Mary 4 – Ever Virgin

Posted: January 11th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Personal | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

The next point, the perpetual virginity of Mary, tends to be controversial among my fellow modern Protestants. I will note that the modern objection is not inherently Protestant in nature. Indeed all the initial reformers, Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli, held firmly to the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary. As late as the 18th century, John Wesley affirmed the doctrine. No, the objections to this particular doctrine seem more related to our modern sexualized culture than anything historical. There seems to be a sense that living without sex makes you less than a ‘complete’ person. I understand that modern perspective probably better than I do the ancient one. After all, I am also a product of our culture. Nevertheless, I try to avoid imposing my cultural lens onto ancient texts and traditions in an anachronistic manner. It’s clear from the NT texts that living a celibate life was hardly unknown in an ancient Jewish context. John the Baptist lived such a life. Paul also did. (And it appears that he had started down that path in his zeal even before his dramatic conversion.) Notably, Jesus lived a celibate, unmarried life. So there’s nothing inherently odd or out of place in ascribing such devotion to Mary in her context.

Moreover, in the context of their honor-shame culture, it’s a perfectly reasonable response by both Mary and Joseph. We know from the texts and from the tradition of the Church of which those texts are one part that they were both faithful to God. They both sacrificed their own personal honor in order to uphold God’s honor and be obedient to him. And God produced a child with Mary. In both their minds, that would have certainly marked Mary as belonging to God. For Mary to then have sex with Joseph would have been perceived as adulterous and dishonoring God. Joseph would have seen himself as a protector and provider chosen by God for Mary and for God’s son. It’s not that I think they consciously thought through everything and decided to live together celibately. Rather, I find it hard to imagine them, within their context and with their cultural shaping, responding any other way. It’s strange to us, but it fits perfectly in their context.

And as I mentioned, it’s also the universal tradition of the Church until very recently. That’s not to say that you can’t find individuals here and there in the past who thought otherwise. But that means virtually nothing. You can find individuals over the course of history, including priests, bishops, and even patriarchs, who believe almost anything. You don’t find answers by looking at the beliefs of one (or several scattered) individuals, especially when their beliefs left no lasting impression on the Church. No, you look at what’s believed everywhere and in all places. And up until the last few hundred years, this is as much the universal perspective of the Church as almost anything we believe. I’m skeptical that we somehow know better now.

I know there are a handful of Scriptures modern Protestants like to trot out in their objections. I plan to deal with those in a later post. However, I will point out that I tend to find the attitude of Protestants toward Scripture somewhat strange. They tend to point to verses in these discussions as if they had just discovered those verses and the centuries of Christians who preceded them had never read or heard them. And there’s something a little crazy about that attitude. After all, it’s the ancient Church that preserved and eventually canonized what we call the New Testament. They read it, preached on it, and incorporated it the liturgy for century upon century. There’s no verse we can point to that would have been unknown to them. No, Protestants aren’t pointing out anything new in the verses they use in this or other discussions. Rather they are asserting they understand those verses better than the ancient Church did. They are asserting their interpretation over and against that of Christians who preceded them.

Maybe it’s because I practiced Hinduism, studied Lao Tzu, read the life of Prince Siddhartha, and have studied other ancient authors, but I’m a little more humble in my approach. I don’t automatically assume I’ll understand a text better than those who came before me. I don’t believe I’m smarter than those who lived in the ancient past (which does seem to be a modern conceit). I tend to give some deference to those who practiced this faith and lived this life long before my time.

Was Mary perpetually virgin? That’s the teaching of the Church and as I researched and tried to understand her culture, I also found it a reasonable contextual conclusion. I’m familiar with the modern arguments to the contrary and I’m unconvinced by them. Does it matter? Well, I tend to believe it’s better to have an accurate rather than an inaccurate view of reality. Beyond that I can’t really say. I will note that it seems to have had a measurable impact on the honor given to Mary. Among those Protestants who do not believe Mary remained a virgin, she’s almost become an after-thought or a biblical footnote. And that attitude is certainly contrary to Scripture. So if the resulting practice is any indication of the significance of belief, then I find that telling.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 11

Posted: January 25th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Fourth Century) 11

36. Sufferings freely embraced and those that come unsought drive out pleasure and allay its impetus. But they do not destroy the capacity for pleasure which resides in human nature like a natural law. For the cultivation of virtue produces dispassion in one’s will but not in one’s nature. But when dispassion has been attained in one’s will the grace of divine pleasure becomes active in the intellect.

