Prayer is something that brings me both great joy and frustration – joy, because there is no feeling greater for me than when i feel connected to God; frustration, because that feeling is often elusive and fleeting.
I have experimented with a variety of forms and traditions when it comes to prayer, hoping to find the perfect connection point to God. One of the realities that eventually became clear to me is that there is no singular way to pray and no single tradition that has the market on effective communication with the divine. Instead, I have learned to be grateful for the cornucopia of prayer traditions that exist and embrace that within different seasons there are different ways to best connect with God.
Within my current season I have come back once again to the simple elegance of the Lord’s Prayer. The full version is recorded in Matthew chapter 6, and its one of the most famous and well known prayers on planet earth (although i had a really embarrassing moment recently where i forgot the Lord’s Prayer when leading a funeral service – a story I will have to tell at a different time!)
There have been a number of insights from the Lord’s Prayer that have become newly revealed to me, and I’ve enjoyed the simplicity of reflecting on each stanza of the model prayer given by Jesus to his disciples. I’m trying to make this a nightly tradition as I walk my 3-month old in the park right before bed. Though each phrase is beautiful, one of the stanzas has struck me in such a timely way. It’s the opening words:
“Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.” (Matthew 6.9, KJV)
The Lord’s Prayer covers a wide spectrum of prayer concerns in such a short amount of space, but its fascinating to me that the entire content is to be grounded in the 3 spiritual realities represented by this opening line.
“Our Father” – This is something I’ve appreciated for awhile now, and I am still exceedingly grateful for it. Though there are many attributes that describe the character of God, the attribute we are to relate to most intimately in the context of prayer is God as a parent (not a ruler, king, or holy deity, all of which would seem to be appropriate). This says so much to me about the nature of God. It shows that God wants us to know that God is accessible, and that God wants us to live with a deep sense of rootedness in our identity as children of God.
As wonderful as that reality is, that’s not the part that has jumped out to me most in this particular season. Instead, it’s the next phrase.
“Who art in heaven” – Who art in heaven (or the ‘heavens’ as some translate it) conveys a message not of literal distance, but of the fact that God exists in a realm that is not our own. God’s presence lives in the supernatural, invisible, unseen realm. It’s interesting that the supernatural distance between us and God is part of the opening of the prayer, isn’t it?
The juxtaposition of these two phrases have really jumped out to me in recent days. Jesus first wants the opening words of prayer to tether us to the reality that God is like the most wonderful, amazing father you could have ever imagined. But then, in the very next breath, Jesus wants to remind us that there will always be an elusiveness to that very reality.
Its as if he is lovingly reminding us that we live in a tension on this side of heaven. On one hand God is real, present, and accessible, as much a father would be to his daughter or son. On the other hand, God is unseen, invisible, and frustratingly etherial at times.
Do you feel that tension at all?
When I was younger in my faith that tension really bothered me. I wished that God was closer, more concrete, and easier to hear.
As I’ve studied many of the great pillars of faith throughout the ages, its been helpful to discover that this tension is not felt by me alone. Many great men and women of faith – both past and present – have struggled with this as well. Whether it was spiritual activists like Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King Jr. or mystics like Teresa of Avila or St. John of the Cross, there have always been great pillars of faith who struggled to reconcile this. We who struggle to reconcile this tension are in good company.
A second reality has emerged in my understanding of this tension over time as well. Though it can be frustrating at times, it’s also a really healthy and helpful means for spiritual growth. The frustration I/we feel is not necessarily a sign of immaturity – it is often a sign of life. God has designed us to long for that Fatherly tenderness in our spiritual relationship, and has consistently communicated through the Bible that God wants that for us. And yet, by reminding us that God lives in the unseen, invisible, “heavens,” God has established a realistic expectation for us as to what happens when the natural seeks to connect with the supernatural and as humanity seeks to connect with the divine.
Does that make the tension go away? No, but at least it helps.
By seeing that Jesus grounded the entire Lord’s prayer in this tension, I at least feel like I am part of a timeless choir of spiritual seekers who feel unworthy yet able; frustrated yet hungry. It reminds me that the hunger I have for connecting to God as my Father is not something I am inventing – it is placed into my soul by God himself. And that alone is reason for continue to hunger and thirst to pray with conviction:
“Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed by thy name.”
What about you? Do you wrestle with this tension? How have you founds ways to grow through that?