Your kingdom come

One day things will be as they should be, but right now they’re not. Our ancestors Adam and Eve headed down a dead-end street, and we’ve been trying our best to follow them for quite a while now.

And we’re getting good at it—just look around you. Please don’t read hopelessness here—we know there’s a better future—but sometimes it helps to look around us so that we can look ahead more clearly.

Maybe that’s why Jesus put this in his famous prayer: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).

This hope is at the center of our prayer lives: we want things where we are to become more like they are where God is.

Because of Monday’s holiday, Martin Luther King, Jr., has been in the news this week. His greatest strength was his ability to look at things as they were and envision how they ought to be. The catchiest part of his most famous speech echoes that vision: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

He knew—and all clear-thinking people knew—that 1960s America wasn’t as it was supposed to be. King and others helped our country recognize this, and they pointed us to a better future. I think most would agree that we’ve taken steps toward realizing King’s dream, though there’s still work to do.

His insight—the ability to see the world for what it was and lead others to a brighter future—is invaluable, and Jesus points us to that kind of conviction.

In heaven there’s no racism or ethnocentrism, so there shouldn’t be any here.

There’s no disregard for the sanctity of life there, and there shouldn’t be any here.

There’s no violence, no child molestation, no dishonesty, no gossip, no pride, no selfishness, and there shouldn’t be any here.

But seeing the need doesn’t make it so, of course, so where do we start?

I think we start where Jesus suggested—at God’s throne. Today in your prayer time, talk to God about the inequities in this world. Reflect with him about the awful things sin is doing in the lives of so many.

And then ask him to conform the world to his will. Ask him to change sinners. Ask him to change you.

Pray that more people will submit to Jesus as King and that his kingdom will be more fully realized in all of us. Ask him to make our world more like his world.

And then spend the rest of your day submitting to God as he uses you to make it that way.

Our Abba Father

When you think of God, what comes to mind? Is he stern or tender? Intolerant or forgiving? Demanding or patient? Distant or close by?

The way we look at God has been shaped by different factors, including the kind of Dad we had and how we learned about God early in life. If we grew up in a church that liked to talk about God’s judgment but rarely his grace, we might view God as an unrelenting, impossible-to-please taskmaster. If our church environment emphasized his mercy but never his holiness, we may think of him more as a permissive, grandfather-like figure.

So which is he? Loving or demanding? Merciful or holy?

Well, yes, of course. He’s both.

At the beginning of his most famous prayer, Jesus shows us that a one-sided picture of God is incomplete. Here are the well-known words: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name (Matthew 6:9).

The word Jesus used to address God here was probably Abba, because we know he used this word to talk to God elsewhere (cf. Mark 14:36). Calling God Abba was unheard of in the first-century world because it was so intimate. God was too distant and holy for Jews to speak to him in such a familiar way. That word was reserved for the family—a little child used it to talk to his Daddy.

Paul would later remind us that as God’s adopted children we cry out, “Abba! Father!” (Romans 8:15). Don’t underestimate the significance of our being able to call our Creator our Abba Father.

But intimacy without awe is imperfect too, so Jesus balances Abba with these words: “in heaven, hallowed be your name.” God is also majestic and sovereign and perfectly unique.

God is right here beside us, so we speak to him intimately.

But he’s also our Father in heaven whose name is hallowed, so we address him reverently.

We might get off-center with either of these. Speaking to God flippantly and irreverently—or using his name profanely—means we don’t really understand who he is: a holy, sovereign, majestic God who reigns over the universe he created.

But speaking to God with language that suggests he is some distant Potentate who isn’t particularly interested in what we mere human beings might want means that we don’t really understand how accessible he is to us . . . how much he wants to commune with us. He doesn’t just rule the earth—he actually became one of us, something we don’t need to forget. The incarnation changed everything about how we talk to him.

So in your prayers today, talk to God frankly and openly. Like a Dad who listens to his child, God loves to hear your voice.

