Father: The Lord's Prayer

FATHER We do not just join Jesus as he speaks to God.  We address God on the same terms as Jesus himself.  The issue of God and gender provokes a great deal of debate.  The church has banked on a great deal of unbiblical sexism and misogyny, much of it propped up by the Christian practice of speaking to and of God as father.  Here, we want to notice the direct teaching of Jesus.  Together, we address God on the same basis as Jesus does: a Son speaking to his Father.  This carries all the weight of a child speaking to a parent.  Good parents pay more attention to their own children that to other children.  Parents have a special obligation, duty and joy in attending to their own children.  So by the grace of Jesus, we speak to God as a child to a parent.  But that is not quite precise.  Jesus teaches us to speak to God as a Son does to a Father.  First, we should observe the way this teaching breaks down the ancient (and still modern) concepts of gender, privledge and power.  Jesus teaches men and women to address God as if they are the beloved Son.  The great American theologian, Johnny Cash, uses a similar verbal move in "The Man Comes around."  He describes the end of the age as "When the father hen calls his chickens home."

This peculiar collison of words helps us understand the relationship into which Jesus calls us.  Very early in Luke's Gospel we see the infant Jesus identified as the Son of the Most High (Luke 1:32, 35).  As a twelve year old boy, Jesus clearly expresses an understanding of the LORD God as his Father (Luke 1:49).  In teaching us to pray, Jesus teaches us that we approach God on the same basis and standing as he does.  Here is how that matters as we pray: when we pray, we join Jesus in Speaking to God.  As he prays, "Father....," we pray, "Father..."  Our Father. We don't pray in a way that is similar to Jesus; we come to God in the same way Jesus comes to God.

Holy Spirit

The Holy Spirit is baffling.  That seems  part of God's plan.  Christians believe God's Spirit caused the inspiration of scripture and works to let us understand scripture as we read it.  The first idea is called the doctrine of inspiration.  This second point is the doctrine of illumination.  We could think of the ancient monks who not only coped the words of scripture with immeasurable care and precision, they often drew pictures, or surrounded the text with design (The Book of Kells may be the most well know example).  These were not just decorations.  The art work is intended to help the reader understand the scripture more clearly, and to inspire devotion.  The drawings are given to illuminate the meaning of the scripture.   We believe the Holy Spirit illuminates the meaning of the scripture, as the ancient artists illustrated the scripture.

But the working of the Holy Spirit in Scripture itself is very puzzling.  Luke tells us about Jesus' baptism (Luke 3): the heaven was opened, the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus in bodily form like a dove.  The strange descriptive 'bodily' surely must mean that the Spirit made himself visible to the eye.  But the dove is a peculiar image.  It might remind us of the dove that Noah sent our from the ark.  It returned with a fresh olive leaf on its second journey.  So the dove is an image of assurance.  Or it may call to mind the doves that the very poor could use to participate in the sacrificial system of Ancient Israel.  The dove is a clear but always unresolved assurance of God's presence.  The Holy Spirit is definitely the presence of God, but never in a way that we can define absolutely.  Like fog or smoke or the flames of a fire, the Spirit is present but in ways that are difficult to name.

Or we might take the curious work of the Spirit when Peter and John visit the new church in Samaria (Acts 8).  Even though Jesus told his disciples they would carry the Gospel to the Samaritans, they likely looked on going to Samaria like we might consider being missionaries to aliens on another planet (thanks to Stan Mast for the wonderfully kooky link to books about Christian missionaries to other worlds!)  The Spirit once again moves the church in surprising ways, and not for the last time.  Peter and John lay hands on the new Christians.  The work of the Spirit is so powerful that a local magician, Simon, attempts to purchase this power from the disciples.  Why do we get no description of this manifestation of the Spirit?  We do not learn what actually happens.  Not only is that a curious choice by the author, it is spiritually puzzling.  Does the Holy Spirit not want us to focus on the particulars of how God works in one group of believers?  Is the passage meant to drive us to ask the Holy Spirit for gifts particular to our lives?  

