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"Our Father" in the Lord's Prayer has had a chequered journey, Ian Harris suggests that today it works best as a springboard for meditation.
The Lord's Prayer, centrepiece of Christian worship and consciousness for centuries, has become a bit of a problem not for everyone, but for enough people to warrant a further look.
Even some ministers are uncomfortable using it. Others turn to a paraphrase I have 63 modern versions that strive to wriggle around the perceived difficulties of the time-honoured text.
In our new secular awareness, I see three reasons for this:
There's a problem with the whole idea of prayer if it means talking to an actual Being called God.
Feminists object to calling God "Father".
The title "Lord" is not only male, but smacks of an obsolete hierarchy.
Some respond by giving up on this prayer altogether, despite its impeccable provenance. Others paraphrase to broaden its appeal, for example by glossing over the notion of a theistic God up in heaven, or refraining from talking to that God directly, or avoiding red-rag language like "Father" in favour of "Father-Mother of the cosmos".
All is not lost, however. The prayer can come alive again if it is given room to breathe in a meditative or mindful space.
Public worship seldom allows for that. Sometimes it is rattled off without any time to reflect and that isn't new, as the word "patter" tells us. It comes from the opening words of the Lord's Prayer in Latin, "Pater noster", our Father, and reflects the way it degenerated into a rapid-fire gabble.
American Kenneth Bailey, who lived, studied and taught in the Middle East for 60 years, helps us come to this prayer afresh. In Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, he gives a perspective on New Testament stories and incidents in light of the culture in which they occurred. And he suggests the key to the whole of the Lord's Prayer is the first word: Abba.
This is Aramaic, the language of everyday life spoken by Jesus (the word is still used in parts of the Middle East). The final "a" is the definite article, so it's literally the Father. It's used of one's own father, one's teacher, or to show respect to someone. Significantly, it's a very human, not other-worldly model.
Model of what? Not of one's own father or fathers in general, who may be loving, supportive and admirable, or controlling, abusive and mean, or a bit of both. Fathers, like mothers, are a mixed bag.
No, says Bailey, Jesus has a particular kind of Abba in mind here: it's the father in his parable of the lad who asks right now for the inheritance he would get when his father dies. It's tantamount to telling his father he wishes he were dead.
Nevertheless, the father hands the cash over, and his son promptly squanders the lot in dissolute living. Brought low, he scavenges food from a pig sty, until, in desperation, he stumbles back home.
Instead of angrily rejecting him, the father runs to greet him and throws a welcome-home party (which, understandably, cheeses off his brother, who has kept the estate going in his absence).
Here we have an Abba whose love knows no bounds and, says Bailey, "This is the only legitimate understanding of `our Father'. Any other definition is a rejection of the teaching of Jesus and a betrayal of his person."
The story of prodigal love works well for tuning in to the Lord's Prayer as meditation. Crucially, this is a metaphor of relationship rather than masculinity - indeed, for many today the father's love and forgiveness might ring truer of mothers. The rightful focus is therefore on Abba's attitude and actions, not the sex of the chief character in the parable.
This makes the rumbling debate on whether we should think of God as male, female, or both irrelevant: it seems to me totally misguided to project any sexual identity on to God. There are female metaphors of God's symbolic activity - giving life, nurturing a child, maternal caring - as well as male metaphors of a shepherd, judge and champion of the people. But such metaphors illustrate the character of Godness, not sex. They fill out the highest of all our symbols, which is God.
God should never be commandeered as a mascot of sexual identity, so that if you're male you project a male God, if a woman a female God, and so along the LBGTQI spectrum. Where that happens, God becomes a casualty of sexual identity politics, and Jesus' Abba is debased.
Taking time to meditate on that Abba, by contrast, shifts the focus entirely and lifts everything that follows in the prayer to a new level.
- Ian Harris is a journalist and commentator.