Praying for Forgiveness and the Grace to Mourn
Psalm 42-43 & Matt 5:1-4
Lois Barrett from the General Conference helps us to focus our Prayer Week services for 1999 on the Beatitudes of Jesus and his commission to his disciples based on Matthew 5:1-16. We will look at the Beatitudes and the commission in the context of prayer. In addition, the Psalms will also help us to continue the theme. By looking at the Beatitudes together with the Commission that follows, the whole passage is also set in the context of mission. And that is particularly relevant to our church as enter the second stage of the “Living in Faithful Evangelism Process.”
To pray the Beatitudes with our lives is to become the kind of Christian community that is salt and light in the world so that others also may give glory to God.
Background: Psalms 42 & 43.
Psalms 42 & 43 form a single prayer for help by one who is cut off from the presence of God and is oppressed by enemies. The profound longing of the Psalmist to come again into the presence of God is accompanied by memories of previous pilgrimages to the sanctuary.
Like the writer we sometimes find ourselves timid and afraid, in desert places, thirsty, saddened in personal exile by the memories of better times with loved ones and friends in the presence of God. In 42:6-11 the despairing Psalmist once more remembers God. His downcast soul is absorbed in suffering. As he engages his soul in the profound questions of his present reality (“Where is your God?”) he finds hope in God’s help. 11 Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.
In 43:1-5, the psalmist experiences a public vindication from the Lord, who allows him to return to Jerusalem, (“your holy hill”) to participate in the worship and to bask in the light of God’s face. Light indeed bursts out as the dominant motif in the third stanza.
The Psalmist who has experienced the depth of oppression and depression… who has engaged the dark night of his soul… who has wrestled with the enduring questions in life that no other than God alone can answer… finds light and hope as he puts his future in God’s hand. Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.
Jesus' Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew begins with eight Beatitudes. Just as the Ten Commandments are a kind of summary of the whole law of Moses, the Beatitudes can be seen as a summary of the whole Sermon on the Mount. But the Beatitudes are not constructed in the form of commandments. They are affirming statements, not demands or prohibitions. They are blessings, not orders. Today we might say, "Congratulations to the poor in spirit… The Beatitudes are a statement of the way things really are in the Reign of God. They are meant to shock us out of our familiar expectations, because they describe a situation that is the opposite of the accepted standards of the world.
Matthew 5:3 - The Poor in Spirit
In today’s meditation we focus our attention on the first two: 3 Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven. 4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Jesus describes a reality that flies in the face of common sense. Do people who are helplessly poor or in mourning really deserve congratulations rather than pity? Could they possibly see their lot in life as a blessing rather than a curse? Can you imagine how these words would sound to a homeless person in the inner city… to an orphaned child… a grieving widow… a victim of sexual abuse or spiritual manipulation... a person who is embittered because of a church conflict…
In the Beatitudes Jesus turns around the common understandings of the world and invites his followers to a new understanding of life under the Rule of God. We will someday in the future know this life in its fullness, and through the church we can begin to experience it already here and now. It is a new way of living that is breaking in upon the old way of doing things.
The church is that group of people that has begun living the way of life of the Beatitudes now. Because we follow Jesus, we have begun living as if the reign of God were already here. And it is already here in one sense because of the death and resurrection of Jesus.
We might think of each of the Beatitudes as a stepping stone in the spiritual life. Learning to live the first Beatitude helps us in living out the second Beatitude, living the second helps in living the third, and so on. So, the first step in the spiritual life is learning the blessedness of being poor in spirit.
But, what does it mean to be "poor in spirit"? What did Matthew have in mind, when he recorded the words of Jesus as “poor in spirit”? Is it different from just being poor, as the author of Luke records it? To be poor in spirit is to have the spirit of the poor. It is a state of brokenness and utter despair, knowing that our own strength has expired. An essential part of being poor in spirit is knowing that we don't have it all together and that we need help. To be poor in spirit is to recognize our need for each other and our need for God. Until we know that we need God we will not be open to living the life of the Spirit.
In the monastic tradition in Europe in the Middle Ages, the first step in the spiritual life was "purgation." To “purge” means to purify or cleanse. In the context of the spiritual life, it meant to get rid of sin or evil, and of all else that would put a barrier between ourselves and God. Thus poverty of spirit is a kind of emptiness before God. As we confess our sin and claim Christ’s forgiveness for our life, we become partakers of the Kingdom of heaven. As we release those who have sinned against us into the forgiving and reconciling hand of God, heavens doors are opened wide for God’s blessings upon us.
Matthew 5:4 - Those who mourn
It is a short step from being poor in spirit to mourning, from emptiness to loss. We mourn, or grieve, when we have lost something. We may have lost a family member to death. We may have lost a position of responsibility. We may have lost a relationship with someone we cared about. We may have experienced a natural disaster. We may have lost the certainty of faith we once had. We may mourn for someone else who has experienced loss. Whatever the loss, we mourn. Our mourning may be expressed in depression or anger, but it is still mourning.
Those who mourn are to be congratulated because they are able to feel. The psalmist reminds us that those who are willing to journey through the valley of the shadow of death can also experience the exhilaration of the mountain tops.
Again, Jesus’ words portray a reversal of expectations. Our culture tells us that losses are tragic, and something to be avoided at all costs. Negative feelings are not desirable in our day and age. When we experience pain, we relieve it with a Tylenol or a sleeping pill. We numb our senses to avoid the full blown fury of painful experiences. But, Jesus tells us, "Blessed are those who mourn." He invites us, not only to endure, but to embrace the pain in our lives… to mourn our losses… to get in touch with our suffering and the suffering of others.
When we mourn we are feeling our emotions. In life, the higher the emotional highs we experience, the lower the emotional lows we experience. The choice is not between happiness and grief, but between feeling and numbness. Those who mourn are to be congratulated because they are able to feel. They are willing to live through the depths so they can also experience the heights.
As we begin this New Year, may we be encouraged in our prayer life as we contemplate the Beatitudes of Jesus for our lives. May we bring our sins before God… and receive forgiveness. May we bring the pain and suffering in our lives before the Healer of Souls… and may we encounter the Grace and Love of God.
Let us come before God with a broken and contrite heart and let us embrace his healing grace with confidence. I will lead in a guided prayer and invite you to bring your thoughts and prayers before God during the moments of silence:
As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. Let us confess the times we have tried to be self-sufficient and have denied our need for God. (Silence)
Let us confess that which has blocked the way of our relationship with God. (Silence)
Let us pray for grace to be poor in spirit and to lean on God and each other. (Silence)
Let us pray for grace to mourn with those who mourn and to share their suffering. (Silence)
Let us pray for the grace to mourn our own losses. (Silence)
Let us give thanks to God who is merciful and gracious, who hears our prayers, and grants our requests made in Jesus' name. (Silence)
Let us give thanks for the forgiveness of our sins, for the presence of God’s Kingdom in us, and for the assurance of God’s comfort. (Silence)
Let us praise God, our hope and our salvation, that we have been set free from the guilt and shame that binds us to the past. (Silence)
Let us go forth in the victory of the risen Lord.
Mays, James Luther, Ph.D., Editor, Harper’s Bible Commentary, (New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, Inc.) 1988.