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.

The White Man’s Burden

With all the talk of intersectionality and white privilege, it now turns out that white men themselves can play the victim card. We too are oppressed and marginalized as Pete Enns recently discovered:

White male privilege really is a thing, I never see it from the outside in, and I was never challenged to critique white male privilege as an expression of my faith. Rather, it was allowed to fit far too comfortably with my faith.

Not being an oppressed person puts me at a disadvantage. I rarely need to cry out as the psalmists do about being treated with injustice, prejudice, with violence. I don’t need to worry about being pulled over by uniformed protectors of the public. There are many more places I can go and things I can do because I am part of the dominant culture.

And I don’t worry about my competence or value being questioned because of my gender. I am the default, the norm. I do the judging.

An iteration of the Christian faith that doesn’t see the problem here, really see it, is its own refutation.

But here come some complications when men of privilege grasp for the ring of oppression:

Was the fact that Pete was a victim of white male domination at WTS its own form of oppression? On the scales of social justice this instance of maltreatment (according to some) does not itself rise to the level of what people of color have experienced. But Pete needs to see that white male privilege only goes so far when it collides with other white men with privilege. Ten years ago the Psalms would have made total sense of Pete’s experience.

But that raises a question about using as expressions of lament the prayers of kings, which is much of the OT Psalter. Should a victim of oppression really appeal to a prayer from an officer who according to social justice warriors is inherently oppressive? After all, the left has taught us that the wealthy and powerful are chief among the perpetrators of injustice. So how do you sing the songs of lament of the wealthy and powerful, like kings as opposed to the oppressed people (who haven’t left much of a paper trail)?

One last wrinkle: can a white Christian man really appeal to the text of Hebrews even if that is his academic specialty? Isn’t this a form of cultural appropriation? If Oberlin College students have taught us about authentic tacos in the cafeteria, and if Pete wants to approve the arguments that currently fuel the politics of identity, hasn’t he gone to the wrong place if he turns to the Psalms? Wouldn’t T.S. Eliot be a better fit for a white Christian man if he were — hypothetically of course — to experience oppression?

The gods of social justice are a demanding bunch. Call on them at your peril if your complexion is pink or ruddy.

Beware the Adverb

Adverbs usually reveal the subtext. Tim Challies shows why:

There is also a kind of symbolic value to paying taxes. By paying taxes we affirm that we understand the intrinsic value of authority. Paying taxes is one very practical way that we prove our obedience to God and prove our understanding of the authority he has given to government. It’s a way in which we put our money where our mouth is.

Simple enough. But here’s a way I have to apply this: When I pay my taxes, do I pay them joyfully? It seems inconceivable that I’d be commanded to do something and then be allowed to do it hesitantly and with complaining. And I sure complain a lot about taxes. . . .

I am convicted by God that if I am to give what is owed to those who govern me, those who have been given authority by God, I must learn to give them the money they ask, but also give them the honor and respect they deserve.

How about paying taxes the Piperian way — hedonistically?

Then again, why does showing honor to civil authorities mean being joyful? There go those religious affections again.

Perhaps the Psalmist provides an alternative adverb:

Put not your trust in princes,
in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation.
When his breath departs, he returns to the earth;
on that very day his plans perish. (Ps. 146-3-4)

To paraphrase Ronald Reagan’s “trust but verify,” honor ruling authorities distrustfully.