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“We Are Asking God to be God”

Each week at our Sunday services, before the children are dismissed, we take time to recite the Lord’s Prayer together. As with anything that is done repeatedly over long periods of time, if we are inattentive it can come to seem mechanical and tedious. Rather than being a vehicle for shaping and inspring us as Christ’s followers, it can come to seem like little more than part of the furniture. Frederick Buechner reminds us why we ought not to allow this to happen:

We do well not to pray the prayer lightly. It takes guts to pray it at all. We can pray it in the unthinking and perfunctory way we usually do only by disregarding what we are saying.

“Thy will be done” is what we are saying. That is the climax of the first half of the prayer. We are asking God to be God. We are asking God to do not what we want but what God wants. We are asking God to make manifest the holiness that is now mostly hidden, to set free in all its terrible splendor the devastating power that is now mostly under restraint. “Thy kingdom come… on earth” is what we are saying. And what if that were suddenly to happen, what then? What would stand and what would fall? Who would be welcomed in and who would be thrown the Hell out? Which if any of our precious visions of what God is and of what human beings are would prove to be more or less on the mark and which would turn out to be as phony as three-dollar bills? Boldness indeed. To speak those words is to invite the tiger out of the cage, to unleash a power that makes atomic power look like a warm breeze.

You need to be bold in another way to speak the second half. Give us. Forgive us. Don’t test us. Deliver us. If it takes guts to face the omnipotence that is God’s, it takes perhaps no less to face the impotence that is ours. We can do nothing without God. We can have nothing without God. Without God we are nothing.

It is only the words “Our Father” that make the prayer bearable. If God is indeed something like a father, then as something like children we can risk approaching him anyway.

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ken #

    Buechner’s God sounds frightening to me. I prefer Bell’s. I think Bell’s God is closer to the one in scripture, even while he fights parts of what scripture appears to say, or at least, what it has been thought to mean for centuries.

    Buechner wrote, “It takes guts to pray it at all.” It does not, unless one has a frightening vision of God and of what his will and his kingdom means. It is against this frightening vision of God that I think Bell leans. There is nothing to fear if the power in omnipotence is love, and mercy, and kindness.

    March 14, 2011
    • I don’t read Buechner’s words as anything other than a reminder of the ontological distance between God and humanity. The quote reminds me, in some ways, of Job 38-41. As you are often quick to point out in conversations here, Scripture portrays a God of judgment as well as mercy.

      March 14, 2011
      • Ken #

        I think when the scripture refers to judgment or judging, it does so in a way that gives hope, not fear, to the people of God (Israel or the church.) It is mercy that most fairly characterizes God, not judgment, not omnipotent power (which Buechner compares frighteningly to atomic power – as in a mushroom cloud one imagines, rather than in household light bulbs.)

        As I wrote above, I think Bell’s God is closer to scripture, because of Bell’s emphasis on love, even if Bell fights with parts of scripture and tradition and certain other contemporary evangelical preachers.

        Personally, the Our Father has never frightened me, but I can see how it could frighten someone who imagines God in frightening terms, whether because of a frightening vision of the “ontological difference” or because of fire and brimstone preaching or parenting.

        The “ontological difference” need not be presented in a frightening way. An example of a reassuring, non-frightening, vision is that in The Canticle of the Sun of Saint Francis.

        March 14, 2011
      • I agree with virtually everything you say here, whether about the emphasis upon divine mercy and love or about Bell’s understanding of God.

        I suppose I simply interpret Buechner’s words here in the context of the broad Biblical injunctions toward the “fear of the Lord.” It is a reverent fear, I think, and can stand alongside (as opposed to in competition with) other expressions of the ontological gap between God and humanity (such as the one by Saint Francis).

        March 14, 2011
  2. Paul Johnston #

    I like that you incorporate the communal reading of the “Our Father” with the children present. I am also appreciative of the statement….”As with anything that is done repeatedly over long periods of time, if we are inattentive it can come to seem mechanical and tedious.”..,

    Truly a reminder that a Roman Catholic needs to frequently hear. 🙂

    It occurs to me though, at least from my point of view, that the bulk of our disagreements don’t revolve around personal differences but rather my disagreeing with some of the people you quote.

    The more I take the time to read and “listen” to what you have to say, the more I find myself enlightened by your more detailed understandings of the subjects under discussion and the conclusions you draw. Some of authors you quote?…meh…not so much. 🙂

    I think Mr. Buechner is wrong to separate the main clause, “Thy will be done” from the defining subordinate clause, “on earth as it is in heaven”. I can’t imagine the Father’s expression of will in heaven as anything other than what, Ken describes as, “the power in omnipotence being love, mercy and kindness”. Rather than inspiring notions of “terrible splendour” I am inspired with a terrible longing.

    Further, I am perplexed by the phrases, “something like a Father” and “something like children”. For me, God is our Father and we are His children. Infinite perfection, relationally speaking, should we decide to participate.

    How perfect our Father is, in every way. Always offering, always abiding, always leaving us free to choose.

    March 14, 2011
    • Thanks, Paul. I guess I would simply say that the main reason I throw quotes up here is because something about the author’s words struck me as I read them. Sometimes, they simply make me pause, or provoke or reassure me in some way. I don’t agree with everything the authors I quote here say, but often, they connect in some way with other things I am experiencing and/or thinking about/wrestling with at the time. The same is true for whoever reads them, of course, which is why the same words, read from different perspectives and different contexts, produce different reactions.

      (Having said that, I do find it odd at how infrequently people seem to appreciate what I appreciate, but I suppose disagreement is more likely to provoke comment than agreement :).)

      Re: your specific critiques of this passage, I think there is room for both “terrible longing” and “terrible splendour” in how we understand ourselves in relation to God and God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven. I don’t see this passage as negating love, mercy, and kindness in any way. I see it as a reminder that God is God and we are not—a kind of guard against the cheap familiarity and irreverence that come so easily to us.

      Re: “something like a Father,” I suppose I simply see Buechner as gesturing toward the truth that God cannot be contained by the metaphors we use to describe him. God is our Father, but he is more than that as well. I think of Jesus’ “how much more” in Luke 11:11-13 when I read Buechner’s concluding words. I see them as a recognition that the ontological gap between God and humanity is not impassable.

      March 14, 2011
      • Paul Johnston #

        🙂 I am the son of a son of Scotland. Contrariness fits me like a glove.

        You made me have to look up ontowhatevera….led me to Immanuel Kant….seemed to be written in english…I swear to God! I didn’t understand a word…somewhere in the background of my mind I’m sure I could hear Monty Python’s the “Philosopher’s Song”…

        Faith will always be insecure if we look to deduce it. We must choose to experience relationship with God.

        March 15, 2011

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