Hope For Fans of Ravi Zacharias

Reporting on the alleged sexual abuse of a prominent apologist has shaken parts of the evangelical world if the coverage at Christianity Today is any indication. I for one still find it hard to believe that Zacharias was the owner of two day spas. Imagine Tim Keller or Francis Schaeffer having side businesses like a delicatessen or mountain-climbing equipment store.

Here’s the thing. As I read and listen to people lamenting an evangelists fall from grace (alleged), I can’t help wondering whether the people who converted or became more convinced of Christianity through Zacharias are any less converted or convinced because of the apologist’s sins. The truth of the gospel, after all, does not depend on the character or zeal or holiness of the one proclaiming the gospel.

And here evangelicals depressed by the news about Zacharias might be envious of Reformed Protestants because we have a tradition that recognizes that the efficacy of preaching does not depend on the character of the minister. Cue the Second Helvetic Confession:

THE PREACHING OF THE WORD OF GOD IS THE WORD OF GOD. Wherefore when this Word of God is now preached in the church by preachers lawfully called, we believe that the very Word of God is proclaimed, and received by the faithful; and that neither any other Word of God is to be invented nor is to be expected from heaven: and that now the Word itself which is preached is to be regarded, not the minister that preaches; for even if he be evil and a sinner, nevertheless the Word of God remains still true and good.

I understand not all Reformed Protestants believe this. But even in Zurich, which was not exactly Geneva on the spectrum of high church/low church convictions, the church confessed a high view of preaching that could rival Rome’s teaching on transubstantiation for unbelievability.

Mencken Day 2020

“Life in the Republic grows increasingly uncomfortable to men of the more urbane and seemly sort, and, despite the great material prosperity of the country, the general stock of happiness probably diminishes steadily. For the thing that makes us enjoy the society of our fellows is not admiration of their inner virtues but delight in their outward manners. It is not enough that they are headed for heaven, and will sit upon the right hand of God through all eternity; it is also necessary that they be polite, generous, and, above all, trustworthy. We must have confidence in them in order to get any pleasure out of associating with them. We must be sure that they will not do unto us as we should refuse, even for cash in hand, to do unto them. It is the tragedy of the Puritan that he can never inspire this confidence in his fellow-men. He is by nature a pedant in ethics, and hence he is by nature a mucker. With the best of intentions he cannot rid himself of the belief that it is his duty to save us from our follies— i. e., from all the non-puritanical acts and whimsies that make life charming. His duty to let us be happy takes second, third or fourth place. A Puritan cannot be tolerant—and with tolerance goes magnanimity.

The late Dr. Woodrow Wilson was a typical Puritan—of the better sort, perhaps, for he at least toyed with the ambition to appear as a gentleman, but nevertheless a true Puritan. Magnanimity was simply beyond him. Confronted, on his death-bed, with the case of poor old [Eugene V.] Debs, all his instincts compelled him to keep Debs in jail. I daresay that, as a purely logical matter, he saw clearly that the old fellow ought to be turned loose; certainly he must have known that Washington would not have hesitated, or Lincoln. But Calvinism triumphed as his intellectual faculties decayed. In the full bloom of health, with a plug hat on his head, he aped the gentry of his wistful adoration very cleverly, but lying in bed, stripped like
Thackeray’s Louis XIV, he reverted to his congenital Puritanism, which is to say, bounderism. (“From the Memoirs of a Subject of the United States,” Prejudices, Sixth Series)

Evangelical History written by Mainline Presbyterian Abides

Some obsess about Jerry Falwell, Jr., other about Tim Keller. This time the latter obsession runs to Keller’s recommendation of a book that came out over forty years ago and remains seminal for him. Richard Lovelace’s Dynamics of Spiritual Life (1979) is what made Redeemer NYC tick. As Keller admits, “Anyone who knows my ministry and reads this book will say, ‘So that’s where Keller got all this stuff!'” (He has help from other allies.)

