Debts paid and unpaid

And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.  (Matthew 6:12)

It’s no accident that it’s taken me nearly nine months to get back to this blog and especially this verse. Yes, a lot of hard things have happened in the last few months, and I have also started writing for a group blog which has had to take priority, but essentially I think I’ve been avoiding this verse of the prayer Jesus taught his disciples.

As a child I was always losing things, leaving my school satchel on the bus (no doubt because I didn’t really want to do homework), mislaying coats and so on. My mother used to say I had a good forgettory. I think as I progress not half slowly enough into old age (I’ve got my state pension since last writing here), I’m getting that good forgettory back. Or perhaps I never lost it. At any rate, I am only too aware that I don’t have a good forgivery. (Neither did my mother, as it happens, which may well be the reason that I both find it hard to feel forgiven, and to forgive.)

Are forgiving and forgetting the same, or at least conjoined twins? I’m not sure. The Bible tells us God forgets our sins as well as forgiving them; for us in relation to others, it may be a little harder. Some things, like genocide, should never be forgotten even if as individuals we forgive them.

Not long ago a member of our church asked particularly to use the version of the prayer above, which uses ‘debts’ instead of ‘sins’ or ‘trespasses’. I think he asked partly because as a freelance film critic, he does have personal debts, so it is a category that makes more sense to him than the often abused word ‘sins’. Nowadays a ‘sin’ might just mean a sneaky cream cake when you’re on a diet, or be a word used to attract punters in London’s Soho. Debt, however, is a burden familiar to all too many in our society, especially when benefits claimants are arbitrarily sanctioned, left with no money even for food, and forced to borrow from loan sharks with interest rates running rapidly into  percentages of thousands.

Debts are also closely related to ‘dues’ and ‘duties’, concepts I have been thinking about lately. If I fail to give someone a service, a gesture or a loving action that is due to them (or indeed if I take from them without ever giving back) I owe them, am indebted to them. If they let me off that debt, I may feel free in a concrete way. What do we ‘owe’ to God, to Jesus? On one level, nothing: as one rather dreadful chorus says, ‘the price is paid’ (are you like me tempted to sing ‘the price is right’?). On another, we owe God everything: our whole lives. And yet God demands nothing: whatever we give, God treats as a gift, like a good parent accepting a gift from a child even though it was bought with money the parent gave them in the first place.

If I think of God’s forgiveness in this way, might it help me to forgive others? Since my relationship with God is pure gift, both on God’s part and on mine, can my relationships with others then partake of the same character? If I think of them as owing me nothing, and of myself as owing them everything – for the debt of love is total – will I be better able to let go of grudges and resentments? It’s worth a try. I might even start forgetting.




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Who needs bread?

Give us this day our daily bread Matthew 6:11

This is the line that makes this a prayer to be used by the poor. We rich, and I include myself and most people reading this, generally know where our next meal is coming from. We may have other forms of poverty: loneliness, isolation, low self esteem; we may wonder, as I did in my long years of unwanted singleness, where the next hug is coming from, or where the next affirmation is coming from, or where the next human contact of any kind is coming from. The abused woman may wonder when the next few days without being hit is coming; the over-pushed child, when the next break from schoolwork is coming – even though they may not lack food. And it is valid to pray this prayer as one of those people: ‘Lord, give me this day my daily conversation, even if it’s only at the supermarket checkout, or on the phone’.

But Jesus made it quite clear with this sentence that he expected his disciples to be insecure enough to need to pray for their next meal. He expected the poor and the marginalized to follow him, and he expected any rich and secure people who followed, to set themselves alongside the poor and marginalized by giving up their privileges. How do we dare to pray this prayer when we are entirely confident of our daily bread? I’m not sure if I do. I want to pray ‘Give them – the developing world, foodbank Britain – their daily bread’ but if I do, I am afraid of hearing ‘That’s your job’.

Incidentally, the word here translated ‘daily’ is a ‘hapax legomenon’, a word that only occurs this once in Scripture, and is unknown elsewhere in Greek literature; consequently we don’t know its exact meaning. It could mean ‘sufficient’ or ‘just enough’ bread, rather than ‘daily’. This raises an interesting possibility: that we are not to pray for ‘abundant’ or ‘too much’ bread, but only what we need each day, to keep us depending on God’s provision. Should we, in fact, perhaps be praying ‘Help us to give away our surplus bread’?

