The Lord’s Prayer: Learning the Words Jesus Taught

A deep encounter with the Lord’s Prayer through words and photography, to help young children learn the words for the first time and their parents to learn them anew.

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A little over a week ago, we began teaching our three-year-old twins the Lord’s Prayer. I said a phrase and they repeated it, and three phrases in I realized something. How was I supposed to explain what the word “hallowed” means? I stumbled through an explanation using more words my kids don’t know, and then I stopped and realized something else.

I’m a trained Godly Play storyteller, and I was going about this all wrong. I was trying to tell my children about the Lord’s Prayer, trying to educate them as to its meaning. What I should have been doing was inviting them into an experience of the prayer on their own terms, trusting that over time its words will become a part of their language system, woven into the fabric of their faith. Continue reading “The Lord’s Prayer: Learning the Words Jesus Taught”

The Lord’s Prayer: Learning the Words Jesus Taught

A deep encounter with the Lord’s Prayer through words and photography, to help young children learn the words for the first time and their parents to learn them anew.

A little over a week ago, we began teaching our three-year-old twins the Lord’s Prayer. I said a phrase and they repeated it, and three phrases in I realized something. How was I supposed to explain what the word “hallowed” means? I stumbled through an explanation using more words my kids don’t know, and then I stopped and realized something else.

I’m a trained Godly Play storyteller, and I was going about this all wrong. I was trying to tell my children about the Lord’s Prayer, trying to educate them as to its meaning. What I should have been doing was inviting them into an experience of the prayer on their own terms, trusting that over time its words will become a part of their language system, woven into the fabric of their faith. Continue reading “The Lord’s Prayer: Learning the Words Jesus Taught”

Never Alone

Sermon for Sunday, October 4, 2015 || Proper 22B || Mark 10:2-16

NeverAlone“Those whom God has joined together let no one put asunder.” By the end of this year, I will have said these words eleven times after hearing the marriage vows of eleven couples. Jesus says these words in today’s Gospel lesson. And he says many other words about marriage and divorce, about fidelity and desire, and about relationships with the most vulnerable. Beneath these words, no matter how hard they are to hear or to speak, beneath these words shimmers Jesus’ surpassing dream for all creation – that none of us and no part of that creation will ever truly be alone.

Let’s start at the beginning and see what we shall see. The Pharisees come to test Jesus. Whenever this happens in the Gospel, we can bet that Jesus is not going to fall into the Pharisees trap, for a trap it is. They are not being genuine. They are not actually curious about what this great teacher has to say about a certain hot button issue. They just want to make Jesus look bad. This is not the way to begin a conversation of such consequence, and yet testing Jesus is their motive. Thus, we have our first notion of aloneness – the Pharisees desire to set Jesus apart, on the wrong side of an issue, in order to ridicule and debase him, to say to his followers, “See, your teacher is callous and wrong. How could you listen to him?”

You can see how the test is rigged to put Jesus on the wrong side. They lay their trap with this question: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” The answer to this question in the Jewish society of the time was simple: “Yes, it is lawful,” as described in the Law and codified in the book of Deuteronomy. But the Pharisees suspect that Jesus might have something else to say, something they could use against him.

Of course, Jesus doesn’t fall for the trap. Instead, he turns the question back on them, in effect drawing them closer to him, into a conversation instead of a courtroom proceeding. “What did Moses command you?” The Pharisees reply, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” Notice there are two separate actions in this process: writing the certificate of dismissal and completing the divorce. The reality of this two-step process spurs Jesus’ next statement: “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you.”

You see, Moses created the “certificate of dismissal” in order to protect the divorced wife. Men held all the power in the relationship. Women went from being under their father’s power to being under their husband’s. They had no freedom of choice. They were closer to property than people. There was no such thing as mutuality in the relationship. According to some schools of rabbinical thought, a man could divorce his wife for burning his dinner.