St. Maximos sees sufferings as pain we are granted to counter the sort of pleasure that draws us away from God, which means its the sort of pleasure that draws us ultimately toward a non-existence we are powerless to achieve. The sufferings freely embraced I think describe ascetic practices. I do think this is one of the widespread problems in most of Protestantism. And to some extent it seems to have spread to the modern Catholic Church as well. The ascetic disciplines (fundamentally fasting, prayer, and almsgiving) have to a large degree been abandoned within much of Christianity. But the disciplines are part of our synergy with God. If we do not engage in them, we provide God less and less room to change and transform us. Moreover, if we do not fast, we forget how to feast properly in thanksgiving. When the Church abandons basic ascetic disciplines, it gives its members over to the passions. That’s not to say that every person should live like a monk. Most people are not called or equipped by God for such a life. However, it seems that many people today seem to think that if they are not a monastic, that means they don’t need to practice any ascetic disciplines at all. And that’s not only inconsistent with the history of the Church and the Holy Scriptures, it ignores the reality of what it means to be a human being.


Thirsting for God 5 – Sola Scriptura

Posted: December 8th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Faith, Thirsting for God | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Thirsting for God 5 – Sola Scriptura

This series is reflecting on Matthew Gallatin’s book, Thirsting for God in a Land of Shallow Wells.

One of the fundamental tenets of Protestantism is sola scriptura. Actually, that’s not exactly true — at least to my eyes. I would push a little deeper than Matthew Gallatin does at this point in his book. The fundamental tenet of Protestantism is that each individual can and must decide for themselves what is or is not true. Whether a particular strand says they depend on Scripture alone or whether they say they depend on some combination of scripture, reason, and tradition, that tenet holds. Sola Scriptura is one way of asserting individual interpretation over against any other interpretive grid.

Now, in practice, every Protestant sect tries to teach its members its own interpretation of Christian faith and practice. But since every strand began by asserting that the group from which it splintered was wrong in some way, there isn’t really any way for it to keep the views of its own members from also diverging over time. As we’ve seen over the past five hundred years, that inevitably happens in every single Protestant group. And it happens pretty quickly. That’s how we’ve gotten to the point of having tens of thousands of denominations and non-denominations who all claim to worship the same God even as they hold wildly divergent and often contradictory beliefs about that God. Why?

The Scriptures alone can never show us what the objective truth about God is.

That’s not a new realization. One of the early Christian apologists wrote that the Scriptures (speaking primarily of what we call the Old Testament, of course) were like a mosaic showing us the face of Christ. However, the heretics took the tiles of the mosaic and formed them into a picture of a wolf or a fox instead. Christians have always recognized that you could assemble Scripture to argue for many different ideas, but most of those were not true. In fact, the heretics were often masters at that task. Arius, for example, had a convincing interpretation for every Scripture with which he was challenged. Ultimately, his interpretation was not rejected because it could be proven wrong, but because it was not what the Church in all places had believed since the time of the Apostles.

So what’s important to a Protestant believer is not just “the Scriptures alone.” What he actually puts his faith and trust in is his interpretation of “the Scriptures alone.”

It’s axiomatic to me that no text says anything without interpretation. So that’s not the revelation to me that it was to Matthew. The normal response, of course, is to assert that the Holy Spirit is guiding our individual interpretation. But can that be the case?

Is the Holy Spirit directing both of us? If He is, then that leaves us with a most disconcerting picture of the Spirit of God. For the Spirit, whom Christ calls the Spirit of truth, is busily at work sabotaging the longings of the Son! (that we be one)

Is the truth about God settled? Is there an underlying reality? Or is it up to each of us individually to determine the truth and reality of God? The foundation of Protestantism rests wholly on the individual. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’m not up for the task of being the ground of truth.

Matthew has a funny quote from one of his Catholic friends that, I think, strikes true.

We Catholics have an old saying: ‘Protestants believe that everyone is infallible, except the Pope!’


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 20

Posted: November 11th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Third Century) 20

62. Every genuine confession humbles the soul. When it takes the form of thanksgiving, it teaches the soul that it has been delivered by the grace of God. When it takes the form of self-accusation, it teaches the soul that it is guilty of crimes through its own deliberate indolence.

We do not tell the truth — even to ourselves. (Perhaps especially to ourselves.)

