My Personal Psalter Project

The Psalms have always been central to the worship, liturgies, prayers, devotions, and songs of countless Christians across the centuries.  In the Psalter one can find cries of joy and pain, brokenness and rage, helplessness and confidence.  In other words, the voices in the Psalms are real, very real, and in their heart-felt transparency lies a great deal of their popularity and importance.  They teach us how to pray, how to grieve, how to rejoice–i.e., how to live as believers in the real world with its ups and down.

Here’s how Luther more eloquently summed up the great value of the Psalms in the believer’s life:

Every Christian who would abound in prayer and piety ought, in all reason, to make the Psalter his manual; and, moreover, it were well if every Christian so used it and were so expert in it as to have it word for word by heart, and could have it even in his heart as often as he chanced to be called to speak or act, that he might be able to draw forth or employ some sentence out of it, by way of a proverb. For indeed the truth is, that everything that a pious heart can desire to ask in prayer, it here finds Psalms and words to match, so aptly and sweetly, that no man—no, nor all the men in the world—shall be able to devise forms of words so good and devout. (from Luther’s 1545 Preface to the Psalter)

I love to read from the Psalms each day, but still I long to be more familiar with them than I am.  With this in mind, I began my Personal Psalter Project earlier this week.  I purchased a Moleskine notebook and have begun copying, by hand, one Psalm per day until I have copied all 150.  I am copying them from the New Living Translation, which is my favorite translation, but am taking advantage of the luxury of a single-column setup to take advantage of my own formatting, using different levels of indention to really make the parallelism stand out (similar to what is done in the excellent Psalter layout in God’s Word translation).  In addition, the extra space gives me room to make notes about Hebrew/LXX vocabulary, alternate translations, or personal thoughts.

I will post additional thoughts, as well as some pictures, as this project continues.

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A Communion Hymn–“What Is This Bread?”

Last Supper

This Maundy Thursday we sang a new Communion hymn titled, “What Is This Bread?” (LSB 629).  They copyright on the song is 1991, which is very new in our LCMS circle.  To put it into perspective a bit for some of you uber-contemporary folks, this hymn is across the page from a hymn by Thomas Aquinas dated in the late 13th century.  Anyway, this is a great hymn, with a beautiful tune and lyrics that teach a wonderfully rich, unashamedly Lutheran theology of the Lord’s Supper:

What Is This Bread?

What is this bread?
Christ’s body risen from the dead:
This bread we break,
This life we take,
Was crushed to pay for our release.
O taste and see–the Lord is peace.

What is this wine?
The blood of Jesus shed for mine;
The cup of grace
Brings His embrace
Of life and love until I sing!
O taste and see–the Lord is King.

So who am I,
That I should live and He should die
Under the rod?
My God, my God,
Why have You not forsaken me?
O taste and see–the Lord is free.

Yet is God here?
Oh, yes! By Word and promise clear,
In mouth and soul
He makes us whole–
Christ, truly present in this meal.
O taste and see–the Lord is real.

Is this for me?
I am forgiven and set free!
I do believe
That I receive
His very body and His blood.
O taste and see–the Lord is good.

There are many wonderfully rich truths taught in this short hymn.  In fact, one could use it as a great catachetical tool to teach the basics of a Lutheran understanding of the sacrament.

As we were taking Holy Communion on Maundy Thursday evening, however, I was struck by a line in the third verse, “My God, my God, why have You not forsaken me?”  It is a subtle twist on Jesus’ words from the cross and Psalm 22…and it echoes the recurring sentiment of my sinful heart.

There is no direct reply in the verses that follow, which is fine, because the sin-burdened heavy heart does not need a theological treatise on God’s presence with us.  What follows is better–the promises of God, through the Word, that he is both ever-present with us and that we are forgiven and freed from our sins.  Amen.  Thanks be to God!

Luther on the Danger of Public Praise

In many liturgical Christian circles, the rites of Morning Prayer or Matins often begin with these words from Psalm 51:

O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth will declare your praise.

As innocent as this invocation may sound, Luther suggests that there is quite a bit more to David’s request than may first meet the eye.  He writes:

By asking the Lord to open his lips, David showed how difficult it is to offer thanks to God.  This is something God demands of us (Ps 50.14).  Talking about the Lord and thanking him publicly require an extreme amount of courage and strength, because the devil is constantly trying to stop us from doing this.  If we could see all of Satan’s traps, we would know why David prayed for the Spirit’s strength and asked the Lord himself to open David’s lips.  He wanted to tell the devil, the world, kings, princes, and everyone about the Lord.

