Friday, July 26, 2013

Pray (Reflections on Pentecost 10)

Image result for Images of prayer
He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.’ He said to them, ‘When you pray, say:

Father, hallowed be your name.
 Your kingdom come.
 Give us each day our daily bread.
 And forgive us our sins,
 for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.’ 


And he said to them, ‘Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, “Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.” And he answers from within, “Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.” I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs. ‘So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’ (Luke 11: 1-13)

There's an old joke about this guy named Dave who kept praying every day that he'd win the lottery. He'd go to church and, in the silent moments before the start of worship, he'd pray for a lottery jackpot. “Please, God,” he'd pray, “I've done the best I could all my life. Give me just one little break, okay?” Dave prayed this for five years straight. One Sunday, feeling that God had turned a deaf ear to his beseeching, he finally prayed, “Lord, if I've offended you, please tell me. I've prayed constantly, just as your scriptures instructed, yet I've never won the lottery. Why, O Lord? Why?”

Just then, Dave heard a magnificent voice thundering in his ear, “Dave! Dave! I am the Lord thy God! Hark unto my words!”

“I'm listening, Lord,” said Dave. “only tell me what I must do to win the lottery.”

The voice replied, “Meet me half way, Dave. Buy a ticket!”

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I think Saint James had it right, “You do not have, because you do not ask.” (James 4:2b) I suspect the reason why we don't ask is because we really don't have a clue as to what we really want. So Jesus gives us these petitions upon which we can meditate.

When we don't know what we want to say to God, we can always ask that God's name—that divine logos, idea, or knowledge of God—be made holy in our thinking. That is, we ask to look with renewed vision to the wonder and beauty of God. We pray for that sacred stillness which allows us to put all things in perspective. We pray for the dependent relationship a small child has with her loving father.

We pray for God's Kingdom, which is another way of saying we pray that what is right—honest, just, merciful—will come to pass, and that we will willing accept and participate in whatever this kingdom requires.

We pray for our physical needs. Daily bread—not a week's supply, but whatever we need to get through the day. And in such a way we learn to trust and be at peace.

We pray for forgiveness—thereby acknowledging our need for it, and for the ability to forgive others.

And we pray to be kept safe from temptation. All temptations—especially the temptation to despair.

Do we really need anything more?

Martin Luther wrote of the Lord's Prayer:

God takes the initiative and puts into our mouths the very words we are to use. Thus we see how sincerely he is concerned with our needs, and we should never doubt that our prayer pleases him and will assuredly be heard. So this prayer is far superior to all others that we might ourselves devise. For in the latter our conscience would always be in doubt, saying, “I have prayed, but who knows whether it pleased him, or whether I have hit upon the right form and mode?” Thus there is no nobler prayer to be found on earth, for it has the excellent testimony that God loves to hear it.” (The Large Catechism, 1529)

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Although Luther despised senseless repetition of prayer as a form of works righteousness, there is certainly something to be said for persistence. Prayer is a form of hope, and hope is an ingredient as necessary for human life as air and water. I know that, in my own life, the words of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards have come true: “You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometime you just might find you get what you need.” The answers God has granted to my prayers have not always been in line with the visions in my head. But the answers have been satisfying all the same.

So keep praying. Be patient. Prayer doesn't change God, but it changes us. Whether or not we end up where we thought we wanted to go, we will be blessed by the journey.

PS

In the spirit of “Don't ask, don't get,” I'm still trying to launch a movement to get Pope Francis to agree to full communion with Lutherans as a way to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation in October of 2017. Personally, I think I've got a better shot at winning the Power Ball Lottery or being struck by lightening than of getting any response from the Vatican. Still, there would be NO CHANCE if no one asks! So join my fool's crusade by clicking on Change.org.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

A Nation of Reptiles (Reflections on Pentecost Nine)

Christ with Martha & Mary, by Vermeer
Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’ But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; here is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’ (Luke 10:38-42)

Okay. Be honest. I mean, aren't you just a little p.o.'d with Mary for goofing off while her sister does all the work? Here's poor Martha slaving to get dinner ready while her sister sits at the feet of Jesus and listens to him tell stories. Doesn't this chick have anything better to do?

But Jesus says Mary has chosen the “better part.” Just what does that mean? Does the Lord have the audacity to suggest that there may be some things more important than practical work?

