Dr. Diana Butler Bass is a church historian and a keen analyst of present day Christianity and culture. She has written a number of books, several of which I have found quite helpful. She recently wrote a piece that appeared on the CNN opinion page, part in response to recent events and part as an analysis of where Christianity is today in our country. The piece was titled, “The of God of Love had a really bad week.” She began the piece by noting the crowd chant, “Send them back,” at a recent political rally. She discusses how the deep divisions that are tearing our country apart right now are being felt and played out in churches all across the country. She talks about this in the context of her own family and shares that she has not spoken to her brother since the incident at Charlottesville where a white nationalist ran his car through the crowd killing one and injuring 19 others. After that incident she and her brother had argued about white nationalism and racism, and haven’t talked sense. She explains that the two of them had grown up in the same Methodist church and Sunday School where they used to sing, “Jesus loves the little children, all the little children of the world. Red, brown, yellow, black and white. They are precious in His sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.” Diana says that they had the same parents, same teaching, same church. They learned the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would want them to do unto you.” They learned the Great Commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” She says, “The God we worshiped was not a scary, threatening God, but the God of love and God’s peaceable kingdom.” But then she says (and how many of us have seen this play out in our own families, friendships, and church), “My brother, as an adult, traded that God for a tougher, stricter God who exercises judgment against all who refuse to bend the knee, a kind of Emperor-God, enthroned in glory . . . a masculine Sovereign, and a winner-God for people feeling displaced in a pluralistic world.” Diana Bass, who studies religious trends, says this militaristic God became more real to many Americans and more prevalent in America after 9/11.
She says, “Meanwhile, the God of love was not having a particularly good run. In the political age bookended by Ronald Reagan’s culture wars and a devastating terrorist attack, the God of Love began to look like a loser, one fit for liberation theologians, do-gooders, and feminists. The churches that still preached a God of Love declined; those seminaries closed.” That does seem to me to be an accurate portrayal. We have lost members because I preach a God of love and inclusion, and have had visitors who won’t came back for that very reason. They don’t want a God who just welcomes anyone. Many Christians (I would say most) want a God who just welcomes Christians. Some, perhaps many, want a God who just welcomes heterosexual people. And a good number of Christians want a God who threatens people with hell.
She goes on to say, “My brother and I read the same Bible and wound up praying to different gods. His God thunders about lawless mobs and unbelievers. Mine is the mysterious Word, present before the beginning of creation, calling all people to compassion, and who welcomes little ones.” “Same Bible,” she says, “but different gods.” How many of you have family members or friends, and you grew up the same way, but you now pray to different gods?
Now sisters and brothers, today’s text is on prayer and the point I want to get across is that our vision of God impacts how we pray and what we expect in prayer. One of Jesus’s disciples comes to him and says, “Teach us how to pray?” In response Jesus gives them a model prayer, a pattern for praying that we simply call the Lord’s prayer. Todays’ text includes Luke’s version of that prayer, which is shorter than Matthew’s version. Then, in the two illustrations that follow, Jesus focuses his aim on the nature of the God we are praying to. Why is this important? Because how we see God, how we envision God, how we think about God – our operative image of God – will greatly impact how we pray and what we pray for.
Jesus begins the model prayer with, “Our Father.” You probably are aware that Jesus spoke in Aramaic, which is a kind of colloquial form of the more formal Hebrew. Our New Testament was written in Greek, so the writers of our Gospels have translated and interpreted the sayings of Jesus and the stories about Jesus that were passed on to them. However, interestingly, the Aramaic word used for “Father” (Abba) has been preserved in the Gospel of Mark and in two letters from the Apostle Paul. In other words, the word, in those texts, was transliterated into Greek, rather than translated. It was written in Greek as it sounds in Aramaic in order to preserve the Aramaic word. The fact that Mark’s Gospel and Paul preserved the actual Aramaic word that Jesus would have used, tells us just how significant that word was to his early followers. The dominant view among the Hebrews focused on the transcendence or otherness of God. God was so revered that they even refused to speak the name of God. (This, by the way, is probably why Matthew talks about the kingdom of heaven, rather than the kingdom of God. It’s the same reality. Out of reverence for the name of God, Matthew substitutes the word “heaven.”) There is truth in this, God is to be reverenced, God is above all and beyond all, but taken too far God is viewed as out there, separate from creation and humanity. Jesus understood God to be near. God is not just out there. God is right here. The kingdom of God is within you (or among you) he told some Jewish leaders. The Aramaic term Jesus used was a term most frequently used to describe a warm, personal love a parent has for his or her child. This is the God of inclusion, rather than exclusion. This is the God who welcomes and loves all God’s little children of the world, rather than a stern, angry God who has favorites and operates on the basis of a system of worthiness.
