Monthly Archives: July 2007

Korean Hostages In Afghanistan

Eugene Cho (Korean pastor in the USA) on the scandal of indifference and the need to pray:

prayer for hostages in afghanistan – day 11 « beauty and depravity

Technorati Tags: , , , , ,

About these ads

Holy Ground

On Sunday night, I preached
at a united service. It was held at All
Saints Church, Ulting
. The building has quite a history, and my friend Jim
Page gave me the leaflet he had written about it. There has been a place of
Christian worship on the site since about 1150 AD. There may even have been a
Christian meeting place there in Saxon times.

Not only that, some crop marks had recently become visible,
and I knew Jim was excited about these. I asked him to show me where they were
in the churchyard. As he took me to the spot (to the right of the building, if
you click on the hyperlink for the church above), he explained that a
geophysical survey that had been taken since their appearance suggested a
further building somewhere under the centuries’ accumulation of graves. Given the
particular location in relation to the River Chelmer, some are speculating that
this might even have been a Christian worship centre dating back to St Cedd, one of the Celtic
Lindisfarne missionaries who were tutored by Aidan, and whose exploits in this
region are – ahem – legendary. Chelmsford
Cathedral
is dedicated to him, as well as Mary and Peter.

It is awesome (and I think I use that word rightly here) to
stand on a spot where our ancestors in the faith have worshipped for centuries.
The last time I felt anything like this was an occasion about twenty years ago
when I stood in the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey and felt cleansed by being at a
place of prayer, after having felt so dirty from walking Glastonbury High
Street, which was so filled with occult shops. However much I believe that God
is to be met anywhere and everywhere, and that church buildings are not ‘the
house of God’ (because the people of God earn that description), I am
nevertheless aware of the need to acknowledge the sense of ‘holy place’.
Locations seem to be hallowed by worship and prayer. I am not sure that this
necessarily follows automatically from a bishop performing a rite of
consecration – although if that is done in faithful obedience, why not? I am surer
it is a consequence of the faithful worship and witness of the saints over a
period of time. I have similarly known people buy houses previously occupied by
Christians and experience a sense of peace there. Perhaps the house was
hallowed, too.

Exactly how we account for this theologically is difficult.
However, perhaps if we see God’s mission as the redemption of all creation,
then that includes the land, too. If Christians are in any way to ‘occupy the
land’ as Joshua was told to do with the Promised Land, it will not be with the
shedding of enemy blood, but with sustained prayer. And this is rather more
than the bizarre techniques for ‘city-taking’ found in some charismatic
circles, which depend on esoteric interpretations of spiritual warfare and
short-term prayer campaigns. No, I deliberately used the word ‘sustained’. This
is a spiritual and physical occupation. Dare I say it’s incarnational ministry,
rooted in prayer?

However, Jim had one more thing to show me. He took me to
the gravestones. He said there was one particular stone he wanted me to see. Although
some of the carved writing was fading, enough was clear to make out the
following: it marked the grave of a six-year-old girl who had burned to death
in the 1820s. She had an unusual surname. Regularly, even today, flowers are
placed by the gravestone. No one of the surname in question is known in the
area, although that of itself doesn’t prove this isn’t being done by a distant
relative. But perhaps a more likely explanation is that someone has been deeply
touched by the story. Maybe it resonates with a tragedy in his or her life. If so,
then the flower donor no more has a personal connection with the poor little
girl than most of those who mourned Diana ten years ago. I wonder whether you
could say that the little girl’s death becomes in some sense representative of
a later tragedy, but that may be putting it too strongly. It may well have
touched a raw, unhealed part of someone’s life in our day, though. The flowers
may indicate present-day pain. Where better than a place of prayer, a place of
worship where the Psalms, which so frequently cry out to God in anguish, are
read systematically? Where better? And what could be more fitting than for those
of us who gathered there to offer prayer for whoever leaves the flowers? It only
occurred to me tonight that maybe there was a case for leaving something for
the flower donor to find. It would have to be chosen carefully and sensitively –
after all, everything I have posited so far about him or her is only
speculation. They might not want to respond, for any one of many reasons. Yet my
guess is that here, today, on holy ground, the past has touched someone deeply
and Christ can meet that person.

Technorati Tags: , , , , , , ,

links for 2007-07-31

Staying Or Leaving

Matt Stone has written a post called ‘How
To Survive Church’
, which is aimed at those of an ‘emergent’/’missional’
outlook who have stayed in established churches. He does this in response to
the significant material already available on the web for those who have had to
leave and pursue new paths (see, for example, the excellent blogs by Emerging Grace and Robbymac). I found Matt’s post via Brother
Maynard’s piece ‘Surviving
Church
’. It prompted me to write down some of the reasons I stay in the Methodist Church, even though I frequently
feel like a fish out of water.

Firstly, why do I feel on the edges of Methodism? There are
several reasons. One is that I have found it to be a place of spiritual abuse. Others
tell horrendous stories of misused power in independent charismatic churches,
and often wielded by the leaders. My situation is different. I am in a
theologically mixed denomination, so this is not about theological issues (if
spiritual abuse ever were in the first place). It is not about dogmatism (yes,
there are plenty of documented horrors from, say, Roman Catholicism, but it
appears in my theologically plural circles too). It is fundamentally about
anyone who can grab a bit of power or influence using it for themselves against
others. I have seen or experienced it at the hands of wealthy people who put
large sums of money into church plant, some involved in choirs, retired church leaders
and so on. I even once had a group lobbying against me behind my back when I was
off sick with stress.

Another problem is to feel myself on the fringes
theologically. For a lot of my time in Methodism that has been because of my
identification with evangelical and charismatic Christianity. Until recent
years, such convictions have been pilloried in British Methodism. It is far
less so now, but I find that as I also embrace missional ideas too, that puts
me even further away from the expectations of traditional churchgoers. Not only
is it a long, hard slog attempting to lead a culture change from ‘attractional’
to ‘incarnational’ modes of mission, it evokes outright hostility in some. You expect
some of that as a leader, but some of it is incredibly vicious, as you
challenge established idolatries. To elucidate this as a reason may seem
surprising, given the Methodist Church’s rôle in the Fresh Expressions movement, but I
suspect that movement has more sway among leaders and activists than many on
the ground, whatever the statistics say. (And in any case, I fear some are
getting on the Fresh Expressions bandwagon as an act of desperation, given
church decline and the demographic time bomb facing us. All sorts of things are
claimed to be Fresh Expressions which are nothing of the sort.)

A further aspect of my alienation comes (as those who might
have dropped in here over the last year or two will be aware) from my
convictions about ordained ministry. As one Anglican friend once described me, I
am not so much low church, more subterranean! I am ordained to a ministry of
word, sacrament and pastoral care. It’s not that I think any of these are
wrong, but I see it as a deeply limited view of church leadership. Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch probably nailed my
unspoken unease in their book ‘The
Shaping Of Things To Come
’, with its emphasis on the fivefold Ephesians 4
ministry of apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor and teacher as the ministries
required across the church and especially in her leadership. I’m very much in
the ‘teacher’ end of things (although one Anglican colleague kindly linked my
teaching with a prophetic edge, too). I feel very deeply the need to complement
the pastors and teachers who generally do get ordained with those of an
apostolic, prophetic and evangelistic edge, who are frequently those thought
too maverick to be acceptable in the ordained ministry. By not welcoming them
into core Christian leadership we concentrate purely on the gifts that usually
build up the faithful and thus we reinforce an inward-looking church (which is
a contradiction in terms) Not only that, we also need to work in team
leadership, not solo.

Within this disquiet about ordination, I have another unease
with our approach to the sacraments. By usually
(there are some exceptions) restricting them to the presbyteral ministry, we
practice something like an old-fashioned trade union demarcation approach: ‘This
is part of the minister’s job description, and nobody else’s’. Apparently we
are the ones who are capable of ensuring they happen in good order. Not only
that, Methodism has gone distinctly ‘higher up the candle’ in recent years. I think
I’m right in saying that every Eucharistic prayer in the 1999 Methodist Worship
Book contains an epiclesis on the
elements, thus disenfranchising those of us who aren’t comfortable with a ‘real
presence’ approach to the bread and the wine. It isn’t that I lack respect for
those who believe that doctrine, but there seems no place for someone like me
who holds a dynamic-receptionist view of the sacraments. This is further
reinforced by a decision the Methodist Conference took around the same time, to
authorise ‘Extended Communion’. At first sight, I welcomed it: here was an
opportunity for ‘lay people’ (horrible expression, I know) to take Holy
Communion to those not at church – the hospitalised and housebound, even to a
home group. However they could only take elements that had been set aside from
a celebration of the sacrament at church, and use words that made this clear. It
has effectively become Methodism’s version of reserved-sacrament-lite.