You sure wouldn't think that by looking at American culture today. We've made it very clear by our choices what we think is important around here. Budget cut? Get rid of the “frills.” School kids need to concentrate on math. science, and technology. Nix the art, the music, the drama, and the dance. Who needs 'em? And what would your reaction be if your kid came home one day and announced that she wanted to be a musician or a writer or an actress? Scarey, right?

Of course, we'll always have room for sports. They bring in revenue and give us a sense of victory. Granted they also produce over-paid pro athletes who juice on steroids and raging monster Little League parents. But so what if our kid's sports programs schedule games in times once reserved for religious observance. Forget this church stuff. We've spent too much on soccer equipment and league fees and we don't want to lose our investment.

But weren't games supposed to be fun?

I think at times that we are becoming a nation of reptiles, concerned in a frightened sense only about such things at the very base of the Maslow's scale like food, shelter, and a sense of security.

In 1976 I heard a Lutheran pastor in Houston, TX express our cultural pathology like this: We worship or work, work at our play, and play at our worship.

Isn't Mary right to seek after the higher things? In choosing the morality, philosophy, and love of Jesus, isn't she choosing the “better part?” After all, even a lizard can work for its food and burrow for shelter. But God calls us to higher things. We may be feeding our stomachs by our attitude of practicality, but we are starving our souls.

Can you imagine a world in which everything was geared towards the bottom line of profit or control? Think of a world without story-telling. The TV and the internet would provide only technical information and instruction. There would be no music. No art. No design which was not purely functional. Athletics and games would exist only to create revenue, train the body, and feed our reptilian need to dominate others.

Alright. I'll admit that the Church has not always helped. A phrase such as Holy Day of Obligation sure takes the joy out of worship. We turned feeding our souls with music and story into a necessary work to appease God. The Puritan practice of putting folks in the stocks for missing church was probably another misstep. And I know of a lot of people in my parish who still seem to think that attending worship is a chore. I can almost hear them asking, “So tell me, Pastor: What's the least I need to do to not go to Hell?”

I really want all of those Marthas out there to know that worship, like their kid's hockey game, is supposed to be a joyful experience. Necessary? Yes. But not because it's some way to tick off a box on God's checklist of expectations. It's necessary because so many of us are on a spiritual hunger strike. At some point we just need to put down our dust rag and experience the beauty of God's love.

I love to worship (which, given the life I lead, is probably a good thing!). I love to sing and to hear people sing. I love the rich colors of the church's paraments and the art displayed in our chancel. I love to hear the sacred stories told which make me feel that I am part of history and community, and I love the very ritual of the mass. The extraordinary actions are like a dance which also includes tastes and smells. Even if I understood nothing of the theology of a religious service, I would still hunger for the poetic nature of the experience.

Mary is right, folks. It isn't all about the bottom line. Please take some time this week to be impractical. Be around something beautiful. Listen to music. Reconnect with someone distant who means something to you. Look at a sunset. Get lost in a book. Recognize that these creative things are gifts from God. Worship a little, won't you?

God bless you for reading.

Monday, July 15, 2013

The Trayvon Martin Case


It comes down to race, the Original Sin of the United States. The acquittal of George Zimmerman for the killing of Trayvon Martin has me shaking my head again, and wondering when we will ever stop picking at the scab of the never-healing wound of racial peace and equality in this country.

Let me say for the record: I have no doubt that the jury which acquitted George Zimmerman must have believed that he was in genuine and profound fear for his life when he discharged the bullet which ended the teenager's life. Nevertheless, I cannot let go of my belief that Town Watch volunteers are not vigilantes and are not to be armed with deadly force. George Zimmerman was armed. Similarly, Town Watch volunteers are not to approach suspicious persons, but are to report such individuals to trained police officers. Yet George Zimmerman chose to approach Trayvon Martin. Had Zimmerman made other choices on that February night, Trayvon Martin would be alive today. Perhaps Zimmerman's most egregious lack of judgment was the arrogant belief that a black youngster had no business walking in his neighborhood.

