Sunday, September 23, 2012

Trusting God With Our Failings and our Future... A Journey to the Heart of Prayer: exploring the Lord's Prayer (part 5)

Louie Zamperini  came seventh in the 5000 meters final  at the 1936 Olympic games …. Before the heats in the Olympics he had only run the distance four times, the fourth to qualify for the US Olympic team at 19 years of age. But the mile was his specialist event and while we will never know sports commentators suggest if it were not for the Second World War Zamperini would have been the first to break the four minute mile.

Zamperini’s life was changed by the war. He was a bombardier flying B-24 liberators in the pacific. In April 1942 his plane crashed in to the ocean and Zamperini and two others were the only survivors.  They were adrift for 48 days in shark infested waters, surviving off rain water and catching the occasional fish and seabird. After one of the three died they eventually washed up on a Japanese occupied Island and were taken prisoner.

 The island they were held on was called ‘annihilation island’ as no POW’s held on the Island survived except for Zamperini and his companion. Zamperini was famous and was considered of propaganda value. He was beaten, mistreated and starved and eventually shipped off to POW camps in Japan. Again he was mistreated and abused, beaten, starved, forced into slave labour. One Guard nick named the ‘Bird’ known for his sadistic cruelty took an instant dislike to Zamperini and made his life hell trying to break his will. Zamperini again survived.

He returned to the US after the war as a hero and began his life again, he met Cynthia Applewhite and they were married. He took up running, but an injury caused by a beating by the bird bought it to an end just as he was beginning to get back to some form. While to the outside world Zamperini looked like his life was together. His dreams were haunted by  the savage beatings he had received from the Bird. He was an alcoholic and his marriage was falling apart. Zamperini ‘s thoughts turned to  going back to Japan to kill the guards who had mistreated him so much. In desperation Cynthia convinced him to go to a Billy Graham tent crusade. Over two nights of struggle Zamperini finally encountered God. He went home and poured all his alcohol down the drain and from that time on never had another nightmare.


However he knew that he had to go back to Japan, not to kill his tormentors but to forgive them. In 1952 he did just that and was graciously allowed to address war criminals held in prison. He told them he forgave them. AS he looked out over the people there he was saddened to see that the Bird was not amongst them. The Bird had escaped capture and remained a fugitive till the Japanese pardoned all outstanding war criminals. Zamperini was invited to take part in the torch relay for the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano one of five Olympic torch relays he has been part of,  and hoped to meet the bird… Who at the last minute refused.  Zamperini wrote him a letter…

Which said… Well its best if we let Louie himself read this letter…


… Zamperini dedicated most of his life to his family and the Victory Boys Camp helping at risk boys and young men get sorted. today he is a vibrant 96 year old with an infectious faith.

His story is profound and such a great illustration of the last two petitions in the Lord’s Prayer. “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors’ and lead us not into to temptation, but deliver us from tell you the truth it’s such a great illustration that I have spent most of the week wrestling with how to move on from Zamperini’s story, how to explore these petition as they apply to our lives.  Mark Woodley is helpful when he confesses with totally honesty ‘It’s tough to make it through the day without at least one battle with failure, resentment or temptation.’  He goes on to say ‘By telling us to pray about these utterly human struggles Jesus walks with us in our daily lives.’


The Lord’s prayer starts with focusing us on God Our heavenly father. We say Hallowed be your name,Your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven’ and as we turn to the second half the focus is on the process of making that a reality in how we live. Give us today our daily bread is a prayer of trust, it means that we are asking God to provide for our needs so that we can focus on the God stuff, as we’ll see as we move on in the Sermon on the Mount, when it comes to economics Jesus will say why worry about what you will eat and what you will wear, rather put first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness and these things will be added unto you. We can trust God with those things because Our Heavenly Father knows what we need even before we ask him.


Moving on we see that God is giving us a way to deal with the places and times  in our lives, community and world where God’s name is not hallowed, or where his will is not done. That firstly we can have those things forgiven, the slate whipped clean and secondly that God will protect us and guide us in times when we are tempted and attacked by evil.


 ‘Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors’ uses the metaphor of owing money to talk about sin and forgiveness, it’s one that Jesus often uses, it’s at the core of the parable of the ungrateful servant in Matthew 18 that we had read out to us this morning. It’s one I think we understand. We understand that there is a moral obligation to make amends for what we owe. There is also a consequence for not doing so. In the ancient near east it was imprisonment till you could pay or being sold into slavery to make amends. There were only two possible avenues for hope. The first was that the debt would be forgiven, Jesus tells us that we should ask God to forgive our debt, and the second was that you would be redeemed. A kind kinsman would come and pay your debt for you, would buy back your freedom. This also is a a metaphor of God’s grace, that in his death on the cross Christ paid the price, Christ is the kind kinsman who buys us free. To pray forgive us our debts is to be free from our failings and wrong in the past, free to live now in a manner that honours God’s name and expresses God’s reign and does God’s will.

But in this line from the Lord’s Prayer it seems like there is a catch, it seems like there is a clause, something in the small print, that our forgiveness is dependent on our forgiving others. In fact after the Lord’s Prayer Jesus seems to reinforce this in verse 16 and 17. It can look like we have to earn our forgiveness. Yes we are to forgive others but as a way of obtaining our forgiveness rather as an outworking of it.

 In the parable of the ungrateful servant, we are supposed to amazed by two things, firstly the generosity of the king for forgiving a personal debt of astronomical proportions, and secondly in light of being shown such an amazing amount of grace that the ungrateful servant should not even forgive his fellow servant the lazy twenty he borrowed the other week. John Stott puts it like this ‘ God’s forgiveness is not earned rather God only forgives the penitent and that one of the chief evidences of true penitence is the forgiving spirit’ NT Wright is even more succinct ‘the heart that forgives will be open to the forgiveness of God’.  Zamperini was so filled with grace at his life being restored that his heart was open to forgive the people who had subjected him to the worst of inhumanity.


 ‘Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil’…

While I would like to think that this is a prayer that we would not face difficulties or suffering in life, that does not ring true. Scholars wrestle with the translation of this last petition, as it seems incongruous to think that God would lead us into temptation, as it says in the book of James, that when we are tempted we should not say God is tempting me. It has been translated lead us not to the time of trial but even that is problematic as again in James we are told that we should count it all joy when we face trials of all kinds, as it leads to perseverance which leads to a perfecting and maturing of our faith. And evil can be translated either just evil or the evil one. Rather this final petition is an placing of our future into Gods hands and grace. It is asking God to protect us and help us to not continue to live in ways that dishonour God’s name that run counter to his kingdom. In the good times abut also in the difficult and trying times. In both we look for Gods leading, guiding and protection.


Dietrich Bonhoeffer says that the church needs to rediscover the Psalms as Jesus prayer book and in his commentary on the Psalms Martin Luther says that the Lord’s Prayer is saturated in the psalms. In this petition we see the wonderful assurance of David in Psalm 23 ‘even thou I walk through the valley of death I will fear no evil, for thou art with me, your rod and your staff they comfort me’. We see the reorientation of the laments as the psalmists wrestle with times when  it seem that God has abandoned them and yet they come to a place of trust that God will lead and guide that God will preserve them even in the midst of their enemies. I took the service at Ed Hillary retirement village the other week and preached on Psalm 139 and this petition could easily be summed up with the positive ‘search me O God and see if there be any wicked way in me and lead me in the way everlasting’.


Recently, God’s surprised me in two ways… the first was by a library book jumping off the shelf at me. No it wasn’t an earthquake, it was through the prompting of a still small voice. The book was ‘Unbroken” by Laura Hillenbrand, I recommend it to everyone... and I’m sorry I’ve probably done a bit of a spoiler for you, because it is the story of Louie Zamperini. I wasn’t aware that he was a Christian; it just gripped me as a ripping yard of survival. But as I read it I became aware that at key moments in Louie’s story there were God moments, the pilot shot down with him was the son of a Methodist minister and would sing hymns on the life raft and lead Louie in prayers, a Christian guard on annihilation Island saved his life by protecting him and giving him an extra bit of food when he could. And I found myself crying at the way God reached into Louie’s life with grace through Billy Grahame and just the well spring of grace as he forgave his tormentors. ' I found it inspirational... Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.


The second time was in my inbox through a regular devotion I get sent from sojourners; just a bible verse, a relevant quote and a prayer.  I’ve been preoccupied with my mortality. I know it seems a bit dramatic, but this blocked arteries thing has got me thinking about life and death. It’s been great how people have let me know that they are praying for me, and I’ve had people ring me up and even drop in and see me to reassure me that having stents in is a rather usual procedure these days. Even by passes are. And I’ve appreciated that encouragement.  But you know you still go through asking the big questions about life and worrying, I’ve even wondered if God was on the case. On Wednesday as I opened up my email devotion and realised that God was indeed at work… the bible passage was Romans 12:12… Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. The quote was from Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  It is a blessed thing to know that no power on earth, no temptation, no human frailty can dissolve what God holds together. ‘Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.’

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