Friday, April 24, 2015

What do you mean the "Our Father" is dangerous? part 3

Letter to Dan J. Russ “The Dangers of the Lord’s Prayer” continued…

“Thy will be done.”  Who are we kidding? The reason I pray is that I want the Almighty — if He is in fact almighty, or even if He exists at all — to give me what I want and to do what I tell Him to do. I light candles and say endless novenas in order to convince Heaven that it should bend to my will. I have heard it said that the pagans pray asking the powers-that-be to do their bidding.  The belief that the proper rituals, the proper incantations and offerings can cajole the supernatural to do something I want is the very heart of voodoo. I often treat the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ like some Stone Age totem.  

“What will it take for you to do what I want? Maybe a nice plump chicken? Maybe an extra-large candle?”  

(By the way I am all for the lighting of candles and the saying of novenas. Both are very Biblical practices. The first novena was commanded by the Lord as a preparation for the descent of Holy Spirit on Pentecost.  A novena is all about waiting on the Lord, until we hear Him clearly and are able to obey Him more perfectly. Novenas offered in the spirit of expectant prayer and abandonment to the will of God are very powerful prayers. And candles? Lights have been lit as long as there have been Israelites and are still lit by their modern Jewish descendants. I finally understood the lighting of candles when a friend explained his experience at Assisi to me. He had just returned to the faith and was praying at the tomb of St. Francis. He had to leave, but wished he could’ve stayed there praying. He lit a candle to say that his heart was still there at the saint’s tomb. The flame represented his soul abiding there with the Lord. That is exactly why the Jews light candles. They say that the Almighty sends extra souls to help us in joy, in sorrow, in prayer. This is why we light candles. Lit candles express our desire to remain with the Lord in prayer despite the demands that life makes of us. God who set the stars ablaze is not impressed by a candle. He is impressed by the soul that loves him, the heart on fire with love that lit the candle symbolizes.) 

So, after all that, we Christians don’t pray that God, the gods, the spirits, whatever, will do our will. That’s not what we mean by prayer.

I’ve heard that we pray so that we might do God’s will. I suppose that’s a fine thing, but I would take it a step farther. We pray that God would do His own will. 

"What? Isn’t God going to do His will anyway? Why should we pray that God would do His will? If He is almighty and all-knowing, can’t he do as He pleases?"

I suppose He can, but He doesn’t. Do you think that sin and death and sadness are God’s will? What kind of god do you believe in? Is God angry and spiteful and capricious? Certainly the God that Jesus preached wasn’t and isn’t. The fact is that God will do His will only if we allow Him to. We practice the most unique religion in all of history. We have a God who is humble, a God who, unlike His creatures, doesn’t insist on having His own way. If there really is a God who is all powerful, all-knowing and perfectly loving, a God who really loves me, don’t you think His way of doing things, His plan for me and for all of history, is probably better than my own little self-centered plans?  That’s what it means to say “The will be done.” It means that, though I may make some suggestions now and then, I would rather trust that His ways are not my ways, in fact they are a darn sight better than my ways. 

It is a wonder that we who are so arrogant have such a humble God. He took on the form of a slave and was obedient unto death, even death on a cross. He allows Himself to be thwarted at every turn. He does not wish the death of a sinner, but sinners die in their sins all the time. It seems the devil wins repeatedly and God seems to do nothing about it. If all this God business is true, why does He seem to do so little? Simple: Freedom. 

God is Love and without freedom there can be no love.  If I am rich and shower expensive gifts on a poor person in the hopes that he or she will love me, they will probably never really love me. They may think they love me, but it is usually the largesse that they love. The question is this: if I had nothing at all, not health or wealth or beauty, would you still love me? Jesus posed this question to the disciples once. They thought that they would all be on easy street when the revolution came and Jesus would throw out the Romans. Then, when the mob tried to make Him king, he turned on them and said, “Unless you eat My flesh and drink My blood, you cannot have life in you.” They realized then that He wasn’t the Messiah. He was simply crazy and they began to abandon Him. He turned to the disciples and said “Will you also leave Me?” 

