Archive for the ‘The Psalms’ Category

Day 14: Night to Night Declares

March 3, 2012

Night to Night Declares (click image to enlarge)

Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.

—Psalm 19.2

From a lectionary reading for Lent 3: Psalm 19

Reflection for Thursday, March 8 (Day 14 of Lent)

Call it fate, perhaps. When my parents gave me Leila as my middle name, after a great-grandmother, they didn’t know it was the Hebrew word for night. No surprise, then, that I would fall in love with the late hours, becoming an incurable night owl whose favorite part of the day is the dark.

There is a different kind of knowing that comes in the night, in these hours when the shadows smooth the sharp edges, when things grow quieter. I open a book or curl up next to my husband or go into my studio or simply stop and let my breathing slow, knowing that much of what tugs at me during the day will ease its hold in these hours if I will let it.

I know well that for many, the night brings cause for fear instead of comfort. And so prayers become part of the weave of these hours, offered  for those who are met by pain or horror in the dark, and who find there a terrible knowledge. I pray for their protection, for their encompassing by the God who makes a home in the dark as well as in the day.

What do you know in the night? What does the dark declare to you, and how do you listen?

This reflection is part of the series Teach Me Your Paths: A Pilgrimage into Lent. If you would like to receive these blog posts via email, simply enter your address in the “Subscribe by Email” signup box near the top of the sidebar.

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Day 7: The Ends of the Earth Shall Remember

February 24, 2012

 The Ends of the Earth Shall Remember (click image to enlarge)

All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord.
—Psalm 22.27a

From a lectionary reading for Lent 2: Psalm 22.23-31

Reflection for Wednesday, February 29 (Day 7 of Lent)

I once met a woman who works with a group designed for people whose memories have become damaged. Living with Alzheimer’s disease, traumatic brain injuries, or other conditions that have eroded their ability to remember, these people gather together to help one another navigate a once-familiar path now made strange and often fearsome by the holes and fissures that have opened up. At the heart of this woman’s work lay the questions: Who are we if we cannot remember? How do we help others know who they are by holding their memories for them, and finding ways to help them know their lives?

I was fascinated to hear this woman talk about the group and the tools she invites them to use in their work together. Art, photographs, conversation, writing: each word, each image becomes a tangible piece to hold onto. These pieces cannot fill all the holes, cannot mend all the gaps in the individual memories of the group members. But together, the work of the group helps make a larger kind of memory possible: a memory that does not reside entirely in the individual but can be glimpsed in the pieces created and shared with the group members, with friends, with family, with those who help them know who they are.

Who are we if we cannot remember? As the people of God, what have we forgotten, and what knowing—of God, of ourselves—have we lost as a result? Psalm 22 tells us that we are held within a larger memory that extends across time and encompasses all creation. All the ends of the earth shall remember, the psalmist writes, and turn to the Lord. In this time, how will we tell the story of who and whose we are? In words, in images, how will we reclaim the pieces of memory and hold them for and with one another, and so become whole?

[To use the image “The Ends of the Earth Shall Remember,” please visit this page at Your use of helps make the ministry of The Painted Prayerbook possible. Thank you!]

Teach Me Your Paths: Entering Lent

February 13, 2012

Teach Me Your Paths © Jan L. Richardson

Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths.
—Psalm 25.4

From a lectionary reading for Lent 1: Psalm 25.1-10

Advent and Christmas are not so very far behind us, and already the season of Lent draws close. The liturgical year can feel quite compressed right about now, but perhaps this is just as it should be. The season of Lent invites us, after all, to live into the Incarnation—to wrestle with what it means that God became flesh; to discern how God calls us to let the Word become flesh in us; to let go of what hinders us from recognizing Christ and finding and following the pathways he opens to us.

For me, these brief weeks between Christmas and the beginning of Lent this year have been a time of living into the paths that began to open up in my studio during the season of Advent. Those who have been journeying with me for some time know that last year was a relatively fallow one, art-wise. It was one of those seasons that happens periodically in the rhythm of the creative life—a time when not much seemed to be happening at the drafting table (and what was happening was vexing), but deep beneath the surface, preparation was taking place. Advent became a time for beginning to come to the surface, for experimenting and moving in some new directions, for finding and following the lines that presented themselves.

As I continued to follow those lines into this new year, new images came, arriving in forms I could not have predicted. And here at the outset of Lent, the studio teaches me anew the invitation that lies at the heart of the coming season: to pay attention, to keep practicing, to allow God to wear away what hinders us, to be open to the surprising turns and openings that draw us deeper into the path of God.

