patty kirk

patty kirk lying down, getting up, sitting at home, walking down the road doing deuteronomy 6:7

Saturday, March 23, 2013

a good closet prayer

Although it utterly baffles me why Jesus does it, I really appreciate that, having given us all sorts of advice on how not to pray—not standing up in church, not in a public place, not babbling wordily like a pagan, not asking for anything since God already knows what we need—Jesus then pretty much contradicts himself in giving us what we have come to call the “Lord’s Prayer” (or, in the Catholic tradition in which I was raised, the “Our Father”).

“This, then, is how you should pray,” he tells us:

Oh Father of us all, up there in heaven, your name is holy. Let the end come, so that we can be with you in that heavenly place and, like everyone else does up there, do what it is you want us to do. In the meantime, please make sure we have what we need from day to day and forgive us when we mess up, just as we forgive—or at least try to forgive—those who mess up in our lives. Protect us from being tempted to do the wrong thing, as we are so prone to do. (my paraphrase of Matthew 6:9-13).
It is, surely, the most commonly prayed prayer. One hears of people automatically reciting it in response to some emergency or disaster. Believers often pray it corporately—usually standing in church, I might point out—but it also makes a good closet prayer. It covers everything there could be to say to our Father in heaven: praise for his holiness and that he deigns to be our Father in the first place, eagerness to join him in heaven, and acceptance of his will, and it closes—despite Jesus’ prohibition against asking for things God already knows what we need—with three comprehensive requests: for daily provision, for forgiveness, and for protection against our own messed-up-ness.

Nevertheless, when overcome—as I often am—by prayer-inertia, I often forget that I can pray this prayer. That Jesus takes care of even that for us, the praying, just as he did on Gethsemane.

Friday, March 22, 2013


I’ve never felt very confident as a pray-er. I feel guilty praying only for things I want to happen, but, if I don’t say those things, what else is there to say? You can only say “I’m sorry” so long before it starts to sound insincere. I hate praying aloud: it’s always so embarrassing and what I say is always so chaotic. And, whether in private or public, I can never think of enough to say. I typically find myself ending with an apologetic “Well, that’s all I have to say.”

Jesus’ various teachings on how to pray, while not particularly obscure or difficult to translate as far as I can tell from the commentaries, vary considerably from version to version. Here Matthew 6:5-8 in the NIV:  “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”

Okay, I think. Don’t pray standing up in church.
Um, so, when you’re told to stand, you just sit down and refuse to participate? It sounds like how I used to have to do with the Apostles’ Creed when they got to the harrowing of hell part. I couldn’t pray it forth if I didn’t believe it, and, no matter how hard the Presbyterian pastor tried to talk me into believing it, I couldn’t, since it’s not in the Bible, as far as I can tell. So I would always stop praying at that part, which embarrassed my daughters, who argued I was doing it to show off.

But then, Don’t pray in the street. Yay! One thing I do right. Or that is, that I don't do wrong. I've never once had the urge to pray in the street, though I did use to have the urge at Weightwatchers meetings. So much pain and struggle there. I was often overwhelmed with the thought that God needed to come down and be there for it. But I never prayed it out loud, thank God.

Pray in private. Check. Unusually in bed.

But then comes the tricky part: Get to the point! Don’t babble like a pagan! Oh. My. God. That is such a description of how I pray. I babble. Pointlessly. Exactly like some wacky pagan. The only part that’s to the point is that valediction: “Well, that’s all I have to say.”

In the same passage in the NRSV, Jesus counsels us not to “heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do.” That makes way more sense to me. Don’t use that same old empty, emptied words that we tend to resort to in these situations. Words that don’t make me think. That roll right past me without engaging my brain and heart.

As a kid, my husband Kris, whose family did not attend church, grew up reading the King James Version nightly with his parents and took to heart Jesus’ admonition in that translation, “when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.” As a result, to this day, he kneels in our closet, in the dark, whenever he thinks I’m not around. There, I’m sure he painstakingly avoids the “vain repetitions” of “the heathen.” But he prays for things, that I'm sure of, even though he knows, as I do—as surely all who pray to our all-knowing Father do—that God already knows what we need before we ask.

But if that’s so, one might ask, what’s the point?

Thursday, March 21, 2013

what then should we do?

Today I was preparing talking points for an interview on my new book, The Easy Burden of Pleasing God, which is about our spiritual work. It had occurred to me recently, long after the book was written and revised and revised again and copyedited and printed, that we approach our spiritual work so differently than the other work we pursue in life. For the latter, we choose options we might like to do, jobs we think we’d be good at. We expect that work to give us not only money with which to support ourselves but pleasure.