Peter said, “Lord, where would we go? You have the words of everlasting life.”

I suspect that Judas realized that Jesus was nuts and was going to get them all killed — “Time to ditch this loser!” I probably would have gone with Judas. He had a point. What about it? What would you have said?  There are times in the life of the believer when Jesus says, “What if there was nothing in this for you, not peace, not security, not even heaven in the end? Will you still follow Me?” 

If our answer is, “Nothing, well I suppose I might look into a more useful religion!” then we were never following Him in the first place. We were simply following the things we thought He would provide us. To be a Christian is to follow Him because we love Him. 

God has given us real and complete freedom in order to give us the possibility of real and complete love, because He is Love. In the words of C. S. Lewis, “He cannot ravish. He can only woo.” (Screwtape Letters, Chapter 8) To be forced to love is to be rendered unable to love. God gives us the ability to say “No” to Him eternally. In the end, we will have to choose between our will and God’s will; we will choose either heaven or hell. God does not send anyone to hell unless they choose it, but when we say “No” to heaven, we have said “Yes” to hell. How often have heard someone say or, you yourself have said, “There is no God.  I prayed and I did not get what I wanted.”  We may say “Thy will be done,” but what we really mean is, “This is what I want and if you really do exist, you’ll jolly well give me what I want, or you’re not God. Through Christ our Lord, Amen.”
To say the Our Father is to ask God to do whatever he pleases in our lives and to disregard our desires if they are different from His in any way. We are giving Him permission to ignore us if He so chooses. “Thy will be done,” is one of the best lies we tell ourselves and God. 

We manage to convince ourselves that we trust God’s perfect will, but I’m not so sure that we have fooled the Almighty. It is probably the reason God seems to do so little in our lives. We won’t let him do anything because we never give Him the permission for which He so humbly asks. It’s not easy having a humble God, when we and all the gods we really worship are so terribly arrogant.

Next week: Stop reading. It only gets worse.

Friday, April 17, 2015

What do you mean the "Our Father" is dangerous? - part 2

Letter to Dan J. Russ “The Dangers of the Lord’s Prayer” continued…

So, when we pray the Our Father, also called the Lord’s Prayer, we start by asking for a Father, not a mother and we ask that He be ours, not mine. We go on to give Him permission to hide from us! What else can be meant by “who art in Heaven?  (By the way “art” is an archaic second-person singular English form for “you are” as in “thou art,” just in case you were curious. Or perhaps you didn’t notice that you were using an archaic second-person singular English form because when we pray we use fancy words of which we have no real understanding. We’ve just been saying them for so long, even though they don’t really mean anything, or we don’t even notice that we are saying things whose meaning we are clueless, which is why I am writing this article anyway!)  

Our Father who art (read: ARE) in heaven, not on earth, which means we will trust Him even though we can’t see Him. I don’t know about you, but I would rather see Him. I am like the little kid who raids the cookie-jar because Papa who would swat my little behind isn’t in the room at the moment and when he comes in, sees me covered with cookie crumbs and standing on a chair next to the empty cookie-jar asks me, “Did you eat the cookies after I told you not to?”  I sincerely say, “No!” and it’s off to the wood shed once again! 

I would much rather have a Father who was right there in the kitchen either forcing me to be a good little boy by his presence, or better still, a father who hangs around ladling out cookies and hugs. I would like to pray “Our Father who art right here at my beck and call.” Instead if I say His prayer, I must be like Jesus who prayed the 22nd Psalm from the cross, “My God, my God, why have You abandoned me?  However the Psalm ends in hope and trust.  “For he has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one. He has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help.” 

The Father may have been hidden on Calvary, but He was not distant! To say Jesus’ prayer is to want His Father, not a Father of my own design. We are saved by grace, through faith (trust), not by timely intervention. “Who art in heaven” is a promise to live by faith, not by appearances. I don’t know about you, but I am much better at appearances than I am at the real thing.

