‘Our Father in heaven ..’
We all know, I suspect, that these are the introductory words of what we call ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ – words spoken by Jesus as he taught his disciples how to pray.
They are only four words – but in reality these few words contain a vast ocean. The implication of these, I believe, force us to consider so many aspects of the spiritual life that, in truth, this short meditation can only scratch the surface – in fact it can do infinitely less than that.
The first thing that struck me when contemplating these words over several days recently was the location Jesus identifies as the dwelling place of his Father – heaven. Whatever we conjure up in our minds when we hear this word used – please pause for a moment and consider what these first words of the Lord’s Prayer words tell us about it.
Jesus is speaking on earth – as will be the millions who, over the centuries, repeat these words. But, it is presumed by the speaker, Jesus, beyond any doubt, that God his Father, who lives in ‘heaven’, hears these words spoken on earth. So heaven, whatever we may think about it is immediate, present and accessible in the here and now. It is not some far away place detached and unavailable to humanity – it is here, it is real, it is accessible.
For me this is mind blowing – for it opens before us the possibility that we, in the blink of an eye can enter the dimension of the eternal even although we live in time.
From about 275 BC for over 2000 years (1) men believed that our physical material world could only be explained and understood in three dimensions – length, height and width. Then in 1854 this view was shattered when a brilliant German mathematician (Bernhard Riemann 1826 – 1866) proved that more than three dimensions were not only possible but also highly likely. (2)
Science now generally accepts the possibility that the physical, material world we live in has more than four dimensions – although it appears we do not know what they are! But what Riemann proved – saints and mystics throughout the ages already knew – there is another dimension, one not limited by time and space, to which the seeking heart and the spiritual eye has access. It is the dimension where God dwells and who, as the Apostle Paul, speaking, interestingly, to non christians, (who were, in fact, idol worshipers), said – ‘Is not far from any one of us.’ (Acts 17:27). So access from the dimension of time into the dimension of eternity is available to all. Perhaps, as John Butler said recently – ‘In the real world there is only one time – eternity!’ (3) We live simultaneously in a physical and a spiritual world.
And it is into the realm of the eternal (heaven) that we are invited if we are to have a full and meaningful life. The Apostle Paul says –
‘Set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.’
Colossians 3:1 (NIV)
Some bible versions translate ‘things above’ as the ‘things of heaven’ – but the inference is the same and both are very clear. Attention to and in the ‘heavenly’ and our Father who dwells there, should be the first stop – long before we think about doing anything on earth. This becomes very clear in the life of Jesus –
‘The Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.’
Jesus – John 5:19 (NIV)
And it is only in union and communion with the One who is The Eternal that we can have any eternal impact here in time.
‘All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ’ says the Apostle Paul – ‘who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms because we are united with Christ.’
How then, you might ask do we enter the realm of the eternal from our place in time? Great question and one which, unfortunately, is beyond the scope of this short post – even if I was able to answer it fully which I can’t. But I believe it starts in stillness – ‘Be still, and know that I am God!’, says The Eternal in Psalm 46. I suspect we cannot truly know God apart from stillness which is why the call of Jesus is – ‘Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.’ (Matthew 11). I strongly suspect then that ‘heaven’ is accessible only to those who are willing to invest their time and patience in resting and stillness in The Presence of The Eternal.
The second thing that struck me when meditating on these four words of the Lord’s Prayer was this. Jesus, very naturally and by implication, recognised his disciples as children of his Father – so, he tells them to address God as such. He is ‘Our Father’.
But I think we need to rewind a little so we can appreciate the full importance and impact of what is happening here. These instructions relating to prayer came about as a result of Jesus disciples asking him to teach them how to pray. Of course this begs the question – did they not already know how to pray? The answer is clearly – yes they did – so why such a question in the first place? Every observant Jew (and the disciples were such) practiced a strict routine of prayer three times a day – at sunrise, in the afternoon and in the evening as well as at many other times and occasions. In these set prayers God is referred to as ‘Lord’ (Adonai). Jesus, there is little doubt, also followed these set times of prayer, but in private prayer he referred to God as his ‘Father’. This was something that was so shocking, that, on one occasion, after referring publicly to God as his Father, the Jewish religious authorities plotted to kill him (John 5:18). The reason for the disciples request then is, I suspect, that as they observed the prayers and life of Jesus they saw a fresh, deep and more intimate relationship with God than they had ever seen before – and it is to this intimacy that Jesus calls them by inviting them also to address God as ‘Our Father’.
This has implications for me personally at another significant level. Being brought up, as I was, in what we might term ‘Conservative Evangelical’ circles, I was taught that only ‘Christians’ had the right to repeat this prayer – the clear inference being that no one else had the right to address God as ‘Father’ because they were, ‘unbelievers’ or ‘unconverted’. (4)
However these words, in their context, raise another very important question in relation to my tradition, and it’s this – were the disciple of Jesus ‘Christian’ in the ‘Conservative Evangelical’ understanding of the term?
