Some years ago I did a series on the Lord’s Prayer. I think this prayer focuses on the heart of our faith and call to do justice, so I am sharing these thoughts again to help ground us in the trying times we are in.
Your progressive redneck preacher,
Here are the words of the Lord’s Prayer, as included in my United Church of Christ Book of Worship:
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.”
I notice this morning as I reflect on this prayer the words “On earth as it is in heaven”. In a way, everything that follows in this prayer is a reflection of this sentiment. There being enough for each day not just for me as an individual, but for us – every person on this earth and every living thing God has made – well, that certainly is a move from heaven to earth. It is making real in this world the reality we hope, long, and dream for in heaven. The prayer to be forgiven that includes the challenge to be forgiving people is an expression of this challenge of the Lord’s Prayer. After all, if we hope for a day in which swords are beaten into plowshares, in which all people from north and south, east and west, young and old, are welcomed at the family table by God… well, that involves laying aside some grudges. It can only happen when we learn to not let past pain define our future relationships. Resentment, seeking vengeance, all of these qualities, have to be laid aside to arrive at that destination.
Throughout our lives we see this prayer be answered. I remember the shock and wonder when a family member who had cut me out of their lives for years over differences of faith and politics reached out, we talked, laid aside our differences, and found a way forward in our relationship. Desmond Tutu describes such a moment of earth becoming as it is in heaven in his description of full enfranchisement coming to people of all racial and cultural backgrounds in his home of South Africa in No Future Without Forgiveness:
“Everywhere else elections are secular political events. Ours was more than this, much, much more. It was a veritable spiritual experience. It was a mountaintop experience. The black person entered the booth one person and emerged on the other side a new, transfigured person. She entered weighted down by the anguish and burden of oppression, with the memory of being treated like rubbish gnawing away at her very vitals like some corrosive acid. She reappeared as someone new, “I am free,” as she walked away with head held high, the shoulders set straighter, and an elastic spring in her step. How do you convey that sense of freedom that tasted like sweet nectar for the first time? How do you explain it to someone who was born into freedom? It is impossible to convey. It is ineffable, like trying perhaps to describe the color red to a person born blind.
“It is a feeling that makes you want to cry and laugh at the same time, to dance with joy, and yet fearful that it was too good to be true and that it just might all evaporate. You’re on cloud nine. …
“The white person entered the voting booth burdened by the load of guilt for having enjoyed the fruits of oppression and injustice. He emerged as somebody new. He too cried out, “The burden has been lifted from my shoulders, I am free, transfigured, made into a new person,” He walked tall, with head held high and shoulders set square and straight.”
I have to admit I felt similar feelings almost two years ago when I stood with other ministers and friends who had spoken up for equal rights for gay people in front of Cumberland County courthouse and officiated some of the first legally recognized marriages for same-gender couples in my home-town of Fayetteville, NC, where I had fought for such legal protection as a pastor for years.
I can only imagine folks feeling similar feelings after the Civil Rights reforms of the 1960s began to be put in place, following the long and costly fight for civil rights and an end to segregation.
A helpful image Tutu later uses in his No Future Without Forgiveness for the role he and others felt in bringing about the transfiguration is that of being midwives. This image is so helpful in visualizing what we are invited to and inviting ourselves to by praying “on earth as it is heaven”. As I talked about in a previous post, in our post-Einstenian world where space and time have been discovered as relative it does not make a lot of sense to think of heaven as somewhere “up there”, above us – perhaps past Jupiter, slightly to the left. Instead the older mystical understanding of heaven fits better, an understanding that St Thomas is said to have described by quoting Jesus as saying “I am the light which is on them all. I am the All, and the All has gone out from me and the All has come back to me. Cleave the wood: I am there; lift the stone and thou shalt find me there!” Heaven, rather than being far off from us, is the unseen reality at the center of all things, even our very lives. It is like the music whose beat causes the rhythm of life but which we often fill our lives to much to hear. To its rhythm the sun rises and sets (or rather the world spins), the stars and our own planet circle in their orbits, the cycle of rain and evaporation flows, and the cycle of life itself moves from birth to death to life beyond death. Heaven is the unseen presence of the sacred in which our lives wake up and in which we live our whole lives groping toward union with the Sacred, ourselves, and others. It is less like a distant star of far-off throne and more like the womb of life in which we grow, stretch, and become alive.
