Reframed: Picturing Faith with the Next Generation
Jill is a writer, speaker, pastor, and mom of three mostly awesome young women. She is a dispenser of grace and a pusher of courage. She also believes in the power of Earl Grey tea, chocolate, a beach day, old musicals, and the Cubs. And God.
Well yes, I do chase waterfalls. Scrambling over wet rocks, climbing higher in spray, jumping down them to solid ground below—that was my perfect road trip afternoon for most of my life.
These days, Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome exacts a painful price if I try that. Every step on uneven terrain has potential for a turned ankle or a fall. I climb and descend—but slowly, carefully, watching every single foot placement and evaluating the next one for security. Recovery for a mistake takes far longer now than it did when I could jump up and dust off the skid marks from my backside.
It’s slow. It’s not the joyful abandon of earlier days. I sometimes can’t appreciate the vista around me for the attention to detail below me. But it’s reality, and ignoring reality isn’t wise for anyone, regardless of natural ability.
On our September trip to five national parks out west, I learned this again and again. Watch where you’re going. Calculate where your steps will lead. Be ready if the footing shifts.
I don’t like it. It’s not my personality. I think, though, it’s a good lesson.
It’s Not Just Hiking
This process describes most of my life as a church leader, too. I used to have no worries about scurrying down the hill, quickly sidestepping roadblocks, creating plans B and C on the way.
“Throw is at the wall and see what sticks.”
“Don’t be afraid to fail.”
“Just do it.”
I’m not suggesting these outlooks are wrong. They served me well. One of the things I wish young people believed more was that failing is not fatal. Having the courage to let go of control would benefit more church leaders and their people.
It’s just that perhaps, some of us are in a different time now as leaders—whether of churches, families, organizations, or volunteer brigades. Maybe those of us who have been up and down the waterfall a few times have a different job. Maybe it’s our calling now to proceed with more caution.
Experience Teaches Something about Jumping
A jump is a commitment. I tended to make those commitments before. Now, I’m more cautious, knowing there are perils I can’t see until I’m balancing on the rock. Perhaps in lieu of jumping higher right now, It’s my call to look down.
I have the experience to yell back to others—
“Hey, that rock has some solid spots, but don’t put both feet there. Stay aware of its weaknesses. Be ready for when it lets you down.”
“You can choose that route, but you won’t recover from a fall from that path. You’ll wash out at the bottom. Stronger than you have tried.”
“You’re in the weeds. I know it looks like there isn’t a path because pain or confusion has covered what you thought you knew. But there are footholds there that will hold you. I know this. I’ve been held.”
“You can do this. The reward is worth it. Keep going!”
The trail has been blazed for those coming behind me with leaps and skids, with triumphant sprays of joy and frightening slides. Now could be my time to create a different path. One that makes clear where the footing is solid and won’t fail beneath. A path that shows where and wh
A call from my place of experience that says, yes, there are dozens of ways to get up and down these rocks, but don’t put all your faith in one outcropping, and don’t forget there is solid footing to which you can always return.
Now I’m looking ahead enough before every step to instinctively know when recovery will be too difficult if I choose one direction, when one path will get me to the goal albeit slower, and what my limits are either way.
It’s my turn to travel slowly, deliberately, and wisely, knowing the leapers and jumpers behind me may choose other routes, but they will know, from what I’ve laid out, where sure footing lies. They can return to it. It will hold.
Hearing someone describe the sport of cricket reminds me of Dr. Seuss’ grinch kvetching about Christmas morning chaos. “And they’ll play noisy games like zoozit and kazay, a rollerskate type of lacrosse and croquet!”
Mixing bats, balls, wickets, and bowling sounds like a sport that can’t make up its mind.
This means, by the way, that she spins the ball with the fingers of her left hand, attempting to trick a batter into believing the ball will strike the ground and bounce one way when it will, in fact, go quite the opposite direction. Spin bowlers rely on deception rather than speed (hence the addition of slow in the description) to strike out their opponents.
Why do I know this? I’m taking a Master writing class (veery slowly) from Malcolm Gladwell. He’s who I want to be when I grow up. The first assignment was to accept a randomly generated topic and write an article about it. My assigned topic? Rajeshwari Gayakwad.
