The Three-Legged Stool

three-legged_stoolI’ve been thinking a lot about three-legged stools since Mark’s sermon this past Sunday. They are superior to the four-legged bar stools in my kitchen which are never flush to the ground.  They rock.  They squeak. Their legs work themselves loose.  Three-legged stools are unique in their stability. Mark, of course, was not talking about carpentry so much, but the three legs that provide stability to our spirituality. Jesus identifies them in Matthew 6 as: giving to the poor, prayer and fasting. The long-term commitment to and deliberate practice of generosity, self-denial and prayer are the keys to a deep, rich, and strong spiritual life.

I have to admit that this grates against me for a number of reasons. First, and foremost, I am an American and as an American, I don’t associate spirituality with a set of practices. I see spirituality as a collection of experiences. I associate words like spontaneous, mind-blowing, unplanned, emotionally-charged and free-form. I think of settings like a concert or a gathering of people where God “suddenly shows up.” It feels more like a “high.”  I don’t tend to think of spirituality as a set of practices that are consistently followed for a long period of time.

Second, the whole idea of working at our relationship with Christ seems to be at odds with the whole concept of grace.  We teach at our church that God accepts us  not based on our performance, but on what Christ did for us. He became a human being.  He lived a perfect life for us.  He died our death. He rose from the dead. He offers eternal life to those who receive this gift by faith. Jesus does the work.  We receive the gift. So why should we do anything?  Wouldn’t giving to the poor, prayer and fasting turn into an attempt to make ourselves look good to God and to others. Didn’t Jesus die to save us from all this work?

There is some truth to this objection when you consider that Jesus’ fiercest opponents, the Pharisees, practiced all three legs of the spiritual stool religiously. The Pharisees gave at least 10% of their income. They fasted as often as twice a week. They prayed publicly.  And yet they hated Jesus and he rightly called them hypocrites. So what was wrong? It wasn’t the behavior, it was the motivation.

Matthew 6:2 So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogue and on the streets, to be honored by men.  I tell you the truth they have received their reward in full.

Matthew 6:5 And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth they have received their reward in full.

Matthew 6:16 When you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full.

In other words, they were praying, fasting and giving to the poor for the same reason a wide receiver thumps his chest after scoring a touchdown or an actress wears a tight revealing dress on the red carpet — to be noticed, to be praised. Such religious practice is worthless because it is just a show. As Jesus says, why look for God to reward you, you’ve already received the reward you were seeking.

We all know religious types who are motivated by a desire to look good.  Religious showmen are plenty and Jesus rightly condemns their hypocrisy.  But he doesn’t condemn the practice, rather he calls us to do them with a new motivation.

Matthew 6:3 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. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

Matthew 6:6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

Matthew 6:17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

CS Lewis in his sermon, The Weight of Glory, said that humans are wired with a “great and undisguised pleasure in being praised.” That, I believe, is at the heart of true spirituality. We all seek to be praised and affirmed. The question is, whose approval are we seeking?

I attended the Celtics-Knicks game back in January and I was struck by the crowds’ scramble to get noticed by the fan-cam and be broadcasted on the jumbotron. There we were, 60,000 people desperately wanting to get noticed.  Perhaps the mark of the shallowness of our spirituality is our obsession with celebrity.   We worship those who are obnoxious enough to grab headlines or catch the camera-man’s eye. It has infected the church.  Pastors like me want bigger churches that will afford more attention and gain more accolades. We want to publish books.  We want to speak at large conferences. We want to get on TV. We want to be praised, but we are seeking it from those whose rewards are worthless.

Jesus is not denying our desire to be noticed or praised even. He is calling us to seek the praise of the one whose love is far more rewarding.  Those who are satisfied by the accolades of other people will miss out on this deeper spiritual blessing. For there is one whose love and rewards will last for eternity, far longer than the 15 minutes that the camera or going viral can offer. This deeper spirituality is driven by a desire to hear the words Jesus heard from his Father, “well done good and faithful servant.”

Jesus wants us to pray, give to the poor and fast. But he wants us to do it for his sake and the praise he offers. But, as it is with all good things, this praise comes with a cost.  We must do these things secretly. Give and don’t tell anyone about it. Pray regularly but do it when no one is around. Fast often, but don’t complain about it.

