“Always” — “For Everything” — “Thankful”

Joey Adams – the old Vaudeville Comedian -told the classic joke about the woman who was at the beach with her little boy.  They were standing too close to the water when a great big wave crashed on shore and swept her little boy out to sea.  The woman prayed – “Oh God, please…please… please… please have mercy on me and bring back my beautiful little boy to me.  I promise that I will be eternally grateful to you.  I’ll go to church every Sunday.  I’ll never cheat on my taxes again.  I’ll be nice to my mother-in-law. I’ll stop smoking and drinking and carousing… anything… I’ll do anything… God, just my little boy back.  Just then another wave crashed on the shore, and there he was, her little boy, all safe and sound. And the woman looked up to God and said, “But he was wearing a hat… where’s his hat?” (Jerry Newcombe)

Ingratitude… ungrateful… even the words sound harsh, ugly, don’t they?  But it’s more than that.  Paul writing to the Romans said that God’s presence and power in the universe are obvious for anyone with eyes to see, and that this should elicit from us a response of thanks (Romans 1:20-21).  But it doesn’t. We are not awed by sunrises. We’re not impressed with our opposable thumbs.  We aren’t amazed by the abundance and variety of God’s bounty that’s on display in the produce section of the market where we shop.  Ingratitude… ungrateful… Paul argued that this is the root of all sin, the first crack in the dam that caused it to fail and flood the world with misery, sadness, and shame.

When my kids were young, and we were invited over to somebody’s house for dinner, Mary Lynn and I would always have to sit them down first, especially my son, and explain to them that we were going to be somebody’s guests for the evening, and that meant that we weren’t in charge. We were going to have to play by somebody else’s rules.  We were going to be polite, respectful, and grateful.  We were going to do what we were told.  We were going to sit still at the dinner table, eat whatever was put in front of us, and say “please” and “thank-you” for everything, even Brussel Sprouts if it came to that.  It was always necessary for us to say this because my kids thought  they were in charge when they were young.  They were accustomed to operating as the little gods of their own universes, always finagling to get their way, trying to arrange everything and everybody to suit their own preferences.  Stopping at nothing to get their way.  My kids were miserable human beings when they were little.   They couldn’t help it.  They got it from their mother… and from me.  You see, this is the human condition. And where this train jumped the tracks, Biblically, was in a Garden long ago and far away where our primal parents refused to honor God or give Him thanks. Now, we’re all infected with that virus. 

Humanity was placed in a perfect world of beauty, harmony, and abundance and they were told to enjoy it, but on the terms of the One who made it and put them there.  Everything they would ever need to thrive and be happy was right there in that garden at their fingertips, given to them as a gift, but they couldn’t hang onto it because they weren’t in charge of it.  Humanity wouldn’t honor God, or give God thanks, and without God at the center of things, holding it together, it all began to fly apart. The story of the rest of the Bible is the story of how God slowly but surely started putting everything back together again.  The New Testament book of Ephesians begins with Paul telling the church that God’s eternal purpose is to “unite all things in heaven and on earth” (1:10).  Putting everything back together again, this is what Jesus Christ came to do Paul said.  In Christ, God stepped into a fragmented and fragmenting world, into a world that was coming apart at its seams, and He began to pull it back together again.   

Now, this saving work of God in Christ requiresa proper response from us. We need to recognize that there only one God, andit’s not us. And the firstand best evidence that it’s actually happening in us is the thanks that startscoming from us.“Always and for everything giving thanksin the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father” – that’s what Ephesians 5:20 says is supposedto be characteristic of our lives as God’s people.  “Always”and “for everything” thankful.  That’s how Paul told us that we show God thatwe have acknowledged His presence, power, and provision.  So, how are we doing?

Thursday is the day on the national calendar when we as citizens are asked to pause and ponder once again the grace that God has shed on our country by remembering the story of the Pilgrims, and to give thanks.  Every Sunday on the church calendar is the day when we as Christians are asked to pause and ponder once again the grace that God has provided for us by coming to the Lord’s Table to break bread and pour a cup in remembrance of what was done for us on Calvary’s cross, and to give thanks.  Thanks-giving is all about pausing and pondering.  It’s all about being mindful.  It’s all about being aware of what it is that God has done for us. If the failure to honor God as God, and the refusal to give God thanks is where all of our trouble as human beings began, as Paul told the Romans it was, then it’s got to be the decision to honor God as God, and to start giving God the thanks that He deserves that aligns us with the work He is doing in Jesus Christ to put things in our lives and our world back together again.

Somebody who has helped me become more intentional and consistent about giving thanks is Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk, who has focused his long ministry on teaching people gratefulness as a spiritual discipline.  I got to be spend a little time with him a few years ago at Thanksgiving Square up in Dallas, and although brief, it was absolutely transformative for me spiritually. Brother David’s keenest insight about the spiritual practice of gratitude is his observation that gratitude and thanksgiving are two different things. Gratitude is inward. Thanksgiving is outward. Gratitude is awareness.  Thanksgiving is response. Gratitude is something we feel.  Thanksgiving is something we do. Try to remember the last time you saw something truly spectacular in nature, something that caught you by surprise and took your breath away.  What did you feel in that moment?  Well, those feelings are gratitude Brother David says, and they are the deep well out of which thanksgiving arises. Brother David says that the key to being grateful is wonder.  We’ve got to be surprised – surprised by joy, surprised by beauty, surprised by majesty.  Spiritually, we can’t be sleepwalking through life.  In the same way that alarms clocks jolt us awake in the morning, so we need something to jolt us awake spiritually, something to shake us from our lethargy into awareness.  For me its Cardinals.

I didn’t see redbirds growing up in Southern California, and so their presence in the trees and on the fences of the North Texas world I’ve lived in for the past 20 years fascinates and delights me.  Wherever I am, whatever I’m doing, whenever I see the red flash of a Cardinal I stop to watch.  Cardinals prompt wonder and awe in me, and so after spending some time with Brother David, I decided to use Cardinals as my gratitude trigger.  Now, whenever a Cardinal flashes through my field of vision and startles me into awareness, I take it as a “tug” from God, as a reminder that God is there thinking of me, and that I should be thinking of Him.  And from that inner awareness triggered by wonder and surprise at the beauty of a Cardinal, I  become outwardly and deliberately thankful.

