Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Urgent Candy Delivery

Matt. 6:11 "Give us this day, our daily bread."

Out on the road the other day I passed a truck for a local candy company. Written across the back was "Urgent Candy Delivery." I laughed and then began to think.

Candy deliveries are hardly urgent in the way that, oh, organs to be transplanted are. And yet, most of us know the feeling the truck slogan represents. I did once perform an actual urgent candy delivery for a diabetic English teacher who took me aside in class and sent me on an emergency run to a school vending machine. But by and large, candy deliveries are urgent only in response to a craving, not an actual need.

As I thought about the phrase "urgent candy delivery," it reminded me of what we often do in prayer. In the model prayer Jesus gave us, which we now call "The Lord's Prayer," Jesus tells us to pray each day for what we need: Daily bread, forgiveness, release from temptation, delivery from evil. But many times our prayers completely ignore the daily bread and instead pray for the fulfillment of whatever craving is tempting us at the moment. We want the candy, and we want it now!

Sometimes that prayer is relatively benign: "Please, God, let the Red Sox win!" "Make her/him notice me." "Don't let it rain on Monday's barbeque." Or my father's favorite: "Find me a parking space."

But once we begin to see God as the source for our urgent candy deliveries, we are primed to pray for fulfillment of some of our baser cravings. We pray not only that we will pass the test but that others we dislike will fail. We pray that someone's spouse will not be home so we can make an illicit advance. We pray that public figures we disagree with or personal acquaintances that make our lives difficult will die. And Jesus is uncomfortably clear in the Sermon on the Mount (especially Matt. 5:21-48) that such thoughts are tantamount to the actual deeds they represent.

Perhaps the most dangerous thing of all in an "urgent candy" prayer, however, is the way that it changes our perception of God from the Lord who supplies our daily bread and delivers us from evil to the slave who does our bidding and carries out our basest desires. Praying an "urgent candy" prayer is dangerous to body and soul. But there is another way to handle those thoughts in prayer.

Remember that the Lord's Prayer is a model for prayer. Jesus didn't say, "Use these words and only these words when you pray." In Matt. 6:9, Jesus says "This is how you should pray." It's an example of the elements in a respectful and effective prayer. Praise and acknowledgement of God. A wish on the front end that it be God's will and God's kingdom that is effective on earth. Petition for what we need in the moment: Daily bread (not daily candy), forgiveness (which is tied to our willingness to forgive others), avoidance of temptation, delivery from evil, and then closing with a final acknowledgement of God's authority.

In that template for prayer, there is plenty of room to express our "urgent candy" prayers. They are properly done in the context of acknowledging that they represent a temptation we need help to avoid, an evil from which we need delivery, or a little request for something that would please us with the acknowledgment that God has no duty to provide.

God does not insist that we clean up our prayers to get rid of our honest feelings or desires. The Psalms would be gone if that were the case. But in the Lord's Prayer, Jesus teaches us how to frame the desires of our hearts--both the light and the dark--in a way that will still honor the God we love. Maybe we should recite it less often and explore it as a template more frequently.

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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Preaching the Gospel

Mark 1:14-16 "Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent, and believe in the good news."

This past Sunday I got "Joe Wilsoned" as I preached a sermon to a congregation on Cape Cod. It was relatively early in the sermon and as I mentioned that the Bible was difficult to understand and contained inconsistencies, a man shouted out "No!" I wasn't quite sure what he was going to do, as he fidgeted in his pew, noticeably agitated. But there were no more outbursts, he didn't walk out, and after a few minutes he physically settled back down. He did, however, speak to me after the service.

After quite a bit of conversation, I'm still unsure why his outburst came at the point that it did. He told me he was not a hard-core literalist--for instance he recognizes that the earth is more than 6,000 years old--but he fussed and fussed at me that I didn't move my sermon to an altar call and "preach the gospel." "It's all about the blood," he said. "People are going to hell and we have to tell them that Jesus died for their sins. That's the gospel, and that's all there is."