That is a universal truth and unless it is healed, we have no way to move forward in our faith or in our love. One weakness in most of Protestantism is its failure to recognize this truth. Our Holy Scriptures and tradition speak plainly of the need of confession and the inadequacy of private, internal confession. If we do not learn to speak the truth about ourselves out loud in the presence of another human being, we cannot and will not change. It does not seem to me that the primary purpose of confession is penance. Roman Catholic practice and teaching over the last thousand years varies a fair degree on this topic, but to the extent it has focused on doing penance, I believe it has somewhat missed the mark. Rather, we need to learn to see ourselves truly (but slowly since too much truth at once is more apt to destroy us than not) so that we can change. And we do not fundamentally need to simply change our behavior. We need to change who we are. (Behavior changes usually follow such transformations, but they are not the goal as much as one tool toward that goal.)

There is tremendous power in the act of speaking a truth about ourselves aloud and in the hearing of another.


Four Hundred Texts on Theology (Third Century) 16

Posted: October 28th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , | 3 Comments »

41.  The first good which actively affects us, namely fear, is reckoned by Scripture as the most remote from God, for it is called ‘the beginning of wisdom’ (Ps. 111:10; Prov. 1:7; 9:10). Setting out from this towards our ultimate goal, wisdom, we come to understanding, and this enables us to draw close to God Himself, for we have only wisdom lying between us and our union with Him. Yet it is impossible for a man to attain wisdom unless first, through fear and through the remaining intermediary gifts, he frees himself completely from the mist of ignorance and the dust of sin. That is why, in the order established by Scripture, wisdom is placed close to God and fear close to us. In this way we can learn the rule and law of good order.

I was reminded, when I read the above, of a recent two-part sermon series by Shane Hipps at Mars Hill in Grand Rapids, MI. The first one, Touching the Stove, explores precisely that positive aspect of fear in a way I had never before considered it. (The second part, Outside the Boat, is pretty good too.) Fear and any resulting abstention from evil is not wisdom, but it is the first baby step toward wisdom. That’s an important distinction. It strikes me that there are too many today who preach fear and treat fear as though it were the destination rather than that which is sometimes our first immature step toward union with Christ.


Four Hundred Texts on Theology (Third Century) 14

Posted: October 21st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Theology (Third Century) 14

38. Scripture says that seven spirits will rest upon the Lord: the spirit of wisdom, the spirit of understanding, the spirit of spiritual knowledge, the spirit of cognitive insight, the spirit of counsel, the spirit of strength, and the spirit of the fear of God (cf. Isa. 11:2). The effects produced by these spiritual gifts are as follows: by fear, abstention from evil; by strength, the practice of goodness; by counsel, discrimination with respect to the demons; by cognitive insight, a clear perception of what one has to do; by spiritual knowledge, the active grasping of the divine principles inherent in the virtues; by understanding, the soul’s total empathy with the things that it has come to know; and by wisdom, an indivisible union with God, whereby the saints attain the actual enjoyment of the things for which they long. He who shares in wisdom becomes god by participation and, immersed in the ever-flowing, secret outpouring of God’s mysteries, he imparts to those who long for it a knowledge of divine blessedness.

The only true wisdom lies in union and communion with God. That strikes me personally as the most important point of all. There is, however, a clear progression toward that true wisdom and the first step is to begin to choose to abstain from evil. Unfortunately, it seems to me that many modern Christian groups get stuck in that first step (perhaps with brief forays into the second — the practice of goodness). To grow in union with God it is important to learn to stop doing evil and start doing good. Moreover, we have to learn to desire what is good over what is evil. But that’s just the starting point, not the destination or goal. It’s important not to lose sight of that point.


Jesus Creed 15 – A Society for Justice

Posted: September 15th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: The Jesus Creed | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Jesus Creed 15 – A Society for Justice

Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.
Love the Lord you God with all your heart,
with all your soul,
with all your mind, and with all your strength.
The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself.
There is no commandment greater than these.

This is a series of reflections on Scot McKnight’s book, The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others. It’s a book I unequivocally recommend for anyone. Each chapter opens with recommended Gospel readings. The readings for this chapter are: Luke 4:16-30; 6:20-26.

Scot McKnight stakes out his ground right away in this chapter.

By virtue of entering the kingdom of God, we Christians make the astounding claim that we live under a different order — God’s order. Living in that order should make a difference in our day-to-day living and in our society. After all, the kingdom Jesus describes is a society and not just a personal nest.