When we are surprised by beauty, our hearts prompt us to say “thank-you.”  The awareness of gratitude becomes the expression of thanksgiving. The spiritual discipline of gratefulness needs both wonder and words.  One of my best friends is an Orthodox Jewish Rabbi.  When I am with Hanan I watch him practice the spiritual discipline of blessing.  It’s said that an observant Jew will bless God 100 times every day for the things that God gives to and does for them – the food they eat, the way their bodies work, their identity and heritage as the Chosen People.  100 times every day my friend Hanan stops what he is doing and offers a formal blessing to God.Now, assuming that you sleep eight hours a night, offering 100 blessings each day during your waking hours works out to be a blessing every nine minutes.  Try it.  Six times an hour, every hour from now until you go to bed tonight, try to consciously think of God and thank Him for something that He is doing for you or has given to you in that moment. Talk about living a God-focused life!  By praying 100 blessings each day, one blessing every 9 minutes or so, my friend is constantly aware of God’s presence, he is fully conscious of God’s provision, and he is always and for everything thankful to God, and Biblically, that sounds to me like the essence of the spiritual life.

Thursdayis Thanksgiving, our National Day for pausing and pondering as citizens.  It is the day each year when we are encouraged to be mindful of the Creator God’s goodness to us by giving us this land so graced by His bounty.   And every Sunday is the Lord’s Day, our spiritual day for pausing and pondering as Christians.  It is the day each week when we are encouraged to be mindful of the Redeemer God’s goodness to us by blessing us with every spiritual blessing in Jesus Christ.  And it is our task to figure out how we can make this pausing and pondering, this mindfulness of God’s goodness to us, more than just something that we do one day a year, or one day a week, but rather becomes the spiritual rhythm of every moment of every day so that “always and for everything we are giving thanks to God our Father in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.” DBS +

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Why I am a “Disciple of Christ”

A Word of Personal Witness

You’ve seen that bumper sticker that says – “I wasn’t born in Texas, but I got here as fast as I could”?  Well, “I wasn’t born in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), but I got here just as fast as I could.”  I was raised an Episcopalian.  My folks took my two sisters and me to church every Sunday morning when we were growing up.  We never missed. They had me baptized and confirmed.  I was outwardly in the church but not inwardly in Christ. I had been “sacramentalized” but not “evangelized.” It wasn’t until later that I actually invited Jesus Christ into my heart as my personal Lord and Savior.

Keith Green said that a Christian is somebody who’s “bananas for Jesus,” and that was certainly me when I first became a Christian. Knowing Christ, and making Christ known, this has been my life’s passion and purpose from the first day that I met Him.  This is the first great spiritual fact of my life – “I believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, my personal Lord and Savior” – and I believe that He wants to be your Lord and Savior too.

When Jesus Christ finally became real for me, I was like a starving man who hadn’t eaten in a long time.  I went to every Bible Study I could find, and I visited several churches every Sunday for the better part of a year.  It was because of my passion for Jesus Christ that I spent time with Catholics and Pentecostals, Mormons and Methodists, Baptists and Adventists, Presbyterians and Quakers.  And I learned something from every Christian tradition that I visited.  That’s the other great fact of my spiritual life.  Nobody owns Christ.  No church has a corner on Him.  Every Christian tradition has something valuable to contribute.

It was at a Bible Study when I was just getting started on my Christian journey that it was pointed out to me that there are four Gospels in my Bible, not just one, and that each one of those four Gospels has a slightly different take on the person and work of Jesus Christ.  God could have just given us one Gospel, but instead God gave us four.  God appreciates diversity. He built it into Christianity from the beginning.

I know that I know Christ better by holding together in my head and heart Matthew’s portrait of Jesus as the promised Messiah, and Mark’s portrait of Jesus as the powerful Son of Man, and Luke’s portrait of Jesus as the Savior of the world, and John’s portrait of Jesus as the eternal Son of God.  There’s more than one way to look at Christ, and that requires me to be remain open and to stay humble.  I am eager to be taught more about Jesus from every Christian I meet, and if you will teach me more about Him, I will you a debt of gratitude.

My passion for Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior became one bank of the river of my spiritual life.  My appreciation for faithful diversity became the other bank.  And it’s these two banks of my spiritual life that channeled and propelled me here to the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).   I am a Disciple of Christ because of all the churches I know, this is the one that says that it has no creed but Christ, no book but the Bible, and that expects and respects a faithful diversity among those who confess Christ and attend to His word.

Stanley Jones used to say that whenever he asked a group of Christians “What do you believe?” that they would faithfully fragment in a thousand different ways with no two people believing exactly the same thing. But when he would ask, “Who do you trust?” he said that they “would come together with the same word on their lips – Jesus Christ.” (144-145).   And this is why I am a Disciple of Christ.  This is a church where the “what’s” can and do differ, while the “who” unites.  And I’ll remain a Disciple so long as Jesus Christ and His saving work remains the clear focus of our passion, humility characterizes the way  we approach and handle the truth that God has revealed, and loving respect governs the way that we treat one another as Christians, and every other human being.  DBS +

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

“People of the Prayer” ~ John 17:20-21

There are 2 ways of looking at the church.  You can look at what it is, and you can look at what it’s supposed to be.  This morning we’re going to take a look at our church, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), from the perspective of what it was supposed to be.  Just as a stream is purest at its source, so I believe that we get our clearest view of why the Christian Church (Disciples of  Christ) exists by returning to our sources.

209 years ago, back in 1809, Thomas Campbell published his “Declaration and Address.”  “Declaration and Address” was the statement of principles that gave birth to the Movement of which we are now a part.  This is where the vision of the kind of church that we were supposed to be first got cast.  But it would be a huge mistake to think that this is the document that brought us into being as a church.

In Japan they have a saying – “A finger points to the moon.  If you focus on the finger, then you will never see the moon.”  This is a finger (hold up “Declaration and Address”),  This is the moon (hold up a Bible).  Read this (“Declaration and Address”) and what you’ll discover pretty quickly is that the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is a “Back to the Bible” Movement.  Tired of, and troubled by the way that the Christians and churches of his day seemed to be more interested in fussing and fighting with each other than they were with getting on with the mission that Jesus Christ gave His followers to do – to preach the Gospel and make disciples – Thomas Campbell proposed a different way, a way that he found in Scripture, and this morning we’re going to take a look at that Scriptural way of being and doing church that Thomas Campbell found.  As we get started, let’s pray, shall we –

Heavenly Father, we bow in your presence.
May your Word be our rule, your Spirit our teacher,
and your greater glory our supreme concern,
through Jesus Christ our Lord.                                                                                                              (John Stott’s Prayer before Preaching)

Do you remember the old Sesame Street song – “One of these things is not Like the Other”?  There would be a picture of a series of objects in a row like three apples and an orange, and the song would say –

Three of these things belong together
Three of these things are kind of the same
Can you guess which one of these doesn’t belong here?
Now it’s time to play our game (time to play our game).

 Well, our New Testament begins with four Gospels in a row – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – and right from the beginning of the church, when people read these four Gospels, they came to the conclusion that –

Three of these things belong together
Three of these things are kind of the same
Can you guess which one of these doesn’t belong here?