Now, I think the way many Christians interpret Jesus’ teaching on prayer in the first illustration he uses in Luke 11 is not only a misreading of the text, but a misunderstanding and misjudgment of the very nature and character of God. A friend shows up unexpectedly tired and hungry. Hospitality was expected in that culture. They put a premium on showing hospitality to a guest. For the host to not be able to provide food would have brought shame on him and his family. But the host has no food to give. So, in desperation, he goes to a neighbor to ask for food, or beg for food if necessary. The neighbor does not want to help. The door is looked and the family is in bed. Go away, he says. But the host is persistent. Jesus says, “Even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend (friendship only goes so far, right), at least because of his persistence (or a better translation would be “shamelessness,” his shameless persistence) he will get up and give him whatever he needs.” Is God the kind of God you have to wear down, like a parent who gets so tired of telling his kids no, he finally gives in and gets them what they want? Do you have to keep bothering God until God finally says yes? You would agree with me wouldn’t you that that is not good parenting?
This first illustration is an illustration of what God is NOT like. The illustration that follows is intended to contrast with the first. God is not like the friend who begrudgingly supplies one’s need, only after you wear him down. Rather, says Jesus: “Ask and it will be given to you. Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened.” Is it really that simple? Why is that? Because God is a loving God. Jesus goes on: “If your child asks for a piece of fish, do you give him a snake instead? If she asks for an egg to eat, do you give her a scorpion? Of course not. Now, if you who are evil (Jesus loves to use exaggeration) know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more (this is the point – how much more) will the heavenly Father (the good and gracious and generous Abba) give the Holy Spirit to those who ask.”
Asking is a crucial component of the praying life. However, it is not about asking for just anything, or for that matter, just anything good. Some think that prayer has to do with saying the right words, or using the right formula, or having enough faith. They turn prayer into a kind of mechanism, sort of like putting your coins in the pop machine and pushing the button. They think asking starts a process that if everything functions the way it is suppose to, then our request, like a can of pop, will be delivered into our hands.
Now sisters and brothers, asking, seeking, and knocking on heaven’s door has to be understood in the context of a loving relationship with God which leads us beyond our little agenda to embrace a larger good. In the movie Bruce Almighty Bruce Nolan, played by Jim Carry, is a news reporter going through a midlife crisis. He complains to his girlfriend that God does a poor job running the universe and contends that that he could do a lot better. Well, he meets God, played by, who else, Morgan Freeman. God gives Bruce the opportunity to run things for a while, and of course, Bruce wrecks havoc with the world and his relationship with his girlfriend, Grace. Bruce however, in time finally grows up . . . Bruce asks God, “What do you want me to do?” / God says, “I want you to pray, son.” / Bruce squints his eyes and makes an attempt, “Um . . . Lord, feed the hungry and . . . bring peace to . . .um . . .all mankind. How’s that?” / God says, “Great . . . if you want to be Miss America. Now come on. What do you really care about? / Bruce thinks about his girlfriend. He says, “Grace.” God says, “Grace. You want her back?” / Bruce pauses and then reflects just how far he has come along. He says, “No. I want her to be happy no matter what that means. I want her to find someone who will treat her with all the love she deserved from me. I want her to meet someone who will see her always as I do now . . . through your eyes.” God smiles, “Now that’s a prayer.” Indeed, that is a prayer. Prayer takes us beyond our own interests to embrace larger interests related to God’s kin-dom of earth.
