by Daniel Harrell
Among the turmoil filling headlines this week on earth, there was some big news from heaven. Voyager 1, NASA’s interplanetary space probe launched in 1977, exited the solar system and entered the door of interstellar space. The little plutonium-powered craft, about the size of a Honda Civic, operates an ancient computer (1/240,000th the memory of an iPhone) with state-of-the-art 8-track technology—for those who remember 8-track tape recorders. Designed as a four-year mission to Saturn, Voyager keeps going and going at 38K mph, faithfully gathering its data 11.7 billion miles from earth, a distance no astronomer ever thought possible for a human-made probe, so far that its signal takes 17 hours and 22 minutes to get home, and that’s traveling at the speed of light. Just in case Voyager encounters intelligent life, it has on board a gold-plated phonograph record—since aliens probably don’t have 8-tracks—filled with all sorts of earthly information: greetings in almost every language, greetings from President Carter and songs from Beethoven to Chuck Berry. Unfortunately, the likelihood of Voyager’s record ever finding an ear is minute. It will be another 40,000 years before the spacecraft comes near another planet.
Still, the whole thing is “fascinating,” as Mr. Spock might say. NASA couldn’t resist playing the Star Trek theme at their news conference this week in Washington. And why not? Like the classic TV series that’s enjoyed numerous reboots, including the recent cinematic blockbuster prequels, Voyager has boldly gone where no machine has gone before. Dawn and I finally got around to watching the most recent Star Trek movie this weekend: Into The Darkness. It paid homage to the original 1960s version with themes that still resonate. Star Trek lives long and prospers as a powerful force in our culture because it does what good myths do: it negotiates that deep and persistent tension between colliding opposites: good and evil, right and wrong, reality and fantasy, Obama and Putin, mystery and theology, faith and doubt, Kirk and Spock. On Star Trek, Mr. Spock represented the logical side of life, regarding reality to rational and mechanical and to be fully accessible by human, or at least Vulcan, reason. Captain Kirk stood for the irrational and inexplicable, walking by faith and not by sight, a reality governed by instinct and feel rather than analysis and all the more interesting as a result.
Prayer—the topic behind our second door sermon this Sunday—is more Kirkish than Spockish. A means of inter-dimensional communication that is neither rational nor mechanical, prayer relies much more on faith and hope than on reason. Not that faith negates reason—it takes both Kirk and Spock to run the Enterprise—but only faith can fully reconcile the divide that prayer addresses. To pray “thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” is to acknowledge that God’s ways may not be our own; that to lose is to find, to be last is to be first, to die is to live, that something with deadly consequences can be true and good, that something that feels right can still be wrong, that evil functions as soil for the roots of righteousness, that an implement of inhuman torture can become the way to eternal life. “The cross is foolishness,” the apostle Paul admitted, “but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
I confess I do find prayer difficult. My mind wanders. I get impatient. I question. I don’t get the answers I want. People will tell me its because I don’t have enough faith, and that’s true. But less faith can mean less disappointment, sometimes. Yet as Mr. Spock observed, “It is curious how often you humans manage to obtain that which you do not want.” Disappointment may be the point if what God desires is that we seek first his kingdom and righteousness. Do that, Jesus taught, and you’ll have all that you need. Righteousness is its own reward. It that sufficient? Not always. Our expectations are different, which we can blame completely on Jesus. He’s the one who said ask for anything in his name and its yours. “Ask and you shall receive, seek and you shall find, knock and the door shall be opened,” Jesus told us last Sunday, the implication being that if you do it right, you’ll get what you want when you pray. But as we all know from experience, this is not how it works.
Therefore, this Sunday, our Lord offers two helpful tips on prayer that might yield better returns. The first is “Do not be like the hypocrites. They love to stand and pray out loud so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
This comes as a huge relief to those for whom public displays of piety can be awkward. Dutifully bowing your head to say grace at McDonald’s can be embarrassing and does little to improve a Big Mac’s nutritional value. And yet Jesus also said we should let our light shine and be salt for the world—our piety is not to be purely a private matter. Most ancient Palestinian homes only had two rooms, so praying secretly behind a door without anyone knowing would have been as impossible as your left hand not knowing what your right hand was doing when it came to giving (which Jesus also commanded). Needless to say Jesus, employs a bit of hyperbole here. Hypocrites did not deliberately prayed on street corners or blow literal trumpets to announce their good deeds like Jesus said. That’s just what it sounded like. Hypocrite is the Greek work for actor or performer—people who pretend to be pious for the sake of applause. Hypocrites are all about exteriors; they care nothing for integrity between word and deed, belief and behavior, conviction and action. It’s all just an act.
The problem, Jesus suggests, is the human need for personal glory. We want the light we shine to be our own bulb. But glory is the sole purview of God because God alone is the source of goodness and beauty. “God is light,” Scripture teaches, in whom there is no darkness at all. We shine because he shines. Therefore “let your light shine before others,” Jesus taught, “that they may see your good deeds and give glory to your Father in heaven.” Any light we shine is reflective, our goodness derives from God’s grace. “I have been crucified with Christ,” is how the apostle Paul put it. “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.” As the one who has saved us from darkness into light, God gets all the glory. Danger lurks if when doing unto others you start feeling entitled to a little glory yourself.
The early Christians filed such entitlement under the category of vainglory, the sin of doing the right things but with the wrong motivation. You dutifully follow all that God demands because you want people to notice and praise you for being such a good person.
The Judaism of Jesus’ day came equipped with disciplines designed to guard the heart against vainglory—specifically giving, fasting and praying. Giving to the poor forced focus away from yourself for the sake of serving others. Generosity reminds the heart of the Lord’s generosity; God who so loved even us sinners that he sent his only son to save us. We love because God loved us first. Fasting fostered self-control through self-denial. By subjugating bodily desires to spiritual ends, you rein in selfishness and better resist worldly distractions and temptations that obstruct love. Prayer fostered trust and dependency. You speak to God in worship but also out of need and desperation, reminded that you are not the ones with the power, you are not in control. Yet, Jesus warned that even these disciplines of giving and fasting and prayer designed to guard your heart may ironically be corrupted by your hearts. So beware of your heart, Jesus cautioned. “Let your light so shine before others, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven,” but “don’t do your good works to be seen by others, in order to get glory for yourself.”
I’m teaching a Bethel seminary class this semester on Christian vocation and leadership. How does God call people to lead and how do we do it? As with much that Jesus taught, the answers are usually unreasonable. A student named Marvin shared a story of a time he worked as a hotel bellman. Fresh out of rehab having come to Jesus, and eager to get his life together and shine some light, Marvin encountered a jerk of a supervisor who constantly cited him for the smallest infractions of hotel policy—his tie wasn’t tied right, he didn’t say “sir,” he pressed the wrong button. Marvin harbored a temper that his newfound religion fueled with righteous indignation. Marvin yearned to rain down some serious hellfire, to fire his phasers even if it meant losing his job. But Marvin needed the job. What should he do? Jesus said to love your enemies, which was highly illogical. For Marvin this meant embracing his supervisor—like church folk embraced each other every Sunday when they passed the peace. Give this Klingon a big hug and tell him “God loves you and so do I.” As crazy as it sounded, Marvin begrudgingly acknowledged it to be the Christian thing to do; besides, the church folk would be proud of him for loving his enemy even if it wasn’t true. God stopped him right there: “Marvin, don’t be hugging a man and saying you love them if you still hate him.” Integrity matters.
Of course even the most integrated deeds can derive from mixed motives. Christians give to the poor because God gives to us, but also to assuage our suburban guilt and because it makes us feel good about ourselves for helping other people. We fast to focus our spiritual eyesight, but also because it helps us lose weight. We pray to stay connected to God, but also to show other Christians that we have a connection and prove the Lord is on our side. I have heard, and probably prayed, so many public prayers that sound more like pronouncements. With heads bowed and eyes closed, we vocalize personal agendas as if speaking for God. “Shut the door,” Jesus says. With God as your only audience, chances are you’ll change your tune. I actually think we humans sense this at times. Our reticence to pray publicly may reveal a concern about not sounding holy enough, but it might also signal an understanding that God is holy and does not treat our words lightly.
Jesus confronted this inner tension with one of his most famous parables (I shared earlier with the kids). A hypocritical Pharisee prays to God, praising the Lord for not making him a him a jerk like his boss. He goes to church every Sunday, gives and does the all the right things, so much so that he’s convinced himself that God loves him because he’s such a good person who deserves to be loved. On the other side is the tax-collector, just out of rehab and trying to rein in his temper and love a boss he cannot stand. We live our lives as contradictory selves, a deep and persistent tension of colliding opposites: good and evil, right and wrong, reality and fantasy, faith and doubt, Kirk and Spock. Both sides engaged in prayer, the hypocrite used prayer to distance himself from those to whom he felt superior, God being the mirror before which he could preen in self-approval. By contrast the tax-collector could not even look in the mirror, but stood off at a distance, behind a door if you will, and beat his breast saying, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Jesus offers a second prayer tip having to do with the words we pray, or more specifically, with the number of words we pray. “Do not heap up empty phrases” as the pagan Gentiles do—idol-worshippers who babble on and on because they think they’ll be heard if they say enough. Granted, you have to talk a lot if you’re trying to get a wooden statue to do anything, and that pagans persisted indicates they had plenty of faith, misplaced as it was. By contrast, Jesus said, “your Father knows what you need before you ask;” which is what real faith looks like, a kind of intimate trust and connection where words get in the way. As the apostle Paul wrote to the Romans, “we do not know how to pray as we ought, so the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness, interceding for us with groans too deep for words.” God knows what you need before you ask, the assumption being that God knows what you need despite what you ask; he knows what you need better than you do and helps you pray for it. To receive from God requires that you trust God knows what he’s doing, that like any loving Father, his concern is more for your ultimate well-being than for your immediate wishes.
Marvin the bellman prayed for a loving heart, but it took a while to take. His supervisor continued to ride him hard, making it difficult for Marvin to let God change his heart. Marvin kept groaning, with the Holy Spirit’s help, and in time felt that he was ready, and that the time was right, to boldly go where no bellman had gone before. “We may explode into the biggest fireball this part of the galaxy has seen,” Captain Kirk once remarked, “but we’ve got to take that chance.” When Marvin’s supervisor wrote him up for yet another minor technicality, Marvin signed off on the documentation but then opened wide his arms, grabbed his supervisor and then hugged the big lug, exclaiming “God loves you and so do I,” as he beamed a brilliant smile. Predictably disarmed, the supervisor stopped writing Marvin up, if only to avoid being embraced by his bellman again. “The prejudices people feel about each other disappear when they get to know each other.” Mr. Spock once said.
As with the humiliated tax-collector, righteous prayer rids us of our pretense and pretending by exposing our constant need for mercy. God draws us into a deeper trust in Him as our heavenly Father who loves us and delights to give what we truly need, even if it’s not yet what we truly want. Prayer assures that God is involved in what we’re doing, but more importantly, prayer involves us in what God is doing.
Therefore let us pray, if you are ready, this borrowed Catholic prayer of submission to God: Lord, if what I seek be according to your will, then let it come to pass and let success attend the outcome. But if not, my God, let it not come to pass. Do not leave me to my own devices, for you know how unwise I can be. Keep me safe under your protection, sweet Jesus, and in your own loving way guide me and rule me as you know best. Amen.