Matthew, Mark, and Luke are called the “Synoptic” Gospels. “Syn” means “one,” and “optic” means “to see.”  Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell the story of Jesus in pretty much the same way.  They tell many of the same stories about Jesus and repeat many of the same teachings of Jesus.  The differences between them can be attributed to their different target audiences – Matthew wrote his Gospel for the Jews, Mark wrote his for the Romans, and Luke wrote his for the Greeks.  But the Gospel of John is different.

The stories about Jesus and the teachings of Jesus that John tell us are, generally speaking, not found in Matthew, Mark, or Luke.  The very first Christians noticed this, and they explained it two ways.  First, they said that the Gospel of John was “supplemental.”   They said that because there were more stories about Jesus to tell, and more teachings from Jesus to share, that John, the “Beloved Disciple,” was asked to write his Gospel.  John didn’t write to contradict what had been written in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, but to  complement it, and in some ways, even to “complete” it.

This brings us to the other thing that the first Christians said about the Gospel of John.  They called it the “spiritual” Gospel.   They said that Matthew, Mark, and Luke were written to give us the “outward facts” of what Jesus Christ said and did, while the Gospel of John was written to give us the inner meaning of what Jesus Christ said and did.  This is why the traditional symbol of the Gospel of John is an eagle.  Just like an eagle, the Gospel of John soars giving us a heavenly perspective on who Jesus Christ is and why He came.

Now, the way that the Gospel of John was written, it has two parts. The first 12 chapters of the Gospel of John are known as the “Book of Signs,” and the last 9 chapters are known as the “Book of Glory.” John told us why he wrote his Gospel in chapter 20, verses 30-31 –

30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

 And the way that John actually went about doing this – convincing us to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God so that we might have life eternal and abundant in His name – was by first telling us the stories of seven specific miracles that Jesus performed.  This is the “Book of Signs” in the first 12 chapters of the Gospel of John.  Each one of these seven “signs” functions as the introduction to a discourse, to a unit of Jesus’ teachings about what it means to say that He is the Son of God.   And once this idea that Jesus Christ is the Son of God was firmly established by the stories of those seven mighty works that He did, then the Gospel of John transitioned to the  “Book of Glory.”

The “Book of Glory” is the story of how Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was crucified for our sins and raised so that we might be given the gift of eternal life.  Four chapters of the “Book of Glory” are about the events of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and five chapters of the “Book of Glory” are about what Jesus said and did in the Upper Room on the night before He was crucified to get His disciples ready for what was about to happen.

In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus Christ instituted the Lord’s Supper in the Upper Room. It takes Matthew 19 verses to tell that story, Mark 21 verses, and Luke 32 verses.  It takes John 5 chapters and 155 verses to tell us about what Jesus Christ said and did in the Upper Room, and John doesn’t even mention the institution of the Lord’s Supper.  Remember, John’s Gospel is “supplementary.”  John assumes that we already know that part of the story because we’ve read Matthew’s, Mark’s, and Luke’s Gospels.  John wants to tell us about some of the other things that Jesus said and did on the night before He died for our sins on Calvary’s cross.

In the Upper Room, according to the Gospel of John, Jesus washed His disciples’ feet (13:1-30). Jesus gave His disciples the new commandment to love one another (13:31-33). Jesus told His disciples that He was going away to prepare a place for them, and that He would come again for them “so that where He was there they might be also” (14:1-11).  Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit – the Comforter, the Counselor, the Helper – to His disciples when He was gone (14:15-31; 16:4-15).  Jesus urged His disciples to stay connected to Him like branches to a vine so that they would be fruitful (15:1-11).  And after saying and doing all this in the Upper Room, John tells us that Jesus prayed.

Jesus prayed all the time in the days of His public ministry according to the Synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  Jesus prayed at His baptism, during His temptation in the wilderness, before all His big decisions, after His long days of ministering to the multitudes, in the Garden of Gethsemane, and on the cross.   Jesus prayed all the time, Matthew, Mark, and Luke tells us.  But they don’t tell us very much about what Jesus Christ prayed.  We have little more than a word or two here and there from the prayers that Jesus prayed in the Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  But in John 17 we have 26 verses of a prayer that Jesus prayed.

This is the real Lord’s Prayer.  The “Our Father” is the “Disciples’ Prayer.”  They’re the words that Jesus Christ taught us to pray.  But John 17 are the words a prayer that Jesus Christ Himself prayed. John 17 has been called “the most sacred page in the Gospels” because this prayer gives us access to the heart – to the inner concerns – of Jesus Christ.  So, what did Jesus pray for in John 17?  Well, Jesus prayed for three things – (1) First of all, Jesus prayed for Himself.  Jesus came to do the Father’s will, and now that the Father’s will was leading Him to the cross, Jesus prayed that He wouldn’t flinch. (2) Second, Jesus prayed for His disciples.  Judas had  forsaken Him earlier in the evening, and so Jesus prayed for the rest of His disciples that they would stay strong and true in the days of testing that were coming.  And (3) third, Jesus prayed for us.  He prayed for you, and He prayed for me.  We were on Jesus’ mind, and in Jesus’ heart as He looked ahead to the work He came to do on Calvary.

“I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”

Jesus prayed three specific things for us here.  First of all, Jesus prayed that we would believe in Him through the Apostles’ Word.  I’ve never seen Jesus Christ.  But I know Him.  And I’ve never heard Jesus Christ, but I’ve been following Him now for 53 years as the Lord of my life.  And this is because what I know about who Jesus Christ is and what it is that Jesus Christ wants from me has come to me through this (hold up a Bible).

This is the Apostles’ word through which I believe.  At the beginning of his first letter, the Apostle John said that he was going to tell his readers about Jesus Christ the Word of life, and that they should believe what he was about to tell them about Him because he, John, had seen Jesus with his own two eyes, and heard Jesus with his own two ears, and had touched Jesus with his own two hands.  He was an eyewitness to Jesus Christ, and I believe in Jesus Christ on the basis of his testimony, and the testimonies of all those who wrote these books.

The second thing that Jesus prayed for us was that we who believed in Him through the Apostles’ words would be one, just as He and the Father are one.  “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” is what Paul told the Galatians (3:28).  And, “in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near in the blood of Jesus… for He is our peace, who made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility” is what Paul told the Ephesians (2:14-15).  Jesus Christ went to the cross to make us one, so, how can we be indifferent to the things that tear at our unity and complicit  with the forces that are tearing us apart?

And the third thing that Jesus prayed for us was that we who believed in Him through the Apostles’ words would be one so that the world might believe that the Father had sent Him.  Jesus gave the world the right to look at us, at His disciples – to look at how we treat each other, to look at how we love each other, to look at how we relate to each other – and to make a decision about the truth of the Gospel based on what they see!   There’s no credibility to Christians preaching the message of God’s love for everybody everywhere when people who are already Christians can’t, or won’t love each other.

