Thursday, April 1, 2010

Power and Glory

Forty days and forty nights of Lenten meditations. We’ve had time to consider, internalize, write about, think about, talk about – yes, even walk about and past the Lord’s Prayer. How quiet and peaceful the Park crosses are in the early morning, even with the commuting traffic. There is a calmness about pausing before each cross. How reassuring those same crosses are in the late afternoon or early evening, when we’ve had a day without any stops, or times, for private prayer.

Surely knowing that God’s Kingdom is always there for us, forever, lets us feel the magnificent power and glory of Our Creator. Dr. Sam eloquently stated this past Sunday: we are moving this week from Celebration to Celebration. Let’s not forget Holy Week, and the reason for our rejoicing, our embracing the supremacy and strength of our God. Let’s seek his splendor and magnificence, not just this week, but forever and ever. Amen.

For Thine is the Kingdom

Recently, I had the opportunity to attend a Catholic wedding. I would be lying if I didn't admit that I was looking forward to the swanky reception and the open bar, but that's not the greater part of what I took away from the experience.

First, all of us Protestants sat on one side of the church where we could be obvious in the fact that we didn't know how or when to cross ourselves and that we didn't know when to kneel or what to say. We shuffled from one foot to the next, admiring the the happy couple or gazing at the sanctuary with all of the saints who looked down on us benevolently.

Suddenly, the congregation began the Lord's Prayer. Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian--we all looked to each other in wide-eyed hope. Here, at last, was something familiar, something we could cling to with confidence. And then we did the unthinkable: we keep speaking when everyone else fell silent.

I learned then that the Catholic version of the Lord's Prayer stops at "deliver us from evil." We protestants were still going with pride: "For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and...(here the voices tapered to a whisper as we realized we were alone)...the glory forever. Amen."

I thought at that moment how we take anything memorized for granted. We knew the Lord's Prayer, but had we really thought about what it means to tell God: all power and glory, even this flawed earthly kingdom is Yours, forever? Of course, we know that everything belongs to God, but the ending to the Lord's Prayer--at least as we say it--affirms that we yield to God's will. That last line is basically another reminder of "Thy will be done." We are saying that all kingdoms, all power, and all glory belong to Him.

The next time you say the Lord's Prayer--and may it not be at a Catholic wedding--think about that last statement. I guarantee you can feel your heart lift at the reminder that He is in charge, not us.


Saturday, March 27, 2010

Temptations and Evil

What tempts you today? A nap? A piece of pie? A moment stolen from yard work to read another chapter in that great mystery book? No, you say. My temptations are much greater: to fudge on my tax returns, to borrow from the office’s petty cash drawer, to linger after work talking to the cute guy in the next cubicle instead of dropping by my sick mom’s home.

We’re tempted to omit and commit, on any given day. What is important is that we recognize our sin of temptation and acting, or not acting, and not let ourselves be caught in a temptation “loop.” It just doesn’t work to casually ask God not to lead us into temptations; we must be Pro-Active about our lives.

Part of that strength should also be directed toward recognized evil in all its forms, in all its faces. Whether it is as serious as immorality or vice, or simply foul and vile and nasty, we want God to be beside us. Of course, we always want the pleasant and good in our lives. But the world today is not an ivory tower.

God, let us be constantly in prayer, asking that we continue to do the very best for and in our lives, that we love others as ourselves, and that we always strive to be the kind of self that we know we should be.

Friday, March 26, 2010

As We Forgive Those Who Trespass Against Us

For the past few weeks, the idea of justice has been a constant theme. We spoke about it in Sunday School. I read about justice in one of my daily readings and also for one of my Wednesday Bible studies. I can't seem to escape the idea of justice.

Human beings want justice. We say that what goes around comes around, and we wait eagerly to see if criminals get their due. Some of us even prefer books with a happy ending because the embattled hero and/or heroine always get what they deserve--and so does the villain. The question remains, though: do we really want to get what we deserve from God?

Each time I recite "And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us," I have to ask silently: "Lord, please forgive me better than I forgive others." Try as I may, I hold on to grudges. I forgive in name, but I don't forget--and that is a part of human nature, too, I'm afraid.

