God With Us – Heaven’s Whisper

 

Read: Matthew 25:31-46

I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me (Matthew 25:35, NRSV).

There is a story about a young, 4th-century French soldier named Martin. Martin was riding into town one winter day, enjoying the warmth of his woolen cloak. But then, just outside the city gate, his attention was drawn to a poor, lightly-clad man shivering at the side of the road. Moved to pity, Martin drew his sword and cut his own cloak in half. He gave half to the surprised man at the side of the road, and then continued on his way.

That night, the young soldier dreamed that he saw Jesus surrounded by the angels–and wearing the other half of his cloak! “See how Martin has covered me with his cloak?” Jesus said to the angels. In that moment, Martin understood what was meant by Matthew’s words, “I was naked and you gave me clothing.”

That young soldier spent the rest of his life serving Christ by relieving the suffering of others. He is now remembered as St. Martin the Merciful.

I thought of Martin’s story as I read the words to Mary Louise Bringle’s Advent hymn, “Now the Heavens Start to Whisper.” Like the hush that falls over the world after a heavy snowfall, the hymn invites us to be still so that we can listen for heaven’s whisper—and to look for ways to welcome Christ “in the lonely, in the stranger, in the outcast, hid from view.”

Experts are warning us that we are in for “a world of hurt” this winter. But I wonder if winter’s killing cold could be warmed a bit by compassion hearts. Yes, there is much to mourn. There is much to fear. But in listening for heaven’s whisper, we may find ourselves welcoming Christ in a whole new way.

Ponder: What is heaven whispering to you during this time? How can you be a better listener?

Listen: There are two popular tunes for this text. Slightly more familiar is the gorgeous Celtic lullaby, SUO GAN, which you can hear in this SAB arrangement by Thomas Keesecker, or in this instrumental mix with winter scenery by the Adagio Trio. As much as I love SUO GAN, I have to wonder whether a lullaby is quite appropriate for a text that is intended—however gently—to wake us up. The tune, JEFFERSON works better in this regard, but this new setting by Carlton Young (GIA) captures both the promise and the urgency of Bringle’s text.

 

Pray:

Christ, eternal Sun of justice, Christ the rose of wisdom’s seed,

Come to bless with fire and fragrance hours of yearning, hurt, and need.

In the lonely, in the stranger, in the outcast, hid from view:

Child who comes to grace the manger, teach our hearts to welcome you.

(“Now the Heavens Start to Whisper” by Mary Louise Bringle, v. 3)

 

 

Introduction to the “God With Us” Series

 

Emmanuel. It means “God with us.” If ever there was a time to pray for God to be with us, it’s now.

In this series, we let Advent and Christmas hymns lead us in that prayer. Since December is short and we need God with us now, we’re starting early. Besides, there are so many hymns and so little time! Some of the featured hymns will be familiar, and some deserve to be more familiar. But all of them offer unique insights into the miracle of the incarnation.

May these reflections help you feel God’s saving presence in your life and in the life of the world right now.

Come, O Come, Emmanuel!

God With Us – Come, O Come, Emmanuel

Introduction to the “God With Us” Series

 

Emmanuel. It means “God with us.” If ever there was a time to pray for God to be with us, it’s now.

In this series, we let Advent and Christmas hymns lead us in that prayer. Since December is short and we need God with us now, we’re starting early. Besides, there are so many hymns and so little time! Some of the featured hymns will be familiar, and some deserve to be more familiar. But all of them offer unique insights into the miracle of the incarnation.

May these reflections help you feel God’s saving presence in your life and in the life of the world right now.

Come, O Come, Emmanuel!

 

 

Come, O Come, Emmanuel

 

 

Read: Exodus 3:1-11

Then the LORD said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians…. (Exodus 3:7-8a, NRSV).

In the past, I have been the first to complain when Christmas decorations come up before Halloween. I don’t even like singing Christmas carols during Advent.

 

But this year feels different. I don’t know about you, but I’m not waiting one minute more to sing, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”

 

In Hebrew, the name, “Emmanuel” means “God with us.” And that is precisely what we are all praying for these days. While the incarnation is the best example of God’s being “with us,” the impulse to come down and save has been the habit of God’s heart since well before that.