In today’s society, some divorced women feel a sense of liberation when they finally tunnel out of the pit their husbands’ misplaced power had dug for them. These women are models of resiliency and courage. But in Jesus’ culture, a woman simply couldn’t leave her husband. If he divorced her, she might feel some small sense of liberation, but this would most likely be snuffed out by fear: fear that she had no protection, no connections; fear that she was now a ripe target for exploitation.

That’s why Moses created the “certificate of dismissal.” It was something a divorced woman could carry with her to show potential employers or future spouses that the divorce was her husband’s idea and everything had been done according to the Law. The “hardness of heart” Jesus speaks of comes from husbands who kicked their wives out of the house with absolutely no thought to their future welfare. So the certificate of dismissal was an oh-so-small gesture to keep the divorced woman from feeling completely abandoned, completely alone.

But Jesus isn’t willing to let the conversation go with an oh-so-small gesture. Instead, Jesus reaches back, past Moses and the Law, all the back to the creation narratives of the book of Genesis. In the first creation story, humanity is made after everything else, so there was no chance for loneliness. But in the second creation story, which Jesus’ references, the “person of earth” (ha adam in the Hebrew) is created first, so this person is utterly and hopelessly alone. So God makes every animal to see if it would alleviate the human’s loneliness, but to no avail. And so God makes another person. And finally the human being finds deep connection, deep relationship. Of course, this is before the fall, before domination and isolation had entered into the story.

Jesus dreams for all creation to embrace living lives of deep connection, so no one need be alone. That’s why he spends so much time with people whom others completely ignore. So the question is, does this mean Jesus prohibits divorce, in all cases, for all time?

I don’t think so. Because domination and isolation are the sad realities of our fallen state, they often become the sad realities in our relationships. Sometimes dominance is the hallmark of a marital relationship, and so one person’s desire guts the relationship of its presumed mutuality. Sometimes the debasing feeling of aloneness is most acute when a marital relationship is supposed to be warding it away and isn’t. In these toxic cases, separation often leads to new life, new possibilities, new chances for mutual connection with other people. Sometimes divorce is the merciful choice, because mercy is all about second chances.

Jesus knows a thing or two about mercy. And so, like he often does, by appealing to a deeper reality, Jesus reorients the conversation to what really matters: not the Pharisees’ insincere test, but the sacredness of relationships that chase isolation away. Jesus ignores the Law, which the Pharisees bring up, and sidesteps the legal ramifications, so I don’t think his energy is invested in legislating new territory for his society’s divorce debate. The last two scenes in the passage show where his energy really sparks.

First, he clarifies something for the disciples. If someone initiates a divorce specifically to marry someone else, then that person has already committed adultery. In other words, the adulterer has satisfied his own craving without thought to the welfare of his spouse.* That person is now alone, and all because the adulterer couldn’t keep himself from straying. This lack of fidelity, this wanton disregard for the welfare of another really gets Jesus’ blood boiling. Again and again throughout the Gospel, his underlying dream surfaces: no one need ever be alone.

And so the final scene in our passage makes perfect sense with the others. We mentioned children two weeks ago: how they were the lowest of the low in Jesus’ society; lower than farm animals, they weren’t even thought of as people until they were old enough and strong enough to work. And yet, Jesus welcomes them into his arms, lets them cling to him, offers them the kingdom of God. In effect, he says, “You are not alone. You may be treated as if you don’t matter, as if you don’t exist, but don’t you believe it for a moment.”

He says the same thing to each of us. This is the conviction he breathes into our souls. In a world where domination and isolation reign, his good news reports a different story, one of connection and deep relationship. Too often, people fall victim to such domination and isolation, which infect the marital relationships that are designed to ward off such evils. In these cases, Jesus’ promise still holds: “You are not alone. I am with you. You need not seek fulfillment where none is to be found. Come to me and together we will begin your story again, so you may find new sources of connection and deep relationship. Remember: you need never be alone.”


