Measured by Weight

True prayer is measured by weight, not by length. A single groan before God may have more fullness of prayer in it than a fine oration of great length.

Charles Spurgeon

This resounds with what the Apostle Paul says in Romans 8:

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.

The Message translation captures it this way:

Meanwhile, the moment we get tired in the waiting, God’s Spirit is right alongside helping us along. If we don’t know how or what to pray, it doesn’t matter. He does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans. He knows us far better than we know ourselves, knows our pregnant condition, and keeps us present before God. That’s why we can be so sure that every detail in our lives of love for God is worked into something good.

Sometimes the only words we can get out are expressed by the Spirit of God in us:

When we cry “Abba! Father!” it is the Spirit Himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God . . . (Rom 8.15–16).

The Weight of Prayer

Jesus illustrates the weight of prayer when He told this parable:

“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said,

‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

This short, humble prayer has come to be known over the millennia as The Jesus Prayer:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

May your prayers as groans too deep for words be the weight measured by the one who is both the true subject and object of prayer.

May you know the comforting presence of the One who bears up the weight of your prayer.

Posted in Prayers, Proverbs | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Whatsoever may excite you to love

I till the ancient fields to find hidden seeds that lay dormant there. I have been contemplating a theme that 16th Century Teresa of Avila said about prayer:

… we must remember that the business of prayer does not consist in thinking much, but in loving much. Do, therefore, whatsoever may excite you most to love.

In respect to prayer – I have taken this to mean “do whatsoever may excite you most to love Jesus.” For a person who “thinks too much” (as I am apt to do), it is a wonderful invitation to be free to allow ourselves to “excite” our hearts to love God as best and as creatively as possible. In deed as the Westminster Catechism reads:

The chief end of mankind is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.

This theme of being made for praise and excited love is found in an antecedent source – as 4th Century Augustine begins his Confessions:

You arouse [us] to take joy in praising you for you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.

As he continues he soon prays:

Who will help me, so that you [God] will come into my heart and inebriate it, to the end that I may forget my evils and embrace you, my one good?

It is an unusual choice of words to ask that our heart be “inebriated” in order to embrace the love of God; but this is because Augustine realizes his need for God:

Too narrow is the house of my soul for you to enter into it: let it be enlarged by you.

In the early 18th Century Susanna Wesley, the mother of notable John and Charles Wesley, wrote to one of their other siblings saying:

Contrition… which proceeds from our love of God, surely comes when we meditate frequently on such subjects as will excite, cherish, and increase our love for [God].

What excites your love for God in Christ?

May you contemplate this theme as you grow to love the One who made a way back to love the One who made us for Himself by His good pleasure and for His good will.

Psalmic Therapy for the Passionate Love of God

It is helpful to go to the Psalms for Psalmic Therapy, as James Houston puts it.  In commenting on the 27 years it took Augustine to compile his massive Exposition of the Psalms, Paul Burns writes,

The power of the Psalms to instill and to express profound and passionate love for God is an important corrective to [our modern age].

Posted in Prayers, Proverbs | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Memorials of early Christian art The story of Jonah in early Christian art (Roman catacombs)

It may come as a surprise to modern Christians that the first use of the “Cross” as an important symbol of the faith didn’t really occur till 340 AD, nor was it the fish symbol that had become popular in the 1980’s. Instead one of the early images that Christians identified with was the rooster (?!).

Photo: Archaologisches Museum Frankfurt. Replica of an early 2nd century Roman cockerel terracotta.

For our early Christian brothers and sisters, the rooster meant “convictio” – the conviction of sin. This is based on the gospels reminding us that during the Last Supper, Jesus foretold of Peter’s denial: that he would deny Christ three times before the cock’s crow. Early Christians were aware of their own arousal to the conviction of sin, and to the need for forgiveness that comes through faith in Jesus’ sacrificial death and resurrection. The rooster, however depicted on their casket, was to say, “I was a sinner, I needed forgiveness, I am going to the One who has forgiven me, and who now welcomes me into His presence” (Lent and the Rooster Crow: Convictio!).

Lee Eclov elaborates on the carvings found in the Roman catacombs:

Beginning about 100 AD, 150,000 poor and powerless Christians were interred in the “sleeping spaces” (dormir) of the Roman catacombs. Christian gravediggers (who were held in honor by the Roman Christians second only to pastors) carved well over one hundred miles of tunnels out of the rock beneath Rome. Over 10,000 of those tombs were inscribed with epitaphs and very simple drawings capturing the exultant faith of Christians who had lived under constant threats for their faith.

