Monday, September 29, 2008

'…And All is Right with the World'

(This is the second message in a series, A Declaration of Dependence: the Lord's Prayer.)

Matthew 6: 5-13

In college I read Samuel Beckett’s play, Waiting for Godot. It’s usually staged with two homeless looking guys standing under a tree waiting for someone to arrive. Neither of them has seen Godot before, but they wait for him, and try to think up ways to pass the time before (they hope) he arrives. 'Godot' is clearly a God-character, and the point of the play is that we wait for a visit from a God who doesn’t come—who doesn’t reveal himself—maybe even a God who doesn’t exist.

Over the past few years some of the bestselling books in the English speaking world have had to do with the existence of God. On one side Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have published attacks on the claims of faith in God, and have made the argument that most of the world’s problems can be traced to belief in God.

Dawkins’ book uses science to debunk religious doctrine, which is a little like using a frying pan to write your name. A frying pan is a perfectly good tool—just not the right one for the job. Another writer put it this way: ‘Having Richard Dawkins write a book about religion is rather like asking a vegan to write a book of veal recipes: nothing good can come of it.’

Hitchens’ book is mostly a retread of the old lie that ‘more people have died in wars over religion than in any kind.’ We talked about this last year, but let’s review again: War is always an awful thing, even when it’s necessary. Over the last century, which saw the most costly wars in human history, the causes were imperialism, fascism, communism and other non-religious or even anti-religious causes. Christians and Muslims alike have been amateurs at waging war compared to the atheists. A catchy phrase is no excuse for bad history.

But on the other side, Rick Warren found more than 30 million people to read his book on Christian faith. It’s a book that not only introduces the reader to what the life of faith might look like, but also makes the really radical claim on the very first page that this life is not about you. The Purpose-Driven Life isn’t a book of theology—it’s an introduction to a meaningful life of faith, and I recommend it to you if you haven’t read it.

We started this series on the Lord’s Prayer last week by talking about the prayer as the heart of the life of faith. That it functions like a human heart—taking in blood that is depleted and empty, and restoring it and sending it back out to deliver oxygen to the body.

The Lord’s Prayer is a gift that offers the same thing. We come to it in whatever condition we find ourselves—tired, frustrated, anxious, depressed, faithless and hopeless—it doesn’t matter. We come to it wherever we are and it meets us in those places. It has a way of renewing and restoring us, and sending us out again into service.

The Lord’s Prayer is a gift that reminds us that God is alive, that he loves us, and that he wants something from us. It’s a way of replenishing our faith, no matter how beaten up or tired or fragile it might feel. It catches us as we fill our lives with other things, like the characters in the play, and surprises us—it interrupts us—with a reminder that God is present and active and working.

Maybe you’ve heard the phrase: God’s in his heaven, and all is right with the world. Now I don’t know about the second part of that saying—on some days I think it’s hard to see anything right with the world. But it’s the first part that catches me off-guard sometimes. ‘God’s in his heaven…’ God exists. He’s really there…or here.

When that thought crosses my mind it interrupts everything else. No matter what might be going on at the time, when I get touched by that fleeting sense of God,

What does it mean for us when our lives are interrupted with the realization that God really exists? Have you ever thought about that? What does it mean for us when our lives are interrupted with the realization that God really exists?

(My mobile phone rings at this point, with a reminder to read the text.)

The text for today is the first line of the Lord’s Prayer. It’s a line that interrupts whatever we’re doing—like a phone call in the middle of a sermon—it disrupts our train of thought and turns our eyes and hearts to God: ‘Our Father who art in heaven.’

Now the Scriptures tell us that God in his heaven doesn’t always feel like good news. That’s why Andrew read Psalm 13 today. If you put the psalms in categories you find that there are more psalms of complaint than any other kind. I find that comforting, don’t you? It means that when the Hebrew people sat down to write their prayer and worship language, more often than not what came out was a complaint.

God’s in his heaven? I better tell him all the things that are going wrong—all the ways I feel let down by him—everything I wish he would do differently. The criticisms of Dawkins and Hitchens are nothing compared to the complaints served up by the actual writers of the Bible.

‘O God, why do you stand so far away?’

‘How long O God will you forget me?’

‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?’

The writer of Ecclesiastes moans over and over again: ‘Meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless.’

See what I mean? The critics of the faith in the Bible itself are more harsh and more focused than the attackers from the outside. But the difference is that these internal critics, when they’re faced with problems and questions and struggles—when they feel hopeless and separated from God, the faithful call out to him. The skeptics’ challenge to us in times of crisis is to offer proof for our faith, but the response of the faithful is to offer prayer.

‘Our Father, the one who really exists.’

If the Lord’s Prayer is really at the heart of our faith—pumping fresh blood and new life and calling us into service, then it’s right that it starts with a reminder that God is real. Whatever else it says, it begins with an acknowledgment that God is God—and that we are not. That may be the most important take-away from this first line of the Lord’s Prayer:

‘It’s not about you.’ Now that sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Last week as financial markets around the world started to meltdown, the Church of England activated its ‘rapid-response prayer unit.’ I didn’t even know that such a thing existed—it sounds like the closest thing the church can offer to a really cool job.

This rapid-response unit produced a prayer for people to use as a way of offering their concerns about their jobs, their finances, their futures, to God. It’s a pretty good prayer. It goes like this:

Lord God, we live in disturbing days.
Across the world prices rise, debts increase, banks collapse,
Jobs are taken away, and fragile security in under threat.
Loving God, meet us in our fear, and hear our prayer.
Be a tower of strength amidst the shifting sands,
And a light in the darkness.
Help us to receive your gift of peace,
And fix our hearts where true joys are to be found.
In Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

It’s a good prayer—it functions a lot like the psalms of lament in the Bible. I suppose I wanted to read it because I think it’s very different from the Lord’s Prayer. The main difference can be found in the first lines:

‘Lord God, we live in disturbing days’ is focused on us, on our needs, on our problems. There’s a place for that—prayers like that are all over the Bible.

But the Lord’s Prayer interrupts our focus on our needs right from the start, and reminds us that God exists, that he’s there, and that he is listening: ‘Our Father, the one who really exists.’ It’s that expression of faith—even in the middle of our struggles—that gets to the heart of things and reminds us of who we are and whose we are. It pumps life back into our lives, and sends us out, ready for service again.

I been reading a book on the Lord’s Prayer called Ain’t Too Proud to Beg. The author closes his section on this first line with this statement:

“The Christian thing to do when things go wrong is not to reject the God of Israel as king of the universe or set ourselves against him, as the skeptics do. It is not to retreat into wishful thinking, selective memory, forced biblical interpretation, or revised theology to construct easier answers, as some liberals do. It is not to dismiss the problem stoically or fatalistically under the guise of being faithful, as some conservatives do. It is not to turn away in bitterness or pout and wish that things were better. The Christian thing to do is to pray…

And then he closes the chapter with this challenge: “And what about you? What is your dispute with the Almighty? The line between the greatest faith and the bitterest unbelief is nothing more than the willingness to kneel.”

As we explore the Lord’s Prayer over these next weeks—as we learn to see it as our declaration of dependence on God—my hope is that we learn and strengthen our skills to see prayer as our first line of defense against the problems and challenges in our lives.

Doubts and complaints and struggles are nothing new to God—the pages of his own Bible are filled with them. But the Lord’s Prayer is given to interrupt those issues—to clear the fog that keeps us from living and worshipping and serving as God intended. And that interruption begins with the simple statement of faith:

‘Our Father, the one who really exists.’


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