We – the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) – we are the “people of this prayer.” John 17:20-21 has been called “the crucial text” of our Movement.   In fact, it was John 17:20-21 that undergirded Thomas Campbell’s “Declaration and Address” in 1809.  The last paragraph of the “Address” is a reflection on John 17:20-21 –

“By this shall all men know that you are my disciples,” says he, “if you have love one to another.” And “This is my commandment, That you love one another as I have loved you; that you also love one another.” And again, “Holy Father, keep through thine own name those whom thou hast given me, that they may be one, as we are”; even “all that shall believe in me; that they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me and I in thee, that they also may be one in us; that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. And the glory which thou gavest me, I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one; I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them as thou hast loved me.” May the Lord hasten it in his time.

Thomas Campbell’s vision for what the church could be and should do was based on what Jesus Christ prayed in the Upper Room that that vision has been the foundation of what the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) has historically tried to be and do. We’ve traditionally talked about it as our “Plea.”

“The plea of the Disciples is a plea for Christian unity on the basis of the New Testament in order to evangelize the world.”

 The “Plea” of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)  says that we exist to fulfill Christ’s Great Commission to preach the Gospel and make disciples.  Because it takes more than just getting the words of the Gospel right in order to do this, the church needs to be a place where people can see the kind of grace of which the Gospels speaks.  This is why in “Declaration and Address”  Thomas Campbell said that we “ought to receive each other as Christ Jesus hath also received us,” and  “love each other as children of the same Father…  members of the same family, subjects of the same grace, objects of the same Divine love, bought with the same price, and joint-heirs of the same inheritance.”  And it’s because this bond of unity and affection can be so elusive and fragile, that Thomas Campbell said the only way to maintain it is to go back to the New Testament, and to agree that there must be a clear and consistent “thus saith the Lord”  for everything that the church believes and practices.                                           

It was James DeForest Murch, a noted historian of the Stone/Campbell Movement from the last generation, who argued in the preface to his history of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)  that “unless a movement remains true to the principles and purposes which brought it into being, it has no reason to exist.”   And in the same way, if we don’t know what the principles and purposes are that first brought a Movement into being, then we really aren’t a part of that Movement.  So, what are the principles and purposes that brought the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) into being?  Well, they’re what Jesus Christ prayed for us in John 17:20-21- that we who believe in Him through the witness of the New Testament would be one so that the world might believe that God sent Him to be the Savior of all.  How can we be Disciples today if we don’t know this, or worse, if we don’t care about it?

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Alone in the Universe?

 On April 12,1961, the Russian Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man in outer space.  When he was back safely on earth, it was reported that Yuri Gagarin said – “I flew into space and I didn’t see God out there.”  Alone in the universe, that’s how many people feel.  Stephen Crane (1871 – 1900), the American author of The Red Badge of Courage, even wrote a poem about the feeling –

A man said to the universe: “Sir, I exist!”  “However,” replied the universe, “That fact has not created in me  a sense of obligation.”

Like little boats adrift in a great big sea, with no one out there who knows about us or cares, that’s how many people feel these days, even in church.

In 2005 the sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Denton did some research on what American teenagers believe, and what they discovered was that many young people today are what can be described as  “Moral, Therapeutic, Deists.”   What’s a “Moral, Therapeutic, Deist” you ask?  Well, just break it down to its parts –

  • Moral – God wants people to behave themselves, to be “good.”
  • Therapeutic – God wants people to be “happy,” well-adjusted.
  • Deism – A religious system that says there is a God who made the world, but who’s just not all that involved with it anymore. Like a watchmaker, God put the universe in perfect order and then He went to let it run on its own.

Moral, Therapeutic, Deists are people who want to be good and happy, and who don’t want or need God around, unless they get into real trouble. Somebody has described the God of Moral, Therapeutic, Deism as a fire extinguisher God – a God you really only need when there’s a fire. In contrast to Moral, Therapeutic, Deism, Biblical Christianity takes God and His companionship with us in this life quite seriously.

The God of Christianity is “Emmanuel” – the “God who is with us.”  Through the years I’ve tried to convince lots of people to make God a more important part of their lives.  And what I’ve learned is that people can’t be argued into a deeper relationship with God.  God can’t just be a well-reasoned argument.  God has got to become a felt need.  And so, more than once, those same people who so easily dismissed my well-reasoned appeals for them to take God more seriously, in the pain and fear of a crisis, cried out to God as an instinctive reflex of their souls, and in that moment, much to their surprise, found out that God is really there, and that He really cares.  William Perkins (1558-1602), an important Puritan Theologian, explained it like this –

God gives man the outward means of salvation, especially the ministry of the word, and with it he sends some outward or inward cross to break and subdue the stubbornness of our nature that it may be made pliable to the will of God

 Increasingly I am becoming convinced that something has to “break and subdue the stubbornness of our nature” if our hearts are to become receptive to the word and work of  God, and it’s those deep feelings of being alone in the world that just may be the best possible preparation for a life transforming encounter with the living God!

Emil Brunner said that human beings are a lot like little children who have wandered off and gotten lost in a deep, dark woods.  It’s when the adventure of it starts to wear thin, they begin feeling afraid and alone, that they start listening for the voice of someone calling out to them from the darkness, the voice of a loving parent who is now in the woods too searching forr them and wanting to bring them home.  Where are you, my child?”  God cries out to us in Jesus Christ, and we answer,  “Here I am.  I was afraid until you called. But now, I am no longer afraid. Come, I am waiting for you, take me by the hand and lead me through this dark terrifying world.”  “It is a tremendous moment when we hear that voice crying out to us from the darkness… it’s when we know that we are safe” Emil Brunner said.  This is the moment of salvation.

Just this week, speaking at the funeral of his dad, Eugene Peterson’s son Leif said that his father had just one sermon that he preached over and over again.  In fact, Leif said that his father used to come into his room late at night when he was a little boy to whisper it into his ears –

 “God loves you.  God is on your side. God is coming after you.  He is relentless.”

This is the message of Psalm 18.  Psalm 18 is a personal Psalm of deliverance that’s attributed to David.  In your Bibles, in the ancient preface to this Psalm – in those words that appear right above the text as a kind of heading – an unknown editor from Israel’s past tells us that Psalm 18 is

A Psalm of David the servant of the Lord, who addressed the words of this song to the Lord on the day when the Lord delivered him from the hand of all his enemies, and from the hand of Saul.

 Psalm 18 can also be found in 2 Samuel chapter 22, where it functions as the bridge from the stories of David’s turbulent years as a warrior King who was trying to consolidate his power and establish his Kingdom, to the stories of his final years as the settled and undisputed King of Israel.  Psalm 18 gathers up all those years of struggle and strife, and puts them into a frame that allows us to see more clearly the pattern of God’s faithfulness in the jumble of David’s experiences.

