A True Or False Quiz?

March 29, 2010

Of all the ways of testing a person’s learning, there is one format that will not linger long beyond the classroom. It may, after all, be the easiest for a teacher to grade. It may, in the end, allow even the most inattentive student to pass. But when the number two pencil circles a T for True or an F for False, I’m not so sure that either answer will serve us well in the long run. That is, when we are called upon to discern the Truth with a Capital T, as Jesus does in Matthew’s Gospel, the first thing that we must realize is there’s a difference between a fact, that can be verified, a figure that can be proved, and a story that cries out for dialogue. Let me repeat. An historical fact, that we can research and recite, is not necessarily the Truth that Jesus is after. An exact, mathematical figure, that we can calculate and prove, is not necessarily the Truth that Jesus is after. And I offer this today because of the way that Jesus warns his disciples about false prophets. He claims that they appear true—true in terms of very factual and apparently faithful stuff that they say and even that they do. On the inside, however, false prophets are ravenous and therefore can do serious damage to those, for whom Jesus is the Good Shepherd. And I offer this today, on Palm Sunday, because of the way that Jesus will not allow his entrance into Jerusalem to be reduced to a simple quiz. Rather, from the large crowds to the small children, from tree branches to the house of the Lord, he promotes dialogue. Dialogue is how he confirms everything that he has taught, and it is through dialogue that the fickle crowds will be encircled by the Truth.

Now, before we talk about the type of dialogue that Jesus promotes, I’d like to reinforce exactly why A True or False Quiz will not work. For example, last summer a porcupine crawled up our neighbor’s tree and when our dog, Chelsea, saw it, she ran around the yard, barked and stared at the tree for an hour. True or False? Well, at one level, the answer must be False; the name of the dog that I mentioned is Pearl. Chelsea, the dog that we owned for fifteen years, died in Pennsylvania. Of course the only way for you to have known that information involves knowing me. And, on a deeper level, our knowledge of Jesus works this way too.
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.”

True or False? Jesus once uttered these exact, phonetic syllables:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”

True or False? Jesus once taught his disciples with these precise remarks:
“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock.”

Now, technically, the correct response to each of these quiz-questions is False. Jesus himself never spoke the English language and so would not have made use of the English words. It’s more than likely that he spoke Aramaic. [Play Audio.]
But let’s be honest. If Jesus himself were to speak these very Aramaic words to us today, we probably wouldn’t trust him. What’s necessary, you see, is a dialogue. What’s necessary is an experience of the life of Jesus, which involves an on-going discussion, to which Jesus himself has submitted and continues to submit. Yes, Amen! This is the week that we remember the death and resurrection of Jesus. I believe in those events. But this is also the week when we must do more than simply repeat and regurgitate them.

The Neverending Story opens with a discussion between a little boy, named Bastian, and the owner of a local bookstore:
“What’s that book about?” asks Bastian.

“Oh, this is something special,” says the bookstore owner.

“Well, what is it?”

“Look, your books are safe,” the owner says. “By reading them you get to become Tarzan or Robinson Crusoe.”

“But that’s what I like about them,” replies Bastian.

“Ah, but afterwards you get to be a little boy again.”

“What do you mean?” asks Bastian.

“Listen,” says the man. “Have you ever been Captain Nemo, trapped inside your submarine while the giant squid is attacking you?”
“Yes,” says Bastian.

“Weren’t you afraid you couldn’t escape?”

“But it’s only a story!”

“That’s what I’m talking about,” says the man. “The ones you read are safe.”

“And this one isn’t?”

You see, the most difficult dynamic of following Jesus is that we must enter the unsafe story. And in the unsafe story of Jesus’ death and resurrection what often seems true may be false, and what often seems false may finally be true. For example, consider the trees that Jesus mentions in Matthew 7:16—20. In those verses, the good tree theoretically will bear good fruit, and the bad tree theoretically will bear bad fruit. And on Palm Sunday, according to Matthew 21, this is what’s happening. With the branches that have been cut from very literal trees, they are bearing good fruit in recognizing Jesus as the Son of David. But let’s look ahead to another tree that shows up on Friday. The literal tree upon which Jesus suffers his excruciating death is cursed. Deuteronomy 21:23 makes that very clear: “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.” And yet, what does it mean that God takes that apparently bad thing and transforms it into something good (Galatians 3:13)? And wouldn’t you like to talk about that? And wouldn’t you like to enter a story where transformations like that happen?

