In our ironed striped scarves and woolen jerseys, we bowed our heads and ritually intoned, "Our Father…" I could no more have explained what this prayer meant than I could tell you today what all that dibbing and dobbing was about.
In the same chapter as the prayer itself Matthew warned against our cub troops approach to the prayer:"And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition, as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words" (Matthew 6:7). We babbled mindlessly but I put a unique Baptist spin on the prayer. I was the only Baptist in Cub Scouts; the rest were Anglicans or United Church kids. The Baptists I was associated with took their prayer seriously sometimes adding fervent body language to the petition. My prayer posture consisted of holding my thumb and forefinger over the bridge of my nose, squeezing my furrowed brow and praying earnestly. Our troop leader, however, didn’t read my pious body language aright. He hauled me out of line and publicly rapped my knuckles for making a mockery of the prayer by holding my nose.
However much he misread my motives, he was right to criticize me—even if for the wrong reason. I had made a mockery of the prayer, as we all did weekly, by turning a heart-felt expression of devotion and trust into a joyless, brainless ritual. It was parroted without conviction. To say this prayer with integrity, comprehension and belief would need sincerity.
Years later, after moving from Winnipeg to Vancouver and beginning graduate school, I experienced a time of disorientation. Before my first summer class I sensed the need to be alone and pray. It was a desperate foxhole kind of prayer brought on by the tension of not knowing how I would navigate the changes and challenges. Excitement and tension heightened my awareness of the change in surroundings. Even the vegetation in Vancouver was so much more verdant than on the dry Manitoba prairies. Life seemed considerably juicier; I was ready to be injected with new life.
I sat cross-legged in Burnaby Park and prayed the ancient prayer, "Our Father…" As I prayed, in my mind’s eye I became a young boy, even younger than a Cub Scout. As far as I knew, I was utterly alone in the park. I lifted my hand toward the pristine blue skies and imagined that my father took my hand and led me on a walk around the unfamiliar park. I talked to God in the same trusting way a five-year-old would, asking him to guide as we walked. I experienced a beauty and closeness that day which assured me, the graduate student, that God would be my Father when I was petrified of the future. I wasn’t given any intellectual or verbal insights into the prayer but for the first time I genuinely understood it, believed and trusted "Our Father". The prayer found the right context!
In the original context, when Jesus taught the prayer to his disciples, their attention was likely riveted on the Aramaic term "Father" . In this first century Jewish context, the intimate address "Abba" would have bordered on blasphemous sentimentality. Pronouncing God’s personal covenant name YHWH was considered so holy that the pious had to substitute alternatives like adonai or Lord in order to avoid irreverence. It is understandable that the even more familiar, somewhat childish, term Abba would have been unthinkable. What was Jesus imagining calling God his dad as if he had some special personal connection with the Creator and Lawgiver? It was odd enough that he called himself the Son of God in some unique way but this prayerful familiarity was just plain odd.
Our present difficulty addressing God as Father doesn’t concern irreverence; it is the masculine and patriarchal associations of fatherhood that stick in our postmodern throats. Leaving aside gender for now, we encounter, tucked in that little word "our", an even greater offence to present-day sensibilities. How can a modern inclusive person possibly use a possessive pronoun for God? What are we thinking calling God our God? What about them and their God/s? Not only does the "Our Father" sound exclusive, it is also personal! It is not only personal in the first person sense but in the collective third person manner, our abba is the God shared with others like us. Surely we are beyond that kind of anthropomorphic, tribal image, beyond dragging off God into our human categories, making him part of our team.
If Jesus of Nazareth had no qualms using either the personal or the collective pronoun then whom did he have in mind? The ethos that bound these Abba prayers together had little to do with their race or religion. In the parade of discipleship the ones who are entitled to call YHWH Abba are those who form their lives, together with others, in trusting response to the teachings, traditions, symbols and images of faith taught by Jesus the Christ. The very existence of a personal me without a corporate "we" is negligible. So we address a Father of more than one child, a father of a family, a faith family who share a common story or narrative.
