Jesus is the Problem


I chuckle to myself sometimes when I drive around and I see bumper stickers and billboards with hokey slogans like “Jesus is the Answer” because that phrase makes me want to say something snarky like, “Could you repeat the question?”

I find that folks who resort to one-liners like that are too quick to boil down the deep, rich complexity of two thousand years of Christian tradition to a cheap, one-sided formula and I just don’t think you can honestly do that if you actually read the Bible and wrestle with the things it says.  When I think about the person Jesus of Nazareth and the kinds of things he said and did, I’m frankly puzzled and disturbed more often than not.  One of the things that keeps me engaged with Jesus as my Lord and Savior is the way that he challenges me time and time again to grow as person and to break out of old, destructive ways of thinking and living.  Most often, he does this by telling stories and asking questions of his audience.  So yeah, I laugh when I see signs that say “Jesus is the answer” because, frankly, the one I want to slap on the back of my car would have to say, “Jesus is the problem.”

Jesus is a problem.  If you actually read the gospels, you’ll see he’s that perpetual, prophetic pebble in the shoe to those who think they hold all power and know all the answers to every question ever asked.  It’s literally impossible to hang around Jesus for any length of time and not get your worldview seriously knocked off-balance in some kind of significant way.

And in today’s gospel reading, Jesus is once again doing just that: knocking things off-balance as usual.

Today’s reading is all about Jesus’ teaching on the subject of prayer.  What he has to say about it challenged people in his time and continues to challenge us in our own time, although in a slightly different way.

In the ancient world, the story Jesus tells about one friend begging bread from another friend in the middle of the night would have been heard, not as a story about prayer, but as a story about public protest.

In this story, a friend shows up at his friend’s house in the middle of the night, asking for bread, “Friend,” he says, “lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.”  And the other friend says, “Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.”

But, according to Jesus, this conflict is preordained to end in the first friend’s favor because “even though [the second friend] will not get up and give [the first one] anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.”

Now, the key word in that last sentence is persistence.  In some older translations, the word they used was importunity.  But the original Greek word here is anaideian, which literally means “shamelessness”.  By behaving so shamelessly in public, in the middle of the night, the first friend is demonstrating the abject desperation of his situation and appealing directly to his friend’s moral character.  The second friend, on the other hand, is now honor-bound to respond because refusing to do so would cost him respect in the eyes of the village, and remember that respect in the ancient world was at least as valuable as money.  So, in the end, Jesus’ parable is really all about the character of the one being asked for bread.  Taken as a metaphor for prayer, this parable is about God’s character as the one being prayed to by believers.  The question ultimately being asked here is not, “How do I get my prayers answered?” but rather “Who is God?”

Among the religious authorities in that part of the ancient world, they believed that God answered prayer based on a kind of merit system in relation to the Jewish Torah.  Only decent, established leaders with proper pedigrees and credentials would dare to approach the almighty God with a request.  Jesus, on the other hand, is turning that cultural expectation on its head.  He’s saying that it’s not the character of the person that determines God’s willingness to hear prayer, but the character of God.  God, according to Jesus, is not a bean-counting judge who’s “making a list and checking it twice” before deciding whether someone’s prayers are worth hearing.  Rather, the God that Jesus believes in is a generous, loving presence whose office door is perpetually open to any and every broken heart that comes knocking in the middle of the night, looking for some sign that they matter and they are loved.  God doesn’t care whether you have the right beliefs or the right morals.  It doesn’t matter whether or not you deserve love, you get it anyway because that’s just who God is.  God is love.  Full stop.  End of sentence.  Nothing else matters.  There’s nothing you can do about it.  Deal with it.

So that’s what the parable means in the ancient world: prayer is about shameless audacity.  Prayer is not about the worthiness of the one who is asking, but the character the one who is asked.

Here in the modern world, Jesus’ parable on prayer has just as many challenging things to say to us, although in a different way.  Unlike the world of the ancient Middle East, our culture has been shaped by two centuries of industrial capitalism.  Our main question when it comes to prayer is, “Does it work?”

We’re obsessed with things working in the modern world.  We define reality by what we can observe and measure.  If you can’t see it or attach a number to it in some way, then it must not be real.  We are the only culture in the history of the human race to think this way.  Shouldn’t that strike us as odd?  Every other human civilization has left room open in their worldview for some kind of transcendent mystery.  Some parts of reality just can’t be measured.  Everybody else seems to get that but us.  So, statistically speaking, I think we enlightened, evolved westerners should at least ask ourselves the question: Could it be possible that we are actually the ones with the problem?

