A model for kingdom living

Some months ago, as I was preparing a discussion for our community on the nature of prayer, it occurred to me that in responding to the unnamed disciple's need for instruction in prayer, Jesus really offered instruction in living the way of God's kingdom (Matthew 6:7-15, Luke 11:1-4). The Our Father, or the Lord's Prayer, lays out some concrete pictures of how we and our world were created to be.

Hallowed be your name.

A people who believe God is holy will live in ways that reflect that goodness. Praising and honoring God flows naturally into joining God's mission to bless and reconcile our broken world, and in a culture that has many gods our living in coherence with that mission brings honor to God.

Your kingdom come...

Jesus' constant theme was that the kingdom of God is at hand, that the healing and wholeness God promised were fulfilled in himself. So much of Jesus' teaching served to open his hearer's eyes and ears (sometimes literally!) to the possibility that God's kingdom is the reality that grounds and supersedes the earthly kingdoms we live in. If we believe that kingdom is here and now, our allegiances and priorities change, and we must say:

...Your will be done.

The Our Father teaches us that we must empty our egos and desires in order to discern God's will. We are creatures with our own wills, which are sometimes very strong. We have areas of influence (sometimes very small) where what we say goes. And we like that. Yet when we can yield our will to God's, we find that sometimes we are encouraged to continue on healthy paths, and sometimes we are challenged to lay down what is not useful and life-giving.

There is even a bit of control in praying this sentence, which only appears in Matthew's version. As if God's will can't be done if we don't ask for it! I look at it this way: If God's will is unfolding, then am I living in a way that furthers God's mission or hinders it? That is what I have control of.

Give us each day our daily bread.

Living in God's kingdom, living in harmony with God's creation, means learning to live with our human limits. Brian McLaren brilliantly points out in his new book Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope what happens when we live as if we're above limits: The rich keep storing up more wealth at the expense of the poor, we consume resources and release waste with little apparent concern for what we leave our grandchildren, and the growing prosperity gap creates global insecurity that sucks even more resources for defense.

If we concede that God truly provides what we need, then we might be able to escape the anxiety that drives this cycle of consumption. This is difficult for most of us, because we live in a world of manufactured desires that just happen to coincide with products available. God does provide what we actually need. (For example, the world grows plenty of food, if we could just get it to the people who need it.) But that might be a far cry from what we want.

Closer to home, I feel differently if I ask whether I have what I need now than I do if I think (read: worry) about whether I'll be able to live out my retirement dreams the way Dennis Hopper and Ameriprise promise.

Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.

We live in an unforgiving age. In the richest society in the history of the planet many go to bed hungry, and many more are one bad decision or unforseen accident away. We love to place blame. You don't have to wait long to see an example of rude, selfish or self-centered behavior. We're like the character in Jesus' parable who begs for mercy and then puts the screws to people who owe him far less than he was forgiven. Jesus says this over and over because it's true: We need to admit to ourselves that we are not who we think we are. If we are to be more like God, then we need to show mercy and forgiveness because that is who God is.

As I contemplate this beautiful prayer, I see it as a form of self-examination rather than intercession. God is holy, generous, and merciful (and so much more!). We can't pray this prayer to make God be more God-like than God already is. We pray it, instead, to change our hearts, and ask that they be made a little more like God's.


Holy slacking

I so often want to be Mary, but default to living like Martha. (Lk. 10:38-42)
“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things.
There is need of only one thing." (Lk. 10:41-42)
Anxiety and worry are constant companions for many of us. Bosses require. Kids demand. To-do lists grow. Financial pressures mount. The environment and the political climate are fragile. The respites we find -- vacation, family time, date night or perhaps immersing ourselves in a hobby -- are fleeting and easily undone.

Reading this story through the mental filters of our culture it is easy to view Martha as the responsible one, the doer, the "Type A," and to dismiss Mary as the slacker. Here she is getting out of work by listening to the Lord. The messages of our world are similar: He's not really doing his job, taking off for his kid's game. She'd be a better mom if she kept the house cleaner instead of playing with the kids all the time.

It's a misreading to see this story as Jesus' judgment on work or his validation of irresponsibility. Jesus is speaking on a completely different level, the level deep inside ourselves where we decide what is truly important to us.

Anyone who has thrown a party or hosted a Bible study or house church knows the work involved. It's considerable and it is important. Most of us have also been to gatherings where the host/hostess was so focused on the details of the gathering that they never really have a meaningful conversation with a guest. (If you've been to worship at my house you've seen my tendencies in this regard. Ouch!)

While Martha bustles, Mary sits in conversation with the Lord. I used to read this as Mary being the good student, dutifully listening to Jesus expound wonderful teachings. The more I read Jesus, though, I see him more conversing, challenging, engaging people rather than lecturing. He seems someone more at home at a party or a casual dinner than in a pulpit.

We think of Martha as the one with the gift of hospitality, making sure all is prepared. While that is important to allow connections to happen, it's Mary who, by honoring Jesus and being present with him, displays the kind of hospitality that marks the kingdom of God. It's not the Martha Stewart kind, with all the "good things" just so. Rather it's a place where guests and strangers (and hosts, too) are honored for who they are and attended to.

On the deeper level, this is a struggle I (and many people) face constantly. It is hard to spend time in relationship with Jesus -- in prayer/conversation, in Scripture, in contemplation -- without the worries and concerns of the day creeping in and taking over. (Right now I'm struggling to quarantine a mental image of my to-do list!) And while it gets easier over time, it never ceases to be a struggle. I have found in my own journey that practicing spending time with Jesus even if I don't want to makes the next time easier, and that skipping to attend to my tasks makes the next time harder.

What Jesus is saying here is that attending to our relationship with God is a kingdom value. Knowing Jesus does not eliminate tasks and pressures. But they pale in comparison to the blessing of being known by God. It's not that Jesus wants us to slack off and he'll cover us; though I think he is a big fan of sabbath and vacation and re-creation and other ways of living within our human limits.
Jesus' promise is that if we take the time to seek him out amid all the other stuff going on, if sitting at his feet is a priority, he will bless that time and the longest to-do list in the world won't take it away from us.


Seeing with our hearts

One of today's readings is the familar story of the Good Samaritan. Why was it that the priest and the Levite, who really should have been in tune with the injured traveler's suffering, didn't get involved? Were their religious duties too important? With their education and status, were they simply too self-important? Was it someone else's job? Were they simply scared? It's a bad neighborhood, perhaps the robbers were lying in wait for the next fool who stopped to tend to the injured victim?

What makes the Samaritan different? "He was moved with compassion." In other words he didn't see the tragic scene with his eyes or his brain. He didn't analyze the danger, or weigh the importance of his errand with the threat to this poor traveler's health and safety. He saw with his heart. He was moved by the plight of the injured victim, and he knew what he would want someone to do if it was him laying there.

And once he had seen with his heart, he didn't file the feeling away. He acted on them. He took responsibility, from bandaging the man's wounds to arranging for his care while he went on and took care of his business. Either the priest or the Levite could have done the same thing, tended to the man and seen that he was taken care of before resuming their work. But they didn't, because they lost touch with their compassion.

Jesus' summary makes it clear that it is not the person who knows about or thinks about the kingdom of God that we should emulate, it is the one who simply responds as a human being and, in the process, gives hands and voice to making the kingdom of God real in our midst.

I can think of times in my church life when I've passed by important opportunities to open the kingdom. It is easy to be deluded by the seeming importance of religious duties and just imply fail to see things as a person. I've certainly missed times to pray with, to help and to simply be present with people in the name of church -- and I am realizing how upside down that is. My prayer is to see those opportunities with my heart and simply respond, as Jesus would (and did).

The whole world's about to change

Bob Carlton posted a great meditation on St. Francis, based on David Crowder's new song, "Surely We Can Change," an adaptation of a song attributed to Francis. Enjoy!


Everything must change

Thanks to my friend Tom Kadel, I had the chance to read an advance copy of Brian McLaren's new book, "Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope." Last week Tom and I sat down for a podcast as part of his eMerge series, and chatted about the book for quite a while. Tom has our three-part conversation up on the web now. Check it out:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3