Al-Fatihah

The opening of the Quran is beautiful to me. It’s not a creation story, explaining how the world was made, there are no stories here in fact. Instead the writer starts with such a simple plea

“Guide us to the straight path: the path of those You have blessed; not of those who have incurred Your wrath, nor of those who have gone astray.”

It reminds me of what I was taught many years ago about the Lord’s Prayer. You don’t begin by making demands of your God. You instead put yourself in the right frame of mind, you honor God with your heart and you mind and remember that He is all-knowing and wise beyond what you can comprehend. You give him first praise, and then ask not for a list of demands, but instead for the things the Lord wishes to give you.

“Guide us,” you pray, “to the straight path.” Allow me to stay focused on that which you would give to me, rather than on the things that I want but that you have not granted to me. Lead me not, as Matthew wrote, into temptation, but deliver me from evil. (Matthew 6:13)

I think it is lovely that this whole holy book starts from that place, a place of seeking the straight path, looking for that which God has blessed.

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The Lord’s Prayer

I have never been the kind of person who prays. I don’t resonate with speaking to the emptiness about my needs, wants, concerns, hopes, whatever. Which is not to say that I have not prayed. I have prayed. I have even found comfort in prayer on an occasion or two. I even grew up knowing a few of the prayers that tell me what to say. My grandmother taught me a nightly prayer which I still know, I am an avid user of The Serenity Prayer, and I was taught The Lord’s Prayer.

The Lord’s Prayer has always been this dull selection of words that I said because I was taught to. The same way you recite The Pledge of Allegiance in kindergarten; you don’t really know what you’re saying. However, when I read The Lord’s Prayer in Matthew I had  a moment (or twenty) that compelled me to read it, again and again.

“Our Father in heaven,

hallowed be your name.

Your kingdom come,

your will be done,

on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread,

and forgive us our debts,

as we forgive our debtors.

And lead us not into temptation,

but deliver us from evil.”

(Matthew 6:9b-13)

This spoke me a great deal on a recovery level. In recovery we talk about the will of a Power greater than ourselves being active in our lives. This is a major aspect of step two and step three.

Second step work is about coming to believe in a Power greater than yourself. Third step work is about turning your will and your life over to the care of God, as you understand Him. We usually use the Serenity Prayer as a verbal reminder of this acceptance of God’s will as a replacement of our own will. But, I think The Lord’s Prayer also serves as a reminder of these steps.

Something that I was taught to do when writing my steps is to break down some of the words to gain a better understanding of what the step actually means. When reading The Lord’s Prayer, that is what I felt would help me identify more greatly with the prayer itself. In doing so I found a simple and inclusive beauty to the prayer.

God in heaven, you are holy. May your leadership be here, and may what you wish be so on earth the way it is in heaven. Provide for us what we need, and forgive us for our mistakes the same way we forgive others for their mistakes. Guide us to do what is right and keep us safe from evil.

The Parables

Parables are a major part of what Matthew writes. He goes over the parables that Jesus spoke, and I believe that Matthew writes in such a simple and concise way that his writing makes the parables much easier to understand.

The Parable of the Lost Sheep. (Matthew 18:10-14)

“What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And, if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than he rejoices over the ninety-nine that never went astray.” (Genesis:18:12-13)

When I read this parable, I hear that it’s intent is to say that God will always seek you when you’re lost. That God doesn’t want a single one of us to be left behind. But, I have a problem with the metaphor of the parable itself. Let’s get real for a minute. If I am the shepherd of one-hundred sheep, and I’m up on a mountain when one of the sheep runs off, I am not going to abandon my other sheep to hunt down this sheep that ran off. If I do I risk losing the other ninety-nine sheep. Now, sure, God is supposed to be grander than I am, so maybe the depth of His care about each sheep is beyond my comprehension, but this parable is lost on me. It’s intent is not. The intent of this parable is beautiful. I love the idea that God loves each and every one of us enough to be willing to seek us out when we’re lost in the mountains, I just think it’s communicated poorly in this parable.