Next we have the dreadful words, “Hallowed be thy name” (Another grammatical note “Thy” is the second person singular familiar form, also archaic. It is familiar, not formal. It is like the “tu” in French or Spanish or Italian, or like the “du” in German. Most people think “thou” and “thee” and “thy” are fancy, and we only say them to God because He is so very big and powerful and we are all so very impressed down here. It is exactly the opposite. Once upon a time, we used “thou” and “thee” for friends, parents, relatives, children and those of less social standing. “You” was reserved for important people. We say “thou” to God because we are on familiar terms with God who, like our papas, loves us and would bounce us on His knees of we would let Him.

“Thou” is a word denoting intimacy that has passed out of modern English, probably because real intimacy has passed out of much of our conversation. Interestingly enough the “thou who art” as well as the “Father” in the Lord’s Prayer place Christianity in irreconcilable conflict with Islam. Muslims think that the Supreme Being is completely other and is not intimate with any of his creatures. He certainly is not “father.” Where was I? Oh, yes….. “Hallowed be thy name”). 

“Hallow” is a verb. It means to sanctify, to consecrate, to make holy. Abraham Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address, a speech at the dedication of a military cemetery on the grounds of the Battle of Gettysburg, said, “We cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground.” Hallow, consecrate, and dedicate all mean the same thing. How, in any sense can you and I, “…dedicate or consecrate the name of the Almighty?  We cannot, except in one sense. The Jews have always understood the phrase “the sanctification of the name” to mean living publicly as a Jew and in particular dying because you are a Jew. 

To “hallow the Name” means to cling to one’s public identity as God’s chosen even if it means death. In short, when you say “Hallowed be Thy Name,” you are volunteering for martyrdom. You are willing to die for God. You are saying, “May You use my life and, if need be, my death so that the world will know and honor You.” Next time you say the “Our Father” that phrase should catch in your throat.  Let’s go on to ruin some more of the world’s most beloved prayer.

“Thy kingdom come.”  The word in Greek usually translated as “kingdom” is “basileia.”  When you and I say “kingdom” we mean a political system or a geographical territory, as in the phrase, “the Kingdom of England” that land of fine weather, haute cuisine and randy royalty.  Though basileia can include these senses, they are not its primary meaning. Looking at the Arndt and Gingrich “Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament” (University of Chicago and Cambridge presses) 1,000 pages of philological obscurity, basileia is primarily defined “kingship, royal power, royal rule.”  A king is a “Basileus.” He has “basileia.”  

Herod the Great was the King of Judea when Christ was born. He had been a political enforcer for the Hashmon (Maccabee) family who had made themselves kings of the Holy Land after kicking out the Syrian Greeks. Herod managed slowly to kill most of the Hashmon family, and after allying himself with Pompey the Great, Roman general and boyfriend of Queen Cleopatra, he conquered the Holy Land and had himself confirmed as king by the Roman Senate. 

The Romans considered themselves able to do such things, so they conferred royal status, royal dignity on Herod who actually had all the noblesse of a junkyard dog. That is how basileia worked. It was royal dignity, inherited, won, conferred, but it was a quality of the king that entitled him to political power. It isn’t a geographical place or even heaven when you die. The Kingdom of God, or as Matthew puts it, the Kingdom of Heaven, is God’s authority, sovereignty, royal power. When I say “thy kingdom come,” I am promising to recognize God’s definition of royalty. So what’s God’s definition of royalty? Jesus! 

He was born in barn, on the run from the authorities as an infant, worked in the building trades, mocked by His relatives, arrested, tortured, spat on, laughed at and ultimately executed as a criminal. That’s true royalty. His throne was a cross and his crown was made of thorns. 

