The Problem With American Christianity

Psalm 9.19

Rise up, O Lord! Do not let mortals prevail; let the nations be judged before you.

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Inside of an old warehouse in South Texas, hundreds of children are being held in a series of cages created by metal fencing. One cage has 20 children inside. Scattered about are bottles of water, bags of chips, and large foil sheets that are supped to be used as blankets.

This is how the scene was described yesterday when the U.S. Border patrol allowed reporters into the warehouse where they are currently holding people arrested at the southern US border. All across the country churches and civil rights activists have been responding to the news of the government’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy and the resulting separation of families.

As a Christian leader there is much that I can say about this kind of policy, but it is limited by the fact that we chose these particular politicians to lead us; further complicating the issue is how often people make it known to me that they don’t want to hear about politics in church. However, our Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently responded to criticisms about the nearly 2,000 children that have been taken from their parents by saying, “I would cite the apostle Paul who clearly and wisely said in Romans 13 to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained the government for his purposes.”

And when politicians start citing bible verses, when they bring the church into politics, then it becomes something else entirely.

Romans 13, and in particular the verse crudely quoted by our Attorney General, is often used to justify all kinds of acts committed by the government. And, as Stanley Hauerwas often points out, we never think about how Romans 13 was exactly the text the German Christians used to serve Hitler. And, to make matters even worse, it is a text taken out of context and we fail to read in in light of the verses that lead up to it!

Romans 12 is all about the marks of Christianity predicated on blessing those who are marginalized. It is fundamentally a list about what it means to exist in a world full of evil by not being overcome by evil, but overcoming evil with good. Then, and only then, shall we be subject to the governing authorities.

However, instead of reading Romans 12 into Romans 13 so many people separate these thoughts from one another in order to justify political rules that don’t expect Caesar (leaders) to be repentant. Separating these theological convictions from one another is exactly the kind of move that produces Christians who blindly submit to the will of the nation-state instead of calling the nation-state into question.

If we read Romans 13 like Jeff Sessions then we will fail to see that that verse also applies to Caesar! Far too many Christians today no longer know how to read scripture, and how to read it well. Again, to quote Hauerwas, “American Christians don’t know how to read the bible well. They don’t know how to read the bible well because they’re Americans before they’re Christians.”

Caesar, in whatever form of leadership, is only divinely instituted when he/she is also held accountable to a world made possible by a 1st century Jew who was murdered on a cross. We are only bound by Caesar when Caesar is bound by an ethic that believes in extending hospitality to strangers, feeding the hungry, and hating what is evil. Romans 13 is nothing without Romans 12.

We don’t like to talk about divine judgment in the church these days. Most of us are far more comfortable with a God of peace and mercy and justice if it doesn’t require anything on our part. But the psalmist is frighteningly wise to call for the Lord to judge the nations and to not let mortals prevail. Whether we like to think about it, or even admit it, the Lord will judge us for how we treat the least of these.

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The Last Jedi – Spiritual or Religious?

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A few week ago I was able to share a conversation with Jason Micheli and Chaim Saiman for our podcast Crackers and Grape Juice about the theological dimensions of Star Wars, and in particular The Last Jedi. After seeing the most recent Star Wars film, Chaim was struck by some of the subtle (and not so subtle) religious motifs within the movie and wrote an article for The Atlantic titled, “Why The Last Jedi Is More Spiritual Than Religious.” Chaim is a law professor at Villanova and is interested in the intersection between law and faith.

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Our conversation covers a range of topics including Jesus and the Law, growing up in the bible belt, the First Commandment, Jesus as the proto-Christian, the religiosity of Star Wars, and how our faiths and cultures are tied together. If you would like to listen to the episode, or subscribe to the podcast, you can do so here: Fact Checking Star Wars

What A Difference A Day Makes

Genesis 1.1-5

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

 

“How old is the earth?” The fifth grader looked up from his homework assignment as if to say, “Well, dude, you’re the tutor… what’s the answer?” We were sitting inside Forest View Elementary School in Durham, North Carolina, and I was in the middle of a tutoring session. Each week we would sit in the library and go through his homework together. His class was finishing up a unit on earth sciences and his worksheet was filled with questions about the subject.

