The Lord’s Prayer redux (with all the pointy bits)

The Lord’s Prayer is really deep, and quite pointed.  We’re so used to it, though, that we sometimes don’t notice.  The points get worn down with the abrasion of repetition.  So I decided to see if I could reword the prayer a little.  To take it out of its comfortable rhythm and force us to think about what we’re praying.  This isn’t the sum total of its meaning, but it’s a part of it.  With all of the pointy bits:


 

Our Father in Heaven, Source of our life both spiritual and physical.  All-glorious Creator of all things and Owner of the cattle on a thousand hills.

We pray that You would be glorified amongst us now.  We pray that Your Name would be lifted up, in our worship and in our working, in our meeting together and in our going forth to proclaim Your Gospel.  We pray that those who have not yet heard the Good News would be able to hear, and we offer and dedicate ourselves to that task.

We thank You for all Your goodness to us, in bringing us to Yourself and in providing for all of our needs.  We trust in Your power and Your goodness; Your ability and willingness to bless.

We ask Your forgiveness for when we have faltered and fallen of late, for when we have infringed on other people, or hurt them, or offended them, and we ask Your help in forgiving those who have offended and hurt us.  We ask Your blessing on them today.

We ask that You would keep us from the temptation to hold on to our offendedness, to demand our own way and to put our priorities ahead of Yours.  Protect us from the one who sows temptations and discord in the Body and who would devour us if he could.  We trust in Your Almighty power to shield us as we abide in You.

This earth is Yours, O God.  You are the Ruler, not us.  Have Your way among us, we ask.

 

In Jesus’ Name, amen.

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It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)

Eschatology is a potent and rich field of theological study.  The investigation of what the Bible has to say about the “last things” is profitable for numerous reasons, not least of which that it frequently puts our own troubles into perspective and acts as a caution to the idea that we can metaphoricalise the alchemists’ ancient dream: we can make golden ages by our own power and goodness.

More, the return of Christ is something we are instructed to earnestly look for and expect imminently, and we know that the Bible places this coming at “the end of the age”.  Revelation is the only one of the sixty-six books which specifically proclaims a blessing on those who read and take to heart its message.

Eschatology is also, however, one of the fields of theological study which cause most dispute, upset and plain error, as we falteringly try to grasp and make sense of the prophetic language in which the Biblical material deals with the Last Days and relate it to the world we see.

In our own day, we see this fascination with teaching on blood moons and the idea of national judgments connected with the heptannual cycles of the Hebrew calendar.  We see a peculiar certainty that ours is the last generation, that events are even now occurring that harbinger the social chaos out of which the new world order of the antichrist will arise.  We see detailed charts of the events of the Biblically-foretold Great Tribulation and its surrounders, charts in which the Son of Man sometimes appears to bounce up and down like some sort of celestial yo-yo.

I personally find some of these just a little irreverent in their suggestion of a “bouncing eschatological Jesus” (my term), but there you go.

There are two main kinds of error into which it is possible to fall regarding the Last Things.

The first is to ignore them, the second is to hyper-focus on them so that we are in danger of ignoring anything else.  I’ve been guilty of this second error, and I’m sometimes now guilty of the first in the way I live my life, but like all who call on His Name, I’m trying to align my perspective with Christ’s.

Culturally we seem to be more in danger of this second error at the moment, but even so we can fall prey to this first danger by living as if Jesus isn’t coming back, treating our national and this-worldly concerns as if they are absolute.  Beside the coming End, even the prospect of the potential accession to the US Presidency of a notorious mocker like Donald Trump is, if you will pardon the pun, not the end of the world.

Our small concerns are rendered petty and unimportant alongside the great events of His Kingdom; what does it matter that the United States lose a little of its power in the world, if Jesus is coming back to put an end to all of our Republics and Kingdoms and Empires and Federations?  What does it matter that this or that political party come to power in one of many nations on the Earth?  Is God constrained to work only through one political party?

This is not to say that followers of Christ should be indifferent to politics and government, but neither should we treat the process as if it is God’s own major project.  We live in the world, as the Scripture says, and rightly maintain a concern for God’s will to be done “on Earth as it is in Heaven”, but we must take care not to be captured by the world, to fall into the trap of believing that our agenda is necessarily God’s.