Our: The Lord's Prayer

When Jesus teaches prayer, he begins by having us to assume the same relationship with God that he has.  He tells us to join him in praying to God, his Father.   He easily could have taken his start from the Psalms.  The Psalms often have us direct our words to God (Ps. 54,55)  or to the Lord (Ps. 18, 104, 105).  In fact, the disciples around Jesus probably knew many (all?) the Psalms by heart.  Jewish people of the first century had a pretty clear pattern of prayer ("They devoted themselves....to.. the prayers" Acts 2:42).  So when they asked Jesus how to pray, both he and they knew they were asking for something distinct.  Jesus teaches us to adress and call upon God's attention by saying "Our Father,..."

OUR It is easy and correct to see that Jesus is teaching us, his disciples, to pray together.  This is a wonderful encouragement--we are never praying by ourselves. Even when praying feels lonely or boring or futile, Jesus teaches a truth that is larger than the truth we feel at a particular moment.  We are not alone.  We do not pray alone.  Other people are praying as well, and with us.  But even more importantly we are praying with Jesus.  Jesus is praying with us.  We unite our voice with Jesus in address God.  When his disciples pray, we are joining Jesus in prayer.  

Jesus, never passed LIFE GUARDING 101

 Early lessons in water safety and life guarding: don’t put yourself in grave danger in an effort to save someone else.  It is always better to reach for the victims or throw a life line than to swim out to them.   I know several lifeguards who have ‘saved’ a drowning swimmer just by telling them to stand up.  A life guard may have to swim out to someone in trouble, but the life guard takes great care not to let the drowning person overwhelm them in their panic.  They approach from behind, preferably with a rescue buoy for the frightened swimmer to grab.  

Christmas completely ignores this wisdom.  In Christmas, we celebrate the Good News that the eternal Son of God became human.  Jesus is not a warrior or hero or even a fit lifeguard.  He became a week and utterly dependent baby.  The Son of God just jumped into humanity in his birth, then swam into the dangerous deep-end at the cross.  The Son of God rushes into the grave danger of the world.

Christmas celebrates God’s decision to join us with a reckless abandon.  Not only is God for us, God is with us, in the dangerous mess of creation.

Coded Hope

We have entered the season of wacky Bible readings.  A few weeks ago we read Luke 21:25-39 in church.  Jesus talks about signs in the sun and moon, a figure on the clouds called the Son of Man, then breaks out into a parable about fig trees.  To wrap up, he tells us not to get drunk.  This kind of Bible passage is hard to understand.  It is hard to understand because Jesus is speaking in coded language, and we don't follow this code very easily.  Coded language is meant to communicate.  Think of the quarterback calling at the line of scrimmage.  The other team does not know what he means, but his own teammates do.  Jesus speaks in coded language that draws on the rich pool of language in the Old Testament.

When Jesus mentions 'the Son of Man,' all of his listeners would immediately know he was referring to a particular passage in the Book of Daniel.  None of his Jewish listeners would have missed this reference.  It is much like asking church folks to fill in these blanks:

  • Daniel and the Lions______________________.
  • Jonah and the __________________________.

If you actually ask a Christian congregation to fill in these blanks they can: Den and Whale.  (Though one time I had a kid fill in the second blank with the word broom tree.  This is technically correct, but I'm pretty sure he was being a smart mouth.)

Jesus' listeners understood the reference immediately.  They did not have to go look anything up in the play book.  And more importantly, they knew 'the Son of Man' is a code for a reason to hope.  God is interrupting the normal and violent patterns of this world to bring his kingdom.

Every one around Jesus understood Jesus reference to fig trees.  They were as common and familiar to his crowd as blackberries and backyard tomatoes are to us.  Everyone knew that the fig leaves unfurling meant that summer was pretty near.  Summer brought sweet fruit.  The leaves were sign of something better on the way.

Sometimes we want to turn Jesus' coded language into bizarre predictions about the future.  Sometimes we just dismiss them altogether.  Both are a selfish mistake.  Rather than trying to make Jesus' language fit our expectations, we should open our ears and hearts to the hope he shares for the future.