In the story of the burning bush, for instance, God speaks to Moses and says, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their suffering, and I have come down to deliver them….” (Ex. 3:7-8a). “I have come down…” In other words, I will be “God with us” for you. Emmanuel.

Those are comforting words for a world that is being oppressed by a virus. But the story from Exodus 3 also nudges us to consider where we stand in the Exodus story. Should we identify with the Hebrews slaves or the Egyptian taskmasters? Yes, with regard to the virus we are “oppressees.” But are we also the “oppressors?” Recent evidence of systemic racism would suggest that if that role fits, we ought to own up to it. Many of us have much work to do in that regard. But whether we are the oppressed or the oppressors—or some complicated combination of both, our prayer can be the same: “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”

 

So, let that be our prayer—even if it means getting a head start on Advent.

 

 

Ponder: In what ways are you oppressed? In what ways are you the oppressor?

Listen: O Come, O Come Emmanuel

 

Pray:

Come, oh come, Emmanuel!

From depths of hell your people save, and give them victory o’er the grave.

Bid all our sad divisions cease, and be thyself our Prince of Peace.

Disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death’s dark shadows put to flight.

Come, O come, Emmanuel!

Teach Us to Pray Series 2 – Does God Answer Prayer?

 

Video Link: Teach Us to Pray 7-Does God Answer Prayer?* (This is a video of the reflection printed below.)

Read: Matthew 6:10; 26:36-39

Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10, NRSV).

When I was a little girl I had a pet kitten. I loved her. Then she got sick, but I thought, “No problem. I’ll pray for her, and she’ll get better.” But she didn’t. In fact, she died, and I was bitterly disillusioned.

It took my tender faith a while to recover. But over time—years, to be honest—I realized that God is not a vending machine. We can’t just punch in our prayers and expect answers to drop out.

So, now, when people ask me “Does God answer prayer?” I respond, “Yes, but the answers may not be the ones you expect.” That may sound like a dodge, but it’s really just a recognition that God has the freedom to respond to our prayers in ways that are far beyond what we can imagine. As I look back at my life and think of all the fervent prayers I made as a teenager, I have to say, I’m grateful that God sometimes answered my prayers with: “No!” But that was not God’s last word. As I look back on my life, I can see that God always had a “Yes” that was better for me in the long run. Now, I just try to remember to end each prayer with “Thy will be done,” and trust God to override all of my worst suggestions.

I don’t mean to make light of the anguish we feel when our prayers appear to be unanswered. I just want to remind us that God’s response to our prayers may be more complicated than what we can see in the short term. That’s not easy. It requires faith—and a profound trust that God weeps with us in our pain and promises a day when all our tears will be wiped away.

I hope this series has been helpful for you. And I pray that your prayers will come a little easier as a result of our having spent some time together. Thanks for listening, and may God bless you!

 

Ponder: When you look back on some of your most fervent prayers, were God’s responses what you hoped they would be? How does hindsight change the way you look at things?

Pray: Not what I want, but what you want. Thy will be done.

 

 

*This video was written and delivered by the Rev. Dr. Carol M. Bechtel, Professor of Old Testament at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan (Reformed Church in America). Dr. Bechtel is also the Executive Director of the American Waldensian Society. These videos were produced by the Chiesa Evangelica Valdese https://www.chiesavaldese.org/and filmed in the Cottian Alps near Torre Pellice, Italy in July of 2020.

 

 

Introduction to Teach Us to Pray Series 2

On my recent sabbatical in Italy, colleagues from the Waldensian church invited me to do a series of short videos on prayer. These reflections are a result of that invitation. Although they were written and filmed in the midst of the pandemic (July 2020), they are not “Covid-19 specific.” Still, knowing that they were created in that crucible may add a certain urgency—and utility—to them. I offer them to you here in the hope that they will help you to pray even as our world’s anxiety threatens to make our souls mute.

