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Your Will Be Done

 Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Matthew 6:10

This passage comes from the Lord’s Prayer. Many of us repeat it, often mindlessly, on Sundays in church. The sentiment for God’s will to be done is found throughout the Bible. One memorable usage occurs when Jesus, praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, asks God to spare him the agony of the crucifixion. “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). The traditional understanding of this thought is that circumstances can go either our way or God’s way. In this sense, when we say “Your will be done,” we affirm that we want God to turn events as God would have them, not necessarily the way we prefer.

There is another way to interpret these words, however, which is to treat them as an acknowledgement that God’s will will be done, instead of as our willing submission to God’s wisdom. In other words, it does not matter what we desire, what we plead for, God’s will will be done, regardless. If God’s will is what is, then God’s will is playing out all of the time. If God’s will is always being done, then what we experience, moment by moment, is the unfolding of that will, although not necessarily the completion of that will. I do not believe it is God’s will that we suffer, whether from cancer, depression, or a broken heart. Rather, hurting is a natural part of our human condition, as is joy, and we cannot have one without the other. Likewise, death is a natural part of life in an earthly body. Everything on earth is born, lives, and dies, and its earth-bound elements are remade into something new. Death must happen to allow new life because the earth is a closed system. Whatever and whomever we have or love that is of the earth will deteriorate and die. Only the spirit that animates life is immortal.

Accepting that pain is a natural part of life, particularly in the context of God’s will relentlessly being done, it is helpful to distinguish between pain and suffering. Pain happens to all of us at various times throughout our lives. Physical and emotional wounds are part of our being. Suffering is different, however. How much we suffer from our pain is, at least in part, a choice we make. We often exacerbate our pain by mentally and emotionally focusing on a perceived loss of control because of the pain. We feel someone else is pulling the strings of our lives; we get frustrated, we feel life is not fair, and we suffer. Indeed, someone else is pulling the strings. Rather than a fatalistic fact, however, the good news is that God invites us to co-create the direction and experience of our lives, but we must first submit to co-creating in a way consistent with the will that we are resisting. Our resistance causes us to suffer.

Discerning God’s will in our lives is a challenge for anyone seeking to align their desires to God’s. We can discern the unfolding of God’s will by what we see happening around us. We cannot, however, so easily discern the direction of the unfolding, nor the specifics of how the course of events will develop. That is where we can step in as co-participants – in the specifics of the unfolding of God’s will. A daily prayer practice is vital in aligning our will with God’s. A significant portion of that practice may be spent in silence – not petitioning God for what we want, but opening ourselves to God, surrendering to God’s purposes, and listening for God’s subtle guidance. We may not be in ultimate control, but we can become intimate participants in what is becoming, as opposed to being a helpless victim.

It is inconceivable that a loving God would will us to be miserable – we do that to ourselves. When we can place our painful moments in a larger context, trusting that this too is God’s will unfolding into something new and beautiful, we can reduce our suffering. As Paul writes in Romans 8:28, “…all things work together for good for those who love God.” As we learn to surrender to and recognize God’s will working all things together for good, we honor and acknowledge the place where God resides within us. We reveal who we truly are in Christ.

God’s will will be done, with or without our conscious participation.

This is the 30th in a series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”

 Prefer to listen? Subscribe to Life Notes Podcasts at https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/life-notes-podcast/id1403068000

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Ask, Search, Knock

Ask, 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. Matthew 7:7-8

These words are among the most quoted and familiar of everything Jesus said. They are also among the most misleading. If they were literally true, we could win the lottery by asking God; the 16th Century explorer, Ponce De Leon, would have found the Fountain of Youth; and we could knock on the door of the White House and be granted entry. There is a lot of evidence that Jesus is wrong.

Jesus seems to double-down on these thoughts, however, in the verses that follow. In verse 9, he asks what parent would give a stone to a child asking for bread. In verse 10, he asks what parent would give a snake to a child asking for a fish. In verse 11, he explains that if we know how to give good gifts to our children, “how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” In other words, what sort of parent would not try to give his or her children the good things they desire? That being the case, why would not God, our divine parent, do the same for us? As with much of what Jesus says, however, we must look deeper than the literal translation of his words in order to understand the life-giving spirit behind them. God is not Santa Claus, and the asking, searching, and knocking Jesus references are not a Christmas list.

If we learn anything from the life and teachings of Jesus it is that he manifested a perfect unity of body and spirit, a unity he invites us also to attain. If we picture our life on a continuum, stretching from completely materialistic on the far left to completely spiritual on the far right, we can imagine this inclusive unity in the middle of that space. Anything that pulls us to the far left draws us toward materialism and away from our spiritual nature. Likewise, anything that pulls us to the far right draws us toward spiritualism and away from our bodily nature. God gave us both a body and a spirit for a reason, and they are both good.