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A cry for change

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

What would it mean for God’s kingdom to come? How would we know? Ultimately, it would mean the fulfilment of that bit of ‘realized eschatology’ in Revelation 11:15: ‘The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah’; and it would be characterized by the visible, tangible presence of peace, justice, wellbeing and harmony throughout the earth, as described in Isaiah 2:2-4 and 65:17ff. Weapons would be turned into tools, there would be economic prosperity for all (which does not mean money, but enough food, shelter, clothing and everything else that makes us human), there would be no more infant mortality, disability or tragically short lives.

But is that what we are asked to pray for daily, when we know that this final transformation may be decades, centuries, millennia away? How could we ever see our prayer answered in our lifetime? (for I don’t believe, as many do and many before them have wrongly done, that we can tell for sure when ‘the end is nigh’) Perhaps, instead, or as well, this is a prayer not so much for the future as for the present. It is a prayer of longing for the ‘things that make for peace’ to show themselves here and now, in our relationships, our work, our cultural expression; longing that we may see glimpses of a Kingdom  that is not just ahead but among us now – hidden, to be sure, and  easily missed, but nevertheless already present.

Which brings us to the second half of the verse. Until a few years ago I always read ‘Your will be done’ as a kind of resigned submission, even fatalism; an acknowledgement that ultimately we have little power over the course of our lives, and that as Christians we are meant to ask for God’s will, not our own will, to be done. This  can even make this plea feel a bit resentful; secretly I would like my own will to be done, but for the sake of being ‘a good Christian’ I will accept that God’s will is what must be done.

Then I heard around 20,000 people proclaim it together in a field at the Greenbelt Festival. And suddenly I heard it not as a pious wish, but as a desperate cry, an anguished plea for a different world. Our world is full of violence, inequality, deprivation, oppression, sickness, greed, exploitation. In the face of all this, why would we not want God’s will to be done? For God’s will, as we know if we read the Bible properly, is for ‘shalom’, the flourishing of all, the end of all the ills we live with daily. And God’s will is not for a few to experience this, but that none should perish but all receive salvation – and by salvation I mean not an exit ticket from hell, but eternal wholeness.

We should not be murmuring this prayer quietly and decently, we should be screaming it from the rooftops, yelling it at a God who appears not to be listening, desperate that our pain be heard. And desperate that it be answered, not ‘in heaven’, in some amorphous distant and future state, but right here ‘on earth’, where women, men and children suffer at the hands of the powerful, where people live with unimaginable hunger or grief or limitation.  ‘Your Kingdom come, your will be done’ is a scream of anger and desperation, and that is how we should pray it.

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In whose name?

Hallowed be your name Matthew 6:9b

All right, all right. I know. I start a new series and then disappear for two and a half months. What can I say? There’s blogging, and then there’s life. And without life, what would there be to blog about?

Anyway, here I am now. And I want to talk about swearing. You see, most Christians appear to think this line of the Lord’s Prayer is about blaspheming. And yes, I did use to cringe a bit when my Austrian Jewish mother came out with ‘Jesus Maria!’ (pronounced ‘YESsus MaREEa’) or ‘Oh Christ!’. Funnily enough I didn’t mind so much when she simply said ‘Oh God’ – it felt more generic, somehow. But since she died, I’ve become quite a swearer myself. I have to restrain myself in polite company (mainly Christians) and I try not to use nicknames for female body parts as curses (but sometimes four letter words are just so punchy and satisfying…).

The thing is, Jesus didn’t actually say anything about this kind of swearing at all. When he commanded us to ‘Swear not at all’, he wasn’t talking about posting ‘OMG’ or ‘Jesus wept’. What he was attacking was the idea that by invoking our children’s lives, or our grandmother’s honour (or dare I say by placing our hand on a Bible or a Qur’an?) we were somehow demonstrating that we were telling truth at that moment, whatever we might do at any other time. Instead he told us to speak truth at all times, which would mean we never needed an oath. That’s why traditionally, Quakers and Mennonites refuse to swear oaths in court, instead simply affirming that we are bearing true witness – which we aspire to do at all times, not just in a witness box.

