Nouwen: happy are those who carry the Psalms in their hearts

Giovannino de Grassi Psalm 118 (119), Biblioteca Nazionale Florence via wikimedia commonsSince my time in seminary I have been praying the Psalms according to the two month plan offered in the  Book of Common Prayer.    The Psalms, of course, have served as perhaps the greatest source of wisdom and guidance in the history of Christian worship and spirituality.  They are indeed “the prayer book of the Bible”  (Bonhoeffer), and can give voice to our own prayers in an amazing variety of circumstances.

As time goes by, I find myself less inclined to attempt to compose my own prayers.  I would much rather submit myself to these rich forms of prayer that have nourished and inspired my brothers and sisters down through the centuries.      

I think those of us who find ourselves in “free” worship traditions tend to think of extemporaneous prayer as superior, because we assume it to be more authentic and sincere than the offering of prayers that have been written by another.  But this presupposes that prayer is, first and foremost, an expressive practice – a form of speech through which we pour out our self before God.  While it is certainly true that prayer has this expressive dimension, it is also a formative practice.  The prayers that we utter and hear on the lips of others are  shaping our understanding of God, his Church, ourselves, and the world around us.  The sincerity of a spontaneous prayer is important, but so is the depth and thoughtfulness of a written prayer – and no prayers have greater depth than the prayers of the Psalms.

This morning I was reading a bit of Henri Nouwen’s Genesee Diary, and came across these thoughts on how the recitation of Psalms during Compline brought him strength and comfort.  Commenting on Psalm 90, he writes:

Slowly these words enter into the center of my heart. They are more than ideas, images, comparisons: They become a real presence.  After a day with much work or with many tensions, you feel that you can let go in safety and realize how good it is to dwell in the shelter of the Most High.

Nouwen Genesee DiaryMany times I have thought: If I am ever sent to prison, if I am ever subjected to hunger, pain, torture, or humiliation, I hope and pray that they let me keep the Psalms.  The Psalms will keep my spirit alive, the Psalms will allow me to comfort others, the psalms will prove the most powerful, yes, the most revolutionary weapon against the oppressor and torturer.  How happy are those who no longer need books but carry the Psalms in their heart wherever they are and wherever they go.   Maybe I should start learning the Psalms by heart so that nobody can take them away from me.  Just to be able to say over and over again:

O men, how long will your hearts be closed,
will you love what is futile and false?
It is the Lord who grants favors to those whom he loves;
the Lord hears me whenever I call him (Ps. 4)
 

That is a prayer that really can heal many wounds.

Like Nouwen, I hope that as I absorb the prayers of the Psalms on a daily basis, they will sink in to my bones, and lodge themselves in my heart, so that they provide me strength and nourishment during the trials that surely lie ahead.

Why “developing a personal relationship with Jesus” might be a bad idea

One of the most common catchphrases you will hear in evangelical Christian circles is “developing a personal relationship with Jesus.”   It’s a phrase that gets used often as a way to underscore the importance of having a living faith, rather than a faith that is merely based on assent to certain ideas, or participation in certain church practices.   Often it seems, in my experience, that “buidling a personal relationship with Jesus” is the proposed solution to innumerable problems and challenges facing Christians today.

I’m a little bit skeptical of the phrase, because, for starters, I’m skeptical of anything that is proposed as solution for all my problems.   Secondly, I wonder what people mean when they talk about a “personal relationship with Jesus.”  The phrase is so over-used that I think people don’t stop to think about what they are saying.

When most people talk about their “personal relationship” with Jesus, it seems to imply something like a relationship between two best friends.  Often “developing your personal relationship” means “spending time” with Jesus in prayer and personal Bible study.   For most people I think they see this as kind of  like having some “getting to know you” time with God.

If this is a true reflection of what evangelicals mean by “developing a personal relationship with Jesus,” I think it can be problematic.

I worry that evangelicals can let a kind of “works righteousness” in through the back door by placing so much emphasis on personal devotion.   It seems to cast the relationship in a rather one-sided way; it seems it’s up to us to “develop” a relationship with God.  I think the gospel says something quite different: God reaches out and establishes a relationship with us, even while we are rebellious sinners who don’t care at all about him.   If our relationship with God is based on whatever we have “developed,” I think we’re in deep trouble.  That’s far too shaky a foundation.

I think we need to be clear that we do not put our trust in the relationship we have developed with Jesus – our trust is in Jesus himself.  This is another way of saying, we don’t trust our trust, because this comes at the question from the human side, and can end up leaving the impression that our relationship is something we develop and contribute to salvation. Faith is more radically outward-focused than that. We trust in Christ alone. We bring nothing to the table, even if we’ve been a Christian for decades.

So, to have “personal” faith is not so much about being on familiar terms with Jesus, in the way we might conceive of a personal relationship which develops between friends (although trusting in Christ alone will likely lead towards something like that over time); it is personal because we, as persons, trust in the person of Christ.

If our personal relationship with Christ “develops,” it’s not so much that we develop it, but that it develops in us by the Spirit as we put our trust daily in Christ alone – that is, as we continue to trust that Christ will be faithful to us, even as our meagre devotion to him remains tainted by sin.

So, I think, if I was to use this over-used phrase, I would want to be very clear that the personal relationship we have with Jesus is the fruit of our outwardly-focused trust in the person of Christ, rather than the foundation.  This is a subtle distinction, but I think it is an important one.