Expanding Our Definition of Charity

I came across another great quotation for Lent from Victor Hugo’s novel, Les Miserables:

[Monsieur Madeleine] had entire confidence in this overseer, a very respectable person, firm, just, upright, full of that charity which consists in giving, but not having to the same extent that charity which consists in understanding and pardoning.

Let that one sink in. How often are we willing to give to a cause to help people we see as less fortunate as us, but we are at the same time unwilling to understand the lives of those very people and forgive those behaviors we find distasteful?

Do we give money and gifts in kind to a homeless shelter and yet shake our heads with disgust at the homeless man or woman asking for money at the intersection? Will we write checks to organizations fighting human trafficking and still angrily judge the prostitute?

We are invited to expand our definition of charity beyond merely giving money or material goods (necessary actions, to be sure). Charity can also consist of understanding and pardoning others. True charity requires all these aspects. A charity without understanding and pardon is a patriarchal, drive-by kind of caring. A charity with understanding and pardon is the beginning of solidarity. Expressing this type of charity is when we become more like Christ, who does not keep us at arm’s length, but who knows us and our situations intimately. His real charity in understanding our lives allows him to pardon us and give us what truly helps.

During Lent, may we ask the Holy Spirit for the grace to broaden our definition of charity. May the Holy Spirit give us the courage to express the charity of understanding and pardon.

“The Politics of Praise” Excerpt: Worshiping Yahweh in the Midst of Gods

The following is the first essay from my new devotional, The Politics of Praise: Devotional Readings on Psalms 72 & 146, available both in the Kindle format and paperback at Amazon.com.

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Worshiping Yahweh in the Midst of Gods

Some years back I took a tour of the National Mall in Washington, DC. The religious nature of the place struck me. I do not mean Christian, but religious. The giant buildings, the beautiful architecture of the monuments, the larger than life sculptures of national figures all evoke awe and wonder from visitors. When I stood in the Capitol Rotunda at the east end of the Mall, I looked up at the giant fresco Constantino Brumidi painted on the inside of the Capitol’s Dome. In “The Apotheosis of Washington,” George Washington, representing America as a whole, sits in the heavens, surrounded by goddesses and figures of ancient mythology as he becomes a god. At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial people mourn and pray for loved ones who died in that war. The area around the black stone wall is as hushed and solemn as a church sanctuary before a funeral.

At the west end of the National Mall the giant statue of Abraham Lincoln sits on his throne gazing out over America like the Greek god Zeus. Consider the epitaph, dripping with sacred terminology, inscribed in the Lincoln Memorial: “In this temple as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever.” The National Mall’s architecture and sculpture are as religious as the Vatican’s. The buildings and statues urge us to revere the nation and the government they represent. Being at the National Mall reminded me religion and politics inhabit the same space. Politics will adopt religious language and symbolism and religion has its own political agendas.

Many people find the idea of mixing Christian faith with politics troubling. We worry religion will force itself on the state and seek to establish a theocratic dictatorship, or the state will co-opt religion for its own purposes, confusing patriotism for our commitment to God’s kingdom. To be sure, we have historical examples of these negative outcomes happening. Thus we hear voices telling us not to mix faith and politics, to keep faith out of the seats of government, and to keep politics out of the pulpit.

Eugene Peterson addresses our hesitation to mix religion and politics:

The people who warn that “religion and politics don’t mix” certainly know what they are talking about. The mix has resulted in no end of ills—crusades, inquisitions, witch hunts, exploitation. All the same, God says, “Mix them.” But be very careful how you mix them. The only safe way is in prayer.[1]

For followers of Jesus, keeping religion and politics separate is a dangerous move that relegates faith to the private sphere where we reduce prayer to mere requests for personal comfort and blessing. We also reduce Jesus to a self-help guru whose only concern is our fulfillment. Despite the serious malfunctions of Christianity’s political involvement, we also see magnificent benefits for the common good when Christians have brought their faith into the public square—the Civil Rights movement in the United States under the very religious leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr. being an obvious example.

Readers of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures cannot escape the deeply political nature of these texts. God does not deal only with the private lives of the people of Israel and the Church. We see God shaping and clashing with people groups, including nations and governments. Neither does God use political terms like justice and peace as if they are empty containers void of any concrete meaning. Rather, God defines these concepts. We read about Yahweh’s expectations for neighbors to peacefully interact with each other. The Bible brims with God imploring people to act justly toward the most vulnerable people in society.

