The Wired Word

 The Wired Word is on hold until the series of Spirituality and Aging is over.  It will start again on August 24, 2014

Join us each Sunday after worship to discuss a topic in the news that week  as it relates to appropriate Scripture

  • Relate current events to relevant Scripture passages.
  • Group dialogue on how the verses covered each week apply to everyday life.
  • Thought-provoking, stimulating discussions on the messages contained in the biblical texts covered each week.

Praying in Public: Rewarded in North Carolina Eatery, Forbidden in Georgia Mall
The Wired Word for the Week of August 10, 2014

In the News

If you're eating at Mary's Gourmet Diner in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and you bow your head before digging into your food, you might get a 15 percent reduction on the price of your meal.

The restaurant has been quietly giving what they call the "praying in public" discount at random for four years, but the practice just gathered widespread notice after an appreciative customer, Jordan Smith, shared on her Facebook page a photo of her receipt showing the discount. Others soon re-posted the photo, and the story made national news last week.

Smith explained that she was in Winston-Salem on a business trip and stopped at Mary's Diner for breakfast with two colleagues. The trio, who didn't know about the discount, paused for prayer before eating. After the meal, the waitress said, "Just so you know, we gave you a 15 percent discount for praying."

While the news about the diner's practice brought praise and expressions of appreciation from some who heard it, it also became a feeding ground for critics who speculated online about whether one could pray to a Wiccan goddess or say a Muslim prayer and still receive the reduced price. Others complained that the practice was discriminatory, unfair to atheists or even illegal. More than one critic argued that praying in public misses the point of Matthew 6:5 -- "And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others."

Mary Haglund, owner of the diner, commented on all of this on the restaurant's Facebook page, as follows:

"There's a lot of craziness going on in regard to the 15% discount. I will not respond to all the posts. I will say that it is not a 'policy.' it's a gift we give at random to customers who take a moment before their meal. This could be prayer or just a moment to breathe & push the busyness of the world away. Who you talk to or meditate on etc. is your business. I have lived in a 3rd world country[;] there are people starving. We live in a country with an abundance of beautiful food. I NEVER take that for granted. It warms my heart to see people with an attitude of gratitude. Prayer, meditation or just breathing while being grateful opens the heart chakra. It's good for everyone!!!! Thanks to my local community for your support ... you know who I am. As for all the people posting negative comments about me & my restaurant who have never met me or been to the restaurant, thanks for sharing, it's your right to speak out, just as it is mine. Peace, love & happy eating!!!!"

In sharp contrast to the practice at Mary's Gourmet Diner, a shopping mall in Dublin, Georgia, recently forbade a group of women from praying in the mall, even though they were doing so quietly. The women, who walk in the mall for fitness purposes, had formed a small prayer circle prior to having a power walk. Before they could begin their prayer, a security guard stopped them, telling them that praying in the mall was against policy. He explained that they'd had a problem with a religious group that was trying to proselytize shoppers.

Even though the women said they weren't trying to convert anyone and that their prayer was only audible within the circle, the guard would not let them proceed. The women sought out a mall manager, but he backed the guard's action. And when the women asked if people in the food court could bow their heads and pray before eating, the manager said that was not allowed either.

When the story was being prepared to run in news media, a reporter asked the mall management to comment on the incident, but the management declined to do so.

More on these stories can be found at these links:

North Carolina Restaurant Offers a 15 Percent Discount to Pray in Public. Fox News  
This Diner Gives 15% Off If You Pray Over Your Meal. HLN 
Mary's Gourmet Diner. Facebook  
Women Ordered to Stop Praying Inside Mall. Fox News 

The Big Questions

1. Since praying over meals is nowhere commanded in Scripture, should Christians consider doing so an obligation? Why or why not? Do you consider it an obligation? Do you say grace at home? At restaurants? At the homes of others, whether they offer prayer or not?

2. What are some reasons to pray before meals? What are some reasons you may choose not to?

3. Is there any problem with bowing your head in public in hope of receiving a reduction on your meal price? If so, what problem? If not, why not? Would you bow your head if you knew there was a chance of getting a discount? Would you deliberately not pray in public in such a circumstance? What criteria do you use regarding praying in public places?

