Prayer . . . is a thorny subject. What is it? How does it work? What about when it doesn’t seem to work? These days, I admit, I have grown tired of battling these questions in my head. I gravitate toward prayer that is contemplative, that is less about asking, and less about words, and more about simply seeking the presence of God. And yet, intercessory prayer, prayer for particular people and situations, prayer that brings before God our specific needs, is such an important part of our tradition. We engage in this sort of prayer every Sunday. And when folks ask the pastor to lead in prayer—before a meal, at the hospital, or during a rally for justice—intercessory prayer is generally what they are expecting.
I think Tim Nolan’s poem “Prayer Chain” expresses beautifully the contradictions of prayer. Since poets use spacing with intentionality, I puzzled over what Nolan means by the awkward line break that creates the phrase “dying on the parish prayer chain.” I think this must be a humorous way of expressing how difficult and awkward it can be to be the one who is prayed for. Dying is hard enough. Dying in public, on the prayer chain, sounds downright embarrassing. The laundry list of other people’s problems—sickness, destitution, struggling marriages and out-of-control children—evokes the gossipy, judgmental flavor intercessory prayer can have. And a few lines down from that, the image of praying “in quiet rooms, sipping decaf coffee” far from the actual fray of the world captures the feeling of absurdity that often arises when we stop to think critically about intercessory prayer. Can we really say that our prayers do something? Does God answer us? What about the times when God seems silent?
The other constant of our communal prayer, rooted in thousands of years of tradition, is the prayer Jesus taught his disciples, the Lord’s prayer. I’m grateful for the clarity of pastor and professor David Lose, who says:
We—preachers and hearers alike—tend to fixate on the mechanics of prayer: how, why, when. Jesus’ instructions to his followers, however, focus on a different question: who.
When Jesus taught his followers to pray, he instructed them to address God as “Abba.” Amid our very legitimate concerns about patriarchal language and imagery for God, I believe we may have lost sight of what a radical move Jesus made here. Though the Gospels are written in Greek, Jesus spoke Aramaic. The Aramaic word “Abba” is an intimate term that means something more like “Daddy” than “Father.”
Jesus did not view God as a divine fixer, a heavenly judge, or an almighty king. For Jesus, God most resembled a loving parent. Lose puts it this way:
In this passage . . . Jesus invites us into relationship with God through prayer, offering us the opportunity to approach [God] with the familiarity, boldness, and trust of a young child running to her parent for both provision and protection. . . . Prayer, according to both this passage and Luke’s larger portrait of Jesus, is not primarily about getting things from God but rather about the relationship we have with God.
An interesting possibility occurred to me as I mused over Nolan’s poem. I love how the poet portrays the pray-ers themselves, the “old mothers.” I wonder if these old mothers at prayer actually are themselves an image of God? According to the poet, their prayers have two essential elements. The first is loving companionship and healing empathy: “All the old mothers were praying intensely for all the pain of their children.” God, like the old mothers at prayer, feels our pain with us. All suffering children are God’s children. Even fully grown-up people are the beloved children of our old mother God. Whatever particular words the old mothers use, the poet argues, their prayers boil down to asking for the most important, essential thing: life. “They were praying for life.” Our old mother God is the one who yearns for life on behalf of creation, and who seeks to guide all her children toward the most vibrant, abundant life possible.
Metaphors involving family are complicated of course. For those whose relationship with a parent has been painful or abusive, trying to relate to God as Abba may be counterproductive. When Jesus calls God Abba, though, the point is not God’s male-ness, God’s father-ness or even God’s parental qualities. The point is to invite us into intimate and trusting relationship, into companionship, even friendship with God. In fact, in her book Freeing Jesus Diana Butler Bass mentions that Abba is linguistically related to the word “friend” in Hebrew. Bass reclaims the experience that shaped her faith in childhood—that Jesus is our friend and that he teaches us how to be friends with God and with each other. She calls friendship “one of the primary spiritual purposes of creation.”(p.10) “The story of the New Testament,” she writes,
Is that the risk of friendship is the risk that frees us from fear and reshapes our lives—it is better to go together than to go alone. Jesus befriends us, opening our hearts to genuine love and the capacity to forgive each other, welcome all, and act justly in the world. . . . Friendship makes us different from the person we would be if we were alone. (p. 18)
The parable that Jesus offers following the Lord’s Prayer is a little confusing. I find it most helpful to read it as a further illustration of what Jesus meant when he called God “Abba.” In those days there were no 24-hour grocery stores. If a friend came asking to be fed and housed, you were obligated to help. Even if it was midnight, you were in bed and you had nothing to eat in the house. So the friend who knocked on the door late at night looking for assistance in providing food to a friend was not behaving inappropriately. It was the friend who refused to get up who did wrong. This friend violated fundamental agreements around hospitality in the ancient world. I read this story to mean that human friends sometimes fail each other. So we must be “shameless” (that is very bold) in seeking what we need from each other. God, by contrast, is a friend who is always faithful, who is always there for us. We should ask, seek and knock, Jesus says, because we can trust God to provide for us. If parents know how to give their children good gifts, then God, as our loving Abba, will certainly be able to do the same. And the way God provides for us, the way God is faithful, is through the gift of the Holy Spirit, through a powerful yet an unseen presence that shares our pain and that seeks life with us and for us. Through the Holy Spirit, our Abba guides, inspires, and empowers us, and yet our Abba always respects our freedom.
One thing I’ve learned the hard way as a parent is how to let go of control. I’ve found it helpful to think of myself as a coach.
“Hey, Mom, I’m leaving for school!”
“Ok, kiddo. I just want to mention that it’s pretty chilly outside today. You might want to wear a hat.”
“Well, I don’t want you to get cold. Would you please find a hat?” I’ve learned that my job is done at this point. My best next move is to shut up and walk away and let the kid decide what to do.
The prayer Jesus taught his disciples is simple and focused on basic needs—respect for what is holy, daily bread, the mutual forgiveness of debt. Yes, the prayer references a kingdom. It’s clear; however, from the whole of Jesus’ teachings that he used this term subversively and ironically, to describe a community of friends, a commonwealth of loving companionship that stood as an alternative to the oppressive ways of empire. The version of the Lord’s prayer that has been handed down to us has a triumphal ending tacked on that did not originate with Jesus, “The kingdom, the power and the glory be yours forever.” This doxology reflects the church’s later characterization of God as “the almighty” who controls the world. Unfortunately, this view of God has the tendency to turn our prayer into an act of groveling before a capricious tyrant instead of an expression of intimate trust in a being who loves us deeply.
Jesus instead invites us address God as a loving parent, a wise companion, a faithful friend. I think Jesus would like the idea of an old mother God whose prayers join our prayers. I think Jesus would agree that God is the one who feels the pain of all her children intently and who is most of all seeking life on our behalf. In the end, I solidly share the poet’s conclusion that the act of prayer, prayer of all kinds, though sometimes confounding, is worthwhile, important, and utterly beautiful. “I’ll take them—the mystical prayers of old mothers—it matters—all this patient and purposeful love.” Amen.