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Prayers of Petition

December 15, 2022

Model of a chuch

When we ask for something in prayer, how does that work? Suppose that a congregation is seeking a pastor, so they fervently pray that the Lord will send them exactly the person they need. Keeping "Pray and Do" in mind, they do their part to find that perfect candidate. Within a short period of time, a new shepherd has arrived to pastor the flock. Prayer answered. But how did that work? There are numerous possibilities.

Perchance nothing happened whatsoever; that is, the prayer had no effect. Whether it's because there is no God, or that everything is immutably predestined, or some other reason, that pastor would have arrived at the church on-time with or without the congregation's prayers. This, however, is a somewhat cynical viewpoint and contradicts the Christian understanding that prayers have power and that a very real God hears them, so we are probably safe to disregard this viewpoint.

We wonder if God had planned to send that exact person all along. If so, then there is a chance that the prayers encouraged God to hasten to the task. Or, perhaps the Holy One was waiting on the congregation's approval. Does God operate like that: Will the creator of creation shift timetables and modify plans based on our desires?

Wadded up paper ball on pad of paper

Speaking of, does God change plans altogether based on our prayers? Could it be that the Lord originally had a different pastor in mind and that faithful prayers themselves radically changed the divine agenda? Alternatively, you might subscribe to a theology that believes in predestination; if so, are such prayers-of-asking even appropriate for you?

How does prayer work? The short answer is that we don't know. In truth, prayer is a mind-baffling concept… the notion that we can bring requests to the king of kings and lord of lords is nigh beyond belief. And yet, the Bible and Christians throughout the ages have unequivocally maintained that we not only can pray, but that we should. Somehow, prayer works. Somehow, it leads pastors to congregations and accomplishes even greater miracles. Somehow, it also accomplishes significantly lesser ones: seemingly-trivial affairs that pertain to a small facet of a single person's life. The moral of the story is that prayer works; we don't know how, but God nevertheless tells us to keep doing it.

Thanksgiving (Prayer)

November 21, 2022

This Thursday, many families in the United States and elsewhere will come together to enjoy company, reflect on blessings, and feast. Most of these grand meals will begin with a prayer. Some will be scripted; some will be awkward; some will involve humor; some will bring Christ's very presence to the table. In anticipation of the Thanksgiving grace, in all the diverse forms it will take, let us continue this series of prayer-related blogs and ask, Why do we pray?

Hands folded in prayer

One can pray for just about anything in any way. The apostle Paul encouraged the Thessalonians to "pray continually". Jesus frequently withdrew from the crowds to engage in prayer; he also taught his followers to pray the Lord's Prayer and gave them other guidance. We are even told that the Holy Spirit intercedes for us when we don't know what our prayers should be. Though there are many types of prayers and theological taxonomies of the same, let's briefly consider four types and what they're for.

1) Meditation. It is good for us to be still, reflect upon God, and ponder divine mysteries. With these prayers, we try to avoid "running our mouths" as it were, and simply spend time with God. This is a good relationship-building prayer.

2) Petition. We believe that we can approach the throne of God and make requests. In fact, as discussed in "God and Sons Co., Part 1", Jesus describes us as God's own children who can run to their Father with any- and every-thing. Keep in mind that prayers-of-asking are not only for our own benefit, but for others, even people (or groups or institutions) that we don't know or interact with.

3) Adoration. Sometimes, we just need to tell God how amazing he is and marvel-in-wonder at the Holy One.

4) Confession. At other times, we need to admit our shortcomings and acknowledge that we have failed to follow God's gold standard—sometimes through action, at other times through lack-of-action—and then ask for forgiveness.

If you have only been praying one type of prayer (or none at all), then try expanding your practice to become better acquainted with God and grow in Christian maturity. If however, your prayer life is far more diverse than what was just discussed, don't back off; rather, continue to find new ways to connect with God who is limitless. Happy Thanksgiving from Stories of Symmetry!

Pray and Do

October 27, 2022

Xray of a hand

Suppose that your friend's hand has been sore and swollen since she accidentally caught it in a door several days ago. As a person of faith, do you counsel her to get an x-ray, or to pray for healing? And your other friend who is looking for a better job, do you advise him to update his résumé and start networking, or pray that the right business-owner will cross his path?

