Day 46: Matthew 6:22-23

The eyes are like a lamp for the body. If your eyes are sound, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eyes are no good, your body will be in darkness. So if the light in you is darkness, how terribly dark it will be!

[With these words Jesus continues to teach about the Law of Moses as the Sermon on the Mount continues.  He takes some of the most important topics and explains to his disciples, in specific terms, what it means to be “more faithful than the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees in doing what God requires” (See Day 23)].

What the heck am I going to do with this?  I’m not a huge poetry fan, especially when it’s full of allegory.  Especially in the Bible because allegory leaves so much room for misinterpretation and abuse.  I want to get this right if at all possible.

So I’m trying to get this going as a mental image.  Of course, I get the “light” and “darkness” – that’s all over the Bible.  The problems are the “eyes” and the “body”.  I finally give up; for the first time I go to the Internet to see what other people have to say.  What I find is a bunch of people who interpret it like this:  There are a lot of Christians running around who think they are going to heaven, but they have received false teaching so they are really going to hell.

I do not think that this interpretation fits within the greater context of the Sermon on the Mount.  Also, it just doesn’t make sense to me.  So, I keep looking and finally find a Jewish interpretation.  Yes, a Jew interpreting the words of Jesus.  Jesus was, after all, a Jew.  So when someone on Yahoo asked what this meant, a Jew felt compelled to help the person out.  Here’s what he said:

“I’ll explain this using Jewish metaphors. Now, here is a clue. The metaphor for the Torah is light. However, that’s a particular case. In general, it’s the concepts in your mind that motivate one to behave the way they do.  The eye is generally used to signify wisdom. When it’s the Torah, it’s G-d’s wisdom. When it’s our own desires, it’s called “man’s wisdom.”  The verses before give the choice between choosing worldly treasures or choosing supernal treasures.

So, let’s paraphrase it allegorically.  If the desire that motivates you is worldly pleasures, then your body will be full of things which result from focusing on worldly pleasures.  If you take it in context from earlier in the passage where people pretend to be good in order to get approval from others when in reality they are just acting.  In any lesson, I try to bring it to a personal level. There are events in my life that sometimes grab my attention that are really unimportant. They occupy my mind for awhile until I displace them with Torah lessons which are more important.

Shalom,  Gershon

Aha.  I get it.  Sometimes it takes a Jew to understand a Jew.  Jesus and Gershon  have a certain way of looking at things.  So Jesus is saying that the way we live is shaped by our perception of the world around us. Here’s the code:

Light = truth and hope / Darkness = deception and despair

Eyes = mind and discernment / Body = actions

 So here’s an example that relates to humanity in general:

 The eyes interpret what’s going on in the world.  For example, in the midst of a disaster some people fixate on the body parts lying around while others fixate on the helpers.

If, as in the latter case, you see the world as God’s good creation, your mind will be full of God’s truth and good works will flow out of you.

If, as in the former case, you perceive the world as a dark and ugly place, your actions will be selfish and self-destructive.  And the more the bad behavior persists, the darker the world will seem as those around you react to you.

And here’s another practical application relative to the interpretation of the Law of Moses and teaching of the prophets:

If you believe that God loves us and is leading us toward the establishment of a just, compassionate, and peaceful society, then all scripture breathes life into us.  Your actions will be loving and helpful.

If you believe that God is angry, petty, and hates humanity, then you interpret all scripture as condemning and hateful.  Every scripture becomes a weapon that God uses against humanity and eventually you really believe that everyone is going to hell.  Your actions will be anti-social and hateful. And your perceptions will become even more negative over time as people react to your hatefulness.

My single sentence summary:  You see what you look for and you perpetuate what you see.

I think many people have been subjected to really bad religious teaching that makes them afraid of the Bible.  They have been listening to too many people who pore over the Bible for evidence that according to Jesus, they themselves and their little group of like-minded friends are the only ones who will be “saved.”  There are plenty of them out there.  So sad.  Poor Jesus.  Talk about being used and misunderstood!  Any individual or group that thinks that most of the world is going to hell needs to “see” better.

