Monday, October 27, 2008

Are We There Yet?

(This is the fourth in a series of sermons titled 'A Declaration of Dependence: The Lord's Prayer.')

I went to school with a guy named Paul—we had classes together from 3rd grade into high school. When I got involved in school music programs in 7th grade, when I was 12 or so, Paul and I ended up in the same performances pretty regularly. Paul was an unbelievable guitarist—he had the first Fender Stratocaster of anyone I knew, and he could play it beautifully. In the 1978 John Muir Jr. High School Talent Show, when I was in 8th grade, I sang in a madrigal quartet—we did a song called ‘Il le bel e bon’—I still have no idea what that song was about. Paul and his band followed us (and erased us from all memory) with a blistering performance of Lynyrd Skynrd’s ‘Free Bird’ that I can still remember today, more than 30 years later.

I tell you that story because on Friday Paul found me on Facebook, and we’ve been swapping memories over the weekend. Facebook does that for a lot of people, I think. Old friends find us after years and years, and we remember relationships that used to exist. I knew Paul really well for a few years a long time ago, but haven’t talked to him or heard anything about him for decades.

The point is that we all have these deep friendships that for some reason don’t last or endure. We form connections that in the end become, well, disconnected.

We’ve been on a journey through the Lord’s Prayer. The prayer is a part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, which is an important stretch of teach that introduces us to what life can look like under God’s reign—his Kingdom. The prayer is a summary of both the beliefs and practices of the life of Christian discipleship.

Mostly, the Lord’s Prayer is a declaration of dependence. It is a statement of our need for God not just in the shape of hunger or thirst, but a need for God in the form of completion or connection—the kind of connection that grows and nourishes and renews and lasts.

We’ve been talking about the Lord’s Prayer as the heart of the Christian faith—as a place where we come in our brokenness and exhaustion and confusion and isolation, and where we receive healing and renewal and faithful wisdom and fellowship. The Lord’s Prayer takes us in depleted, then refills us with oxygen and pumps us back out into fullness and service.

So this prayer that many of us have recited for years is shaping up to be a pretty life-changing set of words. In the prayer we acknowledge our belief or at least our hope that God exists. We recognize that God in his own way has brought us into his plan for the world—that we serve each other because God has called us into relationship with him. Last week we got to the radical part of the prayer when we said:

‘Thy Kingdom Come.’ Let your reign take over. Rule in our hearts.

Our text this week is the knockout punch that last week’s text set us up for. Thy Kingdom come is one thing, but right after that we pray: ‘Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’ In other words: We choose your ways, God. We long for things to be the way you made them to be from the beginning.

There was an old Burger King commercial when I was a kid where they tried to distinguish themselves from McDonald’s by showing that you could order a hamburger just how you liked it. Remember the song? ‘Have it your way…’

‘Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’

If there was ever a time when it was appropriate to say ‘be careful what you ask for,’ this is it.

We choose your ways, God. We long for things to be the way you made them to be. Have it—have everything, O God—your way.

There is a moment that happens in conversation between friends and relatives, coworkers and husbands and wives. You get into an argument about the way to do something, and then there’s the dramatic turning point where one person says to the other: ‘OK, we’ll do it your way!’

Now, we all know what’s really meant by that phrase, right? What we mean by that is that we’ll do it the other person’s way because it is so obviously doomed to total and catastrophic failure. Then, after the dust settles, not only will we be proved right, but we’ll also get to do it our way after all.

That’s not what we’re praying in this part of the Lord’s Prayer. When we say ‘thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,’ we’re admitting that we finally see that God’s ways are better and purer than ours. Our way may not always lead to total and catastrophic failure, but mature faith will show that our attempts to go it alone just can’t compare with God’s way of living and deciding and spending and loving.

Well what is that way? What is it that God wants from us and for us? What does it mean to say ‘on earth as it is in heaven? Some of that we’re just never going to fully understand.