Should Christians prayerfully trust in God's omnipotence, or should we take action? Well, both. Andersen's Ostrich helped us think about two extreme personalities, neither of which is admirable: The first approaches life as if there were no God while the second expects God to intervene in life's every tiny aspect. Related to these attitudes are those who do (only) and those who pray (only).

If we return again to the prospect of a fractured hand: Our more pious nature might suppose that if we pray sincerely and trust wholeheartedly, then God will heal; after all, this feat is trivial for the Holy One. Somewhere, even, a twinge of guilt might make us feel like going to a doctor evinces a lack of faith… all the more reason to pray harder. But then again, Christians are called to be reasonable, level-headed people. If modern medicine is within our reach, is it really so wrong to visit an urgent care and seek treatment? Our conscience might even tell us that this—the x-ray—is God's chosen route of healing. Healing is, after all, healing; does it need to be "miraculous"?

Picture of a fork

To put forth a silly extreme: If I pray for nourishment, must I really pick up the fork and eat? Why wouldn't God just fill my body with its requisite building blocks and energy? Is taking a bite of the food set before me somehow contemning or distrusting God? After all, if my nourishment is part of the divine plan, then the Lord will make it happen, no? Although these types of philosophical and theological rabbit holes might have their place, they are really rather absurd and offer no practical guidance. Therefore, pick up the fork and take a bite.

Prayer without action mocks God; action without prayer ignores God. Therefore, we need both. We should, as the Psalmist said, cast our cares upon the Lord. We should pray passionate prayers for God's support, but we also need to supplement those prayers with our own capacities. One particularly emphatic depiction of this concept comes from Exodus: When waging war against the Amalekites, Moses ascended a hill and prayed over the battle while Joshua mustered the valiant men and clashed swords with the enemy. The Israelites relied on neither prayer nor manpower exclusively; they took action on the battlefield and prayed on the hill. Both were integral to their success.

The early church and its rapid growth was a partnership of prayer and works. Neither Jesus nor his followers hid themselves away and prayed for the right people to providentially knock at their door and seek the Gospel. The disciples went into the streets preaching and performing wonders in Jesus's name. But they didn't depend solely on their own rhetoric, either; they prayed for the Holy Spirit to put their words to use. In the end, we tell friend A to see her doctor… and pray for healing, we tell friend B to pray for a connection… and write a résumé. It's not an exercise in Trick Questions: We pray and do.

Andersen's Ostrich

October 5, 2022

The other day, I turned, randomly, to page 252 in a rather antiquated copy of Andersen's Fairy Tales and was utterly shocked when my eyes caught sight of the following passage, which comes from "The Marsh King's Daughter" and is oh-so appropriate in light of the previous blog:

"Once, they say, the ostriches were a beautiful and glorious race of birds, with large, strong wings. One evening, the great birds of the forest said to it, 'Brother, shall we tomorrow, God willing, go down to the river to drink?' And the ostrich answered, 'I will!'

Two ostriches in a field

"At the break of day, then, they flew off, first rising high in the air towards the sun, the eye of God; still higher and higher the ostrich flew, far in front of the other birds, in its pride flying close up to the light. He trusted in his own strength, and not on that of the Giver; he would not say 'God willing!' But the avenging angel drew back the veil from the flaming ocean of sunlight, and in a moment the wings of the proud bird were burnt, and he sank miserably to the earth. Since that time the ostrich and his race have never been able to rise in the air; he can only fly terror-stricken along the ground, or round and round in narrow circles. It is a warning to mankind, remining us in every thought and action to say 'God-willing!'"

My first thought is that they don't write children's books nowadays like they used to. But in all relevance, this short myth within a fairy tale represents the extrema of a spectrum: On the one hand, there is the ostrich who defies the notion of Divine superiority and trusts in only his own strength; on the other hand, there are the birds of the forest who attribute every minute happening to God's will. As was the theme in "Blessed are the Strong and Weak", the appropriate place to land is probably in the middle: Acknowledging that God's will is supreme and unconquerable, but not needing to pray "God willing" before every move we make. The Divine One probably doesn't micromanage our environment and shake every atom that surrounds us, but at the same time, nothing eludes the Lord's omniscopic eyes nor spurns his infallible will.

