There was a news story the other day about a TV reporter who dropped dead from a brain aneurysm a few minutes after giving a news report. Yesterday, we heard about yet another plane that dropped from the sky in mysterious circumstances, leaving no survivors. We hear about these deaths, maybe say a prayer for those who are mourning their dead, and then we move on with our lives. We didn’t know the reporter. We didn’t know anyone on that flight. These are other people’s problems.
Jesus says no-one knows the time of the end, not even the angels in heaven. He gives us a general run-down of ‘signs’ we should watch for, but they’re so vague they could apply to any age in history. At the same time, he tells us always to be ready not only for the world’s end, but for our own: Both of these, guaranteed, will come without warning.
I don’t know about you, but this stuff makes me stop dead in my tracks and panic a bit. I think: What if my end came now? Would I be ready? Was the reporter ready? Were all the people on that plane ready?
Jesus calls death the ‘thief in the night’ who enters your house while you’re sleeping. Sleeping means unaware and vulnerable. Sleeping means darkness. Sleeping means defenceless. Sleeping means looking like you’re dead.
The sleep described here is a spiritual sleep, not a physical one, and the thief a spiritual thief, not a common one. When we let ourselves be lulled by the world into thinking we have all the time in the world to get things right, we’re spiritually dozing and setting ourselves up to be robbed of everything God’s planned for us. We’re in danger of losing heaven.
When the urgency of “doing the Father’s work” is replaced with “eating and drinking with the drunken” and “beating fellow-servants”, we’re in trouble. Jesus spells out precisely what will happen to us if we lose that sense of urgency, and he does so using terms that leave no room for misinterpretation.
God loves us, but he also means business. Every day, all around us, we see and hear about people who experience their own personalized version of the end of the world. Some of these people we even knew well enough to be emotionally affected by their death. When their end came, were they ready?
God lets us hear about other people’s deaths so that we will imagine ours. Everyone in the Bible has gone through what is waiting for us. Half of my family has already gone through what is waiting for us. Death won’t always happen to other people. One day, when we least expect it, the thief will come for us.
Knowing this, we have no excuse if we’re not ready. We can’t claim ignorance.
We all need to seriously think about the reporter with the brain aneurysm and the people on that plane. Their stories are graphic reminders of Jesus’ warning always to be ready because we don’t know – we won’t know – the time of our end. If you were that reporter, if you were on that plane, would you have been ready a few days ago?
Are you ready now?
But, thank God, Jesus not only told us that we should be ready, he showed us how. We need to be sober. We need to watch. We need to have lots of oil in our lamps. We need to be ready to leave at a moment’s notice. And, most importantly, we need to treat other people as kindly and mercifully and respectfully as we ourselves want to be treated, and to make the best use of everything God’s given us.
If this doesn’t describe you and your life, you’re not ready.
Today may be your last day to get it right.
Do it now.
One thing I especially love about the gospels is how Jesus and his followers are portrayed as normal everyday people. No royalty there (not in earthly terms, anyway), and not even any trained ministers among them. Jesus was a carpenter from a poor hick town and his followers came from the lowly ranks of fishermen, tax collectors, administrators, and even party girls. And, being normal everyday people, they all occasionally screwed up (sometimes royally), and we get to read about it and learn from it.
This is a huge blessing for us and a further testimony to God’s love for us, how we can read about the everyday ‘normalness’ of Jesus and his early followers. We can screw up, just like they occasionally did, and God won’t give up on us. Just as we keep forgiving people (seventy-times-seven times, if necessary), God keeps forgiving us. We fall down; he picks us up. And he’ll keep on doing that as long as we’re sincere in wanting to follow Jesus.
The best-known royal screw-up is, of course, Peter denying knowing Jesus three times. Think about it – Jesus spells out to Peter that he’ll betray him three times before the cock crows (meaning, within less than a day), but Peter swears he’d never betray Jesus and he’d even die for him if necessary. All of the disciples swear the same thing. Let me repeat that – Jesus tells Peter precisely when and precisely how he’s going to screw up, but Peter refuses to see it as a possibility. And then, within only a few short hours, Peter does exactly what Jesus says he’d do.
This “warts and all” approach is one of the main things I love about the gospels. The information about Peter was included not to denigrate him – no, not at all. Rather, the information was included to show us that we’re just like Peter and Peter’s just like us, especially when we screw up. And, just like Peter, we too can get another chance, if we sincerely love God and sincerely want to follow Jesus.