You won’t be surprised I’d never heard of her, given my obvious knowledge of cricket. I thought—how can I write an article on this person and sport I don’t really know, or care, one bit about?
Then a funny thing happened. The more I read about her, the more interested I became in cricket. By the end of the article, I was googling world titles, country stats, and discrimination in India like I wanted to write a book on it.
I’d found commonalities with Raj. She also lost a parent very young. The feeling of responsibility that creates toward the surviving parent empowers her, while it nearly destroyed me.
She knows what it’s like to be a woman in a man’s profession. She understands far more than I do how a culture can work to hold women in their assigned places, even and especially talented, ambitious ones. Her defiant post— “I Was Told Cricket Is Not A Girl’s Game,” resonates with this woman who was told the same about pastoring.
She wants to make her profession better for the women who come after her, as do I.
A woman on the other side of the world suddenly mattered to me. Her success at playing cricket, inspiring girls, and buying her widowed mother a house mattered. It mattered because I had taken the time to learn about her, even when I thought it was a strange assignment on an uninteresting subject.
The correlations should not be lost on us.
First, there are a lot of people on the other side of the world right now in need of compassionate comprehension. The Afghan crisis is one that requires our attention, but it also requires our effort to learn before we begin to post ALL the opinions. As has been mentioned on twitter, it’s funny how many people suddenly pivoted from being epidemiologists to foreign policy experts.
That might mean listening to or reading the stories of refugees to find commonalities. Common ground brings out our compassion and our willingness to learn more. As losing a parent made me care about Raj more, so maybe discovering you share an occupation or a goal with a refugee can bridge the language and culture barriers. Driving Afghan refugees to doctor’s appointments gave me a window into how dangerous it was for them to assist the US military—and it gives me compassion and fire to do something now.
Before we dismiss the desperation of others we know nothing about, let’s delve into their stories so that we can find what makes us alike, not fear what doesn’t.
Another correlation is quite different—it’s in the face that we in the church show others. Hold onto your pearls—those who don’t go to church find some of our language—and even Bible stories!—quite odd and disconnected to their lives. It’s like the rules of cricket. Unintelligible words and rules that they don’t see a reason to care about and certainly don’t want to run afoul of.
Pastors, leaders, preachers—how can we make our speaking about the Bible make sense, and be interesting, to those for whom it’s a foreign language about an obscure sport?
In my monthly newsletter, I mentioned the Theology of Work Bible commentary—it takes the Scriptures and correlates God’s ideas about work to people today who are seeking meaning in what they do.
This summer in church, we studied Romans—and talked about the strong correlation between believers who judge and look down on one another then and now.
Bridging. Correlating. Creating connections that make people care about something they didn’t think they cared about.
This is good discipleship.
That’s our job as pastors, whether it’s teaching Scripture or teaching love of neighbor. We are given this task of reconciliation. (2 Corinthians 5.16-20) That’s what bridge-building is. It’s the work of the kingdom at hand.
Can we handle another opinion on Simone Biles? Spoiler—I follow gymnastics, having been a gym mom for years. My daughter follows it in extreme detail. We know all the sides. So I don’t come to this imbroglio as an armchair pundit, and I come with zero tolerance for criticism of this courageous woman.
I do come, though, with a conviction that Ms. Biles, and the discussion following her decision to withdraw from competition, mirror a debate in our Christian culture over what strength is and who defines it.
I posted this inquiry on twitter—one I didn’t expect to get so much discussion.
The answer appears to be circular. Boys don’t go into it because our culture holds up football as the ultimate goal for male fame. Basketball is good second option for popularity.
Sports and Other Things
When boys don’t choose a sport, funds for it go down in the most important arenas of training. As kids don’t see any heroes emerge in those sports, fewer find them interesting. Especially when they’re as difficult as gymnastics with excruciatingly slow gains. And the cycle perpetuates itself.
Even as we had the mild debate, some declared—“Boys just prefer contact sports. They’re wired for it.” Are they? Or is it that our culture refuses to value the things boys and men can do that don’t fall into the “manly” categories we’ve preassigned? This, obviously, doesn’t only apply to sports.