One oddity is thinking back to what you were reading forty years ago and then seeing whether it still holds up. Since Keller has ministered in NYC, he has read a lot of books that other pastors and theologians do not typically read — works in sociology, history, urbanism, journalism. He is the pastor as intellectual. Someone might think that reading historical scholarship over the course of a career would give you a different estimate of a history of revivalism, one not written for a university press and that reflects more the debates among 1970s evangelicals than it does what happened with Whitefield and Edwards. This is sort of like mmmmeeeEEE today recommending Francis Schaeffer’s He Is There and He Is Not Silent as the key to understanding God and revelation. After reading Schaeffer in the 1970s, I went on to read a number of theologians and confessions that let me know how little I had understood from reading Schaeffer (who at the time was a great aid). I now turn to Ursinus, Berhkof, Calvin, and Bavinck. Aren’t I special.

Equally odd but also perhaps revealing of Keller’s place in PCA dynamics are a number assertions and arguments that Lovelace, who was ordained as a minister in the PCUSA while teaching at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, makes about evangelicalism around the time the book was written. These may reveal less about planting churches or carrying out the ministry than they do about ways of perceiving the church in the United States.

Lovelace abounds in identifying the polarities of a dynamic and then shooting for the middle, the third way, which of course is classic Keller:

Currently our denominations seem to break down into two categories: smaller, conservative separatist bodies maintaining the pure church ideal with antisceptic discipline so strong that it occasionally sterilizes their own creativity; and the large, historical descendants of earlier separations, now so indiscriminately inclusive that to Evangelicals they resemble mission fields. Evangelicals themselves, similarly, are divided into those who might be characterized as white corpuscles, members of separated churches committed to rigorous discipline, and red corpuscles, those who have tried to adapt themselves to the large, pluralistic bodies in order to feed and serve their memberships. (291-92)

Notice the biological metaphors and think the Gospel Ecosystem.

Here’s another contrast that makes the way straight for the via media:

In the early twentieth century the immense thought storm of secular humanism, made up of apparently consistent and convincing alternates to the biblical world view, burst upon the church and shattered the clarity of its thinking and hence the unity of its forces. Live orthodoxy might have weathered the storm and risen to the educational challenge humanism presented, setting out to construct a consistently biblical counter-position which would seek to integrate all the new data pouring into human consciousness. But [Evangelicalism] broke into two. Half of it emulated the ostrich, turned its back on the culture, immersed its head in the biblical world and almost became an enculturated folk religion. The other half grappled with the task of integrating modern and biblical thought but often lost its biblical moorings and slipped away into another kind of enculturalst: conformity to the secular mind. (281)

Actually, that does remind me of Schaeffer, sweeping historical claims with remarkable confidence. A sentence distills a book and a century of developments (or not). Who does that after reading at all widely in history and knowing how accidental and contingent the past was?

Where you do see in Lovelace a forerunner to Keller’s operations is this:

What about transdenominational renewal within the ecumenical movement? We have noted above that there is already a functionally Evangelical ecumenical movement. The recognition of this fact is remarkably apparent in the recent admirable decision of the Presbyterian Church of America (the product of secession from the Northern and Southern Presbyterian Churches) not to form its own Department of Missions, but rather to use the existing network of interdenominational Evangelical faith missions to disseminate its Reformed doctrinal position throughout the church. (332)

Come to think of it, with Redeemer City-to-City in mind, the blueprint for Keller’s ministry very well have been in Lovelace’s book (except that City-to-City, though interdenominational, is not OMF International, Africa Inland Mission, and Ethnos 360).

