You Can’t Always Get What You Want …

If you watched the end of the Republican National Convention on Thursday, you heard an iconic baby boomer anthem: The Rolling Stones’ You Can’t Always Get What You Want.

There’s been all sorts of commentary about the choice of this song, but that commentary isn’t our focus today.

The chorus of this song continues, “… if you try sometime you find you get what you need.” What we need – rather than want – is more worthy of our consideration.

Yet, it’s difficult sometimes to distinguish between the two, especially when we’re bombarded with messages from others telling us just what we “need.”

But it’s also difficult when we are surrounded by so much fear and anger that demand our attention and response. Can we distinguish between what is needful – that is necessary – and what simply wants our attention?

The short answer to this question is, yes. But it takes practice – it is a learned discipline.

The disciples are accustomed to seeing Jesus pray – not just occasionally but a lot –regularly and often. Finally, one of the disciples says to Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray, ….”

And what we hear next is very familiar to us. In fact it is foundational for us –we pray it every week, and hopefully a lot more often than that. But familiarity can sometimes be a stumbling block because we can pray it mechanically and not think about what we are praying.

So let’s take some time to unpack Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer. This prayer is wonderfully to the point, yet it contains and prioritizes all that is needful – all that is necessary for our well-being.

First and foremost, it sets forth our primary focus – our relationship with God. Only then does it reminds us that a part of this focus is to bring about our Creator’s kingdom. Short and to the point!

Then this prayer turns to our personal needs – what is necessary for our well-being to be realized. It seems Jesus thinks we need far less than we may think.

The first of these things is “daily bread.” This is not an appeal for abundance, but for what is necessary to sustain us for the day. This is less an issue of quantity and more about presence of mind – or attention. Give us what we need so that our attention can be focused on your kingdom.

The second of the needful or necessary things for us to place our Creator and kingdom first is the quality of our relationships with our fellow creatures.

These relationships depend upon our ability to forgive and to be forgiven. This petition makes it clear that our forgiveness depends upon our ability to forgive those who are in need of our forgiveness – not just those who ask for it but all in need. Who might that be? Anyone we hold a grudge against.

And finally there is the petition to be spared the time of trial. Just as sustenance and forgiveness are daily necessities, so is being saved from the time of trial. As our relationships become ordered as Jesus is teaching us, this final petition will be realized. We will be spared the time of trial.

Thus this simple prayer contains all that is needful – all that is necessary for us as disciples. As such it can be a rule for distinguishing between what is needful and what simply wants our attention.

But just because this prayer is simple, don’t think for a moment that it can be taken for granted. It takes persistent practice – daily, throughout the day, throughout the week, and for years before we are able to pray it as Jesus wants us to pray it – fully aware of what is needful in our lives, as opposed to what just wants our attention.

The parable of the persistent friend shows us what this persistence in prayer looks like as it becomes our common prayer – our common language.

“Persistent” is used to describe the friend who comes knocking in the middle of the night. A literal translation of persistence is “shamelessness,” which has some negative connotations associated with it, but there are positive connotations as well, such as transparent, unconcealed, open, and undisguised.

These attributes of shamelessness are the ones we will recognize in others and ourselves as we learn to pray as Jesus teaches us because the prayer will make us more open and transparent to one another as we near the kingdom.

So imagine we are the one who is in bed with our children and disturbed from our sleep by the “shameless” friend. I don’t know about you but I’m usually pretty cross when someone wakes me up in the middle of the night. As a result, I am reluctant to disturb others.

Yet, in this parable, the shameless friend is not ashamed to share his need with his neighbor. The reason he is not ashamed is because as 1st century Palestinians they share a common and abiding cultural obligation to extend hospitality to travelers.

The shameless friend isn’t reluctant to disturb his friend because they are both steeped in the common obligation to extend hospitality to the traveler that arrives at their door. They share this common language and understanding between them. Thus this request is not as outrageous as it may seem to our 21st century ears.

And this is Jesus’ desire for his disciples, that we are so persistent and steeped in this common prayer and understanding that we are able to discern between what simply wants our attention and the kingdom that is necessary for our well-being.

If it isn’t about “Our Father,” our concern is probably misdirected.


My Enemy or My Neighbor

What a week it has been; yet it seems like any other week these days. Violence and Fear dominate the news – in fact it seems that fear and anger have become the norm. Unfortunately what has become exceptional is Compassion.

As the voices of fear and anger dominate the news cycle they begin to affect our awareness. We become more aware of our Enemies than we are of our neighbors. Yet all that separates these two is perspective and context.

This is where the Wisdom of Scripture comes into play – specifically the ancient Hebrew of the Old Testament. In this language consonants and no vowels, many words have multiple layers of meaning. All that differentiates them is context. This invites all sorts of word-play – especially puns and double entendre.

Such is the case with Enemy and Neighbor. The same word – re‘a – is used for both – one word has multiple layers of meaning. All that differentiates them is context.

Jesus knows this language well and taps into its multiple layers of meaning in his parable of the Good Samaritan. In this story he chooses three types of people that would have resonated with his 1st century Palestinian audience: a priest; a Levite; and a Samaritan.

Unfortunately, over centuries of interpretation and exegesis, we have burdened these people with all sorts of stereotypes and associations that aren’t true and that get in the way of the effectiveness of the parable.

So let’s recast the story and its setting. For us equivalents could be: an American; a Canadian; and a Mexican.

The setting could be Hwy 75 – the Road to Tulsa. An accident has occurred; an older model sedan has been sideswiped by a reckless semi and sent careening out of control. It has come to rest in the median of the highway near Owasso.

The first person to come upon the scene is an American – a businessperson. He has only a moment to decide what to do. He thinks, surely these people have a cell phone or someone else has already called 911.

I’m sure the Highway Patrol will be along at any moment to take care of it. Therefore I can keep going, besides I have obligations to honor – appointments to keep

The next traveler on the scene is a Canadian – a vacationer with her family in the car. Like the American, she must respond quickly. She thinks, this is a dangerous place to stop; and she’s right, it is dangerous. I can’t put my children at risk; besides, we have a rental car to return and a flight to catch.

Finally, a Mexican happens along. He too has commitments to honor, but he isn’t able to rationalize what he sees. He has experienced being stranded on the side of the road dependent on the kindness of strangers; he has experienced marginalization and neglect; he has been overlooked.

As a result he has compassion and he takes responsibility for his fellow traveler along the way. He pulls into the median to check on the family. He calls 911, and after the police report is taken and the car is towed away, he loads the family into his panel van and takes them to the Motel 6 at the next exit where he buys them dinner and checks them into the motel.

Who do you relate to in this story? Don’t be afraid to name it to yourself because that is the beginning the road to compassion, and it is where we begin to hear who we are being called to be.

There is an update to Jesus’ Road to Jericho story that we need to be aware of. We can literally no longer travel the Road to Jericho from Jerusalem. Fear and anger have won in Israel, neighbors have become enemies, and now a 14-foot security wall topped with razor wire and watch towers cuts across the Road to Jericho south of the Mount of Olives.

But the story does not end here, it is not over. Even as barriers are being raised all around us as the context of our fear gets the upper hand and begins to make Neighbors into Enemies; we are being called as God’s people to tell a different story – to present a different context – one of love for all of God’s people.

Like the lawyer in the Gospel story, Jesus is telling us to “Go and do likewise.” Learn to recognize our instinct or inclination to want to be the Samaritan or the Mexican.

Choose not to make excuses; choose to turn from fear and toward compassion so compassion can begin to transform our Enemy into our Neighbor, because compassion changes the context, which makes all the difference in how we see the other.