Progressive Christians Reclaim the Lord’s Prayer

Every Sunday one short prayer, which in English begins “Our Father in heaven,” is said by worshipers in churches of almost every kind around the world. In many orders of worship, this prayer is part of the devotional beginning of the service and in others it is recited as the conclusion to the long prayer of praise and intercession. In most published orders for celebrating the Lord’s Supper, this prayer is the concluding portion of the Great Thanksgiving Prayer, providing a way for all of the worshiping congregation to join in this prayer at the climax of Christian worship.

In some progressive churches, however, this prayer is either omitted or modified. The problem is the way it begins, with the title that Jesus used as his ordinary way of addressing God: Our Father in heaven…” In a world when so many people have experienced abuse by their fathers, the objection goes, how can we ask them to use this title for God? They answer their own question by abandoning the prayer completely or by altering the address—“God our parent,” “Holy One,” or “Eternal Friend.”

Another course of action is implied in John Dominic Crossan’s book The Greatest Prayer: Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message of The Lord’s Prayer. While he says very little about the liturgical use of this brief prayer from the lips of Jesus, he does provide a way to understand it so that its metaphoric language is redeemed and Progressive Christians can restore it to their public services of praise.

Early in the book, Crossan states his central claim: “What if the Lord’s Prayer is neither a Jewish prayer for Jews nor yet a Christian prayer for Christians? What if it is—as this book suggests—a prayer from the heart of Judaism on the lips of Christianity for the conscience of the world? What if it is—as this book suggests—a radical manifesto and a hymn of hope for all humanity in language addressed to all the earth?” (p. 2).

Near the end of the book (pp. 181-2), he summarizes the themes that he has explored in considerable detail.

1.     God the Father is to be understood as God the Householder of the World whose justice and righteousness mean that “it is only just and right that all who dwell together—in household or Household—have enough.”

2.     Made in the image of God, “we are to collaborate with God as appointed stewards of a world that we must maintain in justice and equity.”

3.     When Jesus is called the “Son” of God, the meaning is that he is “the Heir of God, the divine Householder of the World.”

4.     “Christians are called to collaborate with Christ as the Heir of God.” We are to participate in the kingdom of God understood as eschaton, as “the Great Divine Cleanup of the World.”

5.     The Abba prayer “is both a revolutionary manifesto and a hymn of hope not just for Christianity, but for all the world.”

In their worship and theology, progressive Christians have to decide whether to interpret God according to our human experience or to shape our human life according to our spiritual and theological experience. When Jesus prayed “Our Father,” was he praying to a glorified form of Joseph the carpenter? Is “Our Father in heaven” to be understood as my earthly father, or anybody’s earthly father, made into the standard of parental love?”

It ought to work the other way. In our prayers and systematic thought we come to understand what fatherliness really is. Even when our own life experience has been troubled or deficient, we can find some resolution in the one Father whose love is never tough but always gentle, who always reaches down, takes us by the hand, and helps us walk.

Most progressive Christians seem able to refer to the church as a family despite the fact that many families have been abusive, and we can gather at the table to eat together in Christ’s name even though some people go hungry or find their own little tables to be scenes of diminishment and despair. Progressive Christians can use Christ’s family and Christ’s table as examples for transformation of our own broken or diminished experience.

So too, if I understand Crossan, we can continue to crown our services of worship with the revolutionary prayer from the lips of Jesus, saying, “Our Father, in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come…” 

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8 Responses to Progressive Christians Reclaim the Lord’s Prayer

  1. I absolutely agree with you Keith. Most of us who have studied the Bible and have a more modern appreciation of Christianity have long since come to understand the Lord’s Prayer in allegorical and metaphorical terms. I would, however, change the opening to remove the patriarchal tone. God comes to us in both a masculine and feminine nature. How about, “Oh loving creator.” I just can’t get with the whole “parent” thing. 🙂

    • When I first started my work on issues of gender-biased language, I realized that the dominance of Father-language had to be undone. One of the decisions, which I spelled out in a book published soon thereafter, was that we needed to reduce the use of masculine metaphors and increase other kinds, including feminine. I also decided that it was theologically and culturally important that we continue to use “Father” as one of the metaphors for God in public worship. In my book I said that there were four places where we should continue to use this term, and the prayer that Jesus spoke is one of them. A while back, when I was publishing columns on worship in progressive churches, I wrote a column about this, but I didn’t post it. I’ll look at it again and maybe I’ll put it online next week. Thanks for your thoughtful response.

