If I were to begin this blog post with the words, "Four score and seven years ago," most of you would realize that I'm probably not making a statement about something that happened 87 years ago. It would be more likely that by using that phrase, I would be trying to say something about Abraham Lincoln, or freedom, or the dignity of all people, or all of the above. If I would choose to use a phrase like that, it would be to point you back to something about the meaning of the Gettysburg Address, in which it was originally said.
On the other hand, if you had zoomed in from another culture and had no way of connecting my use of that phrase with its context, you'd likely have a hard time getting the full meaning of what I would be trying to say. If you really wanted to dig in, you'd probably get a dictionary out to look up the meaning of "score", then make the calculation, then you could do a lot of research on what someone like me might have been trying to say about the year 1926. And you would have completely missed my point.
This happens way too often in reading the scriptures. Particularly when we read the New Testament, it's so packed full of allusions and quotations of things from the Old Testament–which point us back to something about the meaning of the original passage–that we're like the person who has zoomed in from another culture and we don't have the culturally ingrained knowledge required to make the connections that the author intended. Even if we are serious students, we might get out all of our tools, dissect the words, make some misinformed calculations and completely miss the point. (If you're not convinced of this, try reading the book of Revelation. Then take a look in a bookstore or online at how many different ways intelligent people have tried to interpret it.)
I've started to become much more aware of this in the past couple of years as my own reading of scripture has been rejuvenated by capable teachers who help me to see the connections that I miss otherwise (especially N.T. Wrights fantastic series of For Everyone commentaries), since when I read these things written by ancient Jews, I'm unquestionably looking in on a culture very different from my own.
This week, I've been glad to discover the same kind of dimensions at play when I pray with other people's words. As part of my experiment this year, I've noticed two lines that come up every single morning in the words that I am given to pray: "Lord, open our lips. And our mouth shall declare your praise."
At first, being that person zooming in from another culture, I didn't recognize these as being from scripture. Then one day I was reading in a passage and noticed them, but still couldn't have remembered their context or what the fuller meaning was that they might have been put in these prayers to point me toward.
Then I read the scripture readings for tomorrow, Ash Wednesday, and it clicked. Tomorrow is the beginning of Lent, and one of the traditional readings for Ash Wednesday is Psalm 51. This psalm is David's prayer of confession to God after the prophet Nathan confronted him about his adultery with Bathsheba. It's a very rich prayer, and very fitting words for us to pray each year when we begin the season of returning to God with all our hearts.
Thus, even though I certainly haven't realized what I've been doing, every morning during the two and a half months since I began this experiment, I've been pointed back to David's powerful, gut-wrenching, prayer of confession. Every morning, through praying those words, I've been offered the chance to think back to their fuller context (including "Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love, according to your great compassion, blot out my transgressions...Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me...") and to have a mini-Lent, a daily returning of my heart to God as I begin again each and every morning.
Something I've prayed today:
Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (A Prayer for Ash Wednesday from The Book of Common Prayer)
[This is the 21st post from A Year of Living Prayerfully]