Why else do we pray, “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”? If our faith has any meaning, then we are the enclave or manifestation of God’s kingdom here on earth. I think we need to do that for each other more often. It’s not all about the pleasant, the comfortable, the easy, or the personal. It’s about a whole lot more. Either we choose to live as citizens of the Kingdom or we do not. And we tend to waver between those poles. Sometimes we desire to so live. More often we do not. And that seems to be where our communion should enter the picture. Faith in isolation and without physical expression tends to fade. At least that’s my experience. I know the monastic hermits in their seclusion prayed for and were mystically connected with the whole world, but that’s a special calling, not something normative. Even the monastics mostly live in community. It’s not just that it’s helpful to have a ‘church family‘ (too bad we don’t really take that phrase seriously), there’s no other way for us to live. Sure, they’ll disappoint us, abandon us, hurt us, and all the rest. (Doesn’t your blood family do the same?) And yet, they and the Eucharist are God offered to our senses.  Where else can we turn?

Spiritual formation is not all contemplation and meditation, or Bible study groups and church gatherings. Spiritual formation, because it begins with the Jesus Creed, involves loving God and others. We need not choose one or the other; we need both, because loving others includes brushing up against the thorns of injustice in society. Love wants them removed.

Make no mistake. I love my country. I believe it is (on its good days) among the best the kingdoms of this world have ever offered. But it remains a kingdom of this world. We forget this reality to our peril. The Church is the one who must challenge the powers of this earth. Doesn’t Paul write about that?

Because the term ‘justice’ is used like this [in a retributive or vengeful manner] so often, it has acquired the sense of being negative and nasty. It seems to be little more than recrimination, retribution, and punishment. But in Jesus’ kingdom, justice is deeper than retribution. Any look at the Bible will reveal to you that kingdom justice concerns restoring humans to both God and others.

In the Bible, justice (Hebrew, tsedeqa or mishpat) describes ‘making something right,’ and for something to be ‘right,’ there has to be a standard. For the Jewish world the standard is God’s will, the Torah, and so justice for Israel was ‘to make things right’ according to Scripture. In our American society what makes something ‘right’ is if it conforms to the United States Constitution or to a decision made in a court of law. Jesus operates in the Jewish world. What makes things ‘right’ for him? What is his standard? Here is where a Christian sense of justice parts company with standard social understandings.

The standard of justice for Jesus is the Jesus Creed. What is ‘right’ is determined by the twin exhortation to love God (by following Jesus) and to love others. For Jesus, justice is about restoring people and society to the love of God and love of others. The vision of restorative justice clobbers, with a padded stick of love, any retributive sense of justice. The follower of Jesus is to ‘hunger and thirst for righteousness (or justice)’, but that ‘justice’ is defined by the Jesus Creed, not the Constitution. To get things right in our world, according to Jesus, is to love others and work for a system that expresses such love.

That’s a long quote, but I think this discussion required all of it. Now go read the parable of judgment day (sheep and goats) in Matthew. Think about it for a while. What distinguishes one who follows Jesus? Is it not ultimately a judgment of love? I think too many Christians confuse it as a judgment of ‘works‘ using a pretty anachronistic definition of the term. In a sense it is, but those works are works of love.

Not all of us are called to work in the justice system [of our society or kingdom of this world], but we are empowered to restore justice in our society. One person at a time; one change at a time; wherever we can.

That’s the closing thought of the chapter. And it’s a very fitting one.


Praying with the Church 6 – Prayer Books: A Preface

Posted: July 26th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Praying with the Church | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Praying with the Church 6 – Prayer Books: A Preface

These are reflections on Scot McKnight‘s book, Praying with the Church, that I wrote and shared with a small circles of friends in 2006. I’ve decided to publish them here only lightly edited. Since they are four years old, they don’t necessarily reflect exactly what I would say today, but they do accurately capture my reaction at the time.

I don’t know how or why our tradition moved away from the practice of, as Scot McKnight puts is, ‘praying with the church in the basilica’, whether physically with other believers or not. I’ll be generous and assume they had what seemed to them to be good reasons at the time. However, whatever the forces that were once in play, we are in the midst of a massive cultural shift. And as someone who was shaped by forces somewhere further along the shift than, it seems, many in our church, I can only say that this strikes me as a more important discipline and practice today than perhaps any time since the days of the early church.

