Ask several different people about the “proper” way to approach God, and you will get several different answers. I tend to be a middle of the road kind of guy. I’m not comfortable with too much or too little formality. And while we might write this off as personal preference, I think the Bible itself points us in the right direction. A story from Luke’s Gospel comes to mind.
One day Jesus is off by himself praying when one of his disciples approaches him. Something in the way Jesus was praying must have gotten the disciple’s attention because when Jesus was finished, the disciple said, “Lord, teach us to pray.”
Back in the first century Jewish people usually prayed “set” prayers. There were all kinds of prescribed prayers for all kinds of different occasions. People prayed most of these set prayers from memory. These tend to be very formal prayers.
The most famous Jewish prayer, the Shema famously starts out, “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God. The Lord is One.” Then it goes on for about another 500 words, most of them taken from the books of Deuteronomy and Numbers. This prayer was and still is prayed first thing in the morning and before going to bed at night.
When Jesus’ disciple approached and heard the way he was praying, I can’t help but wonder if that disciple saw or heard something so intimate or conversational or profound in the way Jesus was praying that it made prescribed prayers seem wooden or shallow. What he hears prompts him to ask Jesus to teach him to pray.
With his response, Jesus gives us not just words to pray, but also a way to approach God. He gives us what we know as the Lord’s Prayer. In Luke, the first word of the Lord’s Prayer is “Father” a very warm term of address for God.
Jesus almost certainly was speaking Aramaic when he spoke this word to his disciples. The Aramaic word for father is the very tender and intimate, “Abba.” Today we would translate it as “papa” or “daddy.” The first word of the Lord’s Prayer tells us we can and should think of God as a loving, caring, papa. It is intimate and informal.
But the second word of this prayer takes us in a completely different direction. “Hallowed” is hardly ever used in conversation today, but it means sacred or entitled to reverence and respect. We’re being asked to pray that the very name of God is to be considered sacred. It has a more formal feel than the first word, “Papa.”
The first two words of the Lord’s Prayer seem to be an odd combination. They combine the intimate with the ultimate. Jesus is telling us that we can address and think of the transcendent, all-knowing, all-powerful God who spoke creation into existence as our “daddy.” The intimacy of the Lord’s Prayer keeps God from being too distant from us. God is approachable. Strict formality seems out of place.
On the other hand, we remember God’s very name is sacred. A certain amount of reserve seems appropriate when we approach the God of the universe. A bit of formality is in order. Perhaps this is why I’ve been known to cringe some when I’ve heard vacation Bible school leaders start their prayers with kids saying, “Hey God! Thanks for a great day!” It just feels too casual.
The remainder of the Lord’s Prayer helps us find a path between being too formal and too casual. When we pray, “Your Kingdom Come,” we get a sense of God’s cosmic presence and ultimate purpose. It is a revolutionary call for God’s Kingdom to arrive in the world and in us. Creation has needed fixing since humanity’s fall from grace in the Garden of Eden. Our lives as individuals need fixing also.
But then, right after praying for God’s Kingdom to come on earth, we’re taught to pray for the personal things we need. Daily nourishment. Release from guilt and hopelessness through forgiveness, and the power to resist evil. The God of the universe who will bring forth his Kingdom on the whole earth will also provide for our very personal needs.
The Lord’s Prayer guides us not just into a conversation with God, but a way of being with God. In this one prayer, we pray formally to the hallowed God of the universe to bring forth his Kingdom on earth. At the same time, we pray to our intimate papa to provide what we need to live. Whether it is formal, informal or a little bit of both, the Lord’s Prayer gives us an excellent way to approach God.
Rick Ehrheart is pastor of Mountain of Faith Lutheran Church in Tooele.