Day 33: Your sister, Sodom

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Ezekiel 16:49

This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.

Your sister, Sodom

Judah’s sister state should be Israel, but the prophet declares they have shown themselves members of the household of Sodom and Gomorrah. No one ever accuses the prophets of being too subtle.

Judah preserved these words, though. They came to recognize the truth of them. There are times that the heart of the nation grows cold, when leaders become preoccupied with wealth, privilege and power. Kings grasp and take and amass wealth, worshipping what is false and neglecting what is true. Woe to those who call evil good and good evilNIV,” says Isaiah, describing the perversion of values that plagues his generation, the inversion of truth.

In a terrifying phrase, Isaiah declares “we have made lies our refuge, and in falsehood we have taken shelter.” What future can there be for such a people? The prophets foresee only destruction.

The sixth petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “Lead us not into temptation,” is hardly a token request. It slips from our mouths so thoughtlessly, but it is deeply urgent and demanding. Do not let us travel this road, O God! Do not let us make our bed in Sheol! Do not let us take up the mantle of Sodom! Do not let us become the arrogant and proud, the smug and complacent! Do not let chill winds harden our hearts! Do not let fear corrode our souls! Do not let anger ferment! Do not let destruction rampage! Do not let hate and despair prevail! This prayer is about far more than simple morality; it is about not losing the joy of the wedding feast, or the open hands and hearts of the Lord’s Table.

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Day 32: Wealth and possessions

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1 Timothy 6:10

In their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.

Wealth and possessions

It is hard to hear this verse and not think of the story of the prodigal son who betrays his father and family by his desire to turn his inheritance into cash. The fields that should have remained part of an extended family possession upon which all depended are sold away for the sake of what money might buy. But wealth does not connect us to one another; it tends to fragment the human community. The wealthy must build fences and borders and hire guards and police to protect their possessions. It separates those wearing purple from those with only one tunic. It focuses our attention and concern on ourselves, like the man who tore down his barns to build bigger ones, or the rich man who did not see Lazarus at his gate.

Statistically, the wealthy give away a smaller portion of their income than the poor. And they tend to give to museums and causes rather than to community food banks. The desire for wealth can lead us away from the kingdom of God rather than towards it, away from the love of neighbor, away from the shared table, away from the justice and mercy that Jesus embodied and to which all scripture calls us.

I understand the desire for wealth; I also understand the risks. So what are we asking when we say, “Lead us not into temptation”?

Day 31: Steady feet

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Psalm 119:133

Keep my steps steady according to your promise,
and never let iniquity have dominion over me.

Steady feet

I was hiking by myself along the north rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison years ago. I had set out on the trail impulsively, without leaving a notice in the car. The landscape was so wondrous, I was lured by curiosity about what I would see around the next turn – and the next – and the next. Soon I was far down the trail. And then my foot turned on a loose rock and I went down.

It was an impulsive hike, so I wasn’t wearing my hiking boots. I didn’t bring water with me. I was alone. It was the era before cellphones – though I don’t know if that would have made any difference as far as I was from “civilization”.

I understand this prayer to keep my steps steady. I understand, now, how easy it is to suddenly be knocked off balance. I understand, now, the value of community, of not being alone on your journey. I even possess hiking sticks now to give me added stability when you’re top-heavy with a backpack. And what is true of hiking is true also of the spiritual journey of life. It is easier than it should be to lose our balance, easier than it should be to fall away from our spiritual center. Temptations come. Trials happen. The unexpected wops you up side the head and suddenly we are in unfamiliar territory. What will keep us grounded? What will keep us faithful to God and to others? What will keep us on the path of God’s justice and mercy? What will keep us in the joy and grace of God’s Spirit?

The author of this majestic psalm uses a variety of words to point us to God’s word, guidance, teaching, command, law, instruction, and promise. It is God’s living voice, mediated to us through the written word, preached by the prophets, sung by the psalmists, embodied in Jesus, and lived in community that keeps our steps steady when trials come.

Day 30: Words matter

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Psalm 141:3

Set a guard over my mouth, O LORD;
keep watch over the door of my lips.

Words matter

Words matter. The things we say can hurt or heal. The wounds can last a lifetime. There was a huge feedlot on the way out from the Denver Airport towards my grandparents farm when I was a child. Whenever we drove past the ripe aroma of all those cattle droppings, my father used to say, “Whew, David!” He thought it was funny. My five-years-older brother (who always got to sit in the front seat) certainly laughed. I was both frustrated and ashamed.

