Monday, February 26, 2018

How to Pray Jesus' Way # 3 - Our Daily Bread

When I was in high school and college, I worked at a grocery store. I worked as a bagger, cashier, and in the produce department. But my favorite was when I worked in the bakery. I gained so much weight when I worked in the bakery! When new products came in, we were supposed to sample them. When they didn’t sell, we were able get huge discounts for cakes, cookies, and pies bring them home. And the donuts—oh, my—the donuts! When it was my job to ice and fill the donuts, I put extra on and in them, because I knew I’d be carrying some home. In fact, I hoped that some of them wouldn’t sell, so I could bring some home.

“Give me this day my daily donuts!”

Unfortunately, many of us approach prayer this way. It’s a method of getting what we want from God, as if God were behind the bakery counter and we were placing our order. “I’d like a birthday cake with Happy Birthday to Me written on it in green icing.” But prayer doesn’t work like that. So Jesus gave us the Lord’s Prayer as a way of relating to God in humility and love.

Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name. This teaches us to honor and worship God for who God is, not for what we can get out of prayer. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. In this, we learn to “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well (Matthew 6:33[i]).” By praying this, we remind us that it’s all about God, and not about our desires. Which brings us to the next phrase, Give us this day our daily bread. It’s such a short sentence, but it holds so much for those who want to relate to God. And much of it, I learned from working at the bakery.

GIVE US…OUR. The first thing I learned was it’s not good to be whiney and demanding. At the bakery where I worked, we had a policy of giving small sample cookies to any child who asked, or whose parents asked on their behalf. Don’t get me wrong—I appreciate the commercial purpose for this. Samples encourage purchases. Plus they keep loud children from squalling in the store. But the down side is that it encouraged toddlers to march right up to the counter and say to the adult working there, “Gimme my cookie!” It became about “me” and what’s “mine” by right—I deserve to have a cookie! No matter that they’d tried those same sample cookies a hundred times, those selfish customers would rather get for me, what is free, rather than simply buying the bag that was for sharing. So the next thing I learned is that it’s not good to be selfish. When you pray, remember that there’s a difference between “gimme” and “give us.” When you pray, “Give us…our,” you’re praying for the whole bag, not just a cookie for yourself. And you’re not doing it selfishly. You’re asking for a blessing to share.

THIS DAY…DAILY. Now, there are two ways to look at this. The first is to misunderstand and think that Jesus was modeling the selfish “gimme” and adding “NOW” to it. Jesus isn’t teaching us to be like Veruca Salt in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, who stubbornly and selfishly declared “I want it now!” But if not that, what does Jesus mean? By emphasizing the present tense, Jesus is telling us to live in the moment. In Matthew 6, verses 25, and 34, Jesus says:

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?... Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

The longer version of the Serenity Prayer teaches us about “Living one day at a time; Enjoying one moment at a time.”[ii] Living in the moment means we don’t get disappointed if we don’t have as much today as we did yesterday. It also means we don’t get scared that we won’t have enough tomorrow, or so excited about tomorrow’s abundance that we lack gratitude for today. “This day…daily” means we’re storing up our treasures in heaven rather than hoarding more than we need here on earth. It promotes a sense of having enough, which creates inner peace and contentment. Besides, you don’t have to work in a bakery to know that the freshest bread is baked the same day. God’s best for you means trusting God for today, each day.

BREAD. Nothing is simpler than bread, in this culture. In Jesus’ culture, it was the same way. In eastern Asia, Jesus might have said, “Give us this day our daily rice,” and it would have meant the same thing. Or in Ireland, “daily potatoes” would make sense. The point is that you’re asking for God to give you what you need, rather than what you want. You’re not praying for daily donuts, but for sustenance. If you want donuts, that’s okay—but you’ve got to work for them. And by asking God for something simple, you’re not trying to control the details. Notice that Jesus didn’t say, “Give us this day our daily cinnamon-raisin swirl bread with icing on top. Oh, and be sure to bake it at 400 degrees for 40 minutes.” Daily bread. That’s all. God already knows you’re hungry, anyway—God can handle the details and give you what’s best.

So that’s it—what I learned about prayer from working in a bakery. “Give us this day our daily bread.” It’s okay to pray for yourself—to ask God to provide what you need each day, for the common good. So go ahead, and trust God for the bread. And maybe every now and then, when it isn’t too bad for you, he’ll throw in a donut as well.

[i] All scripture quotations are taken from the NIV.

Monday, February 19, 2018

How to Pray Jesus' Way # 2 - "Thy Kingdom Come"

When I was a kid, I was confused about the meaning of the expression, kingdom come. It’s a spiritual term, but I always associated it with things being blown up. When I’d watch movies and hear people say, “I’m going to blow you to kingdom come,” I’d imagine (in cartoon-fashion) an explosion where someone is projected all the way to some other country. I thought I knew the other name for this place called Kingdom Come. I figured it was called Timbuktu, because in my child’s mind, that’s where people flew off to once a cartoon-prize-fighter rolled up his sleeves and walloped them one. So when it came time to say the Lord’s prayer, “Thy kingdom come” sounded odd to me.

