26 July 2010

Prayer 101: Ask. Seek. Knock.

Luke 11: 1-13
17th Sunday in Ordinary Time/ 25th July 2010

It’s probably the one issue people of faith struggle with most:  prayer.  In many surveys over the years here at CPC, the adult education committee almost always receives requests to do a workshop or offer a seminar on prayer.  The PrayerFest we offered last spring flowed from those requests.  The PrayerFest was a great success.  We had a great response; received good feedback; and we were told to do it again.  One thing most noticeable about the event was that there were mostly women in attendance.  I’m not sure what this says about the prayer life of men, because I know men do indeed pray – actually, we need a lot of prayer.  Maybe some guys are just reluctant to admit they need help.

            I’ll confess, though.  I’ll put myself in that category.  I need help.  When I hear the disciples ask Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray,” I can resonate with that.  I need help.   I pray, but I wouldn’t call myself a “prayer warrior.” I know people who can spend hours at intercessory prayer, praying over every aspect of their lives.  I don’t do that.   I pray and know the power of prayer.  Prayer changes things.  It makes a difference in my life.  And, according to Jesus, our praying has the capacity to change the world.  I pray regularly, but I don’t have a pattern or rhythm or a set-schedule.  I know people who go into their “prayer closets,” a special place to pray with God.  I don’t have such a place.  I have shelves of prayer books, books on the theology of prayer, spirituality of prayer, you name it, but I wouldn’t say I’m an expert.  Many of these books were purchased during a season in my life when I said, “I need to deepen my prayer life,” and then the rest of life gets in the way of my plans, the half-read book is placed on the shelf until the season comes around when I say, “I need to deepen my prayer life,” and I buy another book.  It’s a great way to build a library!  But it’s a lousy way to learn how to pray.

            In the schoolhouse of prayer, we’re all students, we’re all disciples, and we all have much to learn.  But, I’m beginning to be a little suspicious of all the books about prayer on the market these days, books about the secrets of prayer, books on the techniques and methods of prayers, or yet another collection of someone else’s prayers.[1]  Jesus didn’t need prayer manuals or prayers written by others.  Jesus – prayed.  He didn’t learn about prayer, he prayed.  He didn’t worry about deepening his prayer life, he prayed.  He got on with it.  For Jesus, prayer wasn’t an option; it wasn’t something he got around to after the end of a busy day or something he turned to in a time of crsis.  My guess is he never went very long between prayers; it was a constant in his life.  In Mark’s gospel, in particularly, there is a clear rhythm of prayer and minister, prayer and ministry, throughout his life.  Jesus  prayed.  He just did it.  A lot.  His disciples knew he prayed, for he was forever going off by himself to pray.  They knew how central it was in his life, in his ministry.  They didn’t know how to do it.  So one day they asked him.  And he told them – tells us.  This is how you pray….

            “When you pray, say:  ‘Father, hallowed be your name…’”   We know how the rest goes. We pray these words every week in worship.  “Every day, in countless languages, in public and private, in virtually every country of the world, this prayer ascends to God.  It could be argued that no single minute passes when it is not being uttered.”[2]  Yet, it’s used so often and it’s so well-known (like Psalm 23 or 1 Corinthians 13), that we might say the words or hear them said without really connecting with what they say, without really hearing them.  It’s so easy to miss what’s contained in this prayer, the only prayer we have from Jesus. For example, try praying the Lord’s Prayer some time, whether here in worship or at home, being attentive to every word.   Concentrating on the meaning of every word, see if you can get through the prayer without being distracted, without having a wayward thought (such as, I wonder what I’m going to have for lunch?) or any other association.  It’s not easy.

            What Jesus gives us in his prayer is both simple and profound at the same time.  He shows us that, on the one hand, the structure of prayer is not really all that complex.  The “how” of prayer is really very simple.   There are two accounts of the Lord’s Prayer in the New Testament, Matthews’s version and Luke’s version.  Both authors are quoting from an earlier source biblical scholars call “Q,” for the German word, Quelle, meaning, “Source.”  Matthew’s version is wordier than Luke’s.  His version of the Lord’s Prayer consists of seven imperatives or demands of God (they’re more than petitions).  Luke’s is simpler; there are only five imperatives.  Let’s look at Luke.