“Today went like this,” writes Douglas Coupland in his book, Life After God:
“I was up at noon; instant coffee; watched a talk show; a game show; a bit of football; a religious something-or-other; then I turned the TV off. I drifted listlessly about the house, from silent room to silent room, spinning the wheels of the two mountain bikes on their racks in the hallway and straightening a pile of CDs glued together with spilled Orange Crush in the living room. I suppose I was trying to pretend I had real things to do, but, well, I didn’t” (p. 75).

This, you see, is the tragic outcome of taking too many True or False examinations. You might think that once you’ve circled the F next to Jesus, that the story’s over and that you’re not invited to come in. But, God help us, we are.

In fact, as we consider who’s in and who’s out, who’s false and who’s true, I’d like to lift up the second image that Jesus mentions in Matthew 7:24—27. It’s the theoretical image of the house.
“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts upon them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock.”

Okay. Wise man equals house on rock. True. We get it. And ordinarily we would assume that if anything looks like a house which has been built upon a rock it has got to be the very religious institutions that we take for granted and that we don’t question. But let’s stick with Jesus as he goes from the parade of palms to the temple in Matthew 21. And, you see, if there were ever a house with a literal rock foundation, it would have to be the architectural masterpiece that King Herod had commissioned forty years earlier. And yet, enter the unsafe story. Into that place that’s unquestionably immovable and sturdy, Jesus hurls two quotations from Isaiah and Jeremiah:
“My house shall be called a house of prayer; but you are making it a den of robbers” (Matthew 21:13).

So, what will it be? True or False? At Latah Valley, of course, we have houses and we have trees, lots of trees. But whether or not these trees bear good fruit depends upon the type of trusting conversations that we have beneath them. Whether or not this Pine House survives the social storms of the future depends upon our willingness to make ourselves vulnerable to the viewpoints and perspectives of others. You see, what I’m saying is that the dialogue around Jesus will eventually lead us into Truth. By contrast, what will prove ultimately false is the easy answer, the dogmatic statement, that allow for no further discussion.
“Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority and not as their scribes.”

Now, I close with this weird comment. That is, if Jesus had actually started off teaching his disciples, it seems awkward that the crowds were astounded. My theory is that they must have overheard the discussion. Amen.

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There’s something in my eye, so you’re going to have to forgive me. You’re going to have to forgive me because there’s something in my eye, and consequently I can’t see you very well. There’s something in my eye, and I’m not sure how it’s going to be removed. I’m not sure how it’s going to be removed because each time I stand in front of the mirror, ready to extract that thing, with my trembling hands, you come into my line of sight. And in fact, when I think of you and when I become distracted with your presence in my world, I’m not sure that there’s anything in my eye at all. I think it’s just you, your blurry life. If you would just stay still, maybe I could see you for who you are. If you would just confirm to my image or my impression of who you’re supposed to be, if you would just play the part I have assigned you to be in my life, if you would just read the script as I’ve written it, maybe I wouldn’t have to worry about the possibility of eye surgery. Anyway, in the interest of full disclosure, I just wanted to acknowledge the fact that I may have a small speck in my eye. It may or may not be there, and I don’t think it’s contagious. But just to be safe: you might want to get checked out too.

“When we are very young children,” writes G. K. Chesterton,
“we do not need fairy tales: we only need tales. Mere life is interesting enough. A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door…”

And, you see, you and I both may want to get this checked out. There may be amazing things that we’re missing. I love that Frank Capra moment, when the Jimmy Stewart character after experiencing what life would have been like without him, comes back into the world. Bert the cop tells him that his mouth’s bleeding and he shouts for joy. From the pocket of his trousers he pulls out Zuzu’s rose petals, and in that moment it’s as if he sees what he couldn’t see before. And nothing, it seems, will keep him from seeing it again. So, without any further hesitation or equivocation or procrastination, I’m asking. Alright, Latah Valley, I’m asking and I hope that you’re asking. What it is that keeps getting in the way of this amazing view of life?
Jesus, in chapter seven of Matthew’s Gospel, indicates that it has something to do with “the speck.” But I can’t imagine how “the speck” could possibly be the source of all this distortion. The speck is simply sawdust. The speck is just a unique comparison that Jesus is making, based upon his experience as the son of a carpenter. For example, indulge me as I imagine a much younger Nazarene standing by a first century Palestinian lathe. His arms are lean. His fingers are calloused. Perspiration makes his tunic stick to the small of his back. And before him a crude chunk of timber angles away from the light of the late afternoon sun. In the shadows, but near at hand, lay various well-worn tools: the mallet, the chisel, the axe, the t-square and the plumb bob… Jesus, however, isn’t about to pick up any of these. His eyes instead burn with concentration on what’s about to be called forth from the lumber, or perhaps what’s already there, hidden in the grain of the wood. What could it be? A cart upon which women, in the fields, might gather in bales of wheat… A table around which a family might celebrate the Passover… A wedding canopy… A doorframe… A fishing boat… Or what about that one wooden product, which seems to be in high demand these days? What about a cross? What about the one thing that makes every Jewish criminal shutter and every Roman officer smirk? What about a cross?

