When I was in late elementary school, I remember going through a time when I cried myself to sleep at night because I could not say the Lord’s Prayer perfectly. I had picture in my mind that went with each phrase of the prayer, and I would try as hard as I could to imagine each image as I said every petition of the prayer with no break in concentration and no distracting thoughts. Every time I got distracted or the pictures in my mind did not flow smoothly from one to the next, I would feel like a failure and start over and try again. I never did pray it perfectly.
It’s so easy to reduce our faith to trying to please a God who seeks perfection, unreasonable devotion, and only offers us a moral code of “Do’s and Don’ts.” God has a case against the people of Israel according to the prophet Micah and they too, assume God is looking for perfection. A perfect sacrifice, just the right kind of worship, the perfect prayers and rituals to appease and please God:
With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
How great and perfect does my offering and worship have to be? Micah describes a covenant lawsuit and calls the mountains and the foundation of the earth to witness the testimony. God asks, Why are you making me the bad guy? How have I worn you out with my demands? Let’s review what I have done for you—I liberated you from slavery in Egypt, I sent you brilliant leaders to help you through the wilderness, and I led you to the promised land. You were protected crossing over the Jordan—from Shittim in Moab to Gilgal near Jericho—and when the Moabite king planned to curse you, you were blessed instead. You can hear God saying, “and the problem is…?”
It’s almost like a parent having a rant at a kid who feels put upon: “I put a roof over your head, I feed you, do your laundry, drive you everywhere and pay for all of your activities, so please, put your phone away at the dinner table, and stop texting or playing video games when I am talking with you!”
Just like any other loving parent, God’s not asking for perfection—God asks for a relationship. God asks for conversation, for attention that arises from intention about what matters. What matters is not being perfect, not getting it all right, not worshipping in just the right way, not praying perfectly, not bringing the biggest offering, not being a flawless teen or adult—but rather a relationship with God is what matters most.
God liberated Israel from slavery to have a relationship with them, as individuals and as a nation. And when God’s people put relationship with God first, then all other relationships, and all of life fall into place after that. That’s why the first 3 Commandments of the 10 Commandments have to do with our relationship with God, (You shall have no other Gods before Me, Do not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, Honor the Sabbath day and keep it holy). Because when we give our first relationship with God focus—all other relationships follow, so the next 7 commandments are about our relationships with others: don’t steal, lie, cheat, murder, covet and so on.
God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
This isn’t a checklist that we can mark off at the end of the day. God wants a no-holds barred whole-soul, give him everything you’ve got, full-person relationship. God simply wants you—all of you.
To walk humbly with God is to live with an intentional relationship with God every single day—through prayer, through daily conversation—both speaking and quiet time to listen. People ask me how much time they should spend in prayer—but the issue with putting a time frame on it, is then we are back to counting and perfectionism. In order to give your relationship with God greater attention with intention, and you are like the teenager with laptop on and a cell phone in your hand, what do you think you need to do? Think about your best human relationship—how much time do you spend in daily conversation? I have never known a good marriage where someone said, “I talk to my spouse ten minutes a day, give them a gift twice a year, and we’re good!” During our midweek Lenten worship on Wednesdays, we will practice different types of prayer that open us up to grace and deepens our relationship with God.
The prophet then shows us that justice and loving kindness flow from our relationship with God. Micah pushes us away from the bean-counting faith of childhood that attempts perfect prayers and offerings, and opens us into a vision of communal wholeness that arises from receiving God’s liberating love that frees all who are oppressed—whether from systemic injustice or the prison of our own hearts and minds. A life that lives for justice, advocates for the immigrant, the widow and the orphan, and extends kindness to everyone regardless of who they are—comes from a heart that is rooted, connected, allied, and defined by a relationship with God.
Jesus embodies this same theme in his Sermon on the Mount. It’s a very jarring message. He lifts up the poor in spirit, those who are mourning, the meek, the merciful, the persecuted and the pure in heart as the ones receiving the blessings and fullness of the reign of God. Those who are down and out, suffering at the margins, on the bottom side of the social power balance are not only blessed, they are “enviable!” We are to admire and emulate and want to be like them. Why? Because they are so close in their relationship with God.
All the false notions of self-sufficiency and control and power and winning and being in charge have been stripped away. They cannot pretend any longer that they don’t need God, that a relationship with God doesn’t matter. The meek, the mourning, the persecuted, the poor in spirit know—they know the only way they will make it through today and on to tomorrow is because of their relationship with God. It’s so deep and rich, you can see it on their face even when they are suffering.
There is no illusion about from where their strength comes—it only comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth. Their source of strength and peace is something to envy, admire, and seek after, calling us to spend time in whole-soul relationship with God making ourselves available for a relationship that transforms us from the inside out—that’s what it is to walk humbly, with intention, in a relationship with God on a daily basis.
Jesus’s vision for the kingdom echoes Micah’s. For when our life is defined and ordered according to our relationship with God and not according to the world’s values, then it becomes easier for us to live in the alternate vision of communal wholeness that arises from receiving God’s liberating love in Jesus Christ that frees all who are enslaved to sin. Then the Beatitudes become not just about who has a blessed relationship with God, but how Jesus calls us to live as disciples who are defined by the one true God who sent his Son to save and redeem us and the whole creation that witnesses our testimony.
God calls us forth from our deep relationship that defines and sustains us to be the peacemakers, to work for justice and righteousness for those who are oppressed, to comfort those who mourn, to stand with meek, to do the work of anti-racism in ourselves, in our church and in our society, and to be persecuted for the sake of doing right by those who are at the bottom. We do this work by building relationships the way God has done with us!
Rather than a burden or something we fear, living to make God’s kingdom a reality here on earth becomes exciting and energizing and hopeful because we are fed by a constant stream of steadfast love and forgiveness that flows from the cross of Christ to our very soul. And we know that when we are in the most need, the most pressed down, the most challenged, the most meek and poorest in spirit—that’s exactly where God does her best work by making us the most blessed, enviable people who bear God’s love in the world.
What does the Lord require of you? Not perfection, not the best or the biggest offering, just yourself—your whole self. The only perfect way to pray is to show up. God shows up for us every time and blesses us to show up for others so that the kingdom might be realized here and now.