January 3, 2021

Help, Thanks, Wow! The Lord’s Prayer, I:Near as the Air, High as the Stars

Passage: Matthew 6:9–13

“Pray then in this way:

Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one.

Twenty years ago in her wonderful book Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott says that there are only two really good prayers: “Help me, help me, help me!” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”

In a more recent book, called Help, Thanks, Wow!” she added a third. There are only three good prayers: “Help!” Thanks!” and “Wow!”

Anne Lamott subscribes to the KISS Principle: Keep It Simple, Sherlock. And she gets this from Jesus, who follows the same policy.

After months of watching Jesus pray casually, effortlessly, and constantly, his best friends ask him, “Lord, teach us to pray.” And Jesus decides to keep it simple. There are just seven parts to the perfect prayer: (1) Holy Father, (2) we will keep your name holy, (3) Bring your kingdom to earth, (4) Give us enough to eat, (5) Forgive us when we screw up, (6) Deliver us from evil (which is just a fancy way of saying, “Help me, Help me, Help me”), and (7) a concluding doxology.

Today the first petition of the Lord’s Prayer: “Father, Holy be your name.” Names are important. When I graduated from seminary in 1985 and began serving as Associate Pastor to a large Presbyterian Church of about 2,500 near Philadelphia, the place was still haunted by a former pastor who’d been dead for ten years and hadn’t been in the pulpit for twenty.

He was so fondly remembered and so beloved and almost beatified that his ghost sort of haunted and hobbled his successor’s ministry, and this former pastor became a legend because he could remember your name.

Over the years he’d probably been introduced to six or seven thousand people and after hearing a name once he would remember it forever.

He was a mediocre preacher, I’ve been told; with his preaching he couldn’t convince Mary the Mother of God that Jesus was anything special, but he remembered your name and that’s all that mattered.

Names are important. In the thought world of the Bible, names were much more than labels of identification; they were expressions of the essential nature of the name’s bearer. Names had an almost mystical or magical connotation in the Hebrew world especially. Knowing the name of something—a thing, a person, an enemy, a god—gave you a certain measure of power over it.

Paul Tillich says that in the Bible names are never empty sounds, but bearers of power. The name gives spiritual power to the Unseen.[1]

In a smaller way, this is still true today. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy hammered my old neighborhood in Old Greenwich, Connecticut, pretty hard. Ordinarily my house was two blocks from Long Island Sound, but when Sandy came along at high tide, the Sound swelled and came within one block.

The police came through the neighborhood with a bullhorn and ordered us to evacuate to a middle school gym on higher ground, but the evacuation center wouldn’t take my dog, so we stayed.

Not long after Sandy, a New Yorker cartoon showed a man and his wife standing in what is obviously their living room, with a couch and a TV in the background, and they are standing in knee-deep water—in their living room.

They obviously ignored the evacuation order in Old Greenwich or on Staten Island or in The Rockaways. And the man says to his wife, “If they want us to take these storms seriously, they’re going to have to start giving them scarier names.”[2]

Why do we give these appalling monster storms the names of pleasant, smiling friends like Katrina, Irene, and Sandy? Maybe if we called them Godzilla, King Kong, or Voldemort, we’d start paying attention. Names communicate being, identity, and meaning, especially in the thought world of the Bible.

When Jesus of Nazareth addresses God by name—and no one was more familiar with God than Jesus—when Jesus addresses God by name in the world’s most perfect prayer, Jesus calls God “Heavenly Father,” or “Holy Father.” And those are two words that really shouldn’t go together. I don’t know any other Holy Fathers, do you?

Heavenly Father: it’s not quite an oxymoron, but it is a paradox, a central paradox of God’s essential character. God is unapproachably distant and yet intimately close. God is near as the air and high as the stars.

On the one hand, there is something unapproachably remote about God’s being. God is invisible and inscrutable and unknowable beyond the realms of space and time, above and beyond the 70 sextillion stars in only one of what might be multiple universes, and yet God is an intimate as the father or the mother who taught you to ride a bicycle and bandaged your knee when you fell off.

We can never know God as God is in God’s incomprehensible essence. We can never see God’s face. The Koran, Islam’s Holy Book, tells a story about Moses wanting to catch a glimpse of God’s face.

God wasn’t sure Moses was ready for it, so God showed Godself to a nearby mountain instead, which promptly disintegrated into a heap of powder and dust. It just went crashing down. And Moses fell down senseless too.  He decided he wasn’t quite ready to see God’s face.[3] We can never see God’s face, but we can speak God’s name.

Jesus says, God is Holy Father, and that name is a terse précis of the eternal paradox of God’s being, 3,000 years of Jewish-Christian theology in two words.

God is Holy: transcendent, set apart, far away, different, other. But God is also immanent: God is Father, and loves us as if we were God’s children, which we are.

We could never pledge our allegiance to a puny God who is not able to deliver us from evil, nor could we give our lives over to a remote, indifferent God who does not see every sparrow that falls.

A Time Magazine cover in December (December 7) declared 2020 to be the “Worst Year Ever.” So what do you think? What’s the verdict? Historians are having a blast rejecting that simple but provocative thesis. Not even close, they say.

The worst year in world history was 1348—the Black Death, 200 million dead. Second was 1944—the holocaust.

In U.S. history, 2020 was the eighth worst year ever, after 1968—riots and assassinations; 1918—Spanish flu; 1929—Stock market crash. The worst year ever in the United States was 1862; it’s hard to argue with that.[4]

It wasn’t a total loss. Here are some things I’m grateful for in the year just past.

Working from home: One father who saw way too little of his children before lockdown was working in his home office. His six-year-old daughter was right behind him attending first grade remotely.

She was learning to put numbers in order from smallest to greatest, and she was holding a pencil in one hand, her feet dangling from the chair short of the floor, and she was concentrating so hard, and so into it, her father remarked that he’d never seen his daughter quite like this. He never knew she was such an accomplished mathematician.[5]

Zoom: a relatively new technology; it just came out in 2013; it ain’t perfect, but what would we have done without it?

The 160 million Americans who voted.

Medical personnel, our skilled, caring, unflagging heroes.

Porch pirates in reverse. Teenagers who sneak groceries onto the porches of their vulnerable neighbors. Maybe we should call them The Porch Coast Guard.

Pandemic puppies, including Doogie, who came home with us exactly a year ago Tuesday.

The millions who peacefully protested violence against black lives.

The state and local election officials who knew that their only boss was the U.S. Constitution.

Pfizer and Moderna.

Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska.

Some day when the Creator calls me home, I’ll have some very pointed questions about life beneath the stars, but we have not been without benedictions from our Heavenly Father and Mother.

Wednesday is the Feast of the Epiphany, the celebration of God’s appearance to all the nations. The Magi who were among the first to witness God’s singular earthly incarnation knew that God is as high as the stars, so they looked to the night sky to guide them to their sacred destination. But when they finally arrived, they discovered that God is as near as the air, the son of a carpenter and his Palestinian peasant fiancée. Praise God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

[1]Paul Tillich, The Eternal Now (New York: Chas. Scribner’s Sons, 1963), p. 93.

[2]The New Yorker, November 12, 2012, 73.

[3]As related by Huston Smith, The World’s Religions (Harper San Francisco, 1991), pp. 236–237.

[4]Michael S. Rosenwald, “Was 2020 the Worst Year Ever? Historians Weigh in,” The Washington Post, December 30, 2020.

[5]Clint Edwards, “I’m a Working Dad. I’ve Never Spent so Much Time with my Kids, and It’s Wonderful,” The Washington Post, December 22, 2020.