The second error into which we may fall is to become captivated by echatology to the diminution or exclusion of much else.

We are specifically warned against inquiring too much into “the times and dates which the Father has set by His own authority”, and that even Jesus, quizzed by the Eleven, didn’t know when the End would come.  Some of our modern (and ancient) attempts to read the signs come perilously close to this error of date-setting, if they do not actively constitute that error.  Interestingly, no-one seems to want to set a date that is far removed from their own generation; the practice invariably seems to lead to a date within a few years of its being floated.

Attempting to set a date, of course, counteracts one of the main thrusts of Biblical teaching on the Last Things: namely that we must be ready at all times, not only a select few dates, for “the Son of Man comes at an hour you do not expect”.

But attempting to determine the day and the hour is only one of a cluster of eschatological errors that can be caught up with overfocus on it.  There are probably as many perspectives on the Last Days as there are theologians, and Christians disagree with one another on the relative timing of the Rapture of the Saints, the Great Tribulation, the Millennium and the Last Judgement, so that a great confusion can sometimes result among the unschooled in such things.  The temptation, with so many conflicting views, to side with one and go forth to do war against the others, is a very real one, and one to which we none of us are immune.  Despite the fact that some even among our sisters and brothers in the faith can view the whole debate as an abstruse theological argument rather like discussion over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, we want to be right and to visibly conquer wrongness wherever we find it.

The simple fact of the matter is that until that which is prophesied actually occurs, all that we have is speculation.  We try hard to make it informed speculation, but it is speculation nonetheless.  Whether those who follow Christ will be caught up to meet Him in the air before, during or after the Great Tribulation (“time of great troubles”) we cannot know until it actually happens.

At which point all of our disputations necessarily become moot.

Increasingly, I find my question to be “what does the Kingdom of God gain by numbers of us engaging one another in verbal combat over our divergent speculations?” The only one who would appear to gain by that is our enemy the devil, sowing discord among the Body of Christ and distracting us from the task of proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom.

Some people go so far as to stockpile food, money and even weapons so that they will “be prepared” for the social chaos which they presume will occur before the end and out of which the Antichrist will rise to power.  This, again, would seem to me to be a distraction from our main task, and evidence of a lack of faith in God’s ability or willingness to take care of us.  The Lord really does know all our tomorrows, and will take care of us so that we may trust that whether by life or by death we will glorify Him and be known as His.  Or as the Bible puts it in connection with the End, “If anyone is to go into captivity, into captivity he will go”.  Your guns and food and stockpiled money will not thwart God’s plans, and He really is in charge of these things.  Stockpiling “just in case” would appear to be exercising the spirit of worry and unbelief rather than the “patient endurance” that the same Bible passage says is called for.

Simply put, I believe that enough is written so that we’ll recognise it when we see it.  Indeed, if we have eyes to see we will hardly be able to keep from recognising it; it is those who wilfully close their eyes who will be caught napping.

Are we doing what the Lord has charged us with doing?  Then even if we are taken by surprise we need have no worries when the Master of the House returns.

Are we “beating the other servants” with our own speculations about when and how He will be coming back, drunk on our own certainty and disengaged from the task?  Are we trying to begin the feast on our own rather than extending the invitation to those who haven’t heard?  Well, Jesus’ parable doesn’t have good things to say about that servant.

So on the one hand, we need to remember that Jesus is indeed coming soon, that our this-worldly concerns aren’t necessarily at the centre of His agenda nor our earthly fears actually absolute.  But on the other hand, we need to remember that what we are told about His coming we were not told so that we could spend all of our time trying to fit all the pieces together ahead of time, but so that we would recognise it when it comes.  We need to recognise that His coming places a time limit on the task He’s given us: we do not have forever to accomplish the Great Commission, nor is He going to put up with human sin continuing to hurt those He loves for the next aeon.  This world is not all there is, and time does not go on forever.  There will come an End.

And that is a Good Thing.

Christians Anonymous

I live in America (specifically, in Texas). I go to church in America. Like it or not, I’m part of American Christianity now.

Judging by what I see on the internet and in the advertising mailers we occasionally get from various Christian bookstores, I’m kind of embarrassed about admitting that.

Oh, there’s plenty of good things. America is still Christianised enough in these parts that saying you’re a Christian is still considered a positive thing. There’s a wide selection of numerous Christian radio stations and TV channels. There are several large Christian bookstores around. People set up plumbing companies with names like “Apostle Plumbing”. Politicians openly claim to be Christians. You don’t get any of that in Britain.

But.

So much of popular American Christianity seems to be either trite and shallow or weird and crazy.

The church where I and my family worship isn’t like that, at least not in the regular services and meetings. You’d look at that and think that American Christians are normal.

But if you look at what we’re buying in terms of what’s in stock in the local Christian bookstores, you ought to be given pause.

And if you look at what we’re reading and supporting in terms of what we post online, you really ought to be given pause.

Seriously, between the Bible story action figures (my Jesus isn’t poseable), the aggressive bumper stickers urging you to “Keep Christ in Christmas” by objecting when someone wishes you “Happy Holidays” (if you don’t know Jesus, merely saying “Merry Christmas” will not save you, and if you do, saying “Happy Holidays” will not keep you out), the latest crazy fad books about the coming End of the World, or at least the End of America (apparently they’re the same) and the horribly cutesy “inspirational” plaques with their Precious Moments angels and twee little sayings (that seem more about making us feel better than encouraging us to follow Christ), these days I walk into a Christian bookstore and feel like Jesus in the Temple courts. Making whips and overturning tables feels like it wouldn’t be that out of order.

Seriously, what is wrong with us?

At best, this is the spiritual equivalent of candy and junk food. It’s ok in small doses, but the constant diet to which we’re subjecting ourselves is lethal to our spiritual health and vitality.

Christian radio is no better. The stations bill themselves as “Encouraging music. Words of hope”, or “Safe for the whole family”, and have advertising testimonials from people saying just how wonderful it makes them feel.

And at times, this is appropriate. But Peter probably didn’t feel very good when Jesus told him to “Get behind me, Satan!”, the Pharisees undoubtedly didn’t feel good when Jesus demolished their arguments, and the rich young ruler went away from his encounter with Christ sad, because the Lord had exposed his love of money, and God is not now and never has been remotely safe.

It’s not Christian to make people feel better all the time. Jesus was full of truth as well as grace, and it was frequently the religious and the visibly devout that bore the brunt of His truth-telling.

However, neither is it Christian to go out of our way to be gratuitously offensive the way we sometimes want to either. Jesus dealt incredibly gently with the immorality of the woman at the well, with Zacchaeus, with Matthew the tax-collector, with the woman caught in the act of adultery. Not from His mouth any personal attacks, harsh demands to repent and shape up, or remonstrances that these sinners are corrupting the pure culture of contemporary Judean society. He was full of grace as well as truth.

No, the people that talked long and loud about the social corruption wrought by these dreadful pagan sinners were the Pharisees.

Are we working the wrong way round? We’re frequently overly gentle with ourselves and harsh with unbelievers. Jesus was frequently harshest with religious people and gentlest with sinners. And He was the Truth, so we can’t get away with misbehaving by calling it “making a stand for truth”. Just saying.

So much of what is on display is unbelievably shallow. Pre-milk. Spiritual colostrum. Or not even that – spiritual junk food. Compare the latest fad personal devotional book with something like My Utmost For His Highest and a lot of the time it’s actively shocking from what a great height we’ve fallen.

And if it’s not shallow, it’s often actively crazy. The Christianised astrology of “blood moons” (yeah, actually it’s just like astrology), the continual fear-peddling survivalist nonsense about stockpiling food, money and even weapons in preparation for the collapse of society that heralds the End Times (Um, God will take care of us tomorrow. Our job is to build His Kingdom today, not spend ages in preparing ourselves as if He’s powerless), the latest “revealed mystery” fad, whether it’s the “Bible code” or some kind of Jewish feast-based cycle of judgment or whatever. We feed ourselves so little meat of Scripture that we don’t know how to properly weigh and test anything. It seems we’ll believe anything if it has the right labels, forgetting that Satan himself is adept at having the right labels to the point of looking just like an angel of light.

And this is American Christianity as shown by what we sell ourselves. It’s embarrassing.

The frightening thing is the implication that this is what the market wants. Christian bookstores are commercial enterprises, and if it won’t sell, they’re not interested in stocking it. Which means it’s our fault that so much of what they sell is either shallow drivel or fear-mongering crazy.

Applying “you are what you eat” to what we buy, read, follow and post online, I’m becoming somewhat frightened and embarrassed to call myself a Christian. Is this tosh really what we are?

I take some comfort from the fact that most of the churches I’ve been in are relatively normal, but if our churches are so normal, why is our merchandise and online presence so dire?

And so with all due embarrassment I have to confess that I am indeed, by definition, a part of American Christianity now.

If there’s a counter-revolution, it begins here.

Debts and Trespasses

When saying the Lord’s Prayer together, as we do every week, the church we currently worship at uses the wording “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors”.

I don’t know whether this is something that happens across the denomination or whether it’s just our church, but I’ve been saying it almost every week now for a couple of years, and part of me still wants to come out with the traditional wording of “trespasses”. “Debts” and “debtors” still feels weird to me. Not wrong, just weird. Something I’m still not entirely used to.

It’s an interesting choice of wording, and communicates something a little different to the traditional “trespasses” and “those that trespass against us”, and I thought it might be interesting to examine the difference.

“Trespasses” is a term from the conceptual area of land ownership. If you’re on my land without permission, we call that trespassing. In contemporary usage, that’s its only meaning: get off my land.

However, the older translations of the Lord’s Prayer seem to apply it much more widely. The idea is of being in a place where you should not; this may be a physical location, or more metaphorically, setting yourself on the throne and trying to make the decisions for yourself that rightly belong to God. Or invading another’s metaphysical territory; running your own rights over and through someone else’s domain without their permission, or as we would normally describe it, being arrogant and self-centred. Taking liberties with someone. Expecting them to bend to whatever it is you want to do.

Thus, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” carries the sense of asking God to forgive us for the times we try to act in His place or run our own rights over someone else’s domain, as we forgive other people for running roughshod over us and arrogating rights to themselves vis-à-vis us without our necessarily granting them.

Not that we necessarily need to let them continue running roughshod over us, but we do need to forgive them, because we also run our own rights over God’s domain and need forgiveness.

“Debts” and “debtors” carries a rather different connotation.

The idea here is not so much one of rights and ownership but of indebtedness. The idea that we owe God a righteous life, and when we sin it creates a debt. A debt that we cannot pay, because any amount of righteous living is only fulfilment of our obligation; it doesn’t count as a credit.

In the same way, other people can owe us other stuff than money. As human beings made in the image of God, we have a certain intrinsic dignity and worth. And because of this intrinsic worth, we have a right to expect a basic level of kindness and good treatment from others. “As we forgive our debtors” is about our forgiving those who owe us in this regard at least as much as it’s about those who owe us financially. “God, forgive us for what we owe You and other people; we also forgive those who owe us decent treatment.”

Now, the Divine attribute of justice may mean that sometimes we need to stand up for what is right and say to someone “pay what you owe”. The Bible is clear that we are to let no debt remain outstanding; if we owe taxes, we are to pay what we owe. If we owe honour, we are to honour the one we owe the honour to. And similarly, the Bible is very strong on the subject of paying a worker a fair wage for their labour. Forgiving our debtors doesn’t necessarily mean that we ought to let underpayment or non-payment of wages continue, for example, any more that forgiving one who has trespassed against us means we need to let the trespass continue. Sometimes it may. We owe God the righteousness we cannot in and of ourselves produce, and because of Jesus He is willing not to count that against us. But equally, Jesus paid our debt. If we reject that payment, preferring to do it ourselves, guess what? God isn’t going to force us to accept what He’s done for us. The debt remains.

So which is right?

This isn’t a case of one wording being right and the other wrong. They are both coming from slightly different places and communicating slightly different ideas, but they’re both right.

I prefer the traditional wording, but that’s mostly because when I’m doing something traditional, like reciting the Lord’s Prayer, I tend to want to go really traditional. “Debts” and “Debtors” says something useful, and so does the traditional “trespasses” vocabulary. Both are a little abstruse at times, but realistically, how many of us that have been praying it all our lives really think about the third possible wording, “forgive us our sins”?

Saying the Lord’s Prayer shouldn’t be merely a comforting ritual. It is, after all, a prayer; we’re talking to God, or supposed to be. It is a ritual, but if it’s only that we’re missing the point.

But if by looking at the wording we pay a little more attention to what we’re praying, that’s a good thing.