Praying to “Our Father”

Kip Burke writes, “Jeremy, an 11-year-old boy who lives in a working-class neighborhood of a small Midwest city, has lots of things on his mind.  His science project is overdue, his little sister is sick, and his mom’s new boyfriend is a jerk.  On the bright side, though, he’s had one big success: he’s been adopted into a strong, caring family—the Stone Killer Crips

“Surprised?  The fatal attraction of street gangs isn’t limited to kids living in the poverty-ravaged cores of large cities, gang experts say.  Despite the abiding fear of being killed or imprisoned, America’s kids are responding to the lure of gangs because of a vacuum in the structure of their lives that goes beyond race, income or location.  To these kids it seems that gangs may be the only strong institutions in a world where family and community are crumbling.  According to those who work with them, kids who join gangs are simply looking for a stable family with rules, structure and acceptance.”

Gangs draw in people who have a hole at the core of their being that longs for acceptance and belonging—that longs to be noticed and cared for.

It is not surprising, therefore, that when Jesus teaches us how to pray, he begins right there—at our most foundational and deepest longing: our need for relationship.  The opening words of the prayer Jesus teaches are an invitation to and assurance of relationship: “Our Father.” 

We have a tendency to take these two words for granted, but the people of Jesus’ day would have been shocked by the invitation to call God “our Father.”  From their perspective, God was so holy and so aloof from them that they could not say aloud the name of God.  Even when coming upon the name of God while reading the Scriptures, they would have to skip over the word, leaving the word unspoken.  But Jesus had the audacity to invite them to say to God, “Our Father.”

When the good news of Christ reached into the Greek and Roman worlds, the Greeks and Romans were just as shocked at the idea of speaking to God as “Our Father.”  In Greek mythology, the gods were distant from and cold toward mortals.  A student of Aristotle stated bluntly, “It would be eccentric for anyone to claim that he loved Zeus,” and it would be equally absurd to think of Zeus loving any human.  In fact, in Greek mythology, when Prometheus took pity on human beings and gave them fire, Zeus was so furious that he condemned Prometheus to be chained to a rock on a remote mountain, where every day vultures attacked him, tearing at his flesh and eating his liver, then every night the liver grew back so the torture would be repeated endlessly.  The Greeks and Romans had no concept of God loving people, but Jesus had the audacity to invite them to pray to God, “Our Father….”

For many people, the term “Our Father” has been corrupted by negative experiences with their earthly fathers.  Those whose fathers neglected them end up expecting God to ignore their prayers.  Those who fathers abandoned them expect God to turn his back on them and walk away.  Those whose fathers drove them hard, demanding perfection, imagine that God is never happy with them.  Those whose fathers abused them expect God to lash out at them or to act cruelly toward them.  Those whose fathers were pushed around by others or by life look at God as weak and helpless.  Those whose fathers lacked integrity have a difficult time putting their trust in God.  This may be why Jesus invites us to pray, “Our Father in heaven….”  Jesus wants us to know that the God we speak to in prayer has not been marred by the corruption of this earth.  “Our Father in heaven” is holy and true and untainted by earthly sin.

When Wycliffe translator Ray Elliott began translating 1 Peter 5:7 into the Nebaj Ixil tribal language in Guatemala, he faced the problem of communicating a concept that was foreign to the Nebaj Ixil people.  The verse, in English, reads, “Cast all your anxiety on God because he cares for you.”  But to all of Ray Elliott’s attempts to communicate this verse in Nebaj Ixil, the indigenous translator, Cu, consistently replied, “We can’t say that!”  Finally Cu asked Ray Elliott, “You mean God really does care for each person as an individual?”

When we begin our prayers with the words, “Our Father in heaven,” we are reminded that we have called out to a God who truly does care for each person individually.

Madalyn Murray O’Hair spent much of her life trying to remove God, yet she wrote into her personal diaries at least a half-dozen times the plea, “Somebody, somewhere, love me.” 

There is a longing at the core of all of us to know that “Somebody, somewhere” loves us.  When we pray, “Our Father in heaven,” we are reminded that we are deeply and personally loved by the God of the universe, “Our Father in heaven.” 

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