom, culture if you will, will alone, no longer suffice as a means of establishing His Kingdom . In fact, apart from an understanding of something else, one can easily make the arguement that such “outwardness” does as much harm as it does good.

    Something deeper, more personal and equal and available to all, is required.

    September 30, 2009
  3. Paul Johnston #

    …”As I read it, there is a recognition that the heart is prone to wander and to follow rival gods—that we humans are and have always been inventive avoiders of God. I suppose the prayer grabbed me because I see both of these dynamics at work in my own life.”…

    Amen, brother, amen.

    September 30, 2009
  4. Paul Johnston #

    BTW, a more developed “Marian” ecclessiology is a great help to a man’s persuit of the fullness of love.

    There’s always a Catholic tool in the shed when you need one. 🙂

    September 30, 2009
  5. Ken #

    Brueggemann’s prayer recycles the psalms. In Brueggemann’s prayer, the throbbing of the heart refers to an emotion associated with longing for God. In Psalm 38 the throbbing of the heart does not refer to an emotion. It refers an illness, an affliction.

    In the first paragraph of his prayer, Brueggemann tries to connect his word “heart” with the ancient meaning of that word in Israel, but the meaning of that word in his prayer is thoroughly modern – having much more to do with feelings than it did in ancient times.

    The recycling began long ago, even before the New Testament recycled the prophecies in the Old Testament. So Brueggemann is not doing anything new or controversial really. Considering the low level of Biblical literacy today, few people would even notice it for what it is.

    As for me, I think of Emily Dickinson’s poem, “Wild nights! Wild nights!” when I long for God: “might I but moor tonight in thee.” I suppose I am recycling her poem. No one really knows what it means, or who “thee” is.

    There is danger in recycling. We never know what is fair in that regard. In some of the Psalms people prayed that God would awaken to rescue Israel. (That may have been recycled in the story about Jesus asleep in the boat.) But awaken did not mean from death, as it does now in the context of the disbelief we call the death of God. It only meant that God would act again on behalf of Israel. The Psalmist never thought that God was dead, that God did not exist. The Psalmist did not suffer from our crisis of faith, only from exile and outward affliction. Is our recycling fair? Is it plausible? I worry that it is not.

    Emily Dickinson alludes to this danger in another poem: #109 in The Single Hound, the poem that begins, “Who were the Father and the Son we pondered when a child.” The last stanza begins: “We start, to learn that we believe but once, entirely – Belief, it does not fit so well when altered frequently.”

    Brueggemann’s prayer, like my own, reminds me of my disbelief, that something is wrong with the fit.

    September 30, 2009
    • For the most part, I don’t have a problem with “recycling” Psalms. There is always the possibility that people will make unwarranted applications of Scripture, including the Psalms. At least in the case of the Psalms, though, they seem to be designed to be recycled. As you say, many of the NT writers interpret them in ways that go beyond what was (or could have been) in view at the time of their composition. The Jewish practice of midrash also seems to do this.

      A lot depends on your theology of Scripture, I suppose. If you believe that Scripture represents a psycho-religious artifact of particular times and places and not much more, you will be hesitant to grant applications of it that go beyond or differ too much from how it would have initially been heard/interpreted.

      If you acknowledge that the context of Scripture matters immensely, but also believe that God in some sense supervised its composition/collection in order to tell the story of the whole world and how it will be redeemed, then it’s not too much of a stretch to presuppose that it can/does speak to more than one cultural context in more than one way.

      Obviously, the testimony of many people is that this is, in fact the case; people continue to see their story told in Scripture, despite the fact that it was written long ago, often in literary forms that are fairly foreign to us. Equally obviously, many do not accept this and see the Bible as little more than a record of how people once thought about God. A lot depends on where you come down on this question, it seems to me.

      October 1, 2009
      • Ken #

        I can see how one’s theology of the Bible does affect the way one sees recycling, and whether or not one even uses the word “recycling” to describe what is happening.

        As you know, the liberal theological background from which I come has sometimes described the Bible as a “psycho-religious artifact of particular times and places and not much more.” I remember hearing the expression, “the Bible should be taken with a grain of salt.” But there are more mystical ways, less reductive ways, in which to describe the Bible within theological liberalism. The best, in my opinion, is the way James Kugel puts it in How to Read the Bible, that the Bible became the Bible a few centuries before Christ when Israel first apprehended what it meant to be drawn close to God. And it became the Bible for gentiles when they first apprehended the same in the first centuries of the Christian era. That is essentially a way of understanding inspiration and it means, in Kugel’s (and my) assessment, that the way the people of Israel or the early Christians read the Bible is its meaning. Personally, and I think in the case of Kugel too, when I read the Bible in that old way without recycling I feel a connection with that time of inspiration. It is something like returning to the moment of creation, which in Eliade’s analysis is one of the things religious man has always sought.

        I am less able to describe what happens within evangelical theology. I do know that it is different. My use of the word recycling is something I learned at the university studying the Bible as an ancient text, part of the history of the ancient near east. I doubt that the word fits “recycling” fits in evangelical theology. I imagine it is better to describe it the way you have.

        October 1, 2009
  6. Paul Johnston #

    Hey Ken, I really like the way you explain yourself. You are very knowledgeable and well educated yet at the same time you reflect a spiritual sensability that is, if not somewhat suspicious of knowledge and intellect, reflects a notion that even if all the reductive processes lead to a bottom line conclusion, there’s still some stuff to reckon with.

    Your writing, to me at least, embodies mystery; it’s contradictions and it’s insecurities.

    Given that you are so friggin smart and still willing to be overwhelmed, unbelieving and vulnerable, speaks of a man with a very loving heart.

    I hope you are able to embrace, without regret or question, a custom that allows you to fully express your sense of the mystic.

    From my reading of your responses here and from reading your blog, I sense someone who has the heart of a prophet.

    The Nag

    October 1, 2009
    • Ken #

      Thank you for the compliment and expression of hope, Paul.

      October 3, 2009
  7. Dave Chow #

    Ammmmazing book Ryan. A refreshing book of prayers.

    October 3, 2009

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