4. Can giving the discount be a form of Christian witness on the part of the diner's owner? If so, what might be the message behind such a witness?

5. Should people who don't pray before eating at Mary's Diner feel they are being treated unjustly or inappropriately? Should the restaurant owner take their feelings into account? Why or why not? Would you feel you were treated unjustly if someone gave discounts to parents with babies? To senior citizens? To members of the military? To parents who bring children with disabilities? If you are opposed to any of these types of different treatment, do you advocate making such things illegal?

Confronting the News With Scripture and Hope
Here are some Bible verses to guide your discussion:

Matthew 26:26
While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, "Take, eat; this is my body." (For context, read 26:26-29.)

This verse is from Matthew's account of Jesus leading his disciples in the Passover meal, which was also the last time he would eat with them before his arrest and crucifixion. Jesus blesses the loaf and the cup and, in so doing, establishes a pattern of remembrance that became known as the Lord's Supper, Holy Communion or the Eucharist.

Since this particular meal had so much significance for the disciples then and continues to have significance for the church right to the present, we might think, "Well, of course, Jesus prayed at this meal. It was a special occasion. But that's no proof that he prayed at every meal, at ordinary meals." Perhaps not, but as a faithful Jew, prayer was a part of Jesus' life every day, and we can assume it was never far from any of his daily activities.

Questions: If circumstances make it difficult for you to pray before a meal, what other times do you take for communion with God? How can you pray without using words? In public, do you pray without bowing your head or moving your lips in order not to draw attention to yourself? Do you feel it is important to use outward signs of prayer as a form of witness?

Matthew 14:19-20
Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled ... (For context, read 14:13-20.)

When Jesus fed the 5,000, starting with only five loaves and two fish, he first blessed the food, publicly, in front of the entire crowd. In Matthew's narration of this incident, the blessing and breaking of the loaves have eucharistic overtones.

Questions: When Jesus blessed the five loaves and two fish, was he praying for a miracle? If not, what do you think was the intent of his prayer? How does the fact that Matthew includes eucharistic overtones relate both to your idea of what communion is and to what every meal might be? Do you see a difference between communion and eating together with people we love? Do you see the miraculous in communion? In a meal that is shared?

Daniel 6:10
Although Daniel knew that the document had been signed, he continued to go to his house, which had windows in its upper room open toward Jerusalem, and to get down on his knees three times a day to pray to his God and praise him, just as he had done previously.
(For context, read 6:1-17.)
Matthew 6:5-6
And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (For context, read 6:1-8.)

The Daniel text above tells of Daniel praying three times a day -- in his own house, but where he could clearly be seen by passersby -- as was his usual practice, even though praying to anyone but the king had just been outlawed.

In Matthew 6, Jesus tells his hearers to pray privately, with the door shut.

It's possible to read these two texts simplistically and view them as contradictory. But in fact, neither one of them is about praying in public per se.

Daniel's choice to continue praying where he could be seen despite the edict against praying to anyone but the king can be seen as both a witness to his faith and an act of faithfulness to God. Further, it served as an act of nonviolent resistance to this idolatrous edict.

Jesus wasn't saying "Never pray in public." He was saying "Don't pray to be seen by others and praised for false holiness." Perhaps, if asked, he might have added, "Wherever and whenever you pray, do so to glorify God, not yourself."

Writing about the Daniel incident, biblical commentator John E. Goldingay said, "When prayer is fashionable, it is time to pray in secret (Matthew 6:5-6), but when prayer is under pressure, to pray in secret is to give the appearance of fearing the king more than God ...." (Daniel, World Biblical Commentary, 131.)

Questions: Where is prayer fashionable in your life? Where is prayer under pressure in your life? When is it an act of loving God and loving your neighbor to pray in public? When is it a violation of love for God or love for neighbor, or both, to pray in public? Should we ever pray in public when we have not been invited to do so? What about praying privately, but visibly, in public?

Luke 24:30
When [Jesus] was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.
(For context, read 24:13-31.)
Acts 27:35-36
After [Paul] had said this, he took bread; and giving thanks to God in the presence of all, he broke it and began to eat. Then all of them were encouraged and took food for themselves. (For context, read 27:27-37.)