I know there are certain people in Methodism who realise
there may be an issue of conflict between some of our long-held practices and
critical issues of emerging church. I was once told that Martyn Atkins,
our new President of Conference, was researching these issues. It will be
interesting to see whether his new book, ‘Resourcing
Renewal
’, provides the hope and challenge some of us need.

Finally, even at the age of forty-seven (yes, I know I don’t
look it!), it is easy to feel culturally out of place in Methodism. As one who
has grown up entirely in the rock generation, I find my culture largely unrepresented
and misunderstood. I remember talking to a much younger minister friend at a
Synod. She was a fan of ‘Big
Brother
’. It’s not my cup of tea, but she bemoaned how she could have made
several Gospel connections through the then current series of the show, but
knew that what made sense to her was a foreign language entirely to the people
she served. So I don’t think my experience is remotely unique. Perhaps it’s
like being an only child at a family gathering, where you are consequently the
only member of your generation, while the parents and grandparents, uncles,
aunts, and so on all find a lot to talk about and you stand out like a sore
thumb.

Well, that’s eleven hundred words of whingeing so far! I’ve
elucidated four major areas of disconnection or worse for me with Methodism:
spiritual abuse, theology, understandings of church leadership and culture. I thought
that at this point I’d turn to the advice Matt Stone and Brother Maynard give
in their posts to those who stay, rather than leave.

Stone suggests a number of reasons why some people might
stay. They are predominantly pragmatic rather than theological reasons. There may
be no other options available, unless you start one yourself (and not everyone
is up to that). Others may feel as alien culturally in an emerging church as in
an established one. Others stay for the sake of more conservative family
members (actually, my wife has even more trouble with ‘staid Methodism’ than I do,
but she wouldn’t fit culturally with an emerging church – it would be too
reflective and not ‘lively’ enough for her). Or maybe you stay, because if all
the mavericks left, the mainstream churches would sink even faster. Actually,
it’s not entirely fair to label all of those reasons ‘pragmatic’. The last two
reasons have as much to do with love, servanthood and preferring the needs of
others ahead of yourself.

He then offers ten strategies for those who choose to stay. The
first is to focus on Jesus, rather than idolising the church. Emerging Grace recently
quoted
Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

The man who fashions
a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others,
and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets
up his own law, and judges the brethren
and God Himself accordingly. He
stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of brethren. He
acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds
men together.

When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure. When his ideal
picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So he becomes,
first the accuser of his brethren
, then an accuser of God, and finally the
despairing accuser of himself.

It’s the old
problem of not joining the perfect church, for fear of ruining it. This is
important. Having said that, I would not want people to lose a passion for the
church. A theological college tutor once told me never to forget that the
church was a company of sinners. How I have come to recognise that fact. At the
same time, if I can’t hold out the hope that it is a company of sinners in the
process of redemption, we are sunk. Focussing on Jesus to avoid idolising the
church is important, but we have to be careful lest we fall into the old trap
used in evangelism of saying to people, ‘Look at Jesus, not the church.’

Secondly he says,
practice forgiveness. Amen to that. Being a minister has taught me far more
about the need to forgive than anything else in my Christian life. And I don’t
want to say that and assume I have been perfect or superior. I wince when I remember
some of my ministry deeds, too.

Thirdly, critique
constructively. Yes, of course we must be constructive. We have been ripped
apart by destructive critics. We must not stoop to their level. It is quite an
act of grace at times to maintain that when even the constructive approaches
get ignored, rebuffed or shredded.

Fourthly, choose
your battles wisely, says Stone. Indeed. You have to preserve energy! A question
I ask myself is, what are the issues I would die for, and what are the ones I may
dislike but will live with? I may not like the Methodist approach to
ordination, but (unless God clearly shows me otherwise) I have committed to
accept the discipline of the church, live within it and campaign for change. Whether
that is a forlorn cause, I don’t know, but for many years I haven’t felt any
freedom to depart from that approach.

Number five is a
similar one: choose your timing. For me, this is also about conserving energy,
which often feels in short supply if you feel like you are in a battle of some
sort, tragic as it sounds even to type those words.

Six is to give
credit where it is due – not everything about established churches is bad, and
amen to that. I owe my discovery of faith to being raised in the Methodist
Church. As I once heard Pete Broadbent say,
look at the title deeds of your tradition. Are they still Gospel? If they are,
rejoice and be faithful. Much as some individual Methodists seem to me to have
diluted the Gospel, our core documents still celebrate the Reformation
heritage.

The seventh strategy isn’t easy: if you can’t contextualise
Christianity corporately, do it for yourself. Do it in your personal expression
of faith if you can’t do it congregationally. If you push me, I probably do
that in my listening to music and even the reading of blogs.

Eight: forge support networks. That is something I have
needed throughout fifteen years of ministry. I have not generally found them in
the denomination, although circuit colleagues have often been good friends. Other
networks and gatherings of church leaders, along with conferences for leaders
have been vital for me. Humanly speaking, I think I would have gone under
without them.

The ninth strategy is to take your pain to God in prayer and
especially to use the Psalms. Well, this is something I have often recommended
pastorally to others! Which eighteenth century divine was it who said, ‘Most of
the Bible speaks to us but the Psalms speak for us’? Permission to bring hurt
to God and not the mask of the so-called victorious Christian is vital.

Finally, Stone calls people to seek the extraordinary in the
ordinary and celebrate small victories. I have done this but sometimes become
disillusioned later. I think, if that is all I have to celebrate, then heaven
help me! I find myself trumpeting certain things, and then thinking they sound
so shallow. Perhaps the problem is with me.

In response to this, Brother Maynard adds five of his own. I
think that although they have some overlap, he comes with a slightly different
concern. Stone seems concerned to support those who stay; BM appears to use his
list more on the ‘Should you be prepared to leave?’ axis. Anyway, here they
are:

Number one is ‘Divide your time, and focus outward’. That
seems healthy to me, not only because it takes you away from further pain. It makes
you missional. Debbie and I once had to endure an idiot preaching who said that
all Christians care deeply for you and no non-Christian does (all while he
pranced around the dais of a Baptist church like he was some evangelical
superhero). Our experience is somewhat different. It has been a pleasure to be
in the company of many non-Christians. Sometimes the ‘spiritual’ conversations
are much more rewarding.

Secondly, ‘Dig your own well’. This is the need to keep up one’s
own engagement with Scripture and prayer, especially on the troublesome issues.
At difficult times, I have to ask God whether I am right or whether I have got
it badly wrong, or whether there is something important I have missed.

Thirdly, ‘Discern your relationships’: which are the
relationships of substance that will last, and which ones won’t last if you
leave? Having to move on to new appointments in ministry, it sometimes
surprises me which friendships last and which drop away. If I could have
discerned them before going, I wonder whether I would have ministered differently.
It must be a gift to be able to do that. For me this is something that has only
worked with hindsight.

The fourth test is to ‘Determine your boundaries’. This is
rather like my comment regarding Matt Stone’s fourth theme of choosing your
battles wisely. BM says you should draw up a list and stick to it. Well, sort
of. Not that you should start rationalising or moving the goalposts, but
sometimes the thick of the battle shows you things in a new way and you may have
to redraw your list.

Finally, ‘Dispel your fear’. Fear is always a wrong reason
to act, he says. If you’re not leaving because you’re afraid, something is
wrong. I admit there have been times when fear has played a part in my inertia,
but ultimately there have been other factors, too. I may have been afraid to
quit or move on (and more so since marriage and children came along), but there
have always been other over-riding reasons – not least a sense of call. When I read
Frost and Hirsch’s ‘The Shaping Of Things To Come’ it precipitated a crisis in
my thinking about my ministry that had probably been lurking beneath the
surface for years. At my lowest point my wife said to me, if you quit now, what
does that say about all the many ways you documented over a long period of time
that God was calling you to this?

