Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The Distraction of Timidity

First my apologies to those of you who have been wondering where I've been. Though in the middle of a series I simply felt the need to take a break, so I took the summer off. I hope you can forgive me. But the breaks over, time to get back to work. If you would like a reminder of where we left off you'll find the last article here. Now let's get to it.

In the last article we examined the first two of three distractions to faith found in the closing passages of the "The Sermon on the Mount." Jesus tells the people of one more thing that will hamper our spiritual lives - timidity; specifically the drawback of timid prayer.

Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. Or what man is there among you who, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will he give him a serpent? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him! - Matt. 7:7-11 NKJV

In the movie "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" there is a scene where King Arthur (played by the late Graham Chapman) receives a vision of God. Immediately he hides his face and God questions him on it. The exchange goes like this...

GOD: Arthur! Arthur, King of the Britons! Oh, don't grovel! If there's one thing I can't stand, it's people groveling.
ARTHUR: Sorry--
GOD: And don't apologize. Every time I try to talk to someone it's "sorry this" and "forgive me that" and "I'm not worthy". What are you doing now!?
ARTHUR: I'm averting my eyes, oh Lord.
GOD: Well, don't. It's like those miserable Psalms-- they're so depressing. Now knock it off!
ARTHUR: Yes, Lord.

Irreverence and editorial comment on the Psalms aside, the movie actually makes the same point as Jesus. The prevailing view of God in Jesus' day was that of a punitive overseer just looking for a reason to withdraw his blessing and start handing out the curses. Sackcloth and ashes, a traditional sign of repentance and grief, became the standard garb required to get God's attention and the better one's groveling, the more likely one was to be heard. Lost on the scholars of the day was the example of Moses and Abraham, who boldly not only made their requests known but actually had the audacity to call God out when they had questions about his decisions. They lived out the offer God later makes in Isaiah 1:18 - "Come now, and let us reason together," Says the LORD, "Though your sins are like scarlet, They shall be as white as snow; Though they are red like crimson, They shall be as wool." (NKJV)

Jesus flies in the face of common opinion which said that such boldness was reserved for only those with a special calling from God. Instead of the overseer, Jesus portrays God as a loving Father who, like any earthly father, knows and understands the needs of his children and will readily provide them. In the Gospel Kingdom such boldness is not just for the prophets and priests, but for everyone, because we are all priests in the heavenly kingdom. Once again Jesus turns conventional thinking about God on its head.

But this is not all that he does. He also, in three rhythmic and succinct phrases, captures three distinct moods or attitudes of prayer. Ask - seek - knock; receive - find - open.

Words beyond number have been written over the years about the materialistic nature of modern prayer. Worship leaders express concern over the idea that every public prayer experience ends up a shopping list of things we want from God. And to be sure, in the context of corporate worship, there is a definite need for more prayer that seeks only to exalt, lift up and bless the Lord God for He alone is worthy of our praises. But in the privacy of the heart, in the intimacy of the gathering of two or three in his name, Jesus calls us to be bold and ASK. When we do He says, we shall receive. There is no timidity, no second guessing of our motives. If we know what it is we need - ask for it.

But some times we don't know. Sometimes we only know that we are in need. We lack the wisdom to specify what it is we would like God to do for us. When this is the case, Jesus calls to boldly SEEK the Lord's face. This is the time when, like Moses and Abraham, we can question God about what it is that He is doing in our lives. Not out of impudence, or arrogance, but in the bold surety of a child seeking to understand. "With all thy getting, get understanding" says the proverb (4:7), and where better to seek understanding than at the throne of God Himself.

On still other occasions we come to God in desperation. We feel distant from God, shut out. Left alone in the night with no one to protect us from the wolves that howl at the moon or the shadows that lurk in the doorways. In my mind it conjures up the image of the woman on the porch in the horror movie, pounding on the door of the farm house, begging to be let in before it's too late. Prayer becomes a desperate cry for salvation, a calling out for refuge from circumstances that would destroy us. But Jesus would have us know that we are never without a safe refuge. We have only to KNOCK on the door of the house of the Lord, knowing that when we knock in such desperation the door will always be opened in time.

Such timidity in our prayers comes from the mistaken belief that we are in control when we pray. Like the spells cast by the boy-wizard Harry Potter, if we can just get the words right and hold our tongue just so while we wave the wand called prayer then God will be obliged to give us what we desire. We don't think this way consciously of course (well, most of us anyway) but never-the-less there is still an attitude that the effectiveness of prayer depends on how we do it.

Boldness in prayer comes from the understanding that it isn't about us at all! Answers to prayer are God's and God's alone to bestow. He gives to each and every one according to His will, knowing what we need before we even ask it. And yet He still desires that we ask, because like a loving father he delights in the sound of our voices calling out to Him. Nothing develops the parent/child relationship more than just talking together and it is no less so with our heavenly Father.

Like a child secure in the knowledge that his/her father loves them and will never let them come to harm, we can ask whatever we will without fear, knowing that if we ask amiss he will not push us away, but will draw us into His embrace and help us to understand why what we want isn't best for us. But like a little child, we often won't truly understand until we get older!

Until next time... shalom!

Exploring the Kingdom Gospel - episode 13

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