What comes to mind when you pray those words? If you’re like many Christians, nothing at all comes to mind—because so many believers rattle off the Lord’s Prayer without even thinking about its meaning. But maybe that phrase conjures images of Christ coming in the clouds to claim an earthly throne. Those who believe in a literal second coming long for the day when evil is defeated and God’s victory is complete. And I think that this is partially what we’re praying for when we use that phrase, “Thy kingdom come.” After all, Revelation 22:17[i] says, “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come!’” And the book ends with “Come, Lord Jesus (22:20)!” But perhaps there’s more to it than simply an expectation of physical kingdom.

Theologian and poet François Fénelon said, “The kingdom of God which is within us consists in our willing whatever God wills, always, in everything, and without reservation; and thus His kingdom comes; for His will is then done as it is in heaven, since we will nothing but what is dictated by His sovereign pleasure.”[ii] This means that in the Lord’s Prayer, the phrase, “Thy kingdom come” is inextricably linked to “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

To pray for God’s kingdom is to pray for God’s will to be accomplished as perfectly here on earth as it is in heaven. Do I believe God’s will is always done on earth? Certainly not! I don’t believe genocide and child abuse and marital unfaithfulness and climate change are God’s will—but God gives us free will as a free gift, and humanity has paid dearly for it. So we recognize that for God’s kingdom to come, Jesus’ followers must be able to discern God’s will. Then, we have to be willing to put our own desires aside and embrace God’s will instead. Alan Redpath said, “Before we can pray, ‘Lord, Thy Kingdom come,’ we must be willing to pray, "My Kingdom go."[iii]

There was man who desperately wanted a pet snake. He also wanted a divorce, but he didn’t want to be the one to leave his wife. But he knew she hated snakes. Time and time again he’d heard her say, “If you get a snake, I’m out of here!” So he got a snake—and she left. Later he told a friend at church, “You know, I really wanted to stay married, but I guess God had other plans.” Folks—this is what people do with God’s will. They shape their lives any way they please, and then when they finally get what they forced to happen, they say it was God’s will. And what does God not want? Anything that displeases them. No—for us to pray God’s kingdom come, we must pray, “My kingdom go.” And then give up control.

What does this look like—this giving up of control? When my kids were younger and I took them to the beach, we had fun facing the waves down and karate chopping them when they crashed on them. We’d shout taunts and kick them as they washed over us. “Is that all you got?” We’d ask—just before they bowled us over. A lot of us end up doing that with God. The psalmist writes, “all your waves and breakers have swept over me (Psalm 42:7).” But instead of fighting against God, giving up control means you turn the opposite direction, hop up on your surf board, and ride the wave. In these two situations, the wave never changed—but how you respond to the waves makes all the difference. To ride the wave means you let your kingdom go, and you seek God’s kingdom and God’s will instead.

But how can you know God’s will, when it seems those breakers and waves are making so much noise? It can be really hard (but very important) to know what another person wants, especially if there are barriers to understanding. For example, if you speak another language. Once when I was working as a hospital chaplain, I was called in to help translate for a Spanish-speaking patient. My Spanish is a little rusty now, but it was pretty proficient in those days. Still, nothing will make you second-guess whether you’ve understood something simple like the difference between “left” and “right” than when your translation will determine which side of the body an appendage is to be removed. Other times there are barriers like bad sound systems at drive-thru windows. If we’re honest with ourselves, sometimes trying to understand God’s will is like trying to discern the garble that comes out of those speakers. We know someone is talking on the other end, but just can’t make English out of it. But if you sit still and listen with a discerning heart, you can hear clearly.

In prayer, listening becomes all important. Perhaps there should be a pause written in the text of the Lord’s Prayer. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven (pause).” Because this is the phrase where you stop and focus not on your own will, but on discerning and doing God’s will. Ever tried putting your head all the way under the water when the waves crash? When you’re immersed in the ocean, beneath the waves, the crashing becomes quiet. How can you understand God’s will and surrender your kingdom to God? Psalm 46:10 says, “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth." Today I challenge you—not in public but in private, when you pray this phrase of the Lord’s Prayer, take several minutes to pause, reflect, and listen to the voice of God in the waves. Feel the press and surge and current and flow—then align your body with it and not against it. This is how you ride the wave.

[i] Scripture quotations taken from the NIV.

[ii] Quotes reported in Josiah Hotchkiss Gilbert, Dictionary of Burning Words of Brilliant Writers (1895). Pg. 269. January 4, 2018.