This portion of the Lord's Prayer is a reminder that God's justice isn't our justice, and that's a good thing. We don't need to worry about whether or not murderers who repent at the last minute will get their due. We need to worry about whether or not we'll get our due, for, as James says, "whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it." (James 2:10)

So I always thank God for abundant grace, and I pray to do a better job of forgiving even while I give thanks that He's so much better at it than I am.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Which comes first

In his recent address on the Day 1 radio program Rev. Dr. Robert Dunham of University Presbyterian Church in Chapel Hill, N.C. used the idea of the radical nature of the parable of the Prodigal Son to recount something he said to one of his parishoners. After "another" sermon about grace, the man said he was ready for Dr. Dunham to "stop preaching about grace and start preaching about repentance. After all", he said, "repentance is always the precursor of grace". Dr. Dunham's response was:

"There is not a single instance in the Gospels," I said, rather assertively, wondering even in the moment if I were right, "when Jesus requires repentance before he extends grace or healing or hospitality. Not one! Repentance is a response to God's grace, not a prerequisite for it. Grace always comes first."

I've always heard we can't grasp how culturally radical some of the parables were because to us it's, for example, no big deal for a child to want his inheritance and leave and do bad stuff and come back and have a feud with his brother and then the dad throws a party.

That's a standard show for Jerry Springer. But if the grace before repentance thing is true. Now that's radical.

If if that's how we have to offer grace in order to receive in that way; then I might have to "watermelon, watermelon"* over a couple of lines of the Lord's prayer this Sunday.

*When I sing in the choir, the director usually encourages me; rather than voice the words, to mouth "watermelon, watermelon," because it looks like I'm singing along, but no one can hear me.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

"And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil." ("And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one." NRSV)

To some: pornography; alcohol; gossip; racism and other prejudices; the "short-cut"; off-color jokes; lies, both big and little; not speaking out when appropriate; speaking, when not appropriate; cursing; inaction when action is needed; action when inaction is what is called for; not listening because "too busy" or judging that it is "not important"; judging others; laziness; etc., ect. All of these, and innumerable more, are what Ellsworth Kalas in this week's Session on his Reflections on the Lord's Prayer, would call the "stuff of everyday living."

We are taught to pray, "Lead us not into temptation (tests or trials), but deliver us from evil", or as Kalas cites from the New Revised Standard Version, "And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one."

No one escapes or is immune from the pain, the sufferings, the afflictions to body or possessions, or the everyday "stuff" of life. No one. It is life and God does not shield us from them. The question, of course, is how do we respond, receive, and react to these life events.

Martin Luther recites a story where a student wanted to be rid of his thoughts. The teacher responded, "Dear brother, you cannot hinder the birds in the air from flying over your head; but you can prevent them from building a nest in your hair."

We will, everyday, go through the temptations, the "stuff" of life. So we pray that we respond, receive, and react to the evil as God would have us respond. And, as a result, over time we come to know ourselves and God--discovering that we cannot do anything but continue to sin and do evil unless our reliance and trust is on God alone, from Whom our strength comes.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Falling Short and Certain Delivery

I’ve been thinking a lot about Lent and why we give something up for those 40 days. If nothing else, I’ve decided that Lent is a time to remind us of our own humanity and, thus, of Christ’s divinity. If you think about it, giving up chocolate or cokes for 40 days shouldn’t be that big a deal, but I’ve never made it. I came incredibly close last year, but I still fell short.

Think about this year: one of my Lenten obligations was to write entries for this blog, but I have missed two. Two, out of a minimum of seven. It should not be that difficult to rearrange my schedule to meet such an obligation. Once again, I fell short.

That said, I could never suggest Lent is solely about reminding us of our mortality--such a suggestion would be beyond self-centered. Obviously, our mortality is a key component of why Jesus had to give himself up for our salvation, but Lent is also a reminder of that solemn sacrifice and thus something far greater. Falling short, I suppose, is another important reminder of both why we need Jesus and how nothing short of grace will save us.
I think even more comforting, though, is that “Deliver us from evil” actually follows “Lead us not into temptation.” There’s never any doubt that temptation will find us whether it be a box of Girl Scout cookies or something far, far more sinister. Fortunately, there’s Someone who can deliver us from evil just as long as we have the foresight to ask.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Strength and Love

To forgive is to love, to be strong. Mahatma Gandhi wrote that the weak can never forgive. He said that forgiveness is the attribute of the strong. Half a world away, Reinhold Niebuhr stated that forgiveness is the final form of love. Here in our own community, we sometimes do not think we are strong enough, or that we can love enough, to forgive old wounds and hurts.

