Thursday, December 20, 2012
Prayer, Newtown, Special Providence and Reinhold Niebuhr
When I was a little boy my mother taught us a bed-time prayer which my sister and I said every night:
Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
The Lord go with me through the night,
And keep me safe till morning light.
In the more common, older and much scarier version of that prayer, the last two lines are:
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.
I’m glad Mom gave us the revised version. I can’t imagine teaching a child to say the original.
The scarier version dates from a time when little children did sometimes die in the night from a host of deadly childhood diseases which have mostly been eliminated over the last century. Today our children are safe from those deadly diseases because scientists have discovered vaccinations and medicines that are truly miraculous. Our medical and scientific progress is (I believe) part of what God is doing in the world. It is part of God’s continuing creation
Today we have come to expect that for our children, safety is the norm. And death and disease are rare. At least they are rare among the developed nations of the world. It is easy for us to forget that in other parts of the world children continue to die of disease and malnutrition at a rate that makes what happened in Newtown little more than a blip in the statistics.
We expect our children to be safe, and there is nothing wrong with that. All children ought to be safe. And safety is what every parent wants for his or her child.
But the biblical promise is not safety. The promise is that God will not leave us. Or to put it differently, in the context of my bed-time prayer, “safe” meant “safe in God’s care.”
One of the most cherished misunderstandings of biblical faith is the doctrine of “Special Providence.” We want to believe that God loves us more and protects us more than others. Special Providence promises that God cares for me, and for my family and loved ones, in a special and unique way. Of course, that is true in the sense that each of us has a unique experience of God’s care. But as Jesus said, the sun shines and the rain falls, on the just and the unjust, and God’s love is there for everyone.
In a radio sermon preached in 1952, Reinhold Niebuhr said that for many people, believing in God means “that that we have found a way to the ultimate source and end of life that gives us, against all the chances and changes of life, some special security and some special favor.” As an example, he speaks of the prayers “that many a mother with a boy in Korea must pray, ‘A thousand at thy side and 10,000 at thy right hand, let no evil come to my boy.’”
For the mother or father with a child in danger, that is the most natural prayer in the world and it is the deepest desire of our hearts. Yet in the end it is impossible. As Niebuhr explains, “The Christian faith believes that beyond, within and beyond, the tragedies and the contradictions of history we have laid hold upon a loving heart, and the proof of whose love, on the one hand, is the impartiality toward all of his children and, secondly, a mercy which transcends good and evil.”
The promise of Christian faith is not that God will grant us a special exemption from life’s hardships, or give us a special reward for our virtue, but that at the center of life there is a loving heart, which will be with us now and forever.