When we were getting ready to move to London, Julie and I went to Ian’s 1st grade class to talk about where we were going. Some of the kids had been here before, or had seen pictures of some landmarks. We talked about the flight and how Ian would go to a new school. When we were done a little girl raised her hand, and with tears in her eyes asked: Where was Ian going to sleep, if his bed was still here? We explained to her that we were moving our things with us, but she had a hard time picturing how our new home could compare to our old one.

There is a lot that we don’t understand about eternity—about what heaven is like—but there are some things about it that we can begin to grasp.

Maybe it’s easier to think of heaven as a place where everything is as God intends for it to be—where his plan and priorities are understood and lived. The best clues to God’s priorities, of course, are found in the Scriptures, where the teachings of the Bible call us to a new way of living. That’s what’s happening in much of the Old Testament, and when Jesus appears, talking about the values of the Kingdom, he represents the beginning of the end of that conversation between God and his creation.

But how do we find those priorities? And when we do find them, how do we make them our own? Because we can’t look at God with a straight face and say: ‘have it your way,’ then elbow him in the ribs and say something like: ‘but only if it’s really my way.’

‘Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’

We choose your ways, God. We long for things to be the way you made them to be from the beginning. Have it—have everything—your way.

What is that way? There’s so much to say about this, but for now it’s enough to say that biblical priorities can be found in three main categories:

Faith in God
Justice for the world
Love for each other.

The first priority is to have Faith in God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Now it’s important to say here that having faith includes all of our struggles and doubts and wondering and frustration. The opposite of faith isn’t doubt, or despair or even science. The opposite of faith is the illusion of certainty—believing that we’re capable of knowing all and seeing all. Last time I checked, those two qualities were above our pay-grade.

Having faith is developing an attitude of trust that God is who he says he is, and that he will do what he promised to do. God never says to anyone in the Scriptures: ‘Figure me out, and then I’ll love you and sustain you and redeem you.’ What he does is say: ‘I’ve loved you and sustained you and redeemed you already, and all I ask is that you believe in me in return.’

The second priority is to be on the side of Justice for the world. This one is so easy to miss, but it’s clearly a top-three priority in both testaments. How we defend the cause of the weak and hopeless, how we meet the needs of those who live in poverty, how we engage the political process not only to make our own lives better, but also to improve the lives of others. Those are not just nice, Western values that make us feel warm all over. It’s not the American Way, or what it means to be British, or even what it means to be good. Being an active agent for justice in the world is a big part of what it means to say ‘your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’

Finally, God calls is to show Love for each other. The concept of heaven, or eternity, whatever else it might mean, promises that the deep friendships and connections we make with God and each other will last forever—they won’t rise and fall or flash and fade. It won’t be like the friends that find us after years of silence on Facebook.

That’s why the focus today was on our fellowship ministries. It’s not just that we like to get together for meals and parties and Quiz Nights, although that’s a great thing. It’s also not that fellowship is somehow less important than the other things we do. I’ve said it dozens of times already from this very spot: True fellowship, alongside our worship, discipleship and mission work, is a sign of a healthy and thriving church of Jesus Christ. Fellowship ministries are a sign of hope. The fellowship that we build here—the relationships we make and tend and nurture—they represent for us a glimpse of what heaven might be like. Deep relationships—surrounded by the deep relationships of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit—living and lasting forever.

To answer the question in the title of this message: No, we’re not there yet. But the promise of the Scriptures—and the promise of the Lord’s Prayer—is that God wants this for us—that he calls us to believe it and live it even as we pray it over and over. When we declare our dependence on God we aren’t throwing ourselves into a big empty hole. Recognizing how much we need God isn’t a cause for despair or depression. Praying the Lord’s Prayer is a celebration—a celebration of communion and connection and completion.

Let’s declare our dependence on God, as we pray that prayer once again...

Monday, October 20, 2008

Introduction to the Stewardship Campaign

(The following is my introduction the Fall Stewardship Campaign at the American Church in London. Sunday's sermon is below this post.)