You see, the point I’m trying to illustrate is that whatever Jesus has made or is now making—the specks are an inevitable outcome. The sawdust will fly. And that’s how we know that something going on. That’s how the carpenter knows there’s going to be a cart or a table or a doorframe or a boat, and that might also be how we know that we are being made into the work of God’s love. The problem therefore is not with the speck or the sin or the bad habit or the annoying personality that we may observe in someone else. At least it’s out there, exposed to God’s grace. The problem is the log. The problem is the raw material that’s not being made into a cross. Jesus says in verse five:
“You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.”

I remember first reading this passage and worrying about someone’s face being impaled on a log, and I didn’t think Jesus would ever be that graphic. Having the log in your eye is a joke. It’s a farcical exaggeration. But now I’m beginning to think that Jesus means it an inside joke for carpenters. That is, with the price of wood, a good carpenter might sit around his workshop for days without wanting to make a mistake. He might not want to expose a flaw in the lumber. And pretty soon, it’s like the blank page for a writer, or a clean canvas for an artist, or a lump of clay for a sculptor. The raw material intimidates us. The vision of the finished product even seems like a threat. Do we dare try? Do we dare allow God to work on us—to truly cut out what’s unnecessary for the work of his love?

At a Men’s Retreat, there was once a guy named Tom who told everyone about his addiction to pornography. He told us about it because it nearly destroyed his marriage and it still might. But here’s the thing about what Tom shared that really punched me in the spiritual gut. He described how after telling a few people in church about it, how the rumor mill got going, and how it nearly cut him to pieces, and how he felt more isolated and more alone after confessing his sin than when he had kept it hidden, not believing that God could do anything about it. Well, now Tom believed that God could do something about it, and he also saw something else. He saw how the people at church we’re actually scared, scared at the possibility that God wanted to work on them too.

And do we realize, Latah Valley, how the specks will fly as God truly works on us? Wendell Berry says that we are “a cultivated valley, among the wooded hills, familiar as the oldest dream, where we know we are, even as we do, the work of love…” That’s it. That’s all we are, and all that we will do. If we could only get over that log… Amen. ###

There’s a scene in the film Titanic, in which one of the few survivors of the tragedy has been flown to the deck of this modern-day vessel upon which the treasure-seekers have savaged a few of the items from 1912. One of these items is a hand-held mirror, and as the elderly lady looks over the artifact’s tortoise shell surface, she says, “This hasn’t changed in seventy years.” Then, turning the mirror from the ornate back to the front she notices her own wrinkled face and says, “The reflection has changed a bit.”

The reflection has changed a bit. I wanted to focus with you today on the objects that affect us the most—those literal and material things that surround us and some of which we cherish very much and some of which may serve as important signs for us moving forward. For example, Jesus identifies two things that he wants us to consider—two living things. In verse 26, it’s “the birds of the air,” and in verse 28, it’s “the lilies of the field.” And in each case, the thing that Jesus has in view is both temporal and beautiful. His point, it seems, relates to God’s providential care and concern. Just as God provides food for the birds, just as God gives the grass a little splash of color, so the Creator will relieve us of the worries of grocery shopping and of the pressures of the fashion show. That seems to be the message. Don’t be too concerned with material things. God’s got your back.

