Monday, March 12, 2007

And Now We Pause for a Brief Intermission...

I know many of you are expecting the next episode of our exploration of Matthew, but I thought I'd write about something else this time. Frankly, I could use a break, and there's a few other things I'd like to touch on. So from time to time I'll take a moment to step aside from the Kingdom Gospel, grab a cup of coffee, and consider something wholly other.

Each year when Easter approaches I find myself getting into a number of discussions on the subject of Lent. For those in the Reformed/Protestant branch of the church it seems to be a complete mystery. It is simply not understood, the point behind the exercise being missed completely. I've struggled to explain it a few times, but have always been lacking a great example of what it is designed to accomplish. Then I came across this article while I was surfing the blogosphere.

Click on this link, read the article and then come back.... The Optimystique.

This is one of the best personal examples I've ever read on the subject of Lenten vows. Notice the writer's excitement about this new revelation as a result of giving up his/her music. This is the beauty and purpose of Lent.

Over the years many people have said to to me, "I don't understand what good it is going to do me to give up [insert personal vice here] for 40 days. It seems to be completely meaningless." This is often, but by no means always, because the individual has never developed the habit of meditation. The sacrifice of Lent is not an end in itself; it is a discipline which, when combined with meditation and prayer, helps us to discover things we would never have considered if the sacrifice had not been made.

In the case of Optimystique, getting other people's music out of his/her head has revealed a new music. It is perhaps a music of his/her own that was likely there all the time, just drowned out by the noise. The journey of discovery has begun. And that is exactly what lent is - a journey of discovery: about ourselves, about the world around us, about God.

When we remove something from our lives, be it coffee, music, or writing with commas, we open up the space that it occupied and afford the Holy Spirit the opportunity to show us what lies underneath. This is the purpose of fasting in general, to clear some of the clutter out of the way so that we can see what it is we have been stepping over. It is never about the sacrifice itself, it is about our response to the sacrifice and what God can show us through the way we respond.

How do we enter into this process?

First, decide on the nature of the sacrifice. It doesn't have to be food, as our blogger friend has demonstrated, it can be anything that has some personal connection for us. It might even be something that seems trivial, but it needs to be something that will take a measured amount of effort on our part to maintain.

Second, as we exert this effort to maintain the fast, take notice of what happens when we do. How do we feel, and what are the thoughts that run through our heads? Are they revelatory, or embarrassing? Does our response evoke a further response, or does it seem trivial?

Thirdly, pray about your response, or the lack of one. If you have a spiritual guide or director discuss it with them. They may be able to see patterns in your response that you are unable to recognize. It will likely help to journalize these thoughts, prayers and discussions.

Fourthly, endeavour to continue the fast. The journey is not a journey if we stop traveling. It is likely each revelation will build on the former, or not. You won't know if you quit. But if you do, that's okay too; half a journey is better than none.

Finally, when Easter arrives - reflect. Use the time between Good Friday and Easter Sunday to consider all that has transpired during Lent. Read over your journal and prayerfully consider your responses to the sacrifice you have made. Is there something of value therein that can be carried forward in your walk with God? If there is, then you will have all the more to celebrate on Easter morning!

Some years this process brings about much understanding and growth in me. Some years it seems to accomplish absolutely squat! Others, I will confess, I don't engage the process at all. But whenever I do, whether it yields tangible results or not, I can honestly say I have never regretted the experience.

I'm sure you won't either. So I encourage you to consider a Lenten fast. It's never too late to start, and it really doesn't matter if you don't finish, the Holy Spirit is remarkably adaptable.

Until next time... Shalom


Thursday, March 01, 2007

Thy Kingdom Come...

Prayer carries us half way to God, fasting brings us to the door of His palace, and alms-giving procures us admission.” - Quran

The are many things that separate the religions of the world, resulting of course, in the many religious conflicts we see in the news everyday. But there are three things that all of the worlds religions hold in common – prayer, fasting and the giving of alms.