            After the address to God as Father, suggesting an extraordinary intimacy between Jesus and God, Jesus makes five imperatives that are amazingly comprehensive and far-reaching.  That’s how we start in prayer as well, in our address to God.  The kind of relationship Jesus had with God, as son to Father, is the same kind of relationship with all of God’s children.  We are all son’s and daughter’s of God who can be assured of a similar kind of human-divine relationship.   With just one word, “Father,” Jesus echoes his use of the Aramaic, “Abba,” Daddy, for God, signifying an extraordinary intimacy.   Suggesting level of closeness between humanity and God was unheard of in First Century Judaism.

            And notice, Jesus “didn’t respond by suggesting some technique or regimen.  He said that genuine prayer depends upon knowing the character of God rather than human effort.” [3] Knowing God as Father (the best, possible Father), as kind and benevolent parent, as Daddy then shapes the way we pray (and we can push this, I believe, to include Mommy, because the point is parental trust).  How we view God, our own personal images of God, have considerable power over how pray and when. 

            Then pray this way:  Imperative 1:  Hallow the name of God.  Sanctify the name.  Remember to set the name of God above and apart of all names.  It declares God’s absolute difference from all created things, God’s otherness.   The sense of this imperative is:  God show up!  God be holy!  God be God!  Remember who you are! 

            Imperative 2:  Ask for the kingdom.  “God, bring the kingdom.  Bring the rule of God into the world of humans.”  The term “kingdom” is used 123 times in the four Gospels.  It’s at the heart of Jesus’ ministry.  He was unique among his peers to see that the kingdom represents God’s rule of love and justice not in some far-off distance, but in the present.  In many ways, this imperative sets the tone for all the others; it establishes the horizon or purpose of every prayer uttered to God, that God’s kingdom of love, healing, justice come and be real among us.  That was the core teaching of Jesus’ ministry.  Every healing Jesus offered, every teaching, every parable points to the importance of God’s kingdom. Even the way we understand the cross and resurrection must be seen in light of the central of the kingdom of God.  Although there’s no petition for God’s will to be done here, “on earth as it is in heaven,” as we find in Matthew’s version, it’s implied in this simple request:  “Your kingdom come.”

            Imperative 3:  Give us each day our daily bread.  It’s a challenge to make sense of this, to be honest, because there’s a Greek word [epiousion from epiousios] Luke uses which in the vast body of Greek literature available to scholars today is only found here.  It means more than: may there be food on the table or may we have a well-stocked refrigerator or freezer.  It could be translated, “daily” bread, “future” bread, or “necessary” bread.  But perhaps the best understanding suggests “the bread we need.”[4]  This is not a request for God to help us live a simpler life and reduce our caloric intake. Instead, it suggests a plea that God remind us that the future is not in our hands, that so much of our lives are beyond our control; that sometimes we have to trust that indeed the Lord will provide, that we have to count on the hospitality of strangers in order to find the food we need to survive.  It’s to live knowing that the things we most need come from God and not from amassing our own resources.

            Here, perhaps, is a good illustration of this.  A year ago at this time there was an article in The Washington Post about six Franciscan friars, dressed in their long, brown robes and sandals, who made the trek from their abbey near Roanoke, Virginia, to Washington, DC, more than 300 miles.  They didn’t have a plan, they didn’t have any money.  For six weeks they walked relying on the providence of God and the kindness of strangers to feed and shelter them.  Each day they didn’t know where they were going to spend the next night.  Each morning they didn’t know where the next meal was going to come from.  The people they met responded with considerable curiosity (and suspicion) and a lot of generosity.  People pressed dollar bills into their hands, provided shelter.  One mother of three saw them walking along Lee Highway in Fairfax, so she pulled over her minivan and offered to buy them lunch at Chick-fil-A.   Everyone was staring at them, the brothers said.  “The high point was when the guy dressed up like a cow came out and gave us all high fives.  He was in costume. They were in robes.  A lot of people were wondering what was going on.”[5]  They were living out the meaning of “give us this day our daily bread.”  Living this way makes us odd. When we get glimpse of the oddness of the kingdom, people often wonder what is going on, because it makes no sense.  Yet, from the perspective of most kingdom living is odd.

