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Prayer during Lent

Prayer during Lent is very effective because it's often a time of reflection and doing without. A great time to fast - Lent is the perfect time to detox the body and get your brain and heart in gear. It makes no difference to God when we pray, but we can do with a little help to conentrate the mind sometimes. Thoughts for meditation from Free of charge - giving and forgiving in a culture stripped of grace, by Miroslav Volf (Zondervan 2006)

The God who gives

There is God. And there are images of God. And some people don't see any difference between the two. Our images of God are rather different from God's reality. We are finite beings, and God is infinitely greater than any thoughts we can contain about divine reality in our wondrous but tiny minds.

The most powerful and seductive images of God are the ones that seep into our minds as we watch TV, read books, go shopping, or socialize with our neighbours. Slowly and imperceptibly, the one true God begins acquiring the features of the gods of this world. To worship God rather than idols of our own making we must allow God to break apart the idols we create, through the Spirit's relentless and intimate work within our lives. We need to be willing to let our very effort to know God to slide out of our hands, opening them to God's continued and unexpected self-revelation.

Two false images of God are particularly irresistible to many of us - mostly unconsciously. The first I'll designate as God the negotiator and the other, God the Santa Claus. With one, we want to make advantageous deals. From the other, we want to get warm smiles and bagfuls of goodies. But we've drawn these images of God mostly from two currents of the culture in which we swim - the current of hard and unforgiving economic realities, in which we exchange goods to maximise benefits, and the current of soft, even infantile, desires, in which we long to be showered with gifts simply because we exist.

Who is God? God is the Creator; God is the Redeemer. As both creator and redeemer, God is an infinitely rich and most generous giver who receives nothing in return. He is a God who is love, a God who gives and forgives. The God hanging on the cross for the salvation of the world is not a negotiating God. We embrace the conviction that God is an infinitely generous source of all good, but conveniently forget that we were created in God's image to be in some significant sense like God - God the giver has made us to be givers and obliges us therefore to give. God created human beings to find fulfilment in love.

To which God do we direct our prayers, the God with whom we negotiate benefits, the God who showers us with goodies - or the God who is both Creator and Redeemer, who gives free of charge and who invites us to do likewise?


Living in a culture stripped of grace

If I were to say that today everything is sold and nothing is given, that would be an exaggeration. But like any good caricature, it distorts reality in order to draw attention to what is characteristic. Mainly, we're set up to sell and buy, not to give and receive. We tend to give nothing free of charge and receive nothing free of charge. To give is to lose. Yet Jesus taught that it is more blessed to give than to receive, and part of growing up is learning the art of giving. If we fail to learn this art, we will live unfulfilled lives, and in the end, chains of bondage will replace the bonds that keep our communities together. If we give, we will regain ourselves as fulfilled individuals and flourishing communities.

Today everything is sold and nothing is given.

Made in the image of God - how can we give?

We do have so-called gift shops. But things sitting on the store shelf are not gifts. Just like any other thing, an item from that store becomes a gift when you buy it and give it to someone else. A gift is a social relation, not an entity or an act in itself. It is an event between people.

Imagine your life as a piece of music, a Bach cello suite. You've heard it played by a virtuoso. You love it and wouId like to play it well. But try as you might, you fail - not so much because you've had a bad teacher or haven't practised enough, but because your left hand has a defect. You make music, but it's nothing Iike it's supposed to sound. Then you have surgery performed by a magician with a scalpel. Your hand heals. You return to your lessons with new vigour. And then one day, you play the piece nearly perfectly. Full of joy, you exclaim, "Yes! I love it! This is the way the music of my life should sound!" Constrained by the score because you have to follow its notation? Well, yes. But loving every moment of that constraint - and not feeling it as constraint at all - because the very constraint is what makes for the beauty and delight.

Something like this is what it means to be a free giver. God obliges us to give. But it is precisely when we act in accordance with the obligation that we have a sense of unspoiled authenticity and freedom. So in our best moments, we forget the command and just give the way we are supposed to give. We are Iike a motor powered sailboat when it's "running", as sailors say: With the wind at the back of a powered boat, all resistance is gone; the boat is always where the wind would push it to be. The same is true of us when we give freely. Living out of our new selves, we are always already where the command would want us to be.

Do we give in order to get something back? Do we give in order to win praise for our magnanimity? Do we give in order to cover our own moral nakedness and feel good about ourselves? Or do we give free of charge, without thought of return?


The God who forgives

Ernest Hemingway began one of his memorable short stories entitled "The Capital of the World" with the following lines:

'Madrid is full of boys named Paco, which is diminutive of the name Francisco, and there is a Madrid joke about a father who came to Madrid and inserted an advertisement in the personal columns of El Liberal which said: PACO MEET ME AT HOTEL MONTANA NOON TUESDAY ALL IS FORGIVEN PAPA, and how a squadron of Guardia Civil had to be called out to disperse the eight hundred young men who answered the advertisement.'

The joke is about the ubiquity of the name "Paco" in Spain. But it works only because of the underlying longing of many to be forgiven, whether they are sons or daughters, mothers or fathers, friends or colleagues. We desire forgiveness because we value relationships, and we know that relationships cannot be mended without forgiveness.

What is forgiveness? A bare-bones description of how forgiveness works reveals at least two important actions. First, to forgive is to name the wrongdoing and condemn it. Had the father stopped with the condemnation, however, Paco would have just stood accused and would have remained unforgiven. There is a second element to forgiveness, its positive content. To forgive is to give wrongdoers the gift of not counting the wrongdoing against them. Forgiveness is a special kind of gift.

Have I named my wrongdoing and accepted the gift of God's forgiveness? As Volf puts it, have I summoned the courage to walk into the land of freedom through the gate of shame?


Made in the image of God - how can we forgive?

God is the God who forgives. We forgive because God forgives. We forgive by echoing God's forgiveness. What does God do when forgiving? There's one thing God doesn't do. God doesn't disregard the offence. God doesn't pretend it didn't happen. To forgive isn't to shrug off. To forgive means not to press charges against the wrongdoer. That's what God has done for sinful humanity. The story of Christ's death tells us that. That's also what we do when we forgive: we forgo the demand for retribution. The heart of forgiveness is relinquishing retribution.

We crave forgiveness in part because we naturally dislike the pain of punishment. But we also crave it because we find it hard to bear the burden of guilt. To forgive means to release the condemned wrongdoer not just from punishment but from guilt. Finally, when we forgive, we let the offence slip into oblivion. (Of course, as long as there is potential for harm in a relationship, we should remember the offence. Memory is a shield that protects from future harm.)

Forgiveness is not just a state of our mind; it is something we give to someone else. Put differently, forgiveness is a social relationship. Often the reason we don't forgive is that we live in an unforgiving culture, a culture in which it doesn't make sense to forgive. But forgiving the unrepentant is not an optional extra in the Christian way of life; it's the heart of the thing. When we are forgivers we are restored to our full human splendour. We were created to mirror God.

Have I forgiven all those I need to forgive? There are no unforgiveable people.



Miroslav Volf is Professor of Theology at Yale Divinity School. His book is reviewed in the Spring issue of ReSource.


A practical bible study on Grace for use in groups is available from the ReSource office.
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