  2. Rodney Allen Reeves says:

    Thanks for this post on your blog Keith.

    John Dominic Crossan has been for 20 plus years considered one of the leading scholars on the historical Jesus and the earliest years follwing the execution of Jesus and The Birth of Christianity. But this latest book of his that you discuss, The Greatest Prayer, I somehow missed out on. So glad you have brought it to my attention. Being one who for many years has had some difficulty referencing God in gender terms, Crossan’s presentation on Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message of The Lord’s Prayer, sounds like a must read — both due to the author & to the subject matter. Also, perhaps a read for our Religion & Culture reading/discussion group.

    Although I count 8 Crossan books in my library, including his classics The Historical Jesus and The Birth of Christianity, what has most impressed me about him, is his deep humane passion *and* great sense of humor, that just exuded or oozed forth during his participation during two Marcus Borg – John Dominic Crossan summer seminars (I’ve taken in along with Roger Wirt and Greta Nightengale among others you know) presented by the Center for Spiritual Development at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Portland. Thanks again for bringing Crossan’s most recent book to my attention. Will likely pick up a copy at Powell’s City of Books on my way home later today from my every Tuesday volunteer shift at a local hospice.

    • Crossan is one of the scholars who can keep writing good books that reshape and rephrase ideas that are much the same. A friend who has read most of Crossan, which I have not, and who has also read this book, confirms that it represents “classic Crossan.” I am confident that you will find in this book an old friend who helps you see something new.

  3. eirenetheou says:

    In the context, in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is directing his disciples to “pray like this” in their daily prayers, alone behind closed doors. These are not magic words to be memorized and repeated by rote, without thought about the meaning of each word and phrase.

    The prayer that Jesus offers is a prayer of petition, of asking. It is an outline of what to ask — although it is not a comprehensive list; how could it be? — and an outline of how to ask. Disciples of Jesus will learn to pray other kinds of prayers — prayers of thanksgiving and joy; prayers of intercession for others; prayers of pain, grief, lament, and mourning; prayers of praise and adoration. In every prayer, some part of this outline that Jesus offers may appear, beginning with its salutation.

    Disciples of Jesus are given an extraordinary privilege that no one else in our world enjoys: They may come to the one God of the universe in prayer, and they may — indeed, they must — address that God as “our Father.” Disciples of Jesus, the Messiah and Son of God, having now been buried with him in baptism, arise with him into a new life as a “new creation” (Rom 6:4-5; 2 Cor 5:17). Disciples of Jesus are “sons of God” (Matt 5:9; Rom 8:14-15; Gal 3:26-28) and, therefore, uniquely privileged, by grace, to join Jesus in addressing God as “our Father.”

    God’s Peace to you.

    d

    • Years ago, I attended a retreat at Yokefellows in Richmond, Indiana. During one of the prayer sessions, the leader quietly walked us through an extended period of calling to mind a series of conditions and events. Then he asked us to pray the Lord’s Prayer aloud. As we did so, I realized that the list of things we had been listing provided a wealth of detail that fleshed out the spare phrasing of the biblical text. A good prayer for public use, whether a classic text or extemporaneous and worded at that moment, provides the kind of generalized phrasing that allows everyone to put in their specific content and does not allow anyone to escape by saying that that doesn’t apply to me.

  4. Bob Cornwall says:

    Keith,

    Thanks for your review of Crossan, which of course same moment as did mine! And having just published my own little book on the subject, which touches in many ways the same points as does Crossan, I thought I’d make a point about the address of God as Father in this place.

    Having worked with it, I’ve come to feel that if we mess too much with it, we’ll lose the radical nature of this prayer. I’m not sure that the focus should be on intimacy, but rather on the contrast of patrons — If the Emperor is claiming to be the Great Father, by calling God “Our Father,” we’re making a statement of allegiance! Modernizing it loses that sense.

    • I’m looking forward to reading your book early in the new year. I’m sure that this conversation will continue. The political reverberations you mention are properly part of the framework for evaluation. We are dealing with more than family systems when we decide how to address God. Although I am ready to modernize some liturgical language, this prayer is one where my current, rather strong, inclination is to stay with the phrasing that the tradition has transmitted to us.

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