In my distress I called upon the Lord; to my God I cried for help.  From His temple He heard my voice, and my cry to Him reached His ears.

This is how God dealt with David, and this is how we can expect God to deal with us.  It has three parts – (1) We find ourselves in trouble; (2) we cry out to God for help; and (3) God hears our cry.  This is Biblical spirituality 101, these are the basic building blocks of our relationship with God.

It all begins with the experience of “distress.”   Twice in Psalm 18:4 David described his experience of distress as getting all tangled up in cords from which he could not escape.  We all have things in our lives that get hold of us and try to pull us down – sickness, disability, grief, addictions, fear, anxiety, shame, guilt, poverty, abuse, estrangement, insecurity, depression. These things are the cause of our distress.  There are things out there (in the world), and there are things in here (in our hearts), that are doing their very best to defeat, destroy, and diminish us.  And as people in recovery will tell you, when something destructive like this gets hold of us, and our lives become unmanageable as the result, then the only path to freedom again is to turn ourselves over to the care of God. And so, in his distress, the Psalmist cried out to God for help.  This is the second building block in our relationship with God –  When we are in distress, we cry out to the Lord.

Eugene Peterson began his little book on prayer with this assurance  –

God hears everything we whisper or shout, say or sing.  Right words and correct forms are not prerequisites to a heavenly audience.  God is not fastidious in these matters.

God isn’t stingy or touchy.  God isn’t resistant to hearing from us, or reluctant to engage with us.  God doesn’t pout or become passive aggressive because we’ve treated Him poorly in the past.  God welcomes our prayers and is always eager to help us because this is God’s nature.

Look at the first two verses of Psalm 18.  After telling the Lord that he loved Him, David proceeded to gush.  In a torrent of descriptions, David talked about the Lord in nine different ways.  He called the Lord – (1) his strength; (2) his rock; (3) his fortress; (4) his deliverer; (5) his God; (6) the rock in whom he took refugee; (7) his shield; (8) the horn of his salvation; and (9) his stronghold.  You don’t have to know Hebrew, or have a seminary degree to understand what David was saying about who God was to him, or what God meant to him. “I am weak, but Thou art strong; Jesus keep me from all wrong” is how a popular hymn we sometimes sing begins, and this is what all those different ways that David used to describe God at the beginning of Psalm 18 are trying to tell us.  When we face circumstances, or find ourselves in situations that we are neither strong enough nor smart enough to handle on our own, we cry out to God, and God hears us.  This is the third building block in our relationship with God – “From His temple He heard my voice,  and my cry to Him reached His ears.” (6)

 God hears every prayer we pray.  But does God answer every prayer we pray?  Anyone who has ever prayed knows what the hymn “Spirit of God, Descend Upon my Heart,” is talking about when in its third stanza it asks God to “teach us to feel that thou art always nigh,” and at the very same time, to “teach us the patience of unanswered prayer.”  God is always there, listening to our cries.  But God doesn’t always do what it is that we think He should do to make things better for us, and that can feel like unanswered prayer.

It’s not.

God doesn’t stop being God when we pray.  God doesn’t suspend His eternal plans for the universe on the basis of our pleas for some short-term help in a moment of passing crisis.  God hears those cries for help, to be sure, but God weaves His answers to those prayers into the fabric of His larger purposes for us, and for the whole world.  It was the late Paul Little, a campus evangelist back when I was in college, who said that when you look at the back of a great tapestry all you see is a meaningless jumble of thread and knots.  There’s no rhyme or reason to it.  But when you flip that tapestry over, suddenly it all makes perfect sense.  Every thread and knot is part of a beautiful design and fits into a bigger picture.  And when we cry out to God for His help in our times of distress, we’ve got to trust that the way that God is going to answer us will always be loving, wise, and good, even if it differs significantly from what it is that we think God should be doing for us.  “God hears everything we whisper or shout, say or sing,” but God answers every prayer we pray always keeping His big picture and beautiful design in mind, even if all we can see right now is a tangle of thread and knot.

In Psalm 18 the help from God that David sought came to him as the experience of being delivered to a “broad place” (19).  This is one of the ways that the Old Testament talks about salvation.  David described his experience of distress as being bound with cords, feeling “trapped.”  And so, David described his experience of deliverance as being brought to a wide-open space where he was no longer bound and confined.  And this is what I believe we can always count on when we cry out to God from our distress. God takes the intention of our prayers – our desire that what’s good would happen in our lives, and in the lives of those for whom we are praying, even if we’ve been clumsy or unwise in the way that we have stated it – and God turns that desire that the best would happen into answers that serve both our immediate well-being and His final purposes (Anthony Bloom).

“So, if you are struggling, hang on in hope. God is not going to leave you forever in that place where you are feeling stuck. Call out to Him. Lean in on Him. Wait on Him… God’s aim is always to bring us that “spacious place” where we can be free to trust Him and rejoice in what He is doing in our lives.”  (http://unafamiliaalaskena.blogspot.com)

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Intelligent Interpretation

“Can I get anything I want if I ask for it in Jesus’ Name?”

I remember the first time I stumbled upon it.  I was 12 years old and just beginning to take my Christian faith seriously.  That’s when I read the prayer promise of John 14:13 for the first time –  “If you ask Me anything in my name, I will do it.”  I read “anything.”  I read “I will do it.”  And I remember thinking to myself, “This is better than Santa Claus.”  I really thought that what Jesus was telling me in John 14:13 was that I could get anything I wanted just by asking Jesus for it.  It looked like a pretty “firm offer” to my 12 year old eyes.

There’s an old Dennis the Menace cartoon that shows him climbing the stairs to go to bed after saying goodnight to his parents and their guests at a dinner party.  Halfway up the stairs, Dennis looks back over his shoulder and says – “I’m going to say my prayers now.  Does anybody want anything?”  And that’s how I thought the “prayer promise” of John 14:13 worked when I was 12.  I thought that God was like a cosmic vending machine from which I could get anything I wanted so long as I put the right change in the slot, and apparently so did Leslie Weatherhead.

When he was 15 years old, Leslie Weatherhead, the Methodist minister who  helped keep the English soul so strong during WW 2,  said that he claimed the promise of John 14:13 when he needed to pass an important examination in school (139).  The promise seemed so definite, so unambiguous to him.  “If you ask Me anything” – surely good grades in school were included in that “anything,” Leslie thought to himself.  And so, rather than studying, Leslie prayed, promptly flunked the exam, and experienced the predictable crisis of faith.  Leslie Weatherhead said that it felt to him like God had let him down, that God had not kept his promise to him, and I’ve heard this from lots and lots of people throughout the 45 years of my ministry.

