Our Father in heaven . . . (Matt. 6:9)
Craig Barnes opens his fine book, Searching for Home, by telling the story of his father’s funeral.
Barnes shares that he rarely, if ever, heard from his Dad. His father had left the family years ago and they never knew for sure where he was. One day someone called to tell them that the father they didn’t really know had died. He had been living in a small trailer in Florida.
After the funeral, Barnes recalls, he and his brother were asked if they cared to look through the trailer to see if there might have been anything that belonged to their father that they wanted to keep. Barnes recalls finding something that he remembered from childhood: a three-ring leather notebook that held his used-to-be-preacher Dad’s sermon notes and assorted reflections. At the back of the notebook Barnes made a stunning discovery.
Across the top of a fresh page was written “Daily Prayer List.” The first two names on the list belonged to my brother and me. A bit further down he even included the name of our mother, his long-divorced wife. I had assumed that Dad has forgotten us, or that when it came to the mental file marked ‘family’ he had somehow found a way to press ‘delete.’ But we were there in his prayers on his last day. (Barnes, Searching for Home, 9-12)
Barnes’ powerful story reminds us that we need to do some work and clear the ground before we can truly pray the words Jesus gave us – especially those opening words: “Our Father in heaven.” There are some ‘Father issues’ that we need to deal with.
First, we’re reminded that the word Father does not always evoke pleasant and endearing thoughts. Father can be a pain-laden word spoken by pain-laden people. The word gets caught in the throat and becomes a block to prayer rather than a help in drawing us to God. But we don’t define God by our life experience. God defines us and helps us make sense of our life experience, both the blessed and the not so blessed.
Second, there are some who hear “in heaven” and think that God is distant and aloof, unavailable and uninterested in us. This isn’t so. Granted, there will be times when we feel that way, but our feelings are not always reliable in matters of prayer.
When you have no idea where God is in your life, when you can’t remember the last time you heard from God, when your efforts to find him seem to come up empty, you can be sure of this: God knows exactly where you are. God will not abandon his children. Your name is in his book and your life is held firmly in his hand.
The word Father may give rise to gratitude. It may give rise to grief. But in the end we only know the Father by looking at the Son. “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).
Gracious God, we thank you for fathers who blessed us. We ask you to fill us with grace toward fathers who didn’t. And we pray that you will teach us what fathers and mothers are meant to be as we look to you and your son. Teach us to pray with our eyes on Jesus, coming to you as our good and faithful Father, through Christ our Lord. Amen.