“How old is the earth?” I, of course, could not remember the answer so I promptly pulled out my cell phone to Google it and the young man rolled his eyes as he opened up his textbook with dramatic emphasis. We flipped through the pages together looking for key words or pictures that would indicate we were on the right path and then we found it in big bold numbers on the bottom of a page: 4.54 billion years.

I waited patiently for my young tutee to copy the number down into the answer column on his worksheet, but he just kept looking at the textbook with a glazed-over look in his eyes. Then I heard him say, no louder than a whisper, “That can’t be right.”

“Well of course it’s right!” I said, “I mean its in the book, it has to be right.”

And then he said, “But my pastor told me the earth is only 6,000 years old…”

In the beginning there was nothing. All matter was formless. What we now know and see was a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, an inky blackness. And in the midst of nothingness, there was something: God. And God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. God saw the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

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I can think of few verses in scriptures that have created more problems with interpretation than those found at the very beginning of the book. These words have vexed and inspired, they have built up and they have destroyed, they have been the start of faith for some and the very end for others.

Genesis 1 is beginning, and not just a beginning to a story, but the beginning to the story.

So how did this collection of sentences lead to one of the largest debates from the last few hundred years? Why are these descriptions about God’s creation at the heart of the debate between science and religion?

Centuries ago there was a man named James Ussher who set out to date the earth. He dove deep into the Old Testament and, with the help of genealogies and life spans, established the exact time and date of God’s creation as 6pm on October 22nd 4004 BC. Therefore, according to the work of Ussher, the earth is approximately 6,000 years old.

            However, with the advent of modern science, and carbon dating, and evolutionary biology, scientists have determined that the earth is rough 4.5 billion years old.

There is a huge difference between 6,000 and 4.5 billion.

For a long period of time, the Christian church established itself as the predominant distributer of information, and when that came into conflict with Science, the battle began.

The war between Science and Religion has manifested itself in a great number of ways like the fight between Galileo and the church, Darwin and the church, and even the American Government with the church.

And nowhere is the war more apparent than between the debate of creation and evolution.

            “How old is the earth?” might sound like an innocuous question without too many ramifications, but how we answer the question comes with a lot of consequences.

A couple of years back, the state of Kansas removed questions about evolution from its standardized tests. This meant that teachers were still allowed to teach evolution, but the children would not be tested on it at the end of the year. Some Christians rejoiced in the victory Creation over Evolution, and others were concerned that children from Kansas would pale in comparison to students from other states by the time they entered college.

It would seem that the church has one answer to the question, and science has another.

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I remember learning about the theory of evolution when I was in the 8th grade. With all my hormonal angst, and pimply face, and peach fuzzed mustache, I sat in my science class and learned about how all life can trace its origins back to one single cellular being: That over millions of years that first cell grew and evolved and developed new traits; how life began in the sea, and eventually developed to live on land and in the air; how humanity is one of the last developments in a tremendously long line of evolved species.

I thought it was awesome! The science-fiction nerd within me went into overdrive and I relished in learning about where we came from, how the earth has changed, and how beautifully unique we really are. And the whole time I dove into evolution I saw God’s handiwork all over the place. Who could have brought life into that first being, who could have the imagination to force molecules and atoms together in such a way that life began, who could have moved the development of species to its zenith in humanity?

However, around that same time a number of my Christian friends stopped attending church. While learning about evolution, their faith in church disappeared. What they heard in the classroom became more important than what they heard in the sanctuary. When they learned the earth was older than what they heard from the pulpit, their faith was crushed.

            I was fortunate to have pastors and mentors who helped me to see the bonds between science and faith, but my friends saw only the battle.

A lot of you wrote questions about the relationship between science and religion. And frankly, I wasn’t surprised. The so-called war between science and religion is one that has gone on for a very long time, and frankly it’s something we rarely address in church. It’s as if we let the world of science rule our lives Monday through Saturday, and the world of faith is reserved for Sundays, and never the two shall meet.