And yet, here’s the dilemma. In much of Matthew 6, Jesus has taken the time to make his anti-materialism point in a material world by using material things. Birds and lilies are not simply flighty, esoteric ideas. They are not just nice thoughts. They are creatures that live and die, and if we clean our windows too well, a bird might fly straight into pane. And a lily sometimes has been known to attract bees, and if we’re not careful we might get stung. So consider the difference between a nice idea, such as God will take care of you, or Do Not Worry About Your Life, versus a real-life living thing. And that difference involves convenience. A real-life, living thing might not always be very convenient. It might even come with a few blood sucking mosquitoes or prickly thorns or with allergic reaction.
At the age of eleven I had collected sixteen silver dollars. Over the years and across the miles, various relatives had given them to me as gifts, and according to various coin-collecting magazines, each silver dollar would only appreciate in value. All I had to do was hang on to those silver dollars. All I had to do was keep them hidden away in a shoebox and then one day in the future, they would be worth much more than sixteen dollars. But that, you see, had been my way of calculating things as a child. As a teenager, however, different thoughts began to creep into my mind. For example, what if I took those six teen silver dollars and bought a necklace with it? And what if I then wrapped the gold necklace and gave it to the girl across the street? Wouldn’t she just love me for it?

Well, you can guess what happened next. Nice ideas are nice when they remain as ideas, but when we try to attach them to various objects, it doesn’t always go so well. Sometimes, in fact, a golden necklace (that’s not pure gold) has been known to turn a girl’s neck green. And sometimes a girl that’s easily impressed with a golden necklace can also be even more impressed with a bright, shiny Camero.

“People recognize themselves in their commodities,” says Herbert Marcuse.
“They find their soul in their automobile, in their hi-fi set, in their split level home and in their kitchen equipment.”

But if that’s true, then I’m sure that Jesus would be against it. Wouldn’t you? Wouldn’t you assume that Matthew 6:19 warns as much?
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal…”

“No one can serve two masters… You cannot serve God and wealth.”
So, you see, isn’t it obvious? Jesus is trying to save us the disappointment, the disappointment that comes with investing in the wrong things. And isn’t it obvious what those wrong and evil things are? And my answer is, No. It’s not obvious. Consider the birds of the air and the lilies of the field…
These twin things may provide us with the keys for how we may store up, not treasures on earth, but treasures in heaven. And let’s think about how these object lessons of Jesus work upon our imaginations. First, there is an appreciation of Beauty, or an aesthetic shock to our business as usual. Something that we see or something that we study or something that we encounter knocks us for a loop. This thing—be it a worm or a whale—has its life apart from us. And, here’s the kicker: we can’t control it. That is, we can try to control and manipulate something’s that beautiful, but not without doing serious damage to what we’ve seen and to the original impression that it made upon our soul. Second, there is a detachment. We detach ourselves from the experience of Beauty and so surrender control to God, the One who makes all things. Finally, with God’s help, we become reattached to the Beauty that we see, only this time, we are totally immersed with it. Consider the birds of the air. Consider the lilies of the field. Appreciate. Detach. And with God’s help re-attach. If we do this over and over again throughout a lifetime, we will be storing up treasure in heaven.

Actors need it to act their scenes. Criminals need it to commit their crimes. And small children need it to eat up all their vegetables at supper time. What I’m referring to, of course, is motivation. And usually motivation falls into one of two categories. There are the rewards, that we prefer, and there are punishments, that we dread. And like it or not, most of life’s behaviors, and mostly every accomplishment known to humankind, can usually be explained in terms of one or the other.
“Daddy, Daddy… Watch, Daddy. Daddy, watch me.”

Motivation: Daddy’s approval.

“Carol, we’ve been getting several complaints lately—Now if your performance doesn’t improve, I’m afraid that…”

Motivation: The fear of being fired.

“Well, hello there! I love the way you look in that turtleneck sweater. It really brings out the color in your eyes.”

Motivation: Eye candy. Acceptance through the aesthetic sue of turtleneck sweaters.

“PeeUU. Richard, your breath smells like garlic or something. Would you please go brush your teeth?”

Motivation: The fear of eating too many calzones and the scarcity of breath mints.

“Hah! You guys are so funny together. I love the way you make me laugh.”

Motivation: Being invited to all the right parties.

You see, wrapped and entrapped in many of our most ordinary conversations is the promise of a carrot and/or the threat of a stick. On this both Sigmund Freud and Oprah Winfrey agree. And yet, as we connect up with Jesus and the life of faith, the question that arises is which will it be? Are we motivated to pray the prayer that Jesus teaches us, for example, out of a sense of pleasing God, or out of a sense of avoiding God’s displeasure? Or is it something else completely? Does God, in fact, have anything to do with why we practice faith? Or could it be a matter of us simply wanting to fit in—of us doing what we’ve always done to survive and to get along with whatever everybody else is doing around us?

