Praying Into God

By D. Stuart Dunnan

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  (Ephesians 1:3)

One of the things that I like to do on a free Sunday during summer vacation is to drive down to Washington and go to the 11 o’clock Eucharist in the Cathedral.  This makes for a happy trip for me as I can usually combine my worship at the Cathedral with a visit with my father who is in a nearby assisted living facility and also with my mother if she is in town.  As many of you know, I grew up on the Cathedral close and was a Cathedral chorister, so there is a sentimental agenda as well.

Last summer, I made my usual trip and settled into my seat, inwardly returning to my childhood, settling into familiar surroundings, feeling very ‘at home’ and spiritually ‘safe,’ when I glanced over the service pamphlet and realized to my horror that the Cathedral was now using an “experimental liturgy.”

Now as I have confessed to you before, I do not react well to change in the Church and am therefore aware of my need to respond to things “new” with a more open mind, so I breathed a deep breath, told myself to calm down, and decided to “go with the flow” for once.

One of my pet peeves, by the way, is the way the editors of the 1982 Hymnal purged the “he’s” and the “man’s” out of our hymns, often damaging the poetry and sometimes even changing the meaning of the poets’ words.  Christmas gives us one notorious example, as they changed Charles Wesley’s “pleased as man with man to dwell” to “pleased as man with us to dwell.”  The result of course is that we have lost Wesley’s threefold declaration of the incarnation: “Pleased as man with man to dwell; Jesus, our Emmanuel!  Just listen to the hidden reiteration: “Man . . . man . . .man!”  God has become man!

Another example is the school hymn, “St. Anne,” where the editors have changed “Time, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all its sons away” to “Time, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all our years away.”  As a result, the poet’s whole image of our created connection with time as our parent has been lost and replaced with the bleakly pedantic observation that “we die.”  As I tell our girls at Saint James, please just understand that Isaac Watts wrote in the early eighteenth century, so he meant “sons and daughters” when he wrote “sons.”  That, I tell them, is one of the great benefits of a Saint James education, we can understand the text we are using by placing it in its proper historical context. We don’t have to warp it into ours.

To be fair, as these liturgies go, this one was not too bad.  We did not pray to God as some kind of “earth mother” or “sky spirit” or “ultimate other” or turn the Eucharist into a political convention or philosophical meditation on social justice or rally for the environment, but there was a recurring fear on the part of the liturgists to refer to God as “Father” which made the prayers essentially Unitarian.

For once we become afraid to address God as “Father,” we can no longer pray to “Our Father, who art in heaven” as Christ taught us to do, but rather to “God,” or perhaps “God” by the gender-neutral attribute, “Creator.”   We can therefore no longer pray to the Father as his children in an intimate act of filial love and devotion, but rather must pray much more anonymously to a more distant God, not so much connected to me, but to all of us, and no longer related to any of us as a father to his children.

Now, here let me note that I do understand that because of their own particular experience (or lack of experience) with their earthly fathers, some people find the “fatherhood” of God problematic. I also appreciate the helpful insight of the Christian mystics that God’s love for us is “mothering” as well as “fathering,” and I understand that God is best understood as a “spirit,” so therefore as neither masculine nor feminine, and certainly not perfectly described in personified terms.  But Jesus taught us to pray like this: “Our Father, who art in heaven.”  And he taught us to pray like this for a reason.

And the reason, I think, is this:  by praying to God as Our Father, we are responding to the invitation of Christ to enter into the life of God as Trinity:  to become like Christ and with Christ the children of the Father ourselves, giving ourselves to his purpose and thus to the power of the Holy Spirit.

Thus, we pray into God, not at God; and we pray into God to be changed and to be used for his kingdom and not for our own, however righteous we may think our kingdom to be.  We do not pray therefore to tell God what he needs to know or to declare to God how right we are, as so many modern liturgies do.  We pray to belong to God’s purpose, to be enlightened and directed by his wisdom, loved and embraced by his presence, and encouraged and empowered by his Spirit who is active and vigorous in the world.

