Our Father (who art) in heaven
My next meditation on the Lord’s Prayer opens onto a theologically rich, but equally complex, word: Heaven. What might it mean to affirm that God is “in heaven”?
I am not at pains to pursue the idea of heaven, at least here, with respect to a human after-life. Instead, I want to focus on what it means to connect God to the heavenly realm.
To start, I don’t believe that this phrase necessarily leads us to the “other-worldly” worries of the heaven-averse. The prayer does not begin “Our Father who art only in heaven.” I have heard the lament, and maybe you have to, that “so and so is so heavenly-minded he is of no earthly good.” Praying to God in heaven does not necessarily promote that kind of attitude and posture which downplays the importance of the very world we live in.
Faith in Jesus Christ as the “Word made flesh” (see John 1:14) should curb any fears that affirming God in heaven must only devolve into star-gazing. The reason is not only that God calls all creation, including humanity, good (Genesis 1); but also that God took on human form, “dwelt among us,” crystallizing for us the value and worth of material existence despite its enduring difference from God. The created, earthly order, however sinful and fallen it became and remains, is not fleetingly valuable to God, but eternally valuable: valuable enough to be redeemed and reconciled in Jesus Christ. In other words, God in heaven does not lead us away from the created order as if our Christian faith translates into hunkering down and leaving the dynamics of this world to the devil. Christian faith does not mean leaving our “groaning creation” (Romans 8:22) behind to be destroyed by the forces of environmental degradation and unbridled human power.
Rather, God in heaven, but not only in heaven, leaves open God caring for us and our world even though we remain outside God’s own realm. More to the point, I believe this means that God does not call us out of the created order but into it more fully, more faithfully, more deeply. I would suggest that God calls us into politics, our communities, education and the wider interactions that (inescapably) mark our lives. Affirming God’s place in heaven must not mean that we anchor all our hope in a fantasy world entirely disconnected from the one in which we live, work, play, and struggle.
So, then, if praying to Our Father, who art in heaven, does not mean ignoring the created order and all the issues confronting us in our day and age; what does it mean? I would suggest that praying to a God who resides in heaven implies an important difference, a difference that makes a difference, between God and the created order. By affirming God in heaven we are affirming a beyond, a hitherto unachieved fullness that tugs on who we are and what we are up to. There is a “more” to life; a more filled with God’s own life that is opened up to us by the faith of Jesus Christ. We take part in that more, that promised fullness, by our connection to God through the Word made flesh.
So, this prayer reminds us we are not simply celebrating human or material existence as it stands. That would leave the suffering of life empty and the evil forces at work in our world to triumph. This prayer does not let us get away with merely patting ourselves on the back as if God can be reduced to human life without remainder or simply boxed into the material world. Instead, by praying to God in heaven, we are brought into a dynamic in the here and now that moves toward who we can become and what we can do in relation to God.
By God remaining different from us and our created order, we allow God to move us in more full, life-deepening directions. We are not complacent with the workings of the world or where we are in life. Instead, we trust God in heaven to continue transforming us, and through us all of created existence. This divine difference drives an openness in us and makes possible the work of the Spirit in a land and people still aching.
So may we be bold to pray “Our Father who art in heaven,” affirming heaven as the realm where God remains different from us. And yet may our eyes be opened to what that means for the realm in which we find ourselves: not less engagement, but more; not pulling out but going in; not hiding away but standing firmly within. Only then can this prayer begin with God in heaven and continue in earnest, “thy Kingdom come, thy Will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”