This is hard, because God seems distant and invisible compared to the people in our life.  Their reward is immediate.  God’s rewards often take time. But that is how it is with true spirituality.  You give up the lesser immediate joy for the one whose blessings last for eternity. Give, pray and fast, but do it only so God can see.  Give up the lesser high of human praise for the greater joy of hearing the Father say, “well done good and faithful servant.”

The Season of Lent, as Mark likes to say, is a “spiritual laboratory” where we try out spiritual practices that may one day become lifelong disciplines. Try giving, praying and fasting under the cloak of secrecy for the Season of Lent.  Set down the three legs of your spiritual life and look for the Holy Spirit to ween you from your craving of human approval so that you might enjoy the eternal blessings of God who loves you and accepts what you have to offer through the life and death of his Son.


Read until your Heart gets hot

I learned something the other day that might help those of us who struggle with keeping a routine of reading the Bible. Here is my rough paraphrase of a talk Tim Keller gave to a group of pastors  …

Read slowly. Chew on the passages that grab your attention. Read until your heart gets hot and then move into prayer.

There is a difference between reading for information (or worse, to check it off my list) and devouring Scripture for its own sake. CS Lewis, in his book, An Experiment in Criticism, calls this “using” a book, as opposed to truly reading it and allowing it to move you. I have certainly been guilty of this. I use the Bible like a tool, to turn out sermons, find principles for life, and win arguments. But Scripture is more than a hammer or a good smart phone, it is a Spirit-breathed document created to mold us into the image of God. We must, as Mr. Lewis encourages us, surrender to it in order to fully experience its power. We need to move beyond using Scripture to receiving it.

I know no better way to do this than to approach Scripture with no other agenda than to listen closely to the Spirit of God whispering softly from its pages.  Only the humble, the quiet, and the slow will have ears to hear.  Begin with a prayer of surrender to the will of God, pray that he will break through the noise of your ambition and your busy life, and prepare yourself to savor the words as one would enjoy a fine meal or conversation with a friend.

Read through the passage slowly and stop when your attention is drawn to a word, a line or sentence.  Stay there a while, chew on the words and turn it over in your mind.  This is what the Scriptures call meditation. Think, mull, chew, and meditate until your heart begins to warm and the Spirit carries you into prayer. The language may move you to worship, call you to repent, or challenge you with a fresh vision for your life.  Pray in the direction the Scriptures take you. Allow the Holy Spirit to carry you from reading, through meditation and into prayer.

Let’s try this together (you can use one of the today’s Scripture readings.). Practice this for a couple of days and share your experiences by posting a comment.

Finding the Center

You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you. (Augustine’s Confessions)

We have been conditioned to believe that prayer is about bringing our needs to God. Don’t get me wrong, there is some truth here. The Psalms do invite us to “call upon me [God] in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and I will deliver you.”  Jesus himself affirms this in the Lord’s prayer where he invites us to pray, “give us this day our daily bread.” We are to bring our needs to God.

The problem comes when we equate prayer requests with prayer itself; when prayer is only a means to change the mind of God.  What happens when God doesn’t bend his will to our own? Will our faith survive when he decides to take our lives in a direction not of our choosing? Will we be forced to conclude that prayer lacks the power to impact our worlds? Or do we understand prayer at all?

I was struck by what CS Lewis had to say about prayer:

I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time- waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God- it changes me. (from the movie “Shadowlands”)

No one can deny that needs drive us to pray. Recently a five year old boy in our church was diagnosed with lymphoma and I have never seen my church so galvanized to pray.  In this case God answered and the boy’s health was restored. But I don’t believe we convinced God to heal this boy. It was us, not God, that was changed by the experience. We emerged as a people with a deeper appreciation of what it means for God to be the healer.

But what if our problems go deeper than facing unemployment, children who are struggling, friends who are sick and a marriage that is failing? The problem with reducing prayer to a laundry list of requests is that we truly don’t know what we need. It assumes that the things we long for are the things that will make us whole. The truth is that our souls are bent, our hearts misshapen and our desires lack a true center.

The prayer masters who wrote the psalms understood that our hearts needed to be re-centered before we brought our desires to God. It is we that need to be changed, not God. I noticed this the other day as I was studying Psalm 84. Needs are addressed in this psalm, but that doesn’t come until verse 8. The first  seven verses are about placing God at the center of his heart, soul and body. That is our deepest need. To have our desires, motivations and bodies orbiting God, the true source of life and wholeness.

