Saturday, August 15, 2015

Appreciating the Lord's Prayer

Prayer is at the core of Christianity.  It can mean different  things to different people.  Fundamentally, however, it is our opportunity to communicate with God.

I have to admit that I am rather poor at praying.  I don't do it very often outside of Church, and often struggle for what to say when I do.  It got me thinking about the Lord's Prayer, which is often held up as an example of what Jesus gave us to say when we prayed.  Who better than Jesus to explain how to pray?

Since I had to memorize it as a child, I often recited without giving much thought to the meaning behind the words. But given its importance, I think it worth evaluating the meaning of each line.

The following comes from Matthew 6:7-15

“And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Pray then like this:

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. 
Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread, 
and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses." (ESV).

I have obviously played with the fonts a little here, enlarging and italicizing the passages that we use as the prayer itself.

Luke also lists the Lord's Prayer in an abbreviated form:

"Now Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” And he said to them, “When you pray, say:

“Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread,
and forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us.
And lead us not into temptation.”

Luke 11:1-4 (ESV)

It can be difficult to understand why the prayer appears in such different forms in books by two different Gospel writers.  But that just shows how imperfectly much of this may have been recorded after being passed along in an oral tradition for some period of time.

In my analysis, I will be using Matthew's version as it is the longer one with which most of us are familiar.

"Our Father in heaven" We are praying to God the father who reigns in heaven.  We do not need to pray to the saints or even Jesus to intercede with the father.  We can speak directly with God, whom we were told in the previous line, knows what we need before we even ask.  Our prayer is an attempt to communicate directly with God the Father.  God the Father is in heaven.  His reign on Earth is limited by sin, and denies us the direct presence of God in our lives.  Despite that direct presence, he hears our prayers.

"hallowed be your name."  God's name is holy and revered.  It is not to be used lightly or in vain as the Second Commandment instructs (or Third Commandment depending your religion divides them).  While we may speak with God, we should not forget to remain in awe of him.  He is not simply a magic genie to do our bidding or grant wishes.  He is our master.  We are not his.

"Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven."  As Christians, we wait for the Second Coming, when God will return to earth, do battle with evil and banish it from the Earth.  We will once again live in God's Kingdom, free from the pains of sin.  Frequently, when I try to pray, I will ask God for something I want, or to relieve some pain or difficulty for me or someone I love.  But the more I pray, I begin to think that the want, the pain, the difficulty may be a greater part of some plan that God has.  In the end, if there can be some relief great, but I want God's will to be done, even if it involves some apparent hardship.

"Give us this day our daily bread,"  We pray that God will provide us with the necessities of food to get through each day.  We realize that we are wholly dependent on the Lord to meet all of our basic needs each day.

"and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors."  I have seen "debts" translated as "sins" or "trespasses".  I understand it as asking God's forgiveness for our sin, for anything we have done wrong, for anything that could be held against us in judgment.  Likewise, we must do the same for others.  Just as we ask to be forgiven, whether or not we deserve it, we must also be willing to forgive others who have done us wrong, whether or not we think they deserve it.  Forgiveness is one of the most difficult demands of Christians, and not often entirely understood.  We expect that God will forgive us, without demanding we pay a price or punishment to compensate for our wrongs.  We must also offer that forgiveness to others who have wronged us.  We should not seek revenge or even wish them punishment.  We continue to love them and hope that they can correct whatever caused them to sin.

"And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil."  Our world is full of temptations to sin.  We must constantly strive to do what God wants us to do and to avoid doing evil.  This is not to say we will never sin, we will.  That we why we must seek God's forgiveness.  But when we think or do the wrong thing, we must recognize that as a shortcoming or weakness, not try to justify to ourselves that our sin is somehow acceptable to God.  While we will sometimes stray from the path of righteousness, we need to try to get back on the path when we go astray.  We want to put our lives on a path toward God and away from evil.