So where are we all to go from here? Maybe I start by considering my own history with race. I grew up in a mostly white neighborhood with Builder Generation parents whose ideas of race were far from what we would consider enlightened. It was not uncommon for me to hear the “n” word used at the family dinner table. Once, while at a college party in the late 1970's, I stood in shocked silence for a few seconds after a pretty young black woman asked me to dance. I had to assure myself that accepting this invitation was not a moral outrage or a crime against nature. But today, I see no such hesitation among young people. Today's youth are not “color blind” as I've heard it said. Rather, they seem to be “color-appreciative.” The various races have cross-pollinated American life with lush and diverse cultures, and I see an openness in them which is exciting and hopeful.

But just as I celebrate our advances, the Martin/Zimmerman case emerges to tear an ugly scar across the progress we've made.

As a Christian clergyman all I can do is encourage us to take time to mourn this setback in our journey towards peace and understanding. Yet, in our mourning, we must not neglect to hope. To use the old Biblical analogy, we are all like Moses and the Children of Israel wandering in the wilderness. We are still a long way from the Promised Land. We still need to know hunger and thirst for righteousness and justice. We still need to gaze upon the poisonous serpent of our mutual suspicions before we can look into the faces of our brothers and sisters and see them for who they truly are.

I will pray for the families of both Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman and for the communities which will feel the pain of this incident. And I will continue to hope.
 
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Thanks for reading, friends. Hey! Just for giggles, would you take a minute and sign my petition asking Pope Francis to invite Lutherans back to the Communion table? It's been 500 years. I think it's time we patch things up, don't you? And it can't hurt to ask, right? Just click on petition.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

An Open Letter to Pope Francis


Dear Holy Father,

I am a Lutheran cleric and I want to share the Holy Supper with my Roman Catholic Christian brothers and sisters.

It has been almost 500 years since the schism which separated Lutheran Christians from Roman Catholics. I know there are many issues upon which we still fail to reach full accord. Nevertheless, I believe those articles of the faith which our communions share in common are of far greater importance than those issues on which we may differ.

My parish is in the city of Philadelphia in the United States. The Roman Catholic Church dominates our neighborhood, yet we are always delighted to welcome our Roman friends to worship with us. Given the overwhelming Catholic presence in this area, we are frequently visited by Catholics for baptisms, weddings, confirmations, and the like. When we celebrate the mass I tell visitors that it would be unpardonably rude to invite them into our home and not offer them something to eat. As both Lutheran and Catholic traditions teach our Lord Jesus is truly present in the bread and wine of Holy Communion, I invite all baptized Christians who wish to receive our Lord's body for the forgiveness of sins to join us at the Eucharistic table.

It is painful for my parishioners, however, when they visit Catholic churches and are expressly told they may not receive the Holy Eucharist.

For some time I regularly visited an elderly, homebound woman in my parish to bring her the Sacrament. Her devoted husband of forty years, a devout Roman Catholic, always respected my visit and piously knelt when I spoke the verbum and consecrated the Host. In spite of my invitation, however, he felt forbidden by the teachings of his Church to receive the Sacrament with his wife.

I now ask Your Holiness to consider inviting your Lutheran brothers and sisters to join Roman Catholics around the table of Christ. I ask you to forgive the separation of the last 500 years and announce to the world that, whatever our traditional differences, we are one body in the sacrificial love of Jesus made present in the Holy Supper.

I have enjoyed my participation in the Lutheran/Roman Catholic dialogue; however, our communions have been talking for over fifty years. Perhaps now, as the 500th anniversary of the Reformation draws near, is the time to embrace each other again.

Your Holiness has, in a very short time, proven yourself to be a wise, compassionate, and open-minded servant of Christ. I earnestly beg you to consider my request. Please know that you will always be in my prayers and those of my parishioners.



Yours in Christ's service,

The Reverend Owen Griffiths
 
 
P.S. If you agree with this, Dear Readers, pass this blog on to your friends and family. I have tried to launch a petition on Change.org too. Will it do any good? Quien sabe? Probably not. But Francis seems like a pretty cool guy to me. As Saint James tells us, "You do not have because you do not ask." (James 4:2)

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Kicking Satan's Butt (Reflections on Pentecost 7)

 
"He said to them, 'I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightening.'"
                                                                                                    (Luke 10:18)
 
Hello, my friends. If you're planning on being away from home this Fourth of July weekend and you don't have the chance to attend worship, perhaps you'll enjoy these few thoughts on this Sunday's gospel lesson from the Revised Common Lectionary.
 
