Our Father in the heavens

This is an extended version of what I preached on Sunday morning November 1, 2009

Last week we began a new set of conversations, where we are exploring what I’m referring to as, in keeping with other Quakers and Anabaptists, the Disciple’s prayer. This stresses the point that it is for those of us who consider ourselves followers of Jesus, his disciples. Last Sunday we reflected on the prayer as a mission statement; it contains within it both the spiritual and the physical, prayer and action, contemplation and movement.

This week we move into the first of three cords, or sections, that I have compressed the prayer into. Surely, there are many ways that this prayer can be broken down, it is most often framed around six petitions: three for God and three for the disciples – us (McClendon 156). But for our purposes, and the time we have to cover this, a cord of three is appropriate. The Disciple’s Prayer is a cord of three in the following way:

The first strand, “Our Father in heaven, may your name be held holy, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven.” It is about a reorientation within a new community, what should be called a new family that is organized around the Father and his kingdom.

The second strand, as I see it, is: “Give us this day our daily bread,” or as some translators stress, give us enough bread for today. This strand concerns our ethics, how we live out our lives, and how our lives impact others. We take only enough, so that there is enough for others.

The third stand, certainly related to the previous two is: “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.” This strand is related to the resurrection, that is the sphere of Christianity that is about witnessing to the risen Christ, the part of Christianity that is truly struggling with the world to cultivate and create its own new world here on Earth. As Christians we live in the light and reality of God’s resurrection power, and therefore we live out an alternate reality, one that is as a result of God’s forgiveness and spiritual guidance. We can forgive others, because we are ourselves forgiven! Even more to the point, own forgiveness depends on us being people of forgiveness! And we confess our struggle to live out the new world among so many temptations to break step with God’s kingdom and go at it alone.

These three stands, the reorientation of a new worshiping community, the embodied, ethical strand of the daily and mundane, and the resurrection strand rooted in the in between times, i.e. the compost, with us living and breathing the witness of God’s good news, includes the whole cosmos. This is why I said last week that this prayer contains within it the entire mission and practice of the Christian church. Everything is summed up in this prayer, everything we need to be formed in the likeness of Christ, to become his disciples is located within this prayer, after all it is the Disciple’s prayer.

Now James McClendon pushes this a step further showing how this entire prayer involves creation. In other words the “heaven and earth” of this prayer. I think that it’s worth quoting the whole thing because I know many of you are deeply connected to concerns of creation. McClendon argues that each of the petitions, whether you break it up into six as he does, or take the three cord approach that we have, engage creation. He writes this:

“The first three petitions (the hallowing of the name, the coming of the rule [or kingdom], the doing of the will of the Father) are framed round with the inclusive components of creation, “earth” and “heaven.” These petitions exemplify one great condition for answered prayer, namely that we pray as God wills that we pray. Not only does Jesus as God’s own Son teach this prayer; the petitions declare the divine creative purpose: a creation at peace (shalom) with its Creator, a creation that fulfills the divine rule, a creation that blesses God who is its blessing. ‘On Earth as in heaven’ implies that this threefold petition is not only the Disciple’s Prayer, not only Jesus’ Prayer: it is the prayer of Mother Earth herself in the purpose of God the Father. [The second of the three petitions are uniquely for the disciple’s (there is no evidence that Jesus himself prayed this prayer). They presuppose sin, and sin as rupture between human beings (“our debtors”) and between us and God (“our debts”) and they presuppose the risk of the earthly journey (“lead us not into…”) and the tension of the last days, with the threat that lies at creation’s chaotic margins (“the evil one,” or simply “evil”). Yet the petitions ask for created and creative wholeness in such a time – for a network of forgiveness binding up the wounded world, for a lacing together of souls and bodies sustained by shared (eucharistic and ordinary?) bread, for a providential leadership guiding a pilgrim church through its earthly journey (“save us from the time of trial” in the version of the Consultation on Common Texts).]

But In sum McClendon says, “the Disciple’s Prayer presumes a hearer God deeply involved with the organic and inorganic world, a holy God who blesses the created order with his own presence, a nurturing God who cares about the baking of bread, a healing God who mends the ruptures of social fabric for our good, a guiding God who leads Christians through the narrow passages of time that precede the end. To acknowledge the listening presence of such a God is to acknowledge God’s prior presence in creation to feed and heal and guide and bless.” (McClendon 156).

Therefore, I think this prayer deals with the whole cosmos. When we dare to say the words, “Our Father” this is the Father whom we are talking about, and praying to. The one who is located near and far, the one who is concerned with the mundane, and the one who cares deeply about the cosmos and groans for all of creation to be at peace again.

