A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
November 22, 2012
Presbyterian writer Anne Lamott has just published a new book entitled Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers. I haven’t had a chance to read it yet (it hit the stores just a few days ago), but a radio interview with her early this week whetted my appetite. When it comes to prayer, a return to such child-like basics is a wonderfully refreshing invitation.
Jesus said that unless we become as children, we cannot enter the kingdom of God. (Matthew 18:3) Now there are some childish ways that are utterly unbecoming for people of God – bullying, throwing tantrums, selfishness, talking back, playing favorites. Such things need to be shunned, not celebrated. What, then, of being a child might Jesus be commending to us?
I suggest two features of childhood that mark kingdom people: transparency and simplicity. Transparency – with children, what you see is what you get. You know exactly how they are feeling within a second of their opening their mouths. When we grown-ups don’t like what their feelings lead them to say or do, we try to get them bottle them up. We urge them to repress feelings and opinions we don’t like, calling such bottled-up behavior being “polite” or even “good.”
It is of course important that children learn not to act on all their impulses – it is in fact essential to being able to function productively in the “adult world.” But that world ought never be confused with the kingdom of God. In God’s kingdom, we don’t need to cover up our feelings or convictions in order to be acceptable. Spiritual health in fact demands that we bare our souls rather than hide them. The Psalms are all the exhibits we need to know that God welcomes the honest outpouring of our hearts, whether in praise, gratitude, fear, indignation, or lament. In the kingdom of God, our yes is truly yes, our no is truly no. We don’t say one thing here and another thing there. We tell it straight, and welcome others to do the same, confident that we can be transparent without fear of rejection, reprisal, or recrimination. It may require of us repentance, but in the kingdom there is always plenty of room for the repentant.
Simplicity – a close cousin of transparency, it signals directness. Several times Jesus warns against long prayers, not just because we do them to make a display of our religiosity, but also because we use complexity to manipulate. In God’s realm there is no room for manipulative behavior or speech, whether directed to others or toward God.
When I was a child, we had very few possessions. Looking back, I now know we were poor by almost any standard; but we would have scorned such a suggestion at the time. We felt positively rich! We didn’t have or need lots of fancy toys to entertain us. In fact, we didn’t even have a television. Some sticks, some stones, some friends, and the nearby woods were all we needed to keep us happy and busy. I cannot remember even once either saying or hearing my friends say, “I’m bored.” I hear that only from children who have more than they need. A child’s basic needs for happiness are truly simple: Love. Food. Shelter. Friends. Safety. And that about covers it.
In this enormously complex world riddled with wars and intrigue, this week let us hear a call to be children again. Be transparent, be simple. Say “thanks!” to God and to each other, and mean it. When unfeigned gratitude abounds, the kingdom of God is surely near.
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister
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