The Lord’s Prayer

Rowan Williams, in his book ‘Being Disciples’, makes an interesting link between the line in the Lord’s Prayer “Give us this day our daily bread” and the succeeding lines about forgiveness. I struggle to follow Rowan Williams a lot of the time, probably because I’m not one of your natural mystics. (For all the time I spend staring at trees, I would find it difficult to articulate what’s going on for me in those encounters beyond simply finding it spiritually satisfying). However, what Williams wrote did feel profound and these are the thoughts I’ve been having in the days since reading it.

First of all, I have grown to like the Lord’s Prayer. I started using it more frequently a few years ago when reading about St Francis of Assisi. I like St Francis because he liked animals. I like animals. Apparently Francis told the Friars to say the Lord’s Prayer 24 times when they prayed. I find the prayer says all that needs to be said, and very succinctly and helps keep my rambling prayer-thoughts on track. In particular, I think that the double-sided forgiveness clause is a stroke of genius, connecting my attitude towards those who have wronged me to my hope that God will forgive me, and describing a life lived in grace towards God and towards the world. The perfect tense in Matthew’s gospel challenges me – I ask for forgiveness “as [I] have forgiven.” It’s not a pledge of vague intention, but a statement of completed deeds, which is presented as the model for God’s forgiveness of me. The language of debts and debtors (not sins or trespasses) also seems to root forgiveness in the real, material world. I might forgive you for the way you spoke to me, but I’d still appreciate having the ten pounds you owe me – they’re two quite different things … unless you’re Jesus, in which case they’re not. I think that, for Jesus, spiritual and material were like dimensions of one reality, in the same way that thoughts and actions were dimensions of one real person.

The debt thing leads back to the daily bread. If I am praying for my daily bread, trusting God for my needs, then why would I borrow, either from a neighbour or from the future? Racking up a debt would indicate that I have not been content to live within the gift God has given. God’s provision is enough, but it doesn’t always feel like it. The present moment is enough, but I worry a lot about the future and fret about the past. On the flip side, if I am content with God’s gift of today, why would I lend to you? Who cares about tomorrow, or next year, when in each day, God provides? I should just share today’s bread with you, because it’s “Give us…” So it seems that the radical trust involved in living in the grace of what God has given is wrapped up with not finding ways to get more for myself and not keeping accounts with others, but letting the grace ebb and flow around and everyone will have enough. It seems like a very gentle way of life, and contrasts hugely with the way the world is, where some of us accumulate so much at such great cost to other people, animals, plants and the earth itself.  Jesus’ alternative seems very liberating to me, but a long way from where I am.

The Lord’s Prayer is found in Matthew’s gospel (Luke’s version doesn’t count because he’s missed half of it out while his mind wandered – so much for ‘Lord, teach us to pray’). Nigel Wright says that Matthew presents the story of Jesus – including his teaching – as a framework within which we may learn to live as his followers. To me, it’s as if within the grace and truth embodied in Jesus, there’s a broad space where we can live free. Jesus’ teaching can be hard, and his example is near-impossible, but it’s not a test to fail or a stick to beat yourself with. It’s a gift from God, with trust and forgiveness and love at the heart of it – a broad space within which life is given and received, hallowed and enjoyed.

There are parallels in the older covenant. The Torah, the Law of Moses, is not just a collection of commandments against which your life is to measured. It’s five books of stories, including some great stories (and some terrifying stories), about people and the God who made a covenant with them, within which life can be lived as a gift of God’s liberating grace. I think that engaging with the Law in its wholeness teaches how you can live free by God’s grace: not just the commands but letting the larger story live as your story, inhabiting the story just as you might inhabit the land itself as a gift.

I think it might be the same with Jesus. The Christian life may be less about some transaction when a holy man was killed on a cross and more about that episode plus the rest of his story too: not a transaction at all but a gift. It’s about inhabiting that story as our story and I think that the Lord’s Prayer takes us to the heart of doing that. Amongst other things, it looks for God’s will to be done on earth – including the bit of earth that’s me and the bit I inhabit, but applying to all other inhabitants of earth too. As already pointed out, it uses the material language of debt rather than the spiritualized language of sin. It insists on being plural: although Jesus has been advising praying in your room, in secret, it’s still ‘us’ and ‘our’ daily bread. So it’s a prayer prayed with the world, on behalf of all beings on earth who (in the words of Psalm 104.27) look to God to give them their food in due season. And it has at its heart this radical trust in God and a refusal to keep accounts either with God or with anyone else, because today is a gift and the gift of God is always more than enough. So the Lord’s Prayer is not about my spiritual (or mystical) practice. It’s about a world whose basic system moves wealth from the poor to the rich, a world of refugees and war, of pollution and climate change, of exploitation of soil and extinction of species, and it’s about the transformation of this world until it resembles a just and peaceful community in which all flourish. I wonder if it literally was the Lord’s Prayer, i.e. the prayer Jesus prayed, the prayer that kept him grounded in and aligned to his mission, and I wonder why it’s not had the same effect on the church that’s prayed it for 2,000 years or on the dominating culture that’s supposedly rooted in Christianity? Or on me, for that matter.