All of the videos were filmed outside my little lockdown chalet in the Angrogna Valley in northwest Italy, so at the very least, you can enjoy the scenery. And I hope you also enjoy the Italian subtitles. Learn Italian while learning to pray!

Still learning and still praying,

Teach Us to Pray Series 2 – Trust

 

Video Link: Teach Us to Pray 6-Trust* (This is a video of the reflection printed below.)

Read: Psalm 131

But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; my soul is like the weaned child that is with me (Psalm 131:2, NRSV).

Not every prayer is about asking for something. I wonder, sometimes, if God gets a bit bored with prayers that read like grocery lists.

Sometimes, prayer can simply be an expression of trust. This is not always easy, as one of the Bible’s best prayers illustrates. Psalm 23 begins “The Lord is my shepherd,” but then it goes on to talk about walking through a dangerous valley. The psalmist says, “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me” (Ps. 23:4).

It seems to me that a prayer like that takes considerable courage. Trust in the face of danger is difficult. And I suspect that even Psalm 23 may have been written with a shaking hand. We owe it to the author to acknowledge this—and perhaps we also owe it to ourselves. Prayers of trust aren’t what we pray once we have our act together. They are the prayers we pray when we are scared out of our wits.

But one of my favorite prayers of trust is an obscure little psalm that is often overlooked. Psalm 131 paints an unforgettable picture of prayer that can, I think, lead us into a more profound experience of prayer than maybe we’d ever imagined. The psalmist says, “I have calmed and quieted my soul like a weaned child with its mother” (v.2). First, the picture invites us to imagine God as a mother, which is a rich image in and of itself. But notice as well the use of the words “weaned child.” What’s that about?

A nursing child with its mother often has—shall we say—an “agenda.” But a weaned child behaves quite differently. The weaned child is able to relax and enjoy the intimate presence of its mother.

That is a picture of prayer from which we can all learn. Sometimes prayer is not about making demands, but simply about enjoying the intimate presence of our loving Mother. Try it sometime. You don’t even need words.

 

Ponder: When was the last time you simply sat quietly with God? Is that a form of prayer you might welcome right now?

Pray this refrain from Christopher Walker’s setting of Psalm 131:

Like a child rests in its mother’s arms,

so will I rest in you;

like a child rests in its mother’s arms,

so will I rest in you.

 

Or listen to his setting of all of Psalm 131: Like a Child Rests – Christopher Walker

 

*This video was written and delivered by the Rev. Dr. Carol M. Bechtel, Professor of Old Testament at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan (Reformed Church in America). Dr. Bechtel is also the Executive Director of the American Waldensian Society. These videos were produced by the Chiesa Evangelica Valdese https://www.chiesavaldese.org/and filmed in the Cottian Alps near Torre Pellice, Italy in July of 2020.

 

 

 

Introduction to Teach Us to Pray Series 2

On my recent sabbatical in Italy, colleagues from the Waldensian church invited me to do a series of short videos on prayer. These reflections are a result of that invitation. Although they were written and filmed in the midst of the pandemic (July 2020), they are not “Covid-19 specific.” Still, knowing that they were created in that crucible may add a certain urgency—and utility—to them. I offer them to you here in the hope that they will help you to pray even as our world’s anxiety threatens to make our souls mute.

All of the videos were filmed outside my little lockdown chalet in the Angrogna Valley in northwest Italy, so at the very least, you can enjoy the scenery. And I hope you also enjoy the Italian subtitles. Learn Italian while learning to pray!

Still learning and still praying,

Teach Us to Pray Series 2 – Confession

 

Video Link: Teach Us to Pray 5 – Confession* (This is a video of the reflection printed below.)

Read: Psalm 51

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me (Psalm 51:10, NRSV).

Sometimes, we just need to “come clean” with God. That’s why it’s such a gift to be able to confess our sins in prayer.

Technically, of course, nothing we say will come as “news” to God. Psalm 139 admits as much. It says, “Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.” So, confession is less about information than it is about reconciliation.

