Our Father, Who Art in Heaven

One of the crossroads in my life was a period in the late 1980’s when I had just completed six months of work as a Labourer-Teacher in the Canadian north with Frontier College. My work there was to fetch resources for carpenters and iron workers who were building forms for concrete to be poured that would eventually become a large scale Hydro-electric dam. I was paid well for that work but Frontier College placed me there to provide free tutoring on basic literacy for the largely immigrant work force. When that intense experience came to an end I did not know what to do, I had saved all of my income and I could reply on UIC to continue a steady flow of revenue but I had no purpose, no place to go. That’s when my old friend Matt wrote to invite me to live with him and three other Mennonites in downtown Winnipeg.

Matt invited me into his Mennonite world which included Friday night gatherings of young couples, most who had met at the Mennonite Bible College. These persons, all my age, held similar views on matters of faith but their upbringing as Mennonites were all very different than my own in the mainline church. My own experience of faith was largely individual in orientation, I went to a church but the members were not “family”, they were akin to fellow members of a club. I knew them and they knew me and based on what I did and they did we related to each other in doing “the Lord’s work”.

But these Mennonites had grown up a minority in Canada, indeed their feelings about Canada was somewhat mixed. Canada had given them freedom and security but we had not always respected their pacifism. Mennonites saw themselves less as good Canadians and more as Christians, loyal to Jesus above all. Further, their connection to each other was less about a club and more about a world-wide movement. Thus these young people, unlike me, had all given a year or two of service in a global context, not to converting people but to witnessing to their faith by offering their skills in agriculture and public education. These Friday night gatherings were opportunities for these believers to share what they were learning, living out their faith, and putting their gifts into practice in the community, around the world.

I have read two excellent books to try and understand The Lord’s Prayer, one by two of my favorite authors Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon Lord, Teach Us, The Lord’s Prayer & the Christian Life and the other by Bishop NT (Tom) Wright The Lord & His Prayer. Hauerwas and Willimon spend a lot of their first chapter on the word “Our”, specifically writing about what we mean when we say that word in the prayer. In our mainline churches we often focus on our own individual walk with Jesus and when we think of “us” or “our” we are thinking less of sisters and brothers in Christ and more of those we know, those who are our kin, those in the church we like. They write, “Think of Christianity, not primarily as a set of doctrines, a volunteer organization, or a list of appropriate behaviours. Think of Christianity as naming a journey of a people.”

In other words “Our” is a state of mind, a collective understanding that we are in this together, that we seek to live out, to witness to, our faith. “Our Father, who art in Heaven” is a way of saying that we set out on this journey together, and together we will live out this prayer, this faith, in our community, in our world. Another insight from Hauerwas and Willimon is that the early church used this prayer to instruct new believers in how to live out their faith. Again, these new followers of Jesus would be instructed that they are organically connected to a global, world-wide movement, all of us related by a common parentage in God whom some call Father and some Mother. It is simply not enough to call God my personal Father or Mother, this Holy Parent has many children, myself being only one of them. We are in this together. “Salvation, Christian salvation, is not some individual relationship between me and God. Rather, salvation is being drafted into an adventure, having our lives commandeered by God to go on a journey called the Christian faith. This prayer, this Our Father, is the naming of, and the participation in, the means whereby we are saved.” Regarding other faiths Hauerwas and Willimon are clear, “What God does for Buddhists and Hindus is God’s business. All we can do in the Lord’s Prayer is to testify to God, and anyone else who will listen, how God has dealt with us.”

In short Hauerwas and Willimon want us to understand that when we say “Our” we are not being possessive. The danger in taking the “Our” into our hearts as “Our friends” and “Our country” and “Our family” is that it domesticates our dynamic and transformational God. It is God who has befriended all of us, not we who have chosen God. “It is comforting to know that even though you don’t always feel like a Christian, though you don’t always act like a Christian, much less believe like a Christian, your relationship as a friend of God is not based on what you have felt, done or believed. Rather, you are a friend of God because of God’s choice of you in Jesus through the church…The journey with God is not a test to see if we can make the grade with God and be good enough to be friends with God. The journey with God begins with God in Christ calling us friends, inviting us to go because God wants us to be part of the journey. Friendship with God is the name of the journey rather than the destination.”

Finally, Hauerwas and Willimon suggest that the term “Heaven” with reference to the location of God has an important part to play in how we see Our Mother/Father God as not only our own. “Most of the time it is difficult for us to see much beyond ourselves. God tends to take a larger view. Looking at the world, God’s view is not limited to our national boundaries. Heaven provides a good vantage point for the whole picture.”

Bishop NT (Tom) Wright focuses his attention on this first portion of The Lord’s Prayer on the word “Father”. Wright’s attention to this word has less to do with gender and more to do with what a parent would want for her/his child. Specifically Wright grounds his analysis of this word in the Old Testament, the roots of our faith. “The first occurrence in the Hebrew Bible of the idea of God as Father comes when Moses marches in boldly to stand before the Pharaoh, and says: Thus says Yahweh: Israel is my son, my firstborn, let my people go, that they may serve me (Exodus 4:21-22).” As Wright points out, those the world saw as slaves were in God’s eyes daughters and sons”. If we are all truly children of a living God then no one can hold us down, thwart our freedom to be whom we are called to be, to categorize us in any way that makes us appear less than any other son or daughter of God. “The very first words of the Lord’s Prayer therefore contain within them not just intimacy, but revolution. Not just familiarity; hope.”

As Wright points out, “The word Father, then, concentrates our attention on the doubly revolutionary message and mission of Jesus…we are called to step out; as apprentice children, into a world of pain and darkness.”

My friends our call in this familiar prayer is not to become piously holy or even kinder and gentler or even to find comfort. Our call in this most formative of prayers is to let the words transform us, change us, make us new. This is our prayer, this prayer is for us to say together, in community, in our family of faith. We say this prayer to remind us who and whose we are. This prayer is our passport, it is our identity, and it is our mission, to set the captives free, to be free to serve this God who calls us friend, who calls us son or daughter, who calls us to love our neighbours as we love ourselves. “Our Faither/Mother, who art in Heaven”. “We are not alone…we live in God’s world.” Amen.