“Give us today our daily bread and forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Such a simple sentence that, if it were ever put into practice, would change the world.

 

 

The Little Hen’s Egg

I’m going to tell this story to the pre-school children tomorrow.  Against the background of my current reading about a Steady State Economy (“Enough is Enough” – Rob Dietz & Dan O’Neill), it feels appropriate.  So – are you sitting comfortably?  Then I’ll begin …

Once upon a time, there was a little hen.  She lived on a farm with a cow, a sheep and a goat.  Not far from the farm there lived a fox.

One day, the little hen laid an egg.  It was her very first egg.  Because it was her first egg, she wasn’t quite sure what to do with it.  The cow, the sheep and the goat were very excited about the little hen’s egg, but the hen didn’t see why.  So when the fox came along and offered to swap her egg for a nice fat wriggly worm, the little hen didn’t see why not, and said ‘Yes’.

When the cow and the sheep and the goat found out about this, they were horrified.  They said, ‘How could you be so silly?  Your egg is worth a lot more than a worm.  You shouldn’t have sold it to the fox.’

So the hen, the cow, the sheep and the goat went to see the fox.  The little hen said, ‘Please could I have my egg back?’  The fox said – ‘No’.

The cow said, ‘Will you swap the little hen’s egg for some lovely fresh milk?’  The fox said – ‘No’

The sheep said, ‘Will you swap the little hen’s egg for some lovely warm wool?’  The fox said – ‘No’

The goat said, ‘Will you swap the little hen’s egg for some lovely tasty cheese?  The fox said – ‘No’.

The fox said, ‘I am going to cook this egg and eat it with some toast and butter for my tea.  Egg and toast is my favourite food’.

The little hen was really upset to hear this.  By now, she really wanted her egg back.  But the animals could see that they would have to think of a really clever plan.  So the cow and the sheep and the goat put their heads together and hatched a really clever plan.  They found a big, round stone at the edge of the farmyard.  In fact, it looked a little bit egg shaped.  Then they found a pot of white paint in a corner of the barn.  They painted the stone and rolled it out to where the fox lived.

They said, ‘Will you swap this enormous white egg for that tiny little brown one?’  The greedy fox licked his lips.  He thought to himself, ‘These animals must be really stupid’.  He gave them the little hen’s egg and then, with all his strength, he lifted the big white stone egg into a pan of water he had ready.

The cow and the sheep and the goat took the egg back to the little hen.  She was delighted.  She took her egg to the barn and sat on it until, a few days later, out popped a little chicken.

They never saw the fox again.  Some say that he is still waiting for his enormous egg to cook.

 

Moses the Eco-Warrior

A couple of things I’ve read recently have mentioned the Exodus story in relation to climate change.  Move over Genesis – you’re just too clichéd, with your garden and your God saying creation is good and, by the way, let’s not mention filling the earth and having mastery over it.  We need liberation songs.  We need stories of freedom for captives.  We need Exodus to take us through the desert to a land flowing with beer and chocolate (or whatever passes for milk and honey in your imagination).

Michael Meacher MP, writing in Resurgence Magazine (March/April 2014), refers to the part of the Exodus story where Pharaoh’s heart is repeatedly hardened (by God, somewhat embarrassingly – ahem, move on).  Meacher describes how Pharaoh “will not give up the way of life to which he is addicted”, i.e. a life that relies on a nation of slaves.  Today, the rich world’s addiction to stuff requires us to harden our hearts to the poor who are suffering most because of our way of life.  We know about slavery, plantations, loss of habitats, deforestation, tar sands, intensive industrial farming, flooding, species loss, refugees, and so on.  Yet we have to harden our hearts to it all because otherwise we would have to change beyond imagination.  We dare not set God’s people free.

In the same article, Meacher refers to the story of the Golden Calf, cast by Moses’ brother, Aaron, while Moses is up the mountain receiving the law from God.  Much of that law addressed how the Israelites could live together in such a way that all could thrive – a combination of instructions about worship and justice that Jesus (amongst others) later summed up as “Love God” and “Love your neighbour as yourself.”  Instead, the people worshipped a golden calf.  Meacher says, “The threat to religion doesn’t come from the likes of Richard Dawkins, but from out-of-town hypermarkets … The poverty of affluence has left a profound spiritual void in the West, and this remains an emptiness we all need to be awakened from.”

I have just started reading Rob Dietz and Dan O’Neill’s book, ‘Enough is Enough’ (and, yes, I do have that song running in my head).  Outlining their case for a Steady State Economy, as opposed to one based on endless growth, the book is subtitled, “Building a sustainable economy in a world of finite resources.”  Sounds good.  In his foreword, Herman Daly refers to the provision of manna to the Israelites in the desert.  In the Exodus story, each morning (except for the Sabbath), the Israelites found a wafer-like substance lying on the ground, and this provided their basic food for forty years of desert wandering.  They called the substance, Manna. Exodus 16.18 says that when they measured it out, “Those who gathered much had nothing over, and those who gathered little had no shortage.”  Each had gathered enough for that day.  If anyone tried to keep some over, it spoiled overnight.  The exception was the day before the Sabbath, when they gathered enough for two days and it didn’t spoil.  God provided enough.  It wasn’t a luxury diet, but it was enough.  No one could sell an excess and get rich, and no one starved.  There was enough for everyone.

We need to learn how to be content with enough, and build that ‘enough’ into our economics and our culture.  In order to do that, we need to be set free from our addiction to ever more stuff.  Perhaps the path to our freedom lies through the desert, learning to trust God, learning to love with softened hearts, and learning to be happy with little (but enough).

Welcome to Lent.

 

 

Sacred Economics

I came across this film of Charles Eisenstein talking about economics based on gifts rather than earnings – economics not predicated on growth.   I thought it was very interesting …

Sacred Economics

I’m currently reading Bill McKibben’s book ‘Eaarth’.  Thus far in (just finished chapter 2), he is also challenging the notion of endless growth.  He suggests that we have grown the economy (and our civilisation) about as much as nature will permit and we are about to crash off a cliff, or the bubble is about to burst, or any other metaphor of catastrophe you care to employ.  I am very interested in how we can re-order our lives around community, earth-care (and people-care), in a deeper connection to the world of which we are part: living “lightly, carefully, gracefully” (to quote the title of chapter 4).

 

Capitalwasm

I was preaching about Jubilee on Sunday, using Leviticus 25 as a basis.  In the return of the land, the release of bonded labourers and the cancellation of debts every 50 years, there is essentially no buying or selling of capital in God’s economy.   All capital resources and all people belong to God, and God’s not selling.  So there can be no long-term acquisition of the means of becoming wealthy, and no ever-growing gap between rich and poor.  (The exception in Leviticus 25 is houses in walled cities that haven’t been redeemed by a relative within a year.)

Combine this capital-free economics with the rhythm of resting the land every seven years (and the Jubilee’s a two-year rest), and so much trust in God is demanded, that it’s not very surprising that the Jubilee was (as far as we know) never practised.   It’s completely ridiculous and could never work in the real world.

So here we are in the real world.  It’s everyone for themselves and some grow richer at the expense of those who grow poorer.  The rich gather to themselves the means of growing richer and keep gathering them for ever.  Capital is bought and traded by people with no interest in the actual business other than that of making money.  Money is lent at interest in order for the lender to grow richer; those who borrow easily end up trapped in a spiral of increasing debt.  Land, animals, plants and human labour are all resources with a cash value – commodities that can be bought and sold, with tradable value also derived from what might be produced in the future.  We can’t even cope with one day each week when we can’t work or shop.   For some reason that I can’t quite grasp, I am expected to believe that all this is not ridiculous.

Well, I suppose it’s the result of 1700 years of Christianity being the dominant world-view in Europe and the european-ised world.  After all, it would be ridiculous to trust God so much as to be set free from our fear of not surviving and the resulting addiction to acquiring stuff.  When Jesus said his ministry was going to be about release of the oppressed, freedom for the captives and good news to the poor, it’s obvious he wasn’t expecting us to take him literally.  Such radical trust in God could never work in the real world.

I realise that I am ranting.  What interests me is if, given the failure of capitalism (surely that’s getting harder to argue against?), there is something to be said for trusting God and looking for ways of implementing ideas like Jubilee and Sabbath in the real world.  How would we put into practise ideas like the land belonging to God; looking after each other in order to help rather than to make money; respecting the land and nature and refusing to commodify it (or people); restoring some rhythm to life and changing the 24/7 culture into something nearer an 8/6 one?

I wonder if anyone else has any thoughts about this (or about my ‘Resurrecting Economics‘ page) …