"It is not enough," observes N.T. Wright, "to say one's prayers in private, maintain high personal morality, and then go to work to rebuild the tower of Babel. The substance and structure of the different aspects of our world need to be interrogated in the light of the unique achievement of Jesus."
Eugene Peterson offers the above quote from Wright in his book, The Jesus Way.
Do you ever feel like your prayers are "stuck"? I have many things at the forefront of my mind, and I bring these to the Lord, but, lately, when diving in more deeply, the prayers seem stuck.
This morning, I said to the Lord, "Oh fine! You want to know what's really on my mind? Worries about health for my family, my personal daily struggles. Oh, and school shootings, Russia and Ukraine, the unfathomable ideological divides in the United States, the helplessness of not being able to...well...help. All of these things, Lord, that I don't understand and although I try to do something about (donations, letter signing, praying, speaking with others), it's not nearly enough, but I don't see a path forward to what will be enough. I pray for even the smallest little thing and that doesn't change, so how can I expect the gun violence situation or the the invasion of Ukraine to change? I don't know my own future let alone the future of an entire nation."
I pray this, and then am reminded of the myriad prayers that are answered--small and large. Prayers that I've prayed, prayers others have prayed for me, and wants and wishes that my heavenly Father knows that I need and just simply grants. Consider the lilies, after all.
It's not like God needs reminded of how to be God. I think I sometimes forget that in prayer, as if my requests are reminders, a to-do list of sorts: "Lord, make sure you don't forget those people in Ukraine. Those that left and those who stayed. They're really struggling right now. Check. Oh, and have you remembered to help me out yet in my situation? Please remember that before you move on to the next thing." What on earth am I trying to do in my prayers? I turn the invitation to co-participate with God in bringing others' cares and concerns to the forefront and seeking their well-being to a shopping list. A kinda stressful one, if I'm honest.
Worse yet, as N.T. Wright says, is when we say these prayers, try to be very good, and then spend the majority of our day building Babel. These things should not be.
I participated in a wonderful workshop at Calvin University where Calvin Theological Seminary professor Cory Willson presented his ideas about how our modern work maps onto aspects of either Eden, Egypt, the Wilderness, the Promised Land...or Babylon.
What does it look like to work in Babylon? In Babylon, you've been taken away from your homeland, stripped of your identity. Your life is characterized by loss. You're a stranger in a strange land.
This is the experience of many in the United States today. And yet, in response to this sensation of working in Babylon, we're having myriad responses. Some are trying to appeal to Egypt, another strong force to counteract the evils of Babylon. I'm tired of this civil religion, and all of its vestiges. I'm re-reading Isaiah again, and Isaiah tells Israel over and over again to not go back to Egypt, to not align with Egypt, to have nothing to do with Egypt, no matter how scary Assyria and Babylon are. Just don't do it.
Christians, please, please, please don't do it. Do we have faith that God cares for us and can take care of us? Must we insist on helping ourselves and counteracting Babylon by trafficking with something that is just as bad or worse? And, we lose our souls in the process?
Ancient Israel didn't learn that message, no matter how much the brilliant Isaiah said it. The Maccabean revolt, before the birth of Jesus, was at first the dream of what they wanted a Messianic rule to look like. Hanukkah celebrates the cleansing of the temple and the recapture of Jerusalem from the Seleucid Empire, a stunning victory for Israel. Antiochus IV Ephiphanes' blasphemous campaign is stopped
And yet, by the time of Christ's incarnation, what had been set up under the Maccabees was so problematic in God's eyes that Jesus, instead of cleansing Jerusalem of Roman influence...cleanses the temple from the corrupting influence of the religious leaders and temple merchants!
This is a shocking turn of events. But Israel had set up a type of Babylon or Egypt or whatever you want to call it in their own temple, and Jesus was more concerned about that than the fact that Rome was still in charge.
I fail to remember this, when I ask God to overturn the powers that be. Like Israel, I don't see any other way to stop what is happening in Ukraine, or in our own country.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who I love and respect so much, felt the same way. He saw no other way to stop the Nazis than to plot to assassinate Hitler. I respect his passion for the Kingdom, and his refusal to align with the evil powers-that-be, despite what his fellow pastors were doing. However, the plot failed; thankfully, God had other ways to put an end to the Nazi regime. Bonhoeffer's way, in this instance, was not the way.
Maybe my prayers are a little off-kilter. When in doubt, go back to the classic. I need to join with Jesus in praying, "Thy Kingdom come," and then seeking His guidance and working within my sphere to confidently and creatively overturn the areas that run counter to this kingdom. Including the areas within my own heart. Recommending ways to God and then getting upset when they don't come about is not the way. Taking matters into our own hands is not the way. Aligning with Egypt against Babylon is not the way.
And behaving like Babylon is certainly not the way.
I've been passionate about the theology of work for a long time. Others are as well, rediscovering what the Reformers had rediscovered so long ago now. Here's a great description on this from Credo (https://credomag.com/article/martin-luther-and-the-doctrine-of-vocation/):
Even the word “vocation” prior to the Reformation referred specifically to church-related callings like serving as a priest or monk or nun. Luther recaptured this word and used it instead to refer to every calling a Christian might legitimately fulfill: cobbler, farmer, baker, blacksmith, wife, mother, civil servant, and so on...To Luther, the cobbler’s work was just as valuable as the priest’s precisely because justification was received by faith alone. A sinner did not come into union with Christ or earn his right standing with God on the basis of mystical contemplation or religious activity. Saving righteousness was received immediately—not as a process—by faith.
Calling and vocation are not just for the clergy, and what we do in our everyday work matters for the kingdom. And, as N.T. Wright described, personal piety divorced from what one does day in and day out is simply not the way of Christ.
And, I love Wright's word "interrogated" from that earlier quote. We can't inherit the faith of our parents, or our pastors, or our friends. We must grapple with, process, and interrogate what we have received in light of Scripture. We must particularly interrogate the messages we've received "out there" in the culture about what living one's faith is supposed to look like. Strangely, in the United States, Christian faith and particular political beliefs continue to become inextricably tied.
But I guess this has happened before. The Catholic church's alignment with authoritarian regimes in South America, in Spain. Lutheran Germany in the modern era, right through the Nazi regime. One becomes Babylon.
This is not the way (Note: I've stopped watching the Mandalorian...too slow for me!...but loved the "this is the way" mantra).
What, according to Jesus, is the Way? What people and behaviors does He compliment during His time on earth?
This site has a nice section on "compliments of Christ" (https://soundteaching.org/2019/11/07/compliments-from-christ/), noting the following compliments that Jesus gave:
To Nathanael, for his genuineness, his lack of guile and hypocrisy.
The Roman Centurion who asked Jesus to heal his servant, for his faith and recognition of Jesus' authority and power.
John the Baptist, for his his humility and stewarding of his servant role before the Lord.
The widow who gave all of her money in a tithe to the church.
The Mary who worshipped Jesus by anointing His feet and wiping them with her hair.
How would I summarize this group? They worshipped extravagantly. They didn't fear expense or being too "put out" by serving the kingdom. They saw their proper role before the Lord and didn't try to usurp Jesus' place. They faithfully served in their work while recognizing that they served a higher authority. They were authentic, and honest and more concerned with pleasing Jesus than pleasing those around them.
With the exception perhaps of Nathanael, everyone on this list either definitely (because Scripture shows us) or likely got "flak" from others because of their interactions with Jesus. A Roman centurion asking an itinerant Jewish preacher for help? And why did he care so much about this servant anyway (by the way, can't wait to see what the series The Chosen does with this story!)?? John the Baptist was clearly thought of as being odd and pretty "out there." The widow ludicrously donated money to the very regime that Jesus was always at odds with, for their corruption, hypocrisy, and oppression of others. But the widow was really giving her money for the Lord's use, and Jesus praised this. And, of course, the narrative descriptions of a woman pouring expensive perfume, letting down her hair, and wiping Jesus feet. We would freak out to see a woman doing that to someone today! It is only appropriate when offered to the Son of God.
As are all of these behaviors. These are ludicrous things to do unless they are in service to and in worship of the Lord.
And yet, is this not what we are called to? Not to plot and stew and fret over the way things are in a world that is not as it should be.
When working in Babylon, we should look like a John the Baptist, if that is our prophetic calling. Or a widow giving her all. Or a woman going all-out in worship of her Lord. Or someone high in civil authority openly asking God for help and humbly waiting to receive it. Or Nathanael just authentically joining the ranks of the disciples, not doing anything flashy, not becoming a Big Deal, but just faithfully following his Lord.