 

Probably the most well-known prayer of confession is Psalm 51. The first thing to love about it is that prayer is that it doesn’t beat around the bush. “Have mercy on me, O God,” it begins. “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.” These are the words of someone who knows they are in the wrong, and can’t wait to get rid of the load of guilt they’ve been carrying around.

 

But when you think about it, even that is a victory of sorts. Too often we take refuge in denial. We blame others or make excuses. But not this psalmist. No, this psalmist admits his sin. “I know my transgressions,” he says, “and my sin is ever before me” (v. 3).

 

So, admitting our sin is the first step. But then, many of us get stuck. We get caught in such a whirlpool of guilt that we can’t escape. But that’s why confession really is “good for the soul.” “Create in me a clean heart,” the psalmist says. “Put a new and right spirit within me” (v. 10). And ideally, that’s what happens when we confess our sins. We get to start fresh. The whole premise of confession is that—even if we don’t have the strength to escape the whirlpool of sin—God has the power to pull us out. And God will if we confess in sincerity and truth.

So, if you long to “come clean” with God about something, Psalm 51 may help you. Of course, you don’t need a prayer that’s been written by someone else, but sometimes a “time tested” prayer of confession can help us to get started.

 

Here is another well-worn prayer from the New Zealand Prayer Book that you may find helpful. Notice that it uses “we” rather than “I,” which reminds us that some of our sins are things of which we are guilty together:

 

Merciful God,

We have sinned

in what we have thought and said,

in the wrong we have done

and in the good we have not done.

We have sinned in ignorance;

we have sinned in weakness;

we have sinned through our own deliberate fault.

We are truly sorry.

We repent and turn to you.

Forgive us, for our Savior Christ’s sake,

And renew our lives to the glory of your name. Amen.

 

And after you confess, remember these well-worn words of assurance from Psalm 103:

 

The Lord is merciful and gracious,

Slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love…

As far as the east is from the west,

So far [does God remove] our transgressions from us. (Ps. 103: 8 & 12, NRSV)

 

So confess! It really is good for the soul.

 

Ponder: What sins would you like to “come clean” with God about? What’s stopping you?

Pray:  

Gracious God,

our sins are too heavy to carry, too real to hide, and too deep to undo.

Forgive what our lips tremble to name, what our hearts can no longer bear,

and what has become for us a consuming fire of judgment.

Set us free from a past that we cannot change;

open to us a future in which we can be changed;

and grant us grace to grow more and more in your likeness and image,

through Jesus Christ, the light of the world. Amen.

 

(From the PCUSA Book of Common Worship Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1993; p. 88.)

 

 

 

*This video was written and delivered by the Rev. Dr. Carol M. Bechtel, Professor of Old Testament at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan (Reformed Church in America). Dr. Bechtel is also the Executive Director of the American Waldensian Society. These videos were produced by the Chiesa Evangelica Valdese https://www.chiesavaldese.org/and filmed in the Cottian Alps near Torre Pellice, Italy in July of 2020.

 

 

 

 

Introduction to Teach Us to Pray Series 2

On my recent sabbatical in Italy, colleagues from the Waldensian church invited me to do a series of short videos on prayer. These reflections are a result of that invitation. Although they were written and filmed in the midst of the pandemic (July 2020), they are not “Covid-19 specific.” Still, knowing that they were created in that crucible may add a certain urgency—and utility—to them. I offer them to you here in the hope that they will help you to pray even as our world’s anxiety threatens to make our souls mute.

All of the videos were filmed outside my little lockdown chalet in the Angrogna Valley in northwest Italy, so at the very least, you can enjoy the scenery. And I hope you also enjoy the Italian subtitles. Learn Italian while learning to pray!

Still learning and still praying,

Teach Us to Pray Series 2 – Intercession

 

Video Link: Teach Us to Pray 4 – Intercession* (This is a video of the reflection printed below.)

Read: Psalm 72

May there be abundance of grain in the land; may it wave on the tops of the mountains; may its fruit be like Lebanon; and may people blossom in the cities like the grass of the field (Psalm 72:16, NRSV).

My great aunt Grace lived to be 100 years old. At her funeral, her family and friends talked about how blessed we were to have enjoyed a “century of Grace.”