God-Willing

September 29, 2022

A stethoscope

Abbreviations are ubiquitous. Pretend that today you will email your MD (or maybe DO, DC, etc.), CC the PA, BCC your DDS et al., and ask for a painkiller (e.g., ASA: i.e., Aspirin) for tomorrow, September 30, 2022 AD/CE at 9:00 a.m. (*Translation below.) But one abbreviation we don't see too often these days is D.V., which stands for Deo Volente—God-willing.

The idea behind "God willing" is acknowledgement that nothing happens outside of God's allowance or permission. However, this notion quickly becomes a touchy and theologically-profound dissidence because it asks, What about bad things? Does God permit those? Romans 8:28—one of the most famous verses in the Bible—asserts that "God works all things together for the good of those who love Him", but even this only speaks to what God does with all things (bad things included), it does not clarify whether or not God willed, controlled, or helplessly watched all things happen. While we cannot affirmatively know whether God (actively) orchestrates or (passively) allows bad things to happen, we can be certain that nothing—good, bad, or neutral—happens against God's will.

Exercise equipment

Concepts like fatalism, predestination, free will, and God's will are challenging arenas and lead to rigorous mental exercises, but if we step back and approach it from a higher vantage point, we can remember the simple truth that what God wills… will. It will happen. In The Lord's Prayer we say "thy kingdom come; thy will be done." Similarly, saying "God willing" reminds us of our Lord's intentions, inescapable will, and our part to fulfill it. So next time a friend texts you and asks if you will be at a certain place, consider replying "D.V." It is a reminder that God is the lord of all things and that we sincerely believe it.

*MD = Medicinae Doctor = Doctor of Medicine (physician). DO = Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine. DC = Doctor of Chiropractic (Medicine). etc. = et cetera = and other things. CC = carbon copy. PA = physician assistant. BCC = blind carbon copy. DDS = Doctor of Dental Surgery (dentist). et al. = et alii = and other people. e.g. = exempli gratia = for example. ASA = acetylsalicylic acid. i.e. = id est = that is. AD = Anno Domini = year of (our) Lord. CE = Christian era (originally), common era (contemporarily). a.m. = antemeridian = before midday.

The Kingdom of Heaven

September 7, 2022

The Kingdom of Heaven is like a tiny mustard seed that a man plants in his garden, and when it grows, it becomes a tree large enough for all the birds. The Kingdom of Heaven is like leaven, which a woman hides in a half-bushel of flour until the entire dough leavens. Jesus used these two parables, and many more, to describe the ineffable Kingdom of God. Though that realm is not fully-knowable this side of eternity, let us identify some of its attributes:

Two donuts

First, Heaven is not "pleasure island" or a place where all earthly passions can be indulged; Heaven is not the place of endless donuts without weight-gain. Second, Heaven is not for "good" people (in contrast to Hell—the place for "bad" people). Rather, Heaven is for those who want to submit themselves to God's kingship, namely by using both word and deed to acknowledge Jesus as lord and savior. (Hell is where people can escape God's presence.)

Being a kingdom, what kingly decrees govern the land? Another way to phrase the question is What are things like when God rules? And, of course, these are both informed by asking, What is God's will? Though not all-encompassing, here are four features of Heaven—the place where things operate as God wants them to:

1) Holiness. As written in First Peter, "Just as [Jesus] is holy, so you be holy in all that you do." Holiness refers to being "set apart", just as God himself is sui generis—of his own kind. The citizens of God's Kingdom act with intentionality that reflects their wholly unique God. Everything points to the Lord.

2) Justice. The prophet Amos declared, "Let justice roll down like waters." Justice is an inherent understanding of fairness and outcomes. For various reasons stemming from people's tendency toward sin, justice is elusive here in the kingdoms of man; however, in God's kingdom, it abounds.

3) Sensibility. Samuel and the Psalmist agreed that God takes "no pleasure in burnt offerings." Sensibility means that important things are prioritized and that intention matters. Where God reigns, people do not fast and pray then mistreat others, neither do they attend church then go forth as scoundrels. There is no false sanctimony. The Spirit of God's law supersedes its Letter (though both are observed).

4) Love. Jesus gave this Great Commandment: Love God completely, and love others as if they were you yourself. Love begins by putting God first in our lives; from that point, we then regard others and approach each interaction with another as if he or she were our best friend, family member, spouse, and even self.