Luther on Protests (violent, verbal, or peaceful)

In light of the point derived from Luther that justice requires peace (“No Peace, No Justice“), along comes Luther’s reflections on Psalm 37 (“Fret not yourself because of evil-doers; be not envious of wrong-doers”):

The 37th psalm is a psalm of comfort that teaches and exhorts us to have patience in the world and warns us, especially, against envy. For it is vexing and painful to the ‘Weak in faith when things go so well for the godless and the opposite happens to those who fear God. It is a great spiritual virtue when-seeing the great misdeeds of the peasants, the townspeople, the nobility, the princes, and every one who has any power-one yet exerts himself not to blaspheme or inwardly wish this and that curse on them. Moreover, he still suffers and sees that all things go well for them and they remain unpunished. Indeed, they are praised and honored, while the God-fearing are miserable, despised, hated, begrudged, obstructed, vexed, and persecuted.

The message is: Learn to have endurance. Take your heart to God and do not let yourself be vexed. Do not become envious, or curse, or with evil to fall, or murmur, or look at them with hatred. Let these people go and commend them to God, who will surely find all things out. The psalm teaches this and comforts us in a variety of ways with abundant promises, with examples, with warnings. For it is a great and difficult art to manifest such patient longsuffering, when reason and all the heathen count envy as virtue. For it appears as though it were just and fair to envy and begrudge the ungodly for their wantonness, their good fortune, and their riches.

This works so many ways. It should caution those woke Christians who rush to join the ranks of all those condemning all manner of imperfection. It should also provide counsel for Christian political conservatives who think the American republic is about to sink.

Beware, of course, that if you follow such advice you may be on the receiving end of those who think you are just like the German Lutherans who did not rise up and overthrow the Nazis. If that happens, remember “No peace, no justice”:

The office of vengeance has not been given to [us]. Later he will talk about the law of the gospel, which calls us to turn the other cheek, but that is not his point here. Luther’s point here about nonviolence does not rest on a Christian account of pacifism, but rather on natural law: civil society requires that some rule while others are ruled. Even if rulers are morally unjust, subjects have no right to rebel, which is tantamount to pretending that they themselves must rule. Such a pretension violates order, or “justice” in the Platonic sense of “everyone doing his own job.” Luther puts it this way: “The fact that the rulers are wicked and unjust does not excuse disorder and rebellion, for the punishing of wickedness is not the responsibility of everyone, but of the worldly rulers who bear the sword.” Order has priority over justice.

Selah

Why Do Anglicans Get a Pass?

Anyone familiar with debates over two-kingdom theology have also encountered the argument that allegedly proves this outlook’s error — namely, that Lutherans were 2k and it led them not to offer any resistance to Nazi Germany. Case closed. But here‘s an example of that logic — more like a claim:

the charge made against Luther is not that he made theological errors that led his followers astray in their private religious lives. On the contrary, the accusation is that Luther’s beliefs and actions led to disastrous historical consequences, not only in the Germany of his time (with the Christian submission to the princes and the slaughter of the peasants), but in the Germany of the twentieth century, when Lutheran Christians failed to resist the rise of Adolf Hitler. These charges are extended to Lutheran communities in South Africa and Chile, for example, which allegedly identified themselves with an unjust status quo on the basis of their Lutheran convictions. Further, so the indictment goes, the Lutheran accommodation to the Communists in East Germany is a confirmation of Troeltsch’s judgment that Lutheranism will comply with any political establishment. It has no social ethic on which to take a stand against worldly powers.

The thing is (maybe only “a” not “the” thing) that bishops and theologians in the Anglican church, especially under Elizabeth, James I, and Charles I (roughly 1570 to 1650) went Lutherans one better. They did not commit the supposed error of separating the church from the state in a way that left minsters without a voice in politics (a prophetic one, of course). Anglican theologians actually argued for the supremacy of the crown over the church and insisted that this was God’s will as revealed both in nature and Scripture. Imagine trying to find an argument for resistance to a selfish and bloated ruler when your queen or king is not merely the head of the church (instead of Christ) but also the divinely appointed guarantee
of order and truth in church and society.