There can be no doubt that our means-ends rationality has taken us far.  We have made unparalleled leaps in the fields of science, technology, medicine, communication, travel, and exploration.  The modern mind has obviously been a blessing.  But we’ve also caused more death, extinction, pollution, annihilation, and oppression than any other culture in history, so we can’t stay high up on our pedestal for very long.  Without an overarching sense of meaning and mystery, we’ve managed to do a lot without knowing what it’s all for.  So I ask again: maybe ours is the culture with the problem.

When it comes to prayer, modern westerners have repeatedly come back to that rational question: Does it work?  And they’ve typically presented one of two possible answers.

On the one hand, you have some believers arguing that it absolutely does.  They say that prayer is like magic.  If you pray to the right person in the right way, you will get what you want.  If you don’t get the result you want, then you forgot to pray, or you didn’t do it right, or you didn’t have enough faith.  This is the ultimate form of “blaming the victim” when it comes to spirituality and suffering.  Needless to say, I think this “prayer is magic” philosophy is a pile of baloney.

On the other hand, there are lots of other modern folks who say that prayer is just a placebo: a psychological self-help exercise that just comforts people and brings communities together without making a real difference in the world.  I have to say that this perspective makes me just as uncomfortable as the “prayer is magic” approach because it too neatly divides reality into the material and the spiritual, with the material being regarded as the only part that’s really real.  In the five years that I’ve been a pastor, I’ve walked with people and families through some really hard times.  I’ve seen some amazing things for which I have no logical explanation.  One might even call them miraculous.  On the other hand, I’ve seen good, devout people face unimaginable tragedy with seemingly unanswered prayers.  I’ve seen innocent children suffer and die under the deafening silence of heaven.  So, when it comes to the observable, measurable effectiveness of prayer, I don’t have a one-size-fits-all direct answer.  It’s ambiguous.

The place I come to when I hear Jesus’ teaching on prayer is that getting things done is not the point.  If we’re stuck in that place where we’re asking, “Does prayer work?” then we’re asking the wrong question.

Just like the friend in Jesus’ parable, the question comes down to this: Who is God?  Prayer draws our attention to that same loving, open presence that envelopes us all, whether we deserve it or not, whether we believe in it or not.  Prayer is not about you and it’s not about getting things done.  Prayer changes us, regardless of whether or not it changes our circumstances.  Prayer gets us out of our narrow-minded, modern rationality and helps us to grow in our awareness of the great mystery within around us.  Prayer opens our hearts and minds to hear and to trust in that silent, inner voice that continually calls out to us, saying, “I love you, God loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Be blessed and be a blessing.

The Big Picture

Do you ever feel like you get “stuck in your head”?

You know what I mean by that: you start thinking about some question or some problem in your life and it just takes over your whole mental process for hours or even days at a time.  Later on, when you look back at the situation with the benefit of hindsight, you can’t understand how in the world you got yourself so worked up over such a little thing!

Personally, this kind of thing happens to me a lot.  For those who don’t know my back story, I have been engaged in a lifelong battle with a particularly severe form of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD).  One of the most counter-intuitive symptoms of this disorder is something called hyperfocus.  It sounds weird because ADD is typically associated with an inability to focus on one thing for an extended period of time, but thanks to whatever chemical imbalance causes the disorder, many of us who have ADD also have this involuntary capacity to occasionally hyperfocus or fixate on something past the point where it’s rational or healthy to do so.  In other words, it’s really easy for us to get “stuck in our heads” over some relatively small and insignificant issue.

For example, there was a time in my life when I was thinking about joining a new church, but I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to be Presbyterian, Lutheran, or Episcopal.  For most people, this would not be a big deal.  Most mainline Protestants are pretty similar to each other, but my hyperfocus kicked in and I was up until all hours of the night, reading each tradition’s history and theology.  You could find me at 4am, pacing the floors of my apartment and wringing my hands because I couldn’t figure out which church was the right one for me.  How irrational is that?!  At the time, it felt like the most important decision I would ever make.  In hindsight, it all seems pretty silly.  That’s ADD in action.

