Making It Count

public prayerAnd when you pray, don’t be like performing actors who love to pray in assemblies and stand on street corners so that people can see them.  In all honesty, I say to you, that is their payment.–Matthew 6:5

Jesus: Tell me. What’s up with those people who want to pray in schools and sporting events?  It’s strange that they want to pray publicly.

Me: I can’t speak for all of your followers but I think people enjoy praying together.

Jesus: There has to be something else to it because that’s not praying. I’m kind of an expert on prayer. That is not prayer.

Me: What do you mean that’s not praying?  Of course, it’s praying. It is people talking to God, just like you taught us to do.

Jesus: I never taught you to pray like that.  In fact, I told you, if you want to follow me, not to pray publicly like that.  So this whole concept of praying publicly is the exact opposite of what I asked you to do.

Me: But we pray in worship services.

Jesus: Are you trying to suggest that a high school graduation is a worship service?  Is a session of Congress a worship service?

Me: Of course not, but people want to pray as a way to center themselves, as a way to think of God first.

Jesus: I disagree. The real reason people want to pray in public has nothing to do with their relationship with our Father.  It has to do with their relationship with themselves.

Me: What do you mean?

Jesus: These are not even prayers. They are performances. The whole thing is a pretend conversation with God. And like any good enactment, the goal is to be heard. People pray publicly so that others can hear them.

Me: Sure.

Jesus: Pray so that God can hear you, not everyone else.

Secret You

Dancing-SantaSo that your compassionate acts may remain hidden and your Father, seeing what is hidden, will repay you.–Matthew 6:4

My children can tell the difference.  They know an impostor when they see one.  When they see a man dressed in a giant, red suit with white trim, they whisper in my direction, “He’s not real.”  “That’s not the real Santa.”  “You know, Daddy.  That’s just a man dressed up like Santa Claus.”  It fascinates me.  How do they know?  What is it that gives the fake Santa Claus away?  Is it the too-white to be white beard?  Is it the dark eyebrows?  Is it the gold-polished, plastic belt sewn into the fabric?  I think children are smart.  They believe in Santa Claus almost instantaneously.  They grasp the idea that a person has the capability to go around the world delivering gifts.  They believe that the impossible is possible.  And it is not possible for someone who can do something so great to be sitting down on a chair in the middle of a shopping mall.  A person with that much generosity does not hang out in front of the Orange Julius .  The real Santa Claus does not give and tell.

Santa is a great example to the world on charitable giving.  Obviously, his life is based on the great saint, St. Nicholas, who is famous for sharing gifts anonymously.  The story has taken on a life of its own.  He has turned into an immortal, elven slave-driver who lives in the frozen tundra.

But my children are right.  Santa Claus does not wear loud clothing, like a red suit, so he can be seen from space.  He does not go around bellowing, “Ho, Ho, Ho!” so that everyone knows that he is a big spender.  A real Santa Claus works under the cover of night.  He zips from house to house without being detected.  He is a holiday ninja.  In fact, the phrase, ‘secret Santa,’ is redundant.  Santa is secretive.  He hides.  His work is not for his own glory.  He gives for the sheer purpose that others may receive.

What’s that you say?  You do not believe in Santa Claus?  It is not a matter of believing that Santa Claus is real or not.  The big question is whether you can be the jolly, old elf yourself.  Can you be Santa?  Can I be Santa?  Jesus wants his followers to work at generosity.  Jesus calls us to go around and give without anyone knowing.  I guess you can say that each Christian is called to be Santa Claus, without the costume and only the heart.

The Right of the Right

Love the LeftBut when you perform compassionate acts, like giving to the poor, do not let your left know what your right is doing.–Matthew 6:3

I know the slide very well.  It is a long way up and a fast fall down. . .

It all starts when I do something nice for someone else.  For instance, I buy someone’s lunch.  It is a kind gesture.  It is a gift of love.  Or to quote Jesus here, it is an act of compassion.  It is the same word used to describe the Good Samaritan.  It is mercy.  It is giving to someone in need.  The first step is a lot of fun.  Giving feels great.  The simple act of buying someone’s lunch can give you a sense of satisfaction.

I do it again.  Why not?  It feels great to give in the first place so I will do it a second time and a third time.  A habit forms.  I become a giving, compassionate person.  I start buying lunches for everyone–hamburgers, chili, salads, hot dogs.

