Monday, March 31, 2008

Book Review: Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth: Prayers of Walter Brueggemann

Book Review
Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth: Prayers of Walter Brueggemann. Augsburg Fortress Press, 2003 ISBN 0-8006-3460-8.
When I was in the novitiate, we had a weekly scripture class at the Jesuit novitiate house here in St. Paul with Art Zannoni, a local scripture scholar. In the course of his lectures he periodically recommended “BYD” books to us – read this book Before You Die. While I’m not sure if I ever looked up any of his recommendations, I did appropriate the BYD appellation for the following, which is my Top Ten list in alphabetical order by author:

Brueggemann,.Walter. The Prophetic Imagination. Augsburg Fortress Publishers (2001) ISBN-13: 978-0800632878
Frederickson, Olive. The Silence of the North. Crown Pub (1972) ISBN-13:9780517501047
Kidd, Sue Monk. The Secret Life of Bees. Penguin (2005) ISBN-13: 9780143036401
Brother Lawrence.: The Practice of the Presence of God, and The Maxims.
Cosimo Classics (2006) ISBN-13: 978-1602060333
Lynch, William F. Images of Hope. University of Notre Dame Press (1974) ISBN-13: 978-0268005375
Miles, Margaret R. Image as Insight. Wipf & Stock Publishers (2006) ISBN-13: 978-1597529020
Slonczewski, Joan. A Door Into Ocean. Orb Books (2000) ISBN-13: 978-0312876524
Starhawk. The Fifth Sacred Thing. Bantam (1994) ISBN-13: 978-0553373806
Pargeter, Edith. The Heaven Tree Trilogy. Warner Books (1993) ISBN-13: 978-0446517089
Williams, Charles. War in Heaven. Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co. (2004) ISBN-13: 978-0802812193

There are other BYD books, of course. Anyway, as it happens, the first author on my list, Walter Brueggemann, who retired from teaching at Columbia Theological Seminary a few years ago, always opened his classes with a prayer that he had written himself. Those prayers have been collected into a book called Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth, Fortress Press, 2003. ISBN 0-8006-3460-8. I am always moved by it when a teacher opens a class with prayer, and I have been a great admirer of Brueggemann’s writing ever since I discovered The Prophetic Imagination when I was studying theology, so I knew this collection would be well worth having. And so it is. The 128 prayers are grouped into nine sections with interesting and provocative titles such as “Against your absence – A Hidden God,” and “A people with many secrets – Truth-telling confession.” They are set in specific contexts, with dates and events recorded at for each one, which admittedly limits their usefulness in other contexts. Brueggemann’s stated purpose in publishing them is not to provide another book of devotional prayers suitable for use on any occasion, but rather to provide “suggestive resources” for the composition and delivery of public prayer in a way that will “mobilize and sustain the attention of the praying community.”
Brueggemann calls prayer “a dangerous act,” and many of these prayers are “dangerous” utterances, prayer spoken in a way that jars us out of our sleepy, comfortable piety and puts us face to face with God

probing, pervading, insisting, demanding...
met by your holiness
by your holiness made our true selves.
–"And then you" (written for Old Testament theology/October 15, 1998)

In “Not the God we would have chosen,” (written in anticipation of Jeremiah 8-9/2000) he writes,

We would like to take the hammer of doctrine
and take the nails of piety
and nail your feet to the floor
and have you stay in one place….
You are not the God we would have chosen had we done the choosing…

which is, of course, quite a different sort of prayer than the usual, being quite direct, honest, and frankly conversational.

The din undoes us
(written in anticipation of reading 1 Samuel 2-3
[Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening])

Our lives are occupied territory…
occupied by a cacophony of voices,
and the din outdoes us.
In the daytime we have no time to listen,
beset as we are by anxiety and goals
and assignments and work,
and in the night the voices are so confusing
we can hardly sort out what could possibly be your voice
from the voice of our mothers and our fathers
our best friends and our pet projects,
because they all sound so much like you.
We are people over whom that word shema has been written.
We are listeners, but we do not listen well.
So we bid you, by the time the sun goes down today
or by the time the sun comes up tomorrow,
by night or by day,
that you will speak to us in ways that we can hear
out beyond ourselves.
It is your speech to us that carries us where we have never been,
and it is your speech to us that is our only hope.
So give us ears. Amen.

Public praying is an awesome task, not to be undertaken lightly or carelessly. If done poorly or without care, it does not do what it is intended to do, which is open us toward God. This fine collection is a bright lamp on the road to a fresh approach to a responsibility many of us find ourselves asked to carry and for which we are often inadequately prepared. Highly recommended.

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