So here is my list, for what it’s worth:

(1) Is your church
still truly committed to the Gospel?
And I don’t mean simply in some
historic document that receives lip service: is there a reality, however
imperfect about it?

(2) Do you still have
a sense of call to the place where you are serving?
It’s not a bad practice
that Methodist ‘probationer ministers’ are asked during their two years of
probation whether they still retain the call with which they started out. That’s
a question that could be broadened out beyond ministers.

(3) What would you
die for?
What is an absolute non-negotiable principle for you (and are you
sure you are right, or is this a matter of pride?)? Is it something that is
core to your calling, or is it something of legitimate debate among your
church?

(4) If you are
wounded, how serious is the wound?
In other words, do you just need to step
back for a period, or do you sense it is so serious that the only way you will
find healing is if you step out of your current environment permanently and
journey to another place? If so, are you sure you’re not just assuming that the
grass is greener elsewhere? You will never escape the company of sinners.

(5) What is the
counsel of trusted spiritual friends?
I did once support some friends in a
United Reformed Church when they left their congregation and eventually set up
an independent church. The level of spiritual abuse against them was such that
there was no realistic opportunity for them to serve constructively in that
church again. Do you have people with a track record who can reflect helpfully
with you?

I’m sure there is more, but it’s late at night and I think
it’s time I drew this to a close. I think it’s also the longest blog post I’ve
written! Over to you for your thoughts!

Technorati Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

links for 2007-07-28

Sunday Evening’s Sermon: Prayer (2): Childlike Prayer

Luke 11:5-13

Introduction
Andrew Hamilton was born in Belfast in 1964. In 1974, his family emigrated to Australia. He became a Baptist minister, but eventually he and some others left the church he was serving to set up a Christian community in Brighton, a northern suburb of Perth. he thus dubs himself a ‘backyard missionary’. This last week on his blog he wrote a wonderful story about prayer, as it related to his six-year-old daughter Ellie and four-year-old son Sam. Here is an extract:

On a Monday morning after making the kids breakfast I let them know I was going to spend some time in my study ‘talking to Jesus’. They have seen me do this each day and it is just part our routine now.

My 6 year old daughter Ellie, asked ‘Daddy can I talk to Jesus with you some day?’

‘Sure honey’ I answered. ‘Finish your breakfast, grab your Bible and come in!’

I began wondering what to do and how to teach my 6 year old daughter to speak to Jesus…

She arrived five minutes later with her ‘Bible for Little Hearts’, a children’s book with one verse per page. As she sat on my lap we read two verses and discussed together what they were saying to us. We then took some time to pray for the people we know. She would pray a sentence, then it was my turn and so on. After that we would stop in quietness for a minute or so and ‘listen’ to Jesus, seeing if we could hear the voice of the spirit speaking to us. (Inevitably Ellie hears God telling her that he loves her!) The whole process took just 3 or 4 minutes, but I found she came back quite regularly in the mornings to sit with me and ‘talk to Jesus’.

Then a morning came when I was heading out for breakfast and I couldn’t spend the time with her. She was concerned, wondering what she would do, when I heard her say ‘Its ok dad, I know what to do now. You can go’. As I walked out the door I saw her sitting in my office armchair with her Bible open reading a verse of scripture. It was wonderful to see that she had ‘got it’ and didn’t need me there. But the most encouraging bit was yet to come…

When I got home that afternoon my wife told me that shortly after I had left, her little brother Sam came in and asked if he could speak to Jesus too. So, knowing what to do now, Ellie placed her brother on her lap and began to teach him the same process I had gone through with her. They read scripture, prayed for friends and listened to God. She was discipling her 4 year old brother and teaching him how to encounter Jesus.[1]

If you remember nothing else this evening, remember this one thing: Ellie and Sam show us that prayer is easy. It isn’t difficult. It’s a simple dialogue with the Father.

As I come to this theme of prayer tonight, I had the same reading of Luke 11:1-13 this morning in our Methodist service. There, I concentrated on verses 1 to 4, and gave a Cook’s tour of the Lord’s Prayer. Tonight I want to focus on the rest of the passage in verses 5 to 13: the parable of the friend at midnight, and the ask-seek-knock poem.

1. Parable
I firmly believe we have misunderstood the parable of the friend at midnight (verses 5-8). I’ll spare you all the technical scholarly details, but I am convinced that a scholar called Kenneth Bailey has shown us an accurate way to translate it and understand it in its original Palestinian context[2]. Cutting to the chase, let me suggest that a lot hinges on how we understand verse 8. In the New Revised Standard Version, it is rendered thus:

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.

The problem is with the words ‘his persistence’. The one who comes with the request is not persistent at all. He comes once, and the homeowner answers him immediately (even if not willingly!). Bailey argues that it should be translated ‘his avoidance of shame’. In other words, it is not about the persistence of the caller but the desire of the one in bed to avoid being shamed.

It makes perfect sense in the culture of the day. If someone turned up at night, needing food, as happens in the parable, it was the responsibility of the village to feed him. Guests needed bread, because they would use it as a sop to dip in the bowl and eat the food a host had put before them. If the host did not have enough bread, he would know who else had newly baked bread, and – provided he was not in a feud with that person – he could call on them for help. Failure to supply the visitor’s needs would be a slur on the honour of the village. Hence the man who is woken in the parable will grant his friend’s request, because otherwise he and the village will be brought to shame for their serious failure in hospitality.

Thus, the parable teaches us about the nature of God:

The parable said to the original listener/reader, “When you go to this kind of a neighbour everything is against you. It is night. He is asleep in bed. The door is locked. His children are asleep. He does not like you and yet you will receive even more than you ask. This is because your neighbour is a man of integrity and he will not violate that quality. The God to whom you pray also has an integrity that he will not violate; and beyond this, he loves you.”[3]

Come to prayer, then, to a God who loves you. A God who, for the sake of displaying that love and keeping the honour of his name, will provide your needs when you ask, and maybe more than that. You may have a simple confidence in prayer, because God is loving and honourable.

In other words, there is assurance for us here:

If you are confident of having your needs met when you got to such a neighbour in the night, how much more can you rest assured when you take your requests to a loving Father?[4]

Naturally, we adults have questions we bring to the subject of prayer – not least about the will of God, and about unanswered prayer. But however we resolve them (indeed if we do at all, sometimes), Jesus’ parable here still gives us a positive bottom line. God loves you so much he wants you to bring your needs to him. Do not be shy. Do not view him as one who only gives grudgingly, when he has his arm twisted or when he has been worn down by persistent requests (like the unjust judge in Luke 18:1-8). He is a loving Father. Come with the simplicity of a child, and bring your needs to your heavenly Father, who loves you.

2. Poem
The ‘ask-seek-knock’ language of verses 9 to 13 is like a poem.  Bailey[5] says it is a poem with three stanzas, each containing three double lines.

But if it is, to whom is Jesus singing? Whom is he trying to woo with beautiful words? Already in the parable, he has encouraged disciples to come in prayer to a Father who loves them, and who will not bear the shame of ignoring them. In this poem, Jesus may be singing to other people – his opponents, in this case, the Pharisees. The introductory phrase, ‘So I say to you,’ was one Jesus often used when speaking with his opponents. In verse 13, he says he is talking to ‘you, then, who are evil’.

The basic message seems beautiful, if almost inoffensive, usually: all will receive; all will receive and the gift will be good; the gift will be more than good – the gift will be the Holy Spirit. However, just imagine how that would rub some people up the wrong way. People who think that only a certain élite get spiritual blessings. People who aver that only the spiritually superior are in on God’s blessings. It is scandalous to such people to hear Jesus saying,

For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.
(verse 10, italics mine)

Worse, far worse, comes the punch line: they don’t just receive ‘good gifts’ (that would be bad enough!), they receive the Holy Spirit. Yes, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father in the Old Testament only gave to a select few, is now available to all and sundry who come in simple faith to ask the Father. It’s disgusting!