In this chapter, Scot shifts from looking into the scriptural underpinnings of the practice of set prayers at set times and moves into just a few of the specific examples of those practices and prayers. However, he opens with an overview of the idea of prayer books. I like the way he assumes his reader will have absolutely no significant background in the practice. That describes me!

The foundation of every prayer tradition, apparently, are the prayers in Scripture. We call the book of prayers Psalms. And from that all traditions draw a Psalter. Typically Psalters divide the Psalms into cycles of readings that allow you to read them all each month. Naturally, Psalms should be read aloud. Allow the rhythm to permeate your being. With the Psalms as a foundation, the different prayer books are designed to draw on scripture and the lengthy history of the church to pray in the manner Jesus modeled for us and instructed us to pray.

McKnight will take us through four prayer books in the ensuing chapters. He has ordered his presentation in chronological order, which is basically an arbitrary order. That means he will start with Eastern Orthodox, move to the Roman Catholic prayer book, then to the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, and finally to the modern Divine Hours by Phyllis Tickle. There are, of course, many others. But from those, we can learn some of the flavors of this rich tradition and practice of the Abrahamic faiths in general and Christianity specifically. He does note that for those without experience in Christian prayer tradition, the ecumenical ‘Divine Hours’ is probably the most readily accessible.

To open, Scot attempts to distill a definition of ‘prayer books’. No single definition fits all, but this is the essence he comes up with. “Prayer books are an ordering of the Psalms, the Lord’s Prayer, and various passages of the Bible into worship.”

Scot also notes that prayer books are shaped by the Christian calendar. Do any of you know why we essentially ignore the ordering of time itself as part of our faith in our denomination? As I’ve learned more about the  Christian calendar, that choice has increasingly puzzled me. If there’s a reason, I would like to be able to consider it. But most of what I’ve found seems like essentially mindless reaction against anything that could be considered even vaguely “Roman Catholic.” And frankly, that strikes me as utterly insufficient reason to abandon such formative and central ideas and practices.

Scot then notes that the Psalms (and perhaps many prayers) should be sung or chanted rather than spoken. Paul assumes people will sing Psalms. Jesus and the disciples sang what were very likely Psalms after the Last Supper. Augustine said, “Whoever sings the psalms, prays twice.”  And most prayer books can be spoken, read responsorially, read antiphonally, or read responsively. Prayer books also indicate when the sign of the cross is appropriate, typically with the symbol (+). Christians have crossed themselves from the earliest days. Most Protestant resistance to it seems again to fall into the category of protest against anything the Roman Catholic church ever did. And that’s just nuts.

Scot ends this chapter with a reminder that set prayers do not in any way replace or detract from spontaneous prayers. Both are called for and reinforce each other.


Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 18

Posted: July 22nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: St. Maximos the Confessor | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Four Hundred Texts on Love (Second Century) 18

48. When a man’s intellect is constantly with God, his desire grows beyond all measure into an intense longing for God and his incensiveness is completely transformed into divine love. For by continual participation in the divine radiance his intellect becomes totally filled with light; and when it has reintegrated its passible aspect, it redirects this aspect towards God, as we have said, filling it with an incomprehensible and intense longing for Him and with unceasing love, thus drawing it entirely away from worldly things to the divine.

There’s  a little story from the sayings of the desert fathers that has found a home in my heart for several years now. I’m not sure I can explain, even to myself, what about the story captivates me, but it was the first thing that sprang to my mind as I reflected on this particular text. Here’s the story.

Abba Pambo asked Abba Anthony, “What ought I to do?” and the old man said to him, “Do not trust in your own righteousness, do not worry about the past, but control your tongue and your stomach.”

Abba Lot went to Abba Joseph and said to him, “Abba, as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?” Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands toward heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, “If you will, you can become all flame.”

Our God is called light in the text of our Scriptures. Of course, that’s not to say that he is made up of photons, but rather to say there is no darkness, no lies, no evil found within him. It’s easy for us in our modern world to forget that for most of human history, we could not create light apart from fire. One of the images of our God is a consuming fire. There are no shadows, nothing hidden, in the heart of the fire. When we think of divine love, we must not forget that aspect.

Perhaps the image of becoming all flame speaks to that part of me which has lived in darkness. We speak as human beings of being drawn to light and trapped in darkness. There is something within us all that perceives reality in terms of light and darkness. Do I want my shadows illumined?