Those who address God as "Our Father" are not limited to the living; they encompass all those who have ever lifted their spirits heavenward in the name of Abba. We sidle up to the earliest disciples, the monastics, the mystics, the reformers, the martyrs and all who have gone before. Standing with them we stand in a family tradition, which is by no means monolithic. We find ourselves standing with those we would hardly recognize as one of our kin but who by virtue of their praying "Our Father" are part of us. The existence of these fellow pray-ers draws attention to the reality that the Prayer is much larger than our times, individuality and locations. The first word of the Lord’s Prayer is a reminder of unity in diversity or plurality of opinions and ideas. It is a term that stretches our embrace but more than that stretches our self-identity; looking down the labyrinth of Christian confessions, the Prayer demands that we admit yes, we are of this troop!
Several years ago a group of us traveled through the beautiful Qu'Appelle Valley of southern Saskatchewan to attend a workshop on imaginative prayer led by Walter Wink. During one of these prayer sessions, I experienced the feminine character of God in a way that surprised me and changed my approach to God’s parenthood. After a preparatory time of complete relaxation, I entered into a state of passive receptivity where I opened myself to whatever God had for me. My mind's eye conjured up something out of my cultural past, an image of the feminine Celtic Trinity. As I lay on the floor, I felt beneath me three gigantic women: a Maiden, a Mother, and an old Crone seemed to be stretching their arms up to hold me aloft. Nothing was said and no particular insights were given but not unlike the day in Burnaby Park, when I first encountered Abba father, I experienced complete trust and containment.
I was shocked by the pagan nature of my prayer and to tell the truth was frightened by the possibility that I was becoming indiscriminately syncretistic. The dimensions of the troupe included in God’s grace seemed to be expanding! While the experience of releasing myself and trusting God was identical with my earlier prayer experiences, the ancient female metaphors however uncomfortable they made me feel enabled me to perceive the universal nature of the Lord’s Prayer. This troupe that I am part of and who are invited to pray the Lord’s Prayer can be described in no better terms than those of the Apostle Paul: With Christ there is neither male nor female, slave nor free, Jew or Gentile. The more universal the nature of this troupe, the closer we come to the spiritual intention of the Lord's Prayer: that it be a prayer for all.
Although undeniably anchored in the faith of Jesus of Nazareth toward his Father, the prayer is for everyone, in all times and places, despite differences of cultures or ideologies. The prayer’s nuts and bolts of integrity, comprehension, trusting belief accompanied by sincerity remain non-negotiable. Anyone who sincerely prays this prayer whether kneeling or standing beside Jesus in a stance of reliance on God, depending on and submitting to their heavenly parent, can properly be considered as being in union with Christ.
I am thankful that the Lord’s Prayer has matured from a collective Cub Scout ritual through to a personal appropriation of it as a young adult, down to a prayer to be prayed for others and by all. Instead of seeing the Prayer through the prejudices of my tribal lens, the Lord’s Prayer requires that I identify each individual however odd, whatever racial configuration, whatever strange set of tangled ideas wrought from a life of relative poverty or suffering, as one of us for whom the Lord’s Prayer is needed. Some will be from within the family of redemption: Catholics, Pentecostals, Lutherans and Baptists. Others are our relatives from the community of Creation whom God calls us to be sensitive toward and companions with. Especially when I hear the cursing, swearing, beating, drunken laughter and general dehumanization that goes on any weekend just outside my window, I think to myself, "That’s us!" I pray the prayer knowing others yearn for the same healing. In those anguished voices, I can hear familiar echoes of my own human voice sadly distant from its Abba. Can I learn to pray for people as brothers and sisters instead of neighbourhood nuisances and painful reminders of my own brokenness? It may not seem like a valorous action but praying and thinking aright is an action, a participation in the reign of God. Can I hear my world the way God must hear Creation? Perhaps at the least it will move me to care even if I don’t have any particular solution. Adopting the stance of the Lord’s Prayer will prepare me to hear God’s solution and get behind it with my will and emotions. Is it any wonder Jesus recommended the Prayer to all disciples throughout all time?
For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God (Ephesians 3:14-19).