A word of introduction: Earlier this year I challenged the congregation that I partner with in ministry, First Baptist – Columbus, IN – in a sermon on the Lord’s prayer to use this prayer as a guide in their own prayer practice from that day until Easter. I know some have taken my challenge as they have reported to me what their experience has been thus far. It is my intent to blog through this familiar prayer of Jesus during the Season of Lent, in hopes my reflections further encourage participation in the challenge. We will further engage as a congregation in the study of Jesus’ prayer through a post-Easter engagement with the book The Revolutionary Power of the Lord’s Prayer by Alice Greene.
Now – on to this week’s blog . . . . .
They are among the first words spoken by a child – “da da”, “papa”. Easy perhaps in their short syllable and repetitive sound, but important for the intimacy and relationship they signal. When Jesus responded to his disciple’s request “teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1), this is the first word he gave them. In the common Aramaic language of his day it’s the word “Abba.” Most often it is translated “father” but to our ears this is perhaps a bit too formal. No, this is “da da” or “papa” God. It conveys an approach of complete trust and affection that we too soon grow distant from, embarrassed that others might think we’ve a childish faith or devotion.
Do you remember when you quit calling your father “daddy” and shortened it to “dad”? I do. My sisters had not felt the need for such sophisticated distance from our father, but as a son and (I presumed) a man, “daddy” was just a little too childish by the time I reached middle school age. Heaven forbid a peer should know we had such intimate connection in our home.
But that’s the connection Jesus sought to foster between his disciples and our God. In Matthew 6:9ff the prayer begins this way: “Our Father in heaven”. Many who modeled prayer for me in the church of my upbringing would begin their prayers with the words: “Heavenly Father”. No doubt this was the influence, many years later, of Jesus’ teaching.
Is there significance in the the plural or common “our” of the greeting? I think so. Jesus was of course teaching a group of men to pray, but he was also emphasizing that God is not just “mine” or “yours”. God is concerned with and in relationship with all who follow, all who believe. In some traditions the prayer itself is referred to as the “Our Father”, and still prayed as a corporate act of worship in many weekly liturgies. In the individualized culture that we call home, remembering the corporate nature of faith and prayer is an important corrective to lives that are too often consumed with mere self. Don’t be afraid to embrace the “our”!
And don’t be afraid to embrace the “abba” or “papa” intimacy of the prayer’s first words either. As a dad I welcomed the title “daddy” and rejoiced when those words were first uttered, and frequently repeated. I took note when the second syllable was dropped, not taking offense as I knew it was a move toward independence and maturity. But “daddy” does convey a warmth and trust, as well as a closeness, that “dad” doesn’t quite mark.
Is God exclusively “father”? It’s a legitimate question, and one that those who have not known a healthy father-child relationship will often raise. There are, of course, many references to the parent nature of God, with female or mother-like analogies used in scripture to bring balance to our Creator’s nature. I’ve learned to be sensitive to this in my own public prayer life, as well as my preaching and writing. “Father” may not be a title that works as well for you as it did for Jesus’ disciples or others today. The point, however, Jesus is making in his address of prayer seems to have less to do with a gender role, and more to do with the intimate connection we are invited into with God.
Much could be written about the last sentence, and I know, for some, the thought of an intimate connection with God is pretty foreign. I’ll save some of that for a future blog, and for now just invite you into the unfathomable thought that God knows you with the closeness and love of a parent, a papa, a daddy – and all that is good about that kind of a connection.
Let us pray . . . . “Our Father . . . . ”