Well, of course it goes without saying, this term had not yet been coined. But at a much more basic level the disciples did not, at this time, see or consider Jesus as ‘The Saviour’ – in terms of the one who came to die on a Roman cross for their sin. That only came much later. At the time of their being taught the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ by Jesus they were ignorant of many of the doctrines ‘Christians’, at least in my tradition, now consider essential. This realisation has implications at many levels for me (discipleship for one) – but in the light of where we are at the moment – it certainly impacts on our understanding of those to whom God is ‘Father’. I have come to the conclusion that we must see this in a much more inclusive way than many within traditional evangelical circles would admit. God is the Father of all – and all are invited to enter in to communion with him as such!
This truth instantly brings into much sharper focus for me many of the parables of Jesus – where people, by implication, are seen as ‘lost’. Lost to The Father, lost to The Owner, lost of The Shepherd! We are his, that is not in question in these stories – but because of rebellion, ignorance or carelessness we have become lost. But he is still Father! Repentance therefor is seen, in the first instance, in our allowing ourselves to be found, to be embraced, smothered in love, carried on his shoulder and restored to our rightful place in the family of God. I am thinking here obviously of Jesus parables of the lost son, the lost sheep and the lost coin!
So this God .. the one we are invited to call ‘Father’ meets us where we are – not where we should be! On a dusty road, broken and messed up, in the wilderness in all our confusion and in the dark night – the place of our despair. If the Christmas we will celebrate in a few days time means anything at all it means this – the Eternal God has broken in to time – he is ‘God with us’ and this God is our Father. And he invites us today, now, in this moment into relationship with Him as ‘Our Father’ at a deep, intimate and personal level.
(1) The Greek Philosopher Euclid 330-275 BC
(2) Physicist Lambert Dolphin writes –
In 1884 the Christian headmaster of the City of London School, Edwin Abbott, wrote a wonderful novel about creatures who lived in an imaginary world called “Flatland.” It was now immediately easy for ordinary people like you and me to imagine what it would be like living in a two dimensional world-on a flat sheet of paper-with occasional intrusions of “beings” from a higher three-dimensional “hyperspace.” Even more fantastic science fiction now unfolded into being overnight and by the turn of the century the common man’s perception of his world would never be the same.
If four dimensions are not only possible, but now certain, why not 5 or 10 or 26 dimensions? Indeed, if we jump from Einstein to the present time, that is precisely what has happened in modern physics. All this has taken place because introducing (mathematically) additional dimensions to the physical world “unifies” the laws, forces and fields of physics, and leads (usually) to simpler and more “elegant” ways of looking at the universe in which we live.
‘The History of Hyperspace – Physics and the Bible’ – Lambert Dolphin 1997
(3) John Butler – Impromptu #2 – ‘The Jesus Prayer’. (YouTube)
(4) Gerald Bray, in a recent essay entitled ‘God as Father’ written for ‘The Gospel Coalition’, a grouping of Reformed Conservative Evangelical writers and teachers, said this – ‘By nature we are not children of God. As his creatures, we have nothing in common with his divine being.’
This is, of course, the view held by the tradition in which I was brought up but which I now, quite frankly, view as somewhat arrogant. Even more importantly, I would suggest, it appears to be at odds with the teaching of both Jesus and the Apostle Paul.
Think again of the incident we mentioned briefly in the main article – Paul meeting with a group of men who worshiped idols in Athens, and some of the things Paul said –
‘As I was walking along I saw your many shrines. And one of your altars had this inscription on it: ‘To an Unknown God.’ This God, whom you worship without knowing, is the one I’m telling you about.
He is the God who made the world and everything in it. He himself gives life and breath to everything, and he satisfies every need.
His purpose was for the nations to seek after God and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him – though he is not far from any one of us. For in him we live and move and exist. As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’
Acts 17 (NLT)
According to Paul there is one true God. And in words that are very reminiscent of those spoken to the men of Athens – but this time addressed to Christians in Corinth, he says this –
‘But for us, there is one God, the Father, by whom all things were created, and for whom we live. And there is one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things were created, and through whom we live.’
1 Corinthians 8:6 NLT
So to both saint and sinner, Christian and idol worshiper, Paul asserts ‘We are his offspring’ – in other words children of The Divine Father! The question then, as I see it, is not whether or not we are children of God The Father but are we living in a right, harmonious, loving and obedient relationship with Him? Have we turned from the darkness into which we were plunged as a result of Adam’s sin towards The Light and surrendered ourselves completely to The Light of Divine Love.