            Imperative 4 is simple.  Forgive.   The gospel is all about forgiveness.  Demand forgiveness of God, because forgiveness is the way of the kingdom.  Then we demand God to help us forgive those who are indebted to us, either because of the wrong we have done them or they, us. 

            Imperative 5 is probably the most confusing.  We say, using Matthew’s versions, “Lead us not into temptation,” and probably think this means protect us from the temptation of Satan.  Here, the term is not “temptation,” but “trial,” or literally, “testing.”  What trial?  What testing?   The trying of followers of Jesus who are up against a world of injustice and cruelty, who are up against a world of people who do not seek first the kingdom, who resist the kingdom, who can’t stand the kingdom, who can’t stand justice and peace, love and forgiveness and will do whatever it takes to thwart the work of God.  The testing refers to Christians who are tested, put to the test because of their trust in God by people who are not receptive to kingdom ways.  Jesus assumes here that this imperative is needed because to be his follower means we will experience hardship, persecution, peril, and maybe even, for some, the sword.   This imperative is saying – God, give us the power to endure, to thrive, to not fail the test, but be equal to the challenges facing the struggle for the kingdom that is coming.

            Simple, right?  The structure is pretty simple.  The implications of such a prayer are radical and even revolutionary.  To pray for God’s kingdom is perhaps the most radical part of this prayer, for us and for the world. We we utter these words we are being drawn into the work of the kingdom. We are being incorporated into the very life and work of God.  That’s why Karl Barth (1886-1968) could say, “To claps the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.”

            And then Jesus says, keep doing it over and over and over again.  Never give up.  If parents who are evil (Lk 11:13) – as Jesus says – can still give good things to their children, then how much more will God, who is not evil, be more parent-like in providing for the needs of God’s children?  By calling parents evil and then comparing them to God’s benevolence might sound hard, but this is actually a rabbinic and Greek rhetoric device (qal wehomer, meaning “from the lesser to the greater”), comparing from less to more, with an emphasis on the more.  In this case, the emphasis is on the nature of God. The point here is:  there’s no malice or trickery in God.  There’s no deception.  God’s trustworthy; worthy of our trust, the one we can trust with the worth of our lives, our hearts, and passions.  And the more we pray, the more we realize who God really is.

            That’s why we are told to ask, to seek, to knock again and again – to request, to search, to hunt, to pound on heaven’s door demanding of God these very things.  Biblical scholar Walter Wink says, “Biblical prayer is impertinent, persistent, shameless, indecorous.  It is more like haggling in an outdoor bazaar than the polite monologues of the churches.”[6]  

            That’s why Jesus tells us to ask, to seek, to knock, go after the very things that God wants.  It’s about struggle, wrestling with God, over and over again, engaging God in a profoundly personal, passionate, potentially transforming way.  For what we ask for –if we ask, not for anything we might desire, but to ask for these things – such as the kingdom, forgiveness, daily bread – they will be given.  For the kingdom has come and is on its way.  What we search for – if we search after these things that matter most to God – we will indeed find.  And when we knock away on a closed door, if that door is the threshold into the wider kingdom of God – it will open.    And it’s clear that God wants us to ask, and search, and bang away at prayer.  Gregory the Great (540-604) once said, “God wishes to be asked, he wishes to be forced, he wishes, in a certain manner, to be overcome by our prayers.”   For the more we ask, and the more we search after and pound away at the things that matter most, if we strive after these things the more we will find ourselves being changed, the more we will find the content of our prayer changing, the dimensions of our hearts changing, the choices we make changing, the things that matter most to us changing, the things that we hope for changing. 