“Pray then in this way,” says Jesus in Matthew 6:9.
“Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven…”

Now, the thing that strikes me about this series of verbatim words is how simultaneously they seem so ordinary, and so culturally accepted, and yet, how, if we pay attention to them, these same repetitive syllables may lift us out of our circumstances. Suddenly, you see, we find ourselves transported to heaven, which is a transcendent realm, above and beyond ordinary time and space. Suddenly, we are released from the struggle to survive. Suddenly, the pressure of competition fades like a mist in the sun. And suddenly, like a loose, dried out skin, we shed all the striving to be recognized. In heaven, as we address “Our Father,” none of it matters because presumably the wisdom and affection of this figure far outstrips anything that your father might say and anything that my father might do. This One in heaven is Our Father, which implies that you and I must quickly imagine ourselves as members of a large and mysterious family. And the question is, are we? Are we really a part of a large and mysterious family with God as our Father, or do we recite these words simply because we want to get the credit? I’m asking, not only because Lent is the season of self-reflection, but also because I’m not always so sure.

“My mommy’s in the basement and I need emergency…” Yesterday I read the most horrific story that I’ve ever read in the Spokesman Review. It was the Associated Press story of an eight year old girl calling 911. The girl’s mother, 26 year old Monica Botello, had been shot along with her boyfriend.
“Where at?” the dispatcher says, trying to locate the girl’s address.
“Um, I’m at… I’ll go ask my mommy…”
“Let me speak to your mom,” the dispatcher continues.
“No,” answers the frightened girl, “she’s almost dead… Please help me, you promise you will help me.”

You see, what makes this recorded phone call so heart-wrenching is that it takes place in a world where Our Father promises to “rescue us from the evil one.” I’m not suggesting that this girl would have been helped any better if she would have learned to pray. I’m not even suggesting that her mother would have been protected or healed if she learned to pray. What I’m saying is that there are churches in the world who pray this prayer, at this very moment, and nothing changes.

Sarah Cunningham, in her book, Dear Church, explains why she believes many twenty-something people are abandoning the institutional church. She did an interview once, asking people what they think churches could do to improve their relationship with the local community, and this reply stood out above all others:
“I don’t see anything the churches could do. We’ve already got tons of churches. Look around. There’s a church on every corner. I bet you could count nine or ten within three blocks of here. And nothing’s changed, has it? Drunks wander the streets. The same homeless people have been circling in and out of shelters for the last fifteen years. Kids don’t have anything to do to keep them out of trouble. Meanwhile, the churches keep right on existing, holding their services every Sunday. And it never changes anything. It’s pretty obvious to me that churches are not the answer”
(p. 20—21).

And maybe part of the reason they’ve not been the answer is that we’re often motivated by forces other than the teaching of Jesus. That is, instead of learning from Jesus’ prayer how to be the kind of person who prays this prayer, churches memorize the prayer like an infomercial that we’ve heard a thousand times. Jesus, I think, fortunately anticipates this tendency when he says in verses 14 and 15:
“For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”

You see, this isn’t like Charles Van Doren in the fixed game show, Twenty-One. The producers of the Bible are not helping us cheat so that we might appear to win, but so that we might genuinely recognize how God’s kingdom will win on earth as it is in heaven. These are the secret rewards of learning—and they are rewards that come as we contemplate the cross of Jesus Christ. Amen.

Rules of Practice

March 1, 2010

“Move to space… Move to space… Move to space…” When I coached soccer with young children, I would teach them the game based upon a certain technique. My technique involved the movement to space. That is, if a player could learn how to move to the open space without the ball she would automatically create options for all kinds of passing and dribbling and scoring-opportunities. That was my technique, and because it was my overarching modus operandi my players would often hear me repeating the same phrases over and over again: Push the ball up the wing! Give him a passing lane! Switch fields! Wait for them to pressure you! Cross the ball! Make a run! Those were the exhortations I used to reinforce the technique of moving to space. But there was also another phrase that had nothing to do with technique. And I used this non-technical instruction most often with a seven year old boy, named Alex.