Who am I kidding? I don’t want God’s royalty. I want the Kardashians. I get excited about meeting people who are famous for being famous. I want their autographs. I want to watch them on Dancing With The Stars and I pretend that Princess Di was somehow heroic for dying in a drunken car crash in Paris with her rich boyfriend having left her horse-faced royal husband and her kids back in some drafty old palace in London. The outpouring of grief at her death amazed me. It was sad. Any untimely death is sad. But the rotting mounds of flowers, the near riots of grieving people and the maudlin songs composed by ageing pop stars of questionable tastes were beyond my understanding.  

We get all excited about famous reprobates while we ignore the person next to us who is made in the image and likeness of God, like the glitterati and you and I. Heaven mourns for the tramp on the street who dies in the cold as well as some poor princess who chose to live in the cold of a loveless palace and the icy glare of fame. They are both infinitely sad and infinitely mourned by a Father in heaven who cherished them both. 

Basileia, the good news of the kingdom, means that every human being, no matter how poor or how rich is the same in Heaven’s sight, they are potentially princes and princesses of the God’s royal family, and I should respect one as much as the other, remembering that the King of Heaven was a working stiff who died without a nickel to His name. 

When I say “Thy kingdom come” I am asking the Almighty to give me a reverence for all human beings. I am asking for the vision to reverence the poor, the old, the sick, the crippled as much as the world reverences the rich, the powerful, and the beautiful. I am asking for the gift to see beauty where the world sees ugliness. I am renouncing the values and the preferences of the world. Put me at the back table with the ragged people. That’s where the important guests are seated. At least that is what I am saying when I say, “Thy Kingdom come.”

Next Week: We’ve got a lot more of the Our Father to ruin. 

Friday, April 10, 2015

What do you mean the "Our Father" is dangerous?

Dear Rev. Know-it-all,

I recently heard you say that the Our Father is a dangerous prayer. Whatever can you mean by this? If it is so dangerous why ever would we say it right before receiving Holy Communion?

Dan J. Russ

Dear Dan,

You’d better believe it’s dangerous, and that’s why we say it right before Holy Communion. It‘s kind of a disclaimer on Heaven’s part. Remember what the Holy Eucharist is. It’s a covenant. A covenant is a relationship that last for a whole lifetime, like marriage. A contract lasts only until the business is done and the money changes hands. Marriage is a covenant. I give you myself that you might give me yourself.  In Holy Communion we enter into an unbreakable relationship with Christ and His Bride the Church! 

We are in effect saying that as Christ lays His very life on the altar for me, just so, I will live for Him today and die for Him and for His Bride, the Church, if necessary. The Eucharist is serious business, as solemn as a wedding. Remember that the very word “sacrament” is a Latin word that originally meant “oath to the death!” Before we take the Holy Eucharist we examine ourselves by looking at the conditions of the covenant. That’s what the Our Father is. It’s right before Communion so that we know what we are getting into. So let’s look at it.

The first word of the Our Father is not “our.” It’s “Father” as the prayer is written in Greek or Hebrew.  Everybody wants a mother. Traditionally it’s a father’s job to love, teach and correct. This involves much affection and occasional trips out to the woodshed (This is an American euphemism for a good and thorough spanking!) Everybody wants a mother. Fathers are traditionally less popular. We in the Church are asking for a Father. Not a mother. I know there are lot of simpering, politically correct, namby-pamby feminists, in tough with the inner woman types who say “Our Mother “or “our Father/Mother” as if the Almighty were some kind of hermaphrodite. Ignore these people, even if they are on the parish liturgy committee. They say ridiculous things like, “I could never identify with a god who is called father.”  You’re not supposed to identify with Him. You’re supposed to obey Him! I’ve heard some of these loons say things like, “Jesus, being a man of His times, could not conceive of God as Mother.”  

Do these people ever read books? There were temples with priestesses and mother goddesses in Tiberias not 20 miles down the road from Nazareth where Jesus grew up and not five miles down the road from Capernaum where he spent His days off.  If Jesus had experienced God as mother he would have said so. 