Many things can keep our lips shut:  the fear of danger, the hope of gaining something, or even the advice of friends.  The devil uses these ways to stop us fromoffering thanks to God, as I have often experienced in my life.  And yet, at important times, when God’s honor was threatened, God stood by me and opened my mouth in spite of the obstacles…

Whenever Scripture talks about praising God publicly, it’s talking about something extremely dangerous.  This is because announcing his praise is nothing other than opposing the devil, the world, our own sinful nature, and everything evil.  For how can you praise God without first declaring that the world is guilty and condemned?  All who condemn the world are asking to be hated and put themselves in a very dangerous situation.
(from Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional / LW 12:393)

While many will no doubt agree that praising God publicly is sometimes risky,  I confess that I have never thought about praising God in this manner…never made the link betweeen my praise of God being an explicit condemnation of the world, etc.  And yet, as usual, I think Luther got it right here.  For us to open our lips to speak of Christ is to ally ourselves with him and his word, which is first a condemnation of the world (Law) before it is ever a consolation to the convicted (Gospel).

It goes without saying that such an alliance, at all times and in all places, is a dangerous business indeed!

Merciful and everlasting Father, You did not spare Your own Son but delivered Him up for us all that he might bear our sins on the cross.  Grant that our hearts may be so fixed with steadfast faith in our Savior that we may not fear the power of any adversaries; though Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.

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Worthless Things

I love it when my daily lectionary readings come together and really punch me in the chest!  This morning’s Psalter reading (from BoC) and Gospel reading (from LSB) did just that…and it was awesome.

In Psalm 119, I read:

Turn my eyes from looking at worthless things;
and give me life in your ways.  (Ps 119.37, ESV)

That line was enough to get and keep me thinking about the worthless things of the world that so often entice us away from what is truly important.  Surely we could all provide a litany of these sorts of things that almost continually threaten to pull our attention away from Christ and his kingdom.  Quite honestly, I was driven to repentance over all the times that I wander, pursuing these worthless things instead of clinging to Christ–and pleaded with God for grace to focus more on him than the world.

Then in Matthew, I read:

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.  And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.  And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”  But he answered, “It is written,

“‘Man shall not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written,

“‘He will command his angels concerning you,’

and

“‘On their hands they will bear you up,
lest you strike your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory.  And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”  Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written,

“‘You shall worship the Lord your God
and him only shall you serve.’”

Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him. (Mt 4.1-11, ESV)

No sooner was my prayer uttered than it was answered in this account from the life of Christ!  Here he faced temptation to chase after what are clearly ‘worthless things’:

  • Necessary (but mundane) necessities over which Christ has taught us not to worry
  • Spectacular and miraculous manifestations, which can actually be sinful tests of God
  • Personal glory and honor, which clearly is wrong when sought out, esp. through sinful means

To beat the temptations of these worthless things, Jesus relied continually on the Word of God to focus on the revealed will of God.

Sure, it’s simple.  Sure, we’ve heard this countless times.  Sure, we know these things to be true…

…and yet, like all the blessings of the God in Christ Jesus, we cannot hear these words too often.  Thanks be to God for his grace!

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Luther on Crying Out to God

In my little corner of the world, there has been much talk recently about calling on God for help in times of trouble.  While many want God to come to their rescue at a moment’s notice, few seem willing to struggle and wrestle in prayer…instead praying haphazardly or ‘as if you’re shouting into the wind.’  “In this case,” Luther says, “it would be better not to pray at all.”  Instead, teaching on Psalm 118, Luther says:

You must learn to call on the Lord.  Don’t sit all alone or lie on the couch, shaking your head and letting your thoughts torture you.  Don’t worry about how to get out of your situation or brood about your terrible life, how miserable you feel, and what a bad person you are.  Instead, say, “Get a grip on yourself, you lazy bum!  Fall on your knees, and raise your hands and eyes toward heaven.  Read a psalm.  Say the Lord’s Prayer, and tearfully tell God what you need.”  This passage [Ps 118.5] teaches us to call on him.  Similarly, David said, “I pour out my complaint before him; before him I tell my trouble” (Ps 142.2).  God wants you to tell him your troubles.  He doesn’t want you to keep them to yourself.  He doesn’t want you to struggle with them all alone and torture yourself.  Doing this will only multiply your troubles.

