Wednesday, August 3, 2011

What God Wants Us to Know

Because of Your promise, and according to Your own heart, You have wrought all this greatness, so that your servant may know it. Therefore You are great, O LORD God; for there is no one like You. (2 Samuel 7.21-22)

“None Like You”

As a young person eager to grow in faith, I studied adults in my family and faith community closely, watching how they behaved in and out of church, listening to how they prayed, and staying attentive to shards of Scripture peppered through their conversation. (In those days, the saints were so conversant with the Word it routinely surfaced in their casual speech, often as no more than a phrase wedged into a sentence. It’s an art that, alas, has fallen from fashion.) Kids have innate sensors that flag sincerity and sham, and with little effort I gravitated to believers whose best practices I admired and hoped to emulate.

One of my greatest faith mentors was Rev. Eugene Gray, youth minister to a large church I adopted as my second home. As he took me under wing, I soon discovered what an uncommonly tender man he was; if a hateful thought crossed his mind during the years I knew him, it never passed his lips. Gene’s prayer mannerisms first drew me to him. In service, he prayed extemporaneously, with the confidence of a son who knew his father had all the answers and could do anything. A feature I truly loved was how Gene “sent” God to troubled souls. “Somebody is sick and without hope. Look in on them,” he’d pray. “Touch their bodies and lift their spirits… A mother’s son is languishing in prison. Speak to his heart and shield him from harm… Somewhere a teenager feels unloved and alone. Take her in Your arms. Let her know she’s Your child.” You didn’t have to be called out in Gene’s prayer for it resonate. Whatever your struggles, his assurance extinguished all doubt God saw you and was with you.

I learned where Gene’s trust originated during our prayer times together. Away from the pulpit he laid a hushed love feast before the Lord. He neither hurried nor tried to impress. He just talked to God, always starting with a list of thanksgivings that couched his requests. “Because of all You’ve done, I know You’ll do what’s best,” he’d say. Once he ended his requests, he hung around for quite awhile, simply to express how wonderful God was to him. He frequently latched on a phrase—usually from David’s psalms or prayers—and repeated it over and over, pausing to let it sink deeper into his heart with each repetition. “There is none like You,” he’d say. “None like You… None like You,” echoing David’s awe at God’s unfathomable kindness in 2 Samuel 7.22: “There is no one like You.” Gene’s been gone for many years, but his best practices survive in thousands who rarely end a prayer without telling God, “There is none like You.”

Utterly Bowled Over

David’s prayer, covered in 2 Samuel 7.18-29, is less about asking God for anything than extolling everything God is. In fact, God’s already spoken to David through the prophet, Nathan, answering many of the young king’s questions and soothing his anxieties. David’s so utterly bowled over, he sits down by himself and talks to God. To get the full effect of what he says, we should back up. In quicksilver time, David ascends Israel's throne, defeats its perennial enemy, the Philistines, and installs the Ark of the Covenant housing Judaism's holiest relics in the Tabernacle, a vast tent in which Jews have worshiped since Moses’s days. After the festivities, David looks at his palace and suddenly feels guilty about living in opulence while the Ark rests under a ragged canopy. Building an even more lavish temple seems the proper thing to do. But God puts the brakes on his idea, saying, “You don’t need a new project. It’s more important you slow down, get your bearings, and reflect on how far I’ve brought you. From shepherd boy to king—this wouldn’t be possible without Me. I promise to give you a son endowed with wisdom and skill to construct the greatest temple the world will ever know. Leave that to him. All I want from you is to realize how far you’ve come, because you’ve a long way yet to go.”

Totally undone by God’s kindness, David doesn’t know where to start. So, naturally, he does his best to say what words can’t describe. Yet he somehow manages beautifully. (Check out the entire prayer in the postscript and you’ll be amazed.) He’s still enthralled and tremendously humbled by the enormous palace he now calls home. “Who am I, O Lord GOD, and what is my house that you have brought me thus far?” he exclaims. (v18) He uses “house” in both senses—Israel’s royal residence as well as the House of David, the dynasty promised to him. Then he runs dry. “And what more can David say to you?” he asks in verse 20. Plenty, it turns out, once his thoughts turn from all God has done for him to what God wants him to know. His prayer comes to life in verses 21-22: “Because of Your promise, and according to Your own heart, You have wrought all this greatness, so that your servant may know it. Therefore You are great, O LORD God; for there is no one like You, and there is no God besides You, according to all that we have heard with our ears.”

Greatness That Constantly Amazes

So easily we’re flummoxed by how far we’ve come, where we are, or how far we’ve yet to go. God has brought us over great expanses pocked with rugged, unpredictable terrain; we look back and wonder how we got where we are. It’s tremendously humbling to realize our lives are richer and bigger than we ever imagined. And God's promises for greatness in store makes us lightheaded. Our first instinct is to do something worthy of the kindness we’ve received—to keep going full speed ahead. Yet the word spoken to David comes to us. It’s important we slow down, get our bearings, and reflect on where we’ve come from because there’s something invaluable that God wants us to know before we venture on.

There is no one like God, no god besides God. Anything we may attribute with our progress thus far—intellect, tenacity, courage, curiosity, support systems, insuperable hurdles, and even what some call plain old good luck—every blessing (including those we initially perceive as curses) would not be were it not for God. There’s not a power known to humankind or a force in this universe that compares to our Creator and Keeper. God is precisely Whom Gene Gray’s prayers projected—the Parent with all the answers, Who can do anything. Or, as David puts it, the Source of greatness that constantly amazes us. What more can we say but, “There is none like You”? That says everything. And that’s what God wants us to know.

When we recollect the great things You’ve done for us in the past, O God, the great blessings we presently enjoy, and imagine ever greater things ahead, we’re so utterly bowled over we sit down and try to say what words can’t describe. With nothing more to say, we thank You because You’re You. There’s no one like You. None. Amen.

It’s important we slow down, get our bearings, and reflect on where we’ve come from because there’s something invaluable that God wants us to know before we venture on.

Postscript: David’s Prayer

"Who am I, O Lord GOD, and what is my house, that You have brought me thus far? And yet this was a small thing in Your eyes, O Lord GOD; You have spoken also of Your servant's house for a great while to come. May this be instruction for the people, O Lord GOD! And what more can David say to You? For You know Your servant, O Lord GOD! Because of your promise, and according to Your own heart, You have wrought all this greatness, so that Your servant may know it. Therefore You are great, O LORD God; for there is no one like You, and there is no God besides You, according to all that we have heard with our ears.

"Who is like Your people, like Israel? Is there another nation on earth whose God went to redeem it as a people, and to make a name for Himself, doing great and awesome things for them, by driving out before His people nations and their gods? And You established Your people Israel for Yourself to be Your people forever; and You, O LORD, became their God. And now, O LORD God, as for the word that You have spoken concerning Your servant and concerning his house, confirm it forever; do as You have promised. Thus Your name will be magnified forever in the saying, 'The LORD of hosts is God over Israel'; and the house of Your servant David will be established before You.

"For You, O LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, have made this revelation to Your servant, saying, 'I will build you a house'; therefore Your servant has found courage to pray this prayer to You. And now, O Lord GOD, You are God, and Your words are true, and You have promised this good thing to Your servant; now therefore may it please You to bless the house of Your servant, so that it may continue forever before You; for You, O Lord GOD, have spoken, and with Your blessing shall the house of Your servant be blessed forever." (2 Samuel 7.18-29)

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Justice is Served

Taking the five loaves and the two fish, He looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. (Matthew 14.19)

What’s with the Food?

I’m always delighted to meet people who have a vague idea of Who Jesus is, but the details and depth of His life and ministry (which we take for granted) escape them. As I fill them in, I also find myself feeling a wee bit envious of their chance to hear about Jesus with fresh ears and watch His story unfold through new eyes. None of our jaded, oh-yeah-I-remember-that-from-Sunday-school nonsense gets in their way. And since today’s Gospel pulls out one of the all-time Sunday school favorites—the miraculous feeding of 5,000-plus people—let's try a little experiment. Let’s pretend we know very little about Jesus. After reading the Gospels with curious detachment, what might strike us as most unusual about what Jesus does and says?

Many aspects of Jesus’s story may take us by surprise. He’s very adept at staying below the radar; He doesn’t hide, but neither does He court controversy like His cousin, John the Baptist, does. He’s unintimidating, yet never intimidated. He’s the underdog’s ultimate champion. These traits jump out at us. But sooner or later we’re sure to ask, “What’s with the food?” Because it's nearly impossible to get through a chapter of the Gospels without food entering the picture in some form.

Jesus introduces His philosophy by talking about people who “hunger and thirst for righteousness” and teaches His disciples to pray for daily bread. He performs His first miracle at a banquet, turning water into wine. He routinely invites Himself to dinner and attends a lot of feasts. He defends His disciples when legalists criticize their table manners. What’s more He dismisses criticism that He eats with the wrong crowd, saying, “The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her deeds.” (Matthew 11.19) Most of His stories revolve around growing food, raising livestock, or throwing parties. He says He’s the Bread of Life. The night before He’s executed He hosts a supper and asks His followers to remember Him whenever they break bread and drink wine. After His resurrection, He cooks breakfast for the disciples. Really. What’s with the food? The answer may surprise us more than any suspicion that Jesus—often imagined as a rail-thin, otherworldly ascetic—might very well be a foodie.