Construction blueprints

In both "Parousia" and "The End is (not) Near", we noted two additional features of the Kingdom of Heaven: First, that its full realization will probably not happen for many generations. Second, that building that kingdom here on earth is meant to be done by Jesus's church aided by the Holy Spirit. As we are commanded to bring Heaven to earth, what is our blueprint? We are not trying to make clouds, haloes, and mini-harps; instead, we strive to fill the world with holiness, justice, sensibility, and love.

Parousia

August 11, 2022

As part of his efforts to explain the Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus told a parable about wise and foolish maidens. In it, ten young women eagerly awaited the late-night arrival of a bridegroom who—per that culture's tradition—was leading his wedding party on a loosely-organized, midnight parade that meandered through the entire village. Being nighttime, each of the ten women had an oil lamp in-hand. But lo! Sometime in the night they had drifted to sleep and, awakened by the approaching party, found that their lamps had run out of oil! The five wise maidens had had the foresight to bring extra oil while the five foolish ones did not, and as the latter five searched high-and-low for oil, the parade passed them by.

Lantern at night

One of this parable's messages relates to Parousia, which—meaning "presence" in Greek—is simply a synonym for the (yet-to-happen) Second Coming of Jesus. The parable reinforces what Jesus emphasized throughout the Gospels: "Concerning that day or hour… none but the Father knows." Jesus consistently taught that Parousia will occur at an unexpected moment; therefore, the only way to prepare is to maintain constant vigilance. That is: The way we can be ready is to always be ready.

As we saw in "Blind Animals", faithful servants are the ones who keep at the master's business even as he takes a long time to return. We are exhorted not to fret about when Jesus will reappear, but to constantly do his good works until that unpredictable day dawns. "The End is (not) Near" discussed our instructions to build God's kingdom here on earth. Next time, we'll think about what that looks like. For now, though, let us pivot our efforts away from trying to mark our calendars for Parousia, and let us instead emulate the five wise women who prepared for the long-haul, were ready for the anticipated hour, and were invited inside for the wedding celebration.

Blind Animals

July 21, 2022

The Parable of the Talents began with a man who entrusted his property to his servants and then left for a journey. He was away for a long time, presumably long enough for the servants to question his return, but eventually he did come back, and he made the servants account for themselves during his absence. The expectation set forth by this and other parables, and elsewhere in the New Testament, is that God—although fully sovereign over the world—will nevertheless refrain from taking "full control" of it until sometime in the future.

Bolt of lightning in a field

In the meantime, it can feel like God is absent, uninterested, powerless, or perchance nonexistent. Because we can violate God's will without immediate repercussions—no fiery hail, smiting lightning, or anything like that—there is a temptation to believe that we can act with impunity. Maybe we think that God doesn't have standards, or that we can deceive God and get away unnoticed. But that's not the case. As the psalmist cried out, "Oh Lord, is there anywhere I can avoid your Spirit? If I climb to the sky, you're there! If I go underground, you're there!"

There was a period in Ancient Israel's history when the priesthood stopped respecting God. Instead of giving their best to God—their "First Fruits", if you will—they began giving their rejects. They had been commanded to offer unblemished, nearly-perfect animals; instead, they offered disabled ones. The prophet Malachi confronted those priests with this poignant chide: "When you offer blind animals in sacrifice, is that not evil? And when you offer those that are lame or sick, is that not evil? Present that to your governor; will he accept you or show you favor?"

Lamb sitting in grass

Because worldly authorities, and people in general, are immediate and visible, they can seem more pressing than God who is equable and invisible. It is tempting to give the best to the governor knowing that he holds sway over our lives and will be displeased by an undignified gift. But it feels like God is farther removed from day-to-day realities; in our minds we might know that God is bigger than a governor—obviously—but our actions often demonstrate a different belief.

Like the servants who safeguarded their master's talents, it can be difficult to serve a seemingly-nonattendant lord, but such is the nature of faith: that we believe our God reigns and will return. And when we do confront the Holy One face-to-face, we will feel rather foolish having thought more of a governor than of God. Therefore, as we give to God, we should ensure that our offering is at least as good as we would offer to people. If the governor won't accept it, then why should we expect God to? And, of course, our creator is worthy of not just that, but of nothing less than our very best.