I remember visiting her at the nursing home in the last years of her life. I asked her what she did to keep busy. Without a moment’s hesitation, she responded, “I pray for you all every day!” By “all” she meant everyone in her extended family. (There are a lot of us!) And I’m sure her prayers weren’t limited to just relatives.

I have often wondered what my life would have been like if Aunt Grace had not been praying for me. I’ll never know, of course. But I’ve never forgotten how seriously she took her “job.” Praying for others—interceding with God on their behalf—was her vocation.

Not all of us have that kind of calling—or perhaps that kind of patience. But neither will it “do” to pray only for ourselves! As we grow in our faith, the reach of our prayers should expand as well.

Sometimes it helps to have a structure that “prompts” these prayers. Aunt Grace used her family tree. Some people use the daily news or even their Facebook feed. Some churches publish “yearbooks” with lists of people for whom to pray each day. Use whatever method is most helpful for you. The important thing is to make space in your prayers each day—space in which you consciously pray for others—and intercede for the world.

Of course, praying like this isn’t something we do only as individuals. We can also join our prayers together—and intercede with one voice. So, even though there may be many people praying, we still say, “Lord, hear our prayer.” Singular. And that’s a powerful thing.

 

Ponder: What happens in your own heart when you pray for others?

Pray:  Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen.

(A traditional evening prayer from the Book of Common Prayer)

 

 

*This video was written and delivered by the Rev. Dr. Carol M. Bechtel, Professor of Old Testament at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan (Reformed Church in America). Dr. Bechtel is also the Executive Director of the American Waldensian Society. These videos were produced by the Chiesa Evangelica Valdese https://www.chiesavaldese.org/and filmed in the Cottian Alps near Torre Pellice, Italy in July of 2020.

 

 

 

Introduction to Teach Us to Pray Series 2

On my recent sabbatical in Italy, colleagues from the Waldensian church invited me to do a series of short videos on prayer. These reflections are a result of that invitation. Although they were written and filmed in the midst of the pandemic (July 2020), they are not “Covid-19 specific.” Still, knowing that they were created in that crucible may add a certain urgency—and utility—to them. I offer them to you here in the hope that they will help you to pray even as our world’s anxiety threatens to make our souls mute.

All of the videos were filmed outside my little lockdown chalet in the Angrogna Valley in northwest Italy, so at the very least, you can enjoy the scenery. And I hope you also enjoy the Italian subtitles. Learn Italian while learning to pray!

Still learning and still praying,

Teach Us to Pray Series 2 – Lament

 

Video Link: Teach Us to Pray #3 – Lament* (This is a video of the reflection printed below.)

Read: Psalm 13

How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? (Psalm 13:2a, NRSV)

I teach a class on the psalms at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. One of the things I tell my students is: The book of Psalms contains 150 of the best friends you’ll ever have. And the best of these best friends for me are the psalms of lament. These are psalms like:

  • 13, which begins “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?” Or–
  • 22—which Jesus prayed from the cross: “My God, my God—why have you forsaken me?”

These are psalms that give us words to pray when we’ve run out of words.

One of the best things that anyone ever told me about the lament psalms is that they are “praise in a minor key.” Isn’t that great? Bernhard Anderson said that. Praise in a minor key. You know the difference between a major and a minor key. But, think about it: when you’re singing in a minor key, you’re still singing. That’s important. God want to hear our sad songs, too. We owe God that kind of honesty.

So, pray the lament psalms. They’re easy to spot. They’re the ones that begin by complaining! But you can also write your own lament. It’s easier than you think. It’s a three-part pattern: Protest, Petition, and Praise.

  • First you protest—lay out your complaints and your griefs before God. Don’t hold back. God can handle it.
  • Then petition God for what you want. Be bold—although it might also be a good idea to include “Thy will be done.”
  • Lastly—praise God for listening, for caring, and for considering your prayer.

I hope you’ll try this. It’s a pattern that’s worked for thousands of years!

Ponder: What do you want to complain about to God? What’s holding you back?

Pray:  O Lord, you have searched me and known me.

            Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely (Ps. 139:1 & 4).

Hear, now, my lament, which will not be “news” to you.

May it be the beginning of a candid and productive conversation.

 

 

*This video was written and delivered by the Rev. Dr. Carol M. Bechtel, Professor of Old Testament at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan (Reformed Church in America). Dr. Bechtel is also the Executive Director of the American Waldensian Society. These videos were produced by the Chiesa Evangelica Valdese https://www.chiesavaldese.org/and filmed in the Cottian Alps near Torre Pellice, Italy in July of 2020.

 

 

Introduction to Teach Us to Pray Series 2

On my recent sabbatical in Italy, colleagues from the Waldensian church invited me to do a series of short videos on prayer. These reflections are a result of that invitation. Although they were written and filmed in the midst of the pandemic (July 2020), they are not “Covid-19 specific.” Still, knowing that they were created in that crucible may add a certain urgency—and utility—to them. I offer them to you here in the hope that they will help you to pray even as our world’s anxiety threatens to make our souls mute.

All of the videos were filmed outside my little lockdown chalet in the Angrogna Valley in northwest Italy, so at the very least, you can enjoy the scenery. And I hope you also enjoy the Italian subtitles. Learn Italian while learning to pray!

Still learning and still praying,

Teach Us to Pray Series 2 – Gratitude

 

 

Video Link: Teach Us to Pray Video #2Gratitude* (This is a video of the reflection printed below.)

Read: Psalm 148

Praise him, sun and moon; praise him, all you shining stars! (Psalm 148:3, NRSV)

One of the best reasons to pray is simply to say “thank you” to God. And even on a bad day, there are a lot of things for which to be thankful. Sometimes, just remembering those things makes a bad day better.

We often make the mistake of thinking that prayer has to be complicated. But prayers of gratitude can be as simple as focusing for a moment on the thing for which we are thankful. I often imagine holding it in my hands—cherishing it for a moment in God’s presence. It’s a gesture that both acknowledges that you have received something from God as a gift, and that you are offering your thanks back to God for that gift.

One other thing. As we give thanks, I think it’s important to remember that our small prayers of gratitude are, in fact, joining with the praises of all creation. The psalms, after all, assume that every part of God’s creation has a “voice” with which to praise the Creator. We may not be able to hear that voice with our ears, but that doesn’t mean God can’t hear it.

Psalm 148, for instance, includes all sorts of things in its call to praise: human beings are included, of course—but so are the sun, moon, & stars—sea monsters, fire, hail, snow and frost—mountains, hills, fruit trees, and cedars—wild animals, cattle, creeping things and flying birds. You get the picture. So, when you pray, think of it not so much as a solo, but a symphony! That in itself, is something for which to be thankful.

Ponder: What makes you want to join the symphony today?

Pray:   

O Thou who by Thy touch give form

To all things and their polity,

Whose sight is light to all, draw thanks

From us as we draw breath from Thee.

 

A poem by Wendell Berry from This Day: Collected & New Sabbath Poems (Berkely, CA: Counterpoint, 2013) p. 341.

 

*This video was written and delivered by the Rev. Dr. Carol M. Bechtel, Professor of Old Testament at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan (Reformed Church in America). Dr. Bechtel is also the Executive Director of the American Waldensian Society. These videos were produced by the Chiesa Evangelica Valdese https://www.chiesavaldese.org/and filmed in the Cottian Alps near Torre Pellice, Italy in July of 2020.

 

Introduction to Teach Us to Pray Series 2

On my recent sabbatical in Italy, colleagues from the Waldensian church invited me to do a series of short videos on prayer. These reflections are a result of that invitation. Although they were written and filmed in the midst of the pandemic (July 2020), they are not “Covid-19 specific.” Still, knowing that they were created in that crucible may add a certain urgency—and utility—to them. I offer them to you here in the hope that they will help you to pray even as our world’s anxiety threatens to make our souls mute.

All of the videos were filmed outside my little lockdown chalet in the Angrogna Valley in northwest Italy, so at the very least, you can enjoy the scenery. And I hope you also enjoy the Italian subtitles. Learn Italian while learning to pray!

Still learning and still praying,

Teach Us to Pray Series 2 – Learning to Pray

 

Video Link: Learning to Pray* (This is a video of the reflection printed below.)

Read: Psalm 63:1-8

O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water (Psalm 63:1, NRSV).

Sometimes I think we make prayer too complicated. Maybe we think we have to be eloquent, or that prayer will only “work” if we have our hands folded in some formal pose. But deep down, I think we all know that prayer can happen in a heartbeat. I suspect that some of the most sincere prayers happen just that way—like signal flares shot into the night sky.

The disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray. But in a sense, it was the psalms that taught Jesus to pray. And many of the psalms read like candid conversations between friends. Of course, we only hear one side of the conversation—but there’s not much doubt that God is on the receiving end. And one suspects that the psalmists were listening as well as talking—straining to hear what God might be saying to them in return.

So, when you pray—don’t make it harder than it needs to be. And of course, different situation call for different kinds of prayers. “Emergency” prayers are one thing, but if that’s the only kind of prayer we pray I think we may begin to test God’s patience!

One of the biggest challenges is to make “space” for prayer. So many things clamor for our attention. Sometimes I feel like my brain is a bug in a jar.

Here’s a poem that helps me to prepare for prayer. It’s by David Adam:

I weave a silence onto my lips.

I weave a silence into my mind.

I weave a silence within my heart.

Calm me, O Lord, as you stilled the storm.

Still me, O Lord, keep me from harm.

Let all the tumult within me cease.

Enfold me, Lord, in your peace.

 

Then a few deep breaths, and I’m ready to pray.

Ponder: Is there anything you want to change about your own prayer life? If so, what might be your first step?

Pray: Teach me to pray, O Lord. Help me to make space for conversations with you.

*This video was written and delivered by the Rev. Dr. Carol M. Bechtel, Professor of Old Testament at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan (Reformed Church in America). Dr. Bechtel is also the Executive Director of the American Waldensian Society. These videos were produced by the Chiesa Evangelica Valdese https://www.chiesavaldese.org/and filmed in the Cottian Alps near Torre Pellice, Italy in July of 2020.

 

Introduction to Teach Us to Pray Series 2

On my recent sabbatical in Italy, colleagues from the Waldensian church invited me to do a series of short videos on prayer. These reflections are a result of that invitation. Although they were written and filmed in the midst of the pandemic (July 2020), they are not “Covid-19 specific.” Still, knowing that they were created in that crucible may add a certain urgency—and utility—to them. I offer them to you here in the hope that they will help you to pray even as our world’s anxiety threatens to make our souls mute.

All of the videos were filmed outside my little lockdown chalet in the Angrogna Valley in northwest Italy, so at the very least, you can enjoy the scenery. And I hope you also enjoy the Italian subtitles. Learn Italian while learning to pray!

Still learning and still praying,

Practicing the Faith: The Thing with Feathers

 

Read: Ruth 2:17-23

So she gleaned in the field until evening. Then she beat out what she had gleaned, and it was about an ephah of barley. She picked it up and came into the town, and her mother-in-law saw how much she had gleaned. Then she took out and gave her what was left over after she herself had been satisfied (Ruth 2:17-18, NRSV).

Can you imagine leftovers giving you a new lease on life? Difficult as this is to comprehend, it is precisely what happens in this passage.

Before her daughter-in-law Ruth shows up with nearly a bushel of barley and leftovers from lunch, Naomi is at the brink of despair. Her husband and two grown sons are dead, and she seems inclined to join them. Her bitterness boils over earlier in the book when her friends rush to welcome her home after more than a decade away. Hearing her name on their lips she snaps, “Call me no longer Naomi [‘Pleasant’]. Call me Mara [‘Bitter’], for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me. I went away full, but the LORD has brought me back empty” (1:20-21).

Well, not quite empty. In her acrid outburst, Naomi has overlooked her single most valuable asset: Ruth.