Many people may conclude the prayer with some translation of a line like "For yours in the Kingdom, the power, and the glory, now and forever, amen."  In some translations, this line can even appear in Matthews version of the Lord's Prayer.  This line, known as the doxology, does not appear in most biblical translations.  It was apparently added by some early Churches in the eastern part of the Roman Empire.  Some Greek scribes added it to the end of the prayer listed in the Gospel of Matthew, although the evidence is pretty clear that this was a later addition and not part of the original.

Early translators of the English Bible often included the doxology, which then became added to the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, where it remains today.  As such, it has become a common ending for many English speaking Protestant sects.  Since I accept that it was not a part of the original, I don't use it myself. If Jesus gave us the original, it should not need embellishment.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Parable of the Dead Baby Rat

Unlike some of my other Blogs, I have tried not to post to this one unless I feel truly inspired. Unfortunately, that has not happened very often, which is why there are so few posts here.  I have also tried to stay focused on Biblical instruction rather than my own views.  But today is an exception to that rule.  Today's post is a reflection on a personal experience I had years ago and how it applies to my understanding of God in our world.

About 20 years ago I was walking from my home to a train station on a nice spring day.  On the sidewalk, I saw what appeared to be a newborn rat.  It was hairless, still had its eyes closed and was screaming for its mother (nowhere in site).   Sure, adult rats seems disgusting to most of us and are considered vermin.  But thinking about a helpless baby screaming for its mother, as it slowly died of exposure/starvation/dehydration has got to pull on the heartstrings of most of us.  It sure did for me.

I paused for moment, but realized there was little I could do.  First, it was a rat out in the wild.  Who knows what disease it may have?  Second, I was late for work.  I did not have time to provide any assistance.  Third, even if I was so inclined, I had no idea what I could do for the creature.

I figured, perhaps my walking along the sidewalk had scared away the mother who would return after I left.  So I continued on to work and soon forgot about the matter.  On my way home that evening, I saw that the mother had not come back.  The baby had died on the sidewalk.  Saddened, I brushed the body off the sidewalk into the grass nearby and continued home.

I returned home then to find a baby squirrel unattended in the front yard of my home.  Again, the same concerns that confronted me that morning came back again.  It's a wild animal, don't mess with it.  I don't really have the time or skill to take care of a baby rodent.  But my recent experience with the rat made me rethink my feelings. Could I really just watch another baby die without doing anything?

Considering what to do, I went inside for a while, hoping the mother would return, but kept an eye on the baby squirrel.  The mother never did return as the sun began to set. So, I brought it in the house and put it in a shoe box with tissues.  My wife contacted a relative who was involved in animal rescue, who advised us to buy some kind of animal formula that could be fed to the baby.  He seemed to thrive over time.  We eventually weened him off formula and started him on nuts and fruits.  He grew and continued to develop.

I'm not sure whether it was something we did or some pre-existing condition that caused the mother to kick him out in the first place, but our squirrel was disabled.   He behaved as if he had some squirrel form of cerebral palsy.  He could only seem to walk with great difficulty.  He had tremors and was always very weak.  By this time, we had become emotionally invested in him and realized he could never be released into the wild.  So, he became a permanent pet.  We named him Scratches.  He loved to cuddle up on my lap and snack on berries.  We bought him a cage and he became part of the family.

That said, I never recommend anyone have a squirrel as a pet.  He chewed on everything.  His claws became very sharp as an adult (hence his name) and he required an incredible amount of care.  But we took care of him because, once having taking responsibility for him, we could not bear to release him to certain death or have him put down.  He lived with us for 7-8 years until he finally passed away.  Despite being a pain to care for, I still cherish his memory and miss him, as I do other former pets.

During the time he was with us, I developed an interest in squirrels more generally.  My wife and I became involved with the local nature center near our home and ended up adopting dozens of baby squirrels over the years.  Unlike Scratches, these squirrels were perfectly healthy.  They just needed a few weeks of care and formula.  We would start them off in a box with a heating pad.  Eventually they would move to a cage on the back porch.  When we thought they were ready, we would open the cage and allow them to venture out.  Typically, they would wander around the porch for a few days, then eventually wander out into the large forested area in our back yard.  They would come back to the cage to sleep.  After a couple of weeks, they would stop coming back completely and would take up residence as wild squirrels in our yard.  Despite our early intervention, they developed a healthy fear of humans and almost never came back to the house once they had acclimated to the outdoors.