Historically the church has taught its charges to look at the world through the lens of “original sin” (the concept that we are all born evil because of what happened in the Garden of Eden).  If you accept this you going to have a very negative view of humanity. This is not a biblical concept; it’s an abusive paradigm that Augustine came up with around 400 and was adopted by the Roman Catholic Church around 1200 after much bitter debate.  (n.b. My husband says to cut Augustine some slack.  He says he was old at the time and probably having a bad day when he came up with this). This concept served the church well; man was evil and the only salvation was through the church.   Through this doctrine the church established itself firmly as the gatekeeper to heaven.  But what was the effect on humanity of a doctrine that painted us all as inherently evil beings?  FYI Jesus never said we are inherently evil.  He said we are the light of the world. (See Day 16).

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I think that if Christianity wants to presume to be our “eyes” then it’s time for a new pair of eschatological glasses.  That old monacle the church has been using has seen its day.  We can do better.

Gandhi said, I like your Christ.  I do not like your Christians.  They are so unlike your Christ. You know, Gandhi is right.  He was a smart man who actually read the Gospel and understood what Jesus was trying to say and do.  He was also a good judge of humanity and he saw the lack of correlation between what Jesus said and what most Christians say and do.  Jesus deserves better. He deserves to be viewed through a more accurate lens by the Christian community and consequently represented more appropriately by his followers.

Jesus wants us to have a positive view of the world and he wants us to do positive things.  He warns us in this scripture about the pitfall of fixating about the world’s problems because the darkness can become an obsession that overtakes us, corrupts us, and clouds our vision.  Jesus says we should be optimists, looking at God all the time.  We should not be pessimists, always looking for the devil in everything.

I think whatever lens we use should have a positive view of humanity because I know for a fact that God’s love for us has no limits.  Any other lens distorts the message of Jesus.  Any other lens is definitely cracked and should be relegated to the rubbish heap of history.

What does this scripture say to you?

Day 45: Matthew 6:19-21

Do not store up riches for yourselves here on earth, where moths and rust destroy, and robbers break in and steal.

Instead, store up riches for yourselves in heaven, where moths and rust cannot destroy, and robbers cannot break in and steal. For your heart will always be where your riches are.

[With these words Jesus continues to teach about the Law of Moses as the Sermon on the Mount continues.  He takes some of the most important topics and explains to his disciples, in specific terms, what it means to be “more faithful than the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees in doing what God requires” (See Day 23)].

I’ve heard this scripture taught as though we should spend our lives racking up points so we can get into heaven.  The image that comes to my mind is those old S&H green stamps books.  Fill up you book and you can redeem it for a television, or in this case – heaven.  A more timely image might be frequent flier rewards – rack up enough miles and get a free trip into heaven.

Jesus was a Jew, and while Jews do indeed believe in heaven, they don’t fixate on it like many of today’s Christians do.  They believe that God wants them experience the fullness of life here on earth.  So taking this into consideration I think the riches on earth that Jesus refers to are the tangible, material items we accumulate here and now.  I think the riches in heaven are the intangibles, like memories and good will, that we create and save in our hearts.

The material things of this world are possessions – money, real estate, investments, cars, clothes, furniture, etc. It takes a lot of time and effort to obtain and manage them.  There’s a false sense of security about them because you can always see them and touch them and you know right where they are located. The only problem is that these things can vanish in an instant.  Like the scripture says, they wear out and get stolen.  Or get lost in foreclose or bankruptcy, or destroyed by fire or flood.

In contrast, the riches you store in heaven are the life experiences that feed your soul.  They are the things that make your spirit soar.  They are the kind things that you do that resonate in the heavens and in other people’s hearts and minds.  They are the things that make great memories – like special friendships, adventures, good times with family and friends, acts of kindness, beautiful sights, moments of intimacy, laughter, healing, miracles, hugs, the blessings of both giving and receiving.  These are just a sampling of the kinds of things that are accumulated in the spiritual realm as we live our lives.  They are real, but you can’t touch them – it’s as though they are data out there in spiritual cyberspace and you can access them whenever you want.  No matter what happens in your life – even if you lose you material possessions, or your health, or your loved ones – no one can take these intangible treasures away from you.  They belong to you, and they will be the things that really matter as your life draws to a close.   And while I’m positive that when I die I won’t be able to take my house, I’m pretty sure I’ll be able to carry those memories of my time here on earth with me into heaven.  The positive things I’ve done and the good times I’ve shared with others will continue to resonate in the spirits of others here on earth.

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I’m Falling into Memories by Smashmethod

There was a man that I had to lay off at work and he was really angry about it.  A few years later he got brain cancer.  Shortly before he died he came in to work to see me and tell me how appreciative he was that we laid him off.  He was grateful because the layoff allowed him to enjoy a few years of the laid back retirement lifestyle before he got sick.  He said that if he’d worked until retirement he never would have known how wonderful it is not to have to go to work every day.  I guess he was happy that he had time to store up a few more riches in heaven before leaving the earth.