I wonder how many of us reading (and writing) this can imagine being in Peter’s shoes. I’m guessing that most of us who call ourselves born-again followers of Jesus have, like Peter, sworn in our hearts that we’ll do anything and everything to follow Jesus, anything and everything to do God’s will.
I also imagine that we’ve been tested on this already and have come up far, far, far short of what we’d envisioned for ourselves.
But take heart, you worms! As my grandmother used to say: “Mistakes keep you humble.”
Without humbling ourselves before God (meaning, without handing our one and only true possession over to God, day in and day out [meaning, without handing our will over to him, day in and day out]), we won’t be able to do God’s will and we won’t be able to get to heaven.
That’s a spiritual fact.
Peter screwed up royally, we occasionally screw up royally, even Jesus made the odd mistake, like when he assumed, when he was 13 years old, that he was old enough to start his ministry, or when he tried to heal a blind man and had to do a second round of healing to get it right.
Jesus wasn’t perfect. He wasn’t a sinner, but he wasn’t perfect. His followers aren’t perfect, either. Only God is perfect. We strive for perfection (Jesus says “be ye perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect”) but we’re not expected to achieve it. When we fall short and fall down, God will pick us up, pat or spank us on the bum, and then set us back on the path we need to go.
After his resurrection, Jesus asked Peter three times if he loved him. Peter said yes, of course, he loved him, and even got a little impatient with Jesus for asking him the same question over and over again. People interpret Jesus’ three questions about loving him as being the resolution of the three times that Peter denied knowing Jesus (and I agree with this interpretation), but I also see Jesus’ repetition of the same question as being a way to emphasize a profoundly important point – that in living your life, you occasionally screw up and do the exact thing that you swear you’ll never do. But that doesn’t mean you don’t get another chance, as long as your heart is in the right place, and as long as you still love God and still want to follow Jesus.
The gospels show us how the early disciples lived their lives while they were here on Earth. We can see ourselves in their triumphs and confusion and weak faith and occasional royal screw-ups. But we can also see ourselves in how they kept going and how they were rewarded for their perseverance by a steadily increasing faith and an ever-closer relationship with God and Jesus.
You’re going to make mistakes – that’s for sure.
Just don’t let your mistakes unmake you.
Sunday is the day that most Christians flock to church. They don their ‘Sunday-best’ and shine up their church faces to smile at other shined-up church faces. During the hour-long so-called worship service, they stand on command, sit on command, kneel on command, recite on command, sing on command, keep silent on command, and (most importantly) give money on command. This is what worship service is all about. After it’s over, they leave the church building and figure they’ve done their worshiping for the week. Then they go about their non-church lives.
Apparently these Christians didn’t get the memo: You don’t need to go into a building to be in church or to worship. If you’re born again, you’re already in church – God’s church, which is made up of born-again souls in human bodies. If you’re born again, you’re in church now, wherever you are. You’re in church all the time, and everything you do is your worship.
Everything you do is your worship.
Everything you do is your worship.
Make sure it’s worthy of God.
Jesus was not a fan of ritual during his ministry years on Earth. In the gospels, we see only two episodes that could be considered rituals – one was his baptism by John the Baptist, and the other was the Passover meal just before his crucifixion. Nothing he did in between could really be construed as ‘ritual’. Even his public prayers were in no way ritualized. He just talked to God the way I’m talking to you now. That’s what prayer is.
Contrast Jesus’ extreme lack of ritualized worship to the super-abundance of ritualized worship that characterizes most church services today. In some cases (Catholicism, for instance), the entire service is a ritual that is essentially just a performance, a show (as in “as show of piety”). There is nothing genuinely worshipful about it. You don’t even have to be a Catholic or even believe in God to take part in it; you just have to show up, preferably with your wallet.
Jesus said that God is looking for people to worship him in spirit and in truth. A ritualized worship service where everything is scripted and done on command is NOT worshiping in spirit and in truth. At the very best, it’s just “showing up”; at the very worst, it’s demon worship. Demons demand ritual and strict order in worship. God doesn’t: he just wants you to be yourself and do what you do, with him in mind.
This, here and now, is worship. I’m worshiping by writing, and you’re worshiping by reading.
This is what Jesus meant when he said to worship in spirit and in truth. He meant to be authentic. He meant to be real. Paul said to do all things as if unto God and to pray without ceasing. He meant to live your life knowingly and consciously in God’s presence. He meant to do your best at all times, and to look to God for help and guidance at all times. He meant to make your entire life your worship, not just one hour a week in a designated building.
Everything you do is your worship, from the time you get up in the morning until the time you go to bed at night. You are always in church. You are always in God’s presence.
Everything you do is your worship.
Let your life reflect that.
Throughout the gospels, people ask Jesus to increase their faith.
Interestingly, he doesn’t. He just tells them that if they had faith the size of a mustard seed, they could move mountains. He also constantly berates his followers for their lack of faith.
Faith seems to be a pretty important part of being a follower of Jesus, yet how many people actually know what it is (or how you can increase it)?
Paul defined faith as being “evidence of things unseen”. This view of faith quantifies it much like Jesus quantifies it in comparing faith to a mustard seed. Faith here is a measurable and palpable ‘thing’ that can even be used as evidence (presumably, in God’s court of law). But this definition doesn’t explain how faith can be increased or why it’s so important.
Here’s another definition that expands the idea of faith to include its mechanism of growth: “Faith is the means to and the measure of your relationship with God.” If we see faith both as a “way” (a means) and a quantity (a measure), faith becomes dynamic. In other words – we not only see that faith can grow, but we see how it can grow.
Every time you know God’s will and choose to do it, your faith grows. Every time you know God’s will and choose not to do it, your faith shrinks. It’s a very simple dynamic that even a child can understand. People who claim to have “lost” their faith actually still have a tiny fraction of faith (God never lets our faith balance go to zero), but their choices have put them in a near faithless state. That’s a sad and painful place to be. They got there by their choices, not because of something God did or didn’t do to them.
Faith is not something that someone else can increase for you, so Jesus could not have increased his disciples’ faith just because they asked him to. Faith is something you have to increase yourself. You increase it by your choices, just like you decrease it by your choices.
When a soul enters a body, it’s given a measure of faith. This is the capacity to be obedient to laws that God’s written on our hearts. Everyone knows those laws, though most people ignore them. Each time we ignore the laws written on our hearts, our faith decreases. But each time we heed those laws, our faith increases.
We born-agains have an even greater potential to increase our faith because of our one-on-one relationship with God through his spirit. We don’t have to guess whether or not we’re doing God’s will, we can know for sure simply by knowing scripture or asking God directly. This is why Jesus’ faith was so strong. He knew scripture, he had a one-on-one relationship with God, and he always chose to do God’s will.
Many people confuse faith with belief or a set of beliefs, but these are not faith. Your faith is intensely personal and entirely unique to you. It’s quantifiable and measureable. You’ve built it over the course of your lifetime. Every time you choose to do God’s will, you expand it. Every time you choose not to do God’s will, you shrink it.
OK, you say. I get it. I understand faith, and I understand how I can increase my faith. But why is faith so important? And why did Jesus always get in his disciples’ faces about their lack of faith?
We know faith is important because Jesus told us it was. We need great faith not to move mountains but to have the best possible relationship we can with God. The greater our faith, the closer we grow to God; the closer we grow to God, the greater our faith.
And here’s the kicker – the closer we grow to God, the more God can work through us in the world.
This is why having great faith is so important. This is why not only knowing God’s will but choosing to do it is so very, very, very important.
God works through the strength of our faith. God loves through the strength of our faith. God makes the world more endurable through the strength of our faith. God brings people back to him through the strength of our faith.
People of great faith can do great things not by their own power, but by God’s.
We are all gifted with an equal measure of faith. How great that initial measure of faith grows depends on the choices we make in our lives. The more we choose God’s way, the greater our faith grows, and the closer we grow to God; the closer we grow to God, the more likely we are to choose God’s way, which in turn increases our faith, and so on, and so on. This is how faith grows exponentially.
This is also how a thing as tiny as a grain of mustard seed can turn into a great spreading tree, through which God spiritually feeds and shelters his loved ones.
There are two types of words: the ones you speak, and the ones you mean.
You know what I’m talking about. You can say something or write something, but inside you’re thinking something quite different, maybe even the opposite.
God is not a lip reader. He reads hearts. He is aware of the words that come out of your mouth or flow through your fingers, but they count for far less than the words he hears coming from inside you. He knows and records every single one of your heart words, and he’ll use them as evidence against you (if he must) come Judgment Day.
Jesus warned us not to be hypocrites. We might fool some people, but we won’t fool God.
Our heart words have the power to justify our salvation in God’s eyes, and they have the power to condemn us and cause us to lose our salvation.
If our heart words justify us in God’s eyes, we go to heaven.
If our heart words condemn us in God’s eyes, we go to hell.