As it is today, so it was when Jesus delivered his great m’drash on a Galilean hillside. Having taught the people regarding the law of Moses, specific to his Jewish listeners, Jesus now turns to those practices that were universal to all who might be listening. Romans, Greeks, Ethiopians, Persians, no matter what religion those gathered around him may have practiced, wherever they came from, these three practices would have been known and understood. What they did not yet know was how these things would be done in the new Kingdom of Heaven.

Alms-Giving - Matt 6:1-4

Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them...

On first blush there would appear to be a contradiction in Jesus' teaching at this point. Previously he had told the people to do their good deeds before men so that God would receive the glory for it. And yet here he talks about doing your charitable deeds in secret, and that God would reward in the open what is done in secret. The difference lies once again in the motivation behind the act.

In many theatres you will find small name-plates on the arms of the seats in the audience section. These, of course, are the names of people who donated funds to help make the theatre a reality, the nameplate on the seat recognizes their generosity for as long as the theatre stands. Among the names it would not surprise me to find there are one or two individuals who have never even stepped foot in the theatre, let alone attended a performance. They made the donation simply because they would get their name on a seat; the notoriety was the sole motivation for the gift.

Jesus tells the people that it is the same when we give money to a worthy cause. We need to safeguard against doing it just to be seen, therefore our giving should be done in secret. But actions speak louder than money; we must be sure the acts of charity which we perform, volunteering at the drop-in centre, building a home for orphans etc., are done in such a way as to be seen, but in a manner that gives the glory to the Father.

Prayer - Matt 6:5-15

And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites...

Again the admonition is to avoid doing things just to be seen doing them. There is also the clear reminder to whom we are praying. All too often we have heard those who pray-not to God, but to the people gathered around them. Their words are intended more to impress others with their piety and theological knowledge than they are to intercede for the matter at hand. Jesus speaks to the question of sincerity, not only in prayer, but in every aspect of kingdom life.

For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

Sincerity then, is the reason for Jesus' word regarding forgiveness. It’s interesting to note that in Jewish theology it could be said that they follow these words closely, even though they do not recognize Jesus as Messiah. Forgiveness of others lies at the heart of Jewish spirituality. Each year as the Day of Atonement approaches, it is the responsibility of every practicing Jew to do all he or she can to seek forgiveness from those they have wronged in the past year, and to forgive all who have wronged them. Only when one’s conscience is clear in this regard does one stand ready to move forward into the new year.

In this manner, therefore, pray:

Our Father in heaven, Hallowed be Your name.
Your kingdom come. Your will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts, As we forgive our debtors.
And do not lead us into temptation, But deliver us from the evil one.
For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen

It is very important to recognize that the kingdom is central to Jesus example of prayer. “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.” The earthly manifestation of God’s heavenly kingdom lies at the heart of Jesus’ quest. Everything else is part of it. “Give us... our daily bread”, “forgive us our debts”, “deliver us from evil”, all these things are designed to give God the glory by bringing His kingdom into place here on earth.

Fasting - Matt 6:16-18

Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.

I mentioned in a previous episode that sacrifice lies at the heart of worship. Why is that?

It is because only in the denial of self can we make room for God within us. For far too many who call themselves Christian today, their spirituality is just one small part of their lives that must line up and vie for attention with their career, family, hobbies, sports, etc.

Fasting reminds us that it is only through the denial of self that we can fully embrace the reality that is God. “It is no longer I who lives, but Christ which lives in me,” Paul told the Galatians. But like the other disciplines Jesus mentions, it is a reminder for us alone. Fasting works best when we are the only two who know we are fasting-ourselves and God.

This does not rule out corporate fasting, any more than avoiding wordy prayers rules out praying for long periods of time; after all Jesus did both. But it does remind us that it is why we do things that matter in the Gospel Kingdom. In all these teachings Jesus digs beneath the surface to root out the emotions, the motivations for the things we do in God’s name. While the law of Moses dealt with the act of obedience, the law of love that governs the Kingdom of Heaven deals with the desire to obey. We need not seek the approval of men, because the love of God is all that is required to motivate the citizens of the kingdom.

Until next time -- Shalom

Exploring the Gospel Kingdom - episode 11