What good would it be for us to have all our dreams fulfilled and our needs met if those needs and desires are warped? The psalmist, recognizing this danger, begins his prayer by recentering his heart:

Psalm 84:2 My soul yearns, even faints for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God.

Underneath our need for love, security, meaning, adventure and fulfillment is a craving for God who alone can satisfy them. Prayer gets warped when we believe that the need for love will only be met with a satisfying marriage, security comes only from  a good job with great benefits, meaning is only found in a successful career, adventure emerges with the next experience and fulfillment comes with achievement. God may choose to give us these things, but our real need is not for the gifts, but for the giver himself.

Psalm 34:7 calls us to “delight yourself in the LORD and he will give you the desires of your heart” because when you delight yourself in the LORD you will discover that he is the desires of your heart.  We all die, economies fail, relationships disappoint and work will never define us, but God will always remain. Our true need can only be met when we allow God to wrap our desires around himself and his dream for the world.

Forgive us our debts

Victims of the Nazi terror bombing campaign in London. “Every one says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive.” CS Lewis

England was not in a forgiving mood as German bombs indiscriminately rained down on the terrified residents of London. It was in this atmosphere of fear and anger that CS Lewis was asked by the BBC to give a series of talks on what he called “Mere Christianity”. One of his most poignant talks dealt with forgiveness.

Every one says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive, as we had during the war. And then, to mention the subject at all is to be greeted with howls of anger. It is not that people think this too high and difficult a virtue: it is that they think it hateful and contemptible. ‘That sort of talk makes them sick,’ they say. And half of you already want to ask me, ‘I wonder how you’d feel about forgiving the Gestapo if you were a Pole or a Jew?’

So do I. I wonder very much. Just as when Christianity tells me that I must not deny my religion even to save myself from death by torture, I wonder very much what I should do when it came to the point. I am not trying to tell you in this book what I could do — I can do precious little — I am telling you Christianity is. I did not invent it. And there, right in the middle of it, I find ‘Forgive us our sins as we forgive those that sin against us.’ There is no slightest suggestion that we are offered forgiveness on any other terms. It is made perfectly clear that if we do not forgive we shall not be forgiven. There are no two ways about it. What are we to do? (CS Lewis, Mere Christianity)

It is impossible to receive God’s forgiveness without forgiving our neighbor, but those who understand the true cost of forgiveness understand that is impossible. So what do we do?

Jesus tells a story of a servant who is forgiven a debt of an astronomical amount of money by a kindhearted king (Matthew 18:21-35). The king cancels the 10,000 talent bill because he was  moved by man’s desperate pleas to  save him and his family from a life of debt slavery. Despite having been forgiven, the servant begins choking a man who owed him a much smaller sum, demanding that he pay his debt.

I hated this unmerciful servant until I understood the size of debt he was owed. A denarii was what a worker could expect to be paid for a day’s labor. Therefore 100 denarii was roughly equivalent to a third of his annual salary. If you are living paycheck to paycheck, could you imagine taking a financial hit of that magnitude? Would you be able to absorb the loss of income? It may be the difference between eating and not eating.

And yet we despise this unmerciful servant Why? Because as significant as the debt that was owed him, it was dwarfed by the debt he owed the king. That’s why we believe the king is well within his rights to imprison this servant and hand him over to be tortured. He deserves it. Do you see now how Jesus set us up?

God is the kindhearted king, we are the unmerciful servants. This warning is for us:

Matthew 18:35 This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you [prison and torture] unless you forgive your brother from your heart.

So what do we do when God demands the impossible of us?

We remember that our God has forgiven us at the cost of the crucifixion of his Son.

We allow the enormity of the debt we owed God, that is all the ways we have failed to love him and our neighbor, to humble us and build  compassion for the one who has harmed us. The one thing we have in common with our enemies is that we both owe God a debt that we are incapable of paying.

Finally, we cry out to God. A third of an annual salary is too much harm to let go. Only he can lift this burden and wrest my fingers from the debt that is owed. We can’t do this by our own strength. We need to pray, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” May God give us the grace to believe that God has forgiven the unforgivable in us and will give us the power to do the same for others.