People have high expectations of God, expectations based on their own desires for how they think things ought to be than from anything that they can actually point to in the Scriptures.  And then when things don’t work out like they think they should, in their disappointment, they blame God.  They say that they just can’t trust God anymore.  But the problem is that they are holding God to promises that God never actually made.  They believe things about God that have very little or nothing at all to do with who God really is.

I really like the story that George Buttrick used to tell from his days as the Dean of the Chapel at Yale University.  Just like clockwork, he said, after a couple of weeks on campus, the freshman students who had been attending chapel services regularly when they first got to New Haven would suddenly stop coming.  Later on, when these students bumped into Dr. Buttrick on campus, they would always apologize and sheepishly explain that the reason they weren’t coming to chapel anymore was because they no longer believed in God because of what they were learning in their first year psychology, sociology, or anthropology classes.  And Dr. Buttrick said that he would always smile when he heard them say this, and then he would say to these students, “Well, tell me more about this God that you say you don’t believe in anymore because the odds are pretty good that I don’t believe in that God either!”

I was at a Bible Conference some 30 years ago when I heard an internationally known Christian leader say that if God was more like Attila the Hun than like Jesus of Nazareth, then what could we do about it?  What he meant was that God is who God is, and not who we want God to be.  We don’t get the God of our wishes and expectations.  We get the God who’s actually there, and that makes the crucial question: “How do we who the God who is there is?”

Christianity rests on the claim that we can actually know something about who God is.  Historic Christianity says that the God who is there is a God who has spoken and acted, both in the history of Israel, and in the person of Jesus Christ, revealing something of Himself and His ways to us, so that we can know who God is and what God wants.  And historic Christianity says that we have a record – a reliable record – of that Divine speaking and acting, that has preserved and passed along that knowledge of God to us, and it’s this (hold up a Bible).

This is why every Sunday morning in church there is a reading from the Bible, and then a substantial amount of time spent trying to understand what it means to us, and for us.  This is why what John 14:13 says matters.  In our attempts to understand what it is that John 14:13 actually says, we are learning some really important things about the God who is there, things that will serve our relationship with Him.  So, can we really get anything we want if we just ask for it in Jesus’ name?  And, if we can, then what kind of God would agree to this arrangement, sublimating His eternal purposes to our passing fancies, substituting the limited range of our vision for His eternal omniscience.  What kind of God agrees to become our cosmic bellhop?

When he was all grown up and a minister, Leslie Weatherhead went back to the prayer promise of John 14:13 and concluded that if he had just used a little “intelligent interpretation” when he was younger, that he could have saved himself a boatload of trouble and sorrow.  And I think that’s right.  The tradition of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) has always said two things about the Bible: first, that it’s fully authoritative for us, and second, that it needs to be carefully interpreted by us.  We are prepared to believe that what the Bible tells us is true, but we also believe that we first  understand what the Bible is actually telling us.  So what is John 14:13 actually telling us?

Well, where my, and Leslie Weatherhead’s, and most people’s  understanding of John 14:13  jumps the track is at the point of that modifying clause right smack dab in the middle of it – “in Jesus’ name.”  You see, Jesus wasn’t making an unconditional promise to us in John 14:13 – “If you ask Me anything… I will do it.”  It was a conditional promise – If you ask Me anything in my name, I will do it.”  And this means that the “intelligent interpretation” of John 14:13 is going to hinge almost entirely on the meaning of that phrase – “in Jesus’ name.”

 All my life I’ve heard people use those words “in Jesus’ name” as if it were a magic formula like “abracadabra.”  But praying “in Jesus’ name” is more than just a matter of repeating some special words.  Praying  “in Jesus’ name” is not the secret combination that opens the vault of heaven for us to ransack.  “In Jesus’ name” is not the password that gets us into the club, or the code that gets us onto the internet.  No, praying “in Jesus’ name” is a basic statement of our faith as Christians.  It’s our way of saying that we don’t think that the God who is there is like Attila the Hun.  And the reason why we think that the God who is there is a God who knows and cares about us and our needs is Jesus Christ.  We “look up” through Jesus Christ to see God (E. Stanley Jones).  God gets “focused” for us in Jesus Christ (J.B. Phillips).

When we see Christ raising the dead in the Gospels, we know something about what God wants and what God is doing in our lives and the world, and that informs our praying.  When we see Christ healing the sick in the Gospels, we know something about what God wants and what God is doing in our lives and the world, and that informs our praying.  When we see Christ feeding the hungry in the Gospels, we know something about what God wants and what God is doing in our lives and the world, and that informs our praying.  When we see Christ confronting and defeating evil in the Gospels, we know something about what God wants and what God is doing in our lives and the world, and that informs our praying.  When we see Christ calming the storms and stilling the raging seas in the Gospels, we know something about what God wants and what God is doing in our lives and the world, and that informs our praying.  When we pray “in Jesus’ name,” we’re praying according to what we already know it is that God wants, and what it is that God is doing.  And we know these things because of Jesus Christ.

This means that praying “in Jesus’ name” is not how we get our way with God.  It’s how God gets His way with us.  When we pray “in Jesus’ name” we’re not trying to impose our will on God, or force His hand to move at our direction, or manipulate God to act.  No, when we pray “in Jesus’ name” what we’re trying to do is to apply what we know about who God is, and what God wants, and what God is doing in Jesus Christ to our lives, to the world, to our circumstances, and our situations.

Beneath our practice of prayer are the things that God has told and shown us about Himself and His will in Jesus Christ, and that gives us confidence to cry out to God believing that we will be heard when we pray. Roger Olsen, a professor of theology up at Baylor, says that “the Bible encourages confident prayer… when the prayer is for something that God has (already) revealed to be his will… not weak praying that lacks confidence in God’s desire to heal, to provide and to save.” 

When we pray “in Jesus’ Name” we are praying for the things that we already know God wants for us, and that God has already promised to do for us.  A line from an old hymn comes mind — when we pray “in Jesus’ Name,” what we are doing is praying that the Lord will – “Haste the day when our faith shall be sight.”  When we know a little bit about what it is that God wants for us and this world, then the only things that remain uncertain are the “how?” and the “when?”  Because of Jesus Christ, we know that God has purposed good for us, that He has plans to help and not to hurt us, to give us hope and a future (Jeremiah 29:11).  We know the broad sweep of things, we just don’t know the details – how God’s saving purposes are specifically going to play out in our own lives.

In 1975, when she was 30 years old, Laurel Lee got pregnant, cancer, a divorce, and found Christ as her Savior.  Through nine months of hospitalization and two major operations, she kept a journal that got published in 1977 under the title Walking through the Fire –  from the promise in Isaiah 43:2 that – When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.”  Laurel Lee knew that this was God’s revealed purpose for her and His specific promise to her, even though she didn’t know what was going to happen to her next. In one of her journal entries Laurel Lee said that she had a vision of a sword dangling above her head, suspended by the thinnest of threads.  On one blade of the sword, she said she saw the words of Isaiah 53:5 – “By his stripes we are healed,” and on the other blade were the words of Psalm 116:15 – “Blessed in the sight of the Lord is the death of one of his saints.”  And Laurel Lee said she didn’t know which blade was meant for her.