With a Loud Voice

June 30, 2022

When Jesus died on the cross, his last words were not pitifully weak; they were booming. Though we often imagine an exhausted man summoning his last ounce of strength to scarcely whisper the words "it is finished", this is not how the Bible records the scene.

John's gospel is the most neutral: The text reads, "He said: It is finished. And he bowed his head and gave up his spirit." As the gospel was originally written in Greek, the word for "said" is a conjugation of the verb λέγω (lego), which simply means "to say". The author does not describe a whisper… nor anything really. Just: He said.

Image of a megaphone

The Synoptic gospels, however—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—all use the same vigorous description of Jesus's valediction. For example, Matthew 27:50 reads, "Jesus, when he had cried again with a loud voice, yielded up the spirit." The word "voice" is φωνή (phone), like "tele-phone", which is used to hear a "far away voice". The adjective translated "loud" is μέγας (megas) which, without too much imagination, means "big", "great", or (in the case of a voice) "loud" or "booming". Like a man with a megaphone, Jesus exclaimed, "It is finished!"

There is a difficulty to summarizing the "it" which was finished. In short, "it" was the redemption of mankind. If we believe that Jesus's death was substitution for the death each sinner owes, then his sacrifice means that we have been exculpated, found "not guilty", released from our sentence. The gospels say that this moment—humanity's great turning point—was accompanied by the rending of the Temple's thick veil, rocks splitting, graves opening, and a great temblor. One of the centurions who executed Jesus converted on the spot and confessed, "Truly this was the son of God!" These are not the backdrop of a languishing man barely able to utter a syllable. Rather, such wonders are heralded with a loud voice.

Though, as discussed in "Three Crosses", the method of Jesus's death was commonplace, the moment of his dying was anything but. He gave up the ghost with a victory cry. Therefore, we should remember that his death was not a defeat, but a victory: a victory over sin and death and servitude to the same. Those things, Jesus said with a "mega phone", are finished.

Three Crosses

June 7, 2022

Stone shaped like a skull

Jesus did not die alone. He was one of three people executed at Golgotha/Calvary, a hill just outside of Jerusalem. (Golgotha and calvaria mean "skull" in Aramaic and Latin, respectively, probably because the hill resembled a skull.) Although world history and we ourselves esteem the death of Jesus as an important and unique event, the execution he endured was not uncommon. The Roman practice of crucifixion (from the Latin crux and figere, literally "to bind to a cross") was a rote form of capital punishment for non-citizens.

From the Romans' perspective, Jesus was just another ordinary criminal. Since two others were receiving death sentences that day, all three were led to Golgotha for the same lurid fate. Jesus was in the middle, with one of the criminals to his left and the other to his right. So who were the two people on the other crosses? The gospels Matthew, Mark, and Luke mention them, and Matthew specifically states that they were thieves. Although the Bible does not record their names, a noncanonical document referred to as the Gospel of Nicodemus (written several centuries after the events) calls the two Gestas and Dismas, and these appellations have carried over into standard church tradition.

Three crosses made from twigs

Gestas spoke first; he asked Jesus, "Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!" Dismas replied with this rebuke: "Have you no fear of God? You are condemned just as he is. For you and I, this is the punishment we get for our deeds, but this man here has done nothing wrong." Turning to Jesus, he continued, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." Jesus said to Dismas, "Believe me when I tell you that today you will be with me in paradise." Because of this exchange, Gestas is referred to as the unrepentant thief, while Dismas—canonized as Saint Dismas—has been dubbed the penitent or good thief. The former asked Jesus to save all their skins; the latter defended the innocence and Christhood of Jesus.

Isaiah 53:12 prophesied that Jesus would be counted as a criminal. Indeed, he was one of three to die along the roadside, but those three were quite different: One was an innocent man who subrogated himself for mankind's sinfulness; one wanted to get off his cross and end his suffering; one acknowledged his faults and looked to Jesus for salvation. Since we cannot be the first, which of the other two should we strive to emulate?

WWJD?

May 6, 2022

In many respects, it is annoying, simplistic, and platitudinal… but it remains an excellent question: What would Jesus do?

What. What would Jesus do? This establishes a question. The idea behind WWJD is not to posit a no-response-needed rhetorical question, nor to act sanctimoniously toward others, nor to offer commentary like a spectator, nor any such thing. We ask the question with sincerity, fully intending to think of a response. Let us not limit this to a Christian cliché; therefore, because it probes for an answer, we should keep the question (mark): WWJD?

