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Our Father, Who Art in Heaven

Updated: Mar 12, 2019

Lessons: Luke 4:1-13; Matthew 6:9-14

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.