top of page

Our Father, Who Art in Heaven

Updated: Mar 12, 2019

We always begin Lent with Jesus’ forty-day journey into the wilderness. Lent itself is modeled on this story. Jesus has just been baptized, and as he came up out of the water, he heard God’s voice telling him, “This is my beloved.” But in the wilderness, he’s tempted to believe he’s someone else: “You are the one who can turn stone into bread. You are the one who can jump from the temple. You are the one who can make others bow to your power. Prove who you are.” But Jesus responds, “No. I am the Beloved of God.” His whole life and ministry is claiming that identity in the midst of everything.

Lent invites us, as well, to listen again to that voice, to the One who calls us the Beloved. Henri Nouwen wrote, “Many voices ask for our attention. There is a voice that says, ‘Prove that you are a good person.’ Another voice says, ‘You’d better be ashamed of yourself.’ There also is a voice that says, ‘Nobody really cares about you,’ and one that says, ‘Be sure to become successful, popular, and powerful.’ But underneath all these often very noisy voices is a still, small voice that says, ‘You are my Beloved, my favor rests on you.’ That’s the voice we need most of all to hear. …. That’s what prayer is,” writes Nouwen. “It is listening to the voice that calls us ‘my Beloved.’” This year during Lent we will listen for that voice in the Lord’s Prayer.

Apparently, one of the hardest things to grasp when learning the English language – a difficult language for many reasons – is emphasis. The meaning of a sentence can change completely, depending on which word you emphasize. I’m guessing everyone has played this game with one sentence or another: I love you. I love you. I love you. Three different meanings.

Unfortunately, we don’t have any translation that tells us which of Jesus’ words to underline, italicize, or put in all caps. We say the Lord’s Prayer every week in worship, usually mumbling or whispering it, in more or less monotone. But which words did Jesus think were most important?

Take “Father,” for example. Did Jesus think the word “Father” was important? My hunch is, yes and no. No, I don’t think Jesus was trying to tell us God is male. For two thousand years, Christians have spoken about God as though God has a gender, and it is male. Two thousand years is plenty long enough to develop a habit, and of course, the history of the way we talk about God goes back thousands of years before that. And we’re not talking about just any history here. We’re talking about a history with the authority of Scripture. While both the Old and New Testaments use many masculine and feminine images to describe God’s relationship with us, we can’t escape the fact that the biblical writers consistently understand God as male.

Well, of course they did. The biblical writers were the product of patriarchy, and that’s not a critique; it’s just a fact. More recently, Christians are reclaiming what we have long known: that God is beyond all naming and images, that no single description, or even combination of images, can adequately describe the mystery of God. As one writer put it, every word we use to describe God is simultaneously true and false, both enriching and limiting our understanding of God. It’s true, for example, that God’s love for us is like a loving father’s, who is always ready to forgive our failings, who accepts and nurtures and protects us. But it is simultaneously false, because God is much, much more than a forgiving and nurturing father.

We’re also increasingly aware, as Elizabeth Johnson writes, that “The symbol of God functions.”[1] The words we use matter because they shape our response to God, and to each other, in profound ways. It follows then, that the names we choose can be helpful to some people, but hurtful to others. “Father” might not be a helpful metaphor to a woman whose own human father abused her. If a man hates women, might his hatred be reinforced by exclusively male metaphors for God? If a little girl has been told that she’s made in God’s image, but she can see for herself that her brother is closer to that image, is it harder for her to identify herself as a beloved daughter of God? A little girl’s actual letter to God poignantly demonstrates this. “Dear God,” she writes, “Are boys better than girls? I know you are one, but try to be fair.” If you’ve wondered why we use non-gendered language referring to God in Scripture readings and worship, now you know.

So – Father is not important in implying that God has a gender. However, Father is enormously important when you consider the relationship that Jesus is describing. In Aramaic, which Jesus spoke, he used the word Abba. Abba is more like “papa” or “daddy” – more intimate, more tender. Before Jesus, Scripture’s primary metaphor for God was “King.” God had been described as “like a father,” but Jesus took the giant step of intimacy and relationship in calling God his Abbahis Daddy – and ours. The Abba of Jesus is strong and tender, loving and compassionate, indulgent and protective – the best of what we traditionally think of as both masculine and feminine. So, should we start the Lord’s Prayer with, “Our Mother/Father/God”? Or perhaps, “Our Abba”? Maybe it’s time to find a new parent word that doesn’t describe gender.

It’s only when we treat the metaphor of God as father as exclusive and literal that we’re in danger of creating stumbling blocks. After all, “father” is and always will be a very powerful and positive metaphor for many people. Think of a father gazing with tender delight into the eyes of his newborn; think of the father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, who celebrated when his child came home, no questions asked. As Frederick Buechner writes, “It has become so commonplace to speak of God as ‘our Father’ that we forget what an extraordinary metaphor it once was.”[2]

Okay, then, what about the word, “heaven”? “Our Father who art in heaven”? Should we emphasize that word? Why did Jesus mention this? Is Jesus saying God is not present with us here and now, or even within us, as we generally assume – but rather, that God is distant from us?

Pádraig Ó Tuama writes, “… the only way to pray well is to pray regularly enough that it becomes a practice of encounter.[3] An encounter means an encounter with someone, with something, “other” than yourself. “In heaven” is less about geography and more about this otherness. When we pray, we encounter God – it’s not just me and my own thoughts or my own musings. God is “other,” and we are not God. And yet in spite of difference and distance, God is present.