Through our work with squirrels, my wife became good friends with one of the people who ran the wildlife center.  They were close for many years until she later passed away from cancer.  Before she passed away, my wife encouraged her to reconnect with her estranged children, which thankfully she did before she passed.  This connection was a very meaningful event to everyone involved.  I don't want to get into too much detail, but if you have ever had a serious rupture with a close family member and then were able to reconcile, you might understand.

So where am I going with all of this?  If you stuck with my ramblings this far, I'll get to my point.

Twenty years ago, there was a baby rat lying on the sidewalk who lived in this world for only a few hours.  He never opened his eyes nor did anything in this world other than lie on a sidewalk, scream and die.  Yet he had an impact on my life that caused me to take in another creature, who caused me to take care of even more baby creatures over the years.  That led to our involvement in the nature center, my wife's friendship with the worker there and her encouragement to get her to make up with her children before she died.  It is amazing to me to think that a baby rat with only a few hours of life could have such a wide ranging indirect impact on so many others.

It causes me to wonder how many ways we have an impact on others.  An offhand comment or a seemingly insignificant act can trigger a chain of events that eventually lead to something completely unforeseen.  We sometimes do something we know is wrong because it's "no big deal" or "it's not really going to hurt anyone". But we really don't know the indirect impact of what we do.  Similarly, an act of kindness, love, or charity can have consequences far beyond what any of us might foresee.

I've tried to come up with a way to tie this into a biblical teaching.  But I have not found anything that really ties in directly to unintended consequences.  But it does lead me to the idea found in the Bible that we must sometimes trust in God rather than ourselves, since we mortals cannot always see the big picture.

It is why the prophet Isaiah wrote: "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.  For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts."  Isaiah 55:8-9 (ESV).

It is why Proverbs tells us "Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.  In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil. Proverbs 3:5-7 (ESV).

We often find that we are tempted to follow our own will.  But that is an act of pride. We might justify something in our own mind with our limited understanding. We might even look to other people to justify things we want to do.  But we are not called to follow our own will, or even those of the people around us.  We are called to follow God's will, since God understands all.  "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect."  Romans 12:2 (ESV).

Saturday, June 6, 2015

White Lies

There are a great many sins that keep us from God.  Some are easier than others to avoid.  It's relatively easy not to commit murder or adultery.  Those things usually don't happen without a great deal of planning and preparation, which gives one time to reflect and prevent it from happening.

But there are other sins that seem to come more easily, at least to me.  Lying is one of these. I think I'm a fairly honest person.  But I'm prone to "white lies" on a pretty regular basis.  It may be telling one of my children that something they did was impressive, when maybe I was not really impressed.  It could be using a fake name or email address on a web account so that I don't get hammered with marketing from that company.

I probably also tell worse and more self-serving lies from time to time.  I don't want readers to think a "white lie" is the worst thing I've ever done, far from it.  But white lies are what I want to focus on here since we sometimes consider them not a big deal, or even a good thing to spare the feelings of others.

Many times we might be condemned for being brutally honest.  If we tell someone that what they are doing is sinful, we are told not to be judgmental.  There is a point here.  A critical comment, especially to someone we do not know very well and with whom we do not already have a close relationship can often divide us from that person and prevent us from developing the loving interpersonal relationships that I believe God calls us to have with others.  It has taken me a long time, and probably still an ongoing process, for me to know when it is appropriate to offer my honest opinion and when to remain silent.  But what I try very hard not to do is to say something I don't believe just because it is what I know that person wants to hear.

White lies are convenient in the short term but can cause longer term problems.  I knew a person who went to have dinner at his girlfriend's family home for the first time.  The mother served lamb and he raved about how wonderful it was.  In later visits, the mother continued to serve lamb because of how much he enjoyed it.  The problem is, he hated lamb but was trying to be polite.  Eventually he had to break down and confess or be subject to continued lamb dinners.

Now in writing that last paragraph, I just told you a lie.  I did not intend to lie as I wrote it, but I did for convenience sake.  I almost deleted the paragraph, but decided to leave it as is and discuss what I had just done.  I didn't know any such person.  This is a story my stepfather once told me about someone he said he knew.  I \made it a person I knew myself just to save an extra few words in the sentence.  That is how easy it is to be dishonest.

Now why does that matter?  Who cares if I really knew this person or not?  The problem goes back to the initial point I was going to make with the lamb story.  At some point, when the truth comes out, it creates separation between people.  That mother will never know if that person ever really liked something she made at a later time, or whether he was just saying so to be polite again. If he ever complemented her on anything else, she could never be certain of his true feelings.  A point of division, perhaps a minor one, but still a division, has been created between these two people.

I recently read the book The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom, a woman who participated in the Dutch resistance during WWII.  The story was impressive for many reasons, but the point at hand was how I was struck by her struggle to lie to the Nazis about her work hiding Jews.  Most of us would not even think twice about such lies.  Telling a lie versus letting innocent people be killed seems like a no-brainer.  But this something they had to struggle with.  Eventually they decided they would lie (and had to practice at it) but the fact that they even had to struggle with the idea of doing even a minor wrong in the face of such great evil impressed me.

The mere existence of lies increases division among people.  It creates distrust.  It sows division and doubt.  A lie, even to be kind or for noble reasons, makes the hearer unable to accept your word as an honest expression of your views.  It forces them to question whether you are expressing yourself honestly or just trying to be kind.  That division between people limits our ability to come together in true fellowship.

There are often good rationalizations about why it is right to lie.  Clearly the lies told by Ms. Ten Boom and others in the Dutch resistance to prevent murder and suffering make a good case.  It would have felt rather self indulgent for them to tell the Nazis the truth and allow other innocent victims to suffer the consequences.

I cannot say I would not lie in a similar situation.  I probably do lie for much more selfish or lazy reasons.  But that does not make it right.  It simply means that we who live in a sinful world "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." Romans 3:23.  We don't always know the right thing to do in every situation.  I certainly don't have all the answers.  But I do see the danger in rationalizing such actions and not seeing that there is harm in them.

We should strive to be open and honest with each other, even if we do not always live up to that ideal It is why Jesus told us:  "Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil." Matthew 5:37.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Helping the Poor

I started this blog nearly two years ago, thinking I might add to it regularly. That clearly has not been the case. I'll try again today and see if I can start getting this going.

The main focus of my religious journey over the last couple of years has been the idea of helping the poor. I think few would argue that a critical component of Christianity, like most other religions is helping the poor and helpless. But exactly how and why helping the poor is important is a more complex question.

One simple answer is that we should do unto others as we would have them do to us. If we were poor and needed help, we would want others to help us, so if we find ourselves in a position to help those in need, we should.

But Christianity also tells us that material possession is not important for anyone. In fact, the Bible discusses in detail how material possession can keep us away from God rather than helping us get closer to him (Luke 18:22-24). Therefore, might it be a disservice to others by trying to supply their material needs before focusing on their spiritual ones.

Of course, this line of thought can lead to the perverse idea that we should not give charitably to the poor since giving them more material possessions does nothing to help bring them to God, and may even get in the way of it. Therefore, I should keep all my stuff in order to protect others from the dangers of wealth. Clearly this is wrong since our first responsibility is to make sure we ourselves are behaving righteously in God's sight. If that material wealth is a burden that could harm our relationship with God, we should dump it right away.

A more common trap for many Christians seems to be using wealth as leverage over others. We see this in many foreign missions as well as religiously based anti-poverty programs such as soup kitchens or homeless services. I don't mean to demean the motivations of missionaries or others doing these things. It is quite possible these well intentioned people even consider the situation as I am about to describe it, but the actions often seem to support this way of thinking. That is, as a Christian with some material assets, I will use those assets as a lure to get you poor people to accept my religious ideas as a condition of getting my material help.