For Jesus, prayer is part of God’s ‘outrageous grace’. Access to God is thrown open to all. Prayer is not the preserve of the professionals, the specialists, the educated and those who have kept particular religious scruples and laws. It is for the ordinary pilgrim as much as for the spiritual hero.  It is for the obscure as much as those who hold rank in religious circles. It is for the child as much as for the experienced Christian.

I had a remarkable sustained experience of this when I went to my first theological college. I don’t have time to tell the whole story here, but the bare bones go like this: it was the days of student grants, not student loans, and the local authority declined my grant application. At the last-minute people started giving me money, and kept doing so for the three years of that degree course. When I wrote up some of the experiences, they read like the sort of things you only read about in exciting Christian paperbacks testimonies. I didn’t think they happened to nobodies. However, they do – because Jesus scandalously extends the invitation to ask, seek and knock beyond those who stand on platforms in front of thousands.

Just this last week I saw something similar, if briefer. We have had a friend from Sussex staying with us. Our children call him ‘Uncle Mike’. He is a handyman, and won the contract to repaint our children’s pre-school. As you can imagine, some of the weather these last seven days have not been conducive to painting the outside of a building. One afternoon, the rain came down. The next thing I knew, Rebekah, our four-year-old, was praying that Father God would stop the rain so Uncle Mike could get on with his work. And you know what?

We ‘grown-up’ Christians know all the difficulty with a prayer like that – weather that is good for one person is disastrous for another. But I know what I witnessed. Call it a coincidence if you must, but I am prepared to believe the interruption to the rainfall at that moment was a sign of the God of outrageous grace in the process of prayer. That he listens to a four-year-old ahead of experienced Christians is just another testimony to the crazy wonder the Father deals in when he turns all our human expectations upside-down.

Conclusion
Children have cropped up throughout this sermon. I began with the story of six-year-old Ellie and four-year-old Ben learning to read the Bible and speak to Jesus. When I spoke about the parable of the friend at midnight, I encouraged us to come to the Father with childlike simplicity. In speaking about the ask-seek-knock poem, I said that Jesus throws prayer open to the nobodies, including children, and told that story about our daughter and the weather. There is a strong call to bring the faith of a child with us when we are on our knees in prayer.

Am I saying we should not bring our difficult questions about prayer? Well, as someone about whom a teacher wrote in an early school report, ‘David never settles for the simple option when there is a complicated alternative,’ no! We cannot pretend that certain life experiences have not happened, and that they have not had an effect upon us.

However, Jesus’ call to prayer carries with it an invitation to embrace a new simplicity, a trust that accompanies our questions and doubts, a trust that stops those doubts morphing into unbelief, a trust that keeps us returning to the Father and sitting on his knee.




[1] Full story here.

[2] See Kenneth Bailey, Poet And Peasant (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), pp 119-133.

[3] Bailey, p 133.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Bailey, pp 134-141.

Technorati Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Sunday Evening’s Sermon: Prayer (2): Childlike Prayer

Luke 11:5-13

Introduction
Andrew Hamilton was born in Belfast in 1964. In 1974, his family emigrated to Australia. He became a Baptist minister, but eventually he and some others left the church he was serving to set up a Christian community in Brighton, a northern suburb of Perth. he thus dubs himself a ‘backyard missionary’. This last week on his blog he wrote a wonderful story about prayer, as it related to his six-year-old daughter Ellie and four-year-old son Sam. Here is an extract:

On a Monday morning after making the kids breakfast I let them know I was going to spend some time in my study ‘talking to Jesus’. They have seen me do this each day and it is just part our routine now.

My 6 year old daughter Ellie, asked ‘Daddy can I talk to Jesus with you some day?’

‘Sure honey’ I answered. ‘Finish your breakfast, grab your Bible and come in!’

I began wondering what to do and how to teach my 6 year old daughter to speak to Jesus…

She arrived five minutes later with her ‘Bible for Little Hearts’, a children’s book with one verse per page. As she sat on my lap we read two verses and discussed together what they were saying to us. We then took some time to pray for the people we know. She would pray a sentence, then it was my turn and so on. After that we would stop in quietness for a minute or so and ‘listen’ to Jesus, seeing if we could hear the voice of the spirit speaking to us. (Inevitably Ellie hears God telling her that he loves her!) The whole process took just 3 or 4 minutes, but I found she came back quite regularly in the mornings to sit with me and ‘talk to Jesus’.

Then a morning came when I was heading out for breakfast and I couldn’t spend the time with her. She was concerned, wondering what she would do, when I heard her say ‘Its ok dad, I know what to do now. You can go’. As I walked out the door I saw her sitting in my office armchair with her Bible open reading a verse of scripture. It was wonderful to see that she had ‘got it’ and didn’t need me there. But the most encouraging bit was yet to come…

When I got home that afternoon my wife told me that shortly after I had left, her little brother Sam came in and asked if he could speak to Jesus too. So, knowing what to do now, Ellie placed her brother on her lap and began to teach him the same process I had gone through with her. They read scripture, prayed for friends and listened to God. She was discipling her 4 year old brother and teaching him how to encounter Jesus.[1]

If you remember nothing else this evening, remember this one thing: Ellie and Sam show us that prayer is easy. It isn’t difficult. It’s a simple dialogue with the Father.

As I come to this theme of prayer tonight, I had the same reading of Luke 11:1-13 this morning in our Methodist service. There, I concentrated on verses 1 to 4, and gave a Cook’s tour of the Lord’s Prayer. Tonight I want to focus on the rest of the passage in verses 5 to 13: the parable of the friend at midnight, and the ask-seek-knock poem.

1. Parable
I firmly believe we have misunderstood the parable of the friend at midnight (verses 5-8). I’ll spare you all the technical scholarly details, but I am convinced that a scholar called Kenneth Bailey has shown us an accurate way to translate it and understand it in its original Palestinian context[2]. Cutting to the chase, let me suggest that a lot hinges on how we understand verse 8. In the New Revised Standard Version, it is rendered thus:

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.

The problem is with the words ‘his persistence’. The one who comes with the request is not persistent at all. He comes once, and the homeowner answers him immediately (even if not willingly!). Bailey argues that it should be translated ‘his avoidance of shame’. In other words, it is not about the persistence of the caller but the desire of the one in bed to avoid being shamed.

It makes perfect sense in the culture of the day. If someone turned up at night, needing food, as happens in the parable, it was the responsibility of the village to feed him. Guests needed bread, because they would use it as a sop to dip in the bowl and eat the food a host had put before them. If the host did not have enough bread, he would know who else had newly baked bread, and – provided he was not in a feud with that person – he could call on them for help. Failure to supply the visitor’s needs would be a slur on the honour of the village. Hence the man who is woken in the parable will grant his friend’s request, because otherwise he and the village will be brought to shame for their serious failure in hospitality.

Thus, the parable teaches us about the nature of God:

The parable said to the original listener/reader, “When you go to this kind of a neighbour everything is against you. It is night. He is asleep in bed. The door is locked. His children are asleep. He does not like you and yet you will receive even more than you ask. This is because your neighbour is a man of integrity and he will not violate that quality. The God to whom you pray also has an integrity that he will not violate; and beyond this, he loves you.”[3]

Come to prayer, then, to a God who loves you. A God who, for the sake of displaying that love and keeping the honour of his name, will provide your needs when you ask, and maybe more than that. You may have a simple confidence in prayer, because God is loving and honourable.

In other words, there is assurance for us here:

If you are confident of having your needs met when you got to such a neighbour in the night, how much more can you rest assured when you take your requests to a loving Father?[4]

Naturally, we adults have questions we bring to the subject of prayer – not least about the will of God, and about unanswered prayer. But however we resolve them (indeed if we do at all, sometimes), Jesus’ parable here still gives us a positive bottom line. God loves you so much he wants you to bring your needs to him. Do not be shy. Do not view him as one who only gives grudgingly, when he has his arm twisted or when he has been worn down by persistent requests (like the unjust judge in Luke 18:1-8). He is a loving Father. Come with the simplicity of a child, and bring your needs to your heavenly Father, who loves you.

2. Poem
The ‘ask-seek-knock’ language of verses 9 to 13 is like a poem.  Bailey[5] says it is a poem with three stanzas, each containing three double lines.