Either way Laurel Lee knew that she was going to be just fine.  She knew that “in life and in death we are the Lord’s” (Romans 14:18).  Because of Jesus Christ, she already knew the “what?”  In Jesus Christ she knew that she had eternal life.  She knew that she would never perish, and that nothing and no one could snatch her from her Savior’s hand (John 10:28).  What she didn’t know was how the particulars of this promise were going to play out in her circumstances.  She didn’t know the “how?” or the “when?”  None of us do, and so we pray.  And when we pray “in Jesus’ Name,” we are praying with the confidence that what God has shown us about Himself and His will in Jesus Christ is coming.  And when we pray “in Jesus’ Name” we are praying in the trust that no matter what lies ahead on the journey between here and there, between now and then, that the goodness and the mercy of the Lord will follow us “all the days of our lives” (Psalm 23:6). DBS +

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Four Corners of Christian Hope

“What Happens to us When We Die?”                                                                       _______________________________________________________________________________________________

The cross of Eastern Orthodox Christianity has three beams or bars.  On the vertical stake there is a stubby bar at the top, below it is a long horizontal crossbeam right below it, and then below it is a little crooked bar The stubby bar at the top of the Orthodox cross represents the placard that was nailed above Christ’s head that announced His crime – “King of the Jews” it read in Hebrew, and Latin, and Greek.  The long middle horizontal bar was the beam to which Jesus’ hands would have been nailed. And the crooked bar at the bottom is a symbolic witness to the truth of the Bible’s story about the Good Thief who died on a cross next to Jesus on Good Friday afternoon. The bottom bar on the Orthodox cross is the footrest to which Jesus’ feet would have been affixed, and it’s crooked, the Orthodox say, because it got dislodged during our Lord’s dying spasms.  The way one end now points up and the other end now points down is a symbol of the two outcomes to life that face us all.  These two outcomes were embodied in the responses that the two thieves made to Jesus as they were dying.

 The Gospel story of the two thieves who were crucified with Jesus has been called “the Gospel within the Gospel” because it condenses the saving work of Jesus Christ down to the single moment of their decision while on the cross.  The bad thief reviled Jesus.  He mocked and dismissed what Christ was doing for him and for all of us on the cross.  As C.S. Lewis explained, either we say to God, “Thy will be done,” and we enter joyfully into His eternal presence, or else, God says to us, “thy will be done,”  as He sadly watches us turn away from Him and we slowly walk away.

The end of the footrest that points down symbolizes his eternal destiny, and the eternal destiny of everyone who rejects Christ’s saving work.  In contrast, the good thief turned to Jesus on the cross.  He repented and asked for the Savior’s mercy.   “Jesus,” he begged, “remember me when You come into Your Kingdom!” (Luke 23:42).  And the end of the footrest that points up symbolizes his destiny, and the destiny of everyone who accepts Christ’s saving work.

Jesus spoke seven “words” from the cross. What Jesus said to the good thief is traditionally considered the second word that Christ spoke.  Each one of the seven words from the cross give us insight into what Jesus was thinking about as He was dying, and it’s what Jesus said to the good thief that has deeply informed the church’s beliefs about what happens to us when we die. “Truly I say to you,” Jesus told the good thief, “today you shall be with Me in Paradise” (23:43).

The first thing that Jesus said to the Good thief from the cross was – “Truly I say to you.”  When David Livingston went to Africa as a missionary in 1845 it was with Christ’s promise in Matthew 28:20 – “I am with you always” – planted firmly in his head and heart.  David Livingston staked his whole life on these 5 words, and when people asked him why would he risk everything he had and everything he was on the basis of such a simple little Gospel promise, he would always answer, “Because these are the words of a gentleman, a gentleman of the strictest and most sacred honor, and that’s the end of it.”   Deeper than the quaint courtliness of 19th century English society when a gentleman’s word was his bond that’s reflected in David Livingstone’s statement, there’s an even greater religious principle at work here.  Faith is a matter of trusting what we’re told.  When I’m sick and go to my doctor, and she tells me what’s wrong with me and what I need to do in order to get better, in that moment I am faced with a crucial decision.  Do I believe her?  Boiled down to its essence, belief is trust, and we only give our trust to those we deem trustworthy.  This is why, on the cross, before telling the good thief what was in store for him after he died, Jesus first asserted His own trustworthiness. “Truly I say to you” was Jesus’ way of saying that we can trust what He tells us because of who He is, and this is something that we’ve all got to finally decide for ourselves.  Will we trust Him and what He says, or not?  Now, when the good thief begged Jesus to remember Him when He came into His Kingdom, Jesus said three things about what happens to believers when they die.

The second thing that Jesus said to the good thief was – “Today.” “The most overlooked portion of Scripture,” Ben Haden, the pastor for so many years at Chattanooga, Tennessee’s historic First Presbyterian Church, used to say, “is the phrase that comes right after ‘Whosoever believes in me shall live even if he dies” in John chapter 11.   It continues, ‘Whoever believes in me shall never die.’”  And Ben explained, “We forget that Christians are incapable of being dead for even one moment.  When we pass from this life, we’re alive!”  And I think this is what Jesus was telling the good thief on the cross when He said, “Today.”  When our eyes close for the last time in this world, I believe that they will immediately open in another world.

The third thing that Jesus said to the good thief was that, “You will be with Me.” “You” and “me” – this is a statement about personal identity. The “you” was the good thief,  the “me” was Jesus, and the fact that this was said right before they both died convinces me that both we and our relationships will transcend death. “You” and “me” – this tells me that our individuality will continue after we die. “You with me” – this tells me that our relationships will be preserved in death. And  “you will be with Me” – this is why I believe that the people and relationships that have filled my life with such joy and meaning in this world will be preserved and perfected in the world to come.  Philipp Nicolai was a German Lutheran pastor in the 16th century who had to bury 1300 members of his congregation – men, women, and children – who died in the days of the plague. This pastoral circumstance forced Pastor Nicolai to think long and hard about what becomes of us and our relationships when we die. And what he finally concluded, based on his own thoughtful and prayerful study of the Scriptures was that what awaits us as Christians after death is a heavenly reunion. He wrote –

“Parents and children, husbands and wives, bridegrooms and brides, brothers and sisters, neighbors, relatives and friends… will be reunited in heaven and they will love each other with an ardent cordial love that is a thousand times stronger, and with an embrace that is far more friendly than any that might be imagined here in this world [Paraphrased]

And the fourth thing that Jesus said to the good thief was about “Paradise.” “Paradise” is a Persian word.  It’s only used three times in the whole  Bible (Luke 23:43; 2 Corinthians 12:3-4; and Revelation 2:7).  “Paradise” is the Persian word for “garden.”  The Bible opens with the story of a garden, the Garden of Eden, and I can’t help but think that this is what Jesus had in mind when from the cross He said that when we die we go to “paradise.”  One way of reading the Bible is as the story of our long journey as human beings back to the Garden from which we had been cast out because of the rebellion of sin.  This is a journey back to that time and place when everything and everyone fit together in perfect harmony and happiness.  This is what we’re praying for every time we say, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  And this is what I think Jesus must have been talking about in our Scripture lesson this morning when, on the eve of His saving work on Calvary’s cross, Jesus told His disciples that He was going to prepare a place for them, but that He would soon be back for them so that where He was there they may be also (John 14:3).  The Bible provides us with precious few details about the nature of our life in the world to come, but this much is made consistently and abundantly clear – when we die we will be with Him.

