Monthly Archives: September 2011

after-WEAVEings: prayer

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John is teaching a class on Wednesday evenings right now, and the topic is prayer: what is it, what’s it for, how do we…etc. Last night the class talked about the Lord’s Prayer and what it teaches us about God and about prayer. A few highlights before we get to the really interesting part….

“Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be your name…” — right off the bat, we start by acknowledging God is much bigger and much holier than we are, we are but a moment, a grain of sand, in the vastness of God. And yet God knows and loves us like a perfect parent. So from the very beginning of the prayer, God is other, God is big, yet God is close.

“give us this day our daily bread…” — not “give us this day our daily lobster bisque” or “give us a week’s supply of donuts” but give us this day our daily BREAD…survival food. And not enough for tomorrow, or for next year, or for retirement, but for today. Give us today what we need to live today. This is a very in-the-moment, living in the present, do-n0t-worry-about-tomorrow prayer. It calls to mind the Israelites in the wilderness, being given manna every morning but not being able to keep any for the next day–learning that God provides what we need for today, and tomorrow will bring worries of its own (as Jesus says in Matthew 6).

And now the really good stuff: “lead us not into temptation…” — we talked a little about who is doing the leading and what is temptation? Why would we need to ask God not to lead us into temptation? Isn’t the point that we lead ourselves into temptation just fine, and God doesn’t want us to give in? Eventually we came around to the realization that: a) When Jesus was baptized, it says that the Spirit descended on him and then led him out into the wilderness to be tempted. So yes, God does lead people into temptation–at least Jesus, anyway; and b) the word translated “temptation” in Aramaic is a word that means “diverted from true purpose” or “whipped about like a flag in the wind” or “focus on the flashy rather than the real” or some such idea. So in many ways, that squares with the kinds of temptations Jesus experienced in the wilderness–to perform and to get glory for himself rather than to follow the path that points always to God and God’s purpose.

Thought of this way, lead us not into temptation sounds like a pretty good prayer, really–because we’re not asking God to please give up those tricksy ways where God somehow steers us in front of chocolate cake and someone who dropped 100 dollars or even whether to shop on amazon.com. This is not “God, please don’t use me for your next Job experiment.” This is “God, lead us in your path, away from the desire to put appearance ahead of substance, away from the desire to seek our own gain instead of yours.”

This led to an interesting discussion of what prayer is for–should we be asking God to do all these things, or should we be allowing ourselves to be the answer to prayer? In other words, the difference between a child asking a parent to do something for them vs asking for help using the skills they already have to figure out the next thing. Sort of a “do this please” compared to “can you help me do it.” When do we ask God for direct intervention, and when do we ask God to make us an answer to the prayers of others? And when do we just go and do it, rather than asking God anything at all?

No one came up with an answer to these questions…and, of course, they lead to further questions that relate to the book almost Christian (which we’re discussing on Wednesdays). if the purpose of prayer is not for us to talk to God, but to learn to use the skills we’ve already been given, then why involve God at all? Can’t we do that without ever spending time with God?

I think the answer may be found in the story that precedes the Lord’s Prayer. The disciples come to Jesus, who clearly has an active and deep prayer life, and say, “Lord, teach us to pray.”

What do you think? How do you pray? What parts of the Lord’s Prayer really resonate with you? Which parts are hard? Do you skip any words when you say it? Do you find yourself repeating any of it to yourself? What is prayer for?

online book group: Almost Christian

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At RCLPC there is a small group reading the book Almost Christian: What the faith of teenagers is telling the American church by Kenda Creasy Dean. This book is not about teenagers, though it grew out of the National Study of Youth and Religion. This book is about the church–what we believe, how we behave, what messages we are sending, and what faith we are passing on. (If you’d like to read it, you can get a copy, or you can borrow it from the church library–we have two copies available.)

The question of transmitting the faith to the next generation has long been a part of the faith experience of the western church (and probably other religions as well). Interestingly, it doesn’t seem to be as big a problem in other parts of the world, nor did it seem to be a big problem prior to a couple hundred years ago. Up until the generation that sparked the Great Awakening in the late 1700s, the idea that the next generation would not continue in the faith was fairly ludicrous. There may have been individuals that rejected it, or things that changed, but the content of Christianity was not experiencing a transmission problem. (If it had, all that Catholic? Anglican? Reformed? Catholic? Reformed? Catholic? Anglican? Reformed? drama in Britain in the 15-1600s would have been a moot point!) Obviously there has been a breakdown in our system, both in Europe and North America. When the culture shifted enough that we could no longer simply assume that the Christian faith and religion was being assimilated simply through every day life, the church lagged in developing ways to teach. In many ways, we still lag in our ability to teach what we believe and what it has to do with our lives, even as we have ready and waiting students! Simultaneously, we developed an aversion to rocking the boat (a holdover from medieval European Christianity, that got into bed with the empire and made playing the games of politics and culture a religious art form?). Soon, without even realizing, our Christian churches (and probably many other faith communities as well) had been colonized by what the authors of the NSYR call Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. It sounds nice, almost Christian, even, but it isn’t Christian. In fact, it’s an entire religious system built on being nice.