Sometimes it is very blatant, compelling people receiving food, shelter, or other services to participate in prayer, bible readings, or religious services as a condition of getting the help. Other times, while not mandatory, there is coercive pressure to participate. I certainly understand the temptation to use the enticement to bring people to the word of God, but I think it undermines the notion of true Christian Charity. It gives the false notion that there is material reward in this world for accepting the Word, rather than the focus on our eternal reward. Jesus brought no material benefits when he came to Earth. Similarly, when he commissioned his disciples to go out, with no gold or silver, or even extra clothes (Matt. 10:9-10). Material goods were only an impediment to spreading the Word.

Rather, charitable giving is not really primarily designed to benefit the recipient. It's true reward is for the giver. I will admit I am highly persuaded by the teachings of Mother Teresa on this issue. In her books, she discusses in great detail the importance of giving for the spiritual growth of the giver. She did not want to accept large checks from donors, even though they might do a lot of good for the material needs of those around her. She insisted the donor come and participate personally in the sharing of the wealth. This was critical to the purpose of giving as it helped the giver to grow spiritually.

Charitable giving must not only be personal, but it must be unconditional. Many people want to give "where it will do the most good." To me, this also misses the point. Christian giving is not about making this world materially better. It is about spreading the Kingdom of God through a true love for our neighbor.

Think of it this way. If you had a close friend or family member who needed help, you would probably help them to the point of considerable self-sacrifice, even though there might be many others who might benefit more from the resources you could provide. You are acting on your love for this person and a desire to help them. As a Christian, we are called to love even complete strangers or those who hate us with the same level of love that we might show that friend or family member.

I'll be the first to admit that I have trouble living up to this ideal. It is easy to try to salve one's conscience by giving a few dollars to a beggar or writing a check for some far off charity. But I have to ask myself, is that just a way of buying off the fact that I want to keep much of my hard earned money and not want to involve myself in the many problems of strangers? If we go down this road, we see it easy to end up living in near poverty ourselves, giving everything we have to help others and still it never being enough to end or even alleviate much of the suffering. That seems to be the call of true Christianity. We find it praiseworthy when others like Mother Teresa live that way, although I am first to admit I have deep concerns about whether I could live like that. Perhaps love of my possessions is just holding me back.

That said, I think it is important that the act of giving be the primary focus. It is an act indicating one's Christian compassion, not primarily focused on improving the public good. The story of the woman who perfumes Jesus' feet is a good example of this. She is criticized for wasting perfume that could have been sold and the money used to care for many poor people. Jesus rebukes this criticism and commends the woman (Mark 14:3-9). I take from this passage that any act of love done for with good motives is commendable, even if it is not an efficient use of resources. When we receive God's love, we accept that it is not because we "deserve" it. Rather, we accept it as a gift that we have been given despite our many shortcomings. When we turn around to share love with our neighbor's shouldn't we strive to show that same unconditional love to them?

Monday, September 1, 2008


I am creating this Blog primarily for myself, to examine my view of God and religion. If anyone else finds it useful in their search for a higher truth, I'm glad it could help. If anyone cares to engage in a discussion about these issues, I welcome the conversation.

I am not a minister or religious leader of any sort. I am in my 40's, married with two children, and live a middle class life. I was raised Catholic but have been attending a nondemoninational protestent Church for the past few years. I have studied my own and other religions in high school and college (although it was not my major) and have done extensive reading of many religious writings by historical figures. My focus has been on Christianity, but I have read the texts from many other major religions as well. I have also read many texts critical of religion.

Although I come from a Christian background and am drawn in that direction, I cannot say I accept without reservation all of the principles that underpin Christianity. I don't know if my doubts raise to agnoticism, but I'm probably at least close to that. Still I feel drawn to a faith in God as I see what it has done for many other people. I would like to feel that sort of a relationship with God, but I am not there.

I guess I accept that there is some all powerful force that controls the universe. Its power and intelligence is beyond our comprehension, but I cannot accept the athiest view that all existence comes from random occurences. What I hope to do is add thoughts from time to time on how my search for the truth of God is going. I will discuss other views that appeal to me or which I find objecitonable.

We shall see if this leads anywhere.