Is it coincidence that the people decrying Ms. Biles are mostly white men who want to replace her as GOAT with—other white men? Could there possibly be anything else going on there?
The debate rages in the church, most importantly for my, and I’m guessing your, purposes. What makes a person strong? How do we define courage? A large contingent of popular teachers want to answer those questions in a very unhealthy way.
Strength in the Church
Strength, to this demographic, means domineering, winning, ignoring personal pain, and refusing to value compassion. It’s the John Wayne paradigm, as Dr. Kristin DuMez has so perfectly explained. It’s what many of us have been listening to in CT’s podcast about Mars Hill.
This popular mindset in the church doesn’t only devalue a courageous gymnast. It’s more a symptom of a pervasive illness of which, sadly, conservative church men are usually the carriers. It devalues the Christlike perspective that gold medals and power and lack of self-examination don’t make you a whole human being.
Whole, shalom humanity comes from an entirely different kind of strength.
The kind that says “no” to winning when it would destroy your soul (or your body, family, etc)
The kind that chooses to walk away, when all of you wants to stay, if staying would violate who you are and what you need
The kind of strength that offers the opportunity to shine to someone else, when you could hoard that chance to yourself
The kind that chooses the good of the group over the glory for yourself
Strength that is willing to take the boos of the crowd rather than violate your conscience
Strength that sends a message to others that you are worth more than what you do
As most overwhelmingly support Ms. Biles, there is that contingent. That group that demands—if you won’t dance to the tune we play, you don’t deserve our praise. If you won’t conform to our definitions, we will replace you with someone who will. (Not surprisingly, a black woman never will be able to meet their definitions.)
As so many gratefully praise Simone for her courage, what if we do the same for our leaders in the church? What if we throw off those terrible, unhealthy definitions of strength, power, and courage, and embrace the path she has shown us? The path Christ showed us, long before this.
What if we begin to value choosing to go small rather than big? Giving away our power? Holding enough of ourselves back for our mental and physical health, our families, and our souls? Declaring that we are more than what we do, and everyone gets a chance to do what they do best?
For a while those first few days of vacation, I didn’t know what to do with my phone or hands.
I couldn’t check twitter. Couldn’t google that question that came to mind. Couldn’t color a picture first thing in the morning. Couldn’t snapchat my kids. Couldn’t mindlessly scroll instagram.
I couldn’t use my phone for anything at all but taking pictures. Slowly, my hands found they were relaxing their grip. So did my soul.
Truth is, I’ve been feeling on the cusp of burnout for a while. Pastoring through a pandemic is not the casual stroll some people seemed to think. (Oh, you don’t have to do anything but record a sermon. How great is that? You must have so much free time!)
Yep. Learning new technology, and having to change it every time we had a new iteration of church, was easy peasy. So was dealing with mental health crises in the community. Helping our little church cope in their own loneliness and fear. Working with people who couldn’t pay their rent. Purchasing our first church building and planning a major reno project on it. Not taking a Sunday off in over a year because you can zoom from anywhere and people needed me.
The stuff of idle leisure, right?
And doing all this while never getting to hug my kids or even my husband, a man who spends all day in peoples’ respiratory systems, so not a good bet during COVID for immunocompromised me.
It was a lot. It was a lot for you, too. I know without asking that you went through and did a LOT.
I don’t list those things for pity. I list them to explain why I, like a lot of you, teetered on the edge of wanting to chuck it all and move to New Zealand to become a hobbit village guide. (Still not a bad option. I’d consider it.)
I was tired, cranky, physically weak, and weary to the bone of doing One. More. Thing.
So I went on our overdue, twice canceled trip of a lifetime last month with high hopes of rest and renewal.
I got those. It was the most glorious time of my life. Yet reentry created other problems I hadn’t anticipated. I’d planned for rest—but I’d put all my expectation on those two weeks. I’d assumed they would be a magical step away from reality that brought me back to earth somehow changed into a new me ready to take on anything in my path.
I’d begun a sabbath with all the wrong beliefs about what it was for. Even though, given I’ve written and taught about sabbath as one of my favorite topics, I knew better.
Sabbath isn’t meant to give us a rest from work or to bring us back to work ready to break new records.
Sabbath is intended to refresh us by rekindling our relationship with the One who knit together our souls. It’s meant to remind us that we done’t run the universe, and the world will turn on its axis without us giving it a nudge.
Because I’m me, I crammed the time before and after our trip with ALL the things.
Of course I could send out an important, long email for a new group I was chairing.
Of course I could write the sermon for the day after we got back and deliver it even though we got into the airport AT 1AM Saturday.
Obviously, I could prep the June newsletter so it could go right out two days after we returned. (You know it didn’t.)
Clearly, I could run 25 errands, prep for a cat sitter, pack, and still do a normal week’s work. Also take the computer in for a complete wipe and reset.
Of course I could, given that computer wipe, start right up Monday morning after we got back with a full week of meetings, agendas, sermon writing, social media handling, and 3 doctor appointments.
I set myself up for returning to the exact state I’d left rather than taking what I’d learned on the trip and putting it into practice. Fortunately, God stopped me in this nonsense before I could undo all the good.
I find myself asking the same questions post-vacation that I’ve pleaded with my congregation to ask themselves all year about life post-pandemic.
What are the best things you want to keep from this time?
I want a normal that remembers—I matter, but I’m not indispensable.
The world can do without me for two weeks. Or longer.
Not that I don’t matter to my congregation and to others I interact with. However, I matter more to them whole and healthy, recognizing my role as facilitator and friend rather than savior or enabler. We’re partners—and that means free communal give and take, not one-sided offerings.
It’s going back to relying on and respecting their God-given gifts. That’s taken a backseat during pandemic when stress was everyone’s worst passive aggressive friend. It’s time for a resurgence of trusting people and letting go the reins. If you, like me, have been grasping them a tad too tightly, slack up. Let people surprise you again with what God is giving them to share.
I want to make available, not necessary, part of my new normal.
Snorkeling right in the face of penguins, sea lions, iguanas, and turtles does something to you. I’ve loved all of God’s wild creation since the day someone first put a book of ABC animals in my hands. That wonder tends to fade in our every day though, when we’re not close enough to a pelican to see its feathers ruffling in the moonlight.
Pandemic allowed my inner over-achiever to amp up the work level and ignore the rest of the world outside my home. I couldn’t leave the house anyway. Why not be more productive?
Hiking and snorkeling every day required me to see with grateful eyes all the wonder of the world. Going face to face with a penguin or struggling up a volcano’s side reminded me that I’m part of a stunning creation. The author who set it in motion surely can give me what I need to do my work without me going at it 24/7. A grateful me surely will produce better work.
I want to make awe, not achievement, part of my new normal.
In the future, I plan not to hyper-schedule the time around my full-on breaks. I’ll prepare with joyful anticipation rather than cramming all I can in the last few days. I’ll ease back in. I will refuse to feel guilty about that. It’s in the easing that we remember lessons learned and slowly apply them to a refreshed and possibly reoriented life. That takes time, and it’s equally as important as the vacation/sabbath itself.
So no, I haven’t done all the things on the list in June. I’m going to enjoy the birds a little longer. Take a few more walks in my garden. Ease back into life so that maybe that easier way will become the pattern. Because you know what? Work isn’t life. All of life is life. I’d just forgotten.
I want, plan, to make a whole, shalom life, not a piece by piece one, my new normal.
Today the blog is devoted to the Introduction to my new book–Preaching in the Soundbite Age: How a Collaborative, Image Drawn, and Skeptical Generation Can Reshape Our Sermons. It’s a case for radically changing the way we preach and teach.
I hope you enjoy it, and I hope you will give me your feedback, or share my email signup link with someone you think could be interested!
The Christian life is a spiritual pilgrimage. It is a not a journey to a shrine which has limitations of space and time. It is a journey into life, a life so rich no limitation of space or time is able to contain it. But is this how we perceive the Christian life? We go to church, worship, study your Bible, etc. But where do they call for the high-adventure?
Francis DuBose, God Who Sends
The people in our churches are crying for the high adventure. They’re dying for it. Especially our young people. They might not know they want it, but they do. Behind the entertainment, the adrenaline-fueled Sunday morning gatherings, and the guaranteed-no-fail discipleship programs, people in our churches hunger for something they haven’t quite defined.
They hunger for participation, not spectatorship, in the kingdom of God. Once they’ve experienced it, they don’t want to return to the passive sidelines, watching their faith but not shaping it. They’ve found the joy of discovering what God is doing with and through them and living the process with their community. They want to know why no one has told them before that discipleship isn’t a program but an on-the-field, glove-in-hand team sport.
It’s not an easy sell.
Most worshipers are used to being fans in the stands, not players in the arena. They won’t warmly welcome a radical change in that plan. They aren’t going to be excited about taking the reins of their own spiritual growth—at first. They might be like the high school classes I taught years ago.
Used to sitting in their seats and listening to the teacher lecture about sonnets and Steinbeck, those teens looked at me like I had asked them to teleport to Neptune the first time I said, “What do you think?” The strange new teacher asked them questions instead of feeding them information. What was this sorcery?
Yet within a few days, those same students engaged in conversation about Shakespeare, voiced their opinion on Jonathan Swift, applied Jane Austen to their daily life,. and told me that classes had never been so interesting. I even had the rare privilege of a senior coming back to thank me for teaching her to think, thus getting her into her college of choice.
Pedagogy has known for decades what churches haven’t grasped—people learn, and change, when they engage and invest.
Monologue had created a dislike of literature and a distrust for its relevance in my students. What is it doing in our churches, where the stakes are far higher? The adaptive change necessary for preaching and teaching in a completely new way will take time, finesse, and patience. Do we want to be whipped by the potential backlash? Is the difficult work, both in crafting something new and in convincing people to accept it, worth the effort? Can we afford the possibility of attrition in a church already beset by loss?
Here’s the more important question to ask:
Can we afford not to?
In a spiritual climate where we’re already losing our next generations in high double digits, can we afford not to put in the struggle to retain them—not for their butts and bucks but for their, and our, spiritual well-being? Just as in the Babylonian exile, their well-being equals ours, too (Jeremiah 29.4). The older generations’ faith is only viable as it gets passed on. It’s only fresh and flexible as we’re learning from others.
If we are not making disciples with our preaching and teaching, what are we even doing on Sunday morning?
As I wrote this last year, I sat in my home office, in isolation because of COVID-19. Racial trauma roiled our country. We feel the stirring of God doing something different in his church. We know in our hearts things will not be the same when this is over. For some of us, we’ve been feeling the need for a wave of change long before pandemic forced our hand. We’ve been looking out to sea, watching the horizon, waiting for the sails to come over the edge that signal God taking us on a different journey. Some of us have been longing for it more than we ever imagined.
Things will not be the same. Preaching should be one of the things that changes.
We’ve realized the value of community and the preciousness of input from others in this time of uncertainty and isolation.
Interactive preaching is the perfect tool for putting teaching and community together to disciple our churches.
Our people don’t need programs and workbooks. Why would we offer them a classroom when we could be putting them on the field? They need to be equipped, as the early Christians, to disciple themselves toward being like Jesus. They don’t need information so much as awareness of how to filter the information they’re already surrounded with 24/7. They need the skills to learn deeply, slowly, and permanently, the things of God to change their lives from the inside out. This we can give them, if we learn to change ourselves first.
Pastors, preachers, church leaders, boards, and elders—it’s time.
I didn’t even see a name on the restaurant front. Its virtue was that it was steps from our tiny hotel’s door, and we were exhausted after a 36-hour ordeal/flight from hell designed by an airline which shall remain nameless.
The chef/owner slid open a window and informed us the place was reservation only, but he would take us if we wanted to sit outside. It was a tasting menu–whatever he wanted to cook that day, we would eat. We sat, intrigued (and tired). We took in the modest patio, with dogs barking low and nearby car horns hitting the high notes. Near the door hung strings of drying corn. We finally figured out these weren’t decor–they were on the menu. Our sturdy table sat in the equatorial moonlight, and we closed our eyes, with no idea what we were in for.
A Surprising Conversation
We conversed with the owner through the meal, as his window was five feet away. He detailed what he was cooking, where he got his ingredients, and he asked about our travel plans. Through the courses, we started discussing deeper things.
Chef Sebastian explained that, pre-covid, he had owned several places in higher rent districts—wine bars, restaurants, etc. He was forced to shutter them. It looked like defeat. Then he ended up opening this one small place, Quitu, in a much different kind of neighborhood.
He spoke of using fresh local ingredients, becoming much more affordable to people because of much lower rents, and how he loved his new life. Then he told us something that stuck with me.
“I decided to become a restaurant for the neighborhood instead of a restaurant for the world.”
A Church Like Quitu
My mind jumped to church and leadership and why we do what we do. Yes, I want us to speak about national issues, world justice, the responsibility of the privileged of this globe. That is part of living with both feet in the Kingdom of God.
Yet it’s so easy to lose our way when our focus points toward that large stage. Any large stage, really. The popular allure is more mesmerizing than the neighborhood grit. It’s easy for “winning” to become the idol and affirmation to morph into the goal. I think our Quiteño chef understood that. He’d had the success. Covid forced a choice he now embraced. He wanted to return to a life where the community felt welcome and his food wholesome and accessible.
Church leaders, how do we embrace that value? How should we be redefining “normal” to make the places we lead accessible, inviting, and healthy? How ought our yearning for justice to roll down and integrity to be great again affect not only our twitter feed but our presence with the real life people on our block?
How do we become a church for the community rather than a church that happens to be in a community?
Downsizing. Decentering human leaders. Sourcing our nourishment from the wells of goodness and grace. Looking around and asking ourselves–what do the people here need, and why am I in this place and time?
I like chef Sebastian’s approach. His food was pretty great, too.
This is the last week to take apart The Lord’s Prayer in our discussion about why we pray. We’re taking the last two lines together this week. They read:
Keep us forgiven with you and forgiving others. Keep us safe from ourselves and the devil.
Let’s look at the first line first. But oh, that last one. Just wait.
Keep us forgiven with you and forgiving others.
I Have To Forgive Others?
To get to the meaning of this, we need to look at a couple lines that come after the prayer. Jesus continues with:
“In prayer there is a connection between what God does and what you do. You can’t get forgiveness from God, for instance, without also forgiving others. If you refuse to do your part, you cut yourself off from God’s part.” (Matthew 6.14-15)
This has always been a problematic part of the prayer. Forgive us, God, as we forgive others. Does God’s forgiveness really hinge on our ability to forgive others? Doesn’t that put us in a pretty precarious position with God? I don’t know about you, but I hope that God’s forgiveness of me doesn’t rely on my own ability to do likewise with other people. Because sometimes, I am really lousy at forgiving. What could he mean?
This is where again, I love the Message translation. “Keep us forgiven with you and forgiving others.” It’s an understanding that forgiveness is a process. It isn’t a one shot deal. It’s something we need to keep doing as a habit. We remain in a constant state of letting go of grudges.
The translation of “forgive” is pretty awesome. It literally means “to send away. To bid go away—depart!” Don’t you love the idea of God looking at our sins, debts, and mistakes and saying—Go away! Depart!” When God says something, it happens. They go away.
The consequence of not working at that habit of forgiveness comes in Jesus’ next words:
“if you refuse to do your part, you cut yourself off from God’s part.” It’s not that God refuses to forgive us. It’s that we cut ourselves off from the source of forgiveness. When we refuse to allow forgiveness to be a regular part of our lives, we demonstrate that we have completely lost the first line of this prayer—“Our Father in heaven, reveal who you are!” We don’t know God’s heart at all. His entire heartbeat is forgiveness and second chances. If that’s not a regular part of how we live, we don’t know God. We can’t. We’ve chosen to move away from his heart and therefore live away from his loving kindness.
This isn’t to say we let every sin against us slide and allow people to abuse us again and again. Forgiveness is canceling a debt. It’s refusing to take revenge and accepting that those who hurt us don’t owe us anything, just as we could never repay God for his forgiveness. It is not allowing them to continue hurting us.
Forgive and/or Forget
Canceling a debt does not mean that you give that same person in your life savings in the next minute. It means they owe you nothing. You don’t want to get back at them. You don’t wish for them to suffer. You might also not want to continue the relationship, and that’s healthy and good sometimes.
