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Toshiki Toma

Self-contradiction, dilemma and prayer

8. nóvember 2015

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. -Amen.

It is my birthday today, and I have turned 57 years old. Every year hundreds of my Facebook friends, including “real friends”, send me birthday greetings. I appreciate them.

Icelandic people like to celebrate birthdays very much. When we celebrate the birthdays of small children, it is a genuinely delightful occasion to celebrate their growth.

But when it comes to my age, even though a birthday is still a delightful occasion, naturally we begin to think: “How many times more…” The goal of life begins to play hide and seek ahead of us. Birthdays are surely a reminder that we have gone one more step towards the end of our earthly lives. There is no exception.

So regarding this point, celebrating our birthdays is to celebrate coming one step closer to the end, and therefore we may say that it is a bit self-contradictory action. And those who have reached a certain age, might have a kind of dilemma on their birthdays: “Should I be happy? Or should I be reluctant?”

But we have faith in God, and the faith helps us to overcome this paradox or dilemma. Specifically, God gives us life and protects us in our walk on earth, both when we are young and when we are aged, and accompanies us to the end of our earthly life, and then also in Heaven. So we have no worries. On the contrary, we can celebrate our birthdays until the real last time, and each time we thank God for his company and blessings in our lives.

Birthdays are just an example of paradoxes or dilemmas in our daily lives. In reality we have to face those kinds of things very often. And sometimes they arise because of our faith. For example, it can happen that we are tired after weekdays and on Sunday morning, we wish is to stay home and sleep, rather than going to church. „Should I go or stay home?” We are not saints, so it can happen. This is a dilemma that occurs because of our faith.
Let’s think a little bit more about it.

Today’s gospel is the episode when Jesus and his disciples were in the Jerusalem temple and they were sitting by the treasury. “Many rich people put in large sums. And a poor widow came, and put in two copper coins, which make a penny.”(Mk. 12: 41-42)

Then Jesus told to his disciples: “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For they all contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, her whole living.”(Mk. 12: 43-44)

This is a short episode and it’s very easy to understand. Jesus’ teaching is also very clear and probably has no need of more explanation.

In Icelandic church, it is not common to collect money during a mass. The church can be financed through the taxation system, so there is no need to collect more money in the service basically.

In Japanese churches, at least in Japanese Lutheran churches, we take an offering during the service. In Japan, the main pillar of a congregation’s finances is offerings from its membership. So every year we make a promise about how much we are going to donate per month, through the year.

We do so, because otherwise we cannot make a budget for the year.
So we make a promise like: “I am going to donate 30.000 yen every month”. Then we can estimate how much income the congregation gets for the year, and then it becomes possible to make plans for that year.

Then comes the question: “How much should I offer?” The basic guideline is to donate 10% of our monthly income. This is based on the passage in the Book of Malachi in the Old Testament: “Bring the full tithes (10%) into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house.”(Mal. 3:10) So if my monthly income is 300.000yen, I am recommended to donate 30.000 yen.

I think that most of the members in my congregation offered that amount every month, and that with pleasure, because they were conscious that they were supporting their congregation. “It is more blessed to give than to receive”(Act. 20:35).

But nevertheless, the people experienced a sort of “pain” by donating that amount of money, because of course we pay taxes in addition to this. It is not an easy thing for most of us to donate 10% of our income every month, honestly speaking, even though we know that it is for a good purpose and it will return to us as joy in the future.

I offered 10% of my salary, when I had been working before I entered the seminary. But I confess, I cheated a little bit. It’s already 30 years ago, so it should be OK. I calculated 10% from my salary after pulling tax. It should have been calculated with the salary before subtracting tax.

And the point is this “pain”, but not the amount of money. This pain shows us that we are facing a dilemma, if we should donate that much or not. And this dilemma is the dilemma that is brought to us because of our faith. If we don’t belong to the church, there would not be any reason to make this donation at all. But since we have faith, we can meet this kind of dilemma that challenges us and requires our decision.

