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What are we praying for when we pray the ‘Our Father?’

Renata Sedmakova/Shutterstock
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Jesus urges us to address God “When you pray, pray like this.”

The Our Father is an old familiar friend to us. It may have been the first full paragraph any of us ever memorized. This usually was by mimicking the adults, our child voices piping up on the last syllable, trailing a beat behind. But that’s how we learned it.

I also know it may well be the last full paragraph to leave our consciousness. While tending the dying, I have seen the lips of the comatose move silently in final cadence as the prayer was spoken.

This prayer is an old, old familiar friend, in good times and bad. There’s the trouble. Old reliable friends are very familiar friends; we think we already know everything there is to know.

We should stop now and again to ask: “What are we praying for when we pray the Our Father?” I shall be exploring that through the weeks of Lent, mostly for myself but if you like, feel free to read over my shoulder.

The very first thing we learn from the Our Father is who it is to whom we are praying. The answer is astonishing, and simple.

Jesus encourages us to address the Lord Most High God of Israel as Father in the intimate way of childhood. Jesus would have said Abba in Aramaic. But in Greek, the language of the New Testament, it becomes Pater and to English, Father. But in any language, the name is warm, intimate, cozy.

Most of my grown seven children call me “Father” and have for years. I’m not a stuffy guy, understand. When younger, I was Daddy or Dad (or something else when they were angry). But I like “Father.” It suggests tenderness, affection, and accessibility.

As “Father” is how Jesus urges us to address God. “When you pray, pray like this” and then we know the Lord Most High God of Israel becomes Our Father, with whom we may curl up in safety, whose arm is ever-ready for our strength and for our every need.

This Father, we learn next, is holy. That’s troubling. “Holy” sometimes isn’t anything we really want, and we don’t like it much in anybody else either.

“Holy” can get reduced to self-righteousness, or feigned piousness, or sanctimoniousness, or moral superiority. “Holy” used this way are they of the tisk-tisk mutter, the lifted eyebrow looking down on the rest of us struggling with our wants and our problems and our temptations. “Holy” isn’t holiness at all. It becomes religiosity that gets put on or taken off like a suit of clothes.

Real holiness is intended to do something and do it perfectly. An engine finely tuned, woodwork turned to exacting specification ― these things do as they ought. They function at peak potential, exactly as intended, and with smooth effectiveness they fulfill their purpose.

When we declare that Our Father’s name is holy, we are asking that God’s name will work among us as a holy name ought. The literal Greek reads “let it be-being holyized the name of you.” “Let it be always becoming holy” might work too.

We ask for his name “holyized” among us; that it will do for us and in us what his holy name is supposed to do, that we may hear his voice in clarity and truth.

We want his hallowed name to clear away the noise and the clutter and debris in our lives, so that we will hear his Word when we use his name, that God’s name will do among us his hallowed purpose.

God’s name is linked to God’s Word. This is important. It means that when we call God’s name, we are also asking for God’s Word.

We ask for an authentic word in this world where we are daily assaulted by words that finally, ultimately mean little. We are asking God, by praying God’s name, for a Word, his Word that means something above all the nattering clatter filling life.

What is God’s Word? God’s Word is a story. It is the story of Jesus. It is a true story.

My youngest son when little, 4, 5, 6, liked me to sing while driving. He’s 27 now doesn’t ask for that quite as frequently. His favorite, though, was The Wreck of Old 97, that song about the brave engineer crossing the White Oak Mountains “doing 90 miles an hour.”

And he always asked, “Is that a true story?” Yes, as it happens. But he understood even then when he was little, a true story, it means something. It means we’ve heard something more than just a tale. And the truest story means the most.

We Christians declare that the truest story ever told is also the “greatest story ever told.” So when we pray God’s name, that’s the story we want.

We pray, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” What we ask is: Father, tell us a story; tell us a True story.

And the Lord Most High God of Israel scoops us up in his arms as Our Father, puts us on his lap and tells his story that really has but one word: “Jesus.”

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