When you pray say Abba

Our granddaughter Claire will be eight on the 15th August. Although we live next door to each other, we went to Italy this last June as a family. I had a special opportunity to observe her enjoying her relationship with her father. Unfortunately, for her mother, Claire is at that terrible age when daughters like to pit their wills against their mothers. This internecine struggle between mother and daughter only intensifies Claire’s adoration of her father. Maybe his turn will come as Claire negotiates the complex process of relational development, but for the time being there is a quality of love, admiration, adoration, and intimacy communicated every time Claire utters the word Daddy.

In speaking of him to me she will often say, my Daddy –this, or my Daddy -that. When I hear Claire utter the word Daddy, I have an internal experience that is akin to a melting sensation. It is a beautiful experience that carries the strongest intimations of warmth, and the intimacy of unquestioned safety. However, as I reflect upon the experience in the light of Luke 11:1-13, I have two questions that arise. Firstly, when Jesus told the disciples: when you pray, say Abba; is my melting experience what Jesus had in mind? Abba most directly translates into English not as Our Father, but as Daddy? If so then my second question is: when I address God as Daddy, why is it so hard for me to capture the experience I glimpse that Claire has in relation to her Daddy?

This intimation of warmth, and the intimacy that can only arise from a sense of unquestioned trust and safety is the experience Jesus clearly had in mind when he told his disciples: when you pray, say Abba hallowed be your name.  Like nearly everything Jesus said to his disciples, this would have provoked in them the error message –this does not compute.  Intimacy, affection, and unquestioning trust were not expectations they had when addressing God. For them, God was the God-of-our Fathers, the creator of the universe. 2,000 years separate us, and yet we are not so different from them in our expectations when addressing God in prayer.

Sadly, and paradoxically, I feel more comfortable with a little distance between me and God. Temperamentally, I am more comfortable addressing God as Our Father, rather than as Daddy – which if truth be told leaves me feeling a little silly. Maybe that’s because I am an Episcopalian? Yet, it seems that it took the early Jewish Christians around 100 years before they could reclaim addressing God as Abba instead of God of our Fathers. There is something in the religious DNA the balks at too much intimacy. How can you hallow, which means to honor and respect the name of God, if you call God Daddy? Yet, this is what my parched soul cries out for.

I am not alone in wanting more in my relationship with God. However, I am mostly aware of fearing to risk wanting more. Comfortable though we may be with a little formal distance, do not our hearts ache with a deep longing for more? Fearing we cannot find the-more-we-long-for in our relationship with God, we seek it in less appropriate places, through less satisfying experiences. The result is we ache with feelings of alienation and loneliness. Do we not all long for that depth of relationship observable in Claire’s feelings towards her Daddy. Here is the quality of love, which alone, is able to satisfy our soul hunger. It is this quality of love and trust that Jesus shockingly holds out to us as the fruit of prayer that always begins with, Daddy, holy is your name.

Jesus’ teaching on prayer is short and simple. He shares his own experience of prayer as the speaking-out of relationship. Relationship characterized by the intimacy expressed through addressing the creator of the universe as Daddy with all the attendant consequences of relationship that I observe my granddaughter enjoying with her Daddy. This realization is so challenging for many of us that we never penetrate beneath the relational filter afforded by the more distancing term, Father. Why is this?

In our human relationships we learn the importance of the right amount of distance. As a generalization, the function of distance in relationship is to protect us from rejection on the one hand, and on the other, the experience of feeling engulfed. We learn these patterns through our early experience of our parents. It’s not just fathers, it’s also mothers that figure significantly in the way we learn to manage distance – by which I mean the achievement of the right amount of distance in our relational lives. We never really get this calibration right. We tend to find a hovering place somewhere on a continuum between merger and separation, that is always unsatisfacory.

Some of us impulsively gravitate towards the merger end with the result that we experience rejection when others are driven by us to push us away. Some of us experience feeling marooned towards the separation end with the result that we experience disconnection no matter how socially skilled we become at masking this. For some of us, we move back and forth in a volatile way, one moment experiencing too much closeness, the next too much separation. This experience, unfortunately more and more common in society. It was aptly caught by the title of Jerold Kereisman and Hal Straus’ little psychological self-help book: I Hate You –Don’t Leave Me http://www.amazon.com/Hate-You-Dont-Leave-Understanding/dp/0380713055

Jesus does not simply hand his disciples a form of words. He demonstrates what the praying of the words involves in the three stories that follow. In the story of the man waking his neighbor at midnight for three loaves of bread we can note two startling characteristics of Jesus’ attitude to prayer.

1. The request for three loaves is an excessive request given that bread was baked fresh each morning and not kept longer than the day of baking. No one would have at midnight that much bread left over from the day. So prayer involves the audacity of asking for a lot rather than a little.

2.  We are told that the neighbor gives-in, not because he pities the man  or feels generous, but because of the man’s perseverance. Perseverance is not the meaning of the Greek word Luke uses. Anaideia does not translate as perseverance but as shamelessness, as in not to feel shame. Prayer involves abandoning our cherished self-respect and exposing ourselves to the shame of wanting and longing. For us, it’s a shameful thing to be dependent upon our longings. For us, it’s also a fearful thing to risk the humiliation of exposing our own need. In our prayer with God we must be audacious, impudent, beyond shame in our expression of our need of God. 

Prayer involves the courage to ask in order to receive, to seek in order to find, to knock so that opportunities will open to us. We often hear this text with the emphasis on the receiving, finding, and opening as if God is some kind of request vending machine. For me, this text is put into perspective in the famous Holman Hunt painting The Light of the World,  now hanging in St Paul’s Cathedral, London. Jesus is pictured standing with ou_kbc_pcf24_largea lamp, knocking at a door overgrown with ivy and brambles. He clearly seeks entry, yet on closer inspection the door has no handle. The implication is that it can only be opened from the inside. What is depicted here is the door of the heart. Hunt captures what it means to knock and the door will be opened. Paradoxically, it is Jesus who is doing the knocking, and it is we who have the power to open or not.

In Jesus’ teaching and personal example on prayer we are given a new revelation of God as Abba or Daddy. Depending on our association to the gendered experience of father, we might need to translate this into God as Amma or Mummy. The meaning is the same either way, for while God is not gendered, our human experience is.

This is really good news! Because it means in that prayer is the articulation of our relationship with God, and it doesn’t matter where we find ourselves on the emotional-relationship continuum between merger and separation. In our relationship with God it is audacious expectation, and shameless vulnerability, which open us to the love of God. In our relationship with God there is no right distance to find.

Can we find buried in our own experience that quality of unquestioning trust and expectation of immediacy and love which Claire currently takes for granted in her relationship with her Daddy? As someone who struggles more with the experience of distance, that is feeling too much distance in my relationships, observing Claire relating to her Daddy evokes feelings of sadness and joy. Sadness in the face of my own thwarted longings. Joy in the prospect that in my relationship with God I too can be more like Claire. She is for me a role model of hopeful joy. The same quality of experience is present also in Claire’s relationship with her Mummy. For despite the relational vicissitudes resulting from the current phase of her developmental and relational chemistry, Claire brings the same unquestioning trust and love to her relationship with both her parents. It’s Mummy’s turn to bear the brunt of Claire’s explorations in relating and relationship. There is nothing surer that at some future point it will be Daddy’s turn to be the one against which she is compelled to test her will.

Let’s embark on an experiment. For the next month, whenever you pray begin your prayer with the relational daddy or mummy, and at the end of the month note the change.


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