Wednesday, June 28, 2006

our father: a reflection on the lord's prayer

Disciples of Jesus are lifelong learners. We learn to know the scriptures. We learn to praise God. We learn to serve others. Disciples are made not born. We learn to pray. And so, if you have worshipped with us for some time, you’ve become familiar with some words that we pray, each week. We don’t say these words simply because we’ve become accustomed to doing it. We say them because, we believe, they are the best pathway into learning how to pray. Someone has remarked that we are always beginners at prayer.

Many of us want to pray. Many of us feel guilty that we don’t pray more, or more effectively. We know that we should pray. But we wonder, if w are honest: How should I pray?

In Luke’s gospel the first disciples come to Jesus with a request: Lord, teach us to pray. Jesus responds with these words, pray in this way. And then we have our Lord’s Prayer.

It begins with the words, Our Father. The first word, our, is significant. This is a prayer for Christians in community. Our tendency, in the spiritual life, is to see everything about this prayer as personal and private. Nowhere in the Lord’s Prayer do we find the words I, me, myself or mine. As I was preparing this message I wondered, what would it be like for me, for Ken Carter, to get through the day without uttering these words, I, me, myself or mine? What would it be like if I replaced the words I, me, myself, mine with we, us, ours? I would be closer to the Lord’s Prayer. I would be nearer to Jesus’ desire for the way I ought to approach God and live with others in the world.

It is not my Father. It is our Father.

It is not my daily bread. It is our daily bread.

It is not my trespasses. It is our trespasses.

Not my. Our.

Have you ever come to church on a Sunday morning and you just didn’t feel like praying, like saying these words? That’s okay. Someone else will pray them for you, maybe the person beside you.

Will Willimon, who will be with us to preach in the fall, and Stanley Hauerwas have noted that the disturbing part of the prayer’s beginning is not that it refers to God as Father, but rather that it begins with our. Very often we want to learn to do things on our own, without any help, but the spirituality that Jesus gives us is one that we share with others. Learning to pray as a Christian is not like the model of learning we encountered in school----don’t look on anyone else’s paper during the test! Learning to pray as a Christian is an experience that we share with friends, with family, with people in a congregation. We might want to look back on our spiritual lives and say, with Frank Sinatra, “I did it my way”, but that is not the instruction of Jesus.

When you pray, say these words, Our Father.

And this leads to a question: Should we call God Father?

A few years ago I read a book entitled Fatherless America. It is about the absence of males in many American families. The author makes a strong case. I wondered how accurate his argument was, until I came across some research. In the 1980s a team of researchers wanted to investigate how much time middle class fathers spent with their children. First they asked the group of fathers to estimate how much time they might spend with their sons and daughters on a given day; the answer was 15 to 20 minutes. To verify these claims the scientists attached microphones to the shirts of small children for the purpose of recording actual conversations between fathers and children. The results were shocking. The average amount of time spent by fathers with their children was 37 seconds per day.

This was pre-internet, pre-Blackberry, pre-cell phone…practically ancient history, right? I wonder if things have improved since then?

For many, many children, the father is absent, maybe emotionally, maybe physically. And so we ask: How do these realities shape the way we pray Our Father? We can begin by asking what Jesus meant when he prayed this way. The original word, abba, means intimacy, nearness. Jesus spoke the Aramaic language, and there are very few places in the gospels where the Aramaic is remembered. One is his cry from the cross, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”. Another is his address to God: abba. Jesus chose this word for a very specific purpose. Abba was not a common way to address God in Israel. There were female gods in the culture, and there were religions that worshipped multiple gods. There were other names for God in the scriptures that Jesus studied, the Old Testament, names that stressed the power of God, the awesomeness of God. And yet in all of his prayers Jesus chose this name, abba. It was the only way Jesus began his prayers.

So I don’t want to give up on this prayer, even if I can understand how it would be difficult for some to claim. This is the way Jesus invites us to begin our prayers. Not to an absent God, not to a distant God, but to a God who is “closer to us than we are to ourselves”, to borrow the language of Saint Augustine. The importance of Our Father is not that God is male. The importance is in the word, abba. When we pray the Lord’s Prayer we are invited into the presence of someone who created us, who knows us, who loves us, who lives with us. Paul writes, in Romans 8, When we cry Abba, Father, it is the very spirit bearing witness With our spirit that we are children of God

You and I are children of God. And so we pray, OUR FATHER.

One of the most beautiful images of the father is Rembrandt’s painting of the Prodigal Son, displayed in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia. In one of his last books, Henri Nouwen wrote an extended reflection on the scene: the father, an aging man, dressed in a gold –embroidered garment with a deep red cloak, his face illumined, and if you look closely, his eyes almost blind, his hands placed on the shoulders of the kneeling prodigal, whose face we do not see---is it guilt or shame?

And then we look more closely at the painting and we see that the centerpiece of the painting is the hands that bless, that reconcile, that heal. And if we stay with the hands, one is strong and large, the other is smaller, more delicate. Many view the painting and it is quite clear to them: one is the hand of a man, and the other is the hand of a woman…

The prayer continues: Our Father, who art in heaven. God is not just anywhere. God is in heaven. This God who is near to us, intimate with us, is a cosmic God. And because our God is in heaven we can pray for big things. Now it is okay to pray for a parking place (!), but we are called to pray for the really big things: peace in the world, an end to the war----that is my prayer, daily bread for the starving children on our planet, those who have not yet heard the good news of Jesus Christ.

Our Father is in heaven. A few years ago I officiated at the memorial service for a beloved member of the church. At the graveside her granddaughter came with two helium balloons, to which she had attached notes. She lifted them to the skies during the service. The notes were to her grandmother. She had been told that her grandmother now lived with God, in heaven.

When we teach children to pray the Lord’s Prayer, we are teaching them about who God is, and where God is. Our Father, who art in heaven.

And we conclude with the next phrase: Hallowed be thy name. We honor God. God is near, close, intimate, but God is not our buddy, our pal. God’s name is holy, hallowed, different. We don’t take God’s name in vain, or use it casually. It helps us, in a culture that wants to be entertained, to remember that God is not an entertainer. We also do not assume that God will bless whatever we do, as individuals or as a church or as a nation. We pray that we will do the things that God can bless. God is holy.

But we also have to define what holy means. Holy has become a stereotype in our culture. Holier than thou. Holy is arrogance, judgmentalism, sneering at others, looking down our noses at other people.

That is not holiness. Holiness is beauty. Holiness is greatness. Holiness is wholeness. Holiness is love of God and love of neighbor.

When we say the words Hallowed be thy name, we are praying for the time when all will experience the holiness of God, when every knee will bow and every tongue confess. But we are also praying that God’s holiness will live in us, that others will see God’s holiness in our lives.

In many of the earliest Christian communities, and in some traditions today the invitation to this prayer would be introduced with the words, “Now as our Savior Christ has taught us, we are bold to pray…”.

What is bold about it? As we learn this prayer by heart, as it shapes our spirituality, we discover that God is intimate, that God is near, but also that God is cosmic, that God is holy. This is how we begin to pray, Jesus says, by coming into the presence of this God, Abba.

Throughout the summer we will spend some time on the other phrases in the prayer. But this morning it is enough to stay at the beginning. It is enough to be in the presence of this God, to feel the touch of his strong and gentle hand upon us, blessing us, reconciling us to himself. We are bold to pray this prayer.

I invite you to say these words, in simple phrases, after I say them: Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name.

Sources: William Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas, Lord, Teach Us; Henri Nouwen, The Return of The Prodigal Son. N.T. Wright, The Lord and His Prayer.


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