If I had been born only a generation earlier, I would have been dismissed as lazy, slow, absent-minded, or scatter-brained.  However, recent advances in medical science combined with the attentive care of my parents and teachers allowed me to rise above my limitations and achieve my full potential as a human being.  These days, I’m on medication that keeps my brain from running away with itself like it used to.  I’m far less prone to fixate on particular problems or get “stuck in my head” over little things.

How about you?  Even if you don’t have ADD, there comes a time in every life when one is liable to get carried away or “stuck in your own head” over some issue or another.  We all have ways of putting up mental filters like horse blinders in moments of crisis.  Sometimes, this is necessary: a particular problem is so big or so important that it needs your full attention for a moment.  However, the trouble comes when we leave those blinders up all the time so that we never see the joys and concerns of the wider world around us.

Personally, I think our whole North American culture has become “stuck in its head” in a number of unhealthy ways.  First of all, we’ve been trained by over 200 years of philosophy since the Enlightenment to prize the life of the individual mind over the life of the body and the community.  This tendency goes back to a very famous philosopher named Rene Descartes.  He was the philosopher who first said, “Cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am).”  When he said that, he was trying to use his powers of reason to prove one and for all that there is such a thing as a soul.  He was a brilliant person.  We owe a lot to him.  He lived and wrote during the Thirty Years War: a time when religious division fueled political conflicts.  After fighting as a soldier in that war, Rene Descartes became convinced that he could use reason to construct the kind of belief system that both Protestants and Catholics could confirm.  That way, he thought, these bitter religious wars would become unnecessary and naturally fizzle out over time.  It was a noble intention.

Furthermore, Descartes method of reasoning was a major step in the development of individualism, wherein the rights and responsibilities of even a single person matter in the grand scheme of things.  Up to that point in history, the needs of individuals were always subjected to the needs of the group.  Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that all people are “created equal” and possess certain “unalienable rights”: “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  Jefferson could not have written those words were it not for the groundwork of individualism laid by Rene Descartes.  So, that’s the good part of individualism.  We need it.  We wouldn’t be who we are today without its influence.

However, there is also a downside.  Individualism can lead us to get “stuck in our heads” in an unhealthy way.  Ironically, it can lead us to disregard the rights and needs of other individuals.  Through it, we have learned to justify selfishness over compassion.  We are told that “greed is good” and generosity only encourages laziness.  We have a tendency to get so obsessed with our own “pursuit of Happiness” that we would deny that same “unalienable right” to our equals.  The culture of individualism unfortunately leads people to the hypocritical place where the “unalienable” rights to “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” are only granted to those who can afford them.  Unchecked individualism is damaging to the life of a community.

The second way in which our whole culture has a tendency to get “stuck in its head” has to do with the way in which we value the life of the mind over the life of the body.  This takes us back to Rene Descartes as well.  He believed that a person’s identity could be identified with his or her ability to reason.  Descartes decided that he could doubt every aspect of his existence: his body, his sense perceptions, and his thoughts.  The one thing that a person cannot doubt or deny is the fact that he or she is thinking.  That’s where Descartes got his famous phrase: “I think, therefore I am.”

Once again, this development has had a positive effect.  Through it, we have learned to use the power of reason to improve our lives.  Descartes himself helped to lay the foundation upon which the Scientific Method was later developed.  Much of what we take for granted in science and technology would not have been possible without the way in which he shaped our thinking.

However, there is a downside to this as well.  Western European and North American cultures have had a tendency to value the mind at the expense of the body.  For example, jobs where people work with their brains tend to be more socially prestigious than jobs where people work with their hands.  A doctor (in this culture) is generally considered to have a “better” job than a nurse.  It’s not a matter of skill or hard work.  There are nurses who have doctoral degrees in their field, yet they are constantly under pressure from some MDs to not use their title, “doctor”, even though they’ve earned it.  “Doctors” are generally thought of as mental laborers while “nurses” are generally thought of as physical laborers.  Never mind that we can’t run a hospital without people to do both jobs.  Our culture has trained us to value the one and take the other for granted.  We’re all “stuck in our heads” when it comes to career prestige.