“Well,” the addle-pated progressive might say, “Jesus would never have called God mother because He didn’t want to upset anyone.” 

Why certainly, let’s do away with temple worship, circumcision and the dietary laws, but don’t upset anyone by calling God mother. Remember, they didn’t crucify Jesus for political correctness. 

Jesus called God Father, because in His full and perfect humanity, He experienced God as Father. Nobody ever says, “Are you sure she’s your mother?” She was there. You popped out of her as surely as the doctor swatted your little tuchus to get you to breathe. She was there or you wouldn’t be here! Motherhood is necessary. Worse still if you were raised in the way most homo sapiens have been raised these many years, you hung off her like an appendage. She was a food source and a place to rest your head. Between pregnancy and breast feeding you were glued to her like gum on a shoe for two or three years. Motherhood is not optional. It is always the necessary relationship, at least so far. 

Fatherhood? Fatherhood is optional in the most literal sense of the word. OPTional comes from the Latin word “OPTtare” which means “to choose”. So does the word adOPT.  Fatherhood is always a choice. Mom doesn’t get much choice. Dads walk out all the time. The Greeks, Romans, and ancient Israelites knew this. 

When a child was born in ancient Rome, it was placed on the floor in front of its supposed father. If the father picked it up, even if everyone knew that the child was a travelling salesman’s offspring, the child was legally made the son of the supposed father by his act of picking the child up off the floor.  If the supposed father turned and walked away, the child was not recognized as his and he was not legally responsible for the child even if it was clear by the crossed eyes, crooked nose and foul odor that the kid was that fellow’s genetic offspring. The child would then, quite literally, be thrown out to be picked over by the slave dealers or eaten by the stray dogs that populated ancient cities, no matter how much the mother wept and wailed. Fatherhood is always adoptive. 

It is always a choice, even in this modern world. A father is not the fellow who contributes a few genes and chromosomes to an infant in the womb. He is the man who raises you; teaches you; loves you; and yes, occasionally reasons with the area of your anatomy not capable of facial expression.  Fatherhood is always a choice. That is why God is described as father. He chooses you. Thus, Jesus called God Father because he experienced God as Father. 

He had a perfectly good mother. Her name was and is Mary, and I claim Her as my mother too! The reality of the feminine in the Holy Trinity is wrapped up in the mystery of the Church. The Church is traditionally portrayed as a woman, a bride and a mother. Mary is, in certain sense, the icon of the Church. Once, the Church had only one member — that member was Our Blessed Mother, Mary.  She was the first to receive Christ as her Lord. She stood faithful to Him at the cross. She was filled with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. She is the first and best of Christians. She is the icon of the Church. 

Trust me, Jesus didn’t have two mommies. He didn’t need two mommies.  A father is not just the one who engenders us. He is the one who shapes and disciplines us, at least traditionally, until this enlightened age in which one’s father is someone who gets visitation every other week, pays child support and runs off with a woman half your mother’s age. Traditional fathers are the ones who are there even when you wish they weren’t. That’s the first dangerous thing you are asking for: a pesky Father who has rules and expectations along with His strong, protecting embrace. 

The next unfortunate word in the Our Father is “our”.  It is really nice to be an only child. Trust me I know. I was an only child and my six brothers and sisters resented me for it.  I was the last of seven and was spoiled rotten by parents who had given up the fight. It was great. When we say “our”, we are asking for brothers and sisters. We are saying that we don’t want to be only children. We are agreeing to put up with, Heaven forefend, other people. And worse still, other church members. 

People are always talking about having a personal relationship with the Lord. That’s great! We Catholics have a very personal relationship with the Lord, just not a private one. To say “our” means I promise to go to church, not just to a perfect church, but a church where sometimes the people are irritating, the music is bad and the sermons are worse. It’s not “My Father.” It’s “Our Father.” Besides, if you find a perfect church it will cease to perfect the minute you join it!

Next week: We’ve just finished two words and it gets much worse!