This past week New Hampshire conducted its presidential primary and the thing that struck me most was not the results but the process: individuals going to candidates at forums, meetings, even on the street and asking questions. It made me wonder: what would you like to ask Jesus? Suppose he appeared to you as he did to Peter, to John, to Mary, to Paul. Suppose you had just a moment, as they had, what would you ask?
The gospels are full of questions. Rabbinic teaching to this day is a dialogue: a question is posed, the rabbi, the teacher, ponders the question in the light of Torah and tradition. So the greatest prayer in our worship comes, not as a teaching from nowhere, but as a response to a question.
One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray as John taught his disciples.”
Jesus answers, according to Luke, with what we now call, The Lord’s Prayer, beginning, “Our father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
But this prayer comes not only as a response to the disciple’s question, it comes as a response to God. The sailor in a storm, the soldier in a battle, the spouse in a hospital waiting room, pray in response to something larger, some great event that moves their spirit. In the same way, our prayers are evoked, our prayers come in response to God’s great creative work. Wherever we go, there are moments of beauty that call to us, that speak to us, and the response is a prayer.
Surely the disciple asking the question knows how to pray. Prayer has a long history, so long we can’t mark it’s origin. Anne Lamott famously said there are just two real prayers: “Help me help me help me” and “thank you thank you thank you”. Surely in the dawn of human consciousness, both prayers were offered. For in that dawn, living on the edge of survival, humans must have felt the same fear we feel when we are threatened. And in that fear, their souls must surely have cried out for help, help from some power greater, some force stronger, some actor who could change things in their favor: “help me help me help me”. So too, in times of satisfaction, when the hunt was successful or perhaps appreciating the beauty of a moment, of a scene they had come upon, their hearts opened like ours and they said, as we do, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” Over centuries, those simple prayers became ritualized, formalized into specific words. Humans imagined a rich former time when gods walked and they invoked them with prayers and worship they believed would benefit their communities and themselves.
In Jesus’ time, prayers were public performances. Ancient near eastern religion included the adoration of statues meant to symbolize gods and ceremonies that were intended to mimic their actions. In Babylon, for example, a New Year’s festival involved leveling the great dirt road outside the city, constructing a platform on which the king rode into a stadium where he slew a lion, replicating one of the stories of the god Marduk. Roman religion was practiced at great temples, through a system of sacrifices of animals. Much of the ancient near east practiced such prayer. We have a reflection of those ceremonies in Jesus’ teaching. Matthew’s gospel precedes the Lord’s Prayer with Jesus’ condemnation of ceremonies his disciples must have seen. He speaks of a procession of prayer, with a trumpet going first; he speaks of people standing in synagogues and on street corners, loudly proclaiming their prayers. Instead, he tells his followers, go to some place private and offer a prayer that looks like this—and then he teaches the Lord’s Prayer.
With this history of ritualized, public prayer, where the words of the prayer themselves are specified, where the point is the effect on the crowd, and the honor the prayer receives, the prayer Jesus teaches and its context is striking. First, he teaches that prayer is private: its location is in the quiet room of the soul. Prayer is not a public ceremony, it’s a private conversation.
Second, he begins his prayer with a shocking statement of intimacy: “Our Father”. It doesn’t sound that intimate in English, does it? We miss the effect. In Jesus’ original language, however, the opening word is “Abba”. Now Abba is a term of intimacy; it doesn’t so much mean, “our Father”, as “Daddy” or “Poppa”; you can supply another word if you wish. The Bible is perfectly comfortable with images of God that imagine a mother’s love, in fact the prophet Hosea pictures God like a woman working in a field, drawing us with what are called cords of compassion. What the text really means is a sort of leather leash mothers used to keep track of children while they worked. In loving families, parents are often called by some word, some name, that is less a name than a claim of relationship. Instead of saying, “our father”, I think sometimes we should begin this prayer, “Hiya, Dad”.
Imagine that; try it out in your head: “Hiya Dad”. It claims something about God, and at the same time it says something about you too, doesn’t it? It claims a relationship imperishable, unbreakable. It speaks not only the identity of the one addressed but also our own place. For no equal calls someone Daddy, no other power speaks this name; it is a child thing, to say it is not only to say who God is, it is to say that we are children of God. This is the meaning of “our Father”: that we have an imperishable, intimate, unbreakable relationship with God defined by God’s care for us and God’s intention to help us grow up. It is to say that we are before God children, who may at times run off, get into trouble, but ultimately are called back and cared for by a power greater than we can imagine, nurtured by a love we cannot escape. Calvinists have a name for this love, they call it “violent grace”. It means simply that God can save us even when we don’t want to be saved. So indeed, to pray, “our father”, abba, is to recognize God loves us even when we don’t want to be loved, even when we, like an angry adolescent, say to God, “You’re not going to walk with me, are you?”
“Hiya Dad” claims a relationship and the relationship precedes anything else. There is no thank you here, no request for help, nothing but that one shocking claim: you and God together are bonded in some way that is beyond any earthly attempts to break the bond. Perhaps that’s why he immediately locates this parent “Our father who art in heaven.” Where is heaven? Another time thought of the universe as layered, earth here, heaven above, some kind of underworld below. But heaven is much more than geography. Heaven is the place where God’s intention is fully realized, where God’s rule, God’s will, is fully expressed. To say “who art in heaven” is also to claim a relationship, it is to say that we have a home there, we have a home in heaven with this dad, this parent, this mom. For part of the heart of the relationship is to say, this is who our people are, this is where we come from. One of my favorite camp songs says, “I’ve got a home in glory land that out shines the sun…” Maybe you know it. Heaven is home, a true home, and like home, we come home through this prayer. It’s meant to transport us, remind us who we are: children in the home of the loving God.
So the final part of the opening of the prayer shouldn’t surprise us: “hallowed be your name.” I guess more misunderstanding comes from this than any other part. When I was a kid, I didn’t know the word ‘hallowed’, I thought it meant ‘hollowed’. I didn’t understand why God’s name would be hollowed out, like a gourd. Hallowed is actually, of course, just an old English way of saying, “Great!” or “Praised!” It is a reminder, right form the beginning, of God’s greatness.
“Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” Hi dad, I remember home, and how great you are. Perhaps Lamott is right in general about prayer but this prayer does not begin with anything God has done for us, or anything we hope God will do. It isn’t about doing at all at the opening. Before the doing, before the hope, there is just this great, ringing affirmation of relationship. Hiya dad—I’m yours, I’m your child; I know you’re in heaven—I know you are my home. Hallowed be thy name—I know your greatness, your goodness, and I live within it. This is the beginning of Jesus’ prayer and it’s meant to be prayed as the beginning. Right from the beginning, before we ask, before we are asked, we are meant to remember: whose we are, who we are.
This week, I want to give you an assignment, and it’s simple. Just prayer this one line, this one sentence, each day as a prayer. Do it right: go somewhere private, alone, no cell phone, no TV, no screens at all, just you and the quiet. Breathed, wait until you are calm and then pray the prayer. And then, see if you can find your own words. What word expresses the intimate caretaker for you? Where is the home of that one? What praise would you give? “Our father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” We are meant to pray this in our homes, in our hearts. Let us indeed claim our relationship and our home with God for we do indeed, have a home in glory land that outshines the sun.