It doesn’t get any plainer than that.
Jesus said: “For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned.”
We need to pay very, very close attention to this. He didn’t say: “Just believe in me, have faith in me, and you’ll be fine.”
No, he said: “For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned.”
He didn’t say if you’re baptised in my name or born again, everything’s fine and you have nothing to worry about.
He said: “For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned.”
He didn’t say he’ll do everything for us so that all we need to do when we get to the pearly gates is to say: “I’m with Jesus!”, and we’ll be fine.
No, he said: “For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned.”
You determine your salvation by the words you choose to speak and the thoughts you choose to permit. You can ALWAYS choose your spoken or written words. No-one can force you to speak or write anything. That power is yours.
And while you can’t always prevent thoughts from coming to your mind, you can choose whether or not you permit them to stay there. That power is also yours.
As with everything in life, the only way you’re going to get through this minefield of heart words is with God’s help. Paul says to pray without ceasing. He means, never cease being conscious that God’s spirit is with you. If you’re constantly aware of God’s presence, you’ll be more likely to ask for his advice and also more likely to heed it.
“Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you … whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.”
Paul says to work out your salvation with fear and trembling. He didn’t say you’re born again, so you’re good to go and heaven’s a sure thing.
No, he says: work out your salvation with fear and trembling.
Watch what you say.
Watch what you write.
But even more so, watch what you choose to think.
“For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned.”
Last week, I woke up singing the first line of Psalm 91 over and over again. I’d never learned it as a song, but it came to me as a song, anyway.
“He who dwells in the secret place of the most High
will abide under the shadow of the Almighty.”
Here’s the whole psalm. It’s one of David’s.
As born-agains, we live in that secret place of the most High, under God’s shadow.
Psalm 91 is about us.
David wrote the psalm so that we’ll know how greatly God is protecting us, both spiritually and physically.
God’s not protecting us because he loves us, he’s protecting us because we love him.
Let me say that again: God is not protecting us because he loves us, he’s protecting us because we love him.
Our love enables God to protect us. Our love gives him permission to protect us.
God works through our love to protect us.
God loves everyone and to a certain extent also protects everyone. I know that’s true because even as an atheist, I was miraculously rescued too many times to count (although I didn’t know until after I was born again that it was God who’d done the rescuing).
This psalm isn’t about God’s everyday protection of everyone, both believers and unbelievers. This psalm is about God’s special protection that he can give to those who love him.
God doesn’t give us born-agains special protection because we’re special in any way; he gives us special protection because we allow him to, through our love for him.
Everyone can have access to God’s special protection. All they have to do is love God and follow Jesus.
But so few do.
In Matthew, Jesus talked about how God had wanted for so long for his people to hide under his “wings”, but they refused to.
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem…. How often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!”
Psalm 91 also gives us the same image:
“He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust.”
Have you ever seen chicks running to hide under the mother hen’s wings? The chicks ‘disappear’; you can’t see them anymore. There’s no safer place for them than under their mother’s wings.
But we shouldn’t use God’s special protection as a reason to be foolhardy. Satan tempted Jesus in the desert by quoting from Psalm 91 and (as usual) misapplying it.
Then the devil taketh him up into the holy city, and setteth him on a pinnacle of the temple,
And saith unto him, If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down: for it is written, He shall give his angels charge concerning thee: and in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone.
Jesus said unto him, It is written again, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.
The devil wanted to trick Jesus into being a ‘daredevil’ by jumping off the top of the temple and assuming that God would protect him. Jesus didn’t fall for it. He knew scripture.
Even better, he knew and loved God as his Dad.
God gives us special protection, but we’re not to abuse it. If we knowingly put ourselves into danger assuming that we can do anything we want because God will protect us, chances are pretty good he won’t protect us. If we assume that God will protect us no matter what we do, we’re taking a position of pride. You can’t be proud (rebellious) and humble (obedient) at the same time.
Loving God means giving yourself over to him wholly, constantly, and unquestioningly, like Jesus did. Then God can help you.
“Because he hath set his love upon me, therefore will I deliver him.”
ARE YOU ON GOD WELFARE?
Hey, YOU! Yes, you.
Are you on God welfare?
Are you pulling your weight in the kingdom?
Are you earning your keep? Just doing enough to slide by?
Or are you not doing any work at all for God?
Even as a 12-year-old, Jesus understood the concept of “working for God”. During his ministry years, he worked for God full-time. In fact, he was notorious for pulling double and even triple shifts. As his followers, we’re supposed to be like him. He’s not supposed to do all the work and we just tag along for the free ride – no. We’re supposed to be out there working as hard as he did.