But if it is, to whom is Jesus singing? Whom is he trying to woo with beautiful words? Already in the parable, he has encouraged disciples to come in prayer to a Father who loves them, and who will not bear the shame of ignoring them. In this poem, Jesus may be singing to other people – his opponents, in this case, the Pharisees. The introductory phrase, ‘So I say to you,’ was one Jesus often used when speaking with his opponents. In verse 13, he says he is talking to ‘you, then, who are evil’.

The basic message seems beautiful, if almost inoffensive, usually: all will receive; all will receive and the gift will be good; the gift will be more than good – the gift will be the Holy Spirit. However, just imagine how that would rub some people up the wrong way. People who think that only a certain élite get spiritual blessings. People who aver that only the spiritually superior are in on God’s blessings. It is scandalous to such people to hear Jesus saying,

For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.
(verse 10, italics mine)

Worse, far worse, comes the punch line: they don’t just receive ‘good gifts’ (that would be bad enough!), they receive the Holy Spirit. Yes, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father in the Old Testament only gave to a select few, is now available to all and sundry who come in simple faith to ask the Father. It’s disgusting!

For Jesus, prayer is part of God’s ‘outrageous grace’. Access to God is thrown open to all. Prayer is not the preserve of the professionals, the specialists, the educated and those who have kept particular religious scruples and laws. It is for the ordinary pilgrim as much as for the spiritual hero.  It is for the obscure as much as those who hold rank in religious circles. It is for the child as much as for the experienced Christian.

I had a remarkable sustained experience of this when I went to my first theological college. I don’t have time to tell the whole story here, but the bare bones go like this: it was the days of student grants, not student loans, and the local authority declined my grant application. At the last-minute people started giving me money, and kept doing so for the three years of that degree course. When I wrote up some of the experiences, they read like the sort of things you only read about in exciting Christian paperbacks testimonies. I didn’t think they happened to nobodies. However, they do – because Jesus scandalously extends the invitation to ask, seek and knock beyond those who stand on platforms in front of thousands.

Just this last week I saw something similar, if briefer. We have had a friend from Sussex staying with us. Our children call him ‘Uncle Mike’. He is a handyman, and won the contract to repaint our children’s pre-school. As you can imagine, some of the weather these last seven days have not been conducive to painting the outside of a building. One afternoon, the rain came down. The next thing I knew, Rebekah, our four-year-old, was praying that Father God would stop the rain so Uncle Mike could get on with his work. And you know what?

We ‘grown-up’ Christians know all the difficulty with a prayer like that – weather that is good for one person is disastrous for another. But I know what I witnessed. Call it a coincidence if you must, but I am prepared to believe the interruption to the rainfall at that moment was a sign of the God of outrageous grace in the process of prayer. That he listens to a four-year-old ahead of experienced Christians is just another testimony to the crazy wonder the Father deals in when he turns all our human expectations upside-down.

Conclusion
Children have cropped up throughout this sermon. I began with the story of six-year-old Ellie and four-year-old Ben learning to read the Bible and speak to Jesus. When I spoke about the parable of the friend at midnight, I encouraged us to come to the Father with childlike simplicity. In speaking about the ask-seek-knock poem, I said that Jesus throws prayer open to the nobodies, including children, and told that story about our daughter and the weather. There is a strong call to bring the faith of a child with us when we are on our knees in prayer.

Am I saying we should not bring our difficult questions about prayer? Well, as someone about whom a teacher wrote in an early school report, ‘David never settles for the simple option when there is a complicated alternative,’ no! We cannot pretend that certain life experiences have not happened, and that they have not had an effect upon us.

However, Jesus’ call to prayer carries with it an invitation to embrace a new simplicity, a trust that accompanies our questions and doubts, a trust that stops those doubts morphing into unbelief, a trust that keeps us returning to the Father and sitting on his knee.




[1] Full story here.

[2] See Kenneth Bailey, Poet And Peasant (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), pp 119-133.

[3] Bailey, p 133.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Bailey, pp 134-141.

Technorati Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Sunday Evening’s Sermon: Prayer (2): Childlike Prayer

Luke 11:5-13

Introduction
Andrew Hamilton was born in Belfast in 1964. In 1974, his family emigrated to Australia. He became a Baptist minister, but eventually he and some others left the church he was serving to set up a Christian community in Brighton, a northern suburb of Perth. he thus dubs himself a ‘backyard missionary’. This last week on his blog he wrote a wonderful story about prayer, as it related to his six-year-old daughter Ellie and four-year-old son Sam. Here is an extract:

On a Monday morning after making the kids breakfast I let them know I was going to spend some time in my study ‘talking to Jesus’. They have seen me do this each day and it is just part our routine now.

My 6 year old daughter Ellie, asked ‘Daddy can I talk to Jesus with you some day?’

‘Sure honey’ I answered. ‘Finish your breakfast, grab your Bible and come in!’

I began wondering what to do and how to teach my 6 year old daughter to speak to Jesus…

She arrived five minutes later with her ‘Bible for Little Hearts’, a children’s book with one verse per page. As she sat on my lap we read two verses and discussed together what they were saying to us. We then took some time to pray for the people we know. She would pray a sentence, then it was my turn and so on. After that we would stop in quietness for a minute or so and ‘listen’ to Jesus, seeing if we could hear the voice of the spirit speaking to us. (Inevitably Ellie hears God telling her that he loves her!) The whole process took just 3 or 4 minutes, but I found she came back quite regularly in the mornings to sit with me and ‘talk to Jesus’.

Then a morning came when I was heading out for breakfast and I couldn’t spend the time with her. She was concerned, wondering what she would do, when I heard her say ‘Its ok dad, I know what to do now. You can go’. As I walked out the door I saw her sitting in my office armchair with her Bible open reading a verse of scripture. It was wonderful to see that she had ‘got it’ and didn’t need me there. But the most encouraging bit was yet to come…

When I got home that afternoon my wife told me that shortly after I had left, her little brother Sam came in and asked if he could speak to Jesus too. So, knowing what to do now, Ellie placed her brother on her lap and began to teach him the same process I had gone through with her. They read scripture, prayed for friends and listened to God. She was discipling her 4 year old brother and teaching him how to encounter Jesus.[1]

If you remember nothing else this evening, remember this one thing: Ellie and Sam show us that prayer is easy. It isn’t difficult. It’s a simple dialogue with the Father.

As I come to this theme of prayer tonight, I had the same reading of Luke 11:1-13 this morning in our Methodist service. There, I concentrated on verses 1 to 4, and gave a Cook’s tour of the Lord’s Prayer. Tonight I want to focus on the rest of the passage in verses 5 to 13: the parable of the friend at midnight, and the ask-seek-knock poem.

1. Parable
I firmly believe we have misunderstood the parable of the friend at midnight (verses 5-8). I’ll spare you all the technical scholarly details, but I am convinced that a scholar called Kenneth Bailey has shown us an accurate way to translate it and understand it in its original Palestinian context[2]. Cutting to the chase, let me suggest that a lot hinges on how we understand verse 8. In the New Revised Standard Version, it is rendered thus:

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.

The problem is with the words ‘his persistence’. The one who comes with the request is not persistent at all. He comes once, and the homeowner answers him immediately (even if not willingly!). Bailey argues that it should be translated ‘his avoidance of shame’. In other words, it is not about the persistence of the caller but the desire of the one in bed to avoid being shamed.

It makes perfect sense in the culture of the day. If someone turned up at night, needing food, as happens in the parable, it was the responsibility of the village to feed him. Guests needed bread, because they would use it as a sop to dip in the bowl and eat the food a host had put before them. If the host did not have enough bread, he would know who else had newly baked bread, and – provided he was not in a feud with that person – he could call on them for help. Failure to supply the visitor’s needs would be a slur on the honour of the village. Hence the man who is woken in the parable will grant his friend’s request, because otherwise he and the village will be brought to shame for their serious failure in hospitality.

Thus, the parable teaches us about the nature of God:

The parable said to the original listener/reader, “When you go to this kind of a neighbour everything is against you. It is night. He is asleep in bed. The door is locked. His children are asleep. He does not like you and yet you will receive even more than you ask. This is because your neighbour is a man of integrity and he will not violate that quality. The God to whom you pray also has an integrity that he will not violate; and beyond this, he loves you.”[3]

Come to prayer, then, to a God who loves you. A God who, for the sake of displaying that love and keeping the honour of his name, will provide your needs when you ask, and maybe more than that. You may have a simple confidence in prayer, because God is loving and honourable.

