Our Father

 It takes me ten minutes or more, these days, to say the Lord’s Prayer. And often I run out of time and have to rush the end. This prayer, commanded and taught by Jesus, just keeps going deeper.
    Consider only the first two words, “our Father.” To say those words is to express a mystery beyond human the grasp of the human mind. We fail to be sensitive to this mystery because the words are familiar, even ordinary: people have been saying these words for centuries. Yet they bespeak a profound mystery. Simply to talk to God is to do something that it seems should be impossible. God is the author of our being, and characters do not speak to their author!
    Recently I read again The Comforters, a novel by Muriel Spark. There is a character in that novel who realizes she is a character in a novel, and she doesn’t like it. She feels it takes away her freedom. But the reader can see a truth that the author hints at, that the freedom of a character is not diminished by the fact that she is a character. We have heard authors tell us that their characters take on lives of their own. It seems to be a common experience of good fiction writing. Characters can surprise their authors in what they do, whether they be aware or unaware that they are characters. In a similar way, we are free.
    Yet we can talk to our author. That in itself is amazing.
    But there is more. We are taught to speak to our author as “Father” by Jesus for whom God really was his Father. Somehow Jesus has invited us into his family. We get to use the same words that Jesus used. To be part of the family means that we are brothers and sisters of Christ.
    When I start this prayer, I am at once reminded that Jesus is my brother.

    And there is still more. We have that plural word, “our.” He isn’t my Father only, nor is Jesus brother only to me, but there is a group of us. Who knows how big that group is? It includes everyone who ever says or has said (or will say) this prayer.
    Which is to say, right at the start I am reminded that I never pray alone. Whenever I start praying, I am invoking a vast company of fellow-prayers.
    There’s a lot more to the prayer. But merely two words of it, you see, can take us into far-reaching marvels.    
    Out & About. Sunday, March 24, is the spring theology lecture, on what good is suffering: 6 p.m. at Incarnation, 3966 McKinney Ave., Dallas. In the church, with reception following.
    I am to preach at Incarnation’s traditional services on March 31: 7:30, 9, and 11:15 a.m.
    Sunday, April 7, will be the next “Good Books & Good Talk” seminar. Our text: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Anyone who reads the book is welcome to the conversation at 6 p.m.

Theology of Suffering

I’m preparing for my spring theology lecture—its theme is the theology of suffering—and it occurs to me that I should see how the Bible uses the word “suffer.” In the King James (Authorized) Version, you get 38 uses in the Gospels. But in the English Standard Version, there are only 16. There seem to be more than twice as much suffering in the King James. What gives?
    The language changes. “Suffer” used to mean “allow it to happen.” To take the canonically first instance, Jesus says to John the Baptist, who has protested that he is not worthy to baptize Jesus: “Suffer it to be so now.” That becomes “Let it be so now.” Many of the changes are of this sort.
    It’s interesting: to suffer used to be a more inclusive concept. One could suffer things that were not unpleasant, but perhaps merely irregular or a stretching of our preconceptions. John the Baptist suffers no pain when he baptizes Jesus, but he does set aside his preconceptions of authority and rank in allowing himself to be the one—in suffering himself to be the one—who pours the water over the savior of the world.
    There’s another famous utterance of Jesus’: “Suffer little children to come unto me” (Luke 18:16). This has become “Let the children come to me.” Here the disciples’ view is being expanded: Jesus wants the children to come to him, despite societal views of propriety, or the disciples’ view of his proper audience. Jesus has a point to make. For us to understand what Jesus is about, we have to “suffer”—change our views, and allow—children to come unto him.
    By contrast, there is one instance where the modern translation introduces the word “suffering” when it was not there earlier. It’s the centurion who has a sick servant (Matt. 8:6), who says in the KJV, “Lord, my servant lieth at home sick of the palsy, grievously tormented,” but in the modern translation, “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly.” To be tormented is now, simply, to suffer.
    It’s important, I think, for us to allow the older breadth of the meaning of suffering to reenter our consciousness. We think of suffering as pain, as painful harm that may be physical or mental. We are tempted by our society to think of suffering as something that has no purpose. The older language sees suffering as a broader conception, embracing not only pain and affliction and injustice, but also a patience, a receptivity to something new, a stretching of ourselves into such new possibilities as Jesus brings to us.
    What are the possibilities in suffering? Allow a child to speak.
    As I was writing this very column (in a restaurant), there was a boy nearby in a high chair. He came over to me as his family was leaving. Beautifully verbal, he wanted to say hi. He asked me how I was doing. I looked up from my computer and greeted him, and said I was fine. I added that I liked his bright green fleece, that it was very bright. He said something I couldn’t get, and then, “Have you had a bad day?”
    This little boy! I smiled: no, I said, it’s been a very good day. And I’m delighted to see you.
    This made him happy. His parents came and explained that through their dinner he had seen me working seriously at my computer and he was concerned. I looked so serious, I must have had a bad day!
    His name was Jack. I said Jack, I’m very glad you came to speak to me. Because, if I had had a bad day, you would have just make it all better!
    He left, happy, waving at me as they went out the door, yet saying something serious about having a good day tomorrow also.
    Here I am, writing on suffering. “Suffer little children”—indeed! That intuition of the child. That desire for connection. That unmediated openness to possibility.
    Suffering embraces that too. Suffering embraces all.

    Out & About. Wednesday, March 20, I am speaking at the lenten program of Trinity Cathedral in Columbia, South Carolina. Details: https://www.trinitysc.org/lent
    Sunday, March 24, is the spring theology lecture, on what good is suffering: 6 p.m. at Incarnation, 3966 McKinney Ave., Dallas. In the church, with reception following.

    Sunday, April 7, will be the next “Good Books & Good Talk” seminar. Our text: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Anyone who reads the book is welcome to the conversation at 6 p.m.
    And here’s an article about the building in which took place the Christmas dinner of Joyce’s “The Dead.” The link was sent to me by someone who attended a reconstruction of that party (called a “dead dinner”) and then spent the night in the rooms above! A very interesting piece of recent history: James Joyce’s ‘Dead’ house on Usher’s Island goes on sale



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The Rev. Canon Dr. Victor Lee Austin is the Theologian-in-Residence for the diocese and is the author of several books including, "Losing Susan: Brain Disease, the Priest's Wife, and the God who Gives and Takes Away."