If you’re in God’s kingdom (which you are, if you’re born again), then you have to work for God. No excuses and no exceptions. It’s the family business and we all have to pitch in.
Yet knowing this, and even knowing how hard Jesus worked during his ministry years, many born-agains are still sitting on their spiritual asses (and I don’t mean donkeys). Maybe they show up for a service once in a while, maybe they mumble a few “prayers” or read an occasional Bible verse, maybe they throw some money at a “Christian” charity, or maybe they just don’t do anything at all. Maybe they truly are good-for-nothing bums relying on spiritual hand-outs from God.
I’m not talking about being busy like Martha. That’s not the kind of work we need to do. Martha ran herself ragged doing chores that had nothing to do with the kingdom. Jesus was very clear that Mary was accomplishing far more by sitting at his feet and learning from him than Martha was by worrying and fussing over her chores.
Here are a few jobs that are always available in the family business. See which ones suit you best:
- Go out into the world and preach the Good News.
- Heal the spiritually sick.
- Feed the spiritually poor.
- Cast out demons.
- Love your enemies.
- Visit people in hospital.
- Visit people in prison.
- Treat other people as you want to be treated.
- Choose to forgive.
You can sign up for some or all of these jobs, but you’ve got to do at least one. I suggest taking on as many as you think you can handle (with God’s help). It’s not enough just to ‘slide by’ in God’s kingdom. You have to earn your keep.
Jesus talked a lot about rewards. What he really meant was your spiritual paycheck. We all get paid for working in God’s kingdom. As born-agains, we get an advance on our pay (joy, peace, hanging out with God and Jesus, etc.) that’s enough to keep us going while we’re still here on Earth, but the big pay-out comes when we get to heaven.
God doesn’t expect us to work for free. He wants us to keep our reward in front of us. He wants us to use it as a motivation, just like we use money as a motivation for doing our earthly jobs. Would you do your earthly job without the motivation of money? Likely not. Then don’t pretend you’d work for God for free. I certainly wouldn’t work for free. Neither would Jesus. I love God and all, and I certainly want to do my part for the family business, but it’s heaven that’s motivating me.
Paul said that heaven is worth any and all suffering that the world can throw at us. He lived it and he meant it. I, too, have seen enough of heaven to know that Paul was right. Most born-agains have seen at least glimpses of it. If you haven’t yet, ask God to show you what he’s got waiting for you. He’s always happy to do so.
As born agains, what we do to earn our ‘daily bread’ should have the lowest priority in our lives. We should do our earthly job well, but it shouldn’t take precedence over the work we do for the kingdom. Jesus was a carpenter, but when he started his ministry work, he stopped being a carpenter. There’s no mention of him from that point onwards doing any other kind of work than God’s work. We all need to get to that point in our lives. We all need a “Matthew moment” when we just walk away from our earthly job and never look back.
If you can’t imagine doing that, then you’re storing up your treasures on Earth, not heaven. Jesus said to store your treasures in heaven. Nothing and no-one, not family, not friends, not possessions, not reputation, not obligations, not creature comforts – nothing should be more important to you than working for God.
Paul made tents during the first years of his ministry work. He was adamant that people earn their keep by their own labor. Paul didn’t say to stop doing earthly work altogether but to do whatever you had to do so you wouldn’t be a burden to others. But he isn’t known to us today as “Paul the Tentmaker”; he’s known as the Apostle Paul. He devoted just enough time and energy making tents to put a roof over his head and food in his mouth; otherwise, ALL the rest of his time and energy went to doing God’s work. Eventually, Paul stopped making tents altogether and lived on donations from those who voluntarily chose to support his ministry work.
We’re all eventually supposed to get to that point.
First, you need to get to where you can imagine walking away from it all and working full-time for the kingdom, and then, when the time’s right, you need to do it.
But before that can happen, you’ve got to get off and stay off God welfare.
GOD SAID: WRITE ABOUT THE BIBLE
This is all I know: Before I was born again, I hated that book. I wanted nothing to do with it and I didn’t want it around me. The few times I tried reading it (for a class assignment), I could not. The words ran together and seemed to be written in a foreign language. I did not speak God.
After I was born again, the first thing I reached for was a Bible, like a newborn reaching for a teat. I read all four gospels in one sitting. It was the first time I’d heard the words of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Thank God he spoke English.
