On Earth–All of It: A Lenten Post

And when you pray, pray like this: “. . .Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

How many times have we prayed those words, with varying degrees of sincerity? Those who worship in congregations given to greater use of forms for prayer have said them more frequently than those in supposedly “free” church congregations. But we all know them. This midweek Lenten post focuses on repentance in prayer. Not repenting as a part of our prayer, which is surely to be done, and not repenting for not praying more than we do, but for praying unfaithfully. What is meant by that?

As I have listened to countless calls for prayer requests, the response is almost always the same, no matter where one goes, especially but not exclusively in the evangelical world. Someone’s illness, someone’s surgery, perhaps a bereavement, and maybe even a need for employment or housing for someone known to us. And there is the rub–someone known to us. How often are our prayers limited to requests to God to procure for ourselves or for someone close to us the blessings of health, comfort, and security? To the extent that these good gifts do indeed come down from the Father of Lights, and to the extent they exhibit the kingdom in our midst, we should so pray. But we cannot stop there.

Our prayers will inevitably display the content of our hearts, our dreams, and our desires. They will also make manifest the limits of our vision. The dire straights in which Christians in the Middle East find themselves have begun to shock some people into recognizing that we have it “pretty good” here in the security of the west. And we pray that God will keep it that way, and go on our way, absorbed by the life that is ours in a relatively cozy culture, where we become oblivious to the dangers of that coziness. Meanwhile those whom our Lord declares his brothers and sisters, and who are therefore ours as well, suffer mightily. They are deprived of home, work, and of life itself in all too many cases.

When we pray for the inbreaking of God’s kingdom, do we really ask for it to come to earth, or to our little corner thereof? Does the rule of other powers and authorities bother us if it is not visible to us where we live? Do we desire his rule of to be made manifest where it is most antithetical to what is currently the case? When you pray, when I pray, when our churches pray, let us look with a broader vision of God’s desire for all people, all nations, and especially for those of the household of faith. And let us repent for praying only for the protection of our comfort in a broken world. The next time someone asks for a prayer request, what aspect of “Thy kingdom come” will burn in our hearts so that we must share it with those present?

Lord, I repent of praying unfaithfully. I haven’t meant the whole world when I’ve asked for your rule to come to earth. Enlarge my heart, increase my vision, I pray.

Repentance: Thoughts for the First Sunday in Lent

The Gospel text for the First Sunday in Lent (Mark 1:9-15) doesn’t come from the Passion account of our Lord’s final week before the crucifixion. It comes from the beginning of his public ministry. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Many of us are accustomed to reading this text as saying that there is further good news, that the gospel is something other than what Jesus announced here–the kingdom of God has come near. As a result, we are prone to thinking that the we must supply the missing information, which we do by telling people to confess their sins and ask Jesus to forgive them so that when the kingdom does come, or rather that we go to the kingdom (somewhere) when we die, we will be part of the throng, among the citizens. Well, yes, and no to that idea.

As Scot McKnight has explained quite clearly in The King Jesus Gospel, we haven’t always distinguished between the good news itself–the kingdom of God is coming–and the means by which we enter that kingdom and the nature of our participation therein. The good news, the gospel, is that God’s reign is at hand. And because it is, the only response we can make is enter that reign by way of repentance. Literally, this means a change of mind. I’m reminded of the preaching of Paul on the day of Pentecost, culminating in the declaration that this Jesus whom they had crucified God had been raised and made both Lord and Christ. When the listeners were struck to the core by this fact, they wanted to know how to respond: repent and be baptized.

Just what is it about which we are to change our minds? Our sins? Yes, of course. But that relates to the saving work of Christ; it’s how we enter the gate to the kingdom. But what about the reign of Christ? To refer to Jesus as “Lord and Christ,” terms which relate the reign of Christ differently to Jews and Greeks, is to announce something larger than the forgiveness of individual sins. It says that he is now the king, fulfilling what Jesus had begun announcing in the beginning of his ministry. So what? Glad you asked.