And the biggest dilemma that we have to face every now and then is, without doubt, when we think that God doesn’t listen to our prayers. Our prayer is not heard, even though we have faith in God, trust in God. “I believe in God, but can I really trust God will answer me?” This dilemma is really critical in our life, and it is critical because of our faith. An atheist would not be bothered by this dilemma.

Even though we pray hard, misfortune might attack us. Even though we pray for children with difficult diseases, they can be taken away. Even though we pray much, wars and killing don’t disappear. Even though we pray hundreds of times, asylum seekers get their applications declined.

Why does this happen? Why won’t God try to listen to our prayers? If you have ever tried to bring something before God by praying hard, you must have experiences of this kind.

Regarding this point, I always think about one thing. It is about when we pray with small children. When my kids were little, and when we were traveling to Japan, for example, we used to pray before we departed: “Father in Heaven, please protect us in our trip, so that we can go to Japan in safe…” and so on. I think every Christian parent would do the same when they go to a trip with his child.

And I think, everybody still knows that accidents can happen to anybody. Airplanes can crash, a huge earthquake might come, there might be a fire at the hotel or we could even be harmed by terrorism. Nobody knows. I don’t say “God only knows” since I don’t think it’s God’s will that an earthquake or a plane crash happen.

They just happen. And disasters, most of the time, don’t choose people. Victims of plane crashes or earthquakes might be anyone: good people, bad guys, children, grown ups, atheists and believers. And we know this as we pray for our safety in prayer.

So what? Is it a stupid thing to pray to God? Isn’t it an absolutely self-contradictory action to pray to God, if we know that what we wish in our prayers may not come to pass? No, it’s not stupid. Definitely not.

God gives us life. And there is only one condition. It is not written in the Bible, but we can presume it from the context of the Bible. And the condition is that we live in reality on the earth. And in that reality, we have to meet all sorts of hardships as well as experience delightful and beautiful things.

And the real world is not that simple like: “This side is the bad things section, that side is the good things section. That area is a happy area but this area is a sad area.” It is more complicated. My own delight might be somebody else’s sadness; and some guy’s good fortune might be bad luck for me. We can see only the things around us, but we cannot see the whole picture easily, the whole map of the world where we are walking.

In that reality, a prayer is like a GPS navigator for us. It helps us to confirm where we stand now, what direction we want to go, what direction we have to avoid. To wish something is meaningful by itself. It is important to pray. It reflects what we are now, where we stand now.

So, let’s remember that a prayer is not a thing that should be judged by its instant result, such as something we have wished coming true or failing to come true. A prayer is not that kind of “black or white” thing. Even though it doesn’t look like that our wish in our prayer comes true right now, it doesn’t mean that our prayer has failed.

A prayer bears another prayer, then another and then another. Praying continues while we are traveling on earth. And our prayer is the tool that God gives us his navigation, the weapon to break through the dilemma that we face constantly in the reality of this world. Mat Santos, a character in the TV series dram “West Wing”, said this: “To be a person of faith is to have the world challenge that faith” every day. Amen.

A life in faith is a series of dilemmas that are caused by the faith. It should be so, because in a dilemma our human weakness meets the guidance of God. Sometimes we might yield to our weakness and choose the wrong way. But if we pray continuously, we would come back to the right way in time.

And we might repeat this process again and again, and meanwhile our faith grows stronger and harder in its core, but softer and humbler without. And eventually we enter the Kingdom of our Father, eventually our prayer will be completed. So let’s continue our journey on earth, being navigated by God through prayers.

Peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. -Amen

Texts of the day are following:

23rd Sunday after Trinitas

Acts 20:32-35

And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified. I coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel. You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities, and to those who were with me. In all things I have shown you that by so toiling one must help the weak, remembering the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”

Mk. 12:41-44

And he sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the multitude putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. And a poor widow came, and put in two copper coins, which make a penny. And he called his disciples to him, and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For they all contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, her whole living.”

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