In such a way of looking at heaven – as the reality we are made to share in, which is always present with us ready to be born into our world – the image of midwife makes sense of the calling we have as human beings. Life always has the potential to thrive, for wholeness, for justice, for healing. If we but quiet ourselves, tuning out the clanging noise of our busy lives, we can hear the music playing. We can tune in and let our bodies & lives move to the beat. We can find how to be partners with God in helping this Sacred reality take on flesh, skin, bones, earth, stone, and greening plant. In those moments I’ve described above and others – more than I could count – we witness new life, new healing, new justice, bursting forth as a new born child. It seems fresh, new, alive, but comes out of great pain. It comes messy and vulnerable, but full of beauty. Just as one does in staring into the eyes of a newborn child, we say to ourselves in that moment, “How could it ever have been but as this? How could we doubt?” Yet, in the build up to transformation, to earth becoming as it is in heaven, it seems as if we are Atlases lifting the world on our shoulders, without the strength to push the lever to move the worlds.
I am reminded of one of my favorite saints from history, William Wilberforce of England, who led the fight against the slave trade. He again and again raised his voice against the immorality of England keeping human beings as property. He again and again proposed to stop it in government initiatives, court cases, and protests. The answer he got each time was that slavery was as old as civilization itself. Who was he to imagine doing away with perhaps the oldest institution of the Western world next to marriage? But he did not give up. It looked ludicrous. It looked unbelievable. He did not live to see it happen, any more than Moses lived to enter the promised land. The labor pains were horrible – and Wilberforce died before the freedom was born. But, born it was. Shortly after he died, slavery was outlawed in England and the British empire.
His example reminded me when I was a struggling pastor and social justice advocate who heard all the time how crazy I was to imagine a world in which same-gender loving people and their families would be treated with the same respect as anyone else and I needed to face things wouldn’t change… that, though it may feel as if none of us have the strength to push the lever to move the world, if we work together putting our hands one on top of the other, together with the hand of God, the world will move. It will change. I am no longer the civil rights activist or pastor but continue in my small way to push to move the world forward, to help new depths of compassion and understanding be born. And when we again face threats against minorities, as my state does in recent anti-LGBT and anti-working class legislation like the recently passed HB2, I know: we can change this. As we work together with God, work together with each other, we can birth healing in this world. It is not hopeless. In fact the resistance to this bright new future God calls us to comes exactly as the labor pains through which we must pass for this new birth, this new transformation, to occur.
It is important to note that it is not just this outward reality in which such new birth must happen. It first must occur within. We must ace into our own inner brokenness, our areas of fear, anxiety, and insecurity. These lead us to choose that which does not birth beauty, healing, wholeness, in our lives and in our world. These are what lead us to choose the path of intolerance and even hate. These also are what lead to other-ize. In the community in which I find myself now we often focus in on the tendency to otherize queer people, racial minorities, the poor, the immigrant. But even other-izing those we encounter acting out of prejudice is a mistake. This is the beauty of the attempt to heal South Africa not through vengeful penalizing of those who promoted apartheid but through confession, making amends, and working toward reconciliation which was attempted in their Truth & Reconciliation commission. The reality is ultimately even those who now promote discrimination are ones we must not demonize. They too are God’s children. Tutu in his No Future Without Forgiveness talks of how some in the fight for civil rights in South Africa would say that they were trying to remind their oppressors of their own humanity, to set them free, for their prejudice oppressed them as well as the minorities it was aimed at. This is true. For it is out of unresolved fear, anxiety, and insecurity that people marginalize and oppress. When you truly embrace yourself as worthy, acceptable, beautiful, and good just as you are – what in Christian terms would be being a “beloved child of God” – you no longer fear those who are different. Instead you can embrace their difference as a pathway to encountering God and yourself in new ways. As a gift.
Let us continue this journey, this journey to new birth, together.
Your progressive redneck,