If you are trying to comfort someone who has recently sustained a great loss, or if you are grieving the death of a loved one yourself, or if you are just coming to terms with your own mortality, with the way that human beings are “born to live, suffer, and die” (Thomas Wolfe), then you need to know what Jesus Christ said to the good thief from the cross.  Luke 23:43 establishes the four corners of the foundation of our hope as Christians.

                                                            

                                                                    

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Mourner’s Kaddish & the Lord’s Prayer

Praying Our Healings, and the Healing of the World

With the first funerals of the victims of the Tree of Life Synagogue attack just now beginning to take place in Pittsburgh, one of the great spiritual practices of the Jewish grief process also begins, or more accurately, continues as well – the daily praying of the Mourner’s Kaddish –

Glorified and sanctified be God’s great name throughout the world which He has created according to His will. May He establish His kingdom in your lifetime and during your days, and within the life of the entire House of Israel, speedily and soon; and say, Amen.

May His great name be blessed forever and to all eternity. Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored, adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One, blessed be He, beyond all the blessings and hymns, praises and consolations that are ever spoken in the world; and say, Amen.

May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life, for us and for all Israel; and say, Amen.

He who creates peace in His celestial heights, may He create peace for us and for all Israel; and say, Amen.

For more than 2,000 years, every single day a minyan – a quorum of 10 Jews, typically male – have gathered in synagogues all over the world to pray this prayer. You can go to the web page of the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh where the shooting last Sabbath wounded all of our souls, and read all about when and how they pray the Mourner’s Kaddish as a community of faith. Tradition says that it must be prayed in community every day for 11 months after the death of a loved one, and then on the anniversary of their deaths every year after that.

The word “Kaddish” means “sanctification,” to make someone or something holy, and in content the Kaddish is a prayer that sanctifies or “hallows” God’ Name. The Kaddish wasn’t originally written and used as the Jewish prayer of mourning. It was a blessing that was spoken after a reading of instruction in the faith, but now its primary use is as the primary text and ritual of Jewish mourning.  The fascinating thing about this development is that fact that the Mourne’s Kaddish, this traditional prayer that has become the lynchpin in the Jewish process of grief, doesn’t mention death or dying at all. So, what is it about this prayer and its use in community that makes it such a potent source of healing in Judaism when a loved one has died?

Dr. Ron Wolfson in his book A Time to Mourn, A Time to Comfort (Jewish Lights – 2005), says that the Kaddish is a kind of benediction, a last ‘good word’ that praises God and reminds us to look forward to the establishment of God’s kingdom, when there will be completion, peace.”  It’s not a subjective prayer that focuses on the pain of a private loss  that gets prayed in isolation.  The Kaddish is an objective prayer that focuses on the shared convictions of the Jewish community about who God is and what God intends for the world that gets prayed with other faithful people. Dr. Wolfson says that “there are three problems that mourners face that the Kaddish speaks to in a most direct manner”  – the loss of faith; the loss of confidence in the goodness of God; and the loss of a sense of direction and meaning to life.  After a death, praying the Mourner’s Kaddish every day for the better part of a year, says to the one who is praying it: “Mourner, you have never been in a better position to appreciate the brevity of life, and the fact that you have a mission in this life –to establish God’s kingdom – and you don’t have very long to do it! You must therefore redouble your efforts to bring God’s kingdom into existence” (https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/kaddish-speaks-to-mourners/)

Now, if all this sounds vaguely familiar to your Christian ears, it should.  The oldest Rule of Prayer in Christianity was to pray the Lord’s Prayer three times each day (The Didache, Chapter 8).  And the Lord’s Prayer that begins with a hallowing of God’s name followed with an appeal for God’s Kingdom to come.  If you detect a resemblance between the Lord’s Prayer and the Mourner’s Kaddish, then you are not alone.  Christian and Jewish scholars have written books about it, and while it’s unlikely that many of us are going to read those books, spiritually, it is important for us who pray the Lord’s Prayer to understand how both in content and practice, when we are pray it we are touching the Jewish roots of our faith as Christians (“Salvation is from the Jews” – John 4:22; “…it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you…” – Romans 11:18) and are doing something that’s fundamentally healing.

In the same way that our Jewish mothers and father pray the Mourner’s Kaddish to restore order to their lives after a death, to reorient themselves to what it is that God is doing in a world that has just spun out of control for them, and to renew their own personal commitment to, and engagement with that Divine purpose in their being and their doing, so when we pray the Lord’s Prayer as Christians – a prayer cut from the same bolt of spiritual cloth as the Mourners’ Kaddish – we are affirming the Kingdom that we believe is coming, and we are acknowledging the part that we are to play in it right now by anticipating and embodying its values and concerns.  As John Killinger explained in a chapter on praying the Lord’s Prayer in his book Bread for the Wilderness, Wine for the Journey (Word –  1976) –

There is something about prayer, about letting the mind be still and waiting upon God, that sensitizes us to the world around us – to the glory of sunsets and the beauty of tears. …As Isaiah in the Temple (6:1-7) became aware of the need for a spokesperson for God, and said, “Here I am, send me,” [when you pray the Lord’s Prayer] you find yourself ready to help with the kingdom. …You want to redesign the world in such a way that people are made to suffer less. You want the hungry to be fed and the infirm to walk. You want the blind to see and the deaf to hear.   You want parents to love their children and children to grow up happy and morally committed to the right things. You yourself become committed to the kingdom that human beings have always dreamed of.  (115)

In the face of the frightening violence and confusing chaos of our world, people of Biblical faith, both Christians and Jews have a tradition of praying, and in that praying, we share an experience of personal and social transformation.  The Mourners’ Kaddish and the Lord’s Prayer hallow God’s name by reminding us that the repair of the brokenness of  both our lives and the world is the work that God is doing, and that God invites us to join.  DBS +

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized