Friday, August 31, 2012

Lord, Teach Us to Pray...As We Get Honest

On our next-to-last week of our line-by-line journey through the Lord's Prayer, our focus line is "Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil," and our scriptures are Matthew 6:5-13 and Matthew 8:23-34.  I'd also recommend a refresher read of Romans 7:15-25, just for fun.  All these scriptures can be found here.

What's your greatest temptation?

It's something we think about a lot around Lent--what should we give up in this season?  One year I gave up ice cream.  One year one of my friends gave up Diet Coke and swearing, which I thought was a spectacularly funny combination.  The author of the blog "" (yes this is real) confessed  a temptation that will surely resonate with many as Girl Scout Cookie season draws near, and then asked a question:  Thin Mints are my weakness, and actually anything made or coated with chocolate, I just can't resist. I don't think there's anything wrong with giving into your temptations and enjoying a few tasty bites. However, if I ate too much chocolate all the time I'd feel pretty crappy (and end up gaining a few extra pounds), so that totally helps to curb my cravings. Here is the thing: I'm human and if chocolate is in front of me, it can be tough to pass up. So I try to avoid temptations by only buying chocolate in bite-size pieces (instead of huge bars). Since I love to bake with chocolate, I also try to make cookies and treats for occasions or when I'm having people over. That way I can enjoy a cookie (or three), and share the rest. So speak up and tell me, what do you crave the most and how do you stay strong in the face of temptation?

The responses she received were myriad: 
  • "Espresso and baked goods. Keeping it away from me and vanity help."
  • "NACHOS. I could live off of nachos. So my trick is to only use low fat cheese, fresh salsa, and nonfat plain yogurt instead of sour cream. That way it still feels like a guilty pleasure!"
  • "BAKED GOODS! I will eat an entire batch of anything in a day’s time. My trick now is to only make vegan baked goods and to use whole wheat flour. That way there's very little fat, and I'm at least getting some sort of nutritional, instead of just fat and sugar"
  • "Reese's peanut butter cups. I dont really avoid them, I just eat them once in a while. Nothing wrong with that! :)"
I laughed and nodded as I read this, but also wondered if typically--when we think of temptation--we don't tend to come in a bit on the shallow side when we stick to identification of these surface temptations.  I mean people of faith, are these the temptations Jesus was telling us to pray to resist?  Probably not.  So what are we talking about here?  What are the deeper temptations--the darker tendencies--towards which we find ourselves inexplicably pulled, drawn again and again, which we find hard to turn away from or turn down?  How do we learn to identify them?

I am not a person who sits around and thinks about temptation, the Devil, or Evil very much, but when I do, the below song from Andy Gullahorn (whose music I introduced on "Hallowed be your name" week in worship) often comes to mind.  Listen to the lyrics and get honest, if you can:  what are the REAL temptations you face?  As a person striving to live by faith, what is it that pulls you away--sometimes slowly, deceptively, before you even realize it's happening?  And how does the Lord's Prayer help us address these things, to stay strong and connected to God in the midst of them?

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Lord, Teach Us to Pray...As We Let Go

Our scripture texts for this 6th of 8 weeks focused on the Lord's Prayer are Matthew 6:9-15 and Matthew 18:21-35, which can be read here.

I took a year and a half of Greek that, most of the time, is totally wasted on me.  Every once in a while, though, the original language of our New Testament text has something to teach us that we might miss otherwise.

What I learned this week was this:  the Greek word Matthew uses for "forgive" in the Lord's Prayer is aphiēmi, which means literally "to release," or "to let go."  This word appears more in Matthew's gospel than any other book, and in some really interesting circumstances.  At the end of his wilderness temptation, the Devil let (aphiēmi) Jesus go (Matthew 4); when called by Jesus, the fishermen-turned-disciples let go or released (aphiēmi) their nets and followed him (Matthew 4); when Jesus healed Peter's mother-in-law, the fever left (aphiēmi) her (Matthew 8); when Jesus died, he released (aphiēmi) his spirit (Matthew 27).

In all of these situations we see the underlying meaning of the word forgive--that it's more than something we think or something we feel.  It's related to a tangible action--a release, a letting go.

So here is how I would invite you to pray the Lord's Prayer this week, if you would.  Find a rock--one not too large that you cannot grip it, but that you can feel in a curled hand (I will give you one at church tomorrow if you ask!).  Take the rock and hold it in one of your hands.  Wrap your fingers around it and squeeze tightly as you begin to pray the Lord's Prayer.

Then, when you get to this week's petition:  "Forgive us our debts/trespasses/sins [we'll talk about this variation in worship tomorrow!] as we forgive our debtors/those who trespass against us/those who sin against us," begin to slowly unclench your fingers from around the rock.  Slowly, painstakingly, as slowly as you can.  Feel each muscle and tendon releasing millimeter by millimeter.  And as you do, consider--of what are you called to "let go"?  What do you need to "release"?  What are you holding onto too tightly, such that it causes you pain or injures others or becomes a point of tension in your relationship with God?

When you get to "for yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever", I invite you to lay your rock down in front of you and spend some time looking at it.  What might it be like--even just a little bit, even just for a moment--to aphiēmi and let go?

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Lord, Teach Us to Pray...with Eyes wide Open

Our texts for this fifth of eight weeks journeying through the petitions of the Lord's Prayer are Luke 11:1-13 and Exodus 16:11-32, which can be read here.

Most of us were taught to pray with our eyes closed, and for good reason: closing our eyes is a good way to not be as distracted by all the stimuli around us, to focus in on the God we are seeking, to use our other senses--our ears, our hearts--to perceive God's voice.

But I think this week's focal line of the Lord's Prayer is meant to be prayed with eyes wide open. Because, after all, we are praying about and for not something ethereal, but very tangible, visible, real: bread to sustain us. The food we need to survive each day. This petition is, among other things, an invitation to see: the depth of our needs and dependence on God, and the needs and situation of our neighbors--those with whom we seek to live on earth as we would in heaven.

So here is what I would invite you to do this week: to pray through pictures.  Below is a link to a photo essay done by one of my favorite journalist/photographers,  Peter Menzel, for his book, "Hungry Planet: What the World Eats." Take time to scroll through these pictures and Consider...what does it look like to pray with and for daily bread with our brothers and sisters around the world?  What might it look like for the needs of all to be supplied? And how might we pray and partner with God for this to happen?

What the World Eats, Part I

What the World Eats, Part II

Monday, August 13, 2012

On Earth (or, in West Virginia) as it is in Heaven

I did not post a blog last week because I was in the mountains of West Virginia sans internet access with an amazing crew of a dozen Broadneckers and 70 or so others from churches across the country, spending their 15th summer partnering with the community of Belington, West Virginia to do construction, lead a Music and Arts Camp for kids, and build relationships.  This year's theme was "Planting Seeds of Hope," and we caught glimpses of this hope all over the place.  If you missed the slide show on Sunday, it is posted below.  Watch it and reflect:  where do you see earth and heaven meeting in the images here?  Where is God's will being done--and where do we still have so, so far to go?

August 5 Sermon: "Your Kingdom Come"

Many people have asked for copies of the August 5 sermon on the "Your Kingdom Come" portion of the Lord's Prayer.  Since it did not get recorded, here is the text of the sermon--not exactly as it was preached, of course, but close!

Your Kingdom Come
August 5, 2012
Luke 11:1-4 and various words of Jesus from Gospels

The London Games have been called “the first social media Olympics.”  At the last Olympiad sites such as Facebook and Twitter were beginning to gain widespread use, but they were nowhere near as prominent as they are now.  I am not on Twitter, which involves 140 character or less observations, but I watched the Opening Ceremonies with a friend who is an avid Tweeter, she offered me a constant stream of interpretations of what was happening on the screen before us as tweeted by people around the world.  Some were serious observations, such as “2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony is showing the historical development of London, yet I see no colonization, building of slave ships or racism.”  Other tweets were distinctively American in their speculation about the dramatic retelling of British history:  “How are they going to dramatize us kicking their [tails] in the revolution? #USA #USA #USA.”  During the parade of nations, as North Korea marched in under the name “Democratic People's Republic of Korea,” one person tweeted, “My mother always said "if a country's got democratic in its name, it probably isn't."”   But my favorite social media reflection on the evening was this picture posted on Facebook of the Queen of England sourly surveying the scene, captioned, “Look at all these countries I used to own.”

These observations from around the world of this gathering of many nations and people of the world got me thinking, inevitably, about the nature of the world we live in.  I watched the resilient march of Arab nations that have recently overthrown dictatorial leaders and are struggling through unrest; the proud flag-bearing of nations I’ve never heard of, most of which are still the protected territories of bigger nations—including Britain and, yes, the United States; listened to stories of what nations used to be called before they gained independence, or changed leadership, some of whom even still name themselves by their former relationships, such as the “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.”  And as often happens, my thoughts went to scripture—particularly the scripture we are immersed in during this summer journey through the Lord’s Prayer.  What, I wondered, does it mean for us to pray “Your Kingdom Come” in a world where a kingdom has been so rarely a good thing—when we live in a country where countless lives have been lost for the cause of independence and calling our own shots and rejecting any form of monarchy—where royal leaders become sources of internet jokes and kingdoms seem, to us at least, a quaint thing of the past—nostalgic at best, horribly imperialistic and violent at worst?  Like we talked about with the opening address of “Our Father,” our associations with any sort of kingdom can cause negative reactions—or our unfamiliarity with any sort of kingdom outside of fantasy books and Disney princesses can make us think of a kingdom as something of a child’s imagination rather than a world’s reality.  Kings, queens, sovereigns—why would we ever go back to this, or want any sort of kingdom to come?  And why would this be something Jesus, who certainly knew the horror of kingdoms run amok via King Herod and the Roman empire, taught us to pray?

Well, in Jesus’ day kingdom language was not only integral to the people’s everyday secular world, but had long been used in a meaningful religious sense in Judaism.  The Jewish concept of what one talked about when one talked about God’s Kingdom or, perhaps in a more accurate translation, God’s reign, involved four basic ideas:  that the one God was the creator and sovereign over all; that the rule of the world has been wrongly usurped by forces who oppose this God and to whom we have errantly given allegiance; that God has “given” the kingdom to the chosen people of Israel, who accepted the “yoke of the kingdom” when they embraced the law and covenant at Sinai and made itself a particular community within this world that had subjected itself to God’s revealed will; and that the consummation of God’s kingdom, though beginning now in part, is still future.  The Jews thought their knowledge of the Kingdom of God was pretty clear and complete, and that one day a messianic warrior-king would come to overthrow the kingdoms of this earth and institute the reign of God.

Jesus was raised on these ideas; most of his hearers would have been raised on these ideas, this clear sequence of thought about the kingdom of God.  Yet in his teaching, Jesus effectively debunked and dismantled traditional images of the Kingdom—upended them, rearranged them, and remade them into a collage of crazy paradox.  Jesus spoke of the kingdom a LOT—it appears in all four Gospels multiple times, as you heard in our reading this morning that combined words about the kingdom from Matthew, Mark, Luke and John—yet, he never came right out and said what it was.  He never gave a Webster’s dictionary definition.  Rather, he offered metaphors—stories—parables—questions to ask:  “What is the kingdom of God like, and to what may we compare it?” is a phrase he utters again and again.  The images that emerge from this question are abundant:  God’s kingdom is like a tiny seed that’s considered unclean but explodes into a tree that defies explanation, wheat tangled with weeds in a field, a nondiscriminatory fish net hauling in everything it can wrap itself around, fungus that causes bread to rise, a hidden treasure that caused a man to buy the whole field it was nestled within.  God’s kingdom is like a farmer who scatters seed not just where the ground is carefully plowed and prepared but everywhere, a king inviting shady characters to his son’s wedding feast, a gardener who finds things growing he doesn’t even remember planting, a landowner who pays everyone the same wage no matter how many hours they worked, a ruler who departs leaving his servants in charge to hold down the fort.  Depending on which words of Jesus we are reading, this kingdom presently “comes near,” already “has come,” or will “come” in the future, with some seeing it before they die.  Some people are threatened with not being able to “enter” the kingdom, while othersare already “going into” it or even given keys to it.  According to some of Jesus’ teachings people are given signs of the kingdom to look for; yet when asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus cryptically answers them, “The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you”—or within you—or within your grasp, depending on how you translate the—surprise, surprise—ambiguous and open to interpretation word that Jesus uses here.

