I continue to look at prayers that have both pulled me through in my personal trials and struggles, but also others I’ve supported as a pastor and chaplain. One prayer that can’t be overlooked is the Lord’s Prayer itself. This prayer takes such a central place in our faith. In many churches it is prayed every Sunday before the offering or as a part of the communion liturgy. Many people pray it daily in their own homes. I know as a chaplain often I am invited to pray it to the point I now offer to include in my prayers for families and patients if I know they come from a Christian background as a part of my otherwise very extemporaneous personal prayers for them.
Here are the words of the Lord’s Prayer, as included in my United Church of Christ Book of Worship:
Who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
As we forgive those who sin against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.
For this is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.”
It will take several posts to really explore the significance of this prayer both in our lives generally and in times of crises or trial specifically.
What strikes me this morning is the phrase “our father”. There are, of course, some really objectionable aspects to us calling the Source of the universe again and again, repeatedly day in and day out “our father,” especially without bringing in other, alternate images of God. The father was the heart and center of the patriarchy of the ancient world. In such a world, women and children were often treated as disposable property to be used by men as they saw fit. Marriage was often less about love between a man and woman but a father making a property transaction or political alliance with another man while also controlling his daughter’s body. As bell hooks reminds us in her book The Will to Change, not only does patriarchal approaches to life and religion damage women, it also damages men:
“The first act of violence that patriarchy demands of males is not violence toward women. Instead patriarchy demands of all males that they engage in acts of psychic self-mutilation, that they kill off the emotional parts of themselves. If an individual is not successful in emotionally crippling himself, he can count on patriarchal men to enact rituals of power that will assault his self-esteem.”
In light of the long history of damage which this patriarchal approach to life has done to not just women and children but even to the psyche of seemingly alpha males we do this prayer a dis-service if we gloss over the problems with “our father” being our primary or exclusive way of envisioning God.
That said, “father” as tool of patriarchy – as chief property holder, key decision maker, controller of women’s bodies — doesn’t seem to be the way of being “father” which Jesus is envisioning in this prayer. In John 14, Jesus tells us to see Jesus living is to see the Father in action, so that the way in which Jesus relates to others is for us the ultimate picture of who this One we call Father is.
Jesus does not treat others as property to be controlled or managed, as the patriarchal head of household ought. Instead he treats each person of as infinite worth. One gets the impression in reading the Gospels that each person Jesus meets finds themselves feeling as if they in that moment are the center of Jesus’ gaze, the focus of his world. I think we have all known people like this who, on meeting us, instantly communicate their respect, love, and understanding of our worth even on levels we have problem seeing all this in ourselves.
Likewise, Jesus is constantly scandalizing the people of his day by how much her bends, breaks, and ignores the patriarchal rules aimed at keeping women and children in his place. He knows his true humanity in its full depths, sees others, and knows the damaging effects of such false external rules upon one’s psyche. This is why he insists though the male disciples find it shameful for the little children to be brought to Jesus, held by him, loved by him, and blessed. This is not the role of a patriarchy “head of household” that a firstborn son would have in the ancient world; it is woman’s work. But Jesus knows that such loving parenthood is exactly what full humanity can look like at its best, and is a stunning picture in contrast to the distant controlling head of home praised in the ancient world of what God can be for us. It is why he constantly is accepting women into his company when they seek to wash his feet, ask him bold questions, join his work in the community, and – perhaps most shockingly – sit at his feet in the same way men do when being instructed to become teachers of the Gospel themselves, all in an age that women are not to be taught by or even speak directly with men not their husbands or fathers. In fact Jesus goes so far as to entrust to women the first experiences of him as risen from the dead and the first message of the Good News of Easter making them the first Christians, first evangelists, first missionaries. Jesus breaks patriarchy to pieces in his life, showing a way of being a man in the world that completely embraces, respects, and includes women as equals. This smashing of patriarchy is then a picture of the One we pray to when we say “Our Father”, One whose fatherhood is not at all like the damaging and damning systems with which the name “our father” gets connected.
When given a picture of what he means us to envision when he teaches us to say “Our Father”, Jesus spins the amazingly gender-bending tale in Luke 15 of a man who breaks every rule of male distance, strength, and control in his family. A man who lets love be more important than control by letting his youngest son run off with his inheritance. A man who lets love be more important by respectability by rushing out, robe in hands like a mother chasing a wandering child, to welcome back his son who had gone astray even when cultural norms for fathers taught that father must be distant, forbidding, requiring this son to jump through many hoops before being welcomed back home. It is a God whose love for us is infinite.
We can’t know for sure from where Jesus’ choice to envision God as Father comes. Perhaps it is the Psalms that picture God as the father to the fatherless and protector of widows. Perhaps it is the Psalms and prophecies in which Jesus calls alternately Israel and the heirs of David “sons” of God. I tend to think it might be that experience each Gospel tells differently when, at his baptism, the Holy Spirit broods above like a mother dove sheltering her child under her wings and the voice from heaven echoes about Jesus – “This is my Son, whom I love, in whom I am well pleased”.
At heart this claiming this proclamation made over Jesus at baptism is what we are doing when we pray “Our Father”.
Baptism is not first and foremost a washing away of sin, though it includes such imagery. It is rather the messy water of childbirth. It is claiming over ourselves a return to the womb of the Mother of all, the Holy Spirit, to be ushered out newly a child and exactly the child whom God looks at and says “You, you, dear One are the One that I love. You dear One are the One in whom I am well pleased. Before you can do anything right, before you can do anything wrong, regardless of expectations you or others might have”.
Saying Our Father in the way Jesus teaches us, however problematic society’s images of fatherhood are to us, is about us reminding us each day and each time we say this prayer that the ultimate reality of who we are is not our list of accomplishments or failures, is not how others might look at us, but instead for who we are. God’s love and grace, good will for us, is not contingent on anything. We are looked at always, ever, by God with eyes of love, with a heart for goodness.
For me this has been helpful – for due to traumas of my childhood, so often I assume if there is change or instability in my life, there is something bad coming around the corner. To be fair, good and bad are always coming ahead for us, but if we look for bad it may be all we see. If we look expecting goodness coming, it is amazing how we can both see the bad that comes but also the good that is always coming able to help us stand through the good.
The center of our lives, the truth at the heart of all the beauty, pain, chaos, and new beginning we face is a heart that always looks at us with pleasure, joy, and love – the fathering heart Jesus envisions. This does not mean if you cannot say “our father” without picturing something very different than One who always, ever sees you with love, and takes pleasure in you that you must pray these words and not another. But it means that the beginning part of the spirituality of this prayer is recognizing exactly that who you are is beautiful, beloved, acceptable to God.
As Christian writer Marianne Williamson once said in her Return to Love: ““Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
There is a lot of truth to her words. Ultimately, the most transforming thing we can do every day is to recognize that we are brilliant, beautiful, beloved – and all the others for whom Christ came (and friend, that’s everybody, regardless of their religion, background, sexuality, whatever) is also just so.
It is beginning to turn our eyes with trust, accepting that there is goodness coming and that we deserve it, not because of what we’ve done, nor because of what makes us different from others, but because ultimately to God we are beautiful, wonderful, full of potential, and no matter where we are ones in whom God delights.
This is truly transformative in pain and loss, when we can feel like such damaged goods and when it can feel as if the world has turned on us. In the midst of our pain we can learn in saying these words that we are held by love, a love that gazes at us ever, always longing for our good.
Let us feel and embrace this love today and all our days.
Your progressive redneck preacher,