Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Language of Prayer

The Language of Prayer
Psalm 139
            What is the language of prayer?  Paul says we don’t know how to pray (Romans 8:26-28).  With our imperfect communication we do the best we can, but fall short of reaching God.  There is logic in this, since we know that even our highest and best thoughts of God are incomplete shadows of God’s reality.  Paul says that’s alright because the Spirit intercedes for us “with groanings which cannot be uttered.”  The Spirit translates our poor attempts into God-language.
            This is all well and good, but it still doesn’t address the question:  what is the language of prayer?  What is our language of prayer?  We cannot concern ourselves with God-language since we can’t speak it.  We can only stumble along in our language—but what is that language?
            What is our language of prayer?  I believe it’s the language of poetry.  Many of us have an innacurate concept of poetry.  We think of poetry as lines of text with an equal number of syllables, ending with words that rhyme—sort of Roses are Red language.  This is one kind of poetry, but not the only kind.  Poetry is much more varied than that, but at its root it is rhythmic language
The rhythm of poetry is not sing-song, but a flow.  One word leads to another, one line to another, until we are caught up in this flow of language.  When we reach the end, there is a feeling of completeness, but also a desire to know more, to experience more fully.  Good poetry tells us enough so we understand, but not so much that our understanding is complete.  Our imagination supplies the final details.  Poetry is understanding without overstatement.  Above all, poetry creates images.  Because the language of poetry is vivid, pictures form in our minds.  We see what the poet is trying to say.
            Read any of the great prayers of the Bible.  Moses praising God for bringing Israel through the Red Sea and destroying the Egyptian army (Exodus 15:1-19).  Hannah thanking God for the gift of a son—a son she will return to God (1 Samuel 2:1-10).  Solomon dedicating the temple as God’s dwelling place on earth (1 Kings 8:14-54). Mary’s prayer (the Magnificat) thanking God for his grace in choosing her to be the mother of Jesus (Luke 1:46-55).  Either version of the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13 or Luke 11:1-4). 
            In each case the language is poetic, vivid.  The pictures are clear.  They engage our imagination.  We catch glimpses of God acting on behalf of God’s people.  We get a sense of God’s greatness, God’s power, God’s holiness, but we can also see God’s mercy, God’s lovingkindness, and God’s grace.  This is a God who cares about humanity, a God who chooses to be involved in our lives.
            The psalms are poems.  Many of them are also prayers.  For me, none is more beautiful than Psalm 139.  The psalmist says God knows him intimately.  He cannot escape God even if he wishes to.  God is so integral a part of his life that he cannot even have a thought that is unknown to God.  All this is said in far more beautiful language than I have used here, the language of vividness, the language of imagery—the language of poetry.
            But what about us?  Most of us are poor poets indeed.  We may be able to create simple rhymes, but to create images?  To express ourselves in language that soars, with the Spirit’s help to God’s throne?  How can we do this?
            We return to Paul.  Our prayer language is passionate.  It’s vivid.  It’s poetic.  It expresses our wants, our needs, our concerns—imperfectly, but clearly enough for the Spirit to understand.  Then the Spirit does the rest. 

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Jesus is the Christ

Jesus is the Christ
Philippians 2:5-11
            “Jesus is the Christ!”
            To us this doesn’t sound like a controversial statement, but that’s because we’ve grown up with it.  It’s part of our vocabulary.  Often we combine the name and title and refer to God’s Son as “Jesus Christ,” as though it was a first and last name.  Our familiarity with the name of Jesus may cause us to miss the inflammatory nature of this statement in the first century world.
            “Jesus is Lord” was an early baptismal confession.  Affirming the lordship of Jesus made one eligible for baptism, but it also set the person apart from the rest of the world.  Claiming Jesus as Lord, as the Christ—the Messiah—separated one from both Jews and Gentiles.  When Jesus was affirmed as Lord, he was recognized as having three different roles.  Naming Jesus as the Christ meant accepting him as a prophet, a priest, and a king.
            Jesus the Prophet  Jesus stands in the long line of Jewish prophets.  We think of prophesying as telling the future—and there’s a sense in which this is correct, both for Jesus and for the prophets we find in the Hebrew Scriptures.  Jesus foretold his own death and resurrection as well as the destruction of the Jerusalem temple.  We believe he gave us some idea of what the end times will be like, although he was short on details.  Revelation is much more thorough in that regard, yet even that book does not give us a complete picture.
            A prophet is a messenger, one who delivers a word from God.  That word might deal with the present, the future, or a combination of the two, but it always involves the message that God has for the world.  God sent Nathan with a message for David after his adultery with Bathsheba.  Elijah had a message for Ahab and Jezebel concerning their idolatry with Baal.  Isaiah, Jeremiah and others had a message from God for the nations of Israel and Judah concerning the sin of neglecting God.  God would first punish the people, then restore them to their inheritance.
            Jesus is God’s ultimate prophet—the Son sent to restore the vineyard to its Master.  Jesus had a word from God:  “Love God and love your neighbor.  That’s what God expects.”
            Jesus the Priest  A good place to see how Jesus fills the role of priest is chapters 3-10 of Hebrews.  The author says Jesus offered himself as the sacrifice for the whole world.  Where Levitical priests regularly offered animal sacrifices for their sins as well as those of the people, Jesus’ sacrifice assured forgiveness of sins once for all.  Now he intercedes for us in heaven, so that our salvation is not only assured but ongoing.  As we make our way through this sinful life, Jesus continues to represent us before God’s throne.  By accepting God’s grace offered through Jesus’ saving act we acknowledge Jesus as our high priest—our intercessor.
            Jesus the King  In the first century, claiming Jesus as Lord—as king—meant that no one else was king.  To the Jews this was heresy.  In pagan culture, where the Roman emperor was thought to be a god, this statement was not just heresy but treason.  If Jesus was  king, then—for the person making that claim—Caesar was dethroned.  No one can serve two masters—two kings.  When we make Jesus the Christ—the king of our lives—we dethrone every other person, thing, or idea.  If Jesus is king, there can be room for no other master.
            “Jesus is the Christ!”  Jesus is a prophet, God’s messenger to the world.  “Jesus is the Christ!”  Jesus is a priest, the One who intercedes for humanity.  “Jesus is the Christ!”  Jesus is a king—our king and the Lord of our lives.  Nothing and no one else can take his place.  Nothing and no one else can stand beside him.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Half of All My Goods

Half of All My Goods
Luke 19:1-10
We love the story of Zacchaeus.  It’s one of the great stories of salvation.  A man considered to be the worst of sinners by his fellow townspeople encounters Jesus and has a complete change of heart.  From despicable sinner he is transformed into a model of one who follows Christ.  The story ends with Jesus saying, “Today salvation has come to this house.”
Like many stories of Jesus this is about more than salvation.  If we write it off as merely that, we lose much of the rich meaning embedded in the text.  Understanding the background will help us see deeper into the story.
To grasp the significance of Zacchaeus we must understand the place tax collectors held in first century Judah.  Today, we don’t especially like those who collect our taxes, but few of us are nasty to them.  They are, in many cases, our neighbors.  We not only see them in their official capacity, but in the grocery store and gas station.  We are willing, although reluctant, to pay our taxes as long as we think they are assessed fairly.
Not so with Zacchaeus and that other well-known tax collector in the Bible, Matthew.  These men were hated as few people were.  First, although they were Jews, they were employed by the even more despised Romans.  They were agents of foreign conquerors who did everything they could to suppress and oppress the people they controlled.  The Romans wanted everyone to know who was in charge, and what would happen if someone forgot.
Unlike tax collectors today, Zacchaeus, Matthew and their fellows were not paid a salary.  They had a set amount they had to collect for Rome.  Whatever they could squeeze out of their fellow citizens above that amount they could keep—another reason they were hated. 
As you can imagine, that could amount to a hefty sum.  Tax collectors lived well.  They flaunted their wealth.  If they had no friends, that was the price they paid for the good life.  Money might not be able to buy happiness, but they were going to try to prove the saying was wrong.  This was Matthew’s life before Jesus called him, and Zacchaeus’ life the day Jesus passed through Jericho.
Why did Zacchaeus want so badly to see Jesus?  We might want to imagine it was because he knew his lifestyle was wrong, or because God directed him to that spot.  It’s just as likely that he was curious—curious and too short to see over the crowd.  As my father used to say, people took great pleasure in keeping him on the outside.  Imagine the sharp elbows he received, the kicks to the shins, the pushes and punches—all delivered anonymously, of course, since he was protected by the Romans.  So the vertically challenged but ingenious Zacchaeus took the only recourse open to him.  He escaped the angry crowd by climbing a tree. 
Did he think he would be able to observe Jesus without being seen in return?  If so, he was mistaken.  We know from our experience that when Jesus wants to find us, he does.
And so we have a healing, a changed heart, a contrite spirit.  Once Zacchaeus encountered Jesus he knew he had to change.  He had no choice.  “Half of all my goods,” he said, “I give to the poor.  And I’ll return everything I’ve taken falsely four times over.”
And so we applaud.  We also applaud Warren Buffett, Bill Gates and others who have pledged to give half of their fortunes away.  We look with awe on Andrew Carnegie who did the same, especially when we think of his gifts of libraries and concert halls.
But what about us?  Are we ready to give half of all we own?  A quarter?  An eighth?  Ten percent?