I once heard an elder of the church give a testimony about how her goal is to be so close to God in this life that when her time comes to cross over into heaven the transition would just be a tiny imperceptible shift instead of a big abrupt leap.  She wants to be sure her heart is already in heaven before her body fails her.  She doesn’t want any part of her heart left back here on earth clinging to things that are both tangible and temporary. Her heart and her treasure are already in heaven.

After I got laid off from my job of 31 years I had a decision to make.  Should I apply for jobs in downtown Chicago and spend the next 10 to 15 years working and commuting?   Or should I call it a day and retire?  It wasn’t an easy decision because I didn’t have the million dollars they say you need to retire early these days (but does any ordinary person ever accumulate that much money???).  My husband was a retired pastor so he was home all day.  After a few weeks off it became clear that I didn’t want to work anymore. I wanted to sleep late on winter mornings, take long walks with my husband and dogs, celebrate the first snowfall in front of a warm fire, eat lunch outdoors in the springtime, make more music, do volunteer work, set my own schedule, spend time with family, have long conversations with friends, pray more, take beautiful pictures, do a blog, things like that.  I decided that time together with my husband was a lot more important than the false sense of security I might get by having more money in the bank.  I realized that even if I forced my body to the confinement of that office and commuter train, my heart would always be back at home with my husband and my cute little dogs.  My heart would always be longing to do all the things that I couldn’t do if I worked.  So I followed my heart.

Time spent storing up riches in heaven……Priceless!!

What does this scripture say to you?

Day 44: Matthew 6:16-18

And when you fast, do not put on a sad face as the hypocrites do. They neglect their appearance so that everyone will see that they are fasting. I assure you, they have already been paid in full. When you go without food, wash your face and comb your hair, so that others cannot know that you are fasting—only your Father, who is unseen, will know. And your Father, who sees what you do in private, will reward you.

[This is a continuation of Jesus’ teaching about proper performance of religious duties.  He is explaining to his disciples how they can bemore faithful than the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees in doing what God requires.” (See Day 23)].

I must say I’ve never seen any flamboyant fasters like those Jesus describes, mainly because nobody fasts nowadays unless they are having surgery or desperately trying to lose weight.  According to the statistics we are one of the fattest countries in the world. I know I certainly love to eat.  It’s one of life’s pleasures and I can depend on it.  Food is a faithful friend.  Fasting requires self denial, and that’s not something Americans are very big on.  Oh, and by the way, Jesus wasn’t talking about fasting from television or Facebook or even red meat.  He was talking about good old traditional Jewish fasting.

Jews have two major fasting days where they fast for 24 hours, and either four or five minor fasts (depending on the congregation) that last from sunrise to sunset.  Jewish fasting means no food and no water.  Nothing.  Nada.  The kind of fast you have to do before you go in for surgery. Roman Catholics do a very watered down version of fasting on two days – Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.  On these days they are supposed to “eat less than they normally would,” and drinking is allowed – even alcohol.  They are also encouraged to abstain from meat on Fridays, especially during Lent.  Most Protestants don’t have any fasting days, although they often talk about abstaining from something during Lent.  Many Pentecostals fast when they are faced with particularly serious situations and they want to be sure they have God’s attention.

I was raised Methodist and I wasn’t aware of any fasting going on in my church even though the founder John Wesley recommended fasting.  Later as an adult I tried to do a modified Weslyan-style fast every Friday with no food until the evening meal.   Because I had to work I allowed myself to drink coffee; I really couldn’t work without it.

It was hard working and fasting at the same time.  Sometimes people would ask me if I was OK, not because I was putting on a show; it was because I was so slow and lethargic that they thought I was sick.  I didn’t tell anyone that I was fasting because I figured they would tell me to knock it off.  When it was time to break the fast I ate like a pig from dinner until bedtime.  A whole day’s worth of food in about 3 hours.

Although I did this for a couple of years it really didn’t seem to bring me any closer to God, and my driving on the way home was not as good as I would have liked it to be.  I eventually decided it was unproductive and possibly dangerous so I stopped.