            Maybe this is why prayer mattered so much in Jesus’ ministry and why we all need to be schooled in it.  The fear and resistance are great because at some level we know that to take the Lord’s Prayer seriously, to take prayer seriously means at some level we will be changed, the world will be changed.  This scares us.  Yet, the more we pray this way, as Jesus’ prayed – asking, seeking, knocking – the more our lives might actually reflect the glory, the love, the justice, and the forgiveness of God. 

[1] I’m thinking here of John Wilkinson’s best-seller, The Prayer of Jabez: Breaking Through to a Blessed Life (Multnomah Press, 2004).  For a wide and wild sample of the variety of books on prayer available, just type in “prayer” using the search engine at Amazon.com.
[2] John Koening, Rediscovering New Testament Prayer:  Boldness and Blessing in the Name of Jesus (HarperSanFrancisco, 1992), 40.
[4] Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke (Collegeville, MN:  The Liturgical Press, 1991), 177-178.
[5] William Wan, The Washington Post, July 29, 2009.
[6] Walter Wink quoted in Richard J. Foster, Finding the Heart’s True Home (HarperSanFrancisco, 1992), 247.

19 July 2010

The One Thing Needed

Luke 10: 38-42

 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time/ 18th July 2010

            Are you the Martha-type or the Mary-type?  Are you Martha or Mary?  I’m also talking to the guys here:  which one are you?  Martha is the doer, the organizer, the planner, the busy-one, flitting about (to use a good Scots word); she gets things done.  Martha is also the servant, the care-provider, extending hospitality and welcome, attending to the needs of others.  Mary is the opposite of Martha; she’s the contemplative, the listener, she’s casually spending her days in conversation.  The way the story is told, Jesus obviously lifts up one way of being over the other, rebuking Martha and applauding Mary.

            Now, if you’re a Martha-type, Jesus’ words can sound pretty cruel and unfair, particularly because this story follows on the heels of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, a story that calls for sacrificial service to one’s neighbor as the way of the kingdom.  In fact, this is a theme throughout Luke’s gospel, the importance of diakonia, that is service.  It’s from this word diakonia that we get the word deacon, the one who serves (literally, a deacon is a servant who waits on tables).  Martha has just extended hospitality to the guest, to Jesus.  Shouldn’t Martha be applauded for her service?  She is sweating away in the kitchen getting the meal together.  And what is her sister doing?  She’s not helping at all, she’s extending no hospitality.  Mary’s sitting on the floor, at Jesus’ feet, listening to Jesus.  Apparently, from Martha’s perspective, Mary’s doing nothing.

            Mary is listening to Jesus when Martha comes by, obviously agitated, and tells Jesus to tell Mary to get her but off the floor and help.  This is a classic example of triangulation.  Instead of communicating directly with someone, we turn to a third person to say or do what we’re reluctant to say or do directly.  Very often a lot of interpersonal damage is done when we triangulate or find ourselves being triangulated.  Actually, Jesus allows himself to be triangulated here.  Martha approaches Jesus assuming that he would be on her side, assuming that she was in the right, doing the proper thing, the proper thing for a woman to do in his time (prepare the meal), while Mary was being neglectful of her responsibilities.  That’s when Jesus rebukes Martha.  Jesus probably wouldn’t have said anything to her had she not complained to Jesus about Mary.

            Are you Martha or Mary?   Who wants to be Martha if you’re going to be rebuked by Jesus?   Is Jesus really saying that Martha was in the wrong?  Shouldn’t we be like Martha?  Isn’t the Christian life about service to the Kingdom, serving the needs of our brothers and sisters?  Shouldn’t we be extending hospitality and welcome to everyone in God’s name?  The kingdom needs doers, planners, people who care and provide for the needs of the saints, building homes, teaching church school, visiting hospitals and care centers, caring for the homeless – and because we love to eat, we need people to make the tuna fish casseroles and Jell-O molds for potluck suppers and people to bake brownies and cookies for fellowship hour.  Where would the church be with Martha-types?         

            Where would be without Mary-types?  The reflective listener, the contemplative, the thinkers and dreamers, those willing to engage in conversation around ultimate things. 

            But we have to be careful here.  It’s not a matter of either-or, Martha or Mary, although I’ve intentionally set it up like this.  In fact, this dualist way of thinking is not helpful and leads to a misreading of the text.  It might appear to be this way, given Jesus’ rebuke of Martha.   Again, Jesus probably wouldn’t have said a thing to Martha but for her complaint of Mary.  What Martha was doing matters.  What Mary was doing also matters.    Both ways of being matter in the kingdom.

            What Jesus cautions against is not the many ways Martha is serving, but the spirit behind the way she serves.  It’s difficult to see this in the English translation, but embedded in the Greek we find a Martha who is, yes, the doer, but she’s running in ten thousand different directions at the same time; she’s being pulled and dragged away from the things that matter most.  As a result, she’s nervous, concerned, anxious, and agitated.  She’s worried.  She looks over and sees her sister calm, unbothered, without a concern in the world, talking away with Jesus.  Then she explodes, “Lord, don’t you care?”  Or, “How careless can you be?  Don’t you see what she’s doing?  She should be in the kitchen with me.  Tell her to help me.  It’s not fair.  Tell her.”  At that point I can imagine Jesus standing up, placing his arms on either side of Martha, hold her arms down, gently but firmly, calmly, looking her in the eye and saying,  “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things;  there is need of only one thing.”   Yet, implied in this statement is that Mary, not Martha, knows what it is.

            So what has Mary chosen?  What is Martha missing?  What is the better part?  What has Mary done? That’s the point of the story.

            I’ll get right to the point.  There are two themes here, both inter-related.  Both require us to remember that when Mary sits at Jesus’ feet that they are very human feet, but also the feet of God.  In other words, she’s not engaged in idle chatter with a stranger-as-guest who shows up at one’s house.  They both know who he is.  They call him, “Lord.”  If we probe a little deeper here, we see that this is really a story about hospitality or welcome:  it’s about how we receive the Lord.  How do we live in the presence of of God?  How do we welcome the Lord’s presence in our lives on a daily basis?  How do we welcome the Lord where we live – in our lives, in our households, in the life of the church?  Are we running about, flitting about, distracted, worried, anxious, busy-bodies with our to-do lists, always on the go, and thus failing to be attentive to the guest in our midst, of the Lord in our midst?  Mary recognized the nature of the guest and she throws protocol and tradition to the wind.  Jesus is more important than tradition.  Mary takes advantage of the occasion, of the visitation, sits at Jesus’ feet and listens to him.  To be like Mary is to listen to him.  To choose the better part is to choose to take the time to listen.

            Go a little deeper; Luke depicts Mary in an unconventional way for his time.  The women would have been in the kitchen or outside by the ovens cooking, while the men stayed inside to talk.  (I saw this in the Congo.  The women cooked and talked outside.  Only the men ate indoors at the table.)  But here Mary is welcomed into the world of men, as it were, and, what is more, the fact that she is listening to Jesus suggests that she is being attentive to his teaching.  Luke depicts Mary as a disciple – as a student who sits at the feet of Rabbi Jesus to learn from him.  And that’s what matters most.  Martha is missing out on this opportunity because of all her distractions – distractions that prevent here from being a student of the Lord.

            And to go deeper still – and this is easy to miss in the English – the text says, Mary “listened to what he was saying.”  This might sound like idle chatter or a generic conversation before supper, but it’s not.  The Greek is singular, ton logon – literally, the word. Mary was not listening to words, but to “the word,” as in “The Word,” with a capital “W.”  Not the Word, as in the Bible, but the Word as in, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God and the Word was with God (John 1:1).”   The same Word made flesh in Jesus; God’s Word spoken in the flesh to us.  “Word” in both the Old and New Testaments refers to the divine, creative speech of God that creates, redeems, restores, and renews creation and God’s people.  The Word is the dynamic, purposeful presence and power of God.  The Word is active; it does something, it moves us and allows us to move.  It’s the Word, the creative divine voice, that’s found in the pages of scripture; it’s the Word embedded in the sermon and released by the Holy Spirit.  When you sense God speaking through the words of the sermon, it’s not me; it’s the Word in the words at work.  It’s the Word, the creative divine speech embodied in Jesus, so that to hear his word is to hear the Word of God.  The Word of God is creative – it offers new vistas, new horizons, new ways of living and being and serving.  As Karl Barth (1886-1968) said, “The Word of God always tells us something fresh that we had never heard before from anyone.”[1]  Mary knew this, that’s what she chose and nothing will distract her from hearing the Word.