*I adlibbed a bit here on Sunday to make sure people understood how I interpret this bit: basically, I think the “and” between “divorces” and “marries” assumes that the two are linked (i.e. the person driving the divorce is doing it in order to marry another). I don’t think he’s talking about a divorce and then a remarriage ten years later.

Why I Love Camp

The following post appeared Friday, July 16th on Episcopalcafe.com, a website to which I am a monthly contributor. Check it out here or read it below.

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I love camp. I love being surrounded by more trees than buildings. I love singing Grace to John Williams’ theme from Superman. I love seeing the half-exhausted, half-excited faces of the campers at breakfast. And I love conversing with children and teenagers because every once in a while they will say something unexpected and profound amidst all the buzzwords and canned phrases that they know will be considered “correct” answers during afternoon Bible studies. Invariably, the profundity of their unexpected contributions comes in the form of the simplest, most direct response to a question.

Here’s why this practice is so profound. Over the years, we adults learn to hedge, to inject some wiggle room into everything we say in order to maintain some deniability later on. We prevaricate, deflect, and obfuscate because we’ve learned from the incessant 24-hour news cycle that a juicy sound byte can tank a career. We’ve learned that a verbal defense mechanism is a necessity for survival.

And with our deniability glands working at full capacity, we say, “Well, that’s not exactly what I meant,” or “I’m not sure you heard me correctly” (when, of course, I purposefully didn’t say exactly what I mean). But the problem with speaking equivocally creeps in over time: prevarication erodes the truth that has been in each of us since God knew us in our mothers’ wombs. When we hedge, we atrophy the muscles that store the truth, and we cut ourselves off from bits of the truth that is within us.

Now I’m not saying that we shouldn’t monitor our words to make sure we always speak hospitably and graciously. Hedging is simply a cheap and ultimately ineffective way to achieve what hospitality and grace achieve naturally – namely, speaking in a way that keeps conversation open and kind. Hedging achieves this end by leading us to speak obscurely so that no meaning can quite be pinned down. Hospitality achieves the same end by leading us to speak truth uncoupled from judgment. One of the epic failures of our time is the withering of this graceful truth when we bury it under our own insecurity and our need to conform to society’s agreed upon level of appropriate vagueness.

Okay, let me get back to why I love camp. I love camp because for a week I get to ascend into the clean and invigorating air of youthful wisdom. The young people just haven’t lived long enough to acquire toxic levels of prevarication. They say all the things that were the first to erode in us adults. God will always be with me. You are my friend. Jesus is awesome. And after a few days of rubbing elbows with the young people, I remember the need to nourish the root system within myself that keeps the truth from eroding.

Thankfully, I didn’t have to preach until Tuesday. I had enough time to drink in the campers’ wisdom, so that when it came time for me to speak I was in less danger of hedging and wiggling. (This was a good thing, too, because children can spot phony commitment a mile away.) I had five minutes to talk about Moses and Aaron, and I had played with several ways to approach the story as I thought about speaking to the campers. When I stood up to speak, I knew my direction of travel, but I was unsure where I would end up.

I began to talk about how Moses was making excuses to God, about how he’s no good at public speaking, about how God might as well get someone else. I looked out at the campers, and then I told them to look at each other. Just then, I realized where the direction of travel was taking me. “God gave everyone special gifts,” I said. “A few of those gifts are within us, but most gifts come wrapped in the people around us. Just because we aren’t good at something doesn’t mean we’re off the hook. It just means we have an opportunity to invite a friend to help us.” These words rang true as I said them, but I didn’t feel them within myself before speaking them. I felt like I was absorbing these words from the young people staring up at me. What a gift.

Of course, as usually happens, I spoke the words aloud, but I’m probably the one who benefited from them more than anyone else. I needed the injection of youthful wisdom to find that truth again, the fundamental truth that I forget more than any other. I am not alone. I am with God. And I am with other people. We are God’s gifts to each other. This is the truth, and it leads to another true statement.

I love camp.