Yet we repeatedly ask our parents, our spouse, our children, our neighbors and friends, and – yes, even God- to forgive us. We even have a problem forgiving ourselves for past deeds, even when we've repented, over and over again. Lord, help us to be strong and to love both ourself and our neighbor.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Right Path

And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil...
Temptations to take the wrong path are ever present day to day for all of us. Jesus knows this and offers us a simple prayer to help us stay on the right path. He knows that we have free will that can lead us astray, so he encourages us to seek the path God wants us to follow. He even offers us an instruction guide.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

"And forgive us our debts (trespasses), as we also have forgiven our debtors (those who trespass against us)"

Matthew 16:25 might speak to this week's phrase of Jesus' pattern prayer. Jesus says "For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it." Jesus was teaching here about the cost of discipleship; but it also says we must give up our rights to our selves. Everyone has rights: rights to protection, to body and soul; rights to our individuality and personality; rights to security; etc. But when our "selves" become the focus of our lives, we lose what God has made, has intended, for us.

Ellsworth Kalas, in this week's reflection on this phrase of the Lord's Prayer writes: "When we hold something against another person, we begin to shut out the face of Christ, and when the image of our Lord is blurred, we no longer have the faith to accept forgiveness." When we allow our perceived "right to ourself" to be the focus; when we hold on to the hurt, the debt, the trespass, that was done by another to our person, even if the other person was indeed "wrong", then there is a barrier between us and God and His forgiveness cannot be received. And that barrier is the focus on myself. Only when the focus is shifted from my rights to Christ, when the rights to myself are surrendered, laid down, then through God's Spirit the trespass, the debt, against us can be forgiven, and God's forgiveness of my debts to Him and to others, is received. The obstruction of self which prevents God's forgiveness from "getting through", is no longer a barrier. By "losing my life", my right to myself, I can find the life God has planned for me. A life free from the burden of guilt arising from my trespasses, given when I let go of the anger, the bitterness, the resentments that build and fester when I hold on to those trespasses to my self.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Harold be Thy Name

You've probably heard that story about the little boy who said he knew God's name was "Harold", and when he was asked how he knew that, he said, "Well, when we pray the Lord's prayer, we say, 'Our Father who art in Heaven, Harold be Thy Name!'"

That reminds me of how often we misunderstand things we hear. And as it was pointed out in the devotional, many of us learned the prayer through hearing it over and over and trying to say it as we heard it prayed in church. It was a long time before I even understood what I was really saying. And if I am forgiven only to the extent I forgive others, I have a problem lots of times!

While in Seminary I came across a book that expanded the meaning of the Lord's prayer for me, because the prayer was translated from the Aramaic, the colloquial language based on Hebrew that Jesus and other Jews of his day spoke amongst themselves. The Aramaic words give a broader, more cosmic meaning to the prayer than the way it comes to us translated into English from Latin translated from the Greek. And you DO lose something in the translation!

I speak Russian and have been involved in missionary work in Kazakhstan and with the Russian United Methodist Church in Moscow and St Petersburg. The Russian version of the Lord's prayer is a translation from the Greek orthodox version, rather than the Latin version from which our English version comes.

When we pray in English, it sounds like we are asking God for our daily bread, not to lead us into temptation, but to deliver us from evil, and to forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who have trespassed against us. However the grammar of the Russian version has a different focus.

Instead of a list of requests, the Lord's prayer in Russian affirms that indeed God DOES give us our daily bread, DOES NOT lead is into temptation, DELIVERS us from evil and if we forgive others, forgives us. In Russian it makes more sense to me. Because why would we need to ASK God for our provision -- it all comes from God anyway. And of course God would not lead us into temptation. And of course God delivers us from evil.

Somehow I think the English version misses the point Jesus was making when he taught his disciples how to pray. Perhaps, as was pointed out in the devotional, the Lord taught not a prayer in itself, but a way of praying. And if we take the Russian version and the Aramaic version into consideration, perhaps the model Jesus was suggesting indicated that the way to pray to our Father in Heaven is to acknowledge the character of God and how God operates in our lives, blessing us, providing for us, and protecting us because God is Sovereign.

When we pray we recognize God's sovereignty, blessings and provision -- not asking for them, but in a way taking them for granted, because that is how God provides for us. Praising and glorifying God in the way Jesus taught his disciples is so important, and a wonderful starting point for our relationship with the Lord on earth as it is in heaven!

During Lent as we remember how Jesus resolutely turned His face toward Jerusalem knowing all that would happen to him there, focusing on the Lord's prayer is a wonderful way to connect with Him and our Father in Heaven. But let's not just stop with praying it together on Sunday and studying it during Lent. How much more wonderful this beautiful pray can be when used as a way to open our hearts to a deeper relationship to God in Christ as we are led by the Holy Spirit!