The Lord’s Prayer: What’s in a name?

By Rev. Anne Swallow Gillis — One of the things pastors love most is when other people pray, not us. Seriously, one of the most frustrating things is to have people assume that I am the only one in the room who can pray…out loud…appropriately. Over these next five weeks of Lent, I’m inviting us to take an honest look at our prayer lives. Not so much so we will start doing it “right” – whatever that might mean. I don’t believe prayer is simply about asking for a pony, or a new computer game, or even grownup things like a pay raise or a date, or even a miracle cure. I’m not talking about praying more efficiently or accurately, so God will change God’s mind and grant our wishes more often. I’m talking about prayer, words and silence, breath and movement that connect us most deeply with ourselves and with God who dwells within us. Prayer that connects us with this present moment, with all its joy and hurt. Prayer that enables us to maintain a sense of equilibrium, a certain flexible stance, while delights, success and surprises, and failure and suffering come into our lives. Lent is a good time to bore down into our prayer lives, and see what is or what is not going on for each of us.

I’m suggesting a journey through the Lord’s Prayer as our way in this year. Not because it is a magic formula that will get us what we want, but in large part because Jesus said something like: “Okay, you want to know about prayer? You wonder what I am up to when I retreat from the crowds, and go away by myself for some quiet, to talk with God? Here…start with this.” Which I find helpful, because it isn’t about having a correct belief to start with, or even a really firm sense that God is there listening. It’s sort of “do this and see what happens.”

The Lord’s Prayer. You may have said this prayer a thousand times over your lifetime, or it may be entirely new to you. Those who grow up in the church probably learn it as children, and it sure can seem pretty rote as we just rattle it off each Sunday. You say it at a rapid clip and finish it in less than 20 seconds,15  if you use the words “debt” instead of “tres-pass-es.” Jesus created this prayer at the request of his disciples, drawing on the beliefs, cosmology and mysticism of his first-century Judaism. It’s probably the best summary we have of his own values and unique perspective on the life well-lived. During the next few weeks I will offer some different lenses through which we might see this “inherited treasure” that has come down to us through the centuries (phrase from Neil Douglas-Klotz, “Prayers of the Cosmos”). I urge us to soak in these words through each week, and to work and play with them in some different ways.

In Jesus’ time, it was not unusual for teachers, rabbis, healers to teach a certain prayer to their followers. Jesus replied to his disciples’ request by saying: “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be Your name.” This is probably closest to the original words of Jesus, although the version from Matthew’s gospel may sound more familiar to us. (Take a look at the front of your bulletin, where we have included the references in three of the Gospels. Gospel of John records long prayers of Jesus, but it doesn’t mention this one!)  The Matthew version, written in the later part of the first century well after Jesus died, is a bit expanded and was commonly used by the early churches in their worship life together. “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name,” which is our focus this morning.

In ancient times, one’s name had a certain power: it proclaimed your selfhood. Jesus starts by naming God: our Father. Immediately there is a communal piece to prayer with this word “our.” Apparently, we don’t do praying, or following Jesus, alone. We’re all connected in this act, to one another and to this Being. And the name gives us a clue about who this Being is. “Father” is a name for God rooted in the Jewish tradition, but Jesus adds something new we’ll consider in a moment. I included this Exodus reading this morning, from the Hebrew Scriptures, because these sacred Jewish writings are foundational to understanding the name and nature of God. These are anchor texts for Jesus’ life and ministry. This story of Jesus’ ancestor Moses and Moses’ encounter with God is the backstory to how Jesus understood God. Moses, born and raised in Egypt, is now in hiding as a shepherd because he killed an Egyptian foreman who was brutalizing a Hebrew slave. In this interaction with a burning bush, this encounter with an angel and finally with God’s voice, Moses is told that God wants to free the Hebrew people from oppression in Egypt and take them to a new land. Moses will lead them and God will go with him in this ominous task. Unconvinced that this is a good idea, Moses finally asks, “Look, I can tell them it is the God of their ancestors who has sent me, but they’re going to want to know your name.” God replies, “Tell them I AM has sent me to you.”  Literally, “I AM WHO I AM,” or even more accurately, “I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE.” Whoever it is – whatever – God’s name and nature is not static. By implication, there is going to be an evolving understanding in this relationship between God and God’s people, between God and all humanity, perhaps even an evolution in the very nature of God over time.