During this Lenten season, I’ll be sharing the images that have emerged in recent weeks. I’ll post an image daily throughout Lent. Brief reflections will accompany the images for the forty days of Lent, and I’ll also post images and my usual reflections for the Sundays of Lent (which aren’t counted in the forty days). I offer these not just to give you a glimpse of what’s been taking shape in my studio but as an invitation to you to engage your own path and to look for the openings that are waiting for you in the coming weeks. I’ll be posting each reflection about a week in advance of the day it’s intended for.

If you’d like to receive these reflections during Lent (and beyond), there’s a subscription signup form near the top of the sidebar; just submit your email address, then respond to the confirmation email that you’ll automatically receive, and each new reflection will be delivered to your inbox. Or, as usual, you can always find the reflections here at The Painted Prayerbook.

If you enjoy what you find here, there are several ways you can help sustain this ministry and enable it to continue. Doing any of these during this Lenten season would be a tremendous form of support:

  • Share a link to a reflection via Facebook, Twitter, email, blogs, or through other media. You’ll find share buttons at the end of each post, or you can simply copy the link for the reflection and share it.
  • Make use of the Jan Richardson Images website, or give a subscription as a gift to your pastor or church. Designed to make my artwork easily accessible for use in worship and related settings, the images site includes all the images I’ve created for my blogs. You can download individual images, or, with an annual subscription, you can have access to all the images for a year’s time. Please know I’m always happy to work with churches that may not be able to afford the full subscription price; just drop me a line through the images site. And thanks for including a credit line when you use an image; this is always a crucial way to support artists.
  • Become a patron of The Painted Prayerbook. Although I’m an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church, my ministry involves raising my entire income myself. Purchasing books and art prints (available at and using the Jan Richardson Images site are great ways to be a patron of my work and sustain my ministry; you can also become a patron by making a contribution. For more info, visit the Patron page on my main website.

Thank you so much for sharing in my ministry. Your presence here is an especially welcome form of support, as are your prayers! Know that I hold you in prayer and I look forward to sharing the season of Lent with you.  May God draw you down a wondrous path in the weeks ahead.

[To use the “Teach Me Your Paths” image, please visit this page at Your use of helps make the ministry of The Painted Prayerbook possible. Thank you!]

Taxing Questions

October 14, 2008

Taxing Questions © Jan L. Richardson

Reading from the Gospels, Year A, Proper 24/Ordinary 29/Pentecost +18: Matthew 22.15-22

I’ll not make too much of the fact that this week’s gospel lection, Matthew’s famous “render unto Caesar” passage, falls during a week that has also included doing the paperwork for my quarterly sales tax payment. The timing is a mild coincidence that could tempt me to rant a bit about how I’d be happier to render unto Caesar if he didn’t it make it so *!@?!# difficult, and didn’t provide so many convoluted disincentives to those who work to be conscientious about our rendering. But, like I said, I’m not gonna rant.

The point of this passage, which also appears in Mark and Luke’s gospels, isn’t really about paying taxes, anyway. Each of these three evangelists makes a point of stating that Jesus’ questioners are seeking to entrap him with their queries. Luke adds a couple of details in his version, noting that the religious leaders sought to “trap him by what he said, so as to hand him over to the jurisdiction and authority of the governor.” Luke goes on to say that Jesus “perceived their craftiness” as they asked him, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”

I know these questioners. I’ve met them, these folks who have learned the knack of asking questions that aren’t really questions but rather are a litmus test. I think of the friend years ago who, upon learning of my call to ordained ministry, began to barrage me with a series of questions organized around other topics that I (a woman pursuing ordination) must be equally wrong about: What did I think about homosexuality? Fornication? The inerrancy of scripture? Or the member of a church I once served, who walked into my office one morning with bagels and tea; his hospitality proved short lived, as he then set upon me with what amounted to arguments with question marks tacked onto the end.

There’s a kind of violence to this form of encounter in which someone, whether through intention or through an unconscious ingrained pattern, approaches us with an inquisitiveness that harbors a weapon. In these hands, questions transmogrify into snares, cudgels, tools for distancing and defining and diminishing. Thinking they already know the answer, such questioners aren’t really interested in engagement but in finding confirmation of their assumptions and fodder for their prejudices.