This month we begin our Stewardship Campaign, which is really another way to describe our conversation together about how we pay for the ministry of this church in the coming year. This is a normal part of church life, but you’d be surprised at how many ministers hate this part of the year.

I’m not one of them.

Maybe it’s because I’ve come back into church ministry after 12 years in fund raising management with three different non-profit organizations. That may be some of why I love this time of year. But the real reason is because I see very clearly the link between talking about our financial partnership together and the impact of our witness for Jesus Christ. The job of the leadership of this church is to make that link clear—so clear that it’s irresistible to those of you who catch and share the vision for what this church can do—what this church can be.

This is the first of six Sundays where you’re going to hear about what’s happening at the American Church in London—how this church is prayerfully seeking to live out God’s call to be the Body of Christ here in London and beyond. This is very exciting stuff you’re going to hear—well, some of it is more exciting than the other parts, but you know what I mean.

Starting next week you’re going to hear about different ministries of the church, and what they mean not to those of us on staff, but to the people who participate and are blessed by those ministries. Next week we’ll talk about fellowship groups. The week after that we’ll focus on our music ministry. On the 9th of November you’ll see what we’re doing to meet our responsibilities in Christ’s mission here in London. And on the next Sunday you’ll see how we’re sharing the message of Jesus Christ with the children and youth of this church and our community. You’re going to hear a lot about this church.

What you won’t hear in this stewardship season is the word ‘need.’

Now I’m not unrealistic. I know that an organization needs money to operate. But the need for funds isn’t why we’re here—it isn’t the point of this stewardship campaign. The ministries of this church aren’t holes that need to be filled with money. They’re opportunities to establish meaningful partnerships using our time, our talents and, yes, our financial resources.

You won’t see us come hat-in-hand for money.

What you will see and hear is our case—our vision for ministry in this place. Then you’ll hear an invitation to join it, improve it, lead it and support it.

If you haven’t been a part of a stewardship campaign before, you’re in for a treat. You’ll be receiving some information in the mail soon—if you pledged last year you’ve already received a prompt about making sure you’re up-to-date for this year. Julie and I got our letter on Wednesday.

The idea is that you’ll prayerfully consider what you might want to give in 2009, and the Council will take the total of those pledges and make a budget for next year. It’s a little more complicated than that, but that’s the basic plan.

ACL Revenues and Budget

As we begin this season I want to give you a sense of the big picture of how this church is funded, and what our vision for funding is for 2009.

ACL’s budget this year is about £360,000. That’s what it costs to run everything—more than £100,000 of that is just to manage the church’s properties, and about £160,000 of that pays all the wages and salaries for the people who work here. More than £50,000 goes to non-personnel administrative costs like insurance, and office equipment and Health and Safety issues. We’ve also devoted 10% of the annual budget—that’s £36,000—to missions work here in London and abroad.

How do we pay for all of that?

There are two main sources of revenue here at our church. Your pledges and our on-site room-hire business called Latchcourt Ltd. If you’ve ever been here during the week you’ve noticed how many different groups rent rooms for rehearsals, meetings and classes. Now here’s the important part: Our pledges and other giving account for about a third of the church’s budget—about £130,000. Latchcourt makes up the rest—it accounts for about two-thirds of our church revenue.

My goal over the next few years is to move that ratio from one-third/two-thirds to half and half.
That process begins this year. Last year we were blessed to have 40 households make annual pledges in support of this church’s ministry. This year our goal is to receive at least 65.

By sharing the partnership with a greater number of people, my hope is that we will not only increase our giving, but also increase the sense that we’re all partners in what happens here. Pledges don’t have to be big, though large pledges are always welcome, but we do want to see more people connected to the work here in that very important way.

One of the things I learned in bringing financial resources to non-profit organizations is that you can never ask someone to do what you’re not willing to do yourself. And so it’s important for me to tell you that Julie, Ian and I made a pledge to this church for the current year, and it’s a pledge we’re still working on. We are prayerfully considering how we might increase that pledge for 2009—we are committed not only to doing ministry here, but also to partnering financially with the ministry of this place.