If you interpret this passage in Luke on prayer to mean that God is going to give us good things when we ask, then you are misreading/misintpreting it, because it doesn’t say that at all. What it says is that just as (there is an analogy/a comparison here) a loving human father or mother delights in giving what is good for their children, God delights in giving us what is good for us, namely,the Holy Spirit. Jesus doesn’t say that God will give us any good thing. What he says is God will give us the Holy Spirit when we ask. The phrase “Holy Spirit” is just another way of talking about God’s (Abba’s) loving involvement and engagement in our lives. The Holy Spirit is not an entity separate from God. The Holy Spirit is God – God at work in our lives. When Paul uses the phrase “Spirit of Christ” that is just another way of talking about God emphasizing that Jesus is our window through which we see and understand God’s character and what God is doing and wants to do in the world. The Holy Spirit is God actively working in our lives. To ask for the Holy Spirit is to ask for awareness, discernment, and openness to God’s work. To ask for the Holy Spirit is to intentionally participate in the work of God/Christ in the world.
In one sense we already have the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is what gives us life and breath. Both of the creation stories in Genesis teach this. In the first creation story the human couple reflect the very image of God. They are God’s offspring. A part of God lives in them. In the second creation story the human creature doesn’t come alive until God breathes into the human creature God’s own Spirit, God’s own breath of life. The Holy Spirit is in us, with us, around us – all the time. When I am talking to God, I am not talking to God way up there somewhere. I am talking to God in here, in my deepest self, my true self, where God dwells. To ask for the Holy Spirit is to ask to be a channel through whom the Spirit flows. To ask for the Spirit is to intentionally be part of the inflow and outflow of divine blessing in the world.
When I first started praying years ago with any persistence I imagined God as out there, somewhere else, relating to us from a distance. I imagined a God who from time to time would intervene into our world to control events, circumstances, and people. Surely I was wrong. Isn’t it obvious that God controls very little? Just look around. Surely God believes in freedom much more than God believes in control. Clearly, God deeply respects and regards human freedom, and the freedom built into creation itself, even when we use that freedom or Mother Nature uses that freedom in abusive and horrendous ways.
Now, I still believe in intercessory prayer and engage in intercessory prayer everyday. I believe there is great mystery to prayer. I believe that our prayers connect to positive forces and powers all around us to help in our healing and to help us tap into God’s wisdom, and guidance. But I also realize that the way God works in our world and in our lives is much more subtle and indirect than I or most of you like. When you think about it, just about everything God wants to do in the world God does through you and me, or it doesn’t get done. Paul understood this when he talks about the church, the covenant people of God, being the body of Christ in the world. How does God, the living Christ, make God’s self known and bring about peace and justice in the world? The only way I know God can do this is through you and me, through people who are willing to be instruments of peace and conduits through whom God’s love and grace and restorative justice can flow. This is what the Christian teaching of incarnation is about. God becomes incarnate through us as we are led by the Spirit of Christ. Paul says in Galatians, “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” These are humanly embodied qualities. They express themselves in our demeanor, our conversations, our actions, and our relationships. The Divine Spirit works in this material world through material means – primarily, the material of flesh and blood – you and me. It’s the only way God gets things done in the world.
Prayer is the means by which I open my life to God to participate in and help fulfill God’s will/dream/plan for the world. Prayer is the means by which I become aware of and sensitive to the ways of God’s love, and make my life available to experience and express God’s love in and through my life. Prayer is readiness and openness and participation in God’s inflow and outflow of blessing. Prayer is our way of being available to share in the workings of Divine Love.
Our good and gracious God, help us to see that what you want from us is our love, because you have already given us your love. Help us to discover over and over again what your love looks like and feels like. And may we not keep it to ourselves, for then it wouldn’t be love. Let us realize that the only way to grow in love is to give love away. Help us, through prayer, to be open and receptive to your wisdom and inspiration and compassion, so that we can participate in your loving ways and works in the world. In Christ’s name. Amen.