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There is conflict between science and religion, and the conflict exists because of us. The fault is ours. We Christians who become defensive when scientists learn more about the world instead of rejoicing in God’s strange and creative majesty; we Christians who are too quick to jump ship when we discover there is more to the world than what we can read about in the bible; we Christians who see scientific discoveries as works of the devil, and label them as such.

But the realms of science and religion are not as mutually exclusive as we think they are.

There are Christians out there called “Young-Earth Creationists” who believe, like Ussher, that God created the earth over six 24-hr days around 6,000 years ago. They dismiss discoveries like dinosaur bones as a way for God to test our faith.

However, there are ways of looking at the biblical account of creation such that it harmonizes with science, rather than creating yet another battle.

To start, the word for “day” in Hebrew is “yom.” And it carries with it a number of definitions and interpretations. Yom is used in the Old Testament as a general term for time, like a time period of finite but unspecified length. We can also read in Psalm 90.4 “For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night.” What we understand the word “day” to mean is different than what it means in scripture. God’s time is not our time.

We could then read Genesis 1 to be that in the beginning God created light, and after light God created air, and after air God created earth and sky and sea. But how long it took God to do this is unknown. One day? One million years? Only God knows.

Genesis, and the rest of the bible, is not meant to be read like a science or history textbook. The bible, over and over again, rejects our desire to become masters the text and instead calls us to be servants of the Word. We might be concerned with how and when God created, but the bible only tells us the who and why of God’s creation.

Then we can look at the order of creation itself and the similarities with the theory of evolution. Though it was written thousands of years before Darwin’s On the Origins of Species the order of creation parallels Darwin’s and modern evolutionary scientist’s ideas. The first thing to exist was light and energy. Then matter began to fuse together into celestial beings like stars and planets. Eventually the earth developed an atmosphere and water and land. The first life began in the sea, eventually evolved to fly in the air and crawl on the earth, and the last life to be developed, the pinnacle of God’s creation, was us, humanity.

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            Knowing this, countless Christians are able to hold that evolution is real, but that God set it in motion. They are able to assert that the earth is 4.5 billion years old AND God created it in the way described in Genesis. They are able to hold together science and faith in such a way that it gives glory to God’s glorious creation.

The conflict between science and religion, between creation and evolution, exists because people like us have treated the book just like every other book. We see it as our own historical textbook, or as our scientific journal, or as our genealogical record. We import the ways we read other texts into the way we read God’s great Word.

And then many of us take it up like a weapon against anyone who disagrees with us.

But the bible is fundamentally unlike anything ever written. It is historical, and scientific, and literary, and poetic, and every other form we can think of. It is beyond our ability to fully comprehend, it breaks down and exceeds the expectations we place on it, it is the living Word of the Lord.

The bible is far less concerned with explaining how things happened, and is far more concerned with proclaiming God’s handiwork. It comforts us when we are afflicted, and it afflicts us when we are comfortable. It can make us laugh and it can make us cry. It can bring us to our knees and it can propel us to dance on our feet. It identifies God as creator and us as creature. It harmonizes with the marvelous developments in science. It humbles us and exalts us. It is who we are and whose we are. It is God’s Word for us. Amen.

On Creation vs. Evolution

Genesis 1.1-5

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

Controversy Original

Preachers can fall into the rut of preaching on whatever keeps the congregation pleased; keep them happy and they’ll keep coming back, or something like that. This sermon series is different. Instead of falling back to the familiar narratives that keep us smiling on our way out of church, we are confronting some of the greatest controversies facing the church. There is a better than good chance that I will say something from this pulpit during the series that you won’t agree with, and if (and when) that happens I encourage you to stay after worship, join us for lunch, and continue the conversation. We can only grow as Christians in community, and that requires some honesty and humility and dialogue. Today we continue with Creation vs. Evolution.

 

“How old is the earth?” The fifth grader looked up from his homework assignment as if to say, “Well, dude, what’s the answer?” We were sitting inside Forest View Elementary School in Durham, North Carolina, and I was in the middle of a tutoring session. Each week we would sit in the library and go through his homework together. His class was finishing up a unit on earth sciences and his worksheet was filled with questions about the subject.