In other words, there is assurance for us here:

If you are confident of having your needs met when you got to such a neighbour in the night, how much more can you rest assured when you take your requests to a loving Father?[4]

Naturally, we adults have questions we bring to the subject of prayer – not least about the will of God, and about unanswered prayer. But however we resolve them (indeed if we do at all, sometimes), Jesus’ parable here still gives us a positive bottom line. God loves you so much he wants you to bring your needs to him. Do not be shy. Do not view him as one who only gives grudgingly, when he has his arm twisted or when he has been worn down by persistent requests (like the unjust judge in Luke 18:1-8). He is a loving Father. Come with the simplicity of a child, and bring your needs to your heavenly Father, who loves you.

2. Poem
The ‘ask-seek-knock’ language of verses 9 to 13 is like a poem.  Bailey[5] says it is a poem with three stanzas, each containing three double lines.

But if it is, to whom is Jesus singing? Whom is he trying to woo with beautiful words? Already in the parable, he has encouraged disciples to come in prayer to a Father who loves them, and who will not bear the shame of ignoring them. In this poem, Jesus may be singing to other people – his opponents, in this case, the Pharisees. The introductory phrase, ‘So I say to you,’ was one Jesus often used when speaking with his opponents. In verse 13, he says he is talking to ‘you, then, who are evil’.

The basic message seems beautiful, if almost inoffensive, usually: all will receive; all will receive and the gift will be good; the gift will be more than good – the gift will be the Holy Spirit. However, just imagine how that would rub some people up the wrong way. People who think that only a certain élite get spiritual blessings. People who aver that only the spiritually superior are in on God’s blessings. It is scandalous to such people to hear Jesus saying,

For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.
(verse 10, italics mine)

Worse, far worse, comes the punch line: they don’t just receive ‘good gifts’ (that would be bad enough!), they receive the Holy Spirit. Yes, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father in the Old Testament only gave to a select few, is now available to all and sundry who come in simple faith to ask the Father. It’s disgusting!

For Jesus, prayer is part of God’s ‘outrageous grace’. Access to God is thrown open to all. Prayer is not the preserve of the professionals, the specialists, the educated and those who have kept particular religious scruples and laws. It is for the ordinary pilgrim as much as for the spiritual hero.  It is for the obscure as much as those who hold rank in religious circles. It is for the child as much as for the experienced Christian.

I had a remarkable sustained experience of this when I went to my first theological college. I don’t have time to tell the whole story here, but the bare bones go like this: it was the days of student grants, not student loans, and the local authority declined my grant application. At the last-minute people started giving me money, and kept doing so for the three years of that degree course. When I wrote up some of the experiences, they read like the sort of things you only read about in exciting Christian paperbacks testimonies. I didn’t think they happened to nobodies. However, they do – because Jesus scandalously extends the invitation to ask, seek and knock beyond those who stand on platforms in front of thousands.

Just this last week I saw something similar, if briefer. We have had a friend from Sussex staying with us. Our children call him ‘Uncle Mike’. He is a handyman, and won the contract to repaint our children’s pre-school. As you can imagine, some of the weather these last seven days have not been conducive to painting the outside of a building. One afternoon, the rain came down. The next thing I knew, Rebekah, our four-year-old, was praying that Father God would stop the rain so Uncle Mike could get on with his work. And you know what?

We ‘grown-up’ Christians know all the difficulty with a prayer like that – weather that is good for one person is disastrous for another. But I know what I witnessed. Call it a coincidence if you must, but I am prepared to believe the interruption to the rainfall at that moment was a sign of the God of outrageous grace in the process of prayer. That he listens to a four-year-old ahead of experienced Christians is just another testimony to the crazy wonder the Father deals in when he turns all our human expectations upside-down.

Conclusion
Children have cropped up throughout this sermon. I began with the story of six-year-old Ellie and four-year-old Ben learning to read the Bible and speak to Jesus. When I spoke about the parable of the friend at midnight, I encouraged us to come to the Father with childlike simplicity. In speaking about the ask-seek-knock poem, I said that Jesus throws prayer open to the nobodies, including children, and told that story about our daughter and the weather. There is a strong call to bring the faith of a child with us when we are on our knees in prayer.

Am I saying we should not bring our difficult questions about prayer? Well, as someone about whom a teacher wrote in an early school report, ‘David never settles for the simple option when there is a complicated alternative,’ no! We cannot pretend that certain life experiences have not happened, and that they have not had an effect upon us.

However, Jesus’ call to prayer carries with it an invitation to embrace a new simplicity, a trust that accompanies our questions and doubts, a trust that stops those doubts morphing into unbelief, a trust that keeps us returning to the Father and sitting on his knee.




[1] Full story here.

[2] See Kenneth Bailey, Poet And Peasant (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), pp 119-133.

[3] Bailey, p 133.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Bailey, pp 134-141.

Technorati Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Sunday Morning’s Sermon: Prayer (1): The Lord’s Prayer

Luke 11:1-4

Introduction
Today is one of those rare Sundays when you have the misfortune to hear me
preach twice. Not only do we have this morning service, I am also the preacher
at tonight’s united service. That means two things: firstly, you have advance
notice, and if I see fewer than usual Methodists present this evening, I shall
guess why! Secondly, it means I have to write two sermons for today!

Now since both services are taking today’s Lectionary Gospel
reading of Luke 11:1-13, I
have decided to divide the passage in the following way. This morning I shall
explore the first four verses, where we have Luke’s account of the Lord’s
Prayer. This evening I shall look at verses five to thirteen, where Jesus gives
further teaching on prayer: the parable of the friend at midnight, and the
ask-seek-knock poem.

I feel encouraged to spend two sermons exploring prayer
after comments someone made last Monday night at our open meeting. I gather
several preachers have been mentioning prayer recently. Prayer has also been an
important theme in our discussions about mission, and we agreed on Monday
evening to set up regular gatherings for prayer, and explore occasional church
‘quiet days’.

So, then, this morning, to the Lord’s Prayer. But how can
you deal with the Lord’s Prayer in one sermon? In the past I have preached a
series of sermons on it; I have given a seminar on what it might mean in
today’s [post-modern] culture[1];
and I have given an academic lecture
on one petition in a series. There is so much in the Lord’s Prayer, and perhaps
we shall never plumb all its depths before glory!

However, the approach I am going to take this morning is
simpler. Much as I would like to preach a series on it, that is not practical
when I only get to preach here once a month. And I can’t split the Lord’s
Prayer into two halves, one this morning and the second tonight: that wouldn’t
be fair on the Anglicans and Salvationists this evening. I have opted to do
this: I simply want to examine what Luke’s account of the Lord’s Prayer tells
us about the character of God. I have identified six characteristics of God in the
Lord’s Prayer. That means only very brief comments about each of them!

1. Father
‘When you pray, say: Father’ (verse 2).

You can’t read the word ‘Father’ as applied to God in the
New Testament without the background of knowing that Jesus and Paul interpreted
this as the Aramaic word abba, the
affectionate word a small child used for their father. ‘Daddy’ might not quite
capture it in English, but it’s as close as we might get.

So for me, as one who came to fatherhood later than most, I can’t
help but think of a smiling daughter or son exclaiming, ‘Daddy!’ and running to
kiss me, throw arms around my legs or jump on my lap. Sometimes I think there
is nothing better in the world than those moments.

In that respect, I see Jesus introducing prayer as an
address to ‘Abba/Father’ as a sign that prayer is not a duty but a welcome. Not
that prayer is always exciting, but it is a place of warmth, a place of the
Father’s embrace.

But sometimes prayer to the Father does mean joy and
excitement. On Friday morning, Rebekah came back with Debbie from the end of
her weeklong summer holiday swimming crash course with two certificates. Her progress
had been fantastic. We decided to reward her with chocolate for one certificate
and an ice cream for the other. So, too, when members of God’s family come to
the Father, it is a place to celebrate joy, to weep together in pain and to
embrace mundane things. In that simplicity prayer begins.

