I would guess that many of you learned the Lord’s Prayer at an early age. Maybe you learned it with different language. I have a decorative piece of pottery that was always on my dresser when I was young. It has the old language – “Our Father who art in heaven.” It, however, is not the version I learned in church. I learned to say debts and debtors whereas it says trespasses and those who trespass against us.
The Lord’s Prayer has been translated (with variations) into about two thousand languages that represent about 98% of the human population. Jesus gave this prayer to his disciples. Perhaps they had seen Jesus’ prayer practices and wanted to know how they themselves could pray. Jesus cited prayer practices that were not helpful. Ellsworth Kalas quotes Matthew’s gospel, the lead in to the prayer, “In your prayers do not go babbling like the heathen, who imagine that the more they say the more likely they are to be heard.” Yet, the familiarity of this prayer invites a kind of misuse. It is often said without thinking. We are lulled into a complacency by its familiarity. The words come quickly –not even requiring us to think. Martin Luther said of this prayer that it became the church’s greatest martyr because it has been tortured and abused.
So, I thought it might be good to look again at this prayer during the season of Lent.
“Our Father in heaven, hallowed is your name.” So the prayer begins.
Kalas points out that the prayer begins with relationship. We are in a relationship with God. The Aramaic, which would have been Jesus’ language, is not necessarily male. The beginning of this prayer could easily be translated “Our Divine Parent.” I find that little piece of information freeing.
I mentioned, a few weeks ago, a young boy who found the idea of God as father terrifying – so, the teacher suggested he pray, “Our Aunt.” It is true that we use our human experiences to inform our understanding of God as Father. But, that could work out the other way, also. Perhaps we can begin to see that calling God Father can inform what human fathers are to be.
Kalas points to the story of the prodigal son – or, as Ken Bailey says we should hear it, the story of the father with two ungrateful sons. In that story, we have a powerful image of who a father is to be. Ken Bailey says this image of father breaks every convention of Jesus’ day. He welcomes the prodigal son with a feast. He tells the older son, who shames him just as the younger did, that he could have a party whenever he wanted it. This father forgives, extravagantly!
Does this mean that “Father” is the only way we can address God? No. The Biblical imagery for God is diverse, expansive. God is the mother eagle, or the mother hen. God is the creator, defender, deliverer, protector, ruler, sustainer, provider, sovereign. God is Love. God is a fortress, light, a rock, strength, shield.
It may be that we need to diversify our language for God. Kalas noted that our culture likes “chumminess.” The term “Father” invites a loving familiarity, but should not invite a presumptuous familiarity.
When I was in seminary, people were beginning to talk about the limitations of human language when applied to God. I quickly learned that papers in which I referred to God as he would be marked with red pencil. We had to learn to refer to God in gender neutral ways. The easiest way to do that was by writing God instead of he. It was awkward. Sentence structure was difficult. It didn’t flow.
But, one day, as I was writing a paper, using the expected protocol, I had an overwhelming sense of the otherness of God. God was transcendent, above and beyond our human categories. So, even as we use the word “Father,” we are to remember that this “Father God” is not limited by our human understanding of fathers. This God transcends that.
We are reminded of that in the latter part of this opening phrase: “hallowed is your name.” Kalas describes this as speaking with awe. There is a tension between speaking of God the Father – the familiar one who loves us and speaking of the God of heaven – the holy One, the Other. Theologians speak of this as the issues of immanence and transcendence. Sometimes we acknowledge God who is as close as our breath. But we have to remember that God is beyond us. We do not have God in our own corner, serving us. So, this prayer, in its opening, reminds us of this tension that is part of our faith.
Before we get to the word Father, we have the very first word of this prayer, “Our.” “Our Father…” Jesus did not teach his disciples to pray, “My Father.” He taught them, and us, “Our Father.” We pray to “our Father.” Kalas says we are not alone. We are, at the very least, with the one who taught us this prayer, the one who called God Abba, Daddy. Jesus prays this prayer with us. We have become his sisters and brothers – so we share one Father.
The word “our” calls us beyond ourselves. It calls us to recognize the world – God’s beloved world to whom and for whom Jesus came. This cannot be a selfish prayer. I am reminded of Bonhoeffer who wrote that we pray with an awareness of those who stand before Christ with us.
Christianity is never a me and my God kind of faith. It’s a we and our God faith. And what “our” means should be stretched—always. We are frequently tempted to narrow the focus of God’s concern. We are frequently tempted to claim God and God’s favor for ourselves or for a small group of those we have deemed worthy. I am uncomfortable when someone or a team prays for God to give them victory – or credits God with the victory after a win. God is claimed to be on one side and not on the other. "Our Father in heaven…” Jesus taught us to pray. Kalas says that God wants the entire human race to seek God. We remember “for God so loved the world…” Praying “Our Father” reminds us to look beyond ourselves – to remember Jesus and the entire human race.
As we begin a Lenten journey, I invite you to focus, this week, on this opening phrase, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed is your name.” Explore it. Deepen your awareness of it as you use it in prayer. Savor each word – our, Father, heaven, hallowed. Accept the tension that is in this opening – remembering the God who loves us dearly as the father loved the prodigal son and the older, resentful one and remembering the God who is beyond our knowing, before whom we bow down in awe, with fear and trembling.