“How old is the earth?” I, of course, could not remember the answer so I promptly pulled out my cell phone to Google the answer and the young man rolled his eyes and opened up his textbook with dramatic emphasis. We flipped through the pages together looking for key words or pictures that would indicate we were on the right path and then we found it in big bold numbers on the bottom of a page: 4.54 billion years.

I waited patiently for my young tutee to copy the number down into the answer column on his worksheet, but he just kept looking at the textbook with a glazed-over look in his eyes. Then I heard him say, almost as if a whisper, “That can’t be right.”

“Well of course it’s right!” I said, “I mean its in the book, it has to be right.”

            And then he said, “But my pastor told me the earth is only 6,000 years old.”

creation-evolution-possible

In the beginning, the very beginning, there was nothing. All matter was formless. What we now know and see was a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, and inky blackness. And in the midst of this nothingness, there was something: God. And God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

Perhaps no words in all of scripture have been more analyzed, prayed over, and interpreted throughout the centuries. Genesis 1 is beginning, and not just a beginning to a story, but the beginning to the story.

And it stands on the battlefield of the fight between Creation and Evolution.

Here’s the controversy: Centuries ago a man named James Ussher set out to date the earth. He dove deep into the Old Testament and, with the help of genealogies, established the exact time and date of God’s creation as 6pm on October 22nd 4004 BC. Therefore, according to Ussher, the earth is approximately 6,000 years old. However, with the advent of modern science and the likes of evolutionary biology and carbon dating, scientists have determined that the earth is 4.5 billion years old.

There is a big difference between 6,000 and 4.5 billion.

For a very long time, we humans considered the earth a relatively recent phenomenon. The Christian church established itself as the predominant leader of information distribution, and when that came into conflict with Science, the battle began.

This has manifested itself throughout the centuries in a number of ways including the fight between the Galileo and the church, Darwin and the church, and even the American Government with the church.

“How old is the earth?” It may seem like a pretty simple question without too many ramifications, but it is a big one, and the way we answer it has a lot of consequences.

A couple of years back, the state of Kansas removed questions about evolution from its standardized tests. This meant that teachers were still allowed to teach evolution, but the children would not be tested on it at the end of the year. Some Christians rejoiced in the victory Creation over Evolution, and others were concerned that children from Kansas would pale in comparison to students from other states by the time they entered college.

It would seem that the church has one answer to the question, and science has another.

I remember learning about the theory of evolution when I was in the 8th grade. With all my hormonal angst, and pimply face, and peach fuzzed mustache, I sat in my science class and learned about how all life can trace its origins back to one single cellular being: That over millions of years that first cell grew and evolved and developed new traits; how life began in the sea, and eventually developed to live on land and in the air; how humanity is one of the last developments in a tremendously long line of evolved species.

I thought it was awesome! The science-fiction nerd within me went into overdrive and I relished in learning about where we came from, how the earth has changed, and how beautifully unique we really are. And the whole time I dove into evolution I saw God’s handiwork all over the place. Who could have brought life into that first being, who could have the imagination to force molecules and atoms together in such a way that life began, who could have moved the development of species to its zenith in humanity?

But at the same time, some of my Christian friends stopped going to youth group and they stopped going to church. In learning about evolution their faith in church diminished. What they heard in the classroom became more important than what they heard in the sanctuary. When they learned that the earth was older than what they heard in church, their faith was crushed. I, however, was fortunate to have pastors and older Christians who helped me to see the similarities between science and faith. But my friends only saw the battle.

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The title of this sermon is Creation vs. Evolution for a reason. I titled it this way precisely because that is the way that many of us see the relationship between the two; Faith and Science represent opposite ends of the spectrum. One is archaic and illogical; the other is scientific and intellectual. One represents backward thinking; the other is forward thinking. One should be left to sanctuaries; the other is for the classroom.

The conflict between science and faith exists because of us; Christians who became defensive when scientists learned more about the world instead of rejoicing in God’s creative majesty. Christians who were quick to jump ship when we discovered there was more to the world than just what we can read about in the bible; Christians who saw scientific discovery as a work of the devil and retreated further away from the world.

But are science and faith really at odds with one another?

