All life is vocational. All life involves a dynamic call and response in which God, usually hidden in our unique personal journey, calls us, questions us, and challenges us through our particular gifts, family of origin, life and times, and encounters. A good life is guided by aspiration, commitment, and love.
I was blessed to have a loving father, who read with me every morning, played ball with me after school, and encouraged my education and professional life. I have tried to embody the call of my childhood in the integration of my personal and professional life. For me parenting and grandparenting is a vocation, involving protection, nurture, character-building, and love, for my own family, for the children of this church, and for children I’ll never meet. At a certain time of your life, you move from self-interest to selflessness, willing to give up your time, talent, and treasure – even your life – for the well-being of a child or grandchild who is truly bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh. In many ways, the relationship of parent and child is our primary example of selfless and sacrificial love.
At the heart of the Lord’s Prayer is Jesus’ invocation of God as Abba, a term used to describe the intimacy between father and child. The God Jesus prayed to is not distant and demanding, preoccupied with rules and regulations, ready to pounce on our slightest mistake. The God Jesus prayed to is like the best of parents – loving, patient, listening, and guiding, willing even to die for the well-being of the child.
In calling God “Abba”, Jesus raised the bar for our images of God and our images of parenting. A good parent aspires to be godlike in her or his loving and nurturing care for vulnerable and impressionable children because this is the way the God of the Universe behaves.
“Our Father.” The North African theologian Augustine asserted that God loves each of us as if there is only one of us. Intimacy is joined with universality. God’s love is a circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere, fully present to each of us, God loves all of us. Every child is loved, each child is cherished, all children are documented by their Heavenly Father. No exceptions.
Some have suggested that a better translation of “our Father” is “father of us all” – even the Roman soldier, even the woman caught in a compromising relationship, even the looked down upon Samaritan, or the scorned leper – all these are God’s children. All are loved by the “father of us all” who inspires us to love one another, especially those from whom we are alienated.
“Who art in heaven.” Now I don’t believe that Jesus’ invocation of heaven is intended to be a geographical description, but rather a way of describing God’s unique universality and ultimacy. God is not at our beck and call, though like a good parent God hears our prayers and responds lovingly. The intimate God is also the ultimate God, beyond anything we can control or fully imagine. In focusing on heaven, we orient our spiritual GPS in the right direction, discovering the right values and priorities, and the right path to wholeness for ourselves and others.
Historically, our concepts of God have vacillated between two poles – God as known and described by us and God as mysterious and beyond any words we can say. The God in heaven cannot be encompassed by human speech and symbol, church and ritual. God is not a male, God is beyond gender, and so may also be appropriately described as “Amma,” our loving mother. As the hymn says, we can bring many names to describe the good shepherd, rock of ages, light of the world, spirit of gentleness, majestic creator, and suffering savior. No one word can contain the God of this and every other planet, galaxy, and universe, whose creativity spans 13.7 billion years, and on to infinity in every direction. We can stammer with the author of Psalm 8 as we view the immensity of the universe and the grandeur of God, “What are we humans that you are mindful of us? Who are we that we matter to you?” And, with this same wordsmith, we can proclaim that the God beyond all things is within all things, creating us to be “a little less than the angels.” The infinite is the intimate, the universal is the incarnational.
Heaven is the great beyond that reminds us that God transcends our self-interest, moral categories, and national aspirations. Abraham Lincoln captured our sense of God’s ultimacy when he said, “Let us not pray that God be on our side, but that we be on God’s side.” In describing Aslan, the Lion King of the Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis noted that “Aslan is not safe, but he is good,” and in the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Aslan proves both his goodness and power by dying to save a wayward boy and then rising to vanquish the powers of darkness.
Nations rise and fall. Kings and Oligarchs, thin-skinned demagogues, come and go, strutting on the stage of life, but God’s word endures forever, and God’s vision calls us to question the morality of every nation and asks us to claim our role as God’s image by going beyond self-interest to world loyalty. The one whose eye is on the sparrow has the whole world in his hands and loves us fiercely with mother’s love. “Heaven” is our destination, not as geography, but as our aspiration to bring heaven to earth and put God’s way ahead of our small-minded ethics and politics.
God loves this world as a parent loves a child and we love God by loving the world God created and still creates with each new day. Loving God, we love the world rightly, and go beyond our need to dominate, control, or diminish; loving the world, we take our role, following our Loving Parent, as God’s companions in healing the earth.
While this one passage could take all summer to unpack, let me add one more way of looking at our divine parent, the father and mother of us all. Good parenting counsels and guides, and protects, but it also listens and empathizes. Alfred North Whitehead once asserted that God is the fellow sufferer who understands. Two millennia before Whitehead, Jesus said that as you’ve done unto the least of these, you have done unto me. What we do matters to God. God is empathetic, the great heart of the universe is touched by all things. A good parent’s heart breaks at the sight of a profoundly ill child or a child dealing with issues of mental or emotional health or addiction or a child intentionally separated from her parents. God feels our pain more than we do; God embraces our pain and rejoices in our joy. God is the heart of the universe. And, God needs us, to be partners in bringing beauty to this world. Do something beautiful for God. Give God a beautiful world, not an ugly one, for our loving parent needs children of compassion and purpose, who – within every daily task – reflect our parent’s love and share our parent’s vision of healing the world.
Abba, Amma, the beloved parent of us all, the parent of our Savior, with whom we pray, “Our Heavenly Parent, let me be like you, loving and large-spirited, willing to suffer to heal the world.”