January 30, 2011

“Thy Will Be Done”

Matthew 6:9-10b & Job 38:1-7

Today is the fifth of a ten-week sermon series exploring the rich and multifaceted Lord’s Prayer.

To Listen To this week’s sermon:  110130 Sermon Podcast

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Rev. Allen V. Harris

In his groundbreaking book, Why Christianity Must Change Or Die Bishop John Shelby Spong tells the very painful and personal story of his wife’s cancer diagnosis.  At the time, Spong was the Episcopal Bishop for the diocese of Newark, New Jersey and a very prominent person.  News of his wife’s diagnosis, therefore, traveled quickly and widely throughout the broader church, and even beyond.  He began receiving word that many people, most of whom neither he nor his wife knew, were praying for Joan.  This brought comfort and strength to the family.  He also learned that, much like those placed our prayer list, his wife was on the register of intercessions in many of the churches of his diocese.

Bishop John Shelby Spong

After it became clear that Joan had gone into remission, and would have several more years of active and full life, Rev. Spong began to hear folks take credit that “their prayers had worked.”  This troubled him, and eventually troubled him deeply.  Suppose, he thought, that at the exact same time the wife of a sanitation worker in Newark was diagnosed with the same dread disease, and suppose they had a small family and tight circle of friends.  Suppose, even, that they were not part of a faith community, and so that few, or even no one, was praying for her recovery.  Does God truly respond to the numbers of prayers offered in order to grant healing, or any other request?  Does God react to the quality of prayer, or the situation of the one praying? Is God either some kind of heavenly politician who checks the poll numbers or a marketing strategist with a Nielson’s Rating Box in each home and church?

No, Spong finally concluded.  The number, or even intensity of prayer cannot have any effect on God’s desire nor ability to respond to a need.  Otherwise, God would be purely capricious and erratic, and would have “a value system shaped by human importance and worldly standards of social elitism.” (1) Spong’s understanding of God’s will for his wife and for the sanitation worker’s wife could have nothing to do with prayer, or prayer would simply be a horse race or political contest to see who gets the most and the best prayers said for themselves, their loved ones, and their favorite causes.

But Spong did not give up prayer, and, in fact, rededicated himself to praying.  He just began to understand prayer differently, and calls other faithful Christians to reinterpret prayer in order to be faithful and responsible to God’s will in our lives.  In an exquisite paragraph in his book, he writes,

‘Prayer is that experience of meeting God.’  Prayer is the conscious human intention to relate to the depths of life and love and thereby to be an agent of the creation of wholeness in another.  Prayer is the offering of our life and our love through the simple action of sharing our friendship and our acceptance.  Prayer is my being calling to the being of another and thus giving that other the courage to dare, to risk, and to be in a whole new way, perhaps inside a whole new dimension of life.  Prayer is also my active opposition to those prejudices and stereotypes that diminish the personhood and the being of another.  Prayer is taking the proper political action to build a society in which opportunities can be equalized and no one will be forced to accept the status quo as his or her destiny.  Prayer is the active recognition that there is a sacred core in every person that must not be violated.  Prayer is the facing of life’s exigencies, which involves us all in the realization that we live subject to a wide array of circumstances over which we have no control.  Prayer is not cowering before these circumstances, but rather being willing to meet them with courage.  Prayer is the ability to embrace the fragility of life and to transform it even as we are victimized or killed by it.  Prayer involves shedding the delusion that we are at the center of the universe or that our lives are so important to some external deity that this deity will intervene to protect us.  Prayer is a call out of childish dependency into spiritual maturity.

And Spong concludes this amazing soliloquy on prayer with, “So, praying and living deeply, richly, and fully have become for me almost indistinguishable.  Perhaps… this is what the apostle Paul meant when he said, ‘Pray without ceasing’ (1 Thess. 5:17)”(2)

Now, why, you ask, am I spending so much time talking about prayer when today’s topic is the line from the Lord’s Prayer which reads, “Thy Will Be Done?”  Because, as I hope Bishop Spong’s dilemma points out, the central place where our understanding of God’s will is played out is in our prayers.  There is no clearer, and perhaps more important, place where our understanding of God’s will is manifest than in our prayers.  How we pray both exemplifies and shapes our conception of God’s will.

This becomes wildly evident in the book of the Bible that tells the story of one man’s confrontation with the will of God: Job.  It tells the story of a deeply faithful person whose life is torn asunder by calamity and misfortune of biblical proportions.  Prayer is central to the book of Job, not only in Job’s own communication with the divine, but in the advice and counsel of his advisors.  In an attempt to make sense out of what was happening to Job and his family, which is to say to try in discern the will of God, Job’s counselors blame Job every which way but loose in order to make sense of what they understood God “did” to him.  And Job, remaining faithful, even if bitter and broken, to the end, tries to make sense of it himself.