Would. What would Jesus do? Chances are that there are no examples of Jesus encountering whatever you are dealing with when you employ this query. Since, then, we cannot ask What did Jesus do?, we resort to speculation. Of course, such conjecture needs to be framed within the very well-known person of Jesus. We understand his values, motivations, concerns, idiosyncrasies, and a great deal more. Hence, there is a reasonably-certain answer to the question we ask. The only catch is: How well do you know him?

Jesus carrying a lamb and shepherd's crook

Jesus. What would Jesus do? We are not asking about a good friend, respected colleague, insightful sage, or lauded leader; we are thinking about Jesus. Because his goals were heavenly, his approach to life was different than many others who are also wise and successful, but whose motivations were worldly. Jesus was compelled by love of God and people; he was merciful, kind, and inviting; he was righteous in his anger and just in his decrees. Because Jesus was a complex individual, we need to think hard. There are many people with many approaches leading to various results, but as we are trying to emulate Jesus, what would he do?

Do. What would Jesus do? This is our action statement. We do not pose the question in consideration of what Jesus might think or feel about something, but if given the same circumstance, what would he do? What action would he take? What words would he say (or refrain from saying)? And, most importantly for us, we need to think seriously about doing the same. It is not enough to note what Jesus would do, and then we ourselves choose a different course of action. Rather, the point of the probe, the explanation for the exercise, is that we take the difficult step to act… not as another might, but as Jesus would. Jesus is the type of person who takes the high road; he prefers what is right over what is easy. Our goal is to follow him in that example.

In "This I Know", the challenge was set forth for us to reexamine the things which have become commonplace and lost their emphases and meanings. We looked to a prayer and asked what the Our Father means when we break from our robotic recitation of it. We looked to a practice and asked about the purpose behind sharing bread and wine in communion. Today, we looked to a probe and asked how we can reinvigorate the question captured by this overused acronym: WWJD. Let us go forth then and ask ourselves, What would Jesus do?

Bread and Wine

April 14, 2022

During the Last Supper, Jesus instituted the practice of sharing bread and wine in his memory. Typically referred to as Communion or the Eucharist (from the Greek eukharistia, meaning "thanksgiving"), this practice can assume many forms, but a few key elements are always present; namely, the bread, the wine, the sharing, and the story.

Prist with eucharist

Though a priest once told me that he could not, even if he wanted to, sanctify a cupcake, Communion's "bread" remains a somewhat subjective term. There are churches that use hearty loaves of old-world bread, others that prefer flat bread or pita; still many more use small, flat wafers (in both gluten and gluten-free varieties), and quite a few use nugget-like pieces of bread or cracker… and the manifestations continue… but the core idea is consistent: a simple grain-based food (of, or reminiscent of, bread) designed to call-to-mind the bread that Jesus and his disciples ate during their last Passover supper together.

Moreso than the breadstuff itself, however, is the fact that it is broken. Whoever leads the rite begins with a single loaf/host/etc. and divides it into smaller parts. Seeing the bread sundered reminds us of how Jesus's body was broken during his Passion and crucifixion. When Jesus handed the bread to his followers, he said, "This is my body, broken, and given to you."

In the Old Testament, covenants between God and mankind were sealed in blood, usually the blood of a sacrificial animal. Since Jesus himself was soon to become the sacrifice, at the Last Supper he took a cup of wine and used it to represent the same. He said, "This is the cup of my blood. It seals a new covenant." So the disciples passed the cup around, drank from it, and became joined in the covenant established by Jesus's death. Jesus told those gathered at the table that his blood would be poured out for them, as well as many more people throughout the generations of humanity. His blood, he said, brings all of them into the new covenant.

Bread, wine, and Bible

Both of these elements—the bread and the wine (or grape juice, in some churches, since both are "fruit of the vine")—are meant to be shared. Even for congregations in which not everyone takes from the same loaf nor drinks from the same cup (many use small, single-serve hosts and cups), the ceremony itself is done as a community. Indeed, as the name "Communion" implies, everyone participates together; the meal is shared.

