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Saturday, December 19, 2015

Deconstructing the Narrative

Do you ever find yourself telling God stories? I do.

“Lord, you know I did my best, but ...”

Uh, no. Cease narration. Start deconstructing.

Too many words for one thing, all of them unnecessary. It’s one of those “empty phrases” Matthew talks about. The Lord knows whether I did my best or not. Chances are I didn’t. Maybe it was a 50% effort, maybe it was 80 or 95, but there’s always more I could have done. Because he would do more. He did more.

In any case it’s unnecessary. What I’m really doing is writing a sales pitch for the only Person in the universe who already knows the whole truth of the matter. I often don’t.

It helps to pray out loud, I find. That way my less ingenuous formulations acquire a dissonance that sometimes shuts me up in mid-sentence.

Ooh, that sounded awful. Even to me.

Fine. Go back. Start again.

Revisiting the Template

It helps sometimes to ask myself “Which part of the prayer the Lord taught his disciples was that anyway?” Can I find any precedent at all in the Bible for what I’m saying here?

Was it, for instance, an expression of desire that the name of God be honoured and the entire world brought into the obedience of Christ? Definitely not. It wasn’t a request either, nor was it a prayer for forgiveness. In short, there’s nothing like it in the text of Matthew. It was a superfluous flourish. A bit of puffery.

Does it sound like I’m beating myself up here? Should prayer really be this hard? Isn’t this just a bit overanalytical?

Who’s Your Daddy?

Well, yes and no. No, some might say, because I have received the Spirit of God by whom I cry “Abba! Father!” and because “Abba” (as I have often been told from the platform) translates as “Daddy”. It is (some say) the cry of a infant, and it therefore follows (some say) that in our prayer lives we essentially play the role of a small child.

Dick Wright has written a piece called “Crawl Up In God’s Lap Today”. He says this:
“Are you struggling with something today? Well, if you are a child of God, He invites you to come into His presence and crawl up into His lap and cry a good cry. Let it all out. Your Heavenly Father will hug you tight with unlimited love and say like every good dad says, ‘Everything will be alright!’ ”
(Really? Does every good dad tell their children everything will be alright? Looks like I’ve failed again, folks.)

But Dick Wright is far from an outlier. The internet is full of encouragement to sit, climb or crawl up into Daddy’s lap, shut my eyes and have a good cry. This particular view of our relationship to God is certainly cosy and intimate, but I find little in it to correspond to the prayers of the apostles, the Old Testament saints or the Lord Jesus himself.

Reverence and Confidence

Personally, I do not think that intimacy equates to childishness, let alone the absence of responsibility. Philip Ryken agrees with me, and punctures the linguistic fallacy that has given rise to this peculiar evangelical quirk:
“To call God ‘Abba, Father’ is to speak to him with reverence as well as confidence. Abba does not mean ‘Daddy.’ To prove this point, the Oxford linguist James Barr wrote an article for the Journal of Theological Studies called ‘Abba isn’t “Daddy”.’ What Barr discovered was that abba was not merely a word used by young children. It was also the word that Jewish children used for their parents after they were fully grown. Abba was a mature, yet affectionate way for adults to speak to their fathers.”
Ryken’s entire book on prayer is probably worth reading if you’ve heard this trope your whole life, as I have. It seems to me his take is considerably more consistent with the tone of scripture than Dick Wright’s infantilization of the prayer experience.

Infants or Adults?

Ryken continues:
“The best way to translate abba is ‘Dear Father,’ or even ‘Dearest Father.’ That phrase captures both the warm confidence and the deep reverence that we have for our Father in heaven. It expresses our intimacy with God, while preserving his dignity. When we pray, therefore, we are to say, ‘Our dear Father in heaven.’ ”
If I approach God as an infant I am almost certainly absolved of any responsibility to critique or improve my own prayer life, wouldn’t you think? But if I am to approach God as an affectionate adult, that’s a very different story. And Paul says we are to “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ”. As the adult child of my Father in Heaven, I ought to seek to grow and develop in my prayer life, not collapse into inarticulate baby talk in my Father’s lap.

When Something Matters ...

I think of it this way: In my twenties I lifted weights and ran. Later in life I skip the weights and walk 40 minutes a day. I could do nothing to improve my physical condition, sure. There have been periods in my life during which I did exactly that. But they weren’t terribly healthy periods. When something matters to you, you work at it.

The self-analysis in prayer is not about beating myself up, but about getting better at communicating truthfully with my Father in Heaven. Addressing him the way he prefers to be addressed. Keeping it short, clear and honest. Saying the sorts of things he has told me he likes and expects to hear. Trimming out all the qualifications, caveats, excuses, boasts and waffling.

Deconstructing the narrative that comes out of me as naturally as breathing, taking it apart, analyzing it and doing it again and again until I get it right.

Until there are no more stories. Just the truth, in love.

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