To say that Jesus is Lord, or that Jesus reigns as king, or that he is above all rule, power, and authority is to call every other ruler, power, or authority to task. He relativizes each and every one of them. And sooner or later we come to recognize that we have offered submission to lesser lords, lesser powers. And we must repent. We must learn anew to live in the kingdom not of this world, even while it rages around us, threatening to undo us.

Who are these other lords, powers, rulers, and authorities? There are many possible answers. They include governments, to be sure; and many a believer has refused to bow to them when allegiance to the true Lord would be compromised thereby. More frequently, however, are we all tempted and occasionally held hostage by other powers, forgetting or not learning in the first place, that Christ is above them. Economics; politics; public opinion; fear; doubt; disease; hardship; pain; mourning; entertainment; leisure. All of these are very much a part of the world we live in, and all threaten at times to climb beyond their appointed boundaries and ultimately convince us to serve them, offering our best energies, gifts, and resources to their service.

Could it be that our giving of allegiance to these inadequate rulers is what leads us to commit the “personal” sins we usually think of with calls for repentance? Do we make our decisions in life in deference to them instead of to the kingdom of God?

That is the call for repentance on this First Sunday in Lent. I suspect it is one we must always be alert to hearing and heeding. But to declare “Jesus is Lord” is to continually keep all others in their place beneath him. The good news is that his kingdom has come near; his rule above all these can now be made real in our lives and in our world. It really is the good news, the gospel: God reigns over all.

Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down

Is it really what we do in life? Hold hands, dance around the flower and eventually fall into oblivion? It does happen to everyone equally, does it not? Qohelet, the mysterious author of the biblical Book of Ecclesiastes, took such a view of things. No matter who we are, regardless of our fortunes in life, the fate of one is like the fate of the other, rich or poor, favored or despised, oppressor or oppressed, male or female. We know not what comes after us or what will become of our legacy, provided we are audacious enough to believe there will be such a thing. My brother recently pointed out to me that the vast majority of adults cannot come up with the names of their great grandparents. Sobering. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

Today many people will submit themselves to the imposition of ashes upon their foreheads, symbolizing their recognition of both mortality and the need for repentance. We are frail flesh; we are reminded of this when we recognize that our sin makes us ill-suited for eternal life. Throughout the next six weeks—the period of time we know as Lent—Christians will be encouraged to take the hard looks at self that we’d rather not take, reflect on things that we’d rather not think about, remind ourselves of things we’d prefer to forget, and generally to come to agree with our loving God that we don’t make very good candidates for sainthood when left to our own devices. Only after this reflection, can we be prepared to really receive the promise held in waiting on Easter morning.

Confessing, literally, means speaking together with someone in agreement. When we confess our faith, we are speaking with others what it is that we believe; when we confess our sins, we are speaking in agreement with God our failure to follow what we know to be the right way and our insistence upon an alternative in its place. Repentance means we change our minds and turn around to take a new direction. It’s what lies behind the tradition of fasting for Lent, whether through abstaining from food or some activity that we perceive as having ordered our lives in ways that are harmful to self and others. It’s not the giving up that becomes somehow meritorious, offering thereby the true spiritual benefit; it’s the new ordering of life, directed more consciously toward God that provides lasting benefit.

There are many Christians for whom liturgically set dates and times for such intensely personal activities as confession and repentance do not resonate. I understand that. As Paul said, some hold one day to be special, others hold another. To observe times and seasons is not a requirement he placed on any of his young churches or upon their converts, and I’m not so sure that we should, either.  On the other hand, there is value in the reminder that the calendar brings. We’re not generally prone to slowing down enough to give confession and repentance the time they require to do their work in us. We let them go until there is something entirely too daunting in front of us, something which might have been removed before taking on such proportion as to threaten to undo us.

We all fall down. Some with a misstep, some with a stumble, and some with a thud. Perhaps the most dangerous of them is the prideful deeming of confession to be something irrelevant to us. Being reminded that even at our best we fall short of God’s glory is something we all need. We will always stand in his righteousness, not our own, even while being molded more and more closely into his image. Whether one physically receives the ashes today or not, we should all consider ourselves as called to examine our lives, our thought patterns, our assumptions, and our hopes through the next six weeks leading up to the glorious resurrection promise. I don’t really want to. Which is why I must.