So…over the next few weeks you’ll receive some information in the mail. Some of it will be available on the church’s website as well. In our services over the next month and a half you’ll see how we plan to use the church’s financial resources in ministry.

In the meantime please don’t hesitate to ask questions or make suggestions or join a committee to get your hands in this process. This is your church—we work for you—and everything we do together is for the glory of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen?

Regime Change

(This is the third in a series of sermons titled 'A Declaration of Dependence: The Lord's Prayer'.)

The map of the world has changed pretty dramatically in the last 25 years or so. The last examples of colonialism have eroded into history—the breakup of the Soviet Union created a handful of countries that didn’t exist before—and the settling of new nations based on language or ethnicity is happening in Asia and Africa and even here in Europe.

Earlier this year the region we call Kosovo declared itself to be an independent nation. That one is close to our hearts here at this church, because our own former Council president, Andy McGuffie, went to work for that new government.

When a region or group of people decide to be a nation, they look to other established countries for recognition. Actually, in International Law there are four requirements for being recognized as a nation-state:

1. A defined territory, under sovereign control.
2. A definite population.
3. Under control of its own government and services.
4. Having the capacity to engage in dealings with other nations.

When those requirements are met, a nation can be recognized and welcomed into the world community. It’s like the birth of a new child.

This has been a particularly exciting election season in the US. I get emails every day from people on both sides, sharing articles and making arguments. It’s been as brutal as it is interesting. Still, it was good to see both candidates lightening up at a non-partisan charity event last week. At least Sen. Obama and Sen. McCain can be civil to each other, even if not all of their supporters can do the same.

I was interviewed on BBC Radio last week to get an ‘American in Britain’ perspective on the coverage of the American election season in the UK. The hosts of the program were exploring the question of why this presidential choice seemed so important—so interesting.

Free people choosing who will lead them is a relatively new development in human history. Voting in the so-called democracies in ancient times was limited to men who were wealthy landowners, often with their own personal armies. The fact that in our western democracies virtually any adult can cast a vote is a truly amazing thing. That alone should be enough to make any presidential or parliamentary election interesting and important.

It hasn’t always been like that. For thousands of years, whoever was strongest ruled, and after that monarchies were determined by a tiny and non-representative circle of families. When Europe went to war in 1914, the leaders of two of the main nations fighting against each other—Britain and Germany—were related. Kaiser Wilhelm II was Queen Victoria’s first grandchild. That’s one of those historical freebies you’ve come to love…or at least expect from me.

Free people choosing who will lead them is what our text is all about this morning. We’ve been looking at the Lord’s Prayer as an expression of the heart of the Christian faith—taking in believers wherever they are, no matter how broken or depleted or wounded, and restoring them and sending them out to service.

The first two lines of the prayer represent two amazing statements of faith and purpose:

‘Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
‘Our Father, the one who really exists, we’re awestruck that you have chosen to know us.’

Once those two statements have been made, the ground rules are established. God is God, and we’re not. But it doesn’t end there: God offers a relationship and a purpose to anyone willing to come to him in faith.

With those boundaries in place, we get to one of the truly radical statements in the entire Bible:

‘Thy Kingdom come.’

Free people, given a choice, answering God’s call to come and follow him.

Holy Father, Holy God, come and reign over us.

The Kingdom of God is the centerpiece of Jesus ministry and teaching. It’s so central to the Messiah’s message that if you somehow edited out all the references to it there wouldn’t be much left of Jesus’ words. The entire Sermon on the Mount is an expression of the values of the Kingdom of God—what the world would be like if people answered the call to let God reign.

So many of the parables start with a reference to the Kingdom: ‘The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed…or a sower in the field…or a pearl of great price. The Kingdom is the core of the message that Jesus wanted his listeners to take away—to wrestle with—and to understand.

But the idea of the Kingdom of God has been misunderstood for so much of the church’s history.

Some have seen it as a purely political statement. They’ve taken the message of the gospel, filtered it through the doctrines and hierarchy of the church, and decided that the Kingdom should be a place where everyone thinks about Jesus in the same way, and expresses that belief in the same forms and styles. There have been any number of attempts to create theocracies in our history—I don’t mean places where people of faith are elected to leadership, but rather places where only one view of the Christian faith is accepted as accurate and authoritative.

This view has influenced everything from education to the arts to the work of missionaries. Too often being ‘Christian’ meant being just like the culture that introduced you to the faith. One way or another, these are examples of how the Kingdom has functioned as a political reality.

But others haven’t seen it as political at all. For some the Kingdom of God is a purely heavenly thing—somewhere off in the distance, in the sweet by and by, up in the clouds. I remember a song when I was in youth group that said: ‘This world is not my home, I’m just a-passing through. My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue.’

The Kingdom of God in that song was anywhere but here—it was in every way, somewhere else—away from this place and after this time.

Both of these expressions of the Kingdom of God miss the mark, and oddly enough they miss it in precisely the same way.

Both of these expressions of the Kingdom of God think of that Kingdom as a place, a here or a there, as a nation-state with defined territory, a limited population, self-determination and the ability to look over its walls and have relationships with other places.

The here and now political understanding, and the ‘this world is not my home’ heavenly understanding of the Kingdom both think of it as a realm somewhere—a boundaried place where very little gets in or out.

I know we spent a lot of time on this last year, but let’s review our definition of the Kingdom of God for just a moment:

The Kingdom of God is not a place or a realm with limits and boundaries, but rather Christ’s reign that reaches into all times and places, and rules over all things, even death.

God’s Kingdom—God’s reign—is an ongoing thing. It’s a demonstration of power more than a limitation of space. It’s a recognition of sovereignty more than a set of boundaries and coordinates.

Thy Kingdom come.

May your reign come.

Lord, rule in our hearts and minds and jobs and homes and bank accounts and lives.

Thy Kingdom come.

One writer proposed that it’s the word Kingdom that gets in our way of fully understanding this idea. He offers a handful of phrases that represent different translations of the original language: Instead of Kingdom of God we might say…

God’s regime has taken power.

The dominion of the God of Israel has arrived.

The Yahweh Administration has been sworn in.

The point is that when we say ‘thy Kingdom come,’ we’re saying that we are standing up, ready to be counted as people who want to live God’s way—who are willing to live by the values of God’s Kingdom instead of any other. That may be the most radical thing about this entire prayer.

It’s a proclamation that tells the world around us that we live by a new set of cultural values that just might offend them: it’s a set of values that places a premium on forming loving connections with people, on worshipping God with creativity and recklessness, on growing in our knowledge and relationship to Jesus Christ, and on going out into the world to serve in Christ’s name.

Those four things, by the way, represent this church’s commitment to being a living and healthy church: fellowship, worship, discipleship and mission.

Because the Christian life isn’t about having cultural power, or resigning ourselves to cultural powerlessness, or even trying to exert a form of counter-cultural influence. The Kingdom of God is about ushering in a new culture altogether. It’s about recognizing that when we’re done with our campaigning and arguing and voting and even governing, that Jesus Christ still reigns over all times and places, and that he rules over all things, even death.

This phrase, just as the prayer gets going, is a declaration of our dependence on God, but it’s also an expression of our hope: our hope that God is who he says he is, that he loves us as much as he has led us to believe, and that he will make good on the promises to be involved in his creation and make all things new again.

Thy Kingdom come.

May your reign come.

Lord, rule in our hearts.

We started by talking about the recognition of nation-states, and what an important thing that is for people who are seeking self-rule, self-determination. In international law, recognition isn’t required to be state—it’s given freely by the nation or government doing the recognizing.