We are all drawn to the fire, but do we want to assume the nature of the fire?


Praying with the Church 4 – Praying with Jesus: Sacred Prayers

Posted: July 21st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Praying with the Church | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Praying with the Church 4 – Praying with Jesus: Sacred Prayers

These are reflections on Scot McKnight‘s book, Praying with the Church, that I wrote and shared with a small circles of friends in 2006. I’ve decided to publish them here only lightly edited. Since they are four years old, they don’t necessarily reflect exactly what I would say today, but they do accurately capture my reaction at the time.

This chapter opens with the questions Scot assumes most will ask (and that he also asked) about stepping out of our own Portiuncola two or three times a day to pray with the Church in the basilica. “What will we be saying? Did Jesus teach anything about that? Won’t it get repetitive to say things over and over?” His answers are the ones found throughout the history of the Church. “We’ll be using the prayers of the Bible, of Jesus, and the Church. Yes, it will be repetitive but in a good way. Praying with the Church might lead to vain repetitions, but it is meant to lead us away from them.”

In order to understand the guidance Scripture offers, Scot guides us first through the Jewish form of prayer in use at the time of Jesus. We’ve already seen that Jews prayed at fixed hours — “morning, afternoon, and evening. This was the sacred rhythm of the temple and of Israel at prayer together. But what did they say?”

The Jews prayed (usually by singing) the Psalms. They are a collection of 150 (or 151) prayers. These were at the root of their prayers. “Everything Israel and Jesus learned about prayer can be found in the Psalms.” They also recited other set prayers and creeds. The Shema, of course, was recited by any observant Jew at a minimum on rising and on retiring. However, they also did everything Moses wrote for them to do (Deuteronomy 6). Memorize them – ‘Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart.’ Teach them — ‘Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.’ Make it physical — ‘Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead.’ Publish them — ‘Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.’ The Shema was so interwoven into the “ancient faith of Israel that it would have been impossible for followers of Jesus not to adopt (and adapt) the custom of turning to God at sundown and sunup.”

In addition, the Jews of that time probably recited the Ten Commandments along with the Shema. We have a document from about a century before Jesus that appears to link the recitation of the two and it also makes sense in the context of the Jesus’ interaction with the rich young ruler.

And finally, we also know of a prayer that was called by three names, “the Amidah (standing prayer), the Shemoneh Esreh (Eighteen Benedictions), or the Ha-Tefillah (The Prayer). They had other prayers and certainly also prayed spontaneously, but their sacred rhythms of prayer were formed and shaped by the Shema, the Amidah, and perhaps the Ten Commandments. These “expressed the central dimensions of Israel’s faith and concerns with clarity and aesthetic simplicity.”

Scot has an amusing way to think about it for someone concerned about ‘vain repititions.’ (That’s never been any particular issue for me, so maybe it’s not as funny to someone with whom that is a significant worry.) Repitition can be a mindless routine, but it can also be a rhythm for daily renewal. If you don’t think that’s the case, consider explaining to your spouse that you’ve been saying “I love you” far too often and you’ll have to stop or it might become a vain repitition. I’m sure that will go over well.

However, Scot sees this concern as actually possibly masking a deeper one, a hesitation to use prayers written by others. His section exploring that is a good one, so I’ll just quote from it in closing.

Our tendency is to go to the Bible for something new, to read it in the expectation of a fresh discovery of something we did not know or had not heard or had completely forgotten. As a professor who teaches the Bible, I know the experience.

But the discovery of something new is not the sole, or even the main, purpose for reading the Bible. The longer you look at the idea that we read the Bible to find new meanings, the sillier it becomes. We read and return to the Bible not (just) to find something new but to hear something old, not to discover something fresh but to be reminded of something ancient.

What we find in the sacred rhythm and sacred prayer tradition of Israel is the wise recitation of those passages in the Bible most central to spirituality, passages we need to be reminded of daily because of their importance for how we are to conduct ourselves before God and with others. The reason psalms are repeated in the sacred rhythm of prayer is that they continue to teach us how to pray; the reason the Shema is repeated so often is that it summons us to the central orientation of our heart: to love God with every molecule we can muster.

Jesus was spiritually nurtured by pious parents in a world where the sacred rhythm of prayer shaped spiritual formation. Jesus didn’t adopt that rhythm without reflection or alteration. One might say that Jesus actually re-shaped the sacred rhythmical prayer practices of his world so that they would reflect his own kingdom mission.