It’s All Providence
There are certain words and catch phrases that creep into our vocabulary from time to time. Every generation has them. These words and phrases usually stick around, retaining some significance but never really meaning what they once did – except to the generation or social group that first claimed them. You probably know what I am talking about – words like fine (or real fine), cool, hip, groovy, and awesome. Phrases like “the buzz,” or “I’m blessed,” or “It’s all good” are like this, too.
Sometimes the words or phrases sound silly or even offensive to new ears. For example, some of you may remember me telling you about a friend in a rural town who was told that his sermon was awful and later realized it meant filled with awe or inspired.
These buzz words and catch phrases are important to us, because they locate us. They state what matters to us in the present moment, and they speak of our relationships (culture, each other, etc.). In its own way, the Lord’s Prayer, the prayer of Jesus, is a string of endearing and enduring phrases that focus our attention on our relationship with God. It speaks of who we are, who God is, and what exactly is our relationship.
One of the early church fathers, Tertulian, described it this way:
"[The Lord's Prayer] is truly the summary of the whole gospel...Since the Lord...after handing over the practice of prayer, said elsewhere, 'Ask and you will receive,' and since everyone has petitions which are peculiar to [their] circumstances, the regular and appropriate prayer (the Lord's Prayer) is said first, as the foundation of further desires."
In our tradition we offer petitions first, and at times I have begun the Lord’s Prayer by saying, “Now let us pray about the things that truly matter.” I’ve dropped that phrase recently because I don’t mean to dismiss the importance of the needs expressed in other prayers. The point is that Jesus stated that this prayer describes what is essential in our relationship with God.
Last week we talked about the idea of giving honor and glory to God. The question we considered is whether or not our prayer life is a laundry list for God or a place of vulnerability and transformation for us. And although we talked about what “Hallowed be your name” means, we did not talk much about the name that we call God in this prayer – Father.
Before going any further, I want to own an assumption. That assumption is that the Prayer of Jesus – the Lord’s Prayer – is part of a prayer life. By prayer life I mean a lifestyle – or regular personal practice – of praying. By prayer life I mean two things. The first is a regular practice of intentional, daily reflection on God’s active presence in your life. Our Old Testament reading comes out of a culture of regular reflection on the active presence of God to guide and define the actions of our days. It reminds us that even the most chaotic moments of human experience are part of the rhythm and movement of an active and present God.
The second form of a prayer life is more of an ongoing conversation with God. The text from Philippians is an example of this tradition. “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I say, rejoice!”
Rejoice – what about when things are bad? Sometimes I catch myself complaining about my problems to others, and in the midst of it I realize that I really don’t have any problems. Even on my worst days I usually have more things to be thankful for than to be sad about. Sure, I’ve had difficulties. I have had times that without God I would not have made it through. Still, it seems very first world, upper-middle class to boil the gospel down to "Count your blessings," and “Don’t worry, be happy!”
That’s a theology that is so thin that just about anyone can see through it. Just the other day my daughter and I were in the car listening to a Christian radio station, and she asked, “Why do they always say that they are “positive” when sometimes they talk about someone whose baby almost died?”
I thought about that and said, “Well, they aren’t saying that bad things are good, or positive. They are saying that God is always good. They are saying that even when things are bad you can have a reason to hope.”
That’s where the Prayer of Jesus comes in. That’s why it matters that we call God, “Father.” Personally, I don’t think it matters if you call God “Father,” or “Mother,” or “Creator.” What matters is that we approach God with the understanding that God is the reason we are here, and God cares for us. Whether you had a good relationship with your parents or not, whether your parents were able to express their love for you or not, whether they were even able to love you or not – God is complete where others have been lacking. And at the most basic of levels, it is good and right for us to ask God to give us what we need to sustain us.
“Give us, Lord, our daily bread.” It may seem demanding to say it this way – and maybe it is – but not in the sense of a child that is completely dependent on the parent. Of course, children naturally seek independence – and in a healthy family the parent encourages independence. Yet there is something different in our relationship with God. We were created in the image of God and given rational minds to think and solve and create, so in some ways our natural state is one of independence. Remembering to expect God to provide for us is not a challenge to our independence; it is simply a reminder that God is the source of all that we have and all that we are.
Still, I have to say, this is a very privileged perspective on providence. How does a person at St. Joseph’s Dinner feel when they utter the phrase, “Give us, Lord, our daily bread”? How do the Christians in Syria feel about it? For that matter, how do we really feel about it?
There’s a great scene in the Movie Shenandoah where Jimmy Stewart’s character is sitting at table forcing himself and his children to pray after the death of his wife. He says, through clenched teeth, “Lord, we cleared this land. We plowed it, sowed it, and harvested it. We cook the harvest. It wouldn't be here and we wouldn't be eating it if we hadn't done it all ourselves. We worked dog-bone hard for every crumb and morsel, but we thank you Lord just the same for the food we're about to eat, amen.”
Maybe we are not that callous, but what do our actions demonstrate? Do our actions demonstrate an expectation that God will come through in the end – that even as we labor “by the sweat of our brow” the results are still a gift at the hand of God? Or what about the opposite? Are we willing to accept poverty and injustice and times of personal need as a part of our experience of an active and present God?
In the prayer of Jesus, a Jewish Rabi, the phrase “daily bread” meant all of these things, but even more specifically it was a reference to the story of the exodus from Egypt. It was a reminder that God gave the people enough for each day. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus reminds us that God knows all that we need just as God knows the need of the sparrow and the lilly, and he reminds us to “Let the day's own trouble be sufficient for the day.” I really like the King James version on this one. It says, “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.”
As a people of the resurrection we remember that Jesus called himself “the living bread that came down from heaven.” And so, a life of prayer offers the chance to continually receive the living bread. Whether we have bread to eat or not, we have hope. We have hope in the life to come, but we also have hope in the life that is – whether it gets any better or not.
That reminds me of one of the catch phrases of my generation that can be down right infuriating to those of, say, my mother’s generation. “It’s all good.” I think that phrase has value to people of my generation because it reminds us not to sweat the small stuff. Maybe everything isn’t good. Maybe saying, “It’s all good” is living in denial. But what if what we are really trying to say is, “It’s all providence. It’s all in the hands of God. Whatever "it" is, "it" is not permanent. But God is. God’s love is. God’s sustaining presence is good. God is providential.”
I bet we could even make “Providential” into a new catch phrase, if we lived it! Of course, that’s what really matters – living the good news. The only way that we can hope that the Prayer of Jesus can be more than a collection of meaningless phrases is to demonstrate reverence and providence and mercy. Living the good news does not mean being perfect. It means knowing that you are not. It means demonstrating a belief that God is active and present in the good and the bad – and even in the ugly and meaningless – and God is always moving us toward something better. It means demonstrating the belief that through God we can do things that are not possible without God!
Personally, I like the way Julian of Norwich said it.
“All shall be well,
and all shall be well,
and every manner of thing shall be well.”
Next week we’ll finally get down to the difference between “debtors” and “trespasses” as we continue to explore the providence of God Most High through the opportunity to forgive and be forgiven. Let us stand and sing as we worship the Lord together!