The text is Luke 10: 1-11 and 16-20. Note that the folks who cooked up the Lectionary have nicely redacted Jesus' more ill-tempered comments on what will happen to places which don't accept the message of God's kingdom (verses 12-15). Why Lutherans are squeamish about this hell-fire-and-brimstone stuff is a little beyond me, however. The sad truth is, if we're not open to love, healing, and forgiveness, then the stuff we are open to is going to lead us to an awful lot of misery. Sometimes we just have to say that openly. But, hey! It's a holiday weekend, so I guess we should smile and stay positive. Burgers, anyone?
 
This gospel story is usually identified as "The Sending of the Seventy" which pretty much sums up the plot. Why seventy missionaries? My theory is that Jesus had lots of faithful disciples besides the twelve mentioned by name in the gospels. So many, in fact, that later writers probably couldn't remember which ones were part of the twelve and which ones weren't. That accounts for the different names given to the twelve in the various gospels. Seventy is a pretty special number in Biblical numerology. Seven is the sum of three--the number of God's completeness and perfection in Hebrew thinking--and four--the number of earthly completeness. If you've got seven guys, you're saying you have enough. If you want to intensify the number, just add a zero. Now you have more than enough traveling preachers to do the job. The number seventy was probably not intended to be taken as literal history. It just means that God had provided enough faithful disciples to get the Word spread. God is good like that.
 
(Can I apologize for that last paragraph? It's pure trivia, but we religious guys are into that kind of  stuff. I promise I won't do it again.)
 
 Here's what I find really striking about this story: Jesus sends these guys (And maybe they weren't all guys per se. Who knows? Many of Jesus' disciples were women according to Luke's gospel.) out to be healers and proclaimers of God's active presence within the community. Because God is so present and so good, Jesus instructs the seventy not to pack a lot of gear for this journey (see verse 4). They are to rely on God and strangers to see to their needs. This whole enterprise is to be one colossal exercise in faith.
 
Think about this. If you rely only on your own resources for what you can accomplish, you'll never venture anything. Sometimes we have to leap into the darkness without our parachutes. Additionally, the seventy are instructed to be content with the people who shelter them (not looking around for something better) and to eat what's put in front of them. This mission is not only a lesson in faith but in gratitude.
 
Jesus also instructs these ambassadors to be bringers of peace. Their job is healing and bringing God's presence. They're not supposed to be condemning  folks. That's God's job. They are to wish peace on the places they visit. Jesus tells them, "...if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you (verse 6)." That's as much as saying, if they receive you, great. If they don't, don't sweat it. It's not about you, anyway. Let 'em be jerks if they want to be. Nobody can take God's peace from you unless you willingly surrender it.
 
Jesus then tells the seventy to shake off the dust of the towns which don't receive them (verse11). Why carry unpleasant experiences with you? Yet even those places are given one final, parting warning. Jesus never stops trying to reach people, and always leaves the door open for repentance and forgiveness.
 
I really dig the image of the seventy returning with joy (verse 17) after having cast out demons. They sound pretty amazed. Heck, these old boys (and girls) had no freaking idea that they were capable of doing so much! Sometimes I think that the entire Christian Church suffers from an excess of powerlessness. We say dumb things like, "We don't have the money." "We don't have enough people for the job." "People won't like it." "It's never worked in the past." "What if we fail?" or "We've never done it that way before." In our churches and in our lives, we won't know what we can do in faith until we try.
 
(OMG! I think I just sounded like Joel Osteen!)
 
In my time in my little blue-collar, Lutheran parish I've seen my membership embrace contemporary music, invite teenagers onto the church council, welcome inter-racial families and gay couples into fellowship, and let homeless people live in our basement. We have power to change and be agents of change if we will only believe it.
 
And so this gospel lesson ends with Jesus greeting the returning missionaries like a proud Little League daddy who has just watched his son hit a home run. He gives them a big, "Attaboy! I knew you could do it!" The powers of darkness--bigotry, fear, indifference, suspicion, regret, resentment, self-pity, and all the rest--have no power when pitted against the joy of God's love. Satan is a punk and we can kick his butt as long as we don't believe our own lies. The kingdom of God has come near to us, and we can do miraculous things. Nevertheless, our true joy is always in the knowledge that we are all of us beloved children. At the end of all our courageous exploits is the love which has been ours from the beginning of time. And that's pretty good news.
 
I hope you enjoy your holiday, my dears. Thanks again for dropping by.