Professor Greg Athnos began a life-long study of Christ’s resurrection when, as a young scholar, he was given access to the catacombs where he saw the illustrations of how triumphantly these saints died thanks to Christ’s great victory. [Note one of his lectures, in which Professor Athnos shares his findings].

Interestingly, in all those 10,000 images there is not one cross. The first cross doesn’t appear until 340 AD, after Christianity had become the official religion of Rome. What completely dominated the thinking of our early brothers and sisters were other images of God’s deliverance drawn from Scripture…

“Perhaps the most loved and most often told story in catacomb art,” Athnos writes, “is the story of Jonah and the Sea Serpent, appearing nearly 500 times. As the clearest allegory of Jesus’ conquering of death it fostered the hope of resurrection more than any other work.”

Of course, there are many images of Jesus Christ along with the stories and symbols of his life. Athnos writes, “The Christians who painted in the catacombs knew the promise of abundant life. They surrounded themselves with reminders and memorials of God’s deliverance in the miracles of Jesus.”

To read full article see “10,000 Testimonies from the Catacombs

What we learn from early Christian etchings, carvings, and art is that our earliest brothers and sisters in Christ were not captivated by a temporary self-referenced prosperity that passes in so much of today’s media. Instead they were captivated artistically with the deliverance we can have in Jesus, and with the ultimate deliverance from this often tortured life into His eternal life and the joy of His presence (Psalm 16:11).

With what reminders and memorials of God’s deliverance do you surround yourself?

For more in the theme of art read Eric Smith’s article, “Rethinking Early Christian Art“.

Posted in Proverbs | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

People are Lonely… Feed Them

Sieger Koder: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” Mark 2:15

In Radical Hospitality I commented on Sieger Koder’s painting above:

Koder was a artist who painted startling folky paintings featuring child-like simplicity of the characters, and depicting Jesus by reflection rather than description. We don’t actually see Jesus in this painting; we see people around the table looking at Him – and it looks for all the world that they seem to be looking at… You. You are the person through whom Jesus practices radical hospitality.

I was reminded of this when I recently came upon Meaghan Ritchey’s reflections during the long months of quarantine:

“People are lonely,” writes New York Times food editor Sam Sifton in his cookbook See You on Sunday. “They want to be part of something, even when they can’t identify that longing as a need. They show up. Feed them. It isn’t much more complicated than that.”

Meaghan Ritchey, Director of Communications & Marketing, Image Journal.

It really isn’t much more complicated than that.

Posted in Proverbs | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Through the Aperture of His Wound

‘The Incredulity of St. Thomas’ by Caravaggio (circa 1601)

In the painting by Caravaggio, Jesus takes Thomas’ hand whereupon Thomas fits his finger into the speared side wound of the risen Christ to confirm to Thomas that He is, indeed, alive. It is a dramatic image, and connects me to something John of Avila (1499 – 1569) said to his compatriot nun, Theresa of Avila to encourage her in understanding the mystery of her worth:

“How long will you continue in your minute self-examinations? It is like raking up a dust heap from which nothing can come but rubbish and unpleasantness. Feel sure that it is not for your own merits, but for those of Christ crucified, that you are loved and made whole. Do not give way to such discouragement about your faults. It would be far betterto be courageous and strong-hearted and to meditate on the benefits that you have received through Jesus Christ in the past and possess now… As I have often repeated, God loves you as you are… what more have you to wish for? In heaven, there is one to whom you appear all fair for He looks at you through the apertures of the wounds that he received for you. By these he gives you grace and supplies what is lacking in you, healing you and making you lovely. Be at peace!”

To this James Houston notes in his “Letters from a Hospital Bed“:

Like the young ruler in the encounter with Jesus, John of Avila found himself unable to ‘do’ enough to warrant his own sense of merit. John was stuck in bed when he longed to be a missionary in Mexico… And John, in his letter, invites his friend to embrace her adequacy in Christ, not her inadequacy in her own eyes. In a way, I now understand the perspective of John of Avila, that it is through an emptied self, a so constrained self, that Christ is able to work more fully. These letters to you, my friends, are part of that journey for me. May you each, in your own hearts, respond with gratitude for the high place you hold in God’s heart, and set aside your inability to make your own self, righteous.