[iii] January 4, 2018.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

How to Pray Jesus' Way # 1 - "Hallowed Be Thy Name"

Recently, I read about a little boy kneeling beside his bed with his mother and grandmother and softly saying his prayers, "Dear God, please bless Mummy and Daddy and all the family and please give me a good night's sleep."  Suddenly he looked up and shouted, "And don't forget to give me a bicycle for my birthday!!"  His mother said, "There is no need to shout like that.  God isn't deaf." The little boy replied, "No, but Grandma is."[i]

            A lot of people grow up learning to pray this way—enumerating a wish list as if God were a grandparent in the sky, waiting to grant their requests.  The disciples likely heard their religious teachers doing the same thing, but noticed that Jesus never prayed this way.  So they asked Him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples (Luke 11:1).” [ii]  In response, Jesus gave what we call the Lord’s Prayer—and there are two versions found in Luke 11:2-4 and Matthew 6:9-13.  Over the next few weeks, we’ll learn to pray, Jesus’ way. 

Matthew 6:9 begins the prayer, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.”  From the very beginning, Jesus wants us to understand that the name of God is sacred and holy—that’s what the word “hallowed” means.  “Hallowed be thy name” means that God’s name is so much higher than any human name.  In fact, God’s name is so holy that God didn’t want us human beings to name God—because God knew that we’re bad at coming up with names.  For example, have you noticed how bad some of the names of Bible characters are?  Some of them are hard to pronounce, but I’m talking about some Bible names that are just bad.  Like…

There are three separate guys in the Bible named Dodo.  Seriously, can you imagine being David and going into battle and saying, “Yeah, I’d like to take Samuel and Daniel and Dodo over there.”  Yeah, Dodo—I’m sure he’ll have your back.  Then there’s a guy named On.  I don’t know what to say about that, so I’ll just move On, and talk about someone else.  Abraham’s nephew was probably the youngest of a big family.  They had such huge families in those days—Finally, after maybe fifty kids or so, when Daddy named this little baby, he wiped his forehead and said, “Now that’s a Lot!”

See, I’m pretty sure that people giving their babies names like this proved to God we weren’t good at naming things.  God wanted to name Himself instead.  If we got to name God, we’d probably call Him something like Sky Daddy, or Super Judge, or Thunder Chief!  And, unfortunately, that’s how many of us see God.  But instead of letting people name God, God defined Himself.  Exodus 3:13-15 says:

Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”
God said to Moses, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’”
God also said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you.’
“This is my name forever,
    the name you shall call me
    from generation to generation.

In Hebrew, I AM is YHWH, because Hebrew has no printed vowels.  If it were pronounced, it would be Yahweh, but this is a name so hallowed that many devout Jewish people refuse to pronounce it.  To avoid pronouncing Yahweh, some have altered and Latinized the name as Jehovah.  Even in English, some who refuse to pronounce the name of God render it as G-d instead.  The translators of the King James Version of the Bible chose to honor God’s name by substituting the phrase LORD (all caps) whenever YHWH is found.  All of these are ways of honoring the name of God by avoiding pronunciation or printing—which is silly, considering God told Moses and the people to actually use the Divine Name.

So, perhaps instead of avoiding God’s name, we ought to call God by the many names we find in the Hebrew and Greek scriptures, which all point to aspects of God’s character.  The Bible uses male imagery for God such as lord, king, father, and defender.  Yet it also compares God to a mother bear, mother eagle, mother hen, a woman in childbirth, and a nursing mother.  Still other names for God are genderless—images such as a rock, or light, strength, song, beginning and end, or living water.  Jesus started The Lord’s Prayer by honoring the name of God.  Perhaps one way to do this is to recognize the attributes of God when you pray.  Make your understanding of who God is more complete by calling God by different names, perhaps according to the way you’re feeling that day, or depending on your situation. 

Another way to honor the name of God is by not taking it in vain.  This is perhaps the most misunderstood of the commandments God gave Moses.  Many people think it means that we shouldn’t use God’s holy name as a curse word (which we shouldn’t).  But I think it goes deeper than that.  When one person takes another person’s name in marriage, they fully identify with that person, and become part of their family.  To then be unfaithful, or to act as if they weren’t married, would be taking that person’s name in vain.  In a country where claiming to be Christian can be advantageous, many politicians and people of business join religious organizations or call themselves Evangelicals, all the while behaving as if they’d never heard of Jesus.  If you pray, “Hallowed be thy name,” you’ve got to be kind of person who strives to live the principles of God.  When you pray, “Hallowed be thy name,” perhaps in addition to recognizing God for who God is, you’re saying, “May I honor Your name, not just with the words I say but the with the things I do.”  To call yourself a Christian means to try to live the character (or the names of God) in your own life.  Only when you do this, does the rest of the Lord’s Prayer make any sense.

[ii] Scripture quotations taken from the NIV.