Tangible Reminders

Every time Jesus touches, tastes, or talks about food, He puts justice on the table. Teaching us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” sets the stage for our next request: “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” God’s grace and mercy in meeting our daily needs obligates us to offer grace and mercy to those no more worthy of them than we are. Multiplying food and wine demonstrates that no one deserves to go without. Sitting at table with the shunned and disrespected—as well as the rich and powerful—proves that Jesus regards everyone equally. Concerns about His reputation never interfere with opportunities to redeem reputations of those who’ve been misjudged or denied. The farming and feasting parables inevitably come down to this: human judgment is flawed. Every story stresses how knee-jerk assumptions undermine justice. Pulling up the weeds will kill the crop; let them grow up together and the farmer will judge what’s good and bad. The safety of 99 sheep matters little when one is lost. If the smart crowd turns down your invitation, don’t cancel the party; open your doors to outcasts and irregulars. When the wayward son returns broke and broken, welcome him with a lavish feast; don’t penalize him for his foolishness.

During the three-and-half-years Jesus lives and teaches, food and justice become so inextricably wound together they’re inseparable. That’s why, at the Last Supper, He intuitively reaches for bread and wine, declaring them tangible reminders of the physical body and blood He will sacrifice. For what is Calvary, if not justice redefined? Mercy rendered for lawlessness. Grace extended for selfishness. Acceptance offered to defeat shame and prejudice. Hope provided to end despair. All that and more is in the bread and wine, because justice is in the bread and wine. And while that may not be readily apparent to us, it’s very obvious to the disciples. Because what Jesus does with the bread at the Last Supper is what He’s always done to provide for His followers.

The Means

Of course, the disciples recognize what Jesus is doing at the Last Supper. How could they ever forget what they witness in today’s Gospel? (Matthew 14.13-21) Having just heard John the Baptist has been beheaded, Jesus seeks out a lonely place to grieve privately. But the masses find Him and He sets His sorrow aside to heal them. A rough count puts the crowd at 5,000 men, along with untold women and children. As dusk sets in, the disciples advise Jesus to send the people back to their villages so they can eat. “There’s no need for them to leave,” Jesus replies. “Let’s feed them.” Evidently the disciples know to expect this, because they’ve polled the crowd for food and only come up with five loaves of bread and two fish. “Bring them to me,” Jesus instructs. He does exactly as He does at the Last Supper. He takes the bread, and after blessing it, breaks it into pieces, and gives it to the disciples. They pass through the crowd, pulling off enough for each one to eat, and return with more than when they started—12 baskets full, or one for each of them.

To send the crowd away hungry is unthinkable to Jesus, because it’s unjust. “How so?” we ask. Didn’t He ignore His own grief to relieve theirs? Why isn’t it fair to let them fend for themselves? They didn’t care enough about His feelings to give Him space. Let them get their own bread. If they want to hang around, so be it. Nobody ever died from skipping dinner. But here’s what we overlook. Jesus has the means to meet their need. Looking at hungry faces while having food on hand leaves Him no just reason for not feeding them.

Even so, isn’t ridiculous to try? There’s not enough to feed Jesus and the disciples. At the very least, shouldn’t He devise a plan to thin out the crowd—say, set criteria for who gets to eat for free and who doesn’t? Out of more than 5,000, surely there are plenty of hangers-on and fakers and leeches looking for a free meal. Now that we think about it, forget the whole lot. Why did they show up in the first place? Not to console Jesus. Not to learn from Him. They came for miracles. They got what they came for. Send ‘em home. As right as that may sound, Jesus will have none of it, because it’s unjust to deny anyone in need when we have something we can offer.

On the Spot and In the Moment

This miracle, the Last Supper, and the supreme miracle of Christ’s sacrifice teach us justice is served when we use everything we possess to meet the needs of those without means. It’s a stand-alone process impervious to human logic and limitations. Justice is always served here and now—on the spot and in the moment. Let’s assume everyone has cupboards overflowing with food. They’re not at home, though. They’re hungry now. Let’s assume the disciples will figure out what the crucifixion means. They’re confused now. They need answers now. Let’s assume humanity can come to its senses and correct its evil ways. We’re lost now. We need help now.

We don’t know how Jesus takes five paltry loaves, breaks them, and feeds a multitude, no more than we understand how there’s never a shortage of grace for our sins. All we know is when justice is served, there’s always more than enough. When called to serve justice, we take what little mercy we have on hand, bless it, break it, and give it to those hungering for it. We don’t worry if it’s enough or whether they deserve it. We don’t begrudge them because they’re insensitive to our feelings or their motives may be impure. It’s not about what they have or haven’t done, or how much we’ve already given. Justice is about recognizing their need and knowing we have the means to meet it now. The rest is useless speculation and counterintuitive to everything Jesus teaches and models.

Such grace You’ve given us, O God—grace that defies reason and exceeds measure. Such trust You’ve placed in us by offering Your Son, our Bread of Life, to show and teach us the true meaning of justice. Pry logic’s grip from our minds and doubt’s hold from our hearts so that we may serve justice as You do. Amen.

We take what’s available to us, bless it, break it, and offer it to those in need. Though it may look paltry, there’s always more than enough to ensure justice is served.