When my church prays the Lord’s Prayer in worship, we seem to always pray it aloud and in unison. I suspect that we all know it by heart but we continue to print the words in our order of worship. I suppose the rationale is to include and aid newcomers to Protestant worship.
We are committed to being an inclusive church. I like that. But putting a name for God into print every Sunday is not only inclusive but it is also indoctrination. That creates a problem for me because the God I know is a reality way beyond any name and way beyond gender.
The printed version instructs us to pray saying, “Our Father who art in heaven.” So I pray out loud, “Our Father/Mother who art in heaven.”
I’ve done it for a number of years and no one has chosen to join me. I don’t know what those who sit near us think. Nancy and I, like most worshippers, sit in or near the same pew every Sunday.
They may think I’m about political correctness and that is a small part of it. But mostly, for me, it is about mystery.
God is beyond what any one, or many words together, can describe. To use one word for God over and over again demystifies God, creates God in our image.
It can be argued that we are not describing God by using the word Father but rather calling on God the way a familiar bell gets attention. Or a better illustration, the way a pet name for a loved one gets that one’s attention and communicates unique fondness.
But if we always use the same word to call on God and back up the use of that word by introducing it saying, “Let us pray together the prayer Jesus taught us” we’re mighty close to saying “This is the Jesus authorized official name of God.”
Saying that God is like a father was an important part of Jesus’s teaching. But he used a word that described a particular way of fathering, “Abba.”
That kind of fathering is the fathering of the Dad of the prodigal son — tender, understanding, compassionate, forgiving. Was your father all of those things? Or was the father you wished you had all of those things? Those are aspects of God that shine from the great cloud of Being that God is, but the cloud is as deep as the universe, as gracious as a smile and as stern as a thunderstorm, beyond naming.
So I pray “Father/Mother God” because the strength of my father and the compassion of my mother, all aspects of the word Abba, come closer to my experience of God’s love than naming one of them alone.
It is a paradox. Religious language is most precise when it is inviting, open-ended like poetry, song, all true art. Then it puts the pedal to the metal of our imagination. Religious language that tries to “define” (a word which literally means putting a fence around something, nailing it down) works against religious understanding.
The poet Rainier Maria Rilke, who used words as the stuff of his remarkable creative expressions and fully understood the limitations of words, said it well when he wrote, “I believe in everything that has not yet been said.”
I want to be careful speaking words of faith so that whoever hears what I have to say doesn’t think that I am giving a definition or expressing anything approximating the final word on the matter.
I would like to be able to use words about faith in such a way that those who read or hear them understand that I am referring to a reality beyond my defining but a reality in which we all live and in which we find our lives, or at least in which I have found my life.
So I’ll continue to pray “Our Father/Mother God” when I join dear friends in faith in the Lord’s Prayer hoping, praying for at least two things — that the women and girls in earshot know that I believe that part of them is an aspect of God too, and to give expression to my understanding that God is a spectacular, many-dimensioned gracious Reality that can be known but beyond naming.
Bill Gregory is an author and retired minister. He can be reached at: