Archive for January, 2013

Hidden Righteousness

Posted in Uncategorized on January 14, 2013 by yhcreligiouslife

‘Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

‘So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

—Matthew 6:1-4

As we turn the pages of our calendars from one year to another, so, too, we turn the pages of our text for this semester’s reflections from the fifth chapter of Matthew’s gospel to the sixth. While we might be turning from one chapter to another, we are continuing our walk with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, meandering from mountain top to plane, from city to countryside reflecting on the meaning of discipleship, the life of faith, and how such a life of faith might have any relevancy for our lives, today.

With all of our promises of new resolutions and hopeful introduction of better disciplines that accompany the New Year, the trading in of one year with another often means a significant departure from the previous year’s habits and hang-ups. Similarly, our move from chapter five of Matthew’s gospel to chapter six offers a significant and seemingly abrupt departure from what came before.

In chapter five, as Bonhoeffer notes, the writer asks us to “let our lights shine” (5:16). Yet, here, just a few verses later, we are asked to “‘[b]eware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. . . . [rather, let it] be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.’” Something seems amiss in this discontinuity between chapters five and six. Which is it? Are we to “let our lights shine,” or are we to “let it be done in secret?” One seems to cancel the other. Which do you want, Matthew?

Bonhoeffer is well aware of this apparent paradox, too. If we are to move forward in our journey of discipleship, this tension requires resolution. And, that resolution seems to come from remembering the character of discipleship, i.e., the substance of discipleship is defined by the following, not the one doing the following. In other words, discipleship is about focus. Chapter five celebrates attention focused on the person of Christ. While chapter six begins with a warning against attention focused on ourselves.

You see, that different focus is the source of the apparent tension between chapters five and six. However, in reality, the foci of chapters five and six are not so much in tension but opposite sides of the same, faithful coin. Both are reminders that the life of faith is first a life with a focus that points beyond ourselves. Chapter five states this reminder positively, reminding us what to do. Chapter six states this reminder negatively, reminding us what not to do.

At the heart of chapter five beats the claim that our lives of Christian discipleship demand expectations that what we do will deflect attention away from ourselves, our promotion, and our benefit and toward God as revealed in Christ. While, the crux of these first verses of chapter six is a claim that lives that focus on faithful disciplines while drawing attention to ourselves fail to accomplish their intent. Rather than focusing attention toward God, such mis-focused actions turn our own gaze and others’ away from God and toward ourselves. Accordingly, we become the centers of our world, repeating the “original sin” of the Garden of Eden.

In that garden story, Adam and Eve replace God as the arbiters of good and evil, assuming that roll themselves. And, that seems to be what the gospel writer is reminding us in the text from Matthew’s gospel in chapter six. While on the surface, much of what the hypocrites are doing would be considered appropriate and commendable. The propriety and commendableness of their actions evaporates the moment their actions draw attention to themselves and away from God. Discipleship is not about celebrating ourselves to the expense of changing God’s locus, but changing ourselves while celebrating God.

This chapter and its warnings against placing ourselves at the center of our worlds seems likes a great place to begin a year, a semester, and a series of iChapels. Often, life encourages or devolves to locate ourselves and our expectations and interests at the center of our worlds, becoming the defining, blinding priorities for how we live and what we do. Other times, we intentionally locate ourselves at the center of our worlds. This chapter and the time of the year during which we read it provides a timely antidote, inoculating us against the persisting pressure to slip ourselves into the middle of our personal universes and press forward.

I think of this timely warning especially as we install a new congress and inaugurate a president. Each day, our newscasts are taxed with story after story of irascible politicians holding intransigent positions, more concerned with remaining ideologically pure than with displacing personal perceptions of what is right in favor of self-sacrifice for the sake of our mutual benefit and collective advancement.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not looking to be overly simplistic or reductionist, assuming that all we need is to set ourselves aside, get along better, and all will benefit as a result. Life is not that neat or that facile. And, some problems require more compromise. And, with some, compromise is too much to ask. (But, seriously, every problem cannot fall into this latter category.)

Rather, all I am suggesting is a modest proposal that at least our rhetoric shift toward favoring and advocating language of compromise above language that seems to promote and reward separation, self-advancement, and singular certainty.

Maybe asking politicians to serve as the exemplars of better, more selfless actions is expecting too much? Maybe a modest proposal requires a more modest beginning than I have been suggested? So, I want to modify my modest proposal. Maybe the only effective place to being a wave of selfless action is, ironically, with ourselves. In the end, we have the most control over our own actions. And, it is with ourselves that we might expect to begin a small ripple of redirection away from our own wants and perspectives and toward those that are larger, beyond, and more eternal than ourselves, creating a tidal wave of change washing over the whole world, making it anew.

It is this modified proposal that might have the traction actually to take hold and move us forward. And, whether one calls themselves a person of faith or of no faith, such a proposal seems a reasonable enough patch of common ground upon which to embark on a common journey.

I began with a bit of scripture. Now, I end with a diversion toward a prayer. My modified proposal seems all too familiar and appropriate when placed against the traditional prayer John Wesley asked his Methodist followers to pray at the beginning of each New Year. It is that timely prayer and its hopeful refocusing of life away from self and toward God that I leave you.

Enjoy. And, see you along the way.

John Wesley’s Covenant Prayer

I am no longer my own, but yours.

Put me to what you will,

Rank me with whom you will;

Put me to doing, put me to suffering.

Let me be employed by you,

Or laid aside by you,

Exalted by you or brought low by you.

Let me be full, let me be empty.

Let me have all things, let me have nothing.

I freely and heartily yield all things

To your pleasure and disposal.

And now, O glorious and blessed God,

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,

you are mine, and I am yours.

So be it.

And the covenant which I have made on earth,

Let it be ratified in heaven.



Hiddenness of Prayer

Posted in Uncategorized on January 14, 2013 by yhcreligiouslife

‘And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. ‘When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

—Matthew 6:5-8

In contemplating prayer as an element of the disciple’s life, Dietrich Bonhoeffer concludes “our [i.e., Christian] prayer is never an entreaty to God, for we have no need to come before him in that way. We are privileged to know that he knows our needs before we ask him.” In other words, what Bonhoeffer seems to be saying is that prayer describes a relational category more than a mode of communication. For, if God already knows what we need, then the content of our asking becomes secondary. What is primary? The disposition to ask is.

This understanding of prayer as relationship lies at the heart of the passage that serves as the foundational text for this chapter. Integrated into Jesus’ larger excurses on the Christian life, this short instruction on prayer reminds the reader of Matthew’s gospel that discipleship is always first about relationships and secondarily about certain habits, i.e., we follow because we want to travel with God and are less concerned about the destination or the mode of travel. Habits serve the relationship and not the relationship the right practices.

Matthew displays this fact most clearly in the opening words chosen to initiate the prayer offered in the passage above. The prayer described here, a prayer we have come to call “The Lord’s Prayer,” begins with a direct, personal, informal address. The God of the universe, the creator of all things is referred to as “Father,” an intimate title used with affection and joyful trust. So, the formative, foundational prayer for the life of faith is not one filled with distant awe and austere reverence—as we might expect—but with personal privilege and gracious knowledge descriptive of relationality more than substantive accuracy or potency. This means that the subtle purpose and efficacy of prayer is disclosed in relational building and dependence rather than doctrinal accuracy and orthodoxy or proper formulation. Even more, prayer builds bonds between the one praying, the one hearing, and the others sharing in the moment of prayer.

Prayer is both personal and social.

It is this twofold aspect of praying that I want to digress into, today, i.e., (1) the personal and social aspect of prayer and (2) the reminder from prayer that discipleship is about the shared journey and not some guaranteed destination.

First, as an essential act of a personal community, I remind myself of this essence of prayer each time I lead a congregation in praying. It is my habit, my discipline when taking prayer requests to ask for specific concerns we wish to include in our common prayer. As people share concerns and situations, I make a point to ask for one specific bit of information after initially hearing a prayer concern. When the prayer concern includes a particular person, I ask for that person’s first name. I do not ask because God needs to know his or her name. I ask it because we, the gathered in prayer, need to know it.

In learning of a concern and attaching that concern to a name, our prayers take on an intimacy, an informality, a personality that has life and meaning beyond discrete bits of data about the world around us. Rather, our prayers become incarnate, taking on the flesh and faces of the one’s named. Such an incarnated prayer, it seems, helps transform our individual prayers into the corporate sinews that bind the body of Christ.

Second, if prayer helps make a community, then, prayer, also, helps focus that community on the present. Full disclosure, I admit a growing impatience with theologies more interested in what will come or a future reward as the attraction or purpose for the life of faith: (1) Such theologies seem rather selfish in nature, locating our motivation for faithful living in some expectant eternal reward for doing and believing rightly. A faith about willful self-sacrifice without a guarantee of success—i.e., the Gospel—seems like a rather odd place to locate such a theology of personal reward. (This same rationale leads to my displeasure with prosperity theologies. However, that is soapbox to be climbed upon another day.) (2) Such theologies are unfortunately well positioned to demand our ignorance of the present needs of those around us and our own needs for lives well and faithfully lived. While future expectations might certainly be an important part of Christian theology, the life of discipleship seems less focused on where we are going than how we are getting there together. In the narrative of the gospel, traveling with Jesus and others seems to be the point, a point captured in other, grander theological notions like incarnation, communion, resurrection, atonement, etc. The life of faith that we are discovering in Matthew’s gospel is a life less concerned with the possibilities of the future than with the realities of the present. Prayer, it seems, helps anchor us to the present and each other in meaningful ways.

The life of faith, in the end, is about making of a life together (with each other, the rest of creation, and God). And, prayer is a critical tool used to build such a life.

Over the coming week, read a newspaper to hear the world speak. Pause and talk with a friend to hear our community speak. Sit quietly for a moment to let your soul speak. Having heard them all, share in the stillness with God. That seems like as good a place as any to start.

Have a wonderful week and see you along the way.