The Luke 24 verse tells of the resurrected Jesus blessing bread while at a table with the two men he'd joined on the road to Emmaus. In blessing and breaking the bread, Jesus was not establishing the Lord's Supper, as he had already done in the upper room before his crucifixion. As far as the two men at the table were concerned, this was merely the start of an ordinary evening meal, but with a guest present, whom they had not recognized as Jesus in his post-resurrection state.

Jesus' act, however, becomes a moment of spiritual vision because, in that instant, these two disciples recognize him even as he vanishes from their sight. This meal was not Holy Communion as such, but their recognition that it was Jesus who was with them made this meal suddenly holy.

In the Acts reading, Paul blesses bread after urging his shipboard companions and crew, who've been fighting a storm, to eat to help them survive a soon-to-happen shipwreck. Under such circumstances, those on board hardly considered the occasion an ordinary meal, but neither did they likely view it as a religious event. In fact, they might have considered Paul a bit "loco" for taking time to pray in the middle of a deadly storm. Still, Paul, even under crisis conditions, gives thanks to God "in the presence of all."

Questions: Jesus' table prayer was private, with just those in the room with him. Paul's prayer was public, "in the presence of all." In what sense were both prayers expressions of gratitude to God? Do these examples from Jesus and Paul set a pattern for all Christians for every meal? Only for special occasions? Only for dangerous times? Why or why not? Is there a sense in which any meal -- even a hurried one in a fast-food eatery -- can be "suddenly holy"?

1 Thessalonians 5:17
... pray without ceasing ... (For context, read 5:12-22.)

This three-word instruction is part of a longer string of advice the apostle Paul wrote to the Christians at Thessalonica about how to live faithfully as Christ's followers.

Paul couldn't have meant that they should spend every minute kneeling in prayer. More likely he meant that prayer should be an ongoing part of who they were as followers of Jesus. They should cultivate the habit of offering the things of life to God in prayer even as they were going about their daily routine.

Questions: Can you pray while interacting with others? What constitutes ceaseless prayer? How do you focus on a prayer when there are so many distractions? In what ways do you practice prayer without ceasing? Is mealtime a good reminder to pray?

For Further Discussion

1. One TWW team member commented, "I would suggest that in the United States Christianity is not so much persecuted as ignored." How is that related to today's topic? What are the ramifications of that comment for us as Christians today?
2. Comment on this: There is a rabbinical saying that to not say grace, give thanks, is to deny God what is rightfully his.

3. Read 1 Corinthians 10:23-33, and then discuss Paul's words in verses 30-31: "If I partake with thankfulness, why should I be denounced because of that for which I give thanks? So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God."

4. What do you think of the order suggested by Deuteronomy 8:10 -- "You shall eat your fill and bless the LORD your God for the good land that he has given you" -- where you eat first and pray afterward?

5. Praying, publicly or privately, can be pushed aside by crises, busyness, boredom or laziness. Is that a problem? Are there times when prayer is appropriate, and times when it is not?

6. Exodus 14:15 says, "Then the LORD said to Moses, 'Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to go forward.'" Could God be telling Moses to stop praying and get moving?

Responding to the News

This can be a good time to think about where and when you pray, and in what ways your prayers at those times and in those place honor God and your neighbor.

Closing Prayer

Be present at our table, Lord;
Be here and everywhere adored;
Thy creatures bless, and grant that we
May feast in paradise with Thee.

We thank Thee, Lord, for this our food,
For life and health and every good;
By Thine own hand may we be fed;
Give us each day our daily bread.

We thank Thee, Lord, for this our good,
But more because of Jesus' blood;
Let manna to our souls be giv'n,
The Bread of Life sent down from Heav'n.
--John Cennick (1718-1755)

Other News This Week

Gubernatorial Candidate Spends Week on the Street as Homeless Person

The Republican candidate for California governor Neel Kashkari, who is trailing 20 points behind incumbent Jerry Brown in the polls, recently spent a week on the streets of Fresno to see what unemployed, homeless people experience on a daily basis. Opponents called the millionaire's action a stunt designed to attract attention to his campaign, which has raised only 1/50th of the $22 million war chest the current governor has amassed, but Kashkari says he wanted to find out if Brown's claim that California's economy is recovering is a reality for those who are experiencing the greatest financial stress.

Kashkari's adventure began on the morning of July 21 when he hopped a Greyhound bus from Los Angeles to look for work in Fresno. He had $40 to his name, no credit cards, a sleeping bag, a change of clothes and a toothbrush. He figured he'd have no trouble finding work. He was wrong.

He pounded the pavement in scorching 100-degree heat, asking for any kind of job, and everywhere received the same answer: "The economy is really slow. We aren't hiring anyone right now."

By mid-week his priority shifted from finding work to finding food. There was no room in a shelter for him, so he had to sleep on the streets every night. showering only once. Frequently he was told to move from public parks or private property.

Some expressed skepticism about whether the former Goldman Sachs banker and U.S. Treasury official, who helped lead the $700 billion government bailout of U.S. banks at the peak of the recession, really cares about the homeless. Michael Evans, Fresno County Democratic Party Chair, pointed out that the Republican candidate knew that after his experiment was over, he would go back to eating three meals a day in his air-conditioned mansion while poor people had no such guarantee of any relief from their daily struggle to survive.

Gabriel Dillard, managing editor of The Business Journal, blogged about how hard it must be for any wealthy politician of any party to truly relate to the poor: "Gov. Brown ... doesn't come here as much as Arnold Schwarzenegger did when he was governor. ... it's hard for me to believe Brown understands the true plight of the Central Valley if he's not mixing with the folks living paycheck to paycheck, or [with] no paycheck at all."

Kashkari admitted that one week of homelessness gave him only "a sliver, a taste" of the harsh reality that seems inescapable to those who feel stuck in poverty and unemployment. Nonetheless, he seems to have acquired a new awareness of just how hard the poor and jobless have it: "A lot of people are struggling ... I saw it up close. ... I've taken so much for granted. Just my ability to hop in my car to drive to somewhere," the 41-year-old said in a campaign video. "Now I have to look at a job opportunity and think, 'Can I walk there and back in time? Where am I going to get my next meal?' I have to pinch pennies to make sure that I have enough money for breakfast or for lunch, or where I do laundry. These simple things that I have taken for granted my whole life are very real for people who don't have work."

The Rev. Larry Arce, CEO of Fresno Rescue Mission, commended the man for at least showing up: "Here is an individual with a good life, but he was willing to step down from where he was at and go out on the street and live with the folks and experience what they do on a day-to-day basis. As a minister, that relates to me as Christ came down to our level to feel our pain."

More on this story can be found at these links:

Candidate Goes Homeless to Show Economic Gap. Yahoo! 
While Homeless in Fresno, Kashkari Raked in Big Bucks. SFGate
Brother, Can You Spare a Job? Wall Street Journal 
Is California Back? Neel Kashkari Campaign Video on Poverty (listing the video does not imply support by The Wired Word of anyone's political views)

The Big Questions

1. What difference does it make to you to think that God is not simply watching us "from a distance," as the popular Bette Midler song expressed it, but instead is intimately engaged with his creation and intensely interested in us?

2. How does walking in another person's shoes really help us see the world from a different perspective and nurture empathy and understanding of others who are different? How far would you go to better understand someone? What would motivate you to go to that extent?

3. Why did Jesus so often refer to himself as the Son of Man?

4. How far was the Creator willing to go to really understand and empathize with the creatures he created?

5. What evidence do we have that Jesus really understands our human condition?

Confronting the News With Scripture and Hope
Here are some Bible verses to guide your discussion:

John 1:1, 14, 15
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. ... And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth. (John testified to him and cried out, "This was he of whom I said, "He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.") (For context, read 1:1-18.)

John's introduction to his biography of the life of Christ depicts Jesus as God, the Word of God made flesh, embodied in a man who lived among us in a human family and community. The Nicene Creed (A.D. 325) put forward the understanding that Jesus is fully God and fully human, having received his divine nature from God the Father and his human nature from his mother Mary.

Questions: Since John the Baptist was born before Jesus was born, what does he mean by the statement that "He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me"? What does "becoming flesh" entail? Which to you is more amazing: that God became flesh, or that God became flesh? Explain your answer.

Matthew 8:20
And Jesus said to him, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head."
(No context needed.)
Luke 8:23
... and while they were sailing [Jesus] fell asleep.
(No context needed.)
John 4:6
Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well.
(No context needed.)
John 11:33, 35-36
When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. ... Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, "See how he loved him!"
(No context needed.)
John 19:28
[Jesus] said ..., "I am thirsty." (No context needed.)

Questions: What do these verses, taken together, teach us about the nature and experience of Jesus? How do you feel about a God who willingly enters so fully into the human experience that he might be described as homeless, tired, thirsty, hungry, greatly disturbed, deeply moved or grief-stricken? How is it possible for such an entity to really be God?

Philippians 2:4-8
Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death -- even death on a cross. (For context, read 2:1-11.)

This passage describing the humility of Christ precedes Paul's declaration that because of Christ's selflessness, "God ... highly exalted him" (v. 9).

Questions: Why does God find Jesus' attitude and action so commendable, while the world may view them as weak, foolish or scandalous? How are Christ's incarnation, humility and servanthood meant to impact the way we think and act? How hard is it for you to obey this command? How can keeping your eyes on Jesus empower you to do so?

Hebrews 2:14-15, 17
Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. ... Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people.
(For context, read 2:6-18.)
Hebrews 10:4-5
For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, "Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me ..." (No context needed.)

The writer of this epistle says that God made mortals lower than the angels (2:7), and then adds that Jesus, "for a little while," also fits the category (2:9). Like the Philippians 2 passage above, the second chapter of Hebrews lays out the path to glory and honor through Jesus' suffering death for everyone (v. 9) so that he might save many children and bring them to glory (v. 10). But in order to accomplish that salvation, it was necessary for him to share their flesh and blood (v. 14).

Questions: Of what value are the sufferings of Christ to us (2:18)? Why can't we be saved by animal sacrifices? Why was it necessary for Jesus to become human in order to save human beings?

Hebrews 5:8-9
Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him. (For context, read 5:7-10.)

Questions: Since Hebrews 4:14-16 tells us that Jesus faced every kind of temptation, "yet without sin," in what sense was he "made perfect through sufferings" (2:10)? What does it mean that Jesus, described as divine in the Bible, "learned"? How is his willingness to be a learner, although he was God, a profound example for us humans who seek to follow him?

For Further Discussion

1. Read and discuss the Parable of Workers in the Vineyard found in Matthew 20:1-16. What do you think a job offer means to someone who is chronically unemployed or seriously underemployed? What are some reasons people are unemployed or underemployed today? Why do you think the employer in the parable was so generous to all the workers he hired? Should an employer conclude from this parable that he should pay all employees the same, no matter what work they have done? Why or why not? What does this parable teach us about God?

2. Consider how the following story relates to the incarnation of Christ: The land of Persia was once ruled by a wise and beloved Shah who cared greatly for his people. One day he disguised himself as a poor man and went to visit the public baths. Upon learning that the water was heated by a furnace in the cellar, he went down to meet the man who tended the fire. The lonely man gladly shared his coarse food, grateful for the companionship. Every day the ruler paid him a visit. Eventually, the fire-tender learned the true identity of his guest and, in wonder, said, "You left your palace and your glory to sit with me in this dark place, to eat my coarse food and to care about what happens to me. On others you may bestow rich gifts, but to me you have given yourself!" (Source: Sermons Illustrated, November/December 1988.)

Responding to the News

1. Spend a few moments in worship as you listen to or sing the Don Moen classic, "God With Us." (Lyrics here.) 

2. Take time to learn new words to the song "The Gift of God" by TWW writer Joanna Loucky-Ramsey, set to the old hymn tune "Ebenezer." 

Pause to reflect on what God in Christ did in the act of incarnation, and what it means for your life.

Closing Prayer (Based on Matthew 1:22-23 and Hebrews 4:14-16)

Emmanuel, God with us, thank you for sharing our humanity, frailty and suffering. Because you understand us better than we know ourselves, and are able to sympathize with our weaknesses, having been tested in every respect just as we are, yet without sin, we are bold to approach your throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need from you, our great high priest. Hear our prayer. Amen.

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