I think my favorite word in the opening phrase of the Lord’s Prayer is “our.” Our Father; our Mother/Father/God. Did you every notice that throughout the Lord’s Prayer, God is addressed by the community? Our Father. Give us our daily bread. Not me, or mine. Us.

Praying the Lord’s Prayer draws us into the community of God’s faithful people: the Church in the past, present, and future. But just maybe Jesus was pointing beyond the Church when he said “Our.” Maybe the Jesus who crossed barriers of all kinds to include Samaritans and Gentiles and those considered unclean by religious law meant that God is bigger than the God of our tribe or our clan or our denomination or even our faith tradition.

John Buchanan tells a story about when President-elect Barack Obama invited Rick Warren, author and the pastor of the Saddleback Church in Southern California, to deliver the invocation at his inauguration. The choice annoyed some people because of Warren’s position on several controversial issues, but it pleased others. Clergy all over the country, regardless of our politics, were eager to see how Warren would deal with Jesus. If he prayed in Jesus’ name, he would offend Jews, Muslims, everybody who was not Christian. If he did not pray in Jesus’ name, he would offend his evangelical friends, some of whom believe that God doesn’t pay attention to prayers that aren’t offered in Jesus’ name, and that not to say it is to miss an opportunity to witness as a Christian.

Most of us clergy know the dilemma. When Buchanan’s sons were middle school athletes, he was asked to give the invocation at a middle school athletic banquet. He said he tries to avoid praying at these kinds of events, not because he’s ungrateful or doesn’t believe in prayer, but because he knows someone is going to be unhappy with him no matter which way he goes on Jesus. But two-time Heisman Trophy winner Archie Griffin was the speaker, and Buchanan wanted to meet him, so he agreed to do it. The town where he lived at the time was 35 percent Jewish, so Buchanan thanked God for football, pizza, the school, the teachers and coaches, the town, and for Ohio State and Archie Griffin. He finished up with “in your holy name.” The middle school kids applauded, which he said was the first and only time he’d been applauded for a prayer. Afterward, an evangelical buddy of his, also the father of a middle school football player, reprimanded him for not witnessing to his faith in Jesus Christ by praying in Jesus’ name. He’d missed a great opportunity to do some evangelism, he said. The friend was not persuaded by Buchanan’s explanation that he thought Jesus himself wouldn’t want people to be offended by the use of his name, particularly his fellow Jews.

So clergy all over the country were professionally interested, you might say, in how Rick Warren would handle this dilemma at the Inauguration. Warren did it creatively by praying “in the name of the one who changed my life.” He used the Hebrew word for Jesus, “Yeshua,” and “Essa,” the Arabic word for Jesus in the Qur’an. He said, “Jesus, who taught us to pray,” and then Warren prayed the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus taught the prayer, of course – but it doesn’t use his name. “Not bad,” Buchanan thought. He’d try to remember it if he were ever invited to pray at a middle school athletic banquet again. [4]

The Lord’s Prayer doesn’t mention Jesus; in fact, it doesn’t mention any particularly Christian doctrines at all. It lifts up the concerns held by all people of faith, maybe even all people. With the word, “Our,” the Lord’s Prayer sweeps everybody into its embrace. Not only is it inherently unselfish, it is inherently inclusive. Maybe when Jesus prayed, “Our Father” – our Mother/Father/God – he was teaching his disciples to pray not to a Jewish God or to a Christian God but to the God who created and so loved the world; the whole world.[5] Just maybe Jesus was teaching the disciples – and us – that the God claims every single one of us as God’s Beloveds.

Nadia Bolz-Weber writes, “We are tempted to doubt our innate value precisely to the degree that we are insecure about our identity from, and our relationship to, God.”[6] That was Jesus’ challenge in the wilderness, and that, my friends, is precisely our challenge, our journey, in the season of Lent. Whether you say “Our Father” or “Our Mother” or “Our Parent,” the important word is “our” because we belong to God. God has named us and claimed us as God’s own, and in life and in death, we belong to God.[7] Bolz-Weber writes, “When what seems to be depression or compulsive eating or narcissism or despair or discouragement or resentment or isolation takes over, try picturing it as a vulnerable and desperate force” – something like the devil described in the Luke passage – “seeking to defy God’s grace and mercy in your life. And then tell it to piss off” – these are Bolz-Weber’s words – “and say defiantly to it, … ‘I am God’s,’ because nothing else gets to tell you who you are.”[8]

Go ahead and say, “Our Father,” or “Our Abba,” or “Our Mama,” or “Our Zaza.”[9] Whatever name you speak, nothing else gets to tell you who you are. May it be so for you, and for me. Amen.

© Joanne Whitt 2019 all rights reserved.

[1] Elizabeth Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (New York: Crossroad, 1994), 4.

[2] Frederick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark: A Doubter’s Dictionary (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993), 52.

[3] Pádraig Ó Tuama, Daily Prayer with the Corrymeela Community (London, UK: Canterbury Press Norwich, 2017), xii.

[4] John M. Buchanan, “What About Jesus?” February 22, 2009,

[6] Nadia Bolz-Weber, Pastrix (New York: Jericho Books, 2013), 139.

[7] “A Brief Statement of Faith,” 1983, the Book of Confessions of the Presbyterian Church (USA).

[8] Bolz-Weber, 142.

[9] Zaza is an example of a gender-neutral parent title used by children of gender non-binary parents.

39 views0 comments


bottom of page