When we celebrate the Eucharist, the most important element is the story. Whether we publicly recite or privately reflect, the purpose of the process is that we remember Jesus. In his own words: "Do this in memory of me." Therefore, as we continue in the theme from "This I Know", let us take a moment to rediscover what Communion is all about. It is not a mid-service snack; it is a drama that retells the story of Jesus's last meal, his subsequent death and sacrifice, and what they mean for his followers. The bread and wine allow all who are present to participate and reflect upon the great mysteries those elements represent. Have we paused, lately, to consider? Bread: the sacrifice; wine: the new covenant.

The Lord's Prayer

March 31, 2022

Recorded in both Matthew 6 and Luke 11, Jesus taught his followers to pray what is known as "The Lord's Prayer" or "Our Father". Though the exact phrasing varies by translation and denomination, the traditional verbiage is, "Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us, and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil." (Some append, "For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever and ever.") And it always ends, "Amen."

Books

Many people can recite this prayer verbatim, antiquated diction notwithstanding. The words "Our father" begin a program that can run without any mental input; we frequently arrive at "amen" without remembering what just happened. To continue our contemplations from "This I Know", what if we paused to think about the Lord's prayer? (Scholarly tomes, 100-word blurbs, and more have expressed their two cents about this famous prayer; therefore, this blog will be quite limited, though hopefully enough to encourage further exploration.)

To begin: Have you noticed the "our" in "Our father…"? The prayer is prayed by a group. "Who art in heaven" addresses a God in heaven. What are your expectations about where God should or shouldn't be? "Hallowed be thy name" effectively says, "God, your name is holy and sacred; it ought to be honored and revered." Do we genuinely feel that way, enough to make a point of pausing to mention it?

Loaves of bread

What is the nature of God's kingdom and will, and why are we beseeching God to bring them to us and apply them on earth in the same way they exist in the heavenly realm? What does "daily bread" mean? And could "bread" be a metonym for something else, perhaps all necessities?

"Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive…" establishes a condition: Because we mercifully forgive those who wrong us, we ask that God do likewise when wronged by us. Is the inverse true also, that if we don't forgive others, then it's not fair to ask God to forgive us? If we ask that God not lead us into temptation, are we willing to follow wherever God guides us instead? And when we find ourselves in an imperfect situation, crying out "deliver us from evil", will we accept the mode of deliverance?

These open-ended questions are to help open up this prayer. Commentaries, etc. abound which offer guidance in answering these questions and developing more. First, though, we need to pause and ask if we've been going through the motions and speaking without thinking, praying without reflecting on what we're asking. When connecting with God, it's not the script that matters, but the sincerity.

This I Know

March 17, 2022

Bookmarks in blue books

After many repetitions, the human brain creates a reference point called a "bookmark". Like innate physical reflexes, bookmarks are automatically engaged if the appropriate stimulus is applied. Proper development of bookmarks is what allows first-responders to operate smoothly during crisis, whereas untrained people (who lack mental reference points) often freeze. Repetitive training can lead to confidence and the ability to act without thinking.

But sometimes, acting without thinking can be undesirous. Have you ever missed a turn while driving, due to not thinking about your destination, but comfortably continuing down a familiar road? Mental absence is easy while observing a well-practiced routine. And since religion utilizes many routines, we must be cautious to avoid "going through the motions" and forgetting to engage with the surroundings.

Toast with breakfast

There is a widely-known Christian hymn which begins "Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so." Children who are raised in the church learn it from a very young age. Oftentimes, by adolescence, the words have become so commonplace that their profound meaning is altogether unrecognized. Saying, "Jesus loves me and died for me" becomes as matter-of-fact and insignificant as saying, "I ate toast with breakfast."

How on earth did God's self-sacrificing love become a nonchalant platitude? Well, we bookmarked it. Enough times, we discussed it without really reflecting upon it, until the story became a reflex—automatic and insensate. "Jesus loves me, this I know"… but do I? When we discover this or any other verse or hymn, do we think about what it's saying? If it stands out, do we pause to consider?

This I know: It is easy to recite verses and prayers without thinking about their meaning. It is easy to forget the significance of words that we repeat weekly or daily. It is easy to remain stuck in a rut. In Revelation 2, Jesus said to the church at Ephesus, "I have this against you: that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first." Not that we have necessarily fallen, but let's refresh the things that have become stale. Over the next three blogs, we'll take this opportunity to reexamine a prayer, a practice, and a probe.