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As a result of this blog I have become much more interested in Jewish tradtions and spiritual disciplines in general.  I recently obtained a book called Mudhouse Sabbath by Lauren Winner, a Jew who converted to Christianity.  The book has a chapter on her struggles with fasting.  In response to her concerns her rabbi advised her that the purpose of fasting is to remember that when you experience the discomfort and fog of physical hunger that you are really hungry for God.  She said that from then on every time she felt like cheating during a fast she would say to herself, “I am hungriest for God, my truest hunger is for God.”  This helped turn it around for her.

Armed with this advice maybe I will try fasting again and see what happens now that I no longer work full time.  Like practically everyone else in America I struggle to maintain appropriate eating habits.  Maybe it would be a good start to remind myself, when I go for those extra chips that I don’t need, that what I’m really hungriest for is God.  Maybe then I’ll be ready for fasting.  Sometimes you have to learn to walk before you can run.  Baby steps.

What does this scripture say to you?

Day 43: Matthew 6:14-15

If you forgive others the wrongs they have done to you, your Father in heaven will also forgive you.  But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive the wrongs you have done.

[This is a continuation of Jesus’ teaching about proper performance of religious duties.  He is explaining to his disciples how they can bemore faithful than the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees in doing what God requires.” (See Day 23)].

It’s safe to assume, based on this repetition, this reiteration, that forgiveness is what Jesus considers to be the most important part of the Lord’s Prayer (See Day 42).  “Forgive us the wrongs we have done, as we forgive the wrongs that others have done to us.”  Jesus says, “Ahem….in case you just glossed over that forgiveness part…here it is again.  And I’m going to keep saying it again and again until you get it, folks.”

I think if he were typing this out today he would put it in bold type, all caps.  He clearly wants to make sure we understand this truth.  You cannot receive what you are unwilling to give.

Jesus says that forgiveness must start with me.  I must kick it off.  It then flows from person to person and then from God back to us.  Like “the wave” at a sporting event.  When I hold a grudge I creates a blockage, and God’s love and forgiveness can’t break through.  I stop the wave. I block his love and forgiveness with my own bitterness and hubris.  I may have originally been wronged, but now I am the problem.

Jesus says that if I choose to dwell in the past and wallow in my own anger and misery, then I am not going to be in a proper frame of mind to receive the forgiveness, comfort, freedom, or any of the other good things that God freely offers. I am stuck.  I am blocked.  And it will continue get worse until I let it go.  It’s like an intestinal blockage – no movement, no improvement.

This is the way I see it…the Kingdom of God is like a party.  (I got this analogy from pastor and author Tony Campolo).  There is sharing, laughter, and good will.  There is joy and peace and happiness and fun.  Love flows like a river from God’s heart, along with forgiveness, freedom, and abundance.

When I try to step into the Kingdom party with unforgiveness or grudges or anger or selfishness I am not in a proper party mood. I am like a petulant child. I walk in the door and bring everybody down.  I am dour.  I am a party pooper.  I am a Debbie Downer. You know Debbie Downer, that Saturday Night Live character who has something bad to say about everything.  She’s the one who always shuts the party down.

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But unlike those Saturday Night Live parties that are ruined by Debbie Downer, the Kingdom party keeps going because there are many who are willing to love, extend mercy, and forgive as God wants us to do.  The party goes on with or without me.

I think Jesus came to tell us all how imperative it is for us to learn how to get past our hurts, stop living in the past, and get back into a party mood.  He tells us that we must do our part to keep the love that comes from God flowing, along with mercy and forgiveness.  Pass it on.  Also generosity, smiles, acts of kindness, good food, hope, laughter, and all of the other good things that life has to offer.  Keep it going. Forgive, move on, and party hearty.

My prayer right now:  Father God, show me where I’m blocking the flow.  I want to know. Please show me. 

Praise break: Party by Chris Tomlin – Enjoy!! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gy7G8VHWuXc

What does this scripture say to you?

Day 42: Matthew 6:9-13

This, then, is how you should pray: Our Father in heaven: May your holy name be honored; may your Kingdom come; may your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today the food we need. Forgive us the wrongs we have done, as we forgive the wrongs that others have done to us. Do not bring us to hard testing, but keep us safe from the Evil One.

[This is a continuation of Jesus’ teaching about proper performance of religious duties.  He is explaining to his disciples how they can bemore faithful than the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees in doing what God requires.” (See Day 23)].

So what does Jesus have in common with iconic fashion designer Coco Chanel?  Strange question?  Well, her words are the first thing that came into my mind as I read this scripture.  She said, “Always remove one thing before you leave the house. Less is more.”  Both Jesus and Coco had a great respect for simplicity.  Yes, they both agreed that less is more.  Keep it simple.  Keep it tasteful.  Edit it down.  (I keep telling myself that as I write this blog).

If you were raised Christian, you definitely know this one even though the words are a little different in the Good News version of the Bible.  It is, of course, the Lord’s Prayer.  After telling his disciples what people SHOULDN’T do when they pray, [specifically make a spectacle of ourselves (Day 40) or babble (Day 41)] he now tells them how they SHOULD pray.

He gives them a really great prayer.  Straightforward.  Salutation, praise, adoration, petition, confession, forgiveness, and protection.  All in a few simple phrases.

First, this is a communal prayer.  It is not a prayer for me or you.  It’s a prayer offered by those in the faith community on behalf of and for the benefit of everyone.

Our Father in Heaven… We identify who we are praying to; we name the one with whom we long to connect spirit to spirit.  Our Father – not some far away, aloof, judgmental dictator.  Our Father – the one who loves us and cares for us and made us in his image out of the good earth.  Our Father -who is not a person but a spirit who dwells in the spiritual world called heaven which is both far away, and yet as intimate as the presence of the Holy Spirit. Our Father (not My Father), the head of the household that includes all of the people of the earth.

My your holy name be honored….We are then invited to remember that God’s name is holy because he himself is holy, set apart, high and lifted up, perfect and without flaw.  He must not be taken for granted as though he is just an ordinary father.

May your Kingdom come, May your will be done on earth as it is in heaven…Next, we affirm the mission of Jesus – to prepare for the Kingdom of God here on earth.  Remember Day 5?  He says the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!  He wants all the earth to get ready!  He wants us to make God’s plans our plans.  When we pray these words we submit to doing things his way, which is not necessarily the way that the world, or the church, or our friends, our government, or our instincts tell us to do them.

Give us today the food we need….We admit that we are not self-sufficient.  We recognize that we have needs and only God can satisfy them.  Even the most basic things like bread that we think we are making ourselves come from God.  It all belongs to God and flows to us from his generous hand.

Forgive us the wrongs we have done, as we forgive the wrongs that others have done to us…..Once again Jesus says again that we cannot receive what we are unwilling to give. (See Days 11 and 35).  We are forgiven only when we forgive.  We receive mercy only to the degree that we extend it.  Jesus wants to firmly plant this principle in our hearts so that it will take root and bear fruit.

Do not bring us to hard testing, but keep us safe from the Evil OneFinally we ask God to protect us from testing (temptation) and the power of evil.  God and God alone can deliver a person from evil.  We can turn away from it and hold it off, but only God can banish it.  We are only safe from evil when we are under the shadow of God’s wings, when we are walking on the safe path that he has prepared for us.

In the tradition of the church this prayer usually ends with a benediction, “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever.”  A nice ending, even if it’s not the words of Jesus.  I think he’d approve.

There it is.  A clean concise prayer with no wasted words.  Full of so much meaning that you can meditate on it every day for a lifetime.  It is an inherently Jewish prayer that focuses on God and his will for all humanity. This prayer challenges our faith and encourages us to probe the depths of our hearts.  What does it mean that God wants us to think of him as our Father? Where is heaven?  What does it mean to be holy?  Do we understand what it is to honor his holiness? What can we do to help build God’s kingdom?  What are we doing well; what can we do better?  Do I need to ask for forgiveness for anything; is there someone I need to forgive?  Am I grateful for all that God has given me today?  Do I appreciate it?  Is there something someone else needs that I can provide?  When has God saved me from the power of evil in my life?  Am I entering into his protection by living out of God’s truth?

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More than just a bunch of words, it’s a perfect prayer; a prayer for the ages.  A prayer that reminds us that when it comes to matters of faith, “Less is more.”  It’s a prayer as beautiful and luminous and genuine as the pearls that Coco Chanel preferred.  Pearls of wisdom.  It’s a prayer with so much truth in it that it makes as much sense today as it did 2000 years ago.  It is a prayer to be studied, a prayer of infinite depth.  A prayer worth repeating until the Kingdom of Heaven is established here on earth.  I guess when that happens God will give us a new one.

What does this scripture say to you?

Day 41: Matthew 6:7-8

When you pray, do not use a lot of meaningless words, as the pagans do, who think that their gods will hear them because their prayers are long. Do not be like them. Your Father already knows what you need before you ask him.

[This is a continuation of Jesus’ teaching about proper performance of religious duties.  He is explaining to his disciples how they can bemore faithful than the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees in doing what God requires.” (See Day 23)].

When I initially read this scripture I wondered exactly what kind of prayer Jesus is talking about here.  I looked around a little and didn’t get much clarification.  The actual word is battalogein, an obscure word that isn’t used anywhere else in the Bible.  It means to “stammer” or “babble.”  The prayers Jesus is referring to may also have been runes, incantations, magic spells, or other hocus-pocus type utterings that we today would associate with “witchcraft.”  Or just jibberish.  Who knows?

Based on the last sentence in this scripture, it seems that the pagans were praying for their gods to satisfy their needs.  They were spending a lot of time vocalizing in attempt to get the gods to do something for them.  Jesus says that words aren’t that important because our Father (term of endearment noted) already knows what we need.  It seems that Jesus is saying that primary purpose of prayer is not to get things or gain control over our destiny.  There is a deeper purpose.

Yesterday (Day 40) I learned that Jewish prayer is very structured with an emphasis on traditional prayers that are used throughout the day to remind them of God’s omnipresence and to foster a sense of awareness regarding all their thoughts and actions.  In other words, prayer keeps them accountable to God.  To quote again from the website http://www.jewfaq.org/prayer.htm:  “The most important part of any Jewish prayer, whether it be a prayer of petition, of thanksgiving, of praise of G-d, or of confession, is the introspection it provides, the moment that we spend looking inside ourselves, seeing our role in the universe and our relationship to G-d.”  While Jews do indeed have prayers of petition, the main purpose of all prayer is to strengthen one’s connection with God.

Going back to the first sentence, Jesus says that our prayers should have meaning.  We should know what we are saying.  Jewish prayers are full of meaning and tradition.  Jews don’t just recite these prayers – they study, reflect on, and immerse themselves in these traditional prayers that elevate God and remind them of his goodness.  As followers of Jesus I think we could be a lot more intentional and focused about our prayer lives.  We have a lot to learn from the Jews.

Jews also believe that prayer requires preparation, a certain mindset: “The mindset for prayer is referred to as kavanah, which is generally translated as “concentration” or “intent.” The minimum level of kavanah is an awareness that one is speaking to G-d and an intention to fulfill the obligation to pray. If you do not have this minimal level of kavanah, then you are not praying; you are merely reading. In addition, it is preferred that you have a mind free from other thoughts, that you know and understand what you are praying about and that you think about the meaning of the prayer” (http://www.jewfaq.org/prayer.htm).

Many Jews use singing and rocking back and forth while they repeat precious prayers and scriptures that they have committed to memory to help them enter into the kavanah mindset.  It is then that God meets them and speaks to them.

To Jesus, prayer wasn’t just saying words.  Jewish prayer is a meditative, transcendent experience.  It’s spiritual.  You don’t just phone in your requests and move on unchanged.

One of the first things that pops into my mind when I read this is, “What would Jesus think about tongues?”  Speaking in other tongues (unknown foreign languages) was a manifestation of the Holy Spirit in the early church that facilitated communication among people who could not otherwise understand each other.  These days “tongues” also refers to “prayer language,” a manifestation of the 20th century charismatic movement.  Charismatic churches encourage people to “ask God to give them the gift of tongues”, which is usually a prayer language, not a known language.  I have a prayer language. I use it when I don’t know what to pray.  It’s not a foreign language, just something I do in place of extemporaneous prayer when I don’t know exactly how to pray.  Sometimes it feels like English gets in the way of connecting with God and this prayer language seems to help.

But reading this scripture, I have to question this practice because Jesus doesn’t approve of babbling.  He thinks we can do better than that.  I think what we call a prayer language may indeed be babbling.  Maybe I don’t really need a prayer language.  Maybe God has already given us a common prayer language. (No, not Latin).  It’s the same one Jesus used when he prayed – Hebrew.  (Yes I know Jesus spoke Aramaic, but he certainly prayed in Hebrew like all other Jews).  I’ve decided on the basis of this scripture I’m going to learn a couple of good prayers in Hebrew and I will use them when I don’t know what to pray.

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I’m going to start with the opening verses of the Shema, a prayer that is used in for both morning and evening Jewish prayer.  It starts like this:

Sh’ma Yis’ra’eil Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad.

(Hear, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One).

 Barukh sheim k’vod malkhuto l’olam va’ed.

(Blessed be the Name of His glorious kingdom for ever and ever).

 V’ahav’ta eit Adonai Elohekha b’khol l’vav’kha uv’khol naf’sh’kha uv’khol m’odekha.

(And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and

 with all your soul and with all your might).

This is usually the first scripture a Jewish child learns.  It would have been the first one that Jesus learned.  It seems like an appropriate place to start.  I’m sure my Hebrew will be so bad that no Jew would ever be able to understand me.  It might be tongues to them, but it will have meaning to me.  It’s a prayer that Jews say gets the love flowing. It gets their kavanah going.  It opens their heart to heaven.  Hopefully it will do the same for me.  It certainly seems like a good prayer for when you don’t know what to pray.  Any time, really.

I’m going to give it a try and see what happens.  In light of what Jesus says, it makes more sense than praying with meaningless words.  Hopefully praying in the prayer language of Abraham, Isaac, Joseph, Moses, Samuel, David, Isaiah, Daniel, and Jesus will take my prayer life to a whole new level.  Those who know me know that I already have both the singing and the rocking part down pat.

What does this scripture say to you?

Day 40: Matthew 6:5-6

When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites! They love to stand up and pray in the houses of worship and on the street corners, so that everyone will see them. I assure you, they have already been paid in full.  But when you pray, go to your room, close the door, and pray to your Father, who is unseen. And your Father, who sees what you do in private, will reward you.

[This is a continuation of Jesus’ teaching about proper performance of religious duties.  He is explaining to his disciples how they can bemore faithful than the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees in doing what God requires.” (See Day 23)].

PRAYER: My Personal Experience I love to pray and I’ve had the privilege of praying with a lot of people from different cultures, traditions, and faith backgrounds. Of course I pray privately, but I have also been very blessed by the many experiences I’ve had with extemporaneous prayer shared in small groups and other public settings.

I remember one man I knew who prayed in French. I couldn’t understand a word he said but the presence of God was heavy when he prayed.  There was another woman who came to our evening prayer meetings.  She was always under the influence of something or other and could barely talk.  But when it was time to pray the words poured out of her mouth – prayers from the heart of God about the suffering and the beauty of life.  There was another woman whose prayers were so encouraging and powerful that they sent my spirit soaring.  One night at a prayer meeting someone stood up and started singing.  It was prophetic prayer and it sent chills up my spine and tears down my face.

For many years a group of us walked around the neighborhood quietly praying for peace and love in every home.  We would do this on Tuesday night, and Sunday would bring people who lived along that week’s route who said they suddenly felt a strong urge to visit our church. There was a man in our church who always prayed for John and I referring to us as “our talented pastor and his equally talented wife.” We always looked forward to that blessing.  And I’ll never forget those crazy prayer ministry sessions at the Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship. Life-changing! Image I lead a prayer group at my church.  Most of the time is spent using “common prayers” published by my denomination, intermixed with specifics related to our own church.  Near the end of the session there is a short time for extemporaneous prayer or sharing, but most of the people talk rather than pray during this time.  We share whatever comes into our minds during the prayer time in a conversational manner.  Then, we end up with the Lord’s Prayer.  This seems to work well for us.

PRAYER: The Jewish Experience Because Jesus was a Jew, I thought it would be interesting to explore what Jewish prayer looks like so I could get a better perspective on this scripture and reflect on  what else he might find offensive in terms of today’s prayer practices.  Following is a summary of the Jewish perspective on prayer from http://www.jewfaq.org/prayer.htm:

“The Hebrew word for prayer is tefilah. It is derived from the root Pe-Lamed-Lamed and the word l’hitpalel, meaning to judge oneself. This surprising word origin provides insight into the purpose of Jewish prayer. The most important part of any Jewish prayer, whether it be a prayer of petition, of thanksgiving, of praise of G-d, or of confession, is the introspection it provides, the moment that we spend looking inside ourselves, seeing our role in the universe and our relationship to G-d. Observant Jews are constantly reminded of G-d’-s presence and of our relationship with G-d, because we are continually praying to Him. Our first thought in the morning, even before we get out of bed, is a prayer thanking G-d for returning our souls to us. There are prayers to be recited before enjoying any material pleasure, such as eating or wearing new clothes; prayers to recite before performing any mitzvah (commandment), such as washing hands or lighting candles; prayers to recite upon seeing anything unusual, such as a king, a rainbow, or the site of a great tragedy; prayers to recite whenever some good or bad thing happens; and prayers to recite before going to bed at night. All of these prayers are in addition to formal prayer services, which are performed three times a day every weekday and additional times on shabbat and festivals.”

Prayer is extremely important to the Jews.  It’s about connecting with God every minute of every day.  It’s disciplined and focused. It’s about submitting to God and acknowledging his presence in everything.  It’s not about asking for stuff.  It’s not about asking for healing.  It’s not about asking for strength or courage.  It’s not about us.  To Jews, prayer is about God. Period. Image  When Prayers Go Bad In this scripture Jesus describes one of the ways that he has seen prayers go off the rails.  What comes to mind when I think about this scripture is some of the problems I’ve run into when leading or participating in group prayer. I have noticed that there are certain patterns of prayer are not particularly helpful.  In fact they can be downright hurtful and off-putting. What follows is a sort of tongue-in-cheek thing; red flags that prayer is going astray; things that Jesus might not be crazy about.  These descriptions just kind of came into my mind so hey, what the heck, I’m sharing them.

Oratorical Prayer – Speeches in the disguise of prayer.  People gifted in public speaking are sometimes guilty of going on and on just because they are good at it and they enjoy letting the words have their way.  Often interrupted by snoring.

Performance Prayer – These prayers are those done for dramatic effect.  They may involve a lot of changes in vocal tone, yelling followed by whispering, gesticulating, singing, etc.  Applause is always appreciated.

Cathartic Prayer – Starts with pleading, moves into crying, ends in screaming.  Sometimes while writhing on the floor.  Or, angry rants.  All inappropriate.

Affected Prayer – When a person’s vocal tone and pronunciation completely change when they start to pray, it can be very distracting.  Also includes youth group prayers that include a phrase like “Father God” after every 2 or 3 words.

Infirmity Prayer – Long lists of sick people with gory details about what’s wrong with each of them.  Sometimes people are forced to leave the room because they feel nauseous or lightheaded.  The tone is gloomy and hopeless.

Egocentric Prayer – ….me, me, me, me…….

Royal Prayer of Confession – Confessing for other people using the royal “we” – we don’t pray enough, we don’t love enough, we don’t give enough, etc.  People should search their own hearts and confess their own sins.

Name It & Claim It PrayerOrdering God around and telling him what to do. Usually a command for money or other material thing.

Educational Prayer – Prayers that are really conceived out of a need to tell others in the group what to think.

Manipulative Prayer – Prayers that are really conceived out of a need to tell others in the group what to feel or to enlist their aid in performing a task.  Bossy prayer.

Patriotic Prayer – These prayers are thinly veiled patriotic speeches.  They involve flag-waving, lots of talk about our military might and how we are the greatest and strongest country on earth, judgments about elected officials (pro or con), death to our enemies, etc.  Always makes me want to click my heels and salute.

Soulish Prayer – These prayers are thinly veiled criticism of others.  “Oh Father God, please help pastor so-and-so.  Help him not to be so boring and mean.  Help him learn to seek your heart, Lord.  Please forgive him for not visiting me in the hospital…”

OK.  There it is. I got it out.  Those of you who don’t pray regularly in groups are probably offended, but if you’ve had a lot of experience with group prayer you are laughing because you know exactly what I’m talking about. As for me, I tend toward Educational or Manipulative Prayer when I go off the rails.  Bossy. That’s the way I roll.

Given how important prayer is the Jews, it’s easy to see why Jesus would be very upset when “prayer goes bad.”  So if we notice that we are doing any of those things I listed when we are praying, we should do as Jesus suggests.  Go back to the intimacy of our homes and reconnect with God in silence.  Then start adding a few words to start up the conversation – plain words, nothing fancy. We might want to find a book of common prayers.  The Episcopalians and Lutherans have great common prayers.  Of course Jewish prayers are super.  These carefully crafted prayers can help us get centered and remember what prayer’s all about.

Just remember that even a well written prayer can go bad if our heart’s not in the right place.  If you are self-conscious or have a tendency to perform, it may be that praying in public is something that you should leave to others.  It’s never a mistake to accept our limitations.  Because the bottom line is that reward from our Father that Jesus mentions – a word or a touch from the God of the universe in whom we live and move and have our being!!  It’s imperative that we keep this goal in mind.

What does this scripture say to you?