God knows you will be too weak to overcome your troubles by yourself.  He wants you to grow strong in him.  Then he will be the one who receives the glory.  Out of difficult experiences emerge true Christians.  Without troubles, people talk a lot about faith and the Spirit but don’t really know what these things are or what they’re saying.
(from Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional / LW 14:60)

The point is quite simply this:  In his great mercy, through Christ Jesus, God has provided us:

  • An ear for our complaints
  • Companionship in times of loneliness
  • Strength in times of weakness
  • Perseverance in times of impatience
  • Help when we are overwhelmed
  • Growth in times of struggle
  • Relief in times of inundation

That said, as earthly fathers often restrain themselves from helping their children until asked in order to teach their children trust, reliance, and hope, so our Heavenly Father teaches us to cry out to him in our time of need.  And he will answer us through reassurance from his Word, a gentle word from others, physical aid from others, the peace that surpasses understanding (Phil 4.7), or another means.  Even if he delays, we may continue to hope, knowing that “out of difficult experiences emerge true Christians.”

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Hurricane Meditation

From last night’s Psalter reading:

Hurricane Rita picture

69:1 Save me, O God!
For the waters have come up to my neck.
2 I sink in deep mire,
where there is no foothold;
I have come into deep waters,
and the flood sweeps over me.
3 I am weary with my crying out;
my throat is parched.
My eyes grow dim
with waiting for my God.

13 But as for me, my prayer is to you, O Lord.
At an acceptable time, O God,
in the abundance of your steadfast love answer me in your saving faithfulness.
14 Deliver me
from sinking in the mire;
let me be delivered from my enemies
and from the deep waters.
15 Let not the flood sweep over me,
or the deep swallow me up,
or the pit close its mouth over me.  (Ps 69, ESV)

With Gustav and Hanna already wreaking havoc and continuing to churn, this reading was rather timely, I thought.

NOTE:  I recently became a bit dissatisfied with the Psalter readings in the LSB Daily Lectionary and adopted the Book of Common Prayer’s schedule of reading through the entire Psalter every thirty days.  Thus far, this practice has been most rewarding as I have become re-immersed in this magnificent collection of prayers, hymns, and laments.

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Transcendence and Immanence…

During my morning prayer / Bible reading / quiet time / meditation this morning, I found myself confronted with two radically different depictions of God’s presence that resulted in the same human response. The psalm reading appointed for this morning (per the lectionary in LSB) was Psalm 99, a stirring, and lofty depiction of our transcendent Sovereign Lord, ruling in majesty over all the earth:

The Lord reigns; let the peoples tremble!
He sits enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth quake!
The Lord is great in Zion;
he is exalted over all the peoples.
Let them praise your great and awesome name!
Holy is he!
The King in his might loves justice.
You have established equity;
you have executed justice
and righteousness in Jacob.
Exalt the Lord our God;
worship at his footstool!
Holy is he! (Psalm 99.1-5, ESV)

The gospel reading for this morning was from Luke 5, specifically the account of Jesus healing a leper. Here we see another account of God, still sovereign over creation, but this time immanently close, touching the body of one disfigured by disease and bringing healing:

While he was in one of the cities, there came a man full of leprosy. And when he saw Jesus, he fell on his face and begged him,Jesus heals a leper “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.” And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I will; be clean.” And immediately the leprosy left him. And he charged him to tell no one, but “go and show yourself to the priest, and make an offering for your cleansing, as Moses commanded, for a proof to them.” But now even more the report about him went abroad, and great crowds gathered to hear him and to be healed of their infirmities. But he would withdraw to desolate places and pray. (Luke 5.12-16, ESV)

In both accounts, God demonstrates his sovereign rule over creation–in Psalm 99 over the whole cosmos and in Luke 5 over the disease of a single man. Similarly, in both accounts the human response is identical, worship–in Psalm 99 the whole of humanity worshiping at the footstool of his throne and in Luke 5 a single man on his face before Christ Jesus.

Here God’s transcendence and immanence stand side-by-side, not requiring reconciliation or explanation. Our God of infinite majesty is the same God who ‘got his hands dirty’ as the incarnate Messiah.

While both of these passages were familiar to me before this morning, I doubtless had never read them in tandem like this. The discipline of lectionary to guide my reading has again proven to challenge, stretch, and reward from its use.