It’s important for us as we move past this part of the Lord’s Prayer to remember that God reigns whether we recognize him or not—that he lives and loves and rules, just as he said he would.

But when we say ‘thy Kingdom come’ we express our faith that Christ’s reign is present in the here and now, and also the hope that Christ’s reign will come in its fullness sometime soon.

When we say ‘thy Kingdom come’ we step into a new way of living—like the birth of a new person. We experience a regime change that can’t be compared to anything we might see on the news or read in a book.

As we continue our time in this prayer, and as we begin to talk about stewardship and set a vision for the ministry of this church in the coming year, take time to reflect on what the reign of God means in your life.

You might feel very close to Christ right now—very aware of how he rules in your heart.

But for some of you that might not describe your experience at all at this moment.

Either way, take this journey through the Lord’s Prayer and make it your own declaration of dependence on Jesus Christ.

God made us to be free people who can choose who leads us. The Lord’s Prayer breathes life into our lives by reminding us of who to choose.

Let’s stand and pray that prayer together.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

An Update and Meditation

Julie, Ian and I took the weekend off and went to Paris. We stayed with friends, ate a lot of good food, walked for miles, and enjoyed ourselves. I'll put some pictures up later this week, and get back to regular posting, too. For now, here's a little something from this morning.

A few weeks ago I mentioned my preaching professor, Ian Pitt-Watson, in a sermon and blog post. I've been thinking about him a lot lately--he's one of a handful of "what-would-he-do-in-this-situation" people for me. I got a nice note from a member of his family when I posted his name (by the way, would you send me a message offline so I can say hello?), and I've been telling my son Ian a few stories about the other Ian.

Today I was watching the news and had another Pitt-Watson sighting. The world financial situation hits pretty close to the bone here--so much of the world's banking and finance business comes through London. I was listening to one of the talking heads on Sky News today, and when the graphic crossed the screen I had to stare before I realized who it was. David Pitt-Watson is a financier and political advisor here in the UK. I remember Ian talking about his children--one of his daughters was made touchingly famous in a book he wrote on preaching. Ian told us his son David was involved in international banking, and Ian would pretend not to understand what his son actually did (this was funny because Ian was one of the smartest people we knew).

So there's David Pitt-Watson on my TV, and I was struck by how much he looked like his father.

David's explanation of the crisis and potential solutions reminded me of the way Ian used talk about preaching the Gospel. He said that every good sermon (and really, should there be any other kind?) told Adam's story and Christ's story--an explanation of the crisis and the solution offered through the cross--and that you found your 'point' where those two stories intersected. I learned a lot of things in seminary, but there are only a handful that I use and think about on a regular basis.

This little analogy of what a sermon should be is at the top of the list.

Our story = sin, brokenness, war, injustice and death.
Christ's story = love, healing, sacrifice, peace, mercy and life.

The places where those strands meet is where Scripture comes alive for us--where the Gospel itself comes alive and gives life to us. Ian Pitt-Watson taught me that, and today his son reminded me that it's still a pretty good thing to know.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Naming Rights

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

Julie and I had fun choosing our son Ian’s name. There were two Ians who made an impact on my life: Ian Pitt-Watson was my preaching professor in seminary. He was the son of a famous churchman—James Pitt-Watson gave Queen Elizabeth her Bible at her coronation—but he was also an accomplished scholar and professor, and was the founder of the Edinburgh Singers. I met the other Ian when I worked at St. Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh. Ian and Jean McCallum were members of the church, and they had me over for meals and looked out for me during my time there. They met Julie not long after our wedding, and we’ve been friends ever since.

When Julie and I found out that our baby was going to be a boy, it was a pretty easy choice to name him Ian.

Names are important—and they’re also an easy place to get carried away. There’s a website devoted to bad baby names that had me laughing pretty hard last week. Clearly there are parents who have forgotten that in elementary school you learn Darwinian theory on the playground and not the classroom. Right now, somewhere in the world, there’s a kid getting beat up because of what his parents named him.

