Who Art in Heaven

 Heaven is not a place, and yet it is a “place.” It appears in the first sentence of Scripture: In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. But Genesis, famously, goes on to give its attention to the earth—leaving heaven, as it were, hanging. It makes an appearance on the second “day,” when God stretches the firmament (which seems to be a sort of transparent but firm dome) to separate the waters underneath it from waters above it and calls the firmament heaven. This firmament ultimately allows there to be an open space which birds can fly in and fill, on the fifth “day,” and it is a place for the lights to dwell—the sun, moon, and stars, made on the fourth “day.” But the attention of the chapter is clearly on the earth, on the things God has created and their orders and places. And it is not entirely clear that the firmament as “heaven” is the same as the “heaven” named in the first verse.
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    However we take the details, it is clear that heaven is not a place where creatures can go. All creatures are either on the land or in the seas or in the air in the space below the firmament. The stars are in the heaven, and they of course are created, but they are never above, as it were, the firmament, which seems to be like a floor of heaven. Is there a “space” above the firmament, a “space” that we might call “heaven” (in the sense of Gen. 1:1)? If so, to repeat, it would be no space for creatures. What then would it be? To my mind, the best answer is to say that heaven is a “place” for God.
    Why does God need a place?
    Well, he seems to have wanted one. But that is to ask, what do we mean when address God, in the prayer that Jesus taught us, as one who is “in heaven”?
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    The big point of Genesis 1 is that there is nothing divine except God; everything else is created by him; he alone is no creature. If “heaven” is a “place” for God and not for creatures, it can have no physical coordinates. Heaven touches the created realm, N. T. Wright suggests, “tangentially,” meaning that it is adjacent to every space in the universe without itself being a place.
    It seems that heaven is a “space” that God creates in order to be near his creation. It’s as if Genesis 1:1 wants to say, “In the beginning God created everything, and he also created a way that he could be available to everything. He created the earth (the physical world, the place where creatures live) and he created heaven (a ‘place’ in which he could dwell).”
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    When we pray to God as one who is “in heaven,” we acknowledge that in any moment of our lives, wherever we might be, God is right there. He is available. He can be spoken to; we can ask him for things; we can turn our hearts to him.
    God is not a thing in the world. We don’t count him along with other things. At church last Sunday, you didn’t add an extra to the attendance number on account of God being there (or if you did, you shouldn’t have!). When my son was visiting me, there were two people in my apartment, not three. Things we count are creatures. God is not a creature.
    But this means something deeply mysterious about God. He is neither in the universe, nor is he outside it. There is no space in the universe that he occupies, but he is also not in some “exterior” space. And that means he is not far away. God is closer to you than anything else could be. He is closer than your next heartbeat.
    God is not in my apartment, but he is not outside my apartment either. He is in heaven, which means he is available to me or anyone who is in my apartment.
    It’s fantastic and awesome to realize this, and to pray it. The things of this world have been so made that, wherever we are, whatever is happening, God is neither near nor far. He is not next door, not under the bed, not down the street, not on the other side of the ocean, not somewhere in outer space. He is in heaven, and that means he is at hand. Available.
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    Out & About. This Sunday, March 31, I am to preach at Incarnation’s traditional services, which are at 7:30, 9, and 11:15 a.m.
    The following Sunday, April 7, I will lead a “Good Books & Good Talk” seminar on One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. This short novel was allowed to be published during the Soviet period, despite its depiction of the harsh cruelties (natural and manmade) of imprisonment in what came to be known as the Gulag. Nonetheless, it is a deeply hopeful book. If you read it, you are welcome to join the conversation, from 6 to 7:30 p.m.

 

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.
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    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.
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    There’s a lot more to the prayer. But merely two words of it, you see, can take us into far-reaching marvels.    
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    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.

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The Rev. Canon Victor Lee Austin. Ph.D., is the Theologian-in-Residence for the diocese and is the author of several books including, "Friendship: The Heart of Being Human" and "A Post-Covid Catechesis.: