I continue to look to expand on my reflecting on prayers that have pulled me and others through through exploring the prayer Jesus taught us, the Lord’s Prayer. The version of this prayer in my United Church of Christ Book of Worship follows:
Who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
As we forgive those who sin against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.
For this is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.”
As I reflect on this prayer, just as I found myself having a bit of a push-back to the words “our Father” and had to unpack what it means, so I find myself having some push-back as I reflect on where God gets located in this prayer – “who art in heaven”. To me it seems very easy to let such a description for God send the message that God is far off – out there somewhere, beyond the clouds of heaven. Perhaps, as I heard one Christian preacher turned agnostic jokingly scoff, just past Jupiter and to the left. As a child often this is the image of God I had – as some old man in the sky, sitting on a cloud, watching us as Bette Middler would later sing, “from a distance”.
In trial and crises a God so distant is not really that great a reassurance. We can perhaps feel God has it under control, with a cold plan at work within which our suffering is a cog in the wheel of this motion forward but yet our hearts can break from the crushingly alone-ness. This God who blindly watches from a distance is not sitting with us in our trials, our pain, our heartache. No this God is using us to fulfill his predestined plan from the beginning. (And “He” this God is, for normally such theologies of distant God who predestines the world have at their center a masculine image for God and a secondary place for women).
Such a distant, brooding God is not really the image of God intended by Jesus’ prayer nor the way Jesus pictures God elsewhere. In fact even that imagery was not originally about distance. As the late Marcus Borg writes in his The Heart of Christianity,
“in modern Western Christianity… [w]hen ‘out there’ is emphasized and separated from ‘right here,’ God’s relationship to the world is distorted, and the notion of God becomes harder and harder to accept. ‘Out there’ means something different to us than it meant when our premodern ancestors used this language. For them, ‘up there’ or ‘out there’ was not very far away. They thought of the universe as small with the earth at its center; the sun, moon, planets, and stars were mounted on a dome not very far above the earth. It is difficult to know how literally they took this language, but the basic notion of a small universe was shared by all… ‘our Father who art in heaven’ did not make God very far away. But for us, ‘up there’ or ‘out there’ is very far away. If God is only ‘out there,’… then God is very distant, not intimately close. God becomes remote, absent.”
In fact in Jesus’ own teachings and elsewhere in the New Testament this God who is “in heaven” is even then depicted as somehow intimately close to us. Notice these words of Jesus—
“Now when He was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, He answered them and said, “The kingdom of God does not come with observation; nor will they say, ‘See here!’ or ‘See there!’ For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you.”” – Luke 17:20-21, NKJV
“And I will ask the Father, who will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees them nor knows them. You know the Spirit , because they abide with you, and they will be in you. I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.” — John 14:16-21
“Jesus said, “It is I who am the light (that presides) over all. It is I who am the entirety: it is from me that the entirety has come, and to me that the entirety goes. Split a piece of wood: I am there. Lift a stone, and you will find me there.”” – The Sayings Gospel of Thomas, saying 77
Similar language is picked up elsewhere in the New Testament writings—
…so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for God and find God—though indeed God is not far from each one of us. For ‘In God we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are God’s offspring.’” — Acts 17:27
“He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe” – Ephesians 4:10
This last description of what Jesus’ ascension into heaven, which the creeds say is “at the right hand” of the one Jesus addresses here as “Our Father who art in heaven” is helpful to me as one who, like Borg, struggles with this language of God as somewhere else than
where I’m at, lifted up into the heavens. It suggests that heaven is not somewhere far of, away from here, beyond the farthest star but instead a way of talking about God’s unseen presence. Where is heaven? It is that unseen reality that fills all the things, even the whole universe. It is all about us and even within us. So much so that it is within heaven that we live and move and have our being. We are constantly surrounded by Heaven, by the presence of God, and its presence fills, enlivens, and animates us.
This is why Psalm 139 beautifully cries out to the One whom Jesus calls “Our Father who art in heaven” asking where they can go from that One’s presence, where can they flee from that One’s Spirit. As soon as they ask these words, they acknowledge immediately that, no, there is nowhere from the highest heavens, the most distant stars, the depths of the sea, to even the most despairing bottom of the underworld (what we would call “hell” though a different concept to the Psalmist entirely).
Seen in this way, as Borg says as he continues,
“God [is] the encompassing Spirit in whom everything that is, is. The universe is not separate from God, but in God… We are in God; we live in God move in God, have our being in God. God is not ‘out there’, but ‘right here,’ all around us… ‘in, with, and under’ everything…”
Seen in this way, the heaven in which the Father dwells and where Jesus has ascended and into which the beloved departed have passed is not up there, away, but rather that invisible space ever with us, always around us. It is mostly as unseen as the air which we might feel on our skin or experience in seeing the wind blow, but which itself we cannot glimpse. In, with, and under all that is lies a reality constantly at work toward goodness, life, justice, order. This unseen presence which brushes up against us and us against it in moments of transcendence and inspiration is heaven. Not far away, but as near as the air that we breathe or the sunshine that falls on our skin in the spring.
A great picture of this is when in 2 Kings Elisha prayed for a companion to see the hidden reality behind their situation, when what was visible to the human eye was a rag-tag band outnumbered and outgunned. When the prayer was answered Elisha’s companion saw hills surrounding them covered in fiery chariots, a picture of an angelic host surrounded them which was metaphoric of the all-protecting ever present presence of God who defended them.
In all our lives, there are realities unseen which if we could have our eyes so opened we would know we are loved, carried, cared for, and protected.
In my own life in time of trial I had such an experience. When my late wife passed, a darkness fell over me the likes of which I had never known. I looked for a sense of God and it would not come. I tried to pray and found my mouth dumb. But then I looked up and saw friends holding me up, their hands helping me, their voices telling me I could get through. Their presence was a lifting of the veil for in their care I saw the care unseen working behind what was visible that was a loving God, like Father of Mother, everywhere present but right there behind the scenes of my life. They were enough of God in that moment, a sign and reminder of what was unseen.
Seen as a reminder of what lies behind the visible – a God of love, compassion, justice, constantly moving not high above upon a throne, but right invisibly in the center of our lives and world, moving our lives and world to deeper fullness of life, deeper justice and freedom, deeper joy and full thriving – well that is something we do need to remind ourselves of in prayer, don’t we?
It is easy to forget, to forget that the ultimate truth of our lives is not loss, sorrow, or pain. That the world is not simply trauma, betrayal, and the vulnerable being trampled under foot. This prayer when seen in this wider context invites us to recognize each time we pray that the center of life itself, the rhythm around which every atom dances and even the circle of life itself moves is this One who always moves us as individuals, us as communities, and our world toward life, toward love, toward justice, toward liberating freedom.
When in our moments of our pain, our moments of trauma, our moments of exhaustion fighting the injustice of the world, our eyes are opened to see the fiery chariots on the hillside which are the signs that we are ever surrounded by this heavenly presence, oh how it gives us space for strength, healing, and comfort. May God open our eyes to this beautiful reality this day and all our days.
Your progressive redneck preacher