Words matter. The shame of that long-ago taunting doesn’t exactly sting, but it’s not forgotten. And there are words of kindness that linger, too. We were at a cabin, visiting friends of my stepfather. They asked me to call them by their first names. Unfortunately, my stepfather did not hear that request and, when I did so, he sharply reprimanded me. I was again frustrated and ashamed, but later they came to me and said they were sorry I had been rebuked. They should have asked my parents, they said, if it would be okay to have us children call them by their first names. That was a simple thing, but though I no longer remember who these people were, I remember the kindness.

Words matter. It is one of those places where it is easy to betray the kingdom. And when we pray not to be led into temptation – when we pray not to find ourselves in a place where we might turn away from fidelity to God and to others – we are certainly praying for help with our words. “Set a guard over my mouth, O LORD; keep watch over the door of my lips.”

Day 29: On dark streets

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Psalm 91:14

Those who love me, I will deliver;
I will protect those who know my name.

On dark streets

My mom taught me to whistle if I grew afraid when walking home at night. There were large old trees overshadowing the sidewalk where we lived. Lots of shadows and little help from the few scattered streetlamps. I have to confess whistling helped. Of course, my strange mind began to think it would make a good signal to bad guys that I was afraid. Ah, here comes a victim!

I will protect those who know my name,” says God through the psalmist, and we want this to mean we will be protected from life’s misfortunes. I understand the urge. I have prayed the prayers. But the truth is we live a more daring challenge: to face the trials life brings with a confidence that God will not let us go. When we are swept along by the floods of life, our hand is held firmly. God’s deliverance is not ultimately measured by physical safety, but by God’s fidelity to his promise that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)

This is why Jesus can say that persecutions will come and some with be killed, but not a hair of your head will perish.” The promise is not that I get to enjoy a safe and comfortable life; the promise is that I get to enjoy the life that cannot perish. That life is not mere whistling in the dark; it is the joy of a wedding feast overflowing with the finest wine, it is a spring of water bubbling up within, it is five loaves feeding five thousand with twelve baskets to share with the poor, it is eyes that have never seen now seeing, it is Lazarus called forth from the grave.

Even on dark streets.

Week 5: “Lead us not into temptation”

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“Lead us not into temptation”

The Greek text refers to trials – not judicial proceedings, but those things we refer to as “trials and tribulations.”

It is appropriate to ask God to keep us from such trials. I pray for myself and my car every time I set out on the road to my father’s house. I don’t want the challenge of my car breaking down on the road or being involve in an accident. In the same way I pray in a thunderstorm. I don’t want to cope with a flooded basement or tree falling against my house. I don’t want to flee a wildfire. I don’t want the sorrow of a child in trouble. I don’t want even to deal with the uncertainties of getting stopped by the police.

Of course, Jesus isn’t talking about such trials. But neither is he talking about being tempted by a cookie to break your Lenten fast, or tempted to lose your temper, or tempted by the possibility of an affair. He is talking about the trials that come when this world in rebellion presses us to turn from our allegiance to the reign of God. It is when I am pressured to choose what is easy over what is just. When I am ‘tempted’ to close my hand and heart to those in need. When I am held back by fear from coming to the aid of the victimized. When I am swept away by the crowd to cry out for blood.

So back to that cookie – if I am being shamed by coworkers for observing a Lenten practice and, because of that, eat a cookie and laugh it off – then it is a temptation. In the moment when allegiance was called for, I crumbled.

This prayer is about those moments when allegiance is called for, when truth is called for, when kindness is called for, when evil must be named as evil. We are asking God not to let us find ourselves in a situation where we might say I do not know him and have to hear the cock crow. That is to say, we are praying that we may be so rooted in God’s word and God’s Spirit that such a challenge may prove to be no challenge at all.

The Prayer for Week 5: “Lead us not into temptation”

To you, O God, all voices rise,
and you hear the cries of the whole human community.
Send forth your Spirit into every heart
to keep us from all hardness of heart. Amen

The Sixth Petition: “And lead us not into temptation.”

What does this mean?

God tempts no one to sin, but we ask in this prayer that God would watch over us and keep us so that the devil, the world, and our sinful self may not deceive us and draw us into false belief, despair, and other great and shameful sins. And we prayer that even though we are so tempted, we may still win the final victory.

The Small Catechism by Martin Luther in Contemporary English, Augsburg Publishing, ©1960,1968

Day 28: Overflowing love

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Philippians 1:9

And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight.

Overflowing love

‘Knowledge’ and ‘insight’ are not the things we usually think of in connection with overflowing love. We think of love in emotive terms: passion, joy, desire. Is Paul speaking here of knowledge and insight into God’s love for us – and thus our love overflows? Or does ‘knowledge’ and ‘insight’ here reflect the rest of his sentence: “to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God”?

