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Thursday, June 23, 2016

Providence

Some who see the title for this inspirational piece might think I am writing something about the capital city of Rhode Island!  I could do that.  I lived in Boston for six years and was in Providence many times.  It is a fascinating city with a distinctive history of its own, even though it is a mere hour from Boston.  But this piece is not about Providence, RI.

Instead I want to share some thoughts about providence---a theological concept.  I know I usually don’t do too much with theology---at least, explicitly.  Basically, I am more interested in spirituality, but I recognize all spiritualities have some kind of theological expression.  This does not mean all spiritualities talk about God in some fashion.  Even Buddhism does not believe in a single, personal God the way many Jews, Christians and Muslims do.  But even those who don’t have a personal God have a sense of theology---an explanation of their fundamental principles.

Typically, the three Abrahamic faiths---Judaism, Christianity and Islam---do have some kind of God.  Of course, there are many ways to conceive of God, to describe God and to theologize about the Divine One.  When we talk about God, we necessarily are using symbols, metaphors, images, etc.  Even words themselves are symbols.  For example, we all agree to reference some feline animal when we use the three-letter word, cat.  Those three letters suggest a particular kind of animal.  No one thinks of an elephant when we hear “cat.”

This is a slow way of developing the context for the idea of providence.  Providence, as I want to use it, is a particular way of talking about how God is involved in the world---our world.  Of course, this assumes the God in whom I believe in somehow interested in and involved in the world.  Granted that it is theological assumption.  But spiritually speaking, I claim I have some experience that backs up that assumption---at least for me.

We get a good clue what providence means when we realize the verb is “provide.”  Providence is the result of someone providing.  When I see it this way, I realize that I, too, have been an agent of providence.  Every parent has been providential (the adjective).  You cannot bring a baby into your house without having to provide for the little one.  You feed her, change diapers and the list goes on and on!  We hear someone claim to be the “main provider.”  All this helps understand the meaning of providence.

With this we can now make a theological move.  We make what is called an analogy.  My role as a parent to my two daughters is an analogy to understand that is how God as Parent (Father or Mother) provides.  I think the metaphor of Father or Mother helps describe and understand the God in whom I believe.  To call these concepts metaphors does not mean I have to believe God literally is a Parent.  But God functions parentally---and that in a providential way.

I have a sense that God is somehow the creator of our world.  Personally, I am quite ok with understanding creation as evolution.  I don’t think God literally created our world in six days---six real days.  I also read the Genesis creation story metaphorically.  The writers of that text did not have the scientific sophistication we have today.  But those writers and I share the conviction that God is creative.  And I am the subject of that creativity.

What’s more, God is also providential.  God does not simply create, step back and say, “Good luck!”  The creative God is an involved, caring One.  God provides.  But like I know as an earthly parent, my kids did not always accept or appreciate my providing.  They had the freedom to say “no.”  Sometimes the look they gave me was “get lost!”  I suspect we do the same thing to the providential God.

And that is where the idea of providence is even more important to me.  I prefer that to the language of predestination.  God provides; God does not make or force.  God desires, allows, hopes that we do what is good and loving.  God wants the best for us, but too often we prefer our own egocentric, short-term goods and loves.  But God never gives up.  That is a theological assumption---but an important one for me.

Providence is always good news.  God never provides bad options or bad things for us---any more than a good parent would provide bad things.  This does not mean I won’t have some bad spots in life.  I can fail; I can be sad.  To be human is not to be perfect, but to be in process.  God honors that, but I am not sure God hopes for less than perfection.  And talking about perfection brings me to the last point.

I know in Greek the word we often translate as “perfect” can also be translated “finished” or “complete.”  That is where I see providence taking us---to becoming a finished person---a complete person.  Somehow death is part of the deal.  So providence clearly includes death---but maybe even more.  I am not worried; God provides.

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