Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Rescuing the Lord’s Prayer from Sentimentality

First, a word of explanation: I use DVD movies in 30-minute segments to distract me while I daily exercise my creaky body on my creakier classic Nordic Track ski machine.

On a recent Saturday morning, I finished watching a vampire movie (or what seemed like a parody of one) and began watching Ken Curtis’s Reflections on the Lord’s Prayer for People with Cancer.

The contrasts between the two movies are many, but I want to focus on a few important things. In the vampire movie (as in all vampire movies) Christian symbols like the cross and holy water are treated as magical talismans against the evil power of the vampires. In some vampire lore, you can destroy one of those undead bloodsuckers by holding up a crucifix and reciting the Lord’s Prayer. These are regarded as potent weapons, but not for any particular reason. They are on the same level as garlic and sunlight as tools for defeating vampires.

Curtis, the founder of Christian History magazine, doesn’t want us to think of the Lord’s Prayer as a talisman—as something that, if we keep repeating it, would magically keep the cancer at bay. Instead, he treats the Lord’s Prayer as one of God’s ways of helping us see the world differently, see it through God’s eyes. When we understand in our depths that we are commanded to address God as “our Father,” understand deeply that God is our Father, we see the world differently precisely because we know we are not alone.

The classic vampire movie will include at least one scene in which the potential victim is isolated, caught alone in a dark alley or dank cavern or some other place where her screams will not be heard as she comes face to face with the thing that threatens to drain her life from her. Cancer is a vampire that catches us vulnerable and alone. It drains away our life and eats away at us.

In the classic vampire tale, there is also a rescue. At the crucial moment when the vampire is about to feed on his victim, the hero arrives, armed with knowledge and a crucifix and holy water. The message is this: If you’re alone, the vampire will get you. But if you’re with the hero, you’ll be safe.

Curtis wants us to know we’re not alone, that we’re not waiting for the hero to arrive, but that the rescuer is always with us. And we see that by seeing the world through the words of the Lord’s Prayer.

Near the end of his life, when cancer was eating at his pancreas, Bob Webber once again wrote about the importance of seeing the world in the framework of God’s story, not our own. The point is explicit in the title of Who Gets to Narrate the World? (IVP, 2008). But the same point runs through all his writings. Whether he is writing about worship or spirituality or evangelism or theology, Bob stressed that in a properly conceived Christian life, we don’t read God’s story through the lens of our own, but vice versa.

Here for example, is how he put it in The Divine Embrace (Baker, 2006). The fundamental error in medieval mysticism occurred when the focus shifted from God to self.

Spirituality, which was once a contemplation of God’s saving acts, now contemplated the self and the interior life. What was once a journey into God became a journey into self. … [S]pirituality now focused on the experience that occurs inside ‘my story.’ … God’s cosmic story of redemption was exchanged for the drama of redemption that takes place within me, which is different from witnessing to God’s saving acts, which embrace me and I in turn embrace. [51]

Curtis makes the same point about the relationship between our story and God’s. He shows his viewers a Tom Clancy novel. Here’s a 1200-page novel, he says. He rips out a page and holds it up to the camera. This is your life, your story. You can tell some things about the larger story from it, but you can’t really make sense of them unless you have read the whole novel.

Your story only makes sense when you understand it as part of God’s story, as part of his plan to extend his rule over on everything in the cosmos.

While standing on the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem, Curtis highlights the radical nature of praying for God’s kingdom to come. In the section of the video titled “The Prayer That Could Get You Killed,” he says:

This prayer for God’s kingdom to come and his will to be done is nothing less than subversive. … Think of the implications in Jesus’ time. And incidentally, they’re just as incendiary today. The Roman Empire … ruled with an iron fist. For a peasant carpenter from up in Galilee to come here and teach his followers to look and pray for another kingdom, that could easily be seen as seditious and treasonous.

Well, not just “seen” as seditious. It was and continues to be seditious and treasonous, as the early Christian martyrs found out.

A few other things I appreciated about Ken’s video:

* He stressed the communal nature of the Lord’s Prayer—both its history as a communal prayer and the implications of the first person plurals in the prayer itself: "Give us ... Forgive us ... Deliver us ..." We’re not in this (the cancer) alone, but can have others interceding with us.

* He chose to shoot the “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us” segment of the video in front of the infamous security barrier that walls out Palestinian terrorists along with all the productive Palestinian workers and former Jerusalem residents who need to commute regularly from Palestinian territory into Israel. The wall is a potent symbol of the enmity that can only be healed by the mutual forgiveness the prayer teaches us.

Kudos to Ken Curtis for producing a video meditation on the Lord’s Prayer that taps into its revolutionary nature. Cancer sufferers (for whom he produced the video) and all the rest of us do not need to sentimentalize these familiar words. We need to feel the radical intimacy with which Jesus framed the “Our Father.” We need to see the grand subversive vision embodied in praying for God’s rulership. We need to experience the humility that can lead to restored relationships. It’s a grand prayer, and Ken has helped to rescue it from sentimentality and familiarity.

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Don’t forget to register for the Ancient Evangelical Future Conference, October 9-11, 2008.

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