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When we approach this first strand, this prayer, “Our Father, in heaven (or in the heavens more accurately), may your name be sanctified, made holy, worshiped for how good you are, we have to admit that it is only with fear and trembling. It is with pure audacity that we step out in faith and say, “Our Father.”

I personally find difficulty in saying the words, “our father.” I have two fathers, both of whom I have had very different experiences with. The father I grew up with, my step-father, was a very hard man to live with, and while there are some good memories and I love him deeply, much of his memories remain tainted by the last portion of his life. He was deeply depressed for all of my teenage years, and yet refused to get help. He was angry most of the time, and was very physical in his anger. So when it came to me turning 18 my parents had no problem getting me out of the house, I couldn’t wait to get out from under his dark cloud. He committed suicide a week before thanksgiving in 2003.

When I say our father, I confess that I flinch, I stutter and hesitate.

My “real” dad, is almost the complete opposite of my step-father. I’ve only seen him angry twice. I only got to see him every other weekend growing up, so the four days a month I spent with him were much more focused around on hanging out, laughing, building things and having fun together. I looked up to my dad a lot, he’s a fantastic guitarist, seriously one of the best I’ve ever seen, he’s a great artist, he’s friendly, very funny and the life of the party. I know what it’s like to want to imitate my father. But other than those 4 or 5 days a month, I wouldn’t see him. We didn’t really talk on the phone, and if I needed him on the other days of the month that I wasn’t with him, there was a real good chance I wouldn’t see him. I remember frequently feeling let down.

So I confess I carry all of this with me when I say “Our father.” And I can understand why people may have a difficulty with this part of the prayer.

And this father business is difficult anyways, God surely isn’t a burly man, with a big gray beard, smoking a pipe and reading the Sunday times. I often think it would be far easier for me to begin this prayer with, “Our Mother, who is in heaven…” And maybe you are in a similar place, or maybe you’re experience with earthly fathers is completely unlike mine. And while I have been known to slip in the extra words “Our Father and Mother in heaven,” and while I am completely comfortable thinking of God as neither male nor female, and as both, I think it is important to not skip over this “Heavenly Father” business too quickly.

When my daughter and I together before she goes to bed, I am reminded that I am accountable to live not as my earthly fathers, but our heavenly one. And in both my successes and failures as a dad, I have a Father in heaven who will forgive, and who shows a better way. Being reminded of this with my daughter on my lap doesn’t let me off the hook, but gives me hope that we can and should strive to imitate our father in heaven. And I find it comforting that L and I share this same heavenly father.

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In Jesus’ offering us this prayer, he has invited us, his disciples, into a different kind of relationship with God. In Matthew 3 Jesus is baptized in water by John, Jesus’ father, YHWH, had come to watch and participate in this important event. Immediately after Jesus’ baptism, his father says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Something like this appears three of the Gospels. Jesus invites the disciples to relate to his father as their own. It is an invitation to enter into a new community, a new family with God, the God of creation, the one who is even concerned with all the cosmos, the one concerned with the nitty-gritty of everyday life.

In Jesus’ time there was a Jewish prayer called the Qaddish that most scholars believe Jesus fashioned at least some of his prayer after. That prayer goes like this:

Exalted and hallowed be his great name in the world,?Which he created according to his will.?May he establish his kingdom in your lifetime and in your days,?And in the lifetime of the whole household of Israel,?Speedily and at a near time.

What is interesting about this prayer is certainly the places where Jesus changes parts of it, where he edits it according to his own mission. But for our purposes the first line is most important. It reads, “Exalted and hallowed be his great name in the world…” It is detached, it is worshipful, but it is not intimate, it is not personal. Compare this to our prayer, “Father, Our Father, in heaven, may your name be sanctified.”

Not only is the relationally signified by the word “Father” but it is a collective partnership. It is as invitation to participate in the work of the Father when we say the word “Our.” It draws us in as participants with God, intimate with the one we call Father. This is our divine Father, the one who looks after every lost sheep, who welcomes back the estranged, who forgives the offender, who longs for the redemption of all of creation.

And in our day this makes praying, “Our Father” even more difficult. Not only do many of us struggle with the whole Father bit, but we struggle with this possessive pronoun “Our.” We resist the collective and communal. We resist identifying with something bigger than ourselves. We have our reasons, whether it’s because we don’t like those people over there, we don’t like the things that they like, we don’t make the time, or whatever the case maybe. There are plenty of reasons (some good and some not as good) for why we don’t keep ourselves involved in this community called church.