With his craftiness detector on, Jesus recognizes a loaded question when he hears it. And he doesn’t exactly choose to turn the other cheek here. He, too, possesses a certain level of cunning; he responds to the question, but he cuts through their assumptions about how he will answer it. Given choices of A or B, Jesus will always come up with an inventive C.

I’m intrigued by his ability to do this—by his capacity to receive every question that every person poses to him, by his ability to recognize when he’s being baited, by his ingenuity in coming up with an unexpected response. Most of all I’m intrigued by the remarkable grounding that helps him to achieve this. This takes an intense clarity, a deep sense of who one is and what one is called to do. Faced with those who approach us with assumptions and ulterior motives, having this kind of clarity and grounding offers some hope of responding as Jesus did. It takes, too, cultivating an imagination that sees beyond limited and limiting choices and the assumptions that underlie them.

Where do we get this kind of grounding, clarity, and imagination? I found myself thinking of one example during a phone conversation last night with the St. Brigid’s community. We were reflecting on the practice of praying the Psalms, using as our starting place Kathleen Norris’s splendid essay on “The Paradox of the Psalms” in her book The Cloister Walk. As we talked about the gifts and challenges of praying the Psalms, I remembered a story that Robert Benson relates at the opening of his book Between the Dreaming and the Coming True. He tells of being in a class with “a man with his well-worn, heavily marked Bible open before him, playing a game of ‘trap the teacher.’ He should have known better,” Benson observes, “than to try to trap this particular teacher. Those who pray the Psalms by heart do not rattle very easily.” Benson continues,

The teacher was finishing up a series of talks on praying the Psalms that she had been giving to a community of about sixty of us. I do not now remember the man’s question. I remember only that it had a ‘Well, that is all very well and good, but the God of Abraham [and, therefore, of judgment and vengeance, one got the feeling] is going to make sure that the good guys get into heaven and the bad guys don’t, no matter what’ edge to it. It was asked in a spirit that was not exactly in keeping with the spirit of our prayer community, which was to be together for two years.

Hazelyn McComas looked at him for a minute and then said softly, and with fire in her eyes, ‘I cannot answer that. But I can say this: We Christians are awfully hard on each other and on ourselves, too. And we seem to be especially that way about things that may not really matter.’

In recounting the rest of McComas’s response, Benson solidifies his depiction of her as a woman who was able to respond in much the same way that Jesus did when posed with a taxing question. Recognizing its intent, she neither dismisses it nor gives in to the assumptions that framed it. She finds another way, a true response that rises from the depths of who she is.

Benson recognizes the life of prayer that provides the deep well from which McComas responds to her questioner. She has, he says, “spent a life seeking for glimpses of and listening for whispers of God within the ancient prayers of the Chosen People.” I love his observation that “Those who pray the Psalms do not rattle very easily.”

It’s one thing to know the surface of the scriptures, and another thing entirely to enter the Bible as a place where God meets God’s people—an approach that runs through Hazelyn McComas’s teaching. Entering the biblical text with the desire to meet God enables us to frame our questions, and to respond to the questions of others, in a dramatically different way. When we travel the scriptural landscape as a pilgrim open to the presence of God in every place, rather than as a tourist who thinks we know everything about a place because we’ve visited it a few times, we cultivate a humility that fosters the kind of clarity and imagination that fueled Jesus’ response to his interrogators.

Jesus, of course, prayed the psalms.

I’m not wanting to turn this into a reflection specifically about praying the psalms, but Matthew’s text got me thinking about Robert Benson’s story, and Hazelyn McComas’s, and about my own story of attraction and resistance toward the psalms, those ancient prayers that have sustained the people of God for millennia and that lie at the heart of the monastic tradition to which I feel so drawn. And all these stories are part of the larger story of my own searching and hungering to meet God in the scriptures and elsewhere, and to sink my roots deep into a landscape that helps me grow into someone who can recognize and ask the questions that matter, and resist the ones that don’t.

So what kinds of questions are you receiving these days, and how do you respond? What questions are you asking, and where are they coming from? Are there ways that you try to box Jesus in, thinking you know how he’s going to act in your life? Are there ways that you allow yourself to be boxed in by others or by your own self? What practices help you meet God, in our sacred texts and elsewhere? How do you cultivate an openness to the surprising, imaginative, unexpected ways that God might be wanting to act in your life? What’s option C?

What are you rendering to God?

In these days, may we be people of remarkable imagination. Blessings.

[To use the “Taxing Questions” image, please visit this page at Your use of helps make the ministry of The Painted Prayerbook possible. Thank you!]