Praying “Abba, father”

Summer hours continue. Daily Episcopalian will publish every other day this week.

By Bill Carroll

Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” He said to them, “When you pray, say:

Father, hallowed be your name.

Your kingdom come.

Give us each day our daily bread.

And forgive us our sins,

for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.

And do not bring us to the time of trial.”

And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, `Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And he answers from within, `Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.

“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

(Luke 11:1-13)

Lord, teach us to pray.

When his disciples ask him this, Jesus responds with a prayer we pray every day. The Our Father is deceptively simple. To pray it rightly plunges us into a world of grace—into the heart of Jesus’ own relationship with the one he called “Abba, Father.” How often, though, these words become rote recitation, rather than a mind-blowing revelation of God.

Familiarity is not the only obstacle to overcome. Feminist scholars have rightly put into question a one-sidedly masculine image of God. We need a broader spectrum of images, including feminine ones. Good examples are given in the Scriptures. But we ought not to lose sight of what “Abba, Father” meant to Jesus or underestimate the significance of the prayer he taught us.

For Jesus, the Father is the source of all goodness, the giver of our daily bread, and the wellspring of forgiveness and mercy. He has nothing to do with the God of patriarchal religion. Bathed in glory, he is powerful and generous beyond measure. Without reservation, he gives of himself to others, bringing them into being, holding them in life, and blessing them with more gifts than they could ever receive. The Father of Jesus has nothing to do with violence or domination of any kind.

Jesus goes on to teach us about persisting in prayer and boldly asking for what we need: Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!

Prayer isn’t magic. No special words can coerce God to give us what we want. Petitionary prayer is instead an appeal to the generous Source of life and light, who is always, already at work and knows our needs before we ask. Prayer involves aligning ourselves with the hidden Wisdom at work throughout the universe. When we pray, we take sides with God’s love, God’s will, God’s Kingdom. Prayer involves a fundamental breakthrough in our relationship with God. In it, we join in Christ’s own prayer to the Father. Empty handed, we approach the mercy seat. We who have given ourselves to other masters come before God in all our poverty and weakness. And though we deserve nothing, God is never, ever stingy with us.

Martin Luther used to speak about our tendency to whittle God down, to create a small god, with whom we could trade for favors. Somehow it seems easier to have a god with whom we can enter a quid pro quo. Perhaps we think we could oblige him to hear us: if only we were holy enough, if only we said the right words in the right way or could somehow earn his affection. The problem with such a god is that we can never do enough to please him. He is made in the image of fallen humanity, and we are not generous. We are shot through with unforgiveness and resentment—even malice. And, if for a while we seem able to appease this god and live with a clean conscience, we are well on our way to despair.

But the Living God is not like that. We come to this God empty-handed, or we do not come at all. By free grace, God renews us in God’s own image and likeness. God reestablishes us in our created goodness and restores our capacity to love—without the lies and duplicity and half-hearted evasions that mar our best attempts at being human.

A while ago, I shared with you a bit from Thomas Merton’s teaching on humility and spiritual poverty. Today, in light of our Gospel reading, I would like to explore his retelling of the myth of Prometheus, found in the collection of essays called Raids on the Unspeakable (New York: New Directions, 1964). Prometheus, you will recall, stole fire from the gods and was severely punished. Zeus chained him to a rock, and he had his liver torn out each day by vultures.

Merton contrasts Hesiod’s version of the story, which glories in the rebel punished and the Olympian order restored, with that of Aeschylus, with its far more complex portrait of a Zeus infected with hubris. (To these, we might add Shelly’s version, with its Romantic celebration of humanity in rebellion.)

For Merton, the fundamental sin of Prometheus is neither theft nor rebellion but idolatry. And Merton’s analysis of idolatry has much in common with Luther’s. Prometheus rebels, because he has placed his heart’s trust in something less than God. Here is what Merton says:

The small gods men have made for themselves are jealous fathers, only a little greater than their sons, only a little stronger, only a little wiser. Immortal fathers, afraid of their mortal children, they are unjustly protected by a too fortunate immortality. To fight with them requires at once heroism and despair. The man who does not know the living God is condemned, by his own gods, to this despair: because, knowing that he has made his own gods, he cannot help hoping that he will be able to overthrow them.

And so, according to Merton, we ought not to trust in the Olympian gods, or the other idols we manufacture for ourselves, because an inadequate object of trust leads inevitably to despair. These “household gods”—these “fire-hoarders”—use and abuse us as they squabble among themselves. They are miserly rivals of humankind, keeping the things we need clutched tight and locked safely away.

Not so with the Living God. This God of abundant and amazing grace has willed to give us everything as a free gift. Again, listen to these words from Merton:

Christ who had in Himself all the riches of God and all the poverty of Prometheus, came down with the fire Prometheus needed, hidden in His heart. And He had himself put to death, next to the thief Prometheus in order to show him that in reality God cannot seek to keep anything good to Himself alone. Far from killing the man who seeks the divine fire, the living God will himself pass through death so that man may have what is destined for him.

Brothers and sisters, as we approach the altar, with empty hands and feeble hearts, may we remember that it is God’s good pleasure to give us the Kingdom. As we come to the climax of the Eucharistic Prayer, may we pray together as Jesus taught us—in simplicity, sincerity, and truth.

For when we pray “Abba, Father,” we are united as his brothers and sisters. We are caught up once more in his own dying and rising, as he renews the gift that is in us by Holy Baptism. For we are children of his Father, and he has passed through death, to fill us with his love.

Beloved, if we, who are evil, know how to give our children good gifts, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.

Lord, teach us to pray.

The Rev. Dr. R. William Carroll is rector of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Athens, Ohio. He received his Ph.D. in Christian theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School. His sermons appear on his parish blog. He also blogs at Living the Gospel. He is a member of the Third Order of the Society of Saint Francis.

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