2. Holy
Just because we begin with the welcoming nature of the Father does not mean
that we reduce prayer to a chatty mateyness:

When you pray, say:
Father, hallowed be your name.
(verse 2)

To hallow God’s name of ‘Father’ is, perhaps, the positive
New Testament restatement of the Old Testament prohibition of blasphemy. God’s
name is to be honoured, not defamed. For that we pray.

What exactly are we praying, though? It’s more than our
upset when someone uses the name of God as a swearword. It’s more than the
casual way in which we might attribute something to God without being careful: ‘God
said this’ – are you sure?

We pray that God’s name will be hallowed in our lives and
among us as a Christian community. It is thus prayer that we might have a
credible witness. It is prayer that we might be more worthy ambassadors for God’s
kingdom, that we will bring credit to his name, not dishonour.

And it is prayer for God’s name to be hallowed by others. In
that sense, this is a prayer for evangelism. As I said, it isn’t simply a
prayer against blasphemers; it is a
prayer for blasphemers and others – a
prayer that will find the joy of this wonderful Father. And when they do, they
will want to honour him in word and deed.

If we want to hallow God’s name, we shall want to be people
who are good news to others, good news in the name of the Father. Can we pray
that for our lives? Who are the people in our orbit for whom we are praying
that they might find the Father?

3. King
Let’s take it a bit further:

When you pray, say:
Father, hallowed be your name.
   Your kingdom come.
(verse 2)

The Father whose name we honour because it is holy is also a
king. He has a kingdom. He is the focus of the kingdom of God. The kingdom,
which we long to see coming, is not so much about us as about the king acting
with kingly power.

This is to say, Lord, there is nothing we desire more than to
see everything in creation line up with your will. (Which is why in Matthew’s
version, ‘Your kingdom come’ is paired with ‘Your will be done on earth as in
heaven.’)

‘Your kingdom come’ is language of petition and intercession.
We petition the Father that we might have the grace to do his will. And of course,
he answers that! He does not call us to do something and leave us without the
spiritual resources in his Holy Spirit to fulfil his desires for us. To pray ‘Your
kingdom come’ and mean it is to take our oath of allegiance to our Father who
is also our King.

Granted, ‘kingdom’ language may be more difficult today when
monarchs have only symbolic power. Brian
McLaren
has
suggested
we speak instead of the ‘revolution
of God
’. We are signing up for the revolution. That is a revolution in our
lives, and a revolution for the whole of creation. It is prayer for healing,
justice, and an end to poverty and war. The kingdom has begun to come in Jesus
himself, and we see it coming more when God performs his will; we pray for its
fuller coming.

4. Giver
Next we pray,

Give us each day our daily bread.
(verse 3)

Daily bread?
Surely God isn’t that concerned with physical and material things, is he?
Shouldn’t we just pray about ‘spiritual’ affairs? Should we not see this as a
request for the bread of heaven, the bread of life?

If you think that, let me take you to a village rubbish tip
just west of the River Nile, at a place called Oxyrhynchus. A hundred years
ago, some papyri were discovered. In 1925, a Swiss professor found the word
translated ‘daily’ here on a shopping list that also included chickpeas and
straw. As Jesus called people to pray for their daily bread, mothers were
sending teenage boys on errands to the baker’s, telling them to make sure they were
sold today’s bread, not yesterday’s stale bread.[2]

Jesus and the Father are very
interested in our material needs being met. Do not be ashamed about bringing
those basic needs to God. It is all part of his fatherly concern. I would not
see my children lack food or clothes. The heavenly Father feels the same, if
not more.

And in that respect, he often enlists us in answering these
prayers in others. Therefore, as we
struggle
to
find good news
in the midst of the current floods in the UK,
it was heartening to see news footage the other night of a church giving out
free bottled water. The Father longs to meet the needs of his children, so he
encourages us to pray. However, he also enlists us as his agents to take what others
need to them, and to change those structures and policies in the world that
prevent others receiving what they need.

5. Forgiver
And so to perhaps the hardest words Jesus ever uttered (and there is plenty of
competition for that accolade):

And forgive us our sins,
     for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
(verse 4)

I could spend a whole sermon on these words. I find it
curious but understandable that it is easy for us to pray, ‘forgive us our
sins,’ and we do that regularly – not least in confession during public
worship. However, rarely do we connect our confession with our commitment to
forgive others. Although one is sure to exist, I have yet to find a liturgy for
confession that ties the two together.

How do we tie our desire for forgiveness together with the
call for us to forgive? Our forgiveness is not just something we experience in
the present: it is something we shall hear at the Last Judgment. Because we
know we shall be forgiven, we forgive now.

But that still needs grace! How many of us find it easy to
forgive? Few of us, I would guess. ‘Forgive us our sins as we forgive’ can be a
way of asking the Father to show us things from his perspective. When we look
at the Cross of Christ, and when we think of what God has forgiven us, then the
barriers begin to tumble. So we pray for that divine insight, that heavenly
revelation that puts our petty refusals to forgive into the perspective they
deserve. And when we forgive, we are a sign of God’s grace to the watching world.

6. Deliverer
The final petition is,

And do not bring us to the time of trial.
(verse 4)

I think that’s a preferable translation to ‘Lead us not into
temptation’ (which at very least requires the corresponding ‘But deliver us
from the evil one’ that is missing from the best manuscripts of Luke). However,
even these words have their problems. What kind of trials? Are we always
delivered from them? Clearly, Christians do go through trials in their lives,
and some of them quite vicious – note the missionary nurses and teachers from
South Korea being held hostage
by the Taliban in Afghanistan. One of the twenty-three has already been executed.

Certainly, God sometimes allows us to face trials we would
have ruled out beforehand, but he graciously sustains in ways we could not have
imagined. Perhaps this prayer is that we might not face trials beyond our
ability to endure. If so, it is a salvation prayer – not salvation from our
sins, but salvation from being sinned-against.

God our Deliverer is in process of bringing a comprehensive
salvation as he ushers in his kingdom. Deliverance is not only in terms of
forgiveness, it also comes in the shape of holiness, as we are delivered from
the practice of sin, and in terms of justice and righteousness as he delivers
his creation from the presence of sin and its effect on victims. ‘Do not bring
us to the time of trial’ unites us with Christians around the world and down
the centuries, the majority of whom have suffered for their faith, but who one
day will be vindicated by God.

Conclusion
And that is where it ends: the prayer that began with a child sitting on Daddy’s
lap ends with the new creation, where there will be no more mourning or crying
or pain. May it be so soon. Come, Lord Jesus.


[1]
Seven pages of outline notes can be found here.

[2] On
this, see Eugene Peterson, Eat
This Book
, p149f.

Technorati Tags: , , , , ,

Sunday Morning’s Sermon: Prayer (1): The Lord’s Prayer

Luke 11:1-4

Introduction
Today is one of those rare Sundays when you have the misfortune to hear me
preach twice. Not only do we have this morning service, I am also the preacher
at tonight’s united service. That means two things: firstly, you have advance
notice, and if I see fewer than usual Methodists present this evening, I shall
guess why! Secondly, it means I have to write two sermons for today!

Now since both services are taking today’s Lectionary Gospel
reading of Luke 11:1-13, I
have decided to divide the passage in the following way. This morning I shall
explore the first four verses, where we have Luke’s account of the Lord’s
Prayer. This evening I shall look at verses five to thirteen, where Jesus gives
further teaching on prayer: the parable of the friend at midnight, and the
ask-seek-knock poem.

I feel encouraged to spend two sermons exploring prayer
after comments someone made last Monday night at our open meeting. I gather
several preachers have been mentioning prayer recently. Prayer has also been an
important theme in our discussions about mission, and we agreed on Monday
evening to set up regular gatherings for prayer, and explore occasional church
‘quiet days’.

So, then, this morning, to the Lord’s Prayer. But how can
you deal with the Lord’s Prayer in one sermon? In the past I have preached a
series of sermons on it; I have given a seminar on what it might mean in
today’s [post-modern] culture[1];
and I have given an academic lecture
on one petition in a series. There is so much in the Lord’s Prayer, and perhaps
we shall never plumb all its depths before glory!