My prayer for you is “may God’s mercy shelter you beneath His everlasting love and for this, I bid you hope”.

Please pray also for me, the same, and to the same Lord, who loves us all.

This Good Friday, may we see ourselves through the aperture of His wounds.

Posted in Current Events | Leave a comment

Build a Longer Table

There are many reasons people have concocted ways to keep people out. Subtly even the beginning phrase, “When you have more than you need..” suggests it is only when you have more than you need that you build a longer table.  The reality is, hospitality is not always convenient, and even when we do not feel as if we have more than we need, inviting others to our table reminds us – or astonishes us that we have enough – even more than enough.

Surely the Parable of the Good Samaritan does not pose the Samaritan as having had more than he needed.  The suffering, needs, and poverty of others is inconvenient and yet necessary in order to be humane. Jesus tells this story in answer to the question, “who is my neighbour?” and His answer bewilders those who have justified building walls of exclusion. Jesus addresses the real question: “to whom am I a neighbour?

There is no doubt that to those who have been given much, much will be required. But do those who have much recognize the ultimate source of their wealth? Alas, the rich never really know how rich they (we) are.

Nevertheless, the image above resonates with the poem by Jan Richardson: “The Table will be Wide“, and with the radical hospitality Jesus demonstrates.

During this time of world conflict may we consider ways of inviting others to our table.

As Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed:

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit together at the table of brotherhood.

This coming Easter may we find ourselves building longer tables.

For more see “A Muslim, a Jew, a Christian, and an Atheist walk into a bar…

Posted in Proverbs | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

You find it hard to believe, but…

Getty Images

When it comes to God’s unfailing love – His steadfast, loyal, self-giving love – God’s jealousy for us is not a “compound of frustration, envy and spite, as human jealousy so often is, but appears instead as a (literally) praiseworthy zeal to preserve something supremely precious,” writes J.I. Packer in his landmark book, Knowing God:

None of the limitations of human creaturehood are implied of God… Those elements in human qualities which show the corrupting effect of sin have no counterpart in God.

God’s jealousy over his people… presupposes his covenant love; and this love is no transitory affection, accidental and aimless, but is the expression of a sovereign purpose. The goal of the covenant love of God is that he should have a people on earth as long as history lasts, and after that should have all his faithful ones of every age with him in glory. Covenant love is the heart of God’s plan for his world.

The closest we might come to a pure jealousy is that of a parent for their child, for if a parent is not zealous for the welfare of their child, what is the strength of that bond – of that deep familial desire for the security and flourishing of their child?

God uses this language of a mother’s love for her child when He said to the prophet Isaiah:

Can a mother forget the baby at her breast
    and have no compassion on the child she has borne?
Though she may forget,
    I will not forget you!
See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands...

Or consider how Song of Songs captures the holy jealousy of lovers in this rather parabolic or allegorical expression of Jesus and His Beloved:

Place me like a seal over your heart,
    like a seal on your arm;
for love is as strong as death,
    its jealousy unyielding as the grave.
It burns like blazing fire,
    like a mighty flame.
Many waters cannot quench love;
    rivers cannot sweep it away.
If one were to give
    all the wealth of one’s house for love,
    it would be utterly scorned.

Unfortunately jealousy is often a corruptible characteristic in humans – betraying a controlling, petulant, self-centred possessiveness. Not so with God’s love and hence His jealousy – the expression of unfailing and protecting love that draws us to Him in worship. His jealousy – or – His zealous love for us draws us out of a self-referenced hyper-individualistic life apart from God and intensified in loneliness. His zealous love is expressed in protective and redemptive jealousy for the health of our souls.

Recently a young person speaking to the beauty of God’s jealousy, asked us to respond to this question:

“What might God be saying to you today about His jealous and covenantal love? Journal in the first person as if God is speaking to you directly.”

I wrote:

You find it hard to believe, but I delight to show you over and over again that you are my beloved, and I will not love without you, and I will not live without you.

I desire to reveal the very things about me that inspire worship, awe, and holy fear in you, because I know you love that – because I know you love me.

Let us be zealous for each other.

Let us be jealous together.

What do you hear God saying to you?

For more on the loving jealousy of God, see J.I. Packer’s chapter on “The Jealous God“.

Thanks for lesson taught by Amy Israelson (author of More Beautiful for Being Broken: Scrubbing my Soul).

Posted in Poems, Proverbs | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment