Saturday, March 26, 2005

Disorientation and Reorientation

Easter Sunday is generally the high attendance mark for the year at most churches. The week after Easter is also often the lowest attendance Sunday of the year. As a result some churches go to extreme lengths to do something "exciting" on the Sunday following Easter. Church growth analysts work tirelessly to discover the reason for this post-Easter slump.
Fred Craddock suggests that the answer has to do with the sense of "disorientation" that follows Easter. His idea is that the disciples were oriented by their faith in Jesus and they were secure in their role as followers. Then the cross caught them by surprise (although Jesus warned them), and they slipped into a state of disorientation. Then when Jesus rose from the dead the disciples were reoriented in the security of the risen Jesus. But then before they could get too comfortable, Jesus ascended and they were thrown into another state of disorientation. This tension between the presence and absence of Jesus is something all disciples must learn to navigate in their life of faith.
God does not overpower us with his presence, rather he wants us to trust him without the overwhelming sense of his presence. C.S. Lewis, in The Screwtape Letters, has Uncle Screwtape share some powerful insights about God's presence and absence. "You must have often wondered why the enemy [God] does not make more use of his power to be sensibly present to human souls in any degree he chooses and at any moment. But you now see that the irresistible and the indisputable are the two weapons which the very nature of his scheme forbid him to use. Merely to over-ride a human will (as his felt presence in any but the faintest and most mitigated degree would certainly do) would be for him useless. He cannot ravish. He can only woo. For his ignoble idea is to eat the cake and have it; the creatures are to be one with him, but yet themselves; merely to cancel them, or assimilate them, will not serve...Sooner or later he withdraws, if not in fact, at least from their conscious experience, all supports and incentives. He leaves the creature to stand up on its own legs - to carry out from the will alone duties which have lost all relish...He cannot "tempt" to virtue as we do to vice. He wants them to learn to walk and must therefore take away his hand..Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our enemy's will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys."
What a powerful description of Jesus - and of all who follow him closely. That is the life that has been disoriented by the gospel and then successfully reoriented by that same gospel!

Friday, March 25, 2005

This is How You Should Pray...

In Matthew’s account the model prayer is given in the middle of an explanation of the proper attitude for prayer. In Luke’s account a slightly different version of the prayer is given in response to the request of the disciples, “Lord, teach us to pray!”
Prayer is perhaps the most natural AND the most difficult spiritual discipline. Almost everyone prays when they encounter some sort of difficulty. I used t think that God was frustrated by that fact, but now that I am a father I know that the best response from my children when they encounter problems is to cry out to their father or mother. And yet, those who cry out to God only when they are in trouble miss out on the greatest blessings that God has in store for them.
Prayer keeps us in close range to God so that his influence is greater in our lives. Prayer creates an “obedience zone” in our hearts that would not exist without faithfulness in prayer. Prayer is our declaration of dependence upon our loving Father. Prayer is our lifeline to the very heart of God. Since this is true, prayer must never become routine, or ritualized, rather it must be the natural expression of our desire to talk to and listen to God. Are you praying?

And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
This, then, is how you should pray:
‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.’
For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.

(Matthew 6:5-15)

Jesus was a man of prayer. This fact greatly impressed his disciples and they wanted to learn to pray like Jesus. Jesus gave them a “graduate level course on prayer!”

· Prayer is to be a time of solitude with God, not a show for other people.

· Prayer is not effective because it is well crafted or wordy, prayer is effective because it touches God’s heart.

· Prayer is communal. The pronouns used are “our, us, we,” but never “I, me, or mine.”

· Prayer is intimate. Jesus teaches us to address God as our father. Close relationship!

· Prayer contains praise. Acknowledging the goodness of God and seeking the expansion of his influence in the world.

· Prayer contains requests. Acknowledging our needs and the expectation that God is the source of meeting those needs.

· Prayer contains commitments. Acknowledging our responsibility to treat others in the way we are asking God to treat us.

· Prayer seeks the guidance and protection of God. Without the guidance and protection of God the Christian could never survive life in the world. With those gifts we can live up to our full potential that God seeks to create in our lives.

Prayer is our entry way to the throne room of God. It allows us to sit at his feet and express the feelings of our hearts.

An Audience of One

People like to be seen. We style our hair, exercise our bodies, and purchase our outfits so that others will pay attention to us. Our world rewards with fame, those who can put together the best appearance. To see and to be seen seem to be the most important things in life.
Yet Jesus tells us that when it comes to the life of faith, being seen is not only not the most important thing, it is a dangerous desire. Those who practice righteous acts simply for the positive publicity it brings them are living a lie and stand under God’s curse rather than his blessing.
Acts of righteousness, like giving to those in need, prayer and fasting, are designed to be viewed by an audience of One! Our hearts desire should be to show our love and commitment to God alone. God may then reveal our righteousness to others, if it is his desire. But even if no one other than God ever knows of our righteousness, we should be pleased to have been seen by God. By whom do you seek to be seen?

Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.
So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
(Matthew 6:1-8, 16-18)

Everyone likes to look good in the eyes of other people. This prompts us to bathe, to clean our clothes and our houses, and to practice personal hygiene. However, this desire can also lead us to value style more than substance and appearances more than reality. The desire to look good is especially dangerous when people use religious practices for personal gain. Jesus warns us about misusing spiritual disciplines to enhance our appearance.

· Beware of your motives! If you are doing good deeds to be seen my people you forfeit your reward from God.

· Practice your spiritual disciplines for an “audience of one.” Only by giving, praying or fasting in secret can we be sure that we are doing these things in the service of God, not self.

· Stand in obvious contrast to the hypocrites, who offend God and people. Nothing is more disgusting than religious shows designed to glorify people rather than God. These displays deny everything religion is supposed to be about.

· Seek the applause of God rather than the applause of people. Jesus makes it plain that if we seek the applause of people we will never please God. If, however, we seek to please God, he will approve of our actions and will reward them in ways that are appropriate. Ironically, those who seek first to please God often find that people applaud their faithful service.

· Secret giving benefits the recipient and reveals our gratitude for God’s gifts to us.

· Secret praying acknowledges our dependence on God and expresses our desire for intimacy with Him.

· Secret fasting indicates our trust in God to sustain us and our desire to surrender our appetites to him.

By seeking to be seen by others, we surrender all the value of spiritual disciplines.
By seeking to be seen by God alone, we purify our hearts and empower our faith.

What Is Love?

Someone once said that “Love is a feeling you feel, when you feel that you are feeling a feeling that you have never felt before!” Unfortunately electric shock would also fit that description.
So what is love? Most of us know love when we feel it, yet have a difficult time giving it a good definition. There will always be elements of emotion and romance in most modern definitions of love. Romantic that I am, I tend to think that is a good thing. Yet Jesus gives us a definition of love that has little to do with either romance or even emotion. Jesus’ definition of love has to do more with the will and the commitment to do what is in the best interest of the other person.
Jesus speaks of loving our enemies, refusing to take vengeance and offering them forgiveness instead, giving more than we are asked to give and going further than we are expected to go. For Jesus, love means laying down our own lives for the sake of others. That is what Jesus taught, and what Jesus did. Now he calls us to “go and do likewise!”

You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
(Matthew 5:38-48)

It has been said that this section of the Sermon on the Mount is the best known yet least practiced of all the teachings of Jesus. The reason it is often left unpracticed is not because it is difficult to understand—actually it is very plain—but because it is difficult to obey.
Most people define love in ways that make them feel good and keeps them safe from harm. Anything outside these parameters is not their idea of love. Yet Jesus gives a definition of love that goes way beyond our experience of pleasant emotions and is actually quite risky!

· Love does not practice vengeance.
When we are hurt—whether physically of emotionally-we naturally react in the interest of self-preservation. But soon we also seek to avenge our pain. This usually involves inflicting more pain on others than was inflicted on us. Jesus says that this is incompatible with discipleship. Forgiveness, not vengeance, is a mark of discipleship.

· Love willingly goes the second mile.
When we are forced to endure something unpleasant we generally want it to be over as soon as possible. We will suffer all we have to, but not even a little more. Yet Jesus talks of giving more than we are asked to give and going further than we are forced to go. Christians are oddities in the world because they gladly suffer more than they have to suffer and do more than they are forced to do. Second mile service is a mark a discipleship.

· Love offers itself to the enemies.
Loving those who love you is just common sense. It does not demand a great amount of faith or patience. But Jesus calls us to love those who are not “lovable” - who for one reason or another have made themselves enemies in your eyes. Paul reminds us that God loved us while we were still “sinners” and Jesus died for us. (Romans 5:8) Imitating this love for the unlovely is a mark of discipleship.

Loving in these ways is what makes us “perfect” as God is perfect!

Living Freely

Jesus said, “Freely you have received, freely give.” (Matthew 10:8) He spoke these words to his apostles when he sent them out to minister in Israel. These men were blue collar workers who worked long hard hours to earn their money. What did Jesus mean that they had “freely received?” All those hours on the water pulling nets did not seem free. Neither did the days sitting at the tax table taking abusive words from people who did not want to pay their taxes. They earned a wage; they were not given many gifts.
And yet, Jesus seems to be saying that all they had was given to them as a gift. “Freely you have received…” This strikes hard against our Protestant work ethic – we want to earn everything we have and we do not want to be charity cases! We want this because then we can be the masters of our possessions and our fate. If I earned it, I am completely free to decide what to do with it. It is all mine!
We can, of course, live with clutched hands and stingy minds; but we cannot live this way and be pleasing to God. To please God we have to make some fundamental shifts. First, we have to understand that everything we have is a gift. Everything! We are dependent on God for our next breath, for the sun rising in the morning, and for the health that enables us to work. Second, we have to trust that living with open hands is a better option than trying to grab everything we can.
The desire to hoard is based on the mathematical truism that the more you get the more you have. The words of Jesus are based on the spiritual truth that the more you give the more you are. (Idea borrowed from Frederick Beuchner.) At the end of your life God will be interested in discovering what you are, he will not be interested in or impressed by how much you have. “Freely you have received, freely give.”

The Cross Transformed

It was an unimaginable event on an otherwise ordinary day. Their world came crashing down around them and they could not conceive of any satisfactory outcome to their crisis. Jesus had been arrested by the authorities, deserted by his friends, rushed through a series of illegal trials, and finally executed outside the city gates like a common criminal. Three years of investment on their part ended abruptly on the cross that day.
In some ways they should have seen it coming. Jesus had told them plainly that the cross was on the horizon, but they were oblivious to what he was saying. His conflicts with the religious leaders were increasing in frequency and intensity, but Jesus was winning those conflicts in the court of public opinion. The crowds were swelling again with his arrival in Jerusalem. There was a great sense of expectation and optimism. And then the cross... It turned the entire ministry of Jesus and the lives of all the disciples into a giant question mark!
What will we do now? How could we have been wrong about Jesus and God? What does it mean for our theology that God allowed Jesus to be murdered? The questions were painful and pervasive. They were also unanswered...
The Sunday after the crucifixion started normally enough, but then stories began to circulate. "His body is not in the tomb!" "Mary Magdalene claims to have seen him alive." Their questions deepened even as their faith was stirring. By the end of the day Jesus had presented himself alive to all the apostles (except Thomas). While they did not have the theological words to express what had happened in this incredible weekend, their experience was profound at the deepest level and soon those theological explanations would emerge. "This same Jesus whom you crucified, God has made both Lord and Christ" Peter would insist. "The Word became flesh and lived among us for a time" claimed John.
The resurrection of Jesus changed everything. His disciples became relentless witnesses claiming to find the "fullness of God dwelling in Jesus Christ." Men and women who seemed like a "Who's Who List" of outcasts, nobodies, and insignificant people changed the world forever with the story of Jesus conquering death in that amazing weekend. We still celebrate it today - and more importantly we still experience the resurrection through Jesus! The resurrection turns the question mark of the cross into an exclamation point.