Likewise, our valuation of the mind over the body has led North Americans to abuse and mistreat the earth in so many ways.  Organisms and ecosystems are our partners on this planet, but many in our culture have come to see them as resources to be exploited.  We’re “stuck in our heads” here as well.  We’ve become so myopic about the survival and prosperity of our own species that we’ve forgotten about the basic state of interdependence in which we already exist.  When we damage the water and the air, we are only hurting ourselves.  We roll our eyes when some activist talks about “the environment” because we forget that we are the environment.  When we recklessly drive species after species into extinction, we are only hastening the moment of our own extinction.  Where the planet itself is concerned, there is no “survival of the fittest”.  There comes a time when competition must give way to cooperation or else everyone loses.

We can’t afford to stay “stuck in our heads” anymore.

A few minutes ago, I mentioned that I am now on medication that prevents me from getting “stuck in my head” because of my ADD.  I wonder, is there some kind of “medicine” for our cultural tendency to get “stuck in our heads” in these ways that I just talked about?  I think there is.

We read a passage this morning from Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount.  He addresses his own culture’s tendency to get “stuck in its head”.  He says to his followers, “I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?”  Like us, Jesus’ listeners are “stuck in their heads” and caught up in their own little worlds where everything revolves around them and their immediate needs and wants.

Jesus is trying to get them to take their blinders off and see the bigger picture of reality.  He’s taking them on a journey from being self-centered people to becoming reality-centered people.  This is a path followed by people from every religious tradition, although they might understand and express it differently.  I don’t say that in order to minimize or disrespect the very real differences between religions, but it’s worth noting that we do share some common elements with each other, not the least of which is this sense that (A) “there is something wrong with the world” and (B) “there is a way out of the wrongness”.  Christians have traditionally called the wrongness, “sin”, and the way out, “salvation”.  Here in this passage from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is showing people a way out of the wrongness.

What is the way out?  How does Jesus propose to take us on that journey from being “stuck in our heads” to seeing the big picture?  What is the medicine that he prescribes for treating our cultural myopia?  The medicine is the universe itself.  He says, “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns… Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.”

Jesus draws his listeners’ attention to the natural balance of life and creation.  In order to liberate people from being stuck inside their own self-centered obsession, he asks them a rhetorical question: “Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?”  The answer, of course, is yes.  There is more to life than all that.  We ought to lift our vision higher and examine our individual needs in the context of the big picture.  There is more to see, if only we can remove these horse blinders of selfishness and meditate on the sacred harmony we find in the universe around us.

We are part of the big picture.  We are gifted with life in the context of our ecosystem.  Our planet is delicately balanced in its orbit around the sun, not so close that we burn up and not so far away that we freeze.  Our sun is one of several hundred billion stars that make up the beautiful spirals of the Milky Way galaxy.  Our galaxy is one of 170 billion galaxies in the observable universe that got started with a Big Bang approximately 13.75 billion years ago.  This is the big picture.  In the grand scheme of things, our self-centered obsessions are pretty small.  Jesus was right: life is more than food and the body more than clothing.  There is more.  WAY more!  And the amazing thing is that it all flows together so well, without our being able to control or direct the process in any way.  It’s just there.  It’s just happening.  Meditating on that reality can help us to maintain an attitude of humility before the mystery of existence.  It reminds us that we can never know all the answers to the secrets of the universe.  It keeps us from getting “stuck in our heads” with our own petty little problems.  Humanity is told in the book of Genesis, “you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  We are small, this is true.

But on the other hand, meditation on creation reminds us that we are also big.  We are more than those problems that threaten to keep us “stuck in our heads”.  As Jesus said, our lives are more than food and clothing.  According to legend in the book of Genesis, human beings are dust into which the breath of life has been breathed.  Our bodies are vessels for the Ruach HaKodesh, which is Hebrew for “the Sacred Breath”.  Another way to translate that same phrase is “Holy Spirit”.  We all hold this mysterious gift called Life for the limited time that we are on this earth.  The Sacred Breath (Ruach HaKodesh, “Holy Spirit) flows into and out of us all.  We don’t get to decide where and when we live or what will happen to us while we are here.  The only thing we get to choose is what we will do with the time we have.  Will we stay “stuck in our own heads” or will we lift our vision higher in order to see the big picture?

You are bigger and smaller than you think.  You are a speck of dust into which has been breathed the Holy Spirit, the Sacred Breath of Life.  You were born into a nest of cosmic harmony as part of “the interdependent web of all existence”.  As Jesus taught us to do, use this time you are given to honor that sacred harmony and contribute to it by living a life of service and compassion toward your fellow creatures.