The reinforcement of technique doesn’t work with kids like Alex because something inside of them rebels against the most basic rule of the game. And what I’d like to suggest this morning is that when it comes to prayer and to other practices of piety, you and I are very much like Alex. Alex, you see, was fond of using his hands, and in soccer, only one player on the team is permitted to use his hands while on the field of play. So, picture little Alex, with his big blue eyes and a little pony tail of brown, curly hair; he’s trying to dribble in traffic, among a lot of opposing players, and I tell him to pass the ball to Trevor. But instead, he shoves the kid who challenges him and then picks up the ball as if to say, “I’m going home where I don’t have to worry about all these players and all these rules.” Likewise, when it comes to the activities that are mentioned in Matthew 6, you and I have a gut-level instinct to handle “God,” to manipulate and to control “God” in the same way we handle other things in life.
“No hands,” I shout at Alex, when he intentionally reaches out to grab the ball. And in a similar fashion, Jesus lets loose with the following negative exhortation for us:
“Do not sound a trumpet before you…”
“Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing…”
“Do not be like the hypocrites… (who pray) so that they may be seen…”
“Do not heap up empty phrases…”
You see, what not to do provides the practical foundation for moving to space, and in that space, Jesus claims, God will see us. God will hear us. And God the Father will reward us.

About two years ago, a guy named Rocky Twyman led a movement of people who prayed for gas prices to come down. He didn’t pray for his own personal consumption. He didn’t pray for other people who may not be able to afford the cost of driving. He didn’t pray for the oil company executives. He prayed in public in Washington DC and in San Francisco, CA, and the problem with this technique of prayer is not only that it didn’t work. Gas prices actually rose over the course of the prayers. But it com-municated to atheists and agnostics an erroneous and false image of what prayer is.

Prayer is not a matter of handling God. Prayer, according to Philip Yancey, is a matter seeing ourselves, our relationships and our world the way that God sees them.
He quotes Tim Stafford who says,
“We do not pray to tell God what he does not know, nor to remind him of things he has forgotten. He already cares for the things that we pray about… He has simply been waiting for us to care about them with him. When we pray, we stand by God and look with him toward those people and problems. When we lift our eyes from them toward him, we do so with loving praise, just as we look toward our oldest and dearest friends and tell them how we care for them, though they already know it…. We speak to him as we speak to our most intimate friends—so that we can commune together in love.”

You see, this may be the reward that Jesus mentions in Matthew 6. We are rewarded in secret with a divine intimacy—not something that can be exploited, and packaged and sold on the open market.

A few weeks ago I prayed with an older woman who is dying because of growing tumor in her brain. Thus far in this leg of her journey, she is lucid and able to remember lots of little details from her childhood. She can’t necessarily remember the name of her son-in-law or the year that she met her husband. But when I prayed with her about 1:30 on a Wednesday afternoon, Helen remembered a tree that she used to draw in her backyard in Scotland. It was a lovely tree, she said. Very old. Very thick.
How I loved to sit there and stare at that tree, she went on.
“Hi!” Helen’s daughter came in, and started talking about the earthquake in Haiti. She also spent some time dusting the pictures. Eventually she sat down to pray with us. And as we prayed, it because clear that she wanted God to fix things. Fixing things, of course, is what we’re good at. And so, it’s only natural to ask God to do that too. But when I prayed for Helen, I couldn’t forget that tree. She remembered that tree and its trunk and its quivering green leaves and had tucked the memory of away for about 70 years. Helen’s daughter had no idea about the tree, and so when I mentioned it, Helen opened her eyes and looked at her daughter and interrupted the prayer. “There was a tree,” she said, “that I used to draw.”

Now think about the intimacy of that tree. No one on earth can put their hands on that tree—nor on the God who gave that tree to Helen. And that’s what we’re focusing on in Matthew 6. These are the rules of practicing piety: no hands! You and I must practice playing without using our hands, without manipulating or trying to control the outcome.

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going,” prays Thomas Merton the famous Trappist monk of the 1960’s.
“I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and that the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you…”

You see, it’s the strangest and most ironic dynamic, but when we direct our actions toward God we must start off renouncing. We must start off by saying no to the technique that seems most natural. Glenn McDonald tells the story of three ministers who “once got together in a church study to discuss prayer techniques.
“In the adjoining room there happened to be a telephone repairman who was working on the lines. The first pastor said, ‘When I pray, I find it helps to hold my hands together like this, as a personal expression of worship.’ The second suggested that real prayer ought to be conducted on one’s knees. The third pastor corrected him, saying the most biblically authentic posture for talking to God is to lie stretch out on one’s face…’ At that moment the telephone repairman, who’d been eavesdropping, poked his head around the corner and said, ‘I’d have to say the best prayer I ever prayed was when I was dangling upside down by my heels from a power pole about forty feet above the ground.’”

Amen.