Consider the following summary of Richard Hooker’s views (he was the author of The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity and lived between 1554 and 1600):

The political philosophy of Hooker is an integral part of his defense of the Erastian relationship of the Church of England and the Tudor monarchy. He was commissioned to supply the reasonable foundation for the existing establishment. Hooker writes from the standpoint or a conservative impelled by the exigency of the time to justify the status quo. In order to prove that the Puritan contentions were inconsistent with the political structure of England, he was obliged to examine the nature or the State and the sources of authority. He hoped to show that criticism or the Anglican Church and refusal to conform to the Elizabethan Settlement could not be rationally justified. He had concluded in Book III that the Scriptures do not require a particular form of church polity, and thus, demonstrated that the Church of England was not contrary to either the Word of God or to reason. His doctrine that resistance to authority can be vindicated only in the case of immoral law condemns the Puritan position as a denial of the fundamental nature of political obedience.

The motivation for Hooker’s conservative political theories and indeed for the philosophical and theological work as a whole, was an intrinsic fear
that a general acceptance of the doctrine of private revelation would lead to spiritual chaos and civil confusion. Hooker distrusted the extreme individualism of Puritanism, alarmed by the possibility that it might replace the corporate spirit of the English State. For the all-embracing cause of public order, Hooker was willing to submit private interpretation to public reason determined by the law of the legislature. He believed that a rational decision of a Parliament or Convocation was more likely to be in accordance with the will or God than the inspiration of a saintly individual. (pp. 19-20)

Of course, no English monarch measures up on the scales of heinousness crimes to Hitler (though most governments commit unjust actions and hurt innocent people). That is not the point. Nor is this an case of an American who takes democracy for granted taking exception to what looks like an odd form of government. Actually, The Crown portrays monarchy in a way that has this American second-guessing (even more) the powers of POTUS.

The question is why the critics of two-kingdom theology who fault it for an inability to resist tyranny (or its mistaken detection of tyranny) don’t see the much greater dangers that lurked in English bishops who sidled up to English and British monarchs. They did so not only for the sake of administering the church. They also made the case for divine-right monarchy in a way that made dissent sinful.

Sight-Seeing with Kuyper at Hagia Sophia

The idea that a building like Hagia Sophia, which had been a Christian cathedral, then became a mosque, and then under a secular state committed to neutrality became a museum — the idea that Hagia Sophia should remain a site free from religion seems odd for neo-Calvinists to embrace. David Koyzis, a political philosopher who identifies with Neo-Calvinism seems to be ambivalent about what’s happening to this ancient building:

Last month it was reported that a Turkish court has cleared the way for the historic Hagia Sophia, an ancient Roman church built by the Emperor Justinian in the 6th century, to return to its former use as a mosque. Known as Ayasofya to the Turks, it functioned as a Muslim place of worship between 1453, when the Ottoman armies of Mehmed II, the Conqueror, conquered Constantinople, and 1934, when Mustafa Kemal Atatürk turned it into a museum.

Since then this architectural wonder has seen millions of tourists file through its interior, which once echoed with the sounds of Byzantine chant and Muslim prayers but now houses the ancient artefacts of two civilizations and two religions. Because Islam prohibits the presence of images in worship, the status of the building’s Byzantine mosaics, uncovered in recent times, remains uncertain.

This development is consistent with the efforts of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to move his country away from the secularizing Kemalist legacy towards a more Islamic identity.

When Koyzis concludes that his hope is for the cathedral to return to Christian worship, he avoids having to side with either Ataturk or Erdogan:

It’s possible that the authorities will come up with a compromise for Hagia Sophia. The mosaics may be covered temporarily during the Muslim prayer hours but will be visible at all other times for the benefit of the tourists, whose preferences Turkey cannot afford to ignore. However, given my paternal Greek heritage and my Christian faith, I cannot but hope that one day the praises of the God who revealed himself in the person of Jesus Christ might again echo through the cavernous space of what was once the largest church in Christendom.