And so when we pray, “Our Father,” when we dare to say those words, we are allowing ourselves to be reoriented around a heavenly father who has formed a community of worshipers. This community is shared by a broken people and people on the mend alike. Those struggling to find our way, struggling to worship, and make sense of a chaotic world. Those of us seeking to find beauty in the mundane, to carve out of creation a piece that belongs to us, and to share that beauty, and love with those in the world who need it.

When we say, “Our Father” we confess that we cannot do it on own, even though we keep trying we recognize our inadequacy. It is a confession that we need the help of the father. That we ourselves need to be reoriented, renewed, and that the only way to find it is within God’s new family, with Jesus at the head. It is a confession that we live and pray in community. Friends, this is an audacious suggestion, it is a daring act in our times. Everything we know, hear, and do strives against this.

It is also ridiculous to suggest, especially if we look back at other prayers in Jesus’ time like the Qaddish, that we can have intimacy with God, that we are truly God’s children. But when we dare to pray this prayer, Quaker James Mulholland writes, we have to have the courage to pray it as God’s children. How do we pray this prayer as children?

I know that when I was a kid the worst thing my parents could say to me, the thing that drove a stake in my heart more than any other thing they could say or do, was that I had let them down. I didn’t hear this often, but when I did, I was totally crushed. I wanted the approval of my parents, I wanted to imitate them and be like them. For them to say that I was unlike them, I had shamed them, or let them down, was exactly the opposite of what I most deeply desired. When I broke trust with my parents their names were profaned, the trust I had with them was broken.

And so when we pray “Our Father” we dare to say we are going to act as God’s children. I like what Clarence Jordan, a farmer and New Testament scholar once said:

“You don’t take the name of the Lord in vain with your lips. You take it in vain with your life. It isn’t the people outside the church who take God’s name in vain. It’s the people on the inside, the nice people who would never dare let one little cuss word fall off their lips – they are the ones many times whose lives are totally unchanged by the grace of God” (Mulholland 37).

And so when we pray this, we have to see ourselves as having an intimate relationship with God as his children, and we set out to live that way.

And we should be careful to remember that as Children, as Christ’s disciples we are acting out in his name. To act out in the name of someone in the ancient world “was to exercise that person’s power and authority. To call on the name of someone was to put oneself under that person’s protection and command” (Dunn 620).

This is why we should think of the opening of the disciple’s prayer as reorienting our entire world. Everything else in this prayer follows from “Our Father.” That is, everything in this prayer follows from the assumption that we together as a worshiping community, answer to the one Father of heaven and of earth. When we pray this we are praying for help to imitate God, to want what God wants, to live as Jesus lived, and to respond to others in a way that witnesses to the reality of the resurrection in our own lives.

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In closing then, St. Augustine wrote “we imitate who we adore.” This prayer leads us into adoration and declares that God’s name be sanctified. Above all else! Not our own, not our agendas, or our church’s, or even our country’s, but God’s alone. “Father, your name be sanctified. May your name be the horizon through which all is judged, all is made right, where justice and peace will kiss!” And this is where God’s name and the politics of his kingdom collide. We are children of this kingdom, a kingdom unlike other kingdoms. And because we are it’s children, we are also a part of it’s legacy, it’s extension in the world. So when we say “your name be sanctified,” we ask in what ways can we help to honor God’s name. When we pray for God’s kingdom to come, we see ourselves as a part of the answer to that prayer.

So then, every time we pray this prayer, every time we call on “Our Father” the one near, the one far, the one who is bringing his kingdom to earth, we prayer for the powers of the world to come unhinged, for God to move, for the powerless to win, for the world to be turned right-side up again. When we pray for God’s kingdom to come we pray for peace to prevail, for righteousness to emerge from the rubble, for justice to be delivered for all who are oppressed. When we pray that “Our Father’s” kingdom come, we recognize that we are children of that kingdom and should be helping bring it along. NT Wright says, “We must risk ‘Our Father’ then, if we are to be the people through whom the pain of the world is held in healing light of the love of God.”

[In closing] Praying these words then is a ridiculous act, it requires that we are unmasked and made whole. It is a call for complete reorientation and a submitting to one father and one kingdom. It is the first strand, the strand of the worshiping community who gives everything over to their Father.

Do we have the audacity to pray “Our Father in the Heavens?

Published by

Wess

...is the William R. Roger Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC., PhD in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, served as a "released minister" at Camas Friends Church, and father of three. He enjoys sketchnoting, sharing conversation over coffee with a friend, listening to vinyl and writing creative nonfiction.