Picking the Lock on Heaven’s Door

In the late 16th and early 17thCentury, William Camden wrote significant historical and antiquities works about Great Britain.  His book Remains Concerning Britain contains essays and shorter works related to his larger Britania.  It contains poems, poem fragments, and proverbs that he had collected from his study of British history.  It includes this epitaph of a Locksmith, “A zealous locksmith died of late/And did arrive at heaven’s gate,/He stood without and would not knock,/Because he meant to pick the lock.” 

            I read things like that and have to wonder about the character of the person they were talking about.  Was this something he said frequently—“I’m not knocking on heaven’s door; I’m picking the lock”?  Did people think he was just that good of a locksmith?  Or that arrogant?  Or did they think that the only way he was getting in is by making his own way in?  There’s no way to know now. 

            I do wonder how many people think they will have to pick the lock on heaven’s gate.  Many people believe that salvation is a product of one’s goodness, capacity to follow the rules, record of good works, or capacity for breaking and entering (undetected of course).  The biblical witness to salvation recognizes that salvation comes by God’s grace and God’s grace alone.  It is not the result of our report card, citizenship record, credit report, or permanent file.  God chooses to forgive and grant access to God to all people because God has designed us for relationship with God’s self.

            One way to understand worship is that it’s a dress rehearsal for eternity.  The people of God gathered around the throne of God praising and worshiping God.  If we imagine worship in this way, are there people who believe that they must pick the lock to get in?  When we come to worship with the conscious awareness that we are there by God’s grace alone the sense that some people have a place of honor on the basis of their service, generosity, or purity dies away.  All of us come to worship because God has thrown open the doors and allows us to come.  The only place of honor in worship belongs to God. 

Thanks for Whoever

      Thanks to whoever . . . someone left a bunch of goodies for a movie night we had in the summer of 2015.  They labeled it “movie night” but didn’t sign it.  Handwriting analysis has proved inconclusive. It got me thinking about all the many people who do things for us around church that we do not thank often enough.

            Thanks to whoever . . . goes around and checks the Sunday School roles each week.  I know who you are but I grateful you do what you do. 

            Thanks to whoever . . . makes the prayer shawls.  I also know who you are and know you don’t do it for the recognition.  They meant a lot to the people who receive them.
            Thanks to whoever . . . gets the communion ready each Sunday morning and clean up communion at the end of the day.  Communion is the most important part of our worship service.  It does not materialize out of thin air.
            Thanks to whoever . . . labels, folds and prepares the newsletters for mailing.  “The Friend Bunch” really are a bunch of friends who brighten our week in more ways than one.
           Thanks to whoever . . . runs the TV ministries, posts the recording to Vimeo and gets it out on our website, prepares the DVDs and sends them to the Beloveds.  It stretch the reach of God’s good news.
            Thanks to whoever . . . sharpens the pencils and refills the offering envelopes. 
            Thanks to whoever . . . sorts and puts back up the library books.  We have the best maintained church library anywhere.
            Thanks to whoever . . . assembles the children’s packets for Sunday morning.
            Thanks to whoever . . . greets people on Sunday morning making sure that people feel welcome here. 
            It’s always a risk when you start thanking people because invariably you leave someone out.  There are many, many more people to thank.  Lots of people serve in big and small ways.  But, please know that your church family is grateful for all that you do.  We are the church, together. 

 

Would you Pray for Me

            As a young pastor in Irving, I wen tot see one of my members in the hospital.  She was suffering from dementia and other physical problems.  The visit was short.  She couldn’t say much.  I asked her if I could do anything for her.  She asked for prayer.  I took hold of her hand and said things that I had said several times before (I was young but visiting hospitals had already become somewhat routine).  After we said Amen, I asked if there was anything else I could do for her.  She asked for water and I helped her take a few sips of water.  And one last time I asked if she needed anything, she asked for prayer.  My initial instinct was to blame her dementia.  She had forgotten that we had prayed just a couple of minutes earlier, but as I bowed my head, I felt something tap my spiritual shoulder and say, “really pray this time.”  I had “prayed” with her but had not prayedwith her.  And there is a difference.

            I think about that often when I find myself or others simply going through the motions of worship.  It’s easy thing to do.  Still, there’s a difference between “going to worship” and actually worshipping.  We can be physically presence and mentally or spiritually somewhere else.  Yet, God continues to call us into worship.  Here I have some suggestions about ways to enter into worship.

           

1.      Read the biblical texts that are the focus for worship before you arrive.  Make notes or thoughts about what the texts mean to you. 

2.       When you sit down, find a way to sit quietly and pray.  You may want to take time to pray the Lord’s prayer and take time between each line to think and reflect on it’s meaning.

3.      As you sing, contemplate the words of the lyrics.

4.      As you wait for communion to be served, think about your favorite story from the Gospels.  Imagine what draws you to Jesus. 

Once a year, I think all Christians should visit a worship service that is different than their own.  Rather than thinking about what you like or dislike or even how you are greeted and seated.  Simply go with your heart open to God’s presence.  Sometimes this can be enough to draw us out of familiar patterns.  Every now and again, each of us needs a tap on the spiritual shoulder that says, “Really pray this time” Or “Really worship this time.”  Indeed, let’s really worship this Sunday. 

Debts and Debtors

People often ask if I think we should say, “debts/debtors,” “sins/sinned against us,” or “trespasses/those who’ve trespassed against us” whenever we pray the Lord’s Prayer.  Short answer—debts/debtors.  Longer answer—debts and debtors is the language actually used in the earliest Greek manuscripts we have.  For Jesus it wasn’t just a metaphor.  He understood the crushing load of debt could mean time in prison (debtors prison) or some form of enslavement.  Jesus prayed for real release from actual debt.  More importantly, we are indebted to God for more than our forgiveness of sins.  God certainly does forgive our sins, but we owe God so much more.  We are indebted to God for the air we breathe, every heart beat, the gravity that keeps us on the ground, the food we eat.  In short, we owe God everything. 

       So, I believe in praying “debts” and “debtors.”  I say this with one really large caveat:  When we pray for God to forgive our debts we need to be thinking more broadly about what we mean.  If we say “debts” but mean “sins” the Jesus’s meaning gets truncated. 

      When we say, “forgive us our debts” and mean “forgive us our sins” we turn our “sins” into “debts.”  This creates a transactional view of Christ’s death on the cross.  It goes something like this:  the righteousness of God demanded a payment for our sins; God’s love provided that payment in the form of Jesus’s death on the cross. There was a hymn I sang growing up that said, “I had a debt I could not pay, He paid the debt He did not owe, I needed someone to wash my sins away.”   Or another one much more familiar, “Jesus paid it all, all to him I owe.  Sin had left as crimson stain.  He washed it white as snow.”  The belief is Jesus made a payment to secure my forgiveness.   This is a popular understanding of atonement. 

      When the New Testament uses the word “debts” it means debts—money or obligation owed.  When the New Testament speaks of debtors it does so in financial terms.  The sin=debts equation portrays God as a somewhat ruthless loan shark demanding blood as payment.  When we think of Jesus’s death on the cross as payment for our sin we portray God in an ugly way.  Not really “ the Lord, the Lord gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love . . . forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Exodus 34:6-7).  This description of God—which is the most often repeated description of God in the Hebrew Bible—was made before the death of Christ on the cross.  

Religion and Violence

      There were a couple of weeks in the early part of 2015 that I found both confusing and heartbreaking. On February 14-15 a series of shootings took place in Copenhagen.  An attack at a Free Speech rally at café injuring three police officers and killing one person, the shooting of a Jewish man and a guard at a synagogue and then the shooting of the suspect on the morning of the 15th left many grieving and anxious.  The suspected shooter’s religious ideology seems to be part though not all of the cause.  Also on Sunday, Jihadists cruelly beheaded 21 Coptic Christians abducted from Libya last month.  On Monday, a grand jury in North Carolina indicted Craig Hicks with murder charges.  Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha, and Razan Abu-Salah, young students in the Chapel Hill area, were shot and killed last Tuesday.  The immediate cause of the shootings appears to have been a parking dispute.  However, Hicks had expressed anti-religious sentiment and the victims were Muslim. 

      In each of these cases religion plays a role, but does not account for the whole of people’s motivations.  As people of faith, how do we respond?  Are we so far removed from the places effected that we have no business inserting ourselves?  Is it acceptable for us to be more concerned with the plight of fellow Christians than we are with people of other faiths?  These questions and so many other haunt me.  I don’t pretend to understand the complexity of violence and religion.  But, as I read the news reports and praying for the situations, I tried to keep these things in mind:         

      We are talking about real human beings.  The people who have been killed and the people who killed them have names, personalities, families, and histories.  I believe we must be careful not to turn victims into pawns in our favorite arguments. I have searched for years for ways to talk about the issues that affect people’s lives without diminishing people’s lives into issues.  I have failed more often than I have succeeded.  I continue to believe that people’s lives have integrity and we need to protect that integrity with our speech as much as we protect the lives with our actions.

      Motives are more complicated than we can sort out.  Religion or anti-religious ideologies are rarely the sole cause for violence.  The experiences of scarcity, powerlessness, victimization, and geo-political realities are just a few of the other contributing factors that lead to violent actions.

      Apathy is not an option nor is misguided, partially informed action.  We have learned the lesson time and again that that “Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing” (John Stuart Mill in an Address before Students at St. Andrews).  The fuller context of that quotation emphasizes that actions need to follow careful assessment of the situations before us.  History is also full of tragic examples where good people did the wrong thing because they acted without adequate understanding. 

      For now, I pray for the strength to stay engaged and not turn away.  I pray that God will form me into a person who seeks reconciliation.  Christ died in order to tear down the dividing wall of hostility may we live in such a way that Christ’s purposes are manifest in us.