Forgiveness does mean that we understand how much we have been and constantly are forgiven by God for the things we do that break his heart. It requires that we live with other people in constant recognition of that understanding. It means that we offer second chances with people who earnestly want to change, even when they keep messing up, because that’s God’s deal with us.
This whole prayer teaches humility, inside and out.
Or, “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.’
Now the words for “lead us not into temptation deliver us from the evil one” or, “keep us safe from ourselves and the devil,” can be a little confusing. It seems like Jesus is saying—Hey God, don’t lead us into trouble. But why would God do that? Temptation is not his game—it’s the Accuser’s.
The word temptation here really means difficult circumstances or hard, laborious times.This is strange, because also obviously Jesus can’t mean us to say, “God, don’t ever let trouble happen to us.” He’s the one who said, “in this world you will have trouble.” He makes it pretty clear that there will be difficult, times when we struggle, are tempted, and the grief is overwhelming. He can’t be telling us to ask God to spare us from all that. We know from his own mouth that God isn’t going to do that. So what is he saying?
Putting it all together, it seems more something like this:
Help us not to fail when we’re tired. Give us strength, so that when difficult times come, while we may be tempted to do wrong in those times, we don’t fall into that trap. Help us to keep following you and refuse to give in to fear, blame, taking things into our own hands, or any of the other things we’re tempted to do when things are hard. Make our characters so strong we won’t be tempted. And if we are? Deliver us.
Literally, rescue us.
Here’s where I love Peterson’s translation—“keep us safe from ourselves.” Isn’t that the truth?
Isn’t that what we’re really asking God a lot of the time? Doesn’t “lead us not into temptation” really mean—keep me safe from myself?
I know that’s something I need to pray a lot. God, rescue me from my own foolish thoughts and behavior. Be my savior. Because I most certainly cannot be.
The purpose of prayer here is to help us see ourselves clearly and pray for both strength of character to resist temptation and rescue when we cannot, because, indeed, we do know ourselves.
Finally, we end the prayer kind of where we started. Forgive, help us forgive, keep us safe from temptation—it all adds up to, keep us near you, Father. Help us stay near your heart. Make us people who are attuned to your heartbeat and humble enough to know that your will is better than our will. Amen.
We’ve learned a few things about prayer in the last several weeks. We’ve learned we need to approach it with humility and gratitude.
We’ve learned that the first purpose of prayer is to gain a mature relationship with God so that we understand his heart and our own. We’ve learned to ask God to radically re-organize our priorities so that they match God’s own.
So what’s next? A simple line. Or is it?
I love how clear and down to earth that translation is. The one we know better is:
But it means the same thing, right? Give us every day what we need to survive. This seems so simple, but it’s really a complex and important idea. In the beginning, God created a garden that had everything we could ever need or want. It was way more than daily bread. And it was all there as a gift.
But Human beings wanted to make their own daily bread. They wanted to be in charge. They wanted to believe that everything they gained came from their own hands. (I don’t think humans have changed very much.)
Fast forward to the Israelites wandering in the desert. They complained because they didn’t have enough food, so God gave them miraculous food from heaven called manna. They had enough for every day—but they were not supposed to collect more than enough. Why not?
God’s command regarding the manna was a lesson in: 1) remembering that God provides absolutely everything and 2) not being greedy and wanting more than what we need. When the people collected more than they needed, it rotted. That was both God’s signal to stop hoarding and also a reminder that he does provide every single day. We don’t need to worry about the future.
Plan sure, but worry? That’s where this line of Jesus’ prayer comes in.
“Keep us alive with three square meals.” Give us this day our daily bread.
It’s more than a request for provision. It’s an understanding that we trust God with today, tomorrow, and every day after that. We ask for daily bread, not a month’s worth. God wants us to learn how to come to him regularly and trust him for absolutely everything.
Asking for daily bread as opposed to what I need for the long term is an exercise in trust, not a request for food. It’s saying to God—I know you’ll still be there tomorrow for what I might need then. I choose to pick up only the manna I need.
It’s also a way of teaching us to submit to only wanting what God says we need. We request bread, not cake. It’s Jesus telling us, as God told the Israelites long ago, don’t gather more than you need. Make sure there’s enough for everyone. Daily bread is what’s really necessary.
When we say “give us our daily bread,” what are we saying? We’re implicitly saying that we recognize there is an “us.” It’s not just about me.
Part of what we’re asking is that we be willing to share our daily bread with those who maybe don’t have any. When we ask for enough for everybody, we’d better be ready to remember the lines in Jesus’ prayer before this—set the world right. So if I have more bread than someone else, I need to partner with God and making sure we all have what we need each day.
What’s the purpose of prayer? In these lines, it’s to remind us where everything comes from. It puts us in a posture of humility to come before God and remember that he supplies all of our needs. We cannot ever take credit for all we have and gain, no matter how hard we work. Also, it puts us in a place of remembering that he loves to give us what we need because he loves us. And everyone else.
Many years ago, I stood at the checkout in a liquor store in my hometown. I was bringing home the sparkling cider for our family’s Christmas dinner.
The woman behind the register asked: “Are you 21?”
I stammered a moment. “Well, yes, I am. But I don’t need to be. This isn’t alcohol.”
She looked, laughed, and waved me through. “Bottle sure looks the same. I didn’t notice. Merry Christmas!”
I could have presented ID for my purchase—but it wasn’t required. I, or anyone, was freely allowed to buy that celebratory bubbly bottle and take it home.
Often, we feel like prayer is this kind of requirement—ID we must present before we get what we want. We look at it as a hoop we need to jump through. Facts we have to memorize do for a test.
What if prayer is none of that? Neglecting prayer isn’t something to beat ourselves up over, as we might if we’ve failed the test. At the same time, it’s something to be sad about if we miss it. The truth is, like sitting with a best friend or wise mentor, if I neglect the conversation, I’m missing all the goodness of my relationship. There is delicious bubbly, celebratory conversation to be had freely. It’s my choice if I want to take it or treat it like an ACT test to fret over.
As we continue this exploration of prayer (begun in my previous two posts here and here) the next lines of the Lord’s prayer are:
Honestly, how often do we come before God and just say those words? “God, please do what’s best.” Don’t we usually have our own list of things that we think are best? I know I do. We tend to come to God with our plans and wishes and ask him to bless that. Yet one of the first things Jesus teaches us is that our hearts need to want what he wants more than what we want.
We need to come to God not with our list but asking God,—“What’s on your list?” God, do what’s best. How can I be of service in that?
Of course, when we look at Scripture, we know what’s on God’s list. It’s encompassed in that first line—“Set the world right.” God’s list is all about reconciliation of all things and putting the world back the way the Creator intended it. “Set the world right” isn’t a metaphorical concept. It’s really what God wants—things righted in the way they were always meant to be.
“Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” is a plea for all of God’s goodness to be the priority of our daily lives. The purpose of prayer that comes out here is this: To ask that God’s priorities be our priorities.
Once we’ve taken the first steps in prayer, listening to God and knowing who God is and what is on his heart, we already know what his will is. We’ve seen it as we listen and learn. We know that when we say that line—“Your will be done in earth as it is in heaven”—exactly what we’re asking for. So the question is—
How much do we mean it?
Do we really want God to set the world right—because we know that’s going to mean upsetting quite a bit. The world is very wrong, and often the church is right there with it. We know the status quo is not God’s will being done on earth. We also know that we often benefit from the status quo. So praying this line is an exercise in self denial. It’s a check of our obedience. It’s testing to see if we are willing to submit our will to God’s.
It’s not some out there, cosmic idea.
Yeah, I think it would be a good idea if your will was done on earth, God. Somewhere on earth. You know, where things are really bad and people are being exceptionally stupid. Out there. On earth. Vague gesture.
God, make your priorities my priorities. Mold my will in service to yours. Help me to give up the things on my list if they’re not on your list. Give me a heart that cares about the things in the world that are not set right. Give me the courage to partner with you to set them right.
That’s what we’re asking when we pray this line of the Lord’s prayer. It’s radical. That’s why I like to hear it in a translation we’re not used to hearing it in—so that we recognize the crazy upside down world that Jesus is asking us to pray for and know what it all means.