And then, in one of the most profound segments in the history of literature, God is heard responding:

Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind:

‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?

Gird up your loins like a man,

I will question you, and you shall declare to me.

‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?

Tell me, if you have understanding.

Who determined its measurements—surely you know!

Or who stretched the line upon it?

On what were its bases sunk,

or who laid its cornerstone

when the morning stars sang together

and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy? (Job 38:1-7)

God’s response may feel like a “shut up and accept it” speech like one might hear from a principal, a parent, or a boss.  Sort of a “I brought you into the world and I sure as heck can take you out of it!”  It is anything but that.  It is, much like Spong’s response, a way of saying, “Stop trying to make sense of this life by attributing every thing that happens to you, or doesn’t for that matter, to God.”

Why do we do this?  Clearly, if Job and Job’s companions were struggling with what God’s will was, and thousands of years later Bishop Spong is, too, then this dilemma is very much a human struggle.  I think it comes fundamentally from the awareness that we were created finite, limited, earth-bound.  And, being human, we cannot help but think of anything other than what our own experience has been and what our own imaginations can envision.

To put it a bit academically, we anthropomorphize God.  Which is to say, we cannot imagine God acting or responding differently than we, ourselves act or respond.  We’ve taken Genesis 1’s proclamation, “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness” (1:26) and made it literal.  Oh, we work hard not to think of God physically like us, but we are still quite absolute that God thinks and responds like us.  What we don’t realize, much like Job didn’t fully realize, is that not only does God not look like you and me, God doesn’t act, think, rationalize, love, hate, behave, ponder, cogitate, elucidate, or even agitate like we do.  The will of God is not like our will, and we should be thankful for it.

So, what does that leave us?  Do we just throw up our hands and say, “God, have at it!”  No.  Not at all.  For one thing, we have this amazing history of persons of good will (and a few of not so good will) trying to live fully and completely in God.  And we can learn from that history! Scripture gives us an amazing testament as to how to, as Bishop Spong put it, “live deeply, richly, and fully.” You might say, to live like Jesus did.  Jesus did not have to fully understand God’s will to be so convinced he wanted to live in it fully that he would yield himself to this will. Jesus, in the Garden of Gethsemane, prayed to God, “if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” (Matt. 26:42)  Based on the history of God’s people, and his own experience, that God’s will was as much about God’s love as anything else, Jesus gave himself to it.  At his most defining moment, Jesus let go of his need to understand God’s will and, instead, to simply be consumed by it.

So, what are we to do with prayer?  What are we to do with scriptures such as James 5:13-16 where we read, “Are any among you suffering?  They should pray.  Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise.  Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord.  The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven.  Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.  The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.”

Well, we should not ignore such scriptures nor deny them.  If we have come to understand that God’s will is not our will, and that God doesn’t even approach a given situation like we would, but as God does, then we can begin to see that our job is to simply “live deeply, richly, fully” and to allow that deep, rich, and full life to be connected to and a resource for others.  Spong later writes, “Prayer is that process of being open to all that life can be and then of acting to bring that fullness to pass.  Prayer is entering into the pain or joy of another person.  Prayer is what I am doing when I live wastefully, passionately, and wondrously and invite others to do so with me or even because of me… So praying can never be separated from acting.” (3)

This is it!  James had it right when he said the Elders of the church should be the center-point for prayer, because the Elders of the church should be those that model living life deeply, richly, fully and acting as if that kind of life is available to everyone!  The prayer of a righteous one is effective not because that righteous one has some kind of red telephone to God, but because someone who is righteous is someone who lives life deeply, richly, and fully, and acts upon just such a life!

If you hear some of Rev. Spong’s language as familiar, you should.  Every Sunday I offer a benediction that was inspired by this very book.  My benediction is one attempt at helping myself, and perhaps those of you who listen in on me, to get in touch with the will of God.  We must do this, primarily, by letting go of our need for God to behave like a human being, and to trust that this God is calling us to live life deeply, richly, and fully.

What is the will of God?

The will of God, as the Source Of Life, is to go and live life fully!  The will of God, as the Essence of Love, is to go and love wastefully!  The will of God, as the Ground Of Our Being, is to go and have the courage to be ourselves.  THAT’S prayer.  THAT’S the will of God.

And “Thy Will Be Done!”


(1) John Shelby Spong, Why Christianity Must Change Or Die: A Bishop Speaks To Believers In Exile (HarperCollins, San Francisco, 1998) 228 pages, pg. 142.

(2) Ibid, pp. 143-144

(3) Ibid, p. 147

(4) The language of God as the “Ground Of Our Being” is directly from Paul Tillich and was most fully expounded upon in his Systemic Theology, Vols. 1-3.  London: Nisbit, 1953-1964.