            Marys and Marthas are both needed in the kingdom, but what takes priority is being attentive to the Word of God.  Both Mary and Martha’s way of being need to be undergirded by the Word of God – the very Word Mary took time time to adore and ponder at Jesus’ feet.  She took the time to listen for the Word of God – the very Word of life that grants meaning and purpose to our lives. When the focus is on the Word of God, then everything else falls into place, then we have the energy for everything else; when the focus is not on the Word – on God’s vision, God’s purpose – we might be busy and productive, but toward what end, for what purpose? 

            My friend, Tom Long, teaches at Emory University and tells the story of years ago being part of an advisory group to the chaplains at a major university.  Their job was to meet, to listen to reports from the chaplains about their work, and to offer support and counsel.  At one point they were asking questions of the chaplains.  One member of the group, an older gentleman, asked, “What are the university students like morally these days?”  The chaplains looked at each other, wondering how to answer that question.  Finally, one of them took a stab at it.  “Well,” she said, “I think you’d be basically pleased.  The students are pretty ambitious in terms of their careers, but that’s not all they are. A lot of them tutor kids after school. Some work in a night shelter and in a soup kitchen for the homeless.  Last week a group of students protested apartheid in South Africa…” As she talked, the Jewish chaplain who was listening to her began to grin.  The more she talked, the bigger he grinned, until finally it became distracting.  “Am I saying something funny?” she said to the Jewish chaplain.  “No, no, I’m sorry,” he replied.  “I was just sitting here thinking.  You are saying that the university students are good people, and you’re right.  And you’re saying that they are involved in good social causes, and they are.  But what I was thinking is that the one thing they lack is a vision of salvation.”  They all looked in shock at the Jewish chaplain.  “No, it’s true,” he said.  “If you do not have some vision of what God is doing to repair the whole creation, you can’t get up every day and work in a soup kitchen.  It finally beats you down.”[2]

            Without that vision of God’s salvation, without a grounding in God’s Word, it’s easy for us to become anxious, frenetic, distracted Marthas, going about our business and busy-ness, getting things done, but frustrated and maybe even resentful of others and not taking delight and joy in the work before us.  It’s so easy in our lives to be go, go, go, and forget the reason why we go, go, go.  It’s so easy in the church to get caught up in all the activity, with our committee meetings filled with motions and minutes, but missing the Spirit, missing the joy and passion.  It’s so easy for church folk to get burned out.  Sometimes that’s caused by the circumstances in the church; other times it’s because the work has become an end in itself, the work has become divorced from the worship. That is, we have forgotten why we do what we do and for whom. 

            Mary knew what mattered most – hearing the Word, being attentive to the presence of Christ, drawing upon his love and grace and then in love being graceful to a world in need.  If you don’t have some vision of what God is doing, it finally beats you down and burns you up.  Mary sits at Jesus’ feet and listens to his Word, listens to his vision.  Without that Word we won’t last long in the Martha-like work required of us in the kingdom.  “It will finally worry us, distract us, anger us, exhaust us, and beat us down.  With that Word, though, we can prepare meals for the hungry, care tenderly for the sick, show hospitality to the stranger and keep on loving and living in the name of Christ.”[3]

            The one thing needed is the Word of Jesus who continues to speak to us all the time.  Although we often fail to hear because of our distractions; our distractions hinder us from listening.  But to listen to his Word – that’s the better part, the good part, the best part that once received can never be taken away.  The one thing needed is the Word, the Word of Jesus, whose word to us is the very Word of Life.

[1] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, I.5.ii (Edinburgh:  T & T Clark, 1975), 133.
[2] Thomas G. Long, “Mary and Martha,” sermon online at http://day1.org/1052-mary_and_martha.print.
[3] Thomas G. Long, “Mary and Martha.”