In the eyes of ancient Israelite culture, Ruth must have looked more like a liability. Ruth was a foreigner and thus suspect on the basis of both her nationality and her religion. There was also reason to suspect she was barren, given that she had not produced a child during her ten years of marriage to Naomi’s son (1:4-5). (Infertility was blamed on the woman in those days.) With no reasonable chance of marriage, Ruth must have seemed like dead weight around the neck of a woman who was already downwardly mobile.

This pessimistic assessment does not take into account God’s standards of measurement, however. Ruth rates high in a quality that is most often attributed to God in the Bible: steadfast love. In older translations, it is sometimes called “lovingkindness.” By any name, it is love that goes above and beyond the call of duty. Ruth shows this love when, in spite of Naomi’s orders to return to the security of her own parents, Ruth clings, terrier-like, to her mother-in-law. “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you!” she insists in 1:16. “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die—there will I be buried.” Ruth’s decision could well have led to a double plot in Bethlehem’s cemetery. Yet, God seems to have had other ideas.

While Naomi is content to sit home and wait for the grim reaper, Ruth wakes up early and goes out to glean. As luck—or Providence—would have it, she ends up in the field of Naomi’s relative, Boaz. Cousin Boaz notices Ruth right away and wastes no time issuing orders designed to guarantee both her safety and her success.

Thus, the leftovers. When Ruth returns from the field that day, she’s made a real haul. Naomi is quick to ask, “Where did you glean today?” When Ruth reveals the name of their benefactor, Naomi comes back to life. “Blessed be he by the LORD,” she exclaims, “whose kindness [steadfast love] has not forsaken the living or the dead!”

This outburst presents quite a contrast to her earlier one, which was so full of bitterness and blame. “What happened?” we may well ask. If you’ve ever experienced an ounce of Naomi’s bitterness, if you’ve ever shared a fraction of her despair, if you’ve ever entertained even for a moment the urge to shake your fist at God, then you’re going to want to know the answer to that question. What happened?

In a word, hope happened. And hope, as Emily Dickinson tells us, is

 

…the thing with feathers

That perches in the soul—

And sings the tune without the words—

And never stops—at all.

 

Why do I love that poem? Let me count the ways. First, I love it because it recognizes that hope is not some flimsy, ephemeral fantasy that we conjure up to make ourselves feel better. Hope is not something that we manufacture by thinking good thoughts or praying polite prayers. Hope is not the brave face we put on at the funeral home or the lawyer’s office. Hope is the tangible—albeit small—thing that flaps in fresh from its permanent perch at God’s altars and makes its nest right smack in the middle of our despair. And hope sings and sings and sings until, at the very least, we start humming along.

If Naomi had been given to poetry, she might have put it this way:

 

Hope is the thing with fiber

That your daughter-in-law brings home—

It trains its tongue around a name—

That says—you’re not alone.

 

OK, so she wasn’t Emily Dickinson, but the idea is the same. Hope is tangible. The grain had been sent from God. So had Ruth. So had Boaz. And in that moment, Naomi knew it. Knowing it, she exchanged her accusations for a doxology.

What would it take for you to do the same?

Ponder: What are the tangible signs of God’s steadfast love in your life? In the life of the Church? In the life of the world?

Pray: Send hope to make its nest in the middle of our despair, gracious God. Show us ways to share tangible signs of hope with others who are suffering.

 

This reflection is a lightly edited version of a devotional originally published in Life after Grace: Daily Reflections on the Bible © 2003 Carol M. Bechtel. All rights reserved.

 

 

“Practicing the Faith” Series

This series explores some of the things that Christians can expect once the first blush of belief has worn off. Contrary to the mistaken assumption that once we are “saved” we can sit back and relax, these reflections explore the hard work that awaits the believer on the other side of baptism. However, characters from Genesis to Revelation illustrate that practicing the faith is not just a responsibility but also a reward.

All of these reflections are “encore” performances from a book I wrote early in my career: Life after Grace: Daily Reflections on the Bible © 2003 Carol M. Bechtel. All rights reserved. I have edited them lightly, and chosen them with the current context in mind. I hope they have stood the test of time.

Shalom,