Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them.
Over the summer, I posted something on social media about prayer. In response, a person I don’t know offered an edgy description of his own spiritual journey. He said that he used to pray to God. He gave up on that because sometimes he got answers, and sometimes he didn’t. He decided to stop praying to God and instead he started praying to Joe Pesci. He said he got exactly the same results. That led him to conclude that prayer was over-rated, and most certainly not efficacious.
I’ve thought about his comments for several reasons. For one, I did appreciate his clear if pointed take on the spiritual life. I don’t agree with it and it’s not my experience of prayer. But it shows he takes it seriously. I prefer that to the point of view that regards spiritual practice as something sweet, regarded with complacency, hardly transformational, maybe a quaint social custom, hobby or extracurricular activity, or a box to be checked.
I also have thought about his comments because from time to time, I can find myself wondering if any of this could possibly true. Do I really believe that all of my life unfolds in the presence of the Holy One? All of it? That when I pray, a great personal cosmic force listens? I suspect I’m not the only one who has prayed fervently for something and not gotten the answer I wanted, or any answer at all. Do I really believe that love is at the center of everything? After I read the newspaper? Do I really believe that the creator of the universe became a person who walked this earth? Do I hold onto faith for nostalgia’s sake, wishing it were so but recognizing that evidence can point in the opposite direction, most especially when I look at the ways Christians treat other people?
Am I alone in these wonderings?
I could be wrong but in the end, I actually do believe that grace is the word. Not only that it is true, but that it is our hope. Maybe our only hope. If we give up on grace, we’re sunk. I hold on to Jurgen Moltmann’s question: Where would we stand if we did not take our stand on hope? So maybe I don’t believe 100% of the time, maybe sometimes I’m a functional atheist, but I join the prayer of the guy in Mark 9 who said “Lord I believe. Help my unbelief.” I fall back on a favored, savored Emily Dickinson quote: “We believe and disbelieve a hundred times an hour. It makes the faith nimble.”
My summer break from writing each week gave time to think about how amazing grace really is. I was blessed with the help of authors like William Stringfellow, Richard Rohr, Howard Thurman, Alexander Schmemann, Stephanie Spellers, and, God love him, Trevor Noah. I was renewed in my interest in what it means to be part of the Jesus movement. So what I propose to do for the coming weeks is to take a close look at what Jesus taught, hopefully with fresh eyes. Specifically, for the next bit of time, I want to use the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) as a window into what Jesus had in mind. Even more specifically, I want to focus on what Jesus intended for disciples, since according to Matthew, that was the audience for this sermon. And when he talked to them, he talks to us.
I don’t presume original insight. I’m no biblical scholar. I simply want to take these teachings, a bit at a time, offer my reflections as invitation for you to offer yours, and then to think about those insights as you make your way through a week. Tune in if that sounds interesting. Feel free to tune out if it doesn’t. That’s why God made unsubscribe.
We begin today with the first two verses of Matthew, chapter 5. We read that Jesus gathers disciples on a mountaintop for teaching (an echo of Moses providing teaching from Mt. Sinai). As we make our way through the next weeks, let Jesus be the teacher. See what it’s like to be his student, a learner, which after all, is what being a disciple is all about.
I don’t know about you, but these days, I need Jesus to be my teacher.
Ready to help the folks in your congregation refocus on their spiritual journeys? Join our fall cohort of RenewalWorks participants…
The mission of RenewalWorks is to help churches (and individuals in them) refocus on spiritual growth and identify ways that God is calling them to grow. Now is a great time to engage this process and chart the course forward. We would love to help you on that journey. Contact us if you would like to learn more about RenewalWorks, or if you have other thoughts and ideas about fostering spiritual growth as we emerge from the pandemic.