Sunday, September 23, 2012

Jesus' radical but simple prayer

There is no kingdom of God without God himself. So, when Jesus announced “The kingdom of God is near” he also stated “God is here.”

The form of prayer Jesus taught us accords with this: “Our Father in heaven.” First, to address God simply as “Father” seemed a radical departure from the customary “Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God.” At the very outset of the Lord’s Prayer is the message: “God is near. God is here.”

Second, to address our Father as “in heaven” was to address him as “at hand.” Our theology of heaven has become contrary to what Jesus taught. When Jesus spoke of heaven, he did not speak of it as something far away, up high, for which we needed to wait. He spoke of it as “near”, “at hand”, and “here now”. With the advent of Jesus heaven had come to earth.

To address God as “in heaven” is to address him as “ever-near”.

To be sure, there is a second life, another world we experience beyond death—but it is closer to our life now than we often think. We are like pre-born babies on the verge of birth. The pains we experience here and now are like contractions. On the other side, we will find final deliverance from pain.

Though heaven seems far off, it isn’t. We can take heart that it is near, so very near. In fact, the analogy of birth breaks down for Jesus taught that heaven is so near we can experience it in part right here, right now. We needn’t wait at all, though we still may have to experience pain mixed in with it.

Both “Our Father” and “in heaven” carry transcendence and immanence.

On the one hand he is “Our Father”, the One who is Wholly Other.
On the other hand he is “Our Father”, the one who is near as our Papa.

To say he is “in heaven” is to say God is found in a different place but it is also to say he is in the space immediately surrounding us, within and without us.

The philosopher Peter Kreeft speaks of history as “cosmic pregnancy”. We are in God’s womb. Though the world awaiting us is surely another place, we are in it already, in some sense. In fact, it surrounds us even though we are unaware of it. Though God is Wholly Other, we are in him. His life defines our lives.

Let us simply abide in him until the day we can see him face to face, smiling and smiled upon.


Rogier said...

Troy, I am attracted to your argument that heaven should be understood as 'near' rather than 'far'. I'm not sure you've prooved this to be true, yet, though. Doesn't the distinction between the heavens and the earth in Genesis 1 create a sense of 'heaven is distinct from earth'? Or does the verse 'as high as the heavens are from the earth, so far will he remove his sins from us' demonstrate such distance also.
If you have any additional thoughts on this, I'd be very interested.

Troy said...

Thanks for reading, Ro. And thanks for your honest response! Very insightful.

Here are a couple things that come to mind:

1. Scripture uses the words "heaven" and "heavens" in different senses. Dallas Willard points out in "The Divine Conspiracy" that at times the word is interchangeable with the English word "atmosphere." The references you cite seem to accord with that meaning. For example, when I get in a plane and fly in the sky it is as if I've left the earth and been transported to "the heavens". Or, when God spread out the stars in "the heavens" we understand that space to be so high above us it is clearly distinct from earth.

Jesus' pronouncement that the "kingdom of heaven is at hand" could also be phrased as "the kingdom of heaven is *imminently accessible*." In fact, in his paraphrase of the Lord's Prayer Willard suggests rewording "Our Father in heaven" as "Dear Father in the atmosphere" or "Dear Father in the space immediately surrounding us" or "Dear Father ever-near us". In his teaching Jesus clearly wanted to correct our misunderstandings about the reign of God and its locale.

2. In those instances when Scripture accentuates distinction between heaven and earth (or this life and the next), I would say that is due to the tension between the notion of transcendence and immanence. On the one hand, God is Wholly Other (transcendent), on the other he is immediately accessible (at hand, imminent).

A children's ministry curriculum I love speaks of Jesus as "a king, but not that kind of king." By this expression the curriculum emphasizes, God is high and lifted up, but in a humble kind of way. The two must stand in tension with one another.

So, yes, the next life is indeed another life different from this life, but the wonder is Jesus came to announce that we can begin living the eternal kind of life here and now. That is what makes our faith so wondrous. Otherwise we should be just like any other religion where God cannot be accessed in such a way.

Don't know if these additional observations "prove" anything but that is how I am trying to live in the tension of what Jesus suggests in his teaching.

Hope this helps,