Names are important. They say a lot about who we are—where we’ve been—and mostly what our parents are like. Sometimes we have to grow into our names—just imagine what it must be like to be 4 years old and be named John D. Rockefeller the 5th. My nephew was born with the name Michael Lloyd Holmes III, but for years we just called him Mikey. Now at 19 he’s just beginning to fit his whole name.

In the Bible names play a crucial role in some of the most important stories in the Scriptures. In the Old Testament we find all kinds of names for God, depending on what he had done or provided or offered in a particular story. There are the basic names for God in Hebrew—Yahweh, Elohim and Adonai, but there are also more complicated or specific names like: ‘Elyon’ means God Most High, and ‘El Shaddai’ means God Almighty or God the Destroyer. You also see names like ‘The Lord who Provides’, or ‘heals’ or ‘protects’. ‘The Lord of Hosts’ shows up in our hymns and songs, and the first line of the 23rd Psalm, ‘The Lord is My Shepherd’, is really a name for God.

Most of you know that I spend part of my career raising money for Christian organizations. I worked on major gift projects and capital campaigns along the way, and it’s fairly common in fund raising to offer naming rights in exchange for large donations. At one place we had an internal document with a floor plan of the building, with notes in red stating what gift size was required to name a room, or a hallway, or some other part of the building.

The Lord’s Prayer, as the heart of our faith and the interruption of all we do, gives us a different kind of naming rights. It gives us the gift of being able to name the one who is the source of everything—who frees us and redeems us—who promises to make all things new—the one who calls us to worship and serve in his name.

That brings us to our text for this morning—it’s an interruption, like last week, that knocks us off of our chairs and reminds us that we’re doing something special when we pray the Lord’s Prayer.

Hallowed be thy name. Holy is your name. Your name is set apart from every other name.

We continue our journey through the Lord’s Prayer this morning. We’ve been talking about the prayer as the heart of our faith—taking us in wherever we are, no matter how depleted we become, and restoring us to life and renewing us for service. Last week we talked about how the prayer begins with a statement of faith that interrupts our lives and startles us with a reminder that God truly exists. This week we move ahead in the prayer, and come to the idea of the holiness of God’s name.

What does it mean for God’s name to be holy? Mostly it gets defined as being set apart, but there’s a problem with that. Being set apart can mean God is separate—or isolated—or somehow disconnected from something or even everything. To be set apart like this reinforces the lie that God is distant and uninvolved in the world and in our lives.

But holy means something different from that. God’s holiness doesn’t define him, it defines how we understand him. God is what God is, but his name is connected to how we experience him—how we learn to know him—how we live in relationship to him. God’s name is God’s reputation, and part of the Lord’s Prayer—right after we acknowledge that God exists: ‘Our Father, the one who is really there.’ Right after that statement of faith in who God is, comes this affirmation of what God is like.

Hallowed be thy name. Holy is your name. Your name is set apart from every other name.

In the Old Testament, the word holy is almost always used to describe God’s delivering presence. It describes God as he is in relationship to his people: creator, protector, sustainer, redeemer. The holiness of God’s name represents how we experience God in our relationship to him.

There are plenty of complicated theological definitions of who God is. The holiness of God reminds us of what God is like.

When the people of Israel talked about their relationship to God, they understood that it came with a call on their lives to be holy themselves—holy to God, holy toward each other, and holy to the world.

When we pray the Lord’s Prayer—when we say ‘Our Father in heaven, holy is your name’, the challenge to us is to live out the same call in our own lives.

What does that mean? If ‘holy’ describes how God acts in relationship to his people—if ‘holy’ represents how we experience God—then for us it describes the way we keep our end of that covenant.

We're called to be holy to God. We live out being holy to God when we worship and spend time praising him—when we enjoy his presence in our lives with reckless abandon. Being holy to God happens in our prayer, in our study of the Scriptures. There’s a cognitive side to this—there’s no getting around that—but closeness to God happens when we translate what we know about God into truly knowing God.