So when Jesus prayed that his Father’s name be hallowed, he can’t possibly have been talking about swearing. That is not what ‘taking God’s name in vain’ means at all. Rather, it surely means using God’s name to put an imprimatur on our own enterprises, whether they conform to the will of God or not. So when a nuclear submarine, a means of wiping out thousands of people bearing God’s image, is called ‘Corpus Christi’ and blessed by a chaplain, that is taking God’s name in vain. That is God’s name not being hallowed. And when a country that has become rich from slavery, as ours did, is called a ‘Christian nation’, that is taking God’s name in vain, and God’s name not being hallowed. And when, as I read recently, a well known ex-patriate Christian, who has not lived in the UK for decades and knows nothing about the effect of the last government’s policies on the poor, the disabled, the vulnerable, pronounces that the Conservative victory in the recent election was ‘supernatural’ – that is taking God’s name in vain, and that is God’s name not being hallowed. To take God’s name and attach it to something that is clearly nothing to do with the agenda of the Prince of Peace, that hinders rather than furthers the Kingdom of God – that is blasphemy.

I believe that when Jesus prayed that God’s name be hallowed, he was asking that it should only be used in connection with God’s purposes – to create a new heavens and new earth, to bring about the peaceable Kingdom – and that it should never be brought into disrepute by being used to justify cruelty, oppression or hate. That is hallowing God’s name: to use it only as a label for enterprises that actually bring good news to the poor, freedom to the oppressed, sight to the blind. And I want to echo Jesus’ prayer that we should only use it that way.

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Our divine parent

‘Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven’ Matthew 6:9

For some time I’ve been meaning to write a short series on what we call ‘the Lord’s Prayer’, so a couple of weeks into Lent seems as good a time to start as any.

What strikes me most about this model for prayer that Jesus gave us, is the opening word ‘Our’. We talk of ‘having a personal relationship with Jesus/God’, a phrase that never appears in Scripture (the first hearers of Jesus or the Gospels and Epistles would not even have known the meaning of the word ‘relationship’, nor probably the word ‘personal’). But this is unashamedly a communal prayer. We have a parent (the emphasis is surely on the parenthood rather than the gender of the parent) in heaven. Where is that? Dallas Willard has pointed out in The Divine Conspiracy that the people of this time would have conceived of seven heavens, the first one being the air around us. So you could paraphrase as ‘our joint parent who is as close as the air we breathe’. This is a long way from ‘be near me Lord Jesus, look down from the sky’!

Having a joint parent, of course, makes us all siblings, with reciprocal obligations to each other. My only biological sibling, my older brother, let go of his own life forty years ago (I won’t say he ‘took his life’, because what he was actually doing was rejecting it, not taking it). I was unmarried till my 36th birthday, and lived in fear of what life would be like when my parents died and there was no one in the world who had an obligation to look after me (only one grandparent was alive when I was born, she lived in Vienna and died when I was 12, and I had no known cousins except some second cousins in Hungary). One day I was reading my Bible (I no longer remember what part) and read the verse ‘The Lord is my redeemer’. In a footnote, my Bible told me that the word used for ‘redeemer’ meant ‘kinsman-redeemer’, the person who was obliged to support you financially and socially, the role Boaz had in relation to Ruth. What a comforting discovery, to know that God was my closest relative – my ‘man-bap’ (father/mother) to borrow the phrase used of the Indian army in Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet novels (in that case, patronisingly, but here protectively).

And here in this prayer of Jesus, we are all made into each other’s ‘kinsman-redeemer’, with a duty of care for each other, and all under the umbrella of the most loving parent, whatever gender (or none) you conceive that parent to be. Do we acknowledge this connectedness when we recite this prayer in church? We should.

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Sorry, Henri, I don’t agree

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal’ (2 Corinthians 4: 16-18, NIV)

There’s a new hermeneutic about. It’s called ‘I don’t think this means what you think it means’. I’ve noticed it popping up online, though usually in relation to misuse of language, rather than to biblical passages. I may indeed be the first to apply it to the Bible. On the other hand, it may just be a new version of the good old ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’, which is always worth trying out.

Be that as it may, I received an email recently from the Henri Nouwen Society, to whose daily reflections I subscribe, and it was on the above passage. Here’s what the late great Henri Nouwen had to say on it:

Optimism and hope are radically different attitudes. Optimism is the expectation that things-the weather, human relationships, the economy, the political situation, and so on-will get better. Hope is the trust that God will fulfill God’s promises to us in a way that leads us to true freedom. The optimist speaks about concrete changes in the future. The person of hope lives in the moment with the knowledge and trust that all of life is in good hands.

All the great spiritual leaders in history were people of hope. Abraham, Moses, Ruth, Mary, Jesus, Rumi, Gandhi, and Dorothy Day all lived with a promise in their hearts that guided them toward the future without the need to know exactly what it would look like. Let’s live with hope.

Now it’s not exactly that I disagree with Nouwen here. There is a difference between optimism and hope, and it does have to do with trusting in God’s intention to fulfil God’s promises. But where I find what he has said inadequate, is this: he associates optimism with an expectation that things will get better in concrete terms: the weather, human relationships, the economy, the political situation. Yet when he turns to hope, he associates it with some abstract condition called ‘true freedom’. By so doing, he implies that true hope, hope in the fulfilment of God’s promises, has nothing to do with ‘the weather, human relationships, the economy, the political situation’.

Yet if you look at the people he cites as examples of true hope, their hope had absolutely everything to do with conditions in this concrete world. Abraham, Moses, Ruth, Mary, Jesus, Gandhi, Dorothy Day (I don’t know enough about Rumi to say) all spoke out about their hope for a transformed world where human relationships, the economy, the political situation would be changed for the better (and the weather too, insofar as climate change is a justice issue…). The fulfilment of God’s promises has enormous relevance to all these areas, not just to some afterlife where something undefined called ‘true freedom’ reigns.

So Henri Nouwen, much as I love your work, I do not think this passage means what you think it means. The ‘things that are unseen’ are not to do with some ‘spiritual realm’ detached from concrete conditions in this world. What Paul meant by ‘what is unseen’, I believe, is precisely the justice, peace, equality, food and shelter for all, that we do not yet see in this world, but which we will see on ‘the Day of the Lord’. The ‘unseen’ does not pertain to some heaven far away, but to this very material world, which God so loved that he gave his Son. The only difference between the optimist and those with hope, is that those with hope know that God’s transformation of the world is assured.

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The less you see

Jesus said to him… ‘Blessed are those who have seen and have come to believe.’

No he didn’t, did he? Here’s what he actually said:

Jesus said to [Thomas], ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’ (John 20:29).

But you could be forgiven for thinking that he said what I posted at the start. For many Christians today, it seems to me, measure faith by how many miracles, healings and spiritual gifts someone has received. A person with a constant sense of God’s presence and activity is seen as a person with great faith; disabled or ill people who are not healed are (shamefully) blamed for a lack of faith. Anyone like myself or various friends of mine, who rarely have any sense of God’s presence or power, are seen as having little faith.

What Jesus says to Thomas here is the exact opposite. Those who believe because they have seen some spectacular act of God, or because everything in their life generally goes right, are those with scant faith, for they have to be shown magic tricks to believe. While those who have constant struggles, whose prayers hardly ever seem to be answered, and who yet put their trust in God, are the ones with magnificent faith.

The clue is in the word: faith. I don’t have faith in the chair I’m sitting on to hold me up; I know it will, from long experience. But if I deliberately fall backwards in my drama workshop so the person behind can catch me, I am exercising faith. I don’t know they will, though I may have some evidence from their previous behaviour. It’s faith. It’s not sight. Simple.

Paul makes it quite clear in 1 Corinthians that faith is temporary, as is hope. They are qualities we have to practise while we don’t yet see all things restored and God being all in all. When we do, then faith and hope will be redundant.

In the meantime, it is those who don’t see and yet believe, who are commended for their faith. In a sense, the less we see, the more faith we have. Those who always see, whose prayers always have answers, really have almost no faith at all. God has to feed them constantly with results to keep them going, as a mother constantly feeds an infant. Or perhaps as a father holds on to his daughter’s bicycle while she learns to balance. It will be hard for such when God takes off the stabilizers, and they have to learn to ride on their own.

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