Thinking Out Loud

January 1, 2011

A New Kind of Devotional Resource

Sales of devotional books — what some in mainline Protestant churches refer to as meditation books — tend to spike with the coming of a new year.   This fall, Zondervan released a resource authored by Shane Claiborne with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove (author of God’s Economy), Enuma Okoro (The Reluctant Pilgrim), and a large supporting cast (including more substantial borrowings from Phyllis Tickle and Andy Raine) that introduces liturgical prayer to a largely Evangelical audience unfamiliar with prayer books or liturgy itself.   Believing this book to have been somewhat lost in the shuffle of fall book releases, I am taking the time to highlight it as we begin 2011.

Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals has the look and feel of a hymnbook.  (Outside the U.S., a paperback edition is also available.)   The authors’ intention is that it be used as a ‘common’ resource, i.e. in a group setting.   So the readings — not unlike the responsive readings in the back of hymnbooks, if you remember hymnbooks — have a designation for the leader to speak certain lines and the rest of the assembly to respond with other lines.

In point of fact, I think that the majority of copies sold will end up being used devotionally, hence the setup I used to introduce the book.  However, my initial premise — people beginning new spiritual disciplines in January — doesn’t fully apply here, as the book’s daily morning readings begin with December and cycle through to the end November.   A seven-day cycle of evening readings is also included.

It isn’t possible to fully review a devotional book without personally engaging it, and it is equally difficult to try to review a prayer book or hymn book.   Of the book’s 590 pages, I mostly immersed myself in the dozen or so pages that make up the introduction, probably the most contemporary primer on classical liturgy available to the next generation.   It briefly explains the origins of liturgies in monastic life, and introduces the idea of the church calendar; with an emphasis on how these routines and dates stand in contrast to the emphases of contemporary society.

The book’s intended audience is not limited to those for whom Common Prayer would represent a first-time purchase of such a resource.  “We wanted it to work for folks who have never seen a circus and those who have seen hundreds of them.”

For today, January 1st, the reading begins with a brief paragraph about the role of the Quakers during the U.S. slave trade;  some invocational lines; a suggested song, “This Little Light of Mine;” six verses from Psalm 7, taken from the Book of Common Prayer (as are all the Psalm readings); eight verses each from Genesis 12 and John 16, taken from the TNIV (as are all other readings); a quotation from one of the Quaker founders; a place to pray for others and repeat The Lord’s Prayer; a personal prayer for help in answering God’s call on our life; and a collective sentence of benediction.

Though not fully written out, you can also read today’s outline at commonprayer.net

In addition to the basic 366 readings, there are also some extra ones for Holy Week.   There is also a selection of songs and special prayers at the end of the book.  Although there wasn’t one for the start of a new year, I felt this one, for “major life transition” was appropriate in anticipation of the changes the new year can bring:

Lord, help me now to unclutter my life, to organize myself in the direction of simplicity.   Lord teach me to listen to my heart; teach me to welcome change instead of fearing it.   Lord, I give you these stirrings inside me.  I give you my discontent.  I give you my restlessness.   I give you my doubt.   I give you my despair.   I give you all the longs I hold inside.  Help me to listen to those signs of change, of growth; help me to listen seriously and follow where they lead through the breathtaking empty space of an open door.

March 18, 2010

The Story Is Getting Lost – Guest Post

My wife and I have known Rick Webster for about five years now.   For many years he blogged at Today at the Mission, where you can still read archived posts.   More recently, he’s been pastoring at The Third Space, a kind of alternative church in downtown Peterborough, Ontario; but only this week did I learn there was a Third Space blog.   When I read this post, I knew I had to share it with you, and rather than include it in yesterday’s links, I got Rick’s permission to reprint the entire blog post.


by Rick Webster

It’s a problem that I’ve been seeing more and more of lately. It’s everywhere. I first encountered it when reading the book, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth.   The authors divide the bible into the various genres of writing – historical, poetic, apocalyptic, prophetic and so on. Each genre has to be interpreted according to its own unique quality – we can’t read the psalms in the same way we read the book of Acts. Okay, fair enough. But I soon discovered that this way of reading the bible divorced the Psalms from Acts and the connections between the two were lost. If there’s a narrative arc to the bible – if what Paul says in Romans is connected to what Adam did in Eden, and it is, then dividing the book into genres serves to break that arc and, in so doing, the story God is telling is lost. Instead we get, as the authors suggest, a book of rules and regulations, a book that is to “be read, understood and obeyed.” (their phrase).

Dividing the bible into an Old and New Testament, or even chapters and verses might do exactly the same thing. But we also have this incredibly common – some would say essential – part of our church life called a ’sermon’. In a sermon the preacher studies a passage of scripture and then makes a speech, from which the rest of us download information.  In this process, however, we isolate a text and, as a result, draw conclusions that often simply aren’t supported by the larger context.

I used to read the story of the three servants and their talents as a call to evangelism – we must not hide our faith, we must enlarge the Master’s Kingdom. The parable of the 10 virgins was an eschatological admonition to be ready for the return of Jesus. The story of the servants who worked in the vineyard for a day getting paid the same as those who worked for an hour was about all of us sharing in our heavenly reward equally.

But in reading through Matthew this year I’ve come to recognize that these stories are connected to the sheep and the goats judgment of Matthew 25. When seen as a whole, and when connected to the sheep and goats Judgment it becomes immediately apparent that these stories are about economic justice. Why did the virgins not share their oil? Why couldn’t they share one or two lamps and make sure there was enough oil to last the night? Instead, they sent the others, selfishly, away. Why did the two wise, confident servants not help the frightened one with his investments? Why did they not pool their resources? Clearly, this is a case of the rich getting richer while the poor get poorer. And in the story of the vineyard workers it appears that in the Kingdom of God the community is larger than the self, that we understand economic justice as what benefits us while God desires to distribute prosperity equally throughout the community. When we start connecting to the sheep and goats judgment the Sermon on the Mount becomes a document new and alien to our world; the house on the rock and the house on the sand take on a whole new meaning as well.

Every devotional, every bible study, every commentary I’ve ever read does exactly the same thing – subdivides the bible and thus, necessarily, fails us. But here’s the thing: every sermon we’ve ever heard, and every sermon I’ve ever preached, has done exactly the same thing. The limitations of the form require it. And there’s an awful, terrible, frightening truth in that. We’ve been going at this all wrong and some of us have dedicated our entire lives to this pursuit.

We need a new way to teach the bible. A way that allows for a long, long time to be spent dwelling in the text. Years, decades. A way that allows for long discussions and digressions.  A way that places it within the hands of the community instead of a priestly caste of pastors and theologians so that the Holy Spirit may speak among us, and through us, without the filter that is one person at the front of the room. And my fear is that none of this can be done within the frame of church as we know it. In fact, this single belief – that the scripture must dwell within the community, and the community within the scripture – challenges everything we know and understand about the role of a pastor, the nature and organization of church, our way of being the body of Christ together. The fear this engenders is enormous. And this new way has not yet come to be in our evangelical tradition. It may never come to be. But I think somewhere, somehow, someone should at least try, someone should begin.

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