Young-Earth Creationists are those who believe (like Ussher) that God created the earth over 6 24 hours days 6,000 years ago. They dismiss scientific discoveries like the Dinosaurs and carbon dating as a way for God to test our faith.

However, there are other ways of looking at the biblical account of creation from Genesis 1 that harmonizes with, rather than battles against, science.

First, the word for “day” in Hebrew is “yom.” And it carries with it a number of definitions and interpretations. Yom is used in the Old Testament as a general term for time, like a time period of finite but unspecified length. We can also read in Psalm 90.4 “For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night.” What we understand the word “day” to mean is different than what it means in scripture. God’s time is not our time.

We could then read Genesis 1 to be that in the beginning God created light, and after light God created air, and after air God created earth and sky and sea. But how long it took God to do this is unknown. One day? One million years? Only God knows.

Genesis, and the rest of the bible, is not meant to be read like a science or history textbook. The bible, over and over again, rejects our desire to master the text and instead calls us to be servants of the Word. We might be concerned with how and when God created, but the bible only tells us who and why God created.

Then we can look at the order of creation itself and the similarities with the theory of evolution. Though it was written thousands of years before Darwin’s On the Origins of Species the order of creation parallels Darwin’s and modern evolutionary scientist’s ideas. The first thing to exist was light and energy. Then matter began to fuse together into celestial beings like stars and planets. Eventually the earth developed an atmosphere and water and land. The first life began in the sea, eventually evolved to fly in the air and crawl on the earth, and the last life to be developed, the zenith of God’s creation, was human life.

            Knowing this, countless Christians are able to hold that evolution is real, but that God set it in motion. They are able to assert that the earth is 4.5 billion years old AND God created it in the way described in Genesis. They are able to hold together science and faith in such a way that it gives glory to God’s glorious creation.

The conflict between science and religion, between creation and evolution, exists because people like us have treated the book just like every other book. We see it as our own historical textbook, or as our scientific journal, or as our genealogical record. We import the ways we read other texts into the way we read God’s great Word.

And then many of us take it up like a weapon against anyone who disagrees with us.

But the bible is fundamentally unlike anything ever written. It is historical, and scientific, and literary, and poetic, and every other form we can think of. It is beyond our ability to fully comprehend, it breaks down and exceeds the expectations we place on it, it is the living Word of the Lord.

In the beginning, the very beginning, there was nothing. All matter was formless. What we now know and see was a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, and inky blackness. And in the midst of this nothingness, there was something: God. And God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.

           The bible is far less concerned with explaining how things happened, and is far more concerned with proclaiming God’s handiwork. It comforts us when we are afflicted, and it afflicts us when we are comfortable. It can make us laugh and it can make us cry. It can bring us to our knees and it can propel us to dance on our feet. It identifies God as creator and us as creature. It harmonizes with the marvelous developments in science. It humbles us and exalts us. It is who we are and who we aren’t. It is God Word for us. Amen.

Devotional – 1 Peter 2.21

1 Peter 2.21

For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.

Weekly Devotional Image

The argument broke out during a discussion on the Philosophy of Religion with a few of my peers in college. “Dying for someone is the ultimate sacrifice!” someone yelled. “Don’t be such a martyr!” someone ironically interjected. The conversation started politely enough; I made mention of a passage from Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead and was curious what others thought about it: “I could die for you. But I couldn’t, and wouldn’t, live for you.” Before too long an argument had erupted regarding the necessity of physical sacrifice for others. A few of my friends adamantly believed that our ultimate call was to give our life for others so that we completely mirrored Christ’s life in our lives.

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However, one young woman was unconvinced. She stayed quiet for much of the fight but eventually, with a calm and collected voice, she said, “I think dying for someone else is easy. Not that Christ’s death was easy; but his death is not our death. Christ died for the salvation of the world, so that we would not have to. I think the far greater challenge is to live for one another. Living for someone else requires us to love the way Christ did. It would be so easy to sacrifice my own life for someone else. But to live for someone that I despise? Thats what Christianity is all about.”