But speak to him with respect and awe. Isn’t it amazing that the One who spoke this world into existence and sustains it with his power truly cares about what you say?

It ought both to thrill and humble us to speak to our Abba, our Father, our Redeemer, our God.

Our Abba in heaven, hallowed be your name . . .

A few thoughts for those who struggle in prayer (which is all of us)

If you’ve ever started to pray, then you’ve struggled with prayer.

What do I say? How long should I pray? Is God even listening? What if I do it wrong?

I struggle as well, and I’ve got my own questions, but here are a few things I know:

  1. His answers don’t depend on the length of my prayers;
  2. He cares not at all for how good my prayers sound; and
  3. He’s not waiting on me to tell him what I need so he can make the right decision.

Here’s Jesus:

And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him (Matthew 6:7-8).

We’ve all fidgeted in our pews when some good Christian delivered a sermon disguised as a prayer, wondering how in the world somebody could pray for that long. And we’ve been tempted to judge someone’s motivation when he seemed a little too concerned about sounding eloquent as he prayed.

And then I’ve heard some new Christians whom we haven’t corrupted yet who pray some child-like prayers that I’m pretty sure get in God’s heart more than mine. They don’t know enough to ask the Lord to guide, guard, and direct us, but it seems like they’re talking to God like a little child with her daddy.

Please don’t get the impression that you can learn to pray by following a few rules—prayer doesn’t work that way—but here are some things that Jesus seems to be telling us.

Avoid the cliché-filled prayer. Jesus says not to use “empty phrases,” which is what a cliché is. Whatever we do repeatedly risks becoming meaningless. You can probably do your morning, get-ready-for-the-day routine without thinking about each step because you’ve done it a thousand times. Unfortunately, the same thing happens to our prayers. I’ve gotten to the end of a fairly lengthy prayer and realized I wasn’t thinking at all about what I said. So here’s a thought: slow down, and think about every word that you say.

Relax. God’s not looking for perfection. He doesn’t have his checklist out like a college professor making sure you meet all of his requirements. A good place to start is just to make sure you’re speaking to God from your heart . . . that you’re being honest with him. He already knows you were mean to the kids this morning, so why not talk to him about it? The anger you’ve got in your heart? He knew about that before he even created you, so don’t try to hide it from him. Just talk to him.

Pray a really short prayer, or a really long one—it doesn’t matter. Some of your prayers will last about fifteen seconds as you walk the sidewalk to your front door in the evening. Others might last as long it takes you to fall asleep, or as long as the drive is to work or the grocery store. And then you’ll have some that are like the ones Jesus prayed when he went off into the wilderness—a time of uninterrupted, focused communion with the Lord. But whatever you do, don’t worry about the length. Pray from your heart . . . God hears the ten-second prayer just like he hears the thirty-minute one.

My daughter’s in college now, and not once have I been disappointed to see her name and number pop up on my phone. I just like to hear her voice.

I suspect that’s something like what God thinks when we whisper his name in prayer.

A problem for religious folks

I don’t know of anything Jesus castigated more harshly than he did the sin of hypocrisy. You may remember the “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” lecture that he gave—his audience had no doubts about how he felt about the way they were living. He called them “blind guides,” “blind fools,” “whitewashed tombs,” “serpents,” and “brood of vipers,” among other things.

No, Jesus didn’t like hypocrisy, not even a little.

Still doesn’t. One of the worst things about it is that it happens to religious people—those who believe in God and who, in some sense, want to follow him.

I’m religious, aren’t you? You go to church, right? You like to pray and read your Bible and do religious kinds of things.

That’s why we of all people ought to listen closely to this, because he’s talking about bad places that religious folks like us can get sucked into.

And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you (Matthew 6:5-6).

I like public worship, and I think it ought to be important to every Christian. But like other good things, Satan will do everything he can to use it to hurt us. One of his favorite tactics is to get us to forget the real reason we’re doing what we’re doing.

