What if I don't know how to pray?

Often when people feel they don't know how to pray, it's because they haven't considered the possibility that they're already doing it.

Our Father in Heaven

Written by Robert Hansel

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At the top of page 364 of The Book of Common Prayer there are two columns, two versions if you will, of The Lord's Prayer. The one on the left is the traditional, familiar text, which you all recognized and learned, as we say, at your mother's knee. The other feels somehow odd to your tongue if you say it. The words jar us a little bit. They don't seem quite right. I want to begin our consideration of The Lord's Prayer by taking a look at the second one, the alternative, not the traditional one that you know, but the one on the right. Contrary to what you might think— because the language of the second one seems so much more contemporary—it is, in fact, the older of the two.

Both of these versions of The Lord's Prayer come from the Bible. The first, the traditional one on the left, comes from the Gospel of Matthew; the one on the right comes from the Gospel of Luke. Because we know that the Gospel of Luke was written prior to the Gospel of Matthew, we know that the one on the right is older. That doesn't make it better or more authentic. It simply makes it older. Generations have learned the one on the left because it was the one that got incorporated into our liturgy. So, Sunday after Sunday, and at Sunday school, children were taught The Lord's Prayer in the Matthew form.

Today marks the first in a series of eight sermons on The Lord's Prayer. What we're trying to do in this sermon series is to take a look at the text on the right, simply because its language is a little more unfamiliar to us, and, therefore, we tend to pause when we read it.

Most of us, when we say the traditional Lord's Prayer, as soon as we hear "Our Father who art," we've got it. We know exactly what's coming. We click our minds into autopilot, and we just stay put until the "Amen." If we use the second one, we're not so comfortable with the words. We're not so sure of what comes next, and so we listen. We're going to take advantage of that for the next eight weeks and talk about this second version.

What we ask of you is just be a sport. Let your clergy have this fun with you for a while, because what we're trying to do is to clarify and reinforce meanings. We're not trying to convert all of you to use the alternative version of The Lord's Prayer; rather than to convert, what we're trying to do is to confront you with the fact that there are some very important concepts in this prayer that we need to hear afresh. Let's get started. Both of these prayers come out of the same context in the Gospel in which they appear. The disciples come to Jesus and they say to him, "Teach us to pray." Now, we have to assume that the disciples are pretty astute. They've noticed that Jesus spends a lot of time praying, so they think, "Well, there must be something to this." So they say to Jesus, "Hey, teach us how to pray." Jesus says, "Okay. Fine. Here is a prayer that can be a sort of model for you. You can't get too far off track if you just do this." And so, he tells them these words so that they can pray.

He certainly doesn't need any instruction in prayer. Calling it The Lord's Prayer may lead us to think the wrong thing. It's our prayer, given to us by the Lord. It's not his prayer. He's not saying, "This is the one that I pray." He's saying, "This is the one you should pray." So it's our prayer, given to us by the Lord.

I want to begin with the very first word "Our." That's the key to the whole thing. It's "our" prayer. It's for us. It's what we need to do daily.

The second word is just as important, "Father." Now, as you might guess, in both Hebrew and Aramaic, there are many words that can mean father, depending on what you intend to communicate. If you intend to communicate the authority and power, you would use a very formal word for father. Jesus doesn't choose that word. The word he chooses is the word that was used by children in referring to their own father. The word is abba. It means, literally "daddy."

I'm sure that when the disciples heard it, they couldn't believe it. Within the cultural tradition of his time, to call God even by the formal name would have been pretty shocking. But to use this term "daddy," you have the image of a child, running to meet the parent at the door with arms extended and saying, "Daddy, pick me up. Here I am. Hold me." I think Jesus intended exactly that; that we should see God as the one who cares about us, who loves us with a kind of compassion that only the greatest father we can possibly imagine would have for a child.

We're talking about some very powerful concepts here. Jesus says "Our"—your, belonging to you. Your "Father"—Daddy. Finally, this third part—remember, this is only the first line here—"in heaven." Your loving Daddy in heaven. The one who is in heaven, not just any Father, but the one who is in heaven.

The last thing I want to do is to get into the endless controversy of where heaven is; or what it is; whether it has streets paved with gold; whether people are riding around on clouds, plucking harps. Put all of that out of your mind. Jesus is simply talking about the One who is in charge of all things, the One who is in heaven. The reason we get into the controversy about whether heaven is out there somewhere or in here somehow is our own Earth-limited sort of perspective. One of the lesser known theologians of our time, Emil Brunner, about thirty years ago said he was tired of hearing about whether God was out there or in here.The point is not whether God is in this world or outside this world. The point is the world is in God. What a different perspective that is.

As our creed tells us, everything that is, all things that were made are part of God's own being. They're an expression of God's unity and harmony and love. In the first line of The Lord's Prayer, we have "Our,"—belonging to us—"Father,"—this compassionate, loving, outreaching God who knows us and loves us better than we can even love ourselves—"in heaven"—the one who has all of the power who is behind all the secrets of life and of health, who knows where history is headed and how it will get there. That's the God that we're addressing. Now that is pretty awesome.

Think about the tension between this notion of a God closer to us than we are to ourselves, who is in charge of all things and who has all the power, and we call Him, "Daddy." What a terrific, empowering sort of notion that we have access to that God.

Our forefathers and foremothers said, "The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom." But they weren't talking about cringing or being afraid that God was going to hurt us somehow. The word "fear" here means respect or awe or wonder.

In this first phrase of The Lord's Prayer, we have this unimaginable combination of simultaneous power and love, wholly other and yet closer to us than our own soul—a paradox that is beyond comprehension and understanding except for one thing: Jesus tells us that it is the truth.

In this initial week of our effort to understand the power within the so-called Lord's Prayer, we focus on who it is that we're talking to as we pray, "Our Father in heaven." It's an address. It's who we're talking to, and it's not for God's benefit that we say it. It's for our own benefit to remind us of this unbelievable paradox. We're dealing with a God who is the source of everything, the One who has all the power there is, and yet who works and wills for your own well-being.

I want to conclude by saying that I see in this first phrase of The Lord's Prayer, several important learnings. First, Jesus tells us, come regularly, come daily, before the God who is your Father, your loving parent. Come before the One who knows you as a father knows his own child. Secondly, come with confidence, because it is the same one who tells us, "Ask and you will receive"; "Knock and it will be opened"; "Seek and you will find." Come confidently because the One who has all the power that there is uses it for your well-being. And thirdly, the God to whom we have access is not some sort of front office receptionist who is going to refer us up the ladder of authority. This is the One who is in charge of all things. When we pray, we are dealing with, as incredible as it sounds, the Source of ultimate reality and truth.

Jesus says, "Go ahead. Be bold. Go for it. Lift up your heart and say the words, 'Our Father in heaven.'" Don't worry. Jesus promises us that when we do that, God is there, and God is listening, and you will be heard.

Let us pray,

Eternal God, our loving and compassionate Father, we ask you to enter our hearts and minds and take away any obstacle to prayer. Help us to feel as comfortable in our communication with you as we do with a trusted friend. For indeed you are our trusted friend. Amen.

Copyright ©2002 Bob Hansel. This series was first presented at Calvary Episcopal Church, Memphis, TN.

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