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism has a few basic tenets. Among them:

1. there’s a god, probably, and he made the world but doesn’t do much with it now. EXCEPT: if you have a problem, he’ll always be there to help you. (yes, the “he” is intentional–this MTD god is always male.)

2. this god wants you to be happy. and nice to people. nice/good people get to be happy and go to heaven. not nice/not good people do not get to be happy and do not get to go to heaven.

That’s pretty much it. You can see why the depictions of the moralistic therapeutic deist god are such metaphors as “cosmic butler” and “divine therapist.”

The difficulty, of course, is that this is not Christian at all. It has almost nothing in common with Scripture, nothing to do with our historic understanding of theology or faith or discipleship, asks nothing of us, and is so vague and floppy as to be basically worthless.

And so Kenda Creasy Dean asks whether it’s any wonder young people leave the church. Why be a Christian? Why be anything? You can believe both of those things and be a pretty good person without bothering with any of that religion stuff.

The problem here is not that we do not pass our faith on to our young people. The problem is that they are learning all too well what we are teaching them, and it is not biblical, missional Christianity that makes disciples and asks us to learn to be holy as God is holy. Instead it’s a pragmatic, get-along-with-the-culture, be-successful-in-life-and-work, be-nice faith. As Dean says, “At issue is our ability, and our willingness, to remember our identity as the Body of Christ, and to heed Christ’s call to love him and love others as his representatives in the world.”

Have you ever encountered Moralistic Therapeutic Deism? What do you see as the main differences between MTD and Christian faith? What does Dean mean when she says that if we are to reclaim our Christian theology and practice, the issue is our ability and willingness to remember our identity? What does it mean to be the Body of Christ, as opposed to the gathering of MTDists?

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In coming weeks, we’ll study this book together and learn what is happening and what we can do to change it. On Mondays we’ll be talking about what we DO believe, what is the content of our faith, what kind of theological and spiritual tradition we stand in–so we can be better equipped to live it and to teach it to others. Tuesdays will be a Bible study. On Wednesdays we’ll talk about the book. See you here!

With the Word online Bible study: where is God?

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Isaiah 45.14b-19 (Common English Bible)

“Truly God is with you;
there’s no other, no other God.”
Surely you are a god who hides himself,
Israel’s God and savior.
They will all be shamed and disgraced;
the makers of idols
will end up disgraced together.
Israel has been saved by the LORD
of everlasting salvation.
You won’t be shamed,
and you won’t be disgraced
forever and always.
For this is what the LORD said,
who created the heavens,
who is God,
who formed the earth and made it,
who established it,
who didn’t create it a wasteland
but formed it as a habitation:
I, the LORD, and none other!
I didn’t speak in secret
or in some land of darkness;
I didn’t say to the offspring of Jacob,
“Seek me in chaos.”
I am the LORD,
the one who speaks truth,
who announces what is correct.

What word, phrase, or image stands out to you in this passage? Sit with that for a moment. What does it bring up for you? What questions do you have? What connections do you hear (to other stories, images, art, movies, music…)?

How do you know God? How do you nurture your relationship with God? What kind of God is the God you know?

What do you make of the assertions in this passage–first that God is one who hides himself, and second that God didn’t speak in secret? Which of these is more like your experience?

What do you do when you feel that God is absent or hidden?

How does your head-knowledge that God is always present, that God is a creative force working for good, that God is found everywhere (not only in chaos and not only in calm), change the way you live? The way you think? The way you believe? would other kinds of knowledge (heart or spirit or body knowledge) change that?

God has a habit of revealing Godself to the people–especially to the Israelites. They know God through mighty wonders and deeds, through conversation, and through the creation. Other nations know God through the Israelites and their actions. How does God reveal himself today?

