Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Learning to Pray (Third Midweek Lenten Devotion)

[This was shared during midweek Lenten devotional worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, this evening. We're looking at the Lord's Prayer as a model for our prayer lives. Tonight, the focus was on the fourth petition, "Give us this day our daily bread."]

Isaiah 25:6-8
Psalm 37:4
Matthew 7:7-8
Ecclesiastes 3:11
In his book, The Journey of Desire, author John Eldredge addresses the ambivalence Christians feel about what we want, the things we desire. Because the ninth and tenth commandments tell us not to covet our neighbors’ property, spouses, servants, or possessions, some Christians seem to have the mistaken notion that it’s always wrong to want anything. But, Eldredge reminds us that desire isn’t bad in itself. To have desires is part of what it means to be human.

And we have enormous desires. Ecclesiastes 3:11, in the Old Testament, says, “[God[ has…set eternity in [our] hearts…” In other words, we were made by God for wanting a lot more than new cars or the latest video game system: We have eternal appetites. Our desires are built right into our DNA by our Maker.

So, what does all of this have to do with the fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer? Be patient with me, for a moment; I'll get to that.

Martin Luther is right, I think, to say that, “Daily bread includes everything needed for this life…” But there is something much more to daily bread than what we need for daily living, I think. God has a much more expansive view of “our daily bread” than we do! God believes that you and I need more than just "food and clothing, home and property, work and income, a devoted family, an orderly community, good government, favorable weather, peace and health, a good name, and true friends and neighbors.” If these daily blessings—important and wonderful as they are—are all God had in mind for us, Jesus would not have been born, He wouldn’t have died for us, He wouldn't have risen from the dead. Truth be told, we need more, much more, than all these things. God thinks that you and I need eternity and all its blessings! And, if the earlier petitions are to be believed, God believes that we need these blessings now.

In an imperfect world where bad things happen, we have an appetite for eternity. We need God’s kingdom to come to us, now, today. We need God’s will to be done in our lives as it is in heaven, now, today.

But there is a problem. The condition of sin distorts our desires. Let me explain.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting to eat food, until sin turns hunger into gluttony. (Or, in the sad desire to control one’s body or one’s hungers, a person becomes anorexic.)

There’s nothing wrong with wanting the sexual intimacy that God engineered into our beings, unless we seek it outside the bounds of marriage. (Or, in the desire to claim moral superiority, we deny the power of our sexuality and become insufferable, judgmental prudes.)

There’s nothing wrong with desiring to better ourselves unless the desire becomes covetousness or a drive to look down our noses on other people. (Or, as I’ve seen happen with some people, they’re so anxious to prove that they’re not covetous that they give way more than God’s proscribed tithe of 10% or spend so many hours volunteering in the community that they destroy their families, their marriages, or their own health.)

The human problem, form God’s perspective, isn’t that we want things—that we desire things. Many of the things we desire are good things, things created and given by God, including the whole list Luther gives as examples of "daily bread" in The Small Catechism.

Sin happens when we desire or take good things at the wrong times, in the wrong ways, for the wrong reasons. But food, sex, and success, along with orderly communities, good governments, and positive reputations are all legitimate things for us want, or, as the fourth petition reminds us, to ask God to grant to us! This is important for us to remember when we pray, I think.

This is often difficult for us to remember. A person with whom I was discussing a book revealed our group that she never asked God for anything. “I don’t feel that I can do that,” she told us. “God has already given me so much.”

That individual underestimated God’s love for us, I think. When Jesus taught the Lord’s Prayer as a model for our prayer lives, He didn’t mean for us to eliminate the laundry lists that often fill our prayers. He teaches us, in fact, to pray for those things for which we hunger, the things we desire.

But He also put this petition in a larger context. For many of us, much of the time, our praying is sporadic, episodic. We pray when we’re desperate for the needs we see in our own lives or in the lives of others we know and care about. We risk turning God into a cosmic ATM.

In the Lord’s Prayer though, Jesus shows us that God wants to have an ongoing, eternal relationship with us. God wants to be “our Father.”

So, Jesus doesn’t tell us to stop asking God for things. In fact, the Gospel of Matthew records that shortly after teaching the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus went on to urge us to pray. “Ask,” Jesus says, “and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” I don’t see Jesus telling those who believe in Him, “You can only pray for this and nothing more.” So, Jesus seems to tell us in this petition, “Bring Your laundry list of desires to the throne of your Father.”

The way I see it, Jesus doesn’t want us to so much change the content of our praying, but its context. He wants us to come to God with the same confidence that a child who is loved has when she comes to her mother or father, but also with the same submission, the same surrender. A trusting child will feel free to ask a loving parent for anything, but will also want to submit to her parent’s judgment, love, and will.

In the context of a relationship with the Father we know through Jesus Christ, God’s and our perspectives begin to meld. We see things as God sees things. We want God wants. We desire what God desires. Our laundry lists continue; but as we continue in a relationship with God, our lists change. As our trust in God grows, our reactions change when God’s answers to our requests are not just Yes, but also: Maybe, Wait, or No.

The person who truly prays, “Give us this day our daily bread” not only trusts God for the daily needs of life, but also believes that God is going to spend all eternity showering us with blessings beyond what any of us could ask or imagine. We believe that we will enjoy that eternal feast described by Isaiah seven-hundred years before Jesus' birth. Through the daily submission of prayer, our lists change and our goals change. We seek, above all, that God’s Name will be hallowed on earth as it is in heaven, that His kingdom—His reign of grace and love--will come to us and the world around us, and that His will be done, in our lives and everywhere.

When I was a young Christian, I struggled with the meaning of a verse in the Psalms. It’s Psalm 37:4: “Take delight in the Lord, and He will give you the desires of your heart.” I knew that my desires were infinite and not always pure. Did that mean that God would give me anything I wanted, even things that may seem good on the surface, but in the end would lead to my own undoing or to my separation from God?

Then I took a closer look at the verse. God will give us the desires of our hearts when we take delight in Him, when nothing and nobody is more important to us than God Himselfwhen the chief object of our lives is to glorify God—hallowing His Name, seeking His kingdom and His will.

The more intimate we allow our relationship with our Father to become, the more similar God’s desires and our desires will become.

This transformation will hardly be noticeable to us or to anyone else. But it will happen in the lives of those who truly pray.

A good analogy to the transformation to God's perspectives might be marriage. When Ann and I married 36 years ago, we came from very different backgrounds. My family is mushy and gossipy. Ann’s family was more stoic, its humor of the towel-snapping variety. But as Ann and I have lived together and committed ourselves to our relationship every day, our outlooks, our ways of doing things, have blended and melded. Most days, there’s little difference between us on what we want or how we’ll live.

Something like that, but infinitely more wonderful, can happen as we lay ourselves before our Father each day in prayer. More and more, we delight in the Lord, we desire the same things, and we grow in the certainty that for all eternity, God intends to give us much more than morsels of bread each day. He wants to give us Himself forever.

And that's only a fraction of what God invites to ask for when He teaches us to pray, "Give us this day our daily bread."


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