Star Wars changed my life. I'm taking my kids, tonight.

Seriously.  Seeing Star Wars in 1977 caused me to experience the power of a story.  I  managed to talk my dad into taking me.  "Take me to see Star Wars.  Please take me, all the other kids have seen it, please take me."  "Well, what's it about?"  I realize now that no one in the United States could not have known the answer to this question in the summer of 1977.  But I gave my convincing answer.  "It's about a war, but in the stars!"  It worked.  Dad took me.  I was young enough to be kind of confused, but still entirely consumed by the power of the story.  I can tiell that the experience shaped me because the movie dominated how we played all summer and into the fall.  And winter and spring.  And the next year.  Mike thought Darth Vader was totally awesome.  Mike probably grew up to like the bad guy wrestlers, er, wrasslers, like Rowdy Ronny Piper.  Bart had the completly awesome, life sized model of the death star.  It wasn't life sized, in point of fact, but imaginitively, it was at least as big as the moon.  I figure any story that shapes the majority of children's play, that is a story with power.  So I'm taking the fam to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens.  

If you happen to care, please notice that the Christmas season is full of story.  Mary gets some serios news.  Joseph, too.  Jesus gets some presents.  John the Baptist screams at folks in the desert, and they kind of like it.  Rudolf lives inn a nightmare north pole, where being different shames his father.  (For real, have you watched the 1964 Rudolph movie recently?  The north pole is super weird.)

P.S. When The Empire Strikes Back came out, my folks rounded up my younger brother, a cousin and drove us across the Ohio River to a theater in Kentucky.  My parents are awesome.  When Return of the Jedi came out, my Dad checked me and my two brothers out of school and took us to the 1 p.m. matinee.  He didn't tell us he was coming, he just showed up, and BOOM, we are sitting with a tub of popcorn, sharing a jumbo coke and some Goobers.  My mom did not even find out about this until four years ago.  


I don't like to change my mind, but it is even harder to change my actions.  And a change of heart is harder still.  Often the best way to make some headway is to come at things sideways.  Sister Emily was right to encourage us to tell the truth but to tell it slant.

Frederick the Great of Prussia is known as the potato king.  People leave potatoes on his grave to honor his memory.  And this is fair enough, because King Freddie introduced the potato to Germany on a massive scale.  The potato provided people, notably peasants, with a cheap form of food that they could grow for themselves.  When the king first offered it to his peasants, did they rush out to welcome his innovation?  No.  Of course they didn't .  Peasants are shrewd.  They are suspicious of new things.  They ignored and neglected King Frederick's foreign 'taters.  So the king developed a plan to introduce the potato to the German people.  His plan was based on peasant shrewdness.  He planted a large field of potatoes near a peasant village.  He set an armed military guard over the potatoes.  By day, the guards fiercely protected the spuds, on the pain of death to any intruder.  But at night, the guard let down their guard, under the very command of the king.  The peasants knew anything worth guarding, was worth stealing.  Obviously, they acquired the potatoes, grew them and enjoyed the improvement for their family.  The King shifted the people's thinking.

Jesus shifts thinking all the time, often with his stories and sometimes with his actions.   In Mark 12, Jesus waits in view of the temple deposit system.  All day long men come to make prominent, gold clanking and silver tinkling gifts.  Then comes the thin tinkle of two copper coins from an old woman.  "Her gift is greater than everyone else's."  From a human account point of view this is silly.  Three coppers coins is more.  Two silvers coins is more.  One gold coin is more.  But Jesus is accounting by the Kingdom of Heaven standards.  

This is super good news for us, because the little bit we contribute is counted as more. Less can be more. It shocks us to shift our thinking.

Jesus teaches prayer

It is common, in some circles, to hear that there are no particular requirements for the words of our prayers.  We can pray however we like.  This advice is meant as encouragement.  It is true as far as it goes.  It does not go very far.

When his followers asked him to teach them to pray, Jesus gave us a very clear answer:

Our Father, who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name,
thy kingdom come,
thy will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread;
and forgive us our debts,
as we forgive our debtors;
and lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,
and the power, and the glory,
forever. Amen.