When we consider the continuum of our physical and spiritual nature, it goes against our created nature to be drawn overly much to either. The problem with focusing on either end to the exclusion of the other is that we become less and less satisfied, less and less at peace, the farther we go in either direction. Both ends are seductive, but neither without the other is healthy. We think, “If I only had a              , then I would be happy;” but we learn it is not true. The more stuff we have, the more we desire. Likewise, the more enlightening spiritual experiences we have, the more we desire. There is no satisfaction at either end. It is not that our physical and spiritual natures should not be sufficiently nourished – certainly they should. But they should not be fed to where they bloat out of proportion to the other.

The unsolvable human mystery is how, when, or even if God grants requests – providing what we ask for, revealing the object of our search, opening the door upon which we knock. There is evidence that God does grant our wishes, as I have seen people healed whose outlook was dismal. Alternatively, I have seen others waste away and die, in spite of countless, heartfelt prayers. I think the sweet spot in gaining what we wish for is in aligning our desires with God’s will, with what is. Only then will our petitions be granted as naturally as Jesus implies in these verses. Paradoxically, that requires us to change our desires. And yet, is that not the point, for us to be drawn closer to God in our humanity? It seems safe to assume God’s will is not for us to dwell overly much at either end of life’s spectrum, but to deeply experience both body and spirit as one.

Yes, we can and should ask, search, and knock, but we do so with the knowledge that God will not answer, reveal, or open that which is inconsistent with attaining unity within ourselves, with others, and with God. God granting an un-unifying wish would be akin to giving a child a snake when he or she asked for a fish.

This is the 29th in a series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”

 Prefer to listen? Subscribe to Life Notes Podcasts at https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/life-notes-podcast/id1403068000

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Strain a Gnat, Swallow a Camel

 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law; justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel! Matthew 23:24-25

This scripture passage is part of a rant Jesus releases in Matthew 23 upon the religious leaders of his day, the scribes and Pharisees. He accuses them of perpetuating ignorance while pretending to be guardians of knowledge. He calls them hypocrites, blind guides, snakes, and a brood of vipers. He says they are full of greed and self-indulgence, hypocrisy and lawlessness. In verse 27, he says, “For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and all kinds of filth.” Is it any wonder they had him killed? Jesus may have been physically non-violent, but he could be a verbal assassin when he felt it was justified.

Jesus knew the leaders of the Temple were selectively applying scriptural principles for their own benefit. The leaders were not just embarrassed by the accusations, some almost certainly feared Jesus might be right! The common people looked to them for guidance in understanding the scriptures most had no access to (and could not read if they did). Instead of receiving the larger picture of how the Bible applied to their daily lives, the people were given a bunch of rules to follow that mostly benefited the leaders. These rules served to perpetuate the Temple institution more than the community it was erected to serve. The rules also served as a means of behavioral control over the people. It is ironic that the same thing continues today in many houses of worship. Certain charismatic religious leaders convince followers to empty their pockets for the “work” of the church – never mind that a significant work of some churches appears to be the glorification of the pastor. I remember a joke about a pastor who was asked how he determined what money in the collection plate was his and what was God’s. The pastor replied, “I take the money given each Sunday and throw it all up to God. God grabs whatever He needs and lets my share fall back to me.”

Jesus said, “You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” We do the same thing today when we overly focus on a single word or line in scripture and strain out the spirit and the context of the larger work or historical trend. When we focus on minutia, straining gnats, we almost certainly miss the big picture. Father Richard Rohr writes that the lowest level of understanding of scripture is the literal level. In my opinion, we invite the camel when we believe scripture was dictated by God, instead of being inspired by God and written by imperfect, human beings. These words of Jesus stand as a warning to all (myself included) who pretend to have more than a vague sense about the nature of God. God cannot be known as we know other things of the earth. The things we know are of God, but they are not God. We can only observe where God has been. Any attempt to capture or limit God in words is like trying to catch the wind. If someone assures us he or she is serving God for dinner, we can rest assured it is really a camel.

Jesus says we “neglect the weightier matters of the law” like justice, mercy, and faith when we focus on minutia. It is easy to give rules and dole out salvation based on one’s compliance with those rules. The weightier matters of the law require us to change. When Jesus calls the scribes and Pharisees blind, he accuses them of ignorance. They can only focus on minutia because either they do not understand the bigger picture, or they choose not to acknowledge it. Worse, they encourage others to focus on minutia, and so the ignorance perpetuates itself. Wrestling with the totality of scripture is hard and reveals parts of ourselves we prefer to remain hidden. Jesus tells us not to ignore any part of the scripture, but to apply it in a way that includes the difficult and self-incriminating issues of justice, mercy, and faith. Only such an application of religious practice is consistent with the (unwritten) Word of God from which all of life arises.

This is the 28th in a series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”

 Prefer to listen? Subscribe to Life Notes Podcasts at https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/life-notes-podcast/id1403068000

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