In the inter-testamental period (between the prophets whose writings we have in the Old Testament and the birth of Jesus), many of the Jewish people thought that heaven was sort of shut-up, closed…that God was not speaking or sending prophets or revealing anything new. Knowing that this idea came long after Isaiah, and that people had the opportunity to hear the prophet’s words in the synagogues and Temple…do you hear any of that in this text? Now imagine yourself in the time of Jesus, hearing this passage read. What would you think?

There are subtle hints here of a theme of light and darkness–do you sense that? What light do you see in this darkness?

Do you think God is still revealing things today, still sending prophets, still speaking?

This We Believe–Brief Statement of Faith part 3

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We trust in God,
whom Jesus called Abba, Father.
In sovereign love God created the world good
and makes everyone equally in God’s image
male and female, of every race and people,
to live as one community.
But we rebel against God; we hide from our Creator.
Ignoring God’s commandments,
we violate the image of God in others and ourselves,
accept lies as truth,
exploit neighbor and nature,
and threaten death to the planet entrusted to our care.
We deserve God’s condemnation.
Yet God acts with justice and mercy to redeem creation.
In everlasting love,
the God of Abraham and Sarah chose a covenant people
to bless all families of the earth.
Hearing their cry,
God delivered the children of Israel
from the house of bondage.
Loving us still,
God makes us heirs with Christ of the covenant.
Like a mother who will not forsake her nursing child,
like a father who runs to welcome the prodigal home,
God is faithful still.

This part of the Brief Statement is also in 4 sections–or 3 sections, one of which has an a and b section. 🙂

We begin by affirming again not only that we intellectually believe, but that we trust–a much more visceral, whole-body-whole-life kind of faith than only believing with our minds. Just as we trusted in Jesus Christ, we now affirm that we trust in God the creator, Divine Eternal Parent as some of our prayers say, the one Jesus called Father.

Who is this God? The One who created the world and called it good, the One who is Love, the One who made humans in the image of God, the One who speaks, the One who calls. We are called by this God to live as divine images in the world, in one community of love throughout the whole wide earth (as the old hymn says).

In the second section, we have a prayer of confession. We trust in this God, yet we act in ways contrary to God and what God created us for. Remember the story of Adam and Eve hiding from God in the garden? This statement/prayer suggests that we do the same all the time, like them seeming to believe that we can put off God’s discovery of our disobedience. And what kind of disobedience is this? Adam and Eve’s was not exactly straightforward–it could be considered an act of unfaithful eating, of listening to another voice above God’s, of willfully challenging God’s rule, of choosing to see the gift of the garden as a thing to be used rather than a gift to be taken care of, etc. There are lots of ways to interpret that story…but they all come down to one thing, ultimately: trust. Or lack thereof. The same could be said for the list of ways we rebel: we violate the image of God in others, we threaten death to the planet God gifted us and asked us to care for, we accept lies (other voices) as truth (god), etc. In all of these, we negate the very first line–that we trust in God. We do all, as humans, do these things. We may not think of them in this way exactly, but we do them. We choose not to see God in certain people. We treat the earth as if it belongs to us and can be used for our own gain. We shut out God’s voice in favor of others that better serve our greed/self-interest. As the call to confession says: “if we say we have no sin, we deceive only ourselves.” We cannot hide from God, who will always call us out from behind the trees and ask us what we’ve been up to.

But now to section 3a: God acts with justice and with mercy to redeem. In this a) section we have the historical evidence that God is faithful and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. God has made a covenant, called us to be covenant people, and even when we do not live up to our side, God will always uphold God’s side. This is what makes a covenant different than a contract–not that there are no consequences for breaking covenant, but that the consequences never include nullifying the covenant the way they do in a contract. Abraham and Sarah’s family was to bless all the families of the earth, and that is still true, regardless of the ways we have not managed that blessing. God has delivered the people from bondage of one kind or another throughout history, and there is no reason to think God would not do so again.

And in section 3b, the contemporary, in-the-now way God continues to act with justice and mercy to redeem: God is still love, whatever we may have done to try to test that. God is still the Divine Eternal Parent, perfect in love. The images are from Isaiah and psalms (the nursing mother who will not forsake her child) and Luke 15 (the prodigal story…is the prodigal the son, the other son…or the father, whose love defies all reason?). This is the God in whom we trust, whom alone we worship, and whom only we must serve: the God whose faithfulness surpasses anything we can imagine, anything that makes sense, anything we can replicate. This is what we are called to be when Jesus tells us to be holy (or perfect, depending on your translation) as our heavenly father is holy/perfect.