It gets tricky when we hear such words, because our natural instinct is to make ourselves the focus of these sentences. We want to be pure and blameless at the coming of our Lord. (Well, sort of; that’s food for another thought.) We assume Paul is talking about our personal righteousness. But I suspect overflowing love is about creating the righteous community, the faithful community, the just and compassionate community that is God’s intention for us as human beings. When my love overflows, it doesn’t mean I am blessed; it means others get blessed, others get provided for, others get encouraged, others get forgiven.

I had a friend in college whose beautiful singing voice barred her from the St. Olaf Choir. Hers was a solo voice, not one that blended into a choir. God is looking for a choir. God is looking for a community of grace. It takes some ‘knowledge’ and ‘insight’ to become such a community. But it draws its strength and life from the spirit of this prayer Jesus gave us: “Your name…your will…your reign…as we forgive.”

Day 27: I am your brother

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Genesis 45:4

Then Joseph said to his brothers, ‘Come closer to me.’ And they came closer. He said, ‘I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt.’

I am your brother

The story of Joseph and his brothers is one of the most profound stories of rupture and reconciliation in the scriptures. The object of murderous intent, Joseph is sold by his brothers into slavery in Egypt and his father shown a bloodstained cloak. Betrayed again in the house of Potiphar, and betrayed again in prison by Pharaoh’s cupbearer, Joseph ultimately emerges as the chief steward of the empire. To him his brothers must come for food when drought and starvation threaten.

It is the perfect moment for revenge. But Joseph presses his brothers until he hears their confession – then the arms of forgiveness swing wide. And what is the decisive element in this great drama? “I am your brother.” The ties of kinship drive inevitably toward mercy and reconciliation.

Our kinship as a single human family drives inevitably toward mercy and reconciliation. This is the only enduring outcome. This is the only true peace. This is the enduring reign of God. And it is the reality we pray to experience now when we utter the words Jesus taught us: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

Day 26: Rock, Paper, Scissors

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1 Peter 3:9

Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing. It is for this that you were called – that you might inherit a blessing.

Rock, Paper, Scissors

My older brother talked me into playing “Rock, Paper, Scissors” once as we were riding somewhere in the back seat of the car. Whoever won got to hit the other person on the arm with two fingers. That was the rule. But then my brother licked his fingers so it would sting a little more and, at some point, he transgressed the boundaries of what I thought was a legal hit. Of course, I had to hit him back. That tit for tat quality must be written in our DNA. And, since he was five years older, if I couldn’t hold my own and hit him as hard as he hit me, I could resort to “telling” and get him in trouble with Mom.

What does it mean to inhabit a world that chooses not to “repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse”? What does it mean to live a life that brings blessing instead? I am sure that Paul is not talking about someone breaking into your house with murderous intent or the warring of nation states (though there are those who walk the walk even there). But escalating the argument to the ridiculous only serves to let us avoid the command that we are called to live in the world as agents of blessing. We are dissenters in our dog eat dog, tit for tat, world. Jesus forgives his torturers – not after, but while they were swinging the hammer and throwing dice for his clothes. He summons us to see and live such a world.

This is not simple. It’s much easier to think of Christianity as my team, my club. It is a badge I put on the wall or maybe even a doorknocker on my front door. It is like wearing team colors on game day, a blue ribbon at the Oscars, or a flag pin on the campaign trail. It’s a statement not a discipleship. But Jesus keeps walking ahead and summoning us to catch up. He is in the world to bless. And we are supposed to be his continuing presence in the world.

Day 25: So many experts

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Luke 6:37

Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.

So many experts

It is said that 90% of an iceberg is underwater, hidden from our eyes. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn it was true of people, too. My daughter, Anna, was killed in Illinois and it took some time for the autopsy be performed and for the body to be embalmed so it could be shipped back to us in Michigan. On the day that my daughter, Megan, and I drove down to the funeral home to see the body, we were driving in a devastated silence. There was a red light at the corner of Wayne Road and Warren. As we stopped, and then resumed our drive, Megan and I had the same thought. No one in all the cars around us had any idea what a terrible journey we were traveling.

We are often quick to anger at other drivers. Perhaps they don’t start soon enough when the light changes. Perhaps they aren’t driving as quickly as we wish. We are quick to judge. But the truth is, we have no idea what is going on in the life of that other driver.

We are quick to judge all manner of people, even those we might know well. We presume to know what they should think or do. We pontificate about what’s wrong with their work or marriage. We judge their appearance. We judge their politics. We sure have a lot of experts in Sharia Law, these days. Our opinions about gays and Christians and Muslims and immigrants and police and congressmen and presidents are both exceedingly confident and ignorant. On talk radio and television we have created an industry of people quick to judge and condemn: a perfect melding of capitalism and gossip.

But here is Jesus, uninterested in the latest gossip, interested only in the journey of the human heart towards its true home in God – and teaching us to live grace, compassion and care of our neighbor.