A Wasted Life

A Wasted Life
John 3:16-17
Eleanor Rigby died in the church and was buried along with her name,
Nobody came
Father Mckenzie, wiping his hands as he walked from the grave,
No one was saved.
            If you’re old enough to remember the 1960’s you may remember this song by the Beatles.  The refrain was, All the lonely people, where do they all come from?  All the lonely people, where do they all belong?  The theme is loneliness.  The song is about people whose lives seem to be wasted because they had no obvious value to anyone. 
            Did the song raise the level of consciousness about such people?  Did it contribute, even a little to the debate about providing for people who seem to have no one to love them, no one to mourn for them when they die?  Did the level of care at even one nursing home become less institutional and more loving because the Beatles wrote and performed Eleanor Rigby?  Perhaps, perhaps not—but the song remains:  the written and recorded effort of four young men to express the lonely lives of so many.
            We don’t think of Jesus as lonely.  He was always surrounded by people:  the chosen twelve; the many other disciples who, while not part of the inner circle still accompanied him throughout his ministry; the multitudes who followed from place to place or sprang up in the cities and towns he visited.  We know he sometimes sought solitude from the press of the crowds so he could be alone with his heavenly Father.  Did he ever feel loneliness because of his separation from God?  We know he prayed fervently on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Was this the only time he felt abandoned?
            Of course we cannot know the answer.  The gospels do not reveal much of Jesus’ inner life.  I doubt he ever confided even in those closest to him.  As Mary kept all the events surrounding Jesus’ birth and pondered them in her heart, so Jesus seems to have kept his own counsel about his feelings.
            The Beatles tell us that both main characters in their song led lives of insignificance.  Eleanor Rigby was active in church, but that’s all we know about her.  We see her at church and at home—alone in both places.  We find her cleaning up the church after a wedding—not her own—but see no evidence of interaction with other people.  Father McKenzie writes sermons and darn socks—all without the benefit of human contact.
            Do we feel the same way about Jesus’ life?  Was it insignificant?  We seem to spend more time talking about his death than about his life.  Certainly his death—and resurrection—were significant.  The theologian Jurgen Moltmann and others believe this to be the most significant event in all of history.  But we can’t forget Jesus’ life.  His time on earth was not merely a preparation for his death but equally as significant, because his life shows us how we should live. 
            How are we to live?  We are to love God and demonstrate that love by loving all our neighbors—all creation. We are to give of ourselves to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and care for the poor and downtrodden.  We are to live our lives in such a way that everyone we meet will see God reflected in us.
            If we live as Jesus lived, in service to others, our lives will not be wasted, and we will never be lonely.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Tension and Resolution

Tension and Resolution
Matthew 16:26
            Early in their education, musicians are taught about tension and resolution.  Tension occurs when a chord is unstable—dissonant.  Resolution occurs when that tension—that dissonance is resolved.  The composer uses a consonant chord, everything comes together, and all ends happily.
            This is also the essence of good storytelling.  “Boy meets girl; boy loses girl; boy finds girl again—and they live happily ever after” (in some form these are usually the last words of the story).  Tension is created, consonance occurs, tension is resolved.  The story ends.
            Christianity is full of such tensions.  Jesus is the Prince of Peace, yet he comes to bring a sword—to divide families.  Jesus comes as the Messiah the Jews are expecting, but because he comes as a baby, born to poor parents, and not as a conquering king riding on the clouds, he is rejected by many.  Paul says, “The preaching of the cross is foolishness, confounding the wise.” (1 Corinthians 1:18-25)  The word “paradox” seems to have been created just to describe Christianity.
            Matthew tells us that Jesus said gaining the world but losing our soul is disaster.  The world tells us that nothing matters but the world’s standards.  We are caught in the middle.  We have to live in the world.  We have to earn a living.  We have to coexist with our neighbors, our friends, our families.  Yet we know that Jesus calls us to a higher standard.  We have no choice but to live in this world, but we are told not to be of this world.  How can we reconcile these two extremes?   How can we live in the world but reject the world?
            Paradox.  Tension.  Where’s the resolution?
            In at least one sense we can’t.  There are tensions in Christianity that seemingly can’t be resolved.  There are well-meaning liberals and well-meaning conservatives who are committed to following Jesus Christ.  Can they both be right?  Does one side have to be wrong?  Where’s the middle ground between these two extremes?  Do we have to find a resolution?
            I think not.  I believe we are all created in God’s image.  I also believe that no one side, no one viewpoint possesses the whole truth.  Each of us takes God’s word and applies it to our own lives in the way we feel led to do.  Each of us hears God’s voice differently, calling us to different ways of looking at the world and its problems. 
            If we say, “This version of Christianity is right, so all others must be wrong,” we’re denying God’s sovereignty of judgment.  We’re placing ourselves in God’s chair and trying to make decisions for God.  Yes, I know we read the Bible, think we understand what we see there, and, because we need to be really sure, really right, really positive we understand God, we reject all other interpretations.  If I’m right, then you must be wrong.  We think there can be no other correct way but ours.
            Tension. Paradox.  Must there be a resolution?
            Yes, there must—but it won’t happen here.  There is a resolution, but it may not occur during our lifetime—or our children’s lifetime, or their children’s lifetime.  The resolution will occur in God’s time.  We are called to live our lives in this tension because we live in the in-between time.  Christ has come.  Christ will come again.  Until that happens, we will each interpret the Christian gospel the way we understand it, and live in faith, hope and love.
            Tension?  Paradox?  The way we live now.  Resolution?  That’s what heaven’s for.


Psalm 8
Job 38-41
“Balance,” he said.  “You’ve got to have balance.” 
Most of us have heard these words at some time or other, and we’ve heard them in a wide variety of settings. 
            We’ve got to have balance between our work lives and our social lives.
            We’ve got to have balance between studying and partying.
            We’ve got to have balance between obeying the rules and being creative.
            We’ve got to have balance between our birth families and our marriage families.
            We’ve got to have balance between opposing sides of an issue.
You’re probably thinking of many “balance” statements you’ve heard. 
We understand the need for balance.  If we skew too far to one side or the other we can stumble and fall.  I experience this when I walk on our treadmill.  If I get going fast (for me, that is), and pay too much attention to what I’m watching on TV, I shift my weight too far to one side and have to use the machine’s arms to help me regain my equilibrium.  I’ve got to pay attention to keep my balance.
Balance is important in our spiritual lives.  It is so easy to lose our balance, especially when we read what seem to be contradictory passages in the Bible.  As we read Scripture we become aware of conflicting statements.  How to resolve these conflicts is, I believe, what faith is all about.  We have faith that the Bible is the record of God’s interaction with creation, especially with humankind, and that God has given us this record to aid in our salvation.  We have faith that God will reveal enough truth to help us understand more completely.
One such apparent conflict appears in the contrast between the story of Job and Psalm 8.  Job and his three friends spend the better part of the book arguing theology.  Theologians can be like philosophers, finding fault with each other in order to enhance the truth of their own statements.  Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar give their theological opinions about the cause of Job’s affliction.  Job answers them with theology of his own.  They never reach consensus.  Job’s wife even makes her own theological statement:  “Curse God and die!”
God answers with a scathing criticism of all their theology.  “Who do you think you are?” God thunders.  “How can you possibly understand the way I do things?  Do you have any idea who you’re dealing with?  You don’t have a clue what you’re talking about.”
Contrast these chapters with Psalm 8.  The psalmist says, “You have made humankind a little lower than the angels.  You have crowned us with glory and honor.  You have put all things under our dominion.”
A silly bunch of know-nothings or the crown of all creation:  which are we?  The answer, of course is—both.  We are indeed the highest form of creation—at least so far (care to debate evolution anyone?).  God told Adam and Eve at the beginning that they would have dominion over all creation.  (We’ll save criticism of the way we’ve handled that responsibility for another time).  We’re also so far below God that we cannot understand even the smallest part of God’s ways.  Yes, our knowledge is expanding exponentially, but only as God allows it—only as God reveals to us more and more how God is working in creation.
Balance.  We’ve got to have balance.  We’ve got to know where we fit in God’s order.  As a Serbian proverb says, “Be humble for you are made of Earth.  Be noble, for you are made of stars.”  We find our balance in the middle.