Even my first job, which I got at fifteen years old—yes, I lied about my age)—and stayed with on into college, demonstrates the role that enjoyment played in my choice: I worked for minimum wage (then $3.15/hour) at a fancy bookstore at South Coast Plaza. Others I knew worked at Albertson’s supermarket, where, for exactly the same work of ringing things up and organizing things on shelves, made, because supermarkets in California were unionized, $7.50/hour. Why? Pleasure, for them, meant whatever it was they wanted to do with two and a half times as much money as I made. In each instance, though, it was worth it. We were motivated by enjoyment.

We select our spiritual jobs so differently. We are motivated by duty and guilt. We regard God’s work as a sacrifice, a duty, not as something we deep down want to do or even are good at doing. For me at least, even when I’m doing some worthy spiritual task I’m certain is what God wants and expects of me, I’m typically deep down resentful. I’d rather be doing anything else.

Not only that, but when I’m doing whatever it is, or having done it, I feel, most times, like a failure. I never love or give or pray or share the good news or humble myself as well as I think I should.

Anyway, as I say, I was working on talking points and thinking about this business of the difference between our regular worklives and our spiritual worklives, and it occurred to me that I didn’t really know a good way to refer to what it was I meant by our spiritual work. It was, I decided, our response to the question I vaguely remembered people asking Jesus: What then should we do?

So I looked it up, and lo, I discovered it was not Jesus they were asking but John the baptizer. (Hence this momentary foray out of Jesus’ mountainside sermon into another time in Jesus’ early history we’ve already visited.) John was preaching, in this case, going on, as Jesus would soon be going on, about how evil they were.

“You brood of vipers!” he rails at them. “Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. . . . The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire” (Luke 3:7-9 NIV).

The crowds surrounding John are so dismayed! “What then should we do?” they ask him, clearly horrified. Then the tax collectors ask the same thing: “What then should we do?” Then the soldiers ask the same thing: “What then should we do?”

It is, I’m guessing, Everyperson’s question. Given all the rules of scripture, and recognizing that our best efforts are dirty rags, what, oh what, should we do? And how do we go about it with the same enthusiasm with which we do other worthy work?

That’s what my book’s about, I decided I’d tell the radio host, if I got the chance.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

down in the basement

Having established that we’re to practice righteousness—which, as I say, I prefer to understand as practice in the sense of practicing the banjo, with the view that, even though we stink at it, we should keep on plugging away at getting little by little better—Jesus spends a sizeable chunk of his sermon exhorting us not to practice our righteousness in front of others in order to be honored by them. Instead, we should practice in private, keeping our holy efforts secret—even, ideally, from ourselves.

For each example he gives of the show-offy righteousness we should avoid—ostentatiously giving to the needy, praying in church, or fasting—Jesus repeats the same line: “Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full” (Matthew 6:2,5, 16 NIV).

There used to be this guy at my church who, whenever someone was lauded by the pastor or anyone else for godly behavior, would comment, archly, “Well, he got his reward.”

(Can’t figure out a way to be gender-inclusive here, but it’s probably not really necessary, as the ones I remember being lauded and commented upon were the men who led us in prayer and handed out Bibles at the Hurricane Katrina refugee camps, not the women down in the basement teaching and cleaning up after everyone else’s kids every Day of Rest.)

Anyway, that guy used to crack me up.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

practicing right-wise-ness

The artificial separation of the original books of the Bible into chapters, perpetrated back in the thirteenth century, often troubles me, as do most paratextual decisions made by others about my own books. How did Stephen Langley, Archbishop of Canterbury, know where the ancient writers wanted their work broken? More specifically, why break in the midst of Jesus’ mountainside sermon, of all places? And, even more specifically, why break midsermon at precisely the place he does break?

The last sentence of the end of Matthew 5—“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48 NIV)—does have, I admit, a certain culminative feel to it after all Jesus’ smaller “You’ve heard it said that…, but I say that…” behavioral instructions that precede it. Still, to me the first sentence of Matthew 6—“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them”—seems unnaturally separated from the directive from which it derives: the call to be perfect as God is perfect, or to be utterly and totally righteousness.

If I might be momentarily afforded as much license as that old archbishop to shape how we’re to understand this part of Jesus’ sermon, I would like to paraphrase Jesus’ sermon as follows:

You’ve been told lots of things about how to be righteous. But I’m telling you, being righteous is a much bigger enterprise than those measly directives. Indeed, to be truly righteous, you need to be perfect as God is perfect. (I won’t add the caveat I think Jesus implies here: namely, that being as righteous as God is impossible for us humans.) But when you practice this sort of righteousness, be careful not to do it to show off…

Jesus then goes on to give examples of how one might show off one’s righteousness.

Suffice it to say that, for me, this is a crucial moment in Jesus’ teaching, where the apparent call to perfect righteousness and our inherent unrighteousness collide. Is Jesus really expecting us to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect? If so, why does he point out, in the very next breath, that our very attempts at righteous behavior will be poisoned by pride? The two sentences, read sequentially, house the dilemma of Christian living: how to reconcile our goal of perfection with our inherent imperfection.

Later in Jesus’ life he will make clear his own role in resolving that dilemma. In dying for us and then coming back to life, he does our righteousness for us. What does that mean, though, in terms of daily living? Should we, or shouldn’t we, strive for perfection? Is Jesus’ command to his listeners then still valid for us?

The operative word in this early sermon, it seems to me, is “practice.”* It helps me understand Jesus’ instruction if I read the word “practice,” here, in the sense of practicing piano—as in, learning how to play better.

No matter how much we might like to, independent of Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf, we can’t be perfect as God is perfect. But we can practice.

*The Greek word translated as “practice” in the 2011 NIV is ποιέω—poieō, the source of our word poem. It means, very broadly, to do, which is how it was translated in the original NIV of 1984: “Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them.” In the 2011 NIV, in addition making of this passage gender-inclusive and getting rid of the mysterious quotation marks (hooray!), the massive group of NIV translators and editors called the International Bible Society changed “do” in this sentence to “practice” and “acts of righteousness” to simply “righteousness.” So, instead of talking about when we “do “‘acts of righteousness,’” Jesus in the newer translation is talking about when we “practice righteousness.”

Monday, March 18, 2013

therfore be ye parfit, as youre heuenli fadir is parfit

Before I go on to chapter 6 of Matthew—the next big chunk of Jesus’ mountainside sermon—I thought I’d read back through chapter 5 in John Wycliffe’s translation (made in 1382) to see if I discovered anything instructive or interesting.

Here are some of Wycliffe’s turns of phrase from that I especially liked:

“Blessid ben mylde, for thei schulen welde the erthe.” (Matheu 5:4). Or, to spell it according to modern English, “Blessed be the mild, for they shall wield the earth. To wield, in those weapon-wielding days, meant to control, rule, or manage.

And, “Blessid ben thei that hungren and thristen riytwisnesse, for thei schulen be fulfillid" (Matheu 5:6). Riytwisenesse = right-wiseness. What a good word for righteousness—that is wisdom about what’s right!

And here’s the last sentence of chapter 5, pretty much the same as modern translations but just so wonderful-sounding, and somehow slightly less impossible-seeming, in Wycliffe’s original spelling: “Therfore be ye parfit, as youre heuenli fadir is parfit” (Matheu 5:48).

Sunday, March 17, 2013


When I read the Bible all the way through for the first time, I found the Psalms irrelevant to my life and, frankly, boring. Sometimes lyrical, it’s true—insofar as verses in translation can be lyrical. And reputedly prophetic of Jesus (though that remained a doubt area for me).

But all this talk of enemies! A hundred or so references to them in the 150 Psalms. The psalmist is surrounded by them, oppressed by them, persecuted and gloated over and mocked by them, ignored by them. He begs God to scatter them, destroy them, crush their heads, make them lick the dust.

Who in the world prays such prayers? Who in the world, for that matter, has so many enemies? The only enemies I could remember having had in my life thus far were the girls in my seventh grade home ec class who cut up the culottes I had just about finished sewing, and I had ended up being best friends with their ringleader a year later. Don’t people grow out of having enemies, once they grow up? Not a single adult I knew was plagued by enemies—certainly not an enemy like old crazy Saul was to David. Soldiers maybe were, but I didn’t really know anyone in the military. I decided that the days of David and Saul were past, at least for ordinary non-militants like me.

Many years after that first Bible read-through, though, I ended up seriously on the wrong side of most of my colleagues over a matter of an invited speaker. I won’t bore you (and possibly het myself up) with the details. Suffice it to say that my concept of being surrounded by enemies changed that semester, as did my understanding of the word enemy.

An enemy, I discovered, was not some crazy aggressor who inexplicably had it in for me, some enemy combatant I could depersonalize with some curse-name, but a former friend or well-wisher that I was on the outs with. Someone, in other words, that I was in conflict with. And God knows I’m surrounded by such everyday: colleagues, bosses, friends or siblings who’re upset with me or with whom I'm upset, my church pastor maybe, my daughters, my husband. Name a person in some way related to me, and that person has probably been my enemy at one time or another.

So I arrive at the culmination of Jesus’ little treatise on anger: Not only is calling someone an idiot a serious sin, not only should you offer your other cheek to someone who slaps you and give those who sue you even more than they ask for, but, in general, you should “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44 NIV).

Having come to a more relevant understanding of the word enemy than what I started out with, I believe what Jesus is saying we should do here is both a smaller and a more difficult enterprise than it might at first seem. To be perfect, to be God-like—which, in the next breath (Matthew 5:48), Jesus calls us all to be—we need to operate out of love by seeking reconciliation always. Not with some impersonal enemy that we probably won’t ever have but with the enemies who surround us all: the adversaries we daily make of those around us.

Even when we’re legitimately upset. Even when we feel wronged. Even when—especially when—we know we’re in the right.

(I’ve written a lot more on this topic, in case anyone’s interested, in my new book, The Easy Burden of Pleasing God.)