The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant. (Matthew 18:23-35)

In this parable, the kingdom of heaven is compared to a king who is collecting debts from his servants. One of the servants cannot pay and begs for mercy in the eyes of the king, which the king grants him. Then, the same servant goes to collect a debt from a fellow servant who is unable to pay and begs for mercy. The former servant grants no mercy and sends his fellow to prison until his debt is paid. When the king hears of what the servant has done, the king imprisons the servant for the lacking the mercy that had been shown to him.

This parable is one of my favourites because it displays an expectation of forgiveness and kindness. God, and the kingdom of heaven, will be merciful to you when you ask to be forgiven. And so, God expects you to forgive others in your life, also. Which, is something that I have not seen reflected in the Christian communities that I have been exposed to. I’ve seen so many Christians who turn their noses up, or live their lives in judgement of the choices of others, but I don’t think that’s what Jesus talks about ever. Especially here. Here, I think Jesus is saying the exact opposite. It is not my place, or your place, or the place of people at all to judge others. It is our place to be patient and have compassion for those around us.

The Parable of the Two Sons (Matthew 21:28-32), and The Parable of the Tenants (Matthew 21:33-46).

I decided to read these two parables together as both were spoken by Jesus to The Pharisees (The Jews) about their faith. In The Parable of the Two Sons, there is a man who has two sons. He asks each son to go and work in the fields. One son says that he will not, but changes his mind and does as his father asks of him. The second son says that he will go, but then does not. Jesus then tells The Pharisees that they are less welcome in the kingdom of heaven than are the greatest sinners (tax collectors and prostitutes) because they are like the second son. They claim the word of God, but had not listened to the prophet John when he came. Then in The Parable of the Tenants a man rents a room in his vineyard to some people, and he leaves the country. When the fruit should be picked, the man sends his servants to collect his fruit from the tenants, but the tenants beat, kill, and stone the servants. Then, they kill the man’s son who was also sent to collect the fruit. Jesus then asks The Pharisees what they think the man will do when he arrives to collect from the tenants. “They said to him, ‘He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.’” (Matthew 21:41) So Jesus tells The Pharisees that they will not be allowed into the kingdom of heaven.

With the knowledge that these parables are aimed at men who believed in the Old Testament of God, but were not seen by Jesus as acting in the word of God, it is difficult for me to form an opinion about these particular parables. I think most of what I hear in each of these parables is that action is greater than word in the eyes of the Lord. Jesus is warning The Pharisees to act in the name of God, not just to speak on His behalf.

The Parable of the Wedding Feast (Matthew 22:1-14)

In this parable there is a king who is holding a wedding feast for his son. The king has his servants  send for those who are invited. But, they would not come. The servants are then sent back out to bring anyone to the wedding feast who wants to come. So, they return with all the people they find. But, when the king came to look at the guests he found one who had no wedding garment. So the king sent him away.

This one was initially confusing to me because of it’s ending. I ended up having to go through and mark up my bible a bit to figure out what was what here. I ended up rewriting the story a bit for myself. This is what I came up with.

God is opening the kingdom of heaven for his son. He has invited The Jews to join Him in the kingdom of heaven, but The Jews did not come because they do not accept Jesus as their Messiah.  So, when the disciples are sent again to retrieve people to join God in the kingdom of heaven, they return with The Gentiles. But, God sees that among The Gentiles is a man who has spoken the word of God but does not embrace his place as a sinner or appreciate the sacrifice of Jesus. That man is sent to hell.

The Parable of the Ten Virgins (Matthew 25:1-13)

Ten virgins, took their lamps to await the arrival of a bridegroom. Five of them forgot to bring oil for their lamps and the bridegroom was late. When the bridegroom was approaching, the five virgins were out of oil for their lamps and left to buy more oil. The bridegroom arrived while the unwise virgins were away and the bridegroom refused to let them enter when they arrived later.

This parable is discussing the arrival of the rapture. The virgins are man, the bridegroom is the rapture, the lamps are the purity with which you live your life. “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” (Matthew 25:13)

The Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30)

This parable compares God and the kingdom of heaven to a man who is leaving his home and entrusts his servants with his money and his land. To one servant he gives five talents, to another he gives two talents, and to the last he gives one talent (each one is given a number of talents based on their ability).  The servants with five and two talents end up doubling the talents they were given, but the servant with one talent buried the money so as not to lose it. When the master returned he was pleased with the two servants who had doubled his gain, but from the servant who only returned what he had beginning the money was taken away and he was sent away from his master.

This parable uses a phrase that come up a lot in Matthew that has grated across my nerves for awhile. “For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” (Matthew 25:29) This bothers me because it seems so senseless. My opinion is that if you have something, you should do everything that you can to share it with those who do not have it. So, in this example.. I possess the grace of God which is given to me in the acceptance of Jesus as my Lord and Saviour. By the parable I will be given in abundance the grace of God. For me, that means I should share that grace that is given to me with others. I should try to help others who want it seek the grace of God in their own lives. But, by the parable, if I do not accept Jesus as my Lord and Saviour, I will not be given the grace of God, and even the happiness and prosperity that I do have in my life without the grace of God will be taken away from me. That is morally not sound for me.

Overall, I find the parables to be a fascinating aspect of what is in written in Matthew. The parables are, to me, such an odd way to teach others. This combination of parables was really great to read. It featured parables which had sentiment that I valued, parables which confused me or I did not find valuable in the modern world, parables which angered me. This reading was informative in a way that I did not anticipate.

Ken Ham vs. Bill Nye

I recently rewatched the Ken Ham/Bill Nye debate on whether creationism is a feasible model of the origin of the universe. As a devout Christian during my high school years, I was that student in science class. The one that insisted the teacher was wrong when he taught evolution, the one that determined to prove creationism in class, the one who wrote the paper on creationism when we were supposed to be learning about evolution.

If I recall correctly, my paper was…arrogant. I knew the right answer, and I wasn’t going to let some “theory” (always said very derisively), stand in the way of my facts. And then I grew older, began to question what I had always believed, and actually studied those facts. And now I’m not sure how people who have truly educated themselves on the matter can believe that the world is only 6,000 years old.

Ken Ham makes a distinction that I hadn’t heard during my student years, that of observational science (science that goes on right now, where we can watch a thing and make conclusions) and historical science (where we can’t see the thing for ourselves and therefore can never know, scientifically). I personally find that to be disingenuous, a distinction that has no place in academia. But then neither does his statement towards the end of the debate, the question asked was “What, if anything, would ever change your mind?” Ken Ham’s answer felt a little rambling to me, a way to avoid truly answering, but somewhere in the middle of a convoluted explanation of why the Bible is the word of God, why it is completely 100% accurate, and why  it is prove enough for him he finally summed it up, “no one’s ever going to convince me that the word of God is not true” (Transcript of the debate)

Had this debate been available to me as a student, I might have questioned my faith sooner because to me we have a scientist saying he’s open to other interpretations but that this is where science indicates the answer lies and there is data from all these different sources and a creationist who said “there is a book out there that does document where consciousness comes from.” But that book is the only piece of data I felt mattered to Ham and it made my recent reading of the creation story in Genesis come a little more clearly to me.

When I was a student we questioned in my youth group if the six days were six literal days, if they were epochs or periods of time, if there was a way to put modern science and the Bible together and come up with the same answer. At the time we always said that if there wasn’t a clear answer yet it was because technology could not reveal the might of God to man. Now? I believe that the wonder of science has all the power that I once believed only to the might of God.

I don’t know that there was a winner or a loser in that debate. Some people came away sure that they were as right as they had been before the debate. And some people came away as unsure as they had been before. I don’t think anyone was persuaded to throw away their own believes and agree that the opposite perspective was right after all, but I found it an interesting debate anyway.

Video of the debate available here.

Matthew

I’m looking back on Matthew, trying to find the common core, the lesson learned in the reading, and all I have is that Matthew writes as if summarizing stories his reader will be familiar with. The things that I used to love when I told the stories of the New Testament are all missing. The Christmas story is brief and uninspiring to me when I want that same magical call that I have always gotten from reading of the Son sent here to redeem the people. The Easter story didn’t have that magical glow of the fulfillment of the curse, the ultimate defeat of the enemy that I have always felt reading it.

I have read both of those stories since I left my life as a missionary. I taught at a Christian school for several years after I left missionary work. I taught Advent, the slow build up of the lights until the Light of the World entered the story on Christmas day and Lent, the slow diminishing of the light until on Good Friday the Light of the World was blown out, only to light up, brighter than before on Easter morning. And I’ve felt the magic of it every year.

Perhaps my life between the last time I taught it and now have taken that glow from me. Perhaps it is one more thing that I lost in the years I spent losing myself. Or perhaps it simply isn’t found in Matthew, in the summaries of the stories.

What Matthew held for me were two individual verses, one, I wrote about yesterday and one that has always stuck with me. The greatest commandment, the first commandment, and a “second like it”; “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind….You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37-39)

And now, now we move on to verses I’ve never read to “treasure in my heart,” verses I’ve read academically, searching to understand, but never read to find a greater truth. Now a new experiment begins for me.

Mathew 16:26

The line that stuck out to me was Matthew 16:26 “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?”

I have been in the process of determining my life’s path for the last year. I was, not that long ago, ripped down to the barest bones with no dreams left and every illusion of happiness taken from me. And now I spend my time trying to sort out what dreams belong to me and what dreams were socialized into me, what I will do with this life of mine, and how I can best make an impact.

So, what is my soul? And what cost do I place on it? I gave my heart and all my hopes and dreams easily not that long ago, now, putting the pieces together again, what shall I give, in return for my soul.

For Jesus, and for his listeners, the soul is that part of you that lives on after death. But I don’t believe in life after death. I believe that this is the only chance that I get and I need to use it wisely.

I don’t have deep insights, or wise questions, really no questions, just an awareness that this verse is the first time that something that I’ve read as part of this project is something that has struck home with me.

Matthew 15:10-20

“It is not what goes in the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.” (Matthew 15:11)

I’ve written before about what I see as an evolution, or a growth, of the law when Jesus said that it mattered not only what a person did, but what was in that person’s heart. Here, I see more of that growth. It isn’t your disobedience to the law that makes you unclean, it comes from the heart. Jesus says “what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person.” (Matthew 15:18)

Jesus is calling the people to honor the Lord not just with their lips, but with their hearts, a sentiment I value. (Matthew 15:8) It is easy to show someone respect to their face and hide disrespect in your heart, or behind their backs. This seems to be what he is telling the Pharisees as they attempt to call him out for not following the laws exactly as they do, that he may not wash his hands before eating, but he honors God in his heart and that matters more than a corruptible human practice.

“Blessed,” Jesus tells us, “are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” (Matthew 5:8) Over and over Jesus calls his followers to be pure of heart, that what matters to him is not the actions of praying or fasting, but the heart that does those things not with glory in mind, but thinking of obedience and faith in him and in his Father. (see Matthew 5:21-22, or 5:27-285:27-28)

I wish I could put together Jesus’ call for a pure heart with my own experiences and say that I believe purity is common in the Christian world, or that things are usually done with the call to God’s desires in mind.

I certainly can say that it does exist as I have good and dear friends who are pure and free of judgement, and who are faithful Christians.

Unfortunately, it was from within the church that I was taught to be ashamed of my body because the sight of me could cause men to sin by lusting in their hearts. It was from within the church that I was once asked to apologize to a man, and his wife, because my appearance, in jeans and a t-shirt, had caused him to sin, not in his own heart but against my actual body. I walked away with the bruises of what he’d done, but he walked away feeling injured because my appearance had tempted him and he had not resisted. Shortly after that an anonymous donation was made to my church, money dedicated to buying me more modest attire, something to cover my “dangerous” clavicle.

Blessed are the pure in heart, indeed.