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Our Father which art in heaven . . . (Matt. 6:9, KJV)

Father . . . (Luke 11:2, RSV, NIV)

“We want to learn to pray,” said one of Jesus’ disciples. “Can you help us – like John helped his disciples?”

“Sure!”  responded Jesus.  “When you pray, start like this: ‘Dear Dad.’”

I can already hear the editors’ pained sighs and see their heads shaking in disbelief –  maybe even hands thrown high in despair.  Such language would fill the mail bag with a rich harvest of anger and indignity.  “Dear Dad”?   Never.

And they would be right, of course – quite aside from the publishing dictum that “Editors are always right.”  I would have to agree that “Dear Dad” is going too far – at least, I would agree in my heart.  And, in practice, I don’t think I could ever pray, “Dear Dad.”

My earthly father and I are on good terms. I called him “Daddy” when I was a youngster, then switched to “Dad” somewhere along the line. That’s still the way it is. He has taught me a great deal about God by word and example. We share similar values. I think he’s pleased about that. 

Not that we never disagree.  We do – often.  And when it comes to prayer, he is more formal than I, even though neither of us would feel comfortable with “Dear Dad.”  Last I heard, he was still using “Thee, Thou, Thy, and Thine” when he prayed.  I’ve made the switch to “You and Yours” – after being half and half for a while.

But the fact that I call him “Dad” and feel reasonably comfortable in disagreeing with him, even to his face, is a shift from older patterns of family authority. And the trend continues –  I can’t imagine an old-time authoritarian putting up with the good-natured indignities which my daughters toss my direction. I like to think that I still have some “authority.” But let’s face it, I seldom use it convincingly. I would rather negotiate, persuade, and convince rather than command. Dangerous? I don’t think so, but it may be too early to tell.

Nevertheless, I must admit that the easy-going spirit of freedom which dominates our age (and is reflected in my own home in a modified form) makes it easier to flaunt authority of any kind. The undertow catches even those with staunch religious ties.  Religious practice is affected.  Conversation drowns out memorization. Prayer becomes more spontaneous and chatty, worship less formal, less awe-inspiring. Cathedrals melt down into ordinary churches. Everything is less dignified, more earthy.

All that is a mixed blessing. We may be able to talk to God now. But where is the overwhelming sense of awe and grandeur that worshipers used to feel in the presence of their Maker?

I firmly believe we need to recover that sense of awe and grandeur. At the same time, however, Scripture has forced me to conclude that Jesus taught his disciples to address the Sovereign Master of the universe in very personal terms.

It would seem brazen – possibly even blasphemous – to open the Prayer by addressing God as “Dad” or “Daddy.”  Yet either of those words probably come the closest to capturing the flavor of the Aramaic “Abba,” the word for “father” which Jesus undoubtedly used in his Palestinian homeland. It’s a warm, personal term, one used when family members feel good about each other. 

But who would dare begin the Lord’s Prayer by saying, “Dear Dad up there in heaven”?   Modern translators haven’t chanced it. I wouldn’t risk it myself – even if I were out in the desert all alone. The force of training and tradition is just too powerful.

Yet even the more traditional word “Father” presents a dilemma: human parents often bear only a faint resemblance of the Father in heaven. Carl Burke captures the essence of the problem when he describes a conversation he had with a ghetto youngster:

“Mister,” came the query, “what’s God like?”

The question came during a summer camp as the two of them made their way to the evening campfire circle. Burke notes that his own response came “without the slightest hesitation, and with the authority of a theological education, plus several years’ experience as a pastor, and above all, with the confidence that was expected of an ‘adult leader.’”

“God,” was Burke’s answer, “is like a father.”

The boy’s response came slowly and with much venom: “Hah,” he said, “if he’s like my father I sure would hate him” (God is for Real, Man, New York:  Association Press, 1966, p. 10).

The gulf between heaven and earth makes it difficult enough to be personal with God and call him “Dad.” On top of that, all the dads on earth complicate the picture through their erratic and thoughtless behavior. Is that why some in our modern world would prefer to pray to “Mother?”  We can’t discuss that complexity here, except to say that earthly mothers can be just as erratic as earthly fathers.

Jesus obviously faced a monumental challenge when he came to teach us the truth about his Father in heaven. And even though he used the Aramaic equivalent of “Dad,” given the Prayer’s remarkable blending of the earthy and the sublime, most of us probably will stay with the traditional “Father.”  It fits.

But even if we blurt out a word that doesn’t fit so well, the Lord will understand. He has a good vocabulary. And good ears.

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