The majority of God’s people throughout history have learned to pray using the psalms. If we mediate on them they will teach us how to pray for our civic life, that is, how to safely mix religion and politics. This devotional will guide readers through praying Psalms 72 and 146, two psalms that shaped the political and religious life of the people of Israel. These psalms offer us a vision of God’s political agenda and give us the means to hold our leaders accountable. They do not exhaust all the Book of Psalms or the Bible say about politics, but the pictures of justice and wellbeing found in them are consistent with other political passages in Scripture.

Readers will pray through Psalm 146 first. This brief hymn minimizes the importance of government leaders, praises Yahweh for being eternal and powerful, and describes God’s political agenda. Praying Psalm 146 will correctly order our relationships with God and our political leaders. The psalmist reminds us of the transience of government officials and their agendas. If we were to only pray Psalm 146, however, we might think God says governments are unimportant. Therefore readers will then pray through Psalm 72, a prayer for governmental leaders. The psalmist describes the kind of good governance that God blesses. This prayer becomes our measure for how well our leaders do their job.

How do we maintain our focus on God when we stand before those majestic statues on the National Mall? How do we keep our commitment to Yahweh first even as other powers, especially our governments, demand our allegiance? How do we pursue God’s agenda in public and hold our leaders accountable to that agenda? I believe the answer to all these questions must start with prayer. In this devotional guide I will not offer a comprehensive vision for how Christians are to engage in public and civic life. I do know, however, that a comprehensive vision of mixing faith and politics will be anemic if it does not begin and remain saturated with prayer.

[1] Eugene H. Peterson, Where Your Treasure Is: Psalms that Summon You from Self to Community (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985) Kindle Edition, locations 103-105.

Surprise, Lament, and the Maladjusted

This morning I was reminded of one of my favorite sayings from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. He describes our need to foster surprise. I would say that surprise is a necessary part of our relationship with God. Our surprise at God’s greatness and goodness leads to praise. Our surprise at evil and suffering allows us to lament. And our surprise at salvation gives rise to thanksgiving. I’ve used this quotation before, but it is so good that it demands repeating from time to time. Heschel said:

I would say about individuals, an individual dies when he ceases to be surprised. I am surprised every morning that I see the sunshine again. When I see an act of evil, I’m not accommodated. I don’t accommodate myself to the violence that goes on everywhere; I’m still surprised. That’s why I’m against it, why I can hope against it. We must learn how to be surprised. Not to adjust ourselves. I am the most maladjusted person in society.

The psalms of lament similarly show a lack of accommodation to evil and violence. In fact the writers of the laments are utterly surprised by evil because they believe that God is good and that peace and justice are supposed to define this life. Out of their surprise the psalmists complain and protest. The psalms of lament keep us maladjusted and give us words to combat injustice.

For those who want to explore the prayer of lament more, I have written a brief devotional on one of the psalms of lament, entitled, My Companions are in Darkness: Devotional Readings on Psalm 88. It is available both as an eBook in the Kindle format and in paperback.

How the Psalms Teach Us to Pray

In my reading today, I came across this quotation from Walter Brueggemann and it’s too good to not reproduce in its entirety. He captures what it means to be a people of the book. In this case, that book is the Book of Psalms, and our action is prayer. Brueggemann teases out the implications of learning to pray the Psalms. They give us words to pray as well as show us how to create prayers using our own words. (Text in italics is Brueggemann’s emphasis, text in bold is mine.)

The psalms function both as acts of prayer themselves and as invitations to other prayers beyond these words. As an act of prayer, the psalms witness to the ways in which this community has always prayed, from its first “belief-ful” utterance until our own practice of the same speech as an act of prayer. The community uses, reuses, and reuses these same words because the words are known to be adequate and because we have no better words to utter. The initial speakers of these words understood that prayer cannot be thought, but must be spoken. At the source of this prayer tradition, the community found a particular, peculiar spokenness that we still speak: a spokenness that is daring and subversive, attuned to the reality of human hurt, to the splendor of holy power, to the seriousness of moral coherence, and to the possibility of cosmic and personal transformation. The community has found these words and modes of speech faithful, adequate, and satisfying because the original articulations of prayer have—in our judgement, in our faith, and in our experience—gotten it right. We boldly reuse their speaking in our speaking.