While I was reading through the gospels, God showed me what had happened to me. I read: “And seven devils were driven out of Mary Magdalene”, and God said: “That’s what happened to you, only there were a lot more than seven.” Then I understood: I was a Jesus freak. That’s the only way I could frame it: “Jesus freak”. As a former atheist, I had no other reference point. Over time, I learned to call myself a “follower of Jesus” and “born again”. But for the first while, I was just a Jesus freak.
Since the day of my rebirth, I have not let go of that book. It’s always within arm’s reach or in viewing range. I have a Bible by my bed and one by my computer, and another halfway between my bed and my computer. There are two more in my closet, carefully wrapped in clean white plastic bags. I read them so much, the pages fell out. I taped them back in, but then the covers fell off. Sometimes you just have to let go, but I couldn’t bring myself to throw them out. So I keep them swaddled in plastic, next to my swaddled dolls.
I read the Bible every day. Sometimes, I read whole books within the Bible, and sometimes I read only a few lines. I let God guide me as to what I should read. And then every once in a while I’ll read the whole Bible again, from cover to cover.
No matter how many times I read it, I never tire of it. Just like the first day, it feeds me. It’s always fresh. It’s always new. I always see something I hadn’t seen before. How is that possible? How can you read the same words every day, and yet every day see something new?
If God said: “You can have only one earthly possession”, I would have a Bible. There’s something about that book. It’s just a book, but it can’t be just a book. If it were just a book, I could have read it as easily as all the other books I read when I was an atheist. But I couldn’t read that book. I didn’t want it anywhere near me. The words all swam together. If it were just a book, those things would not have happened.
This is all I know: “I once was lost, but now I’m found.” I’m a Jesus freak. You can tape pages back into a book, but you can’t stop the cover from falling off. You can learn something new from the Bible no matter how many times you read it. And the Bible is not just a book.
SAY A LITTLE PRAYER
Prayer is the most powerful force in the universe. Through prayer, we open a direct line of communication with God who not only created the universe but is also able to completely destroy it, if he so chooses. This is the level of power we’re talking about. Paul says to “pray without ceasing”, which is what we do when we’re consciously in the presence of God. No words are needed. God is in the house, and we’ve got his full attention.
When the disciples asked Jesus how to pray, he first warned them against reciting “vain repetitions” like the “heathen” do, but instead gave them examples of how to open a conversation with God. He said: Ask him to get you something good to eat today. He said: Tell him you’re looking forward to his kingdom coming to Earth. He said: Tell him that you want your will to align with his, so that your will and his will are one. He said: Call him “Dad”. Then, somewhere along the line, maybe in translation or maybe on purpose, these very different ideas for conversation-openers with God got all merged together into one long vain repetition and became the very thing that Jesus warned us about.
The “Our Father” (or “The Lord’s Prayer”) was never meant to be a “prayer”. At the very most, it could serve as the words for a song, but it shouldn’t be used for praying. Prayer is simply having a conversation with God: your spirit with his spirit. If you’re born-again, God’s your Dad. Imagine what your earthly Dad would think if you called out to him, he came running, and then you stood in front of him looking skywards or with your eyes closed, your hands folded in front of you or extended, palms upward, and you babbled on and on and on about something that didn’t have anything to do with your current problems or interests and wasn’t even reflective of what was going on in your mind at the time? And even when your father tried to interject to find out what it was that you wanted, you just kept babbling on and on as if you didn’t hear him? Imagine if you did that every single time you called to your father and he came running. What do you think he’d think about you? What would you think if your child did the same to you? At some point, I think you’d either stop listening to your child or you’d call for psychiatric intervention. Children of sane minds do not talk to their father like that.
And yet, this is exactly what God, our heavenly Father, hears from most of us when we ‘pray’. It’s sad, really, because God is our Dad. Jesus told us that. Our Dad created prayer as a means for us to talk to him and hear from him. We can talk to him just like we can talk to our earthly Dad. He loves it so much when we talk to him! There’s never a time when he’s not available or when it’s not convenient for him. He never says: Go away, I’m busy. He never says: Call me later. He never says: Hold the line; I’ve got another prayer coming in. He’s always ready and waiting and he’s always all ours. The line is always open. It’s not even necessary to say anything to him. You can just share that wonderful comfortable silence of being together alone with someone you love.
For the three and a half years that I was a Catholic, I took Paul’s words to “pray without ceasing” to mean that I should recite the “Hail Mary” all day long. And so I did. I “prayed” the rosary three times a day, morning, noon and night, which amounted to something like 150+ repetitions, book-ended by a dozen or so “Our Father’s” and two rounds of mass. I also, every day, prayed about an hour’s worth of vain repetitions to angels and to assorted Saints This-and-That, which was in complete violation of God’s commandment and edicts. I wouldn’t have done any of it had I known what I was doing was wrong, but I didn’t know. As a Catholic, I was not encouraged to read the Bible to get informed. Had I read the Bible, I would have known about vain repetitions and about not praying to angels and dead people. But Catholics are warned not to study the Bible on their own because (or so they’re told) they lack the ability to understand it without the help of a priest or other official minister of God.
As a Catholic, I was told God was my Heavenly Father, but I wasn’t told that I could get to know him one on one, like Jesus knew him. For Catholics, God is always addressed as thee and thou and thine; God is always out there somewhere – up in the sky or in a box at the side of the altar. He’s never right here, right now, with us, and he’s certainly never right here, right now, inside us. Not for Catholics. Only the pope and priests and some special dead people have a ‘direct connection’ with God. The rest of us rabble have to settle for repeating vain repetitions in the hopes that if we accumulate enough frequent prayer points, we might win a trip to Heaven with a stopover in purgatory.
Sadly, the idea of prayer is even used as a form of punishment in the Catholic organization. After we confess our sins to a priest (not having a direct line of communication with God, we have no other option but to tell our sins to a priest), we’re invariably told that our sins are forgiven as long as we go and “say” ten Hail Mary’s and a few Our Father’s. That’s all it takes. Mumble a few words, and you’re good to go. You don’t even have to mean them.
This is what prayer has become in the largest so-called Christian organization in the world: The most powerful force in the universe has been reduced to a hurried recitation of some old-fashioned words that don’t even really make any sense anymore. How Satan is laughing at us, if he still can! He knows (though most of us appear not to) how powerful prayer is, and how ready and willing God is to intervene at even the slightest change in our thought direction. Remember what Jesus said when he was arrested? He said all he had to do was ask God and he would immediately send 12 legions of angels to rescue him.
That’s a lot of angel power, 12 legions. He probably could have made do with just one angel, if all he wanted to do was get rescued. Twelve legions (approximately 58,000 angels) would have destroyed all of Israel and then some.
This is the kind of power I’m talking about when I say that prayer is the most potent force in the universe. God is not only willing but more than able to move Heaven and Earth for us; all we need to do is ask.
But sometimes we don’t even need to do that. The most powerful prayer I ever prayed was exactly two words long, and one of those words didn’t even make it past my lips. And here’s the kicker – I didn’t know I was praying. I was an atheist. Atheists don’t pray. The words came from a place so deep down inside me that I can only identify it, in hindsight, as my spirit. They were the last gasps of a soul so weighed down by sin that it could no longer properly form words. But God heard. However unintelligible those words were, God heard. He’d been waiting a long time to hear from me. Even before the second word had finished forming in me, he’d swooped down and caught me up in his arms. Had he not, I know now I would have fallen. Forever.
This is prayer. It’s not repetitious mumbling and fumbling with bead counters – no. Prayer is your spirit connecting with God’s spirit, even if you don’t know you’re doing it. Jesus says that God knows what we need even before we ask him. But he still needs to hear us ask; he still needs our permission.
Through prayer, we control the most powerful force in the universe. And not only is this force powerful, it’s completely devoted to us.
So the next time someone tells you to bow your head and pray, tell them you don’t pray in public; you pray in private, like Jesus told you to. Tell them you don’t repeat vain repetitions because God doesn’t hear them. And tell them what they’re doing isn’t praying and that it’s a waste of time.
And then go somewhere alone and pray that they, too, come to know God as their Dad.
I was “baptized” a Roman Catholic when I was three weeks old, but I was raised an atheist. I mention this because, when I was born again at age 36, I had no idea whatsoever what it meant to be a Christian. I wasn’t, as they say, “raised in the faith”. Everything I’ve learned about being a follower of Jesus has come from the Bible, my conversations with God and Jesus, and my own experience as a born-again.
This is why I’m always a wee bit surprised when I come across doctrinal arguments that have already been dealt with and resolved by Jesus in the gospels. If Jesus has already resolved these issues, why are people who call themselves Christians still arguing about them?
One favorite issue that rigid legalists like to bring up again and again is the concept of “keeping the Sabbath”. They argue over which day is the ‘real’ sabbath day. They argue about what is and is not permitted to be done on that sabbath day. And then they warn that if you don’t strictly adhere to their interpretation of “keeping the sabbath”, you’re going straight to hell, do not pass ‘Go’, do not collect 200 dollars.
What did Jesus have to say about the sabbath?
He said: “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath.”
He said this in response to some rigid legalists (in this case, Pharisees) who were peeved that he and his disciples had picked and eaten a few ears of corn while walking through a cornfield. Jesus used as a justification how David and his men had eaten food offerings from an altar when they were hungry and had no other food source. In eating the food that was meant only for priests, David was breaking a rule. Jesus’ point here was that expediency and urgency of human need are greater even than altar rules. Jesus and his disciples were hungry; the corn was there; they ate it. End of story. Just like David and his men were hungry; the food was there; they ate it. God had put the food there not to tempt them but to satisfy their need.
Jesus reiterated his stand on how human need trumps the rigid rules around “keeping the Sabbath” when later the same day he healed a man in the local synagogue (I’m using Mark’s gospel here, the end of Chapter 2 and the beginning of Chapter 3). The same Pharisees were there to witness this “Sabbath violation” and it set them off on the warpath to “destroy” Jesus. Even after Jesus had explained to them in simple terms that it was better to do good than evil on the sabbath and better to save a life than take it, they still didn’t get it. All they could see was their beloved rule and that Jesus had broken it.
Jesus was totally exasperated with their “hardness of heart” and their inability to grasp even the simplest concepts of who God is and how we are to serve him. This kind of rigid legalistic interpretation of “keeping the Sabbath” persists to this day, despite Jesus having dealt with it once and for all. And not surprising, the same type of people who gave Jesus grief all those years ago are still giving Christians grief about the sabbath today.
As I mentioned, everything I know about being a follower of Jesus, I learned from the Bible or directly from God and Jesus. Regarding the sabbath, I usually take one day off a week, and it’s usually Sunday, but not always. If I end up having to work on Sunday, I take the next day off that I can. I know that if I don’t get my ‘day of rest’, I’ll be a nightmare to be around, just like I’ll be a nightmare to be around if I don’t get my 8 hours’ sleep. I’ve tried splitting my sabbath day into two by taking two half-days off, but that doesn’t work as well. I don’t get the same level of rejuvenation as I do when I take a whole day to ‘do nothing’.
Because I’m a follower of Jesus, I prefer to spend my entire day off just hanging with God and Jesus and the holy rellies (you know, that cloud of witnesses Paul was talking about). If I had my druthers, I’d spend every day doing nothing but just hanging with God and Jesus and the holy rellies, but that’s not advisable, since we do still have work that needs to be done. God loves it when we just spend time with him for no other reason than that we love him, but we can’t do that 24/7. We still have work to do during our time here, just like Jesus had work to do during his time here.
I’m not telling you what to do or not to do on your sabbath. That’s up to you to decide. As for me, I look to Jesus and my own conscience as to how I spend my weekly day off. Jesus states quite clearly that the sabbath is meant for our benefit and that it’s not so set in stone that it can’t be altered if the situation calls for it. I’ve worked through days that I should have taken off, and I’ve suffered for it by getting tired and cranky. I look forward to my ‘day of rest’ once a week, but if an emergency comes up that can’t be put off (and I get clearance from God to deal with it), I deal with the emergency. I don’t think twice about it, and neither does God.
For any of you legalists out there reading this and tearing your robes – lighten up. Get to know God and Jesus better. Read the gospels. Jesus said that “the Son of man is Lord of the sabbath”. Anyone who’s a born-again follower of Jesus is a “Son of man”, meaning a prophet (meaning, a revealer of God’s truth). If Jesus could dictate what could and could not be done on the sabbath, so can we. Jesus didn’t arbitrarily and just for the sake of it do whatever he wanted to do on the sabbath – no. But if circumstances were such that he had to do something that could not be delayed, he did it, and so should we.
And yes, I do know the commandment about keeping the sabbath day holy. Nothing I’ve said here violates that, any more than anything Jesus said or did violated the holiness of the sabbath day. As a born-again, you should live EVERY day in holiness, not just one day in seven. Jesus certainly did. Living in holiness just means keeping your will aligned with God’s so that you make the right (God-inspired) choices. This isn’t possible without consciously being in God’s presence, through his spirit. So, in a sense, born-agains, who by definition always have God’s spirit with them and should always be conscious of his presence, “keep the Sabbath day” all week long, and every day is a holy day.
Even so, I’m still looking forward to my day off!