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“For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.” For those of us living in the comfort of Christianity in the United States, our faith will probably never require us to give our lives. Christianity has become such an accepted reality that faith rarely frustrates or disrupts our society. However, we have been called to so much more than just sacrificing ourselves for others in death. The call of Christ on our lives is to sacrifice ourselves for others in the way we live. Just like the young woman proposed during our argument, to love someone that we despise is precisely what being a Christian is all about.

In this Easter season, a time of new faith, new beginnings, and new realities I wonder how we are all sacrificing ourselves for others? Today might be the best day to ask ourselves whether or not we are really following in the steps of Jesus.

Lord, Teach Us To Pray – Sermon on Luke 11.1-13

Luke 11.1-13

He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.” And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived and I have nothing to set before him.’ And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs. So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

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A few years ago I was given the opportunity to lead an adult mission trip to Guatemala, (nearly identical to the one Lindsey went on 2 weeks ago). It would be my responsibility to help organize the trip, make sure we had all the proper preparations taken care of, and then lead the adults while in the country. I was 19 years old at the time, and all of the adults on the trip were closer in age to my parents. “Stressed” doesn’t even come close to describing the way I felt between organizing the trip and making sure we all arrived in the country. I mean this in the best possible way, but that trip was the first time I really experienced what its like to be a shepherd herding sheep.

We had been in Guatemala for 24 hours when it was time for us to make the long bus journey to the village where we would be working. I don’t know whether it was the restlessness that accompanies an impending workweek, or if I just had trouble sleeping, but I woke up before anyone else and I walked around the town of Panajachel on the banks of lake Atitlan. By the time I made it back to our little bungalows I thought I was still the only person awake, so I made my way back to my room before breakfast. Because I was leading the trip in tandem with my home pastor, we had been assigned to the same room, and I quietly crept in so as to not wake him up. When I finally pushed the door open I saw something that stopped me in the doorway.

Jason was kneeling on the cold hard ground with his bible open on the bed praying out loud. I froze in the doorway because I had known Jason for 5 years and I had never seen him pray outside of Sunday worship. I could not hear everything he was saying, but it was one of the most beautiful things I had ever witnessed. And standing there in the doorway, watching my pastor pray on his knees, I felt convicted. In that moment I could not remember the last time I had talked to God.

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“Lord, teach us to pray.” On the lips of the unnamed disciple, this is one of the most revealing moments of the gospel according to Luke. From this one desire, this simple request regarding prayer, we get to take a step into the strange new world of the bible and hear Jesus speak from within the depth of his being: When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.”

How often have we wanted to ask Jesus the same exact thing? I can tell you, that as someone in the ministry, the only question I hear more often than “what will happen to me when I die?” is “how am I supposed to pray? Clearly this is something that gets at the heart of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ because even the original disciples wanted to know how to pray. In the same way that my pastor Jason’s prayer moved me to want to learn to pray, Jesus exemplified the importance of prayer for his disciples.

Throughout the gospel, Jesus is frequently in prayer and it carries an incredibly important image. At his baptism: “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened (Lk. 3.21). As he made his way throughout Galilee “he went to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God. And when day came, he called his disciples and chose twelve of them, whom he also named apostles (Lk. 6.12-13). Before Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ, Jesus had been praying alone, with only the disciples near him (Lk. 9.18). Jesus, Peter, John, and James were heading up the mountain to pray when Jesus was magnificently transfigured in the midst of praying (Lk. 9.28-29). The importance of prayer in the life of Jesus Christ was significant enough that even his disciples, who were with him constantly, wanted to learn more about the role it played in his life. “Lord, teach us to pray.”

So our Lord looked out at his disciples and said, “When you pray, say: Father”

Father. Notice: Jesus does not pile adjectives on top of each other, its not O Great and mighty most wonderful eternal and almighty God. Instead he simply encourages his disciples to say, “Father.” This word alone helps to signify how this prayer can be both personal and communal. The disciples are to call God “Father” in an intimate and connected way while at the same time recognizing that they have one “Father” to which they can pray together. By beginning with “Father” Jesus is inviting his followers to share in his own prayer life, hoping that they will approach God in the same way that he does.