So what are we praying, then, when we pray “your kingdom come”?  How are we living when we live both in the reality of and in anticipation of this already-not yet, here-yet-not-here, within-us-yet-around-us, agricultural, personal, aquatic, economic, political, culinary kingdom?  None of this looks like the images of a kingdom given to us by the Opening Ceremonies, or our history classes, or Orlando's Magic Kingdom.  But I think the unorthodox way Jesus speaks about and teaches us the nature of the kingdom reveals things that can guide and undergird the way we pray and live into this prayer.  First, to pray for the coming kingdom is an act of great imagination.  I think that’s why Jesus gave us so many images—he didn’t want the kingdom to be boxed in, and he didn’t want us to be boxed in in the ways we live and work towards that kingdom.  That’s why I left the picture blank on the front of our worship bulletin today, with space for you to respond with your own words and images—what IS the kingdom of God like?  How do each of us imagine this in our own context?  How do our various images of the kingdom weave together to help us get a bigger, broader picture of God?  How might we be surprised—as Jesus often used surprising images—by the things that can turn out to be hints and glimpses of God’s kingdom, God’s way of organizing the world? 

Second, Jesus speaks about the kingdom in a way that reminds us we are not living out a definition, but a story—the kingdom comes, in all of Jesus’ teaching, in the living out of stories—in everyday acts of gardening and real estate transaction and baking and relating with our families and being surprised by things we didn’t plan for and having our sense of what’s right upended by something unruly.  Perhaps the most influential class I took in college was called “The Kingdom of God in America”—a course I thought would help me clearly define this kingdom thing Jesus spoke about so much.  Most of my college courses in religion had been rather heady, but this turned out to be a class of stories about the Church as it has lived, moved, and responded to the various crises of American culture that have called the Church to action—in particular, the Civil Rights Movement.  This was no study of abstract, barely graspable theology far removed from my own life; it was a look at how actual people in my own time and culture read Scripture and understood God, applying Christian principles to their own lives and using the Church as a vehicle for Christ-centered change.  We learned about Martin Luther King Jr, who moved from craving financial stability, prestige, and denominational fame as a young pastor to being caught up in what he saw as a movement of God in the Civil Rights movement, seeing that his theology had to move, as he put it, from “thin paper to thick action.”  We learned the story of southern farmer Clarence Jordan, whose version of the Lord’s Prayer we will pray together next week, who decided that change in the segregated and economically unjust South would come not through political movements of history but by a God movement breaking in to history and began an interracial farm that, Jordan believed, would allow the Kingdom of God to invade the history of the present-day world.  We learned about countless others who saw the Kingdom of God not as a thing of the past or the future only, but of this present day—a story being written with their lives—and were challenged to consider how our lives might now contribute to that story—a powerful message for a class taught at a public state university founded by the author of the separation of church and state, and one that I think helped lead me into ministry, the more I think about it—that made me want to dedicate my life in a whole-hearted way to being part of this story.

And that leads me to one last thing I think we can learn, beyond how imagination and story are the ways we embody and pray and work towards the coming of the kingdom:  that, unlike the top-down kingdoms of the past, the dictatorships we bristle against and seek to overthrow, this kingdom—in whatever form it takes—requires us to be deeply invested, participatory, and involved.  As John Dominic Crossan put it in his tremendous book on the Lord’s Prayer, “the Prayer’s challenge about God’s kingdom coming is not about the imminence of divine intervention, but about the empowerment of human collaboration.  Here is what counts:  God’s kingdom did not, could not, and will not begin, continue, or conclude without human collaboration…That is why Matthew’s Abba prayer has two even parts with the divine “you” in the first half and the human “we” in the second half. Those two parts are correlatives.  They come together or never come at all.”  Sower and seed and soil, yeast and dough and baker and oven, time and persistence and extravagance and risk—all of these things are part of the great collaboration that, bit by bit, reveals more of what the kingdom of God is like.

And so that picture Jesus painted with his myriad images and invited us to contribute to with our own imaginations and stories just keeps getting bigger and bigger, doesn’t it?  But that’s what praying for the Kingdom to come is about:  not reverting to some failed system or utopia or fantasy of the past.  Rather, as good old Will Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas put it—I seem to quote them every week in this series, don’t I?—this part of the prayer is a reminder that “the Christian faith is not satisfied with things as they are, now, today.  The Christian faith is not preoccupied with an archaeological exhumation of some distant past by which it attempts to give meaning to an otherwise meaningless present.  The Christian faith is always leaning into the future, standing on tiptoes, eager to see what God is bringing to birth among us.”  We lean our way into West Virginia, tilling kingdom soil, and with Habitat in Brooklyn, planting kingdom trees; we stand on tiptoe, knowing that our little acts of collaboration still have the power to unexpectedly bring about something new.  Can you imagine it—a kingdom growing among us, taking root, being birthed by the stories we live, a story in which every one of us is involved?  What might that kingdom of God look like?  And how can we imagine, narrate, and collaborate our way, bit by bit, right into the midst of us—so that kingdom of God truly is within us, near to us, among us, around us?

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Lord, Teach Us to Pray...With Our Imaginations

Our texts this week--our third week in our series on the Lord's Prayer, where we will focus on the great petition "Your Kingdom Come"--are Luke's version of the Lord's Prayer (Luke 11:1-4) and a collection of sayings of Jesus about the nature of God's Kingdom.  Some of these can be read here.

Jesus was a painter...did you know this?  By this I don't mean that his works are hanging in the Louvre or the Uffizi, or that he worked with oils and canvas and watercolor.  Jesus painted with words that created pictures--with images so vivid they could capture the hearer's imagination and draw it into wonder, speculation, and deeper engagement.  Jesus told parables that left many meanings open for interpretation, used metaphors from every day life, and engaged our senses of sight and sound, taste and touch, justice and indignation--in particular as he taught about the great mysterious reality known as the Kingdom of Heaven (in Matthew, who had a particular reverence for the name of God and often substituted "heaven" for it) or the Kingdom of God (in Mark, Luke, and John).

As we learn to pray "your kingdom come" this week, Jesus seems to have taught us by example that the primary way to do this is with the imagination.  Imaginative prayer is nothing new (read more about its history here) but to those of us who are used to working with the concrete and who put our creative sides out on the curb after childhood to deal with more practical matters.

So here is how I want you to try praying this week:  place the blank canvas of a sheet of paper before you and a pencil, markers, or (best of all!) crayons close at hand.  Or, close your eyes and let the inside of your eyelids be your canvas.  Then, using your imagination, complete this sentence so often uttered by Jesus:  "The  kingdom of God is like..."  If you were to picture something that could be described as congruent with and reflective of God's kingdom, what would it look like?

After you let your imagination run its course (and seriously...let it have free reign!  No passing judgment on what comes to mind!), spend some time praying with this image:  "Your Kingdom Come...Your Kingdom Come..."  What might God be wanting to say to you through this image?  How might it shape the way you live and move and pray in this world?

I highly encourage you to do this in the next few will make our corporate worship experience much richer as we engage this question together!