This is particularly true at the Eucharist, by which and through which we are repeating the action of Christ at his Last Supper with his disciples and obeying his commandment to do this in memory of him, committing ourselves again to the Father, calling for the inspiration of the Holy Spirit so that we can join Christ in his sacrifice as his body to be broken in the world.

Listen, and you will hear what I mean.  So many prayers these days are just telling God what we want him to hear, or worse telling the people of God what we want them to hear.  We have lost that sense of personal connection to God as Our Father and the personal juxtaposition of unworthiness and redemption that we can only feel as his children; we have lost in short our openness to be changed and our willingness to be wrong.  We no longer pray as individual sinners in need of forgiveness or even as a collection of pilgrims in need of direction, but as self-satisfied followers of a “cause” and intolerant believers in a “message.”

Do you remember those homework exercises in your algebra book with the answers in the back?  Do you also remember how tempting it was to go straight to the answers and not to do the work?  That is how we pray these days:  we go straight to the answers and pretend that we have discovered them by our own discipline and our own effort.  We fail to work the equation by following each step in turn; we even fail just to begin at the beginning; we fail to really focus on what it means for each of us, you and me, to be a child of God.

So when we need that answer, when we need to know what to do in a particular moment of doubt, fear, or crisis, we do not know how to find it.  We do not know how to enter into God’s true purpose, how to belong to the Father, how to follow the Son, and how to be safe and strong in the power of the Holy Spirit.  We only know how to demand from God or to declare for God.  We do not know how to become lost in God, because we do not know how to pray; we have ignored the call of the Cross and lost the fellowship of the saints; we have forgotten the language of the poets; we warp their words to our own agendas in our own time.

So, why am I saying all this on this Sunday morning?  I am saying this because we have before us today one of the great texts of the New Testament, the beginning of St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, in which he explains to us exactly this, how we are to pray, and therefore also defines for us the nature of God as Trinity almost three hundred years before the Church will explain and affirm that doctrine in the Nicene Creed.

Let us consider his steps.  First, he explains the relationship between the Father and the Son beyond space and time but still entering into our time and into our lives, giving us this one man Jesus Christ to show us how to live.  For in Christ we see how we can be ourselves the sons and daughters of the Father by following in his footsteps and joining in his sacrifice, living beyond death, and loving beyond fear.  By Christ then we are invited into relationship with the Father and made open to the power of the Holy Spirit to use us for others by freeing us from ourselves, to be no longer selfish, afraid, self-righteous, or vengeful, only generous, brave, self-giving, and forgiving.

This is what we pray to become, even as we know that we are not there yet, because we trust in God as Our Father to love us in our weakness, to stay with us as his children and to believe in us despite the terrifying reality that he knows us so well, to be in short that perfect father for each of us that Christ has revealed him to be.  For this is his gift to all of us at Christmas; this is what he achieved for us when he became man, and this is why Charles Wesley was so excited that he had to repeat it three times, just to be sure that we understood just how much, how very much God loves us.

So mindful of this great mystery and this great truth, let us listen again to what Saint Paul would teach us:

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him in love.  He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.  . . . I pray (therefore) that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe.” (Ephesians 1:3-6, 16-19a)

And so, inspired by Christ to address the God of all creation as our own particular Father, and thus to belong to God not merely as his creatures or even his followers, but as his own beloved children, let us pray to be for God his faithful and humble agents for reconciliation, healing, and peace, not necessarily according to the paths we might choose, avoiding any hardship and seeking only glory, but according to the paths that he will choose for us, as he sends the Holy Spirit to transform us with the challenges of our lives, to grow, change, and break us, to save and redeem the world.

The Rev. Dr. D. Stuart Dunnan is headmaster of Saint James School, Hagerstown, Maryland.


Online Archives