If you’ve ever led a public prayer or preached a sermon or taught a Bible class, you know the temptation. I wonder what people thought about that prayer? Did it sound okay? Did it sound spiritual enough? Man, I hope they liked that sermon.

Pretty soon it’s about me and not him.

I think that’s why God likes private devotion more than public praise. It’s a lot easier to be real with God when it’s just me, my closet, and him. There’s no one to impress there.

No one’s going to critique (or like) my sermon, no one’s going to be blown away by the eloquence (or stumbling) of my prayer, no one’s evaluating how well I’m doing whatever religious act I’m doing.

Just me and the Lord, and he doesn’t need me to show off.

That’s why everyone needs a private place to commune with the Lord. Yours might be the cab of your car on your way to work, or maybe a secluded park bench where you hide on your lunch break.

Or maybe your place is ridiculously hard to create because you’ve got a toddler or two who follow you everywhere you go.

Here’s the thing, though: our public worship is probably not going to go much higher than our private devotion, which I think is what the Lord’s getting at here.

When there’s no intimacy between us and the Lord on Saturday, the public stuff on Sunday might slide over into something we don’t want it to be—something like going through the motions just to put on appearances.

And Jesus, as we noted, doesn’t want that at all.

Look at me!

[Okay, so why did I drop off the devotional-writing map for two months, you ask? Well, I have some excuses, but none of them are very good. Truth is, I used the “I don’t have time to write today” excuse to myself, though I think that was just a different way of saying “I’m not going to make it a priority today.” Regardless, I hope you’ll forgive my little hiatus and join with me as we try to get closer to Jesus in 2014. I plan to write what I hope will be encouraging reflections on life and Scripture as we walk through this year together. It’s a little late, but happy new year! I look forward to sharing with you. To God be the glory. –Chuck]

Anonymous giving is fun, isn’t it? You write a note or send a gift to someone who needs it, but you don’t sign your name because you don’t want the person to feel obligated to return the favor. You just want to encourage, or maybe help.

But be honest—have you ever hoped that maybe the person would find out it was you?

Or maybe it wasn’t like that at all. Maybe it was about just normal Christian living—giving to the church, cooking a meal for a grieving family, or whatever—and you had the fleeting thought, “I wonder if anyone in this church knows how much I do to serve other people?”

Then you probably got rid of the thought as quickly as it came, because you knew what Jesus taught here:

. . . when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you (Matthew 6:2-4).

Truth is, Jesus is responding to a real struggle for many of us. He might be exaggerating when he talks about people blowing a trumpet, but not by much. Some people want everyone to know how generous they are, or how much time they give, or how many people they serve.

We’ve got to fight against that urge, but it’s kind of hard in our look-at-me world, isn’t it? A benefactor donates money to a hospital and then looks forward to watching his television interview. A politician points to his generosity as evidence that he’s truly compassionate . . . and he’d love to have your vote, of course. Watch the guy who scores a touchdown in one of the NFL playoff games this weekend—he’ll probably show off a few new dance moves in the end zone (“Look at me! Put me on ESPN!”).

Christians walk a different path, though, or we try to. We give to people and try to deflect any attention to the Savior we serve. We recognize our indebtedness to the one who gave himself for us, so we point people to him. We hope he’ll get all the glory, because he’s the only one who truly deserves it.

A few weeks ago scores of people in our church family donated dozens of hours of time, hundreds of food items, and who knows how many articles of clothing so that people in our community might have clothes to keep them warm this winter and food to keep them and their families full.

Why? To get their names in the church bulletin? To get a shout-out from the church pulpit?

I don’t think so. I think they did it so that God would get the glory and that maybe a few people would learn to call on Jesus as their Lord and Savior.

But they’ve got a reward coming, of course, as Jesus says. And that reward is infinitely more fulfilling than the fleeting praise of people here.