Jesus’ understanding of God reflects this evolution of that comes down through the Jewish Law and the Prophets. This is not a distant, capricious God, who punishes and rewards at whim. This is a forgiving God of steadfast mercy. And Jesus is going to push this tradition, like any mystic sage who also happens to be a creative and prophetic reformer. He will address God by an unusual name.

But what’s new here? God had been called “Father” in Hebrew Scriptures. One of the problems in understanding Jesus’ original intent is that he and his followers spoke Aramaic, the native Middle Eastern language of ordinary people at the time. After Jesus was killed and his followers experienced his resurrected presence among them, his sayings and stories about him continued to circulate in oral form in Aramaic. These were eventually recorded in Greek, which is the language of the New Testament. And as usual, some things have gotten lost in translation. Aramaic scholar Neil Douglas-Klotz, in his book “Prayers of the Cosmos,” claims that we have lost considerable “heart consciousness and prophetic juice” of the original Aramaic tongue. His work is controversial but compelling. He points to other familiar teachings of Jesus such as “be you perfect” – frankly, words that tend to set my teeth on edge. This scholar’s translation from the Aramaic suggests that Jesus was saying not “be perfect,” but “be you all-embracing.”

Douglas-Klotz draws our attention to the name “Father” at the beginning of the prayer. This name has become a bone of contention in many congregations: “Father,” in Aramaic, “Abba.” This traditional, patriarchal language is a real problem for some of us, and for others of us it is a comforting and well-loved title for God. But think for a moment of how Jesus could have started this prayer: “Our high and mighty one” or “Our Judge,” or “Our warrior king,” titles also used in the Hebrew scriptures. But Jesus uses the word “Abba” to address God. In Aramaic, this word was a child’s word: it meant Daddy or Papa. It suggests closeness, warmth, dependency. I have learned an additional piece about this word abba from reading John Dominic Crossan’s book “The Greatest Prayer: Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message of the Lord’s Prayer.” The author claims that in their male-dominated society, the word “father” was often shorthand for “parents” – at that time, commonly father and mother. So the word “Abba” was not only intimate, relational language, but it also referred to what my kids used to call “the parental units.”

There’s one other new learning about this Aramaic word for “Father,” “Abba,” that I find fascinating. The root of the word also means “rises and shines, vibrates, in space.” I can feel my brain synapses crackle as I imagine this reality. Jesus wanting us to know that this shining vibratingness, the Oneness of God, was not something far away but includes every center of every activity and place we experience, and that has the potential for being. Vibratingness. I can’t help but think about the recent scientific discovery of gravitational waves emanating from the collision of two black holes in a far corner of the universe, billions of years ago, finally washing over our earth and being recorded! “Astronomy has grown ears,” proclaimed one theoretical physicist (Lawrence M Krauss, New York Times, 2/14/16). Could we be sensing, hearing, God’s vibratingness in a new way?

Of particular interest to me is that the Aramaic word for “heaven” actually means “the universe.” What looks like a geographical spot separate from us and our planet, “our Father who art in heaven,” is actually a place all around and within us. Ponder this for a minute; put on this different lens about “heaven.” Heaven is not a place separate from us, with angels strumming their harps and golden streets, and some kind of stern guy at the front gate with a book full of our personal sins. Heaven is a place all around us and within us. Filled with vibrating waves! God is in all this, shining, rippling, washing over and through our very being. This is sacred stuff moving through us, within us – holy, hallowed be God’s name!

Play with this first part of the prayer this week. Say it when you wake up in the morning. Set it to some vibrating sound as you say it. Sing it on one note: our Father who art in heaven hallowed be thy name. Try out the translation we will pray together in a few minutes, roll it around on your tongue: Ground of all being, Mother of life, Father of the universe, Your name is sacred, beyond speaking. Try just this first part as a breath prayer, while stopping at a traffic light: Our Father / who art in heaven/ hallowed be/ thy name. In and out. While washing dishes, shoveling snow, bathing the children, walking the dog, before checking your email. This is Jesus’ gift to us…let’s start to soak in it. Amen.