We're called to be holy to each other. When we gather in God’s name and build relationships together, we’re being holy to each other. Fellowship, community, the koinonia we’ve talked about before—when we learn to show authentic love toward our brothers and sisters in Christ, we're being holy to each other. Jesus never said that we’d be measured on our precise doctrine, or our ordered churches, or even our balanced budgets. He said: ‘the world will know that you are my disciples if you love one another.’

We're called to be holy to the world. This is not just about how we are toward God and others who believe as we do. Being holy to the world—representing our end of God’s reputation—means that we’re called to a life of service and mission and compassion and peacemaking. That’s a tough one, but it’s been the case since the earliest pages of the Scriptures—God calls out people and groups and blesses them, so that they will be a blessing to the rest of the world.

Being privileged to call on God’s holy name in the Lord’s Prayer means being a part of his plan for his creation. It’s a symbol of God’s work in our lives and our experience of God along the way.

As we come to the Table this morning, think about how the Lord’s Prayer prepares you to share in this meal. Make this prayer your prayer as we seek to grow in being holy to God, holy toward each other, and holy to the world. Let’s pray the Lord's Prayer together...

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Friends (Not the Show)

I'm feeling especially thankful this week for the gift of having friends. I think our move to London carried with it the underlying fear that we wouldn't find new friends, a new sense of community, in a new place. We had lots of family in and around Burbank, and so many good relationships with people at our church in Glendale. I think that some of the stress of coming here was wondering if we'd develop close friendships...the sort of people we could enjoy and help and rely on.

The answer has been a good way.

God has blessed us with some great people around here; you've seen some of their names go by in earlier posts. Last week I went to an Arsenal match with some guys I know here, both missionaries in urban London, and we had a great time. Of all the kinds of relationships I wanted or hoped for, I didn't expect to meet guys from the States who shared my desire to see the Gospel preached and lived in London. Today as I sit in my office I've booked a couple of lunches with friends here over the next week that I'm already looking forward to. Last weekend we had a group of young married couples over for lunch, and this weekend we're having dinner with a family with kids around Ian's age. We're also seeing some close friends from Glendale who have just moved to Paris. They're coming over to London to get their visas in order and we get to spend some good time with them before we see them in Paris next week. I catch myself looking forward to all of these events.

The complicated part of the answer is that God has taken care of us by strengthening or growing some of the friendships we had before. Julie's brother Bill and I still talk often, and as much as I miss hanging around with him I know that our friendship is still alive and changing. There's more to this part of the story. Earlier this week it became painfully aware to me that I didn't understand the basics of what was happening in the financial markets. That matters to me, not just because my retirement and mortgage and future work are affected by it, but also because many of the people in my church work for financial institutions. The largest segment of American expats in London are in industries connected to banking and finance, and it occurred to me that I didn't feel equipped to serve them effectively during these scary times.

So I wrote my questions to a friend of mine in the States who I knew could explain it to me. Over the last few days he's been a source of information and encouragement as I try to develop a pastoral response that matters, and in the process we've been reminded of how much we enjoy and value each other. What a gift.

The point is that we didn't replace our community from home. Many of those friends are still friends in an immediate sense, and that's great. Our new friends in London add depth and spice to the network of relationships we had before, and it's wonderful. And so I'm aware today, in this moment, of how much God has blessed us with people who care about us, who need us, and who enjoy being together. Like I said, what a gift.

Becoming aware of a blessing puts a healthy burden on people who seek to be disciples of Jesus. From the earliest pages of the Bible, God offers gifts to his people and then hands them the responsibility to share that blessing with others. The people of Israel were shown favor not because they were uniquely qualified or special, but so that they could be agents of blessing to the world. The message that gets lost when we talk about the Chosen People is that it was God doing the choosing, and that it was to be an example of his love, his power, and his grace to his creation.

If I'm going to talk about how blessed I am to have these great friends in my life, then I'd better respond by sharing that gift with others as well.

How about you?