What might help Koyzis and other Protestants (not to mention Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox) is to remember what Abraham Kuyper experienced when he visited Istanbul during the first decade of twentieth century. To introduce his series on the Lordship of Christ (published as Pro Rege), Kuyper invoked his time at Hagia Sophia, according to James Bratt:

Kuyper introduced [the Lordship of Christ] from his fresh memory of observing prayers in Hagia Sophia. A faithful Muslim venerated the Prophet about 10,000 times a year, he computed. To kindle a lie devotion among Christians, it was necessary for them to understand their Master anew. (339)

In other words, visiting Hagia Sophia as a mosque was not something of which Kuyper disapproved.

In fact, Kuyper had respect to the point of envy for Islamic civilization:

Islam was the object of his supreme envy — a faith that, adapting itself to every culture, steeped its adherents in the conviction that the will of God was supreme over everything from the personal to the political, from the deep roots of time into the everlasting future, and under that conviction had spread a common worldview [w-w] from Gibraltar to the Philippines. This was Kuyper’s dream for Calvinism, the Dutch Golden Age times ten. As to particulars, he admired Muslim achievements in architecture . . . and he rhapsodized about Al-Azhar University in Cairo, where progressive scholarship had once flourished for seven hundred years in organic connection with religion and life. He noted the rise of pan-Islamic consciousness as a kind of liberation theology against colonial rule. It grounded independence in religious unity and ethical purification. If the “fanaticism” this produced worried him as a European, it echoed all his tales of heroic Beggars in the Dutch war for independence. (332)

Anyone tempted by Kuyper’s thoughts on Islam should obtain a copy of On Islam.

When COVID-19 Is Symptomatic (not symptomic)

What if most people, such as the president of Harvard, get sick and it’s no big deal? Even with autoimmune condition:

Harvard President Larry Bacow announced in an email to the Harvard community on March 24 that he and his wife, Adele Fleet Bacow, had been exposed to the spreading coronavirus. More than a week after they began working from home and limiting their outside contacts, both started experiencing the symptoms of COVID-19. Now recovered, he shared their experience with the Gazette.

Q&A
Larry Bacow
GAZETTE: How are you and Adele feeling?

BACOW: We are feeling much better. We were very fortunate. We never experienced any of the respiratory problems that sent so many people to the hospital. For us, this felt a lot like the flu. Not fun, but certainly not life-threatening, at least in our case.

GAZETTE: What were your symptoms?

BACOW: We both started off with a cough and then that progressed to having a fever and chills. I also had whole-body muscle aches. Everything hurt. I felt like I was 120 years old almost overnight. And then lethargy — just how you feel when you have the flu.

GAZETTE: What was going through your mind when you learned you had both tested positive?

BACOW: Well, we’d been very, very careful, and I was a little bit surprised, in truth, because Adele and I had not seen anyone except each other for close to 10 days before we started experiencing symptoms. We were completely isolated in the house. One reason we had taken such precautions is because I live with an autoimmune condition that makes me very susceptible to any kind of infection. In fact, some people questioned why I actually got tested. It’s because I’m immunosuppressed. So I was at risk. And when we tested positive I thought, “This is going to be interesting.”

I was also worried about being able to discharge my responsibilities. When I was at Tufts, I had gotten quite ill in 2004 when my autoimmune condition was first diagnosed, and I had had to take a month off of work. I realized that I needed to look after my own health. I wasn’t good to anybody if I wasn’t healthy. But beyond that, I realized I also had to give others permission to take the time they needed to recover if they got sick. So when I tested positive, I tried to model the behavior I would hope to see in others by being a good patient and doing what I was supposed to do.

Have the Protesters (and city officials) Seen The Wire?