Tithe Your Time

February 17, 2022

We recently assessed the tithe and considered if it is more than the tediousness often there-ascribed. Traditionally, the tithe is discussed in monetary terms (i.e., give ten percent of your income to God) because financial worry is universal and grieves the penurious and affluent alike. Since one of the most difficult things to give God is control of the checkbook, the willingness to offer it up is a tried-and-true test of trust and confidence in God. Because of great faith, Isaac was almost sacrificed, but will you dare to offer a portion of your income?

Clock on a log with grass in background

Continuing from the sentiments of "First Fruits", the tithe—giving one's first fruits to God—is about more than finances. Money is not the only perennially-scarce resource, nor is it even the most precious… What about time: that elusive, exiguous evanescence that we all spend at the same rate and cannot replenish? In a world without enough time—among a people desperate to save it whenever possible—isn't time one of the most valuable things we have?

If the tithe is about offering precious things to God, why not offer time? And when giving God our first fruits—that is, the best we have—we should give our best time also. Some people give Sunday morning to God, and spend even more time with the church, but in addition to these, how do we—daily—give our best to God? Perhaps your evening routine is your most cherished time of day; would allocating time for prayer make God smile? Or if you are most productive in the early morning, what might happen if you postpone the to-do list and, instead, take time to read the Bible, pray, or act upon a nudge from the Lord?

If you feel like you're too busy to make time for God, then you're in good company, because we all are (just like we all could use extra zeroes at the end of our account balances). That's the way of it, though, because surplus is not a sufficient sacrifice; neither is nimiety noteworthy, nor the amissible acceptable, to God. Trust means giving the Holy One that which we fear to lose. Therefore, evaluate your time, and think about bringing it to the altar. That which is given to God is never given in vain.

First Fruits

January 20, 2022

Some say that tithing means giving ten-percent of one's earnings to God. Unfortunately, many well-intentioned God-seekers grab that idea and despoil it, losing sleep wondering if God considers net or gross income; if God expects a tithe on interest, loose coins, or birthday presents; if God validates donations given to non-church entities. But the Lord is not the American IRS; God will neither audit your paycheck nor count your pocket change.

Pile of coins

Some say that tithing means giving your first ten-percent to God. However, few of us are subsistence farmers, as most humans have been until the modern era. How, then, to interpret "first"? Should every good Christian relinquish the entirety of their earnings into the offering plate until mid-February, and thereafter be free from charitable obligations until next January first?

Some can debate the tithe ad nauseam and argue about its origins, measures, and precepts, but to what avail? "Woe to you," Jesus said to the Pharisees, "for you diligently tithe your spices but neglect the weightier matters of God's teaching: justice, mercy, and faithfulness. You should have done the former without neglecting the latter." Perhaps, at this point, it would be helpful to include the idea of "first fruits", and to phrase the tithe as "giving one's first fruits to God". Now, we may more freely consider the ideas of "first" and "fruit" and "to God".

First can be chronological and refer to the first paystub at a new job or the first tomatoes from your home garden. Or, first can refer to preeminence and giving one's best or foremost. First can also pertain to prominence: What is first on your mind when you awake, when you are stressed, when you are elated, when you shudder at the utterance of "tithe"?

Tomatoes on the vine

Your fruit might be your income or those tomatoes from your garth. It can be thyme, but it can also be time or talent or technical know-how. Your fruit is what you have that sweetens your life and has potential to do the same for the world around you. Fruits are the product of your labor, whether drupes for the orchardist or dollars for the entrepreneur.

Finally, how does one give these "first fruits" to God? Even if God had an address to which they could be sent, the Holy One would not want them arriving at his door. God does not need our tithe and repeatedly tells us so in the Bible. The way in which we bring our tithe to God is to bring it to others. Yes, churches need offerings and charities need checks, but not more-so than children need tutors and communities need volunteers.

When it comes to tithing, we need to be open-minded, not for the purposes of shirking responsibility, but so that we can better realize its purpose and potential. The tithe is about two things: sacrificial giving and trust in God. We offer up something that is precious to us, and we trust that God will fulfill our needs. Universally, money is an easy example because it so excoriatingly reveals one of our greatest needs and the source of our trust (in God or in finances). Thus, a regular discipline of monetary tithing is almost always recommended, but let us not forget that the tithe is much, much more.

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