The psalms function not only as discipline and instruction about how to pray but also as invitation and authorization to speak imaginatively beyond these words themselves. These words in the psalms initiate a trajectory of dangerous speech that we can continue. We not only reiterate these prayers in their timeless words now found timely but are authorized and nourished by these words to find our words, fresh words that are more resonant to our own experience, more congruent with our own life, more crucial for our own faith. Thus our best speech of praise requires our best inventiveness. Our most candid speech of lament permits words that live close to our deepest hurt and our most intimate groan. We pray in our own time and place, from our own experience, and out of our own faith, and therefore in our own words. The psalms both permit and generate such inventiveness.

The inventiveness of our own prayer, however, stands always in an odd relation to the norm of the psalms themselves. The very psalms that invite our inventiveness also expose much of our inventiveness as trivial and trite, unworthy for this awesome conversation. We then move back and forth between these classic acts of prayer and our own inventiveness. We find in the psalms both models and permits. We stand under their discipline, and we are authorized by their freedom. In this movement out of the psalms and then back into them, we are speakers for ourselves. We are at the same time speakers through the countless generations, continuing the prayers and the speech begun for us long before us. (“The Psalms as Prayer,” in The Psalms and the Life of Faith, 33-34)

Hard-Won Thanks: “Delivered from All My Fears” Excerpt

The following is the first essay from my new eBook on the Kindle format, Delivered from All My Fears: Devotional Readings on Psalm 34.

Hard-Won Thanks

Delivered from All My Fears CoverThe stories, prayers, and poetry in the Bible overflow with the theme of salvation. God lifts people out of danger and oppression and transports them to safety and freedom. God brings people home from exile. God forgives sin and sets people on a new path. We love these stories because we long to see salvation brought into more areas of our lives and our world. We have also experienced similar deliverance and can relate to the need to express gratitude to God. While the Bible describes salvation in exceptionally beautiful terms and we know its sweetness, we cannot neglect the dark side of salvation, the fact that there is some evil or injustice from which we need to be saved. In the Bible, the thanks to God for salvation never comes easy—it is hard-won, emerging from a place where defeat and death seemed assured.

This little guide will help you prayerfully read through Psalm 34 in twenty-two days. The people of Israel and the Church have used the Book of Psalms as their prayer guide and hymnal throughout history. The Psalms have much to teach us about prayer if we simply slowed down and allowed their poetry to usher us into a world that deals directly with the joys and sorrows of life as well as the God who is immediately available.

There are psalms that praise God when life is good and ordered (e.g., Psalm 1). Then there are psalms—laments—that cry out to God when things go wrong (e.g., Psalm 88). There are also psalms that thank God for deliverance from evil or harm. These thanksgiving psalms do not deny the tragedies, losses, and disappointments of life. They follow lament, but only after the speaker has been rescued. Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann calls these Psalms of thanksgiving or testimony, “Psalms of new orientation.”[1] I like the term “new orientation” because deliverance does not necessarily return the world to what it once was—the loss and pain still happened. Instead, God reaches into the pain and establishes something original, creating an altogether new order in which that pain is redeemed, not eliminated. Psalm 34 is one of those psalms of new orientation. It is an incredibly powerful and beautiful psalm born out of an experience of deep terror and magnificent rescue. Yahweh serves as the hero and delivers the psalmist from fear and trouble. Psalm 34 does not deny the reality of terror. Rather, it vividly recalls the fear the writer felt and praises a God who rescues people.

As you read and pray, bring your whole life forward. Bring your memories and plans, your doubts and certainties, your fears and hopes, your losses and victories, your questions and conclusions. Like the writer of Psalm 34, place them before God with honesty. If you have been rescued from trouble, let thanksgiving flow. If you long for the ability to thank God again you could prayerfully allow Psalm 34 to shape your desires, or perhaps it would be more helpful to spend time with a psalm of lament. The Psalms invite us to be real before God. So come, pray with God’s people, giving praise to the God who saves us from fear and trouble.

[1] Walter Brueggemann, “Psalms and the Life of Faith: A Suggested Typology of Function,” in The Psalms and the Life of Faith, ed. Patrick D. Miller (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), 13ff.