From All the Pieces Matter:

Kwame Patterson: The looting and stuff, that helps nothing. The first thing we do is we loot or own community. They marched down in Fells Point, but it wasn’t looting in Fells Point. Police don’t care about you looting in the hood. That’s the hood. They don’t care about that

It’s the same thing when the LA riots happened It’s like, “y’all looting in the area where y’all live at. That’s stupid. Go to Beverly Hills if you want to prove a point.” Because they ain’t going to let you come to Beverly Hills. They gonna shut you down quick. You looting in Englewood, Compton, they just standing out there watching They just making sure they don’t get too crazy. They just stand out there. But come to Beverly Hills and start looting like that, they gonna shut it down quick, and that’s just what it is. So if you’re going to do that, not that I’m condoning it,, do it where it matters. Thats’s why I’ve never been a big fan of the rioting stuff, because I think it’s stupid. I feel like when they do that, they’re not really about the cause. (311-12)

Ed Burns: Baltimore’s an interesting city. The majority’s African American, and yet, there’s been no programs coming out of Baltimore that would be cutting-edge, new ways of looking at things.

In fact, we adapt programs from Boston and Kansas City, towns that are totally unlike Baltimore They come here and they fall flat on their face. The reason is because this is a very cheap little town, parochial. We don’t think big. We don’t think outside the box Then you’ve got Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland, which are the two big employers here, and nothing’s coming out of them, so it’s the same old crap over and over and over again, same old approach….

There’s this wonderful line from a theologians named Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who got it in his head–he was a German–to leave England in 1944 to come back to confront Hitler. He was [executed] two weeks before the end of the war. He has this line, he says, “if you get on the wrong train, running down the aisle backward is not a solution. You have to get off the train.” We created thee programs back in the sixties, seventies, eighties, nineties, that were the wrong programs. That’s our train, and we tinker with them, but the problem’s way back there and we’re not getting off the train. There’s this whole idea of the war on drugs. I mean, that is our longest war, and that war has more casualties than all together wars combined. . . . We’re not willing to get off of that train because we’ere all experts on the train. We step off the train and now we have to open ourselves up to the problem and rediscover. Now we’re no longer experts. If I had a PhD behind my name or two or three behind my name, I’m not getting off any [bleeping] train. I’ll ride that baby right into retirement. (313-14)

Machen Day 2020

Ages well.

The purpose of this book is not to decide the religious issue of the present day, but merely to present the issue as sharply and clearly as possible, in order that the reader may be aided in deciding it for himself. Presenting an issue sharply is indeed by no means a popular business at the present time; there are many who prefer to fight their intellectual battles in what Dr. Francis L. Patton has aptly called a “condition of low visibility.” (Patton, in the introduction to William Hallock Johnson The Christian Faith Under Modern Searchlight, [1916], p. 7.) Clear-cut definition of terms in religious matters, bold facing of the logical implications of religious views, is by many persons regarded as an impious proceeding. May it not discourage contribution to mission boards? May it not hinder the progress of consolidation, and produce a poor showing in columns of Church statistics? But with such persons we cannot possibly bring ourselves to agree. Light may seem at times to be an impertinent intruder, but it is always beneficial in the end. The type of religion which rejoices in the pious sound of traditional phrases, regardless of their meanings, or shrinks from “controversial” matters, will never stand amid the shocks of life. In the sphere of religion, as in other spheres, the things about which men are agreed are apt to be the things that are least worth holding; the really important things are the things about which men will fight. In the sphere of religion, in particular, the present time is a time of conflict; the great redemptive religion which has always been known as Christianity is battling against a totally diverse type of religious belief, which is only the more destructive of the Christian faith because it makes use of traditional Christian terminology. (1-2)

Great Song, But Can you Preach It?

Imagine preaching a prayer.

Sometimes Tim Challies includes prayers from the congregation where he worships (the pattern seems to be using a common text for confession of sin rather than producing a transcript of the pastoral prayer):

Merciful God, we admit we have sinned. We have not nailed it in our spiritual lives. And even if we have not sinned badly, like David, we all stand together in need of Christ — the proof of Your mercy. He is our salvation. Our Rescuer. Our Redeemer. Our only hope to stand before You is to stand in His mercy… secured for us by His cross. So we throw ourselves upon You, God. For you are full of mercy. Amen

Of course, it is much easier to find Christian prayers in the prayer books of liturgical communions. Here is the Prayer of the Church from the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod for August 30, 2020:

Knowing the will of God that all would come to the knowledge of Your Son and find salvation in Christ, let us pray on behalf of our parish community and for all people according to their needs.

Brief silence

For our faith and faithfulness, especially for those persecuted for the cause of Christ; and
For our strength in time of trial and for us to persevere in grace in the day of trouble, let us pray to the Lord: Lord, have mercy.

For the Church, Jerusalem on high, our mother in Christ until Christ is fully formed in us;
For the pastors who serve us, that they may be faithful stewards of God’s mysteries; and
For those at home and abroad, who bring the message of salvation to those who have not heard, let us pray to the Lord: Lord, have mercy.

For Donald, our president; _____________, our governor; and all legislators and civil servants;
For those who must render judgment and impose punishment upon lawbreakers; and
For those who work for peace among the nations, let us pray to the Lord: Lord, have mercy.

For favorable weather and for those who tend the soil and harvest its fruits;
For business and industry, service workers and artisans;
For generosity toward those in need; and
For the unemployed and underemployed, let us pray to the Lord: Lord, have mercy.

For those married, that they would live in fidelity to their vows and promises;
For parents as they teach their children to know and love the Lord;
For single adults, that they may find fulfillment in their service to others; and
For our lives together showing the love of Christ one to another, let us pray to the Lord: Lord, have mercy.

For grace to take up the cross and follow the Lord wherever He leads;
For courage in the face of challenge and adversity; and
For compassion and harmony in our life together, let us pray to the Lord: Lord, have mercy.

For holy lives of faith;
For faith to receive the Lord’s gift of His flesh and blood in the Holy Sacrament; and
For this holy assembly, that we may present ourselves as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, let us pray to the Lord: Lord, have mercy.

For our remembrance of the saints and grace to follow their example of faith;
For God to grant us a place with them in their fellowship; and
For our eternal life in God’s kingdom without end, let us pray to the Lord: Lord, have mercy….

Would you, if you were a pastor, preach either of these prayers? That may seem like a silly question. But if pastors preach from the Psalter, which they do, I’ve seen them, then preaching prayers is fairly routine at least among Reformed Protestants.

Take, for instance, Psalm 5:

Give ear to my words, O Lord;
consider my groaning.
2 Give attention to the sound of my cry,
my King and my God,
for to you do I pray.
3 O Lord, in the morning you hear my voice;
in the morning I prepare a sacrifice for you[a] and watch.

4 For you are not a God who delights in wickedness;
evil may not dwell with you.
5 The boastful shall not stand before your eyes;
you hate all evildoers.
6 You destroy those who speak lies;
the Lord abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful man.

7 But I, through the abundance of your steadfast love,
will enter your house.
I will bow down toward your holy temple
in the fear of you.
8 Lead me, O Lord, in your righteousness
because of my enemies;
make your way straight before me.

9 For there is no truth in their mouth;
their inmost self is destruction;
their throat is an open grave;
they flatter with their tongue.
10 Make them bear their guilt, O God;
let them fall by their own counsels;
because of the abundance of their transgressions cast them out,
for they have rebelled against you.

11 But let all who take refuge in you rejoice;
let them ever sing for joy,
and spread your protection over them,
that those who love your name may exult in you.
12 For you bless the righteous, O Lord;
you cover him with favor as with a shield.

But just because preaching the Psalms is familiar, the idea of preaching prayers is strange.

That could explain why, aside from how challenging Hebrew poetry can be, sermons on the Psalms can be hard to follow. Or often the three-point sermon treatment of a Psalm can seem artificial. I’m not sure that even H. L. Mencken is any help. He believed the Old Testament contained poetry “so overwhelmingly voluptuous and disarming that no other literature, old or new, can offer a match for it.”

That is high praise, but worship is not a seminar either in aesthetics or poetry.