Well, I knew where he was coming from, since I believed that many years ago. Like this man, I had been trained to believe that "Jesus died for our sins" was it. That's the gospel. But then I saw that in many places across Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus preached the "gospel" and several times sent out his disciples to do the same thing. "Wait," I thought. "There was apparently some content to the gospel years before Jesus' death and resurrection. How can that be?"

So I looked for clues about the content of this "gospel" that Jesus and his disciples preached during Jesus' lifetime. The Mark passage above shows us what that content was for Jesus, and in Matthew 10:7 Jesus also tells his disciples to preach, "The kingdom of heaven has come near." The Greek word for "near" is eggizo which is not a word about near in time, but rather refers to being physically near.

The "gospel" or "good news" that Jesus and his disciples preached during Jesus' lifetime was not the gospel of Easter (which hadn't happened yet) but of Christmas. God has shown up on earth in human flesh. The kingdom has come near and is standing beside you bringing you healing and hope in a very physical, tangible way. That is not to negate the importance of Good Friday and Easter, merely to say that to see "the gospel" as only a doctrine of the atonement is, at best, incomplete.

In fact, on closer reading "the gospel" appears not to be a doctrine at all. "The gospel" is the news that God is willing to take those made in the image of God and fill them also with the Spirit of God. The "gospel" is the life of Jesus, from birth through death to resurrection to breathing the Holy Spirit into his followers so that that they may carry on his work (John 20:21-22).

That's why we call the records of the life of Jesus in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John "gospels." They are not just passion narratives, although those are critical. It's the whole life of Jesus--and even beyond. The only reason we don't consider the book of Acts (also written by Luke) as a "gospel" is because Luke ran out of scroll and had to start a second one, which we came to treat as a separate book. The gospel is not just the good news of what God did in Jesus, but also the good news that what God did in Jesus God is also willing to do in us, the Body of Christ.

Jesus could not be contained in the tomb. Neither can the gospel.

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Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Common Ones

flock of sparrows in a treeLuke 12:6 "Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And yet not one of them is forgotten by God."

Most of us in service professions get overwhelmed at times. The needs are so great and the resources so small, and often the smallest resource of all feels like our own time and energy. Even if you're not doing anything in particular at the moment, there is a constant weight of what is needed and what remains undone. The work of service knows no time clock.

On top of that, it can be thankless or even met with open hostility. Think of the way that community organizers were slammed and demonized in 2008 and you'll have a small idea. It's like that in religious service, too, and there have been many times when the question "Why am I subjecting myself to this? Why don't I just do something else?" has forced its way to the front.

When that happens, I generally go for a walk. And when I do, I unfailingly see sparrows.

When I was a young child, my mother used to sing hymns to me before bed. This is My Father's World was a favorite and, combined with her love of all living things, I learned from her that God could teach me through Creation just as surely as God could teach me through the Bible and through other people. Which is where the sparrows come in. At some point in ministry, as I pondered whatever set of trials and tribulations had driven me out for that walk, I passed a bush. It seemed like a regular bush, but as I got closer, it moved. It was filled with a flock of sparrows.

The message dropped like a 75 lb. package from UPS on my head. "You are doing it for them. For the little ones, for the common ones, for the ones that can be easily bought and sold with impunity, for the ones that kids think it's okay to shoot with bb guns. There are masses of them...they are as common as the sparrow and just as disregarded. No one listens for their songs, no one tries to attract them to their feeders because they don't have pretty colors. People get angry because houses made for purple martins or bluebirds get turned into public housing for unlovely sparrows. But God has not forgotten them and has sent you and others to care for them."

Whenever my own task has felt too overwhelming, the sparrows descend as a reminder. They fill the bushes. They are there at the dumpster behind the restaurant or on the city streets, hopping from here to there looking for crumbs. They sit outside my window, reminding me that I am in ministry because God has not forgotten them and I am part of God's provision for the sparrows of the world.

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