As the prayer develops it is continually a prayer of a community, “hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread.” The plural language, mixed with the intimacy of the relationship with God, allows for this to be a prayer done in a communal gathering, or alone. It remarkably conveys the depth of mystery involved in a community of faith while affirming the desire for God’s kingdom on earth. Whether you pray alone every night before you fall asleep, or if the only time you pray is on Sunday mornings in church, you are connected to God, God’s people, and God’s creation

“And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.” There is a subtle difference in the prayer at this point as compared to the one from the Gospel according to Matthew, which we say together every week. Instead of “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who have trespassed against us,” Luke tells us that Jesus taught the disciples to seek God’s forgiveness of their sins as we forgive those who are indebted to us. Jesus is concerned with the way that we relate to God, one another, and to God’s creation. When we pray we are not isolated beings stratified from those around us, but we are personally connected with God through our brothers and sisters in Christ. According to Jesus, prayer is supposed to accomplish communal fellowship in such a way that we are not hindered when gathering as the body of Christ. This means that if we take seriously the words of prayer that Jesus taught us, we can’t ignore those sitting with us in worship, and everyone within the greater community.

Jesus concludes his prayer for the disciples by using a little parable to help explain true perseverance in prayer. Through the story of the friend asking for three loaves of bread in the middle of the night, we learn that prayer is to be continually asking, seeking, and knocking. “Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” Prayer is a learned experience, one that is continually cultivated. Prayer is not simply a release of feelings toward God, but a disciplined habit that influences the way we live our lives.

About a year ago, I was making regular visits to the shut-ins from a church in Durham, North Carolina. Every week I found myself sitting with all sorts of people learning about their pasts, and experiencing discipleship in new and exciting ways. Though most of my visits were often filled with excited dialogue there was one particular lady who never spoke. In fact, after meeting with her son, I discovered that she had not talked with anyone for some time. Whenever I saw her we would sit together, I would tell her about all the things happening at church, and I would eventually spend most of the time reading scripture. Her son was almost always with us in the room, and always politely thanked me for coming over but made it clear that there was nothing to be done. One afternoon, after reading from the Gospel according to Mark, I decided to try something new. I began to sing one of my favorite hymns: “Lord, I want to be a Christian in my heart, in my heart, Lord I want to be a Christian in my heart.” By the time I was halfway through the second verse I noticed that she started to move her head back and forth, and as I lowered my singing voice I noticed that she was humming along with me. I looked across the room to her son, and with tears in his eyes he started singing with us. This was the first time, in a long time, that he saw his mother communicating.

Before I left, the three of us held hands for prayer and when I started to say “Our Father, who art in heaven,” she joined us and said the words that Jesus taught his disciples.

It never ceases to amaze me how deeply profound our prayers can be. For that woman it was the hymns and the prayers of church life that stuck with her. They had helped to shape the life she led, and then helped to reunite her with her son that afternoon. When prayer becomes habitual in our lives, when communicating with God becomes part of who we are, our lives will be turned back to the one in whom we live, and move, and have our being.

Praying_Hands_-_Albrecht_Durer

My Christian hero, the Swiss theologian Karl Barth once said: “To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the world.” When we follow Jesus and allow prayer to shape our lives like it shaped his, we will begin to stand against the ways of the world. Prayer refocuses our perspective on the ways of God so that the kingdom can remain manifest among us. Learning to pray is much more than just learning a prayer, and we cannot simply learn to pray by learning to say specific words, but the repetition of such words are part of the discipline of prayer. Sometimes we don’t realize it, but every time we read the words of scripture we are praying. Every time we sing the words from our hymnal we are praying. Every time we greet others around us in love we are praying. Living a life of prayer is not easy, but it is more fruitful than we can possibly imagine.

Jesus’ own prayer life was obviously important to the disciples, and should be important to us. We learn from Luke 11 that prayer is about bringing to God our deepest needs and most perplexing trials and tribulations. Prayer is about waiting there in the midst of unknowing for light, love, and strength from the God who made each one of us. Prayer is the recognition and presentation of our lives before him as a holy and living sacrifice. Prayer is the understanding that true Christian living depends not so much on what we do and say, but rather what we allow God to do in and through us. Lord, teach us to pray.

Amen.