Then the problem begins (besides indigestion).  All of that giving makes me think that I am a pretty great person.  My self-recognition changes.  My head gets bigger.  My pride takes over.  Now, instead of doing something for another person out of love, I give to another person because of who I think I am.  The focus changes from the other person to myself.  I start to believe that I am too good of a person to give anymore.  Other people need to buy my lunch now.  A pattern forms.  Giving leads to more giving, which leads to pride, which leads to less giving, which leads to no giving.

Jesus sees this in people.  He knows the temptation of pride that can happen when we are charitable.  It is not enough to tell his disciples not to make a big deal about giving.  Christ also warns about what can happen if we tell ourselves that we give.  It can lead to overlooking other people.  Thomas a Kempis, the great German priest, explains it simply,

If you see anything good in yourself, believe still better things of others and you will, then, preserve humility.

The right has a right not to tell so that the right can keep doing what is right. Is that right?

No One Needs to Know

george-costanza“Therefore, when you give to the poor do not sound the alarms like those people performing in a worship service or on the streets so that people may honor them.  I say to you, in all honesty, that is their payment.”–Matthew 6:2

Do you see this guy to the left?  You probably remember George Costanza from the great sitcom, Seinfeld.  In one episode, George is furious when he opens a card from a friend.  The friend has given money to an organization in George’s name, an alliance for needy children.  It is a noble gift.  George does not appreciate it.  He sees it as an opportunity to give out Christmas gifts without really giving anything.  He  comes up with a fake, non-profit organization, the Human Fund.  He delivers cards to all of his co-workers with the phrase, “A donation in your name has been made to the Human Fund–money for people.”

What makes it so funny is that we all get letters like this.  I often am humbled when someone hands me a card explaining that a gift has been made in my name.  It seems like a good thing, right?  It feels good to give.  It feels great to know that someone thought of me when she or he gives.

And then there are the thousands of examples of corporations giving philanthropically.  Companies really like to tell the world when they have done something charitable.  Companies like their names on signs.  Giving to those in need makes for great advertising.  It is a travesty to take part in charitable giving and not give a press release.  Like a tree falling in the woods, can a corporation donate money without telling anyone?

Jesus teaches that we need to be anonymous with our giving.  Why?  Doesn’t it feel great to give?  Isn’t it great to get publicity when we do?  Apparently that is the whole point.  Jesus makes it clear that it is not about us!  His followers are to love other people, even those people we do not like.  Our love is to be so genuine that we cannot perform acts of love for our own sake, for our own good feeling.  It is the word, ‘perform,’ that seems important to Christ.  Matthew uses ‘hypocrite’ to describe Jesus’ intent.  Hypocrites are performers, actors on the stage with bold movements so that everyone can see.  We are to be ourselves and not actors.  We are not called to play characters that do charitable giving, no matter how funny George Costanza can be.

Incognito

Mask“Be careful that you do not act out your right living in front of other people in order to be seen by them.  If that’s the case, your heavenly Father does not reward you.”–Matthew 6:1

Happy Lent!  ‘Tis the season for giving up and taking on things.  I have a good friend that gives up meat on Fridays for Lent.  He has been doing it for years.  So when I go to breakfast with him on a Friday, he makes sure to remind the waitress that he cannot eat meat.  “Only four more weeks and I can have bacon again!”  Oh the irony of Lent.  It is the time of year when people strive to grow closer to God but forget that God wants us to be incognito.

Does Jesus really not want us to do all of these extraordinary actions in public?  Yes that is the case.  Jesus changes direction in this section of his sermon.  He has been calling his disciples, then and now, to show unconditional love to other people up until this point.  Jesus tells his disciples that he wants them to care for other people.  But now he adds a warning to it.  It is to be done in secret.  He now calls us to live in hiding. The Christian life is a hidden life.

In our information age, it is difficult not to notify the world when you do something at every moment of the day.  Social media require us to post what we think and do.  Facebook asks, “What’s going on, Dexter?” and Twitter wants me to “Compose a Tweet”.  Friends see me and ask, “How’s it going?”  Or, “What are up to?”  And it is human nature to tell another person the highs and lows of my day.  So when I fast or pray or give to the poor or do any other number of things in my relationship with God, it seems natural to share these with the world.  My righteousness needs to be explained.  The manner in which I live my life requires some clarification.  I want other people to know what I am doing, what God calls me to do.  But God does not want me to pray and tell.  Being a Christian is the sacrifice of self and self-promotion.

If I give up something for Lent and do not tell anyone, does it still count?

Getting It All Together

missing piece“Therefore, you shall be complete just like your Father in heaven is complete.” –Matthew 5:48

Is there something missing in your life?  What Jesus seems to be saying to his followers is that we can be whole.   Some Bible translations use the word ‘perfect’ instead of ‘complete’ but that completely misses Christ’s intention.  (Be perfect!?!)  What a horrible way to translate a perfectly good word.  The Greek word means completion or wholeness.  It gives the sense of having all of the pieces in place.  There is no way that Jesus calls us to be perfect!  He is human.  He knows what we go through.  How can we be perfect when it is so easy to spill milk or stub a toe?

Yet Jesus wants those people who climb the mountain with him to be complete, not flawless.  What does that mean?  Being complete, or whole, means that we have integrity.  We are whole when we are able to integrate all that we think, feel, and act together.   To use the great psychologist, Carl Rogers, phrase, Jesus wants us to have ‘congruence’ so that our actions match our beliefs, and vice versa.  “Congruence,” explains Rogers, “Is . . . an accurate matching of experiencing and awareness.”  It is ensuring that all of our inner desires and thoughts go along with our life experiences.  A baby has congruence.  It is perhaps the only time in our lives when our emotions match our actions.  We smile, giggle, and coo when we are content.  A baby cannot hide her or his feelings very well.

Another way to explain Jesus’ imperative is to remember the flight instructor in the movie, Top Gun.  Do you remember when he says, “Your ego is writing checks your body can’t cash”?  I am not completely sure what he means by this funny phrase but I am pretty sure that it means to have integrity or congruence.  It is being complete.  It is doing what we believe.  It is not sounding like Isaac and feeling like Esau, to use an Old Testament reference.  Being complete is putting it all together.  It is believing, acting, speaking, and feeling all the same thing.

Jesus explains that we are complete when we love.  To be a follower of Christ, up the mountain, we can be whole, just like the Father, when we affirm the importance of others.  It is one thing to say we want to be a Christian.  But unless we act like Dad, and love, then we are missing a very important piece.

Hello

WavingAnd if you only greet your friends, how is this different from anyone else?  Even the people who do not care about doing right do that much.–Matthew 5:47

Anyone can bless another person.  We do it all the time.  Most of the time we are completely unaware of it.  It happens when we greet each other.  In fact, it seems that the greetings we give are the simplest forms of blessing.  Think about it.  There are the many phrases that we use, like “Have a good day!,” which is Bonjour in French or Buenas Dias in Spanish, or Guten Tag in German.  Some of our greetings even have blessings from God.  In German it is Grüß Gott (Greet God) or in parts of Ireland and Scotland it is Dia dhuit (God with you).  It is from a simple greeting of blessing that the English get the phrase, Goodbye, an eventual contraction of God be with ye.  Does Goodbye have the same connotation as the French adieu, Spanish adiós, Italian addio and Portuguese adeus (To God)?  There are some cultures that offer a greeting of peace, like Salaam, Shalom, or Aloha.  It is so common throughout our world to bless another person in the Name of God, even if we mean to do it or not.  Everyone greets everyone, right?

Jesus seems to explain that this is not always the case.  And if I search my heart long enough, I know it to be true as well.  There are plenty of times when I do not want to be friendly to the late night grocery store cashier or the tactless emergency room nurse or the during dinner phone solicitor.  I have no desire to give well wishes to these individuals.  They are not my ‘friends,’ to quote Jesus above.  They are not invited to my house.  I do not want to be their friend and I do not want them to be mine.  And they are not going to receive from me the simplest, cultural greeting as a blessing.  What’s funny is that I am not even talking about those individuals who may be my enemies, those people who I avoid like herpes.  Can they get a greeting from me?  Forget it.

This verse gets to the heart of Jesus’ message.  For dozens of verses now, he has been explaining the importance of other people.  (It is almost the very end of the chapter–One more verse!)  He wants his followers to worry about others, care about them, be honest with them, treat them not like objects, give them the very shirt off of your back, etc.  And now Christ explains that we need to open our mouths and at least do the very least: greet all people.  God calls us to say, “Hello,” to strangers.  God wants us to say, “Goodbye.”

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