However, the approach I am going to take this morning is
simpler. Much as I would like to preach a series on it, that is not practical
when I only get to preach here once a month. And I can’t split the Lord’s
Prayer into two halves, one this morning and the second tonight: that wouldn’t
be fair on the Anglicans and Salvationists this evening. I have opted to do
this: I simply want to examine what Luke’s account of the Lord’s Prayer tells
us about the character of God. I have identified six characteristics of God in the
Lord’s Prayer. That means only very brief comments about each of them!

1. Father
‘When you pray, say: Father’ (verse 2).

You can’t read the word ‘Father’ as applied to God in the
New Testament without the background of knowing that Jesus and Paul interpreted
this as the Aramaic word abba, the
affectionate word a small child used for their father. ‘Daddy’ might not quite
capture it in English, but it’s as close as we might get.

So for me, as one who came to fatherhood later than most, I can’t
help but think of a smiling daughter or son exclaiming, ‘Daddy!’ and running to
kiss me, throw arms around my legs or jump on my lap. Sometimes I think there
is nothing better in the world than those moments.

In that respect, I see Jesus introducing prayer as an
address to ‘Abba/Father’ as a sign that prayer is not a duty but a welcome. Not
that prayer is always exciting, but it is a place of warmth, a place of the
Father’s embrace.

But sometimes prayer to the Father does mean joy and
excitement. On Friday morning, Rebekah came back with Debbie from the end of
her weeklong summer holiday swimming crash course with two certificates. Her progress
had been fantastic. We decided to reward her with chocolate for one certificate
and an ice cream for the other. So, too, when members of God’s family come to
the Father, it is a place to celebrate joy, to weep together in pain and to
embrace mundane things. In that simplicity prayer begins.

2. Holy
Just because we begin with the welcoming nature of the Father does not mean
that we reduce prayer to a chatty mateyness:

When you pray, say:
Father, hallowed be your name.
(verse 2)

To hallow God’s name of ‘Father’ is, perhaps, the positive
New Testament restatement of the Old Testament prohibition of blasphemy. God’s
name is to be honoured, not defamed. For that we pray.

What exactly are we praying, though? It’s more than our
upset when someone uses the name of God as a swearword. It’s more than the
casual way in which we might attribute something to God without being careful: ‘God
said this’ – are you sure?

We pray that God’s name will be hallowed in our lives and
among us as a Christian community. It is thus prayer that we might have a
credible witness. It is prayer that we might be more worthy ambassadors for God’s
kingdom, that we will bring credit to his name, not dishonour.

And it is prayer for God’s name to be hallowed by others. In
that sense, this is a prayer for evangelism. As I said, it isn’t simply a
prayer against blasphemers; it is a
prayer for blasphemers and others – a
prayer that will find the joy of this wonderful Father. And when they do, they
will want to honour him in word and deed.

If we want to hallow God’s name, we shall want to be people
who are good news to others, good news in the name of the Father. Can we pray
that for our lives? Who are the people in our orbit for whom we are praying
that they might find the Father?

3. King
Let’s take it a bit further:

When you pray, say:
Father, hallowed be your name.
   Your kingdom come.
(verse 2)

The Father whose name we honour because it is holy is also a
king. He has a kingdom. He is the focus of the kingdom of God. The kingdom,
which we long to see coming, is not so much about us as about the king acting
with kingly power.

This is to say, Lord, there is nothing we desire more than to
see everything in creation line up with your will. (Which is why in Matthew’s
version, ‘Your kingdom come’ is paired with ‘Your will be done on earth as in
heaven.’)

‘Your kingdom come’ is language of petition and intercession.
We petition the Father that we might have the grace to do his will. And of course,
he answers that! He does not call us to do something and leave us without the
spiritual resources in his Holy Spirit to fulfil his desires for us. To pray ‘Your
kingdom come’ and mean it is to take our oath of allegiance to our Father who
is also our King.

Granted, ‘kingdom’ language may be more difficult today when
monarchs have only symbolic power. Brian
McLaren
has
suggested
we speak instead of the ‘revolution
of God
’. We are signing up for the revolution. That is a revolution in our
lives, and a revolution for the whole of creation. It is prayer for healing,
justice, and an end to poverty and war. The kingdom has begun to come in Jesus
himself, and we see it coming more when God performs his will; we pray for its
fuller coming.

4. Giver
Next we pray,

Give us each day our daily bread.
(verse 3)

Daily bread?
Surely God isn’t that concerned with physical and material things, is he?
Shouldn’t we just pray about ‘spiritual’ affairs? Should we not see this as a
request for the bread of heaven, the bread of life?

If you think that, let me take you to a village rubbish tip
just west of the River Nile, at a place called Oxyrhynchus. A hundred years
ago, some papyri were discovered. In 1925, a Swiss professor found the word
translated ‘daily’ here on a shopping list that also included chickpeas and
straw. As Jesus called people to pray for their daily bread, mothers were
sending teenage boys on errands to the baker’s, telling them to make sure they were
sold today’s bread, not yesterday’s stale bread.[2]

Jesus and the Father are very
interested in our material needs being met. Do not be ashamed about bringing
those basic needs to God. It is all part of his fatherly concern. I would not
see my children lack food or clothes. The heavenly Father feels the same, if
not more.

And in that respect, he often enlists us in answering these
prayers in others. Therefore, as we
struggle
to
find good news
in the midst of the current floods in the UK,
it was heartening to see news footage the other night of a church giving out
free bottled water. The Father longs to meet the needs of his children, so he
encourages us to pray. However, he also enlists us as his agents to take what others
need to them, and to change those structures and policies in the world that
prevent others receiving what they need.

5. Forgiver
And so to perhaps the hardest words Jesus ever uttered (and there is plenty of
competition for that accolade):

And forgive us our sins,
     for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
(verse 4)

I could spend a whole sermon on these words. I find it
curious but understandable that it is easy for us to pray, ‘forgive us our
sins,’ and we do that regularly – not least in confession during public
worship. However, rarely do we connect our confession with our commitment to
forgive others. Although one is sure to exist, I have yet to find a liturgy for
confession that ties the two together.

How do we tie our desire for forgiveness together with the
call for us to forgive? Our forgiveness is not just something we experience in
the present: it is something we shall hear at the Last Judgment. Because we
know we shall be forgiven, we forgive now.

But that still needs grace! How many of us find it easy to
forgive? Few of us, I would guess. ‘Forgive us our sins as we forgive’ can be a
way of asking the Father to show us things from his perspective. When we look
at the Cross of Christ, and when we think of what God has forgiven us, then the
barriers begin to tumble. So we pray for that divine insight, that heavenly
revelation that puts our petty refusals to forgive into the perspective they
deserve. And when we forgive, we are a sign of God’s grace to the watching world.

6. Deliverer
The final petition is,

And do not bring us to the time of trial.
(verse 4)

I think that’s a preferable translation to ‘Lead us not into
temptation’ (which at very least requires the corresponding ‘But deliver us
from the evil one’ that is missing from the best manuscripts of Luke). However,
even these words have their problems. What kind of trials? Are we always
delivered from them? Clearly, Christians do go through trials in their lives,
and some of them quite vicious – note the missionary nurses and teachers from
South Korea being held hostage
by the Taliban in Afghanistan. One of the twenty-three has already been executed.

Certainly, God sometimes allows us to face trials we would
have ruled out beforehand, but he graciously sustains in ways we could not have
imagined. Perhaps this prayer is that we might not face trials beyond our
ability to endure. If so, it is a salvation prayer – not salvation from our
sins, but salvation from being sinned-against.

God our Deliverer is in process of bringing a comprehensive
salvation as he ushers in his kingdom. Deliverance is not only in terms of
forgiveness, it also comes in the shape of holiness, as we are delivered from
the practice of sin, and in terms of justice and righteousness as he delivers
his creation from the presence of sin and its effect on victims. ‘Do not bring
us to the time of trial’ unites us with Christians around the world and down
the centuries, the majority of whom have suffered for their faith, but who one
day will be vindicated by God.

Conclusion
And that is where it ends: the prayer that began with a child sitting on Daddy’s
lap ends with the new creation, where there will be no more mourning or crying
or pain. May it be so soon. Come, Lord Jesus.


[1]
Seven pages of outline notes can be found here.

[2] On
this, see Eugene Peterson, Eat
This Book
, p149f.

Technorati Tags: , , , , ,

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,198 other followers