We give this prayer the name 'The Lord's Prayer.'  It is his prayer because Jesus gave it to us.  It is also the disciples  prayer because he gave it to us.  It is his gift to us.  Jesus was not giving us just a set of words to recite in prayer.  He gave us a pattern of prayer.  It has a beginning, a middle, and an end.  The beginning orients us to God: Our Father, who art in heaven.  We are praying to God the Father with Jesus, his Son.  The middle is a set of six requests.  The end is worship: For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory.  The pattern is meant to shape our prayer.  By shaping our prayer, it shapes our heart. 

First, notice that Jesus honors the request of his disciples.  He is not simply teaching us a prayer, but how to pray. When the disciples ask Jesus to teach them how to pray, it is while Jesus is praying.  He immediately gives them a clear answer: "When you pray, say...."  Jesus answers a lot of people with parables.  Parables are oblique answers to a question.  But when we simply and directly ask Jesus to teach us how to speak with his Father, he gives us a clear and profound answer.

You can find the Lord's Prayer in Luke 11 and Matthew 6. This is the first post on prayer and on the Lord's prayer.   There will be further opportunity to dive deeper and understand Jesus' prayer more fully.  

The Lord is with Joseph.

Genesis 39:20-40:23

“The Lord was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love.”  How can we tell?  What does that claim even mean?  Our reading makes the bold assertion twice, that the LORD was with Joseph.  It is nice to think of God mysteriously warming Joseph’s heart, whispering encouragement and hope for the future.  His circumstance and situation certainly do not obviously show God’s presence and love.  Certainly, we read that God gives Joseph favor with his jailer.  Joseph ends up running the jail, but he is still in the jail as a prisoner.  He is jailed for a sexual assault that he did not commit.  Joseph believes the LORD is with him, so he tells the baker and the cupbearer to share their dreams with him.  He believes he will be able to offer an interpretation, because interpretation belongs to God.   And Joseph believes God is with him.  We can believe the Bible narrator who assets that the Lord was with Joseph.  At least Joseph thought so.

God is present with Joseph in work. Running a jail is hardly glamorous work.  But Joseph does prosper.  His own jail keeper comes to trust Joseph.  If we look at Joseph's imprisonment in the light of his whole life, we see Joseph’s work at various jobs as part of God’s work to reconcile Joseph’s family. Joseph is trusted and successful in many positions: Potiphar’s steward, head trustee in the jail, advisor to the Pharaoh.  In his work, Joseph has something useful to do. Even more he is part of God’s reconciling work, even though Joseph does not know it.

Joseph does actually give the Pharaoh’s baker and cupbearer a sound interpretation of their dreams.  He tells them what will happen.  One will be restored, the other executed.  In the arena of his work, Joseph has wisdom to understand things that are hidden.  Somehow, he finds the LORD is with him.

It can be very hard for us to know in our heart that God is present, or to see his steadfast love.  Perhaps in our work we can experience God’s presence.  We may trust that our work is part of God’s reconciling work.


Simply Stated complexity

Think of some of the most calming experiences we can have: wind on a pond, watching a campfire, the smell of fresh baked bread, the rustle of leaves on a tree.  We experience these relaxing moments as simple.  Each one is filled with complexity.  Bread baking technology is thousands of years old.  The simple aroma of fresh baked bread combines hundreds of complex chemicals.  The aroma connects deeply into the memory of smell.  A breeze generates an infinite variety of angles and light retractions on the surface of a pond.  The same breeze in a tree overhead moves thousands of leaves. Each leaf is similar.  No leaf is exactly the same as any other.  We calmly watch leaves gently falling from a tree into the pond.  The interaction of air and leaves is far to complex for us to know which leaf falls next, or where exactly it lands.  All this complexity should overwhelm our senses.  But it doesn't.  A pond, a tree, a breeze combine to give us a moment of simplicity.  Simply stated considers the greatest complexity of all—God—and expresses that truth with simplicity.