The God I know has a stubborn and mildly irksome, yet endearing, habit of seeking me out and showing up when and where I least expect. For example, I got an unexpected lesson in how to pray recently as I poked through discounted pants at Macy’s. That’s where I heard a confident little girl’s voice call out over and over, “Abba,” a word meaning “daddy,” and one that, until then, I had met only in the Gospels.
The voice belonged to a little Middle Eastern girl, who was playing an impromptu game of hide-and-seek with her father. He was pretending to hide back by the Dockers, but was clearly eager to have her find him there. It was an unexpected glimpse into the playful intimacy the two shared.
After they left and I found the pants I needed, I realized I’d just gotten a close-up look at the blurry boundary between our day-to-day experience and the sometimes startling appearance of God’s reign, times when opportunities for grace seem to open up for us, often just for an instant and most often without warning. As Christians, we live in that mysterious in-between place of opportunity with Jesus, and it’s also there that we’re taught how to pray.
After all, don’t we all repeatedly imitate the little girl by shouting out for God, humbly confident that we won’t be abandoned or our needs ignored? I shared an intimate moment between father and daughter, but we see something similar in the opening verses of Luke 11. It’s there that Jesus invites us to share the comfortable intimacy he has with the God he calls his father—his Abba and ours.
In Search of God
“[Jesus] was praying in a certain place, and when he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray just as John taught his disciples.’ He said to them, ‘When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread and forgive us our sins for we ourselves forgive everyone in debt to us, and do not subject us to the final test’” (Lk 11:1-4).
These opening verses contain Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, and I’d encourage you to read it slowly, and then imagine Jesus whispering in your ear, “Here, let me show you how to pray.” Jesus invites us to pray with him to our shared Abba, a God who is always personal and inviting, seldom demanding, never standoffish. At the same time, our Abba also sends the Holy Spirit to us so we can pray through, with, and in Jesus.
Pray the Lord’s Prayer like this several times, until you are ready to move on to the rest of the chapter. As you do, put yourself in the place of the disciple who steps forward and boldly asks Jesus how to pray. Instead of a theoretical discourse on the finer points of contemplative prayer, Jesus simply tells you what to do and what to say. The words he teaches us come with a mysterious power that expresses the muted longing in our hearts that God’s reign will finally appear and our deepest hungers be satisfied, that we be given daily bread.
Pray with the same confident playfulness that animated the relationship between the little girl and her father. After all, what kind of a parent would play a cruel game of hide-and-seek with a child, one calculated to frustrate and disappoint rather than fondly engage and delight? Instead, we’re invited to approach our Abba with eyes and hearts open to see God’s reign when it appears, receive bread when it’s offered, and give and receive forgiveness when needed. What Jesus teaches us is that we never approach God as reluctant beggars hoping for a handout, but as persons and communities confident that winding up empty-handed is never our lot.
Keep praying with this Gospel until you start to hear what I’m calling “your words,” heartfelt words that the Lord seems to be speaking directly into your life. When you hear them, give them time to take root. They may come as a word or phrase or image; but however they come, notice how they strike a deep chord in you. Be patient and recruit the Holy Spirit’s help in finding your words—living words—that your Abba, your eager-to-be-found, anxious-to-delight God, offers—living words that both comfort and challenge.
Keep a prayer journal and record your “living words” as you hear them, the mysterious, yet engaging, verbal miracles God sends your way as you pray. As you do, remember that the real word God often speaks to us is holy, silent presence, an experience that starts in God and returns to God, a presence that has a life of its own.
Be sure to write down what comes to you: writing has a permanent quality to it that keeps us faithful in remembrance, accountable in practice. Writing like this is a form of prayer, so don’t rush your time with the Lord: let God take the lead and don’t be surprised if it takes a day or two to get your words on paper.
As you write your words, which ones familiar in both their comfort and their challenge, and which ones are new, fresh, and surprising? Think of the familiar words as the continuities of your life with God, and think of the words that seem new as the discontinuities of your life of faith.
Growing Our Faith
It’s in the space between continuity and discontinuity, comfort and challenge that we grow in faith, hope, and love. After all, prayer and service are what faith, hope, and love do, yet they are also always God’s gifts—examples, perhaps, of how we’re called to accept daily bread from a faithful companion.
To what dimension of your life do your words speak? Might God be trying to coax you into a fuller, deeper life? Do you find a different word each time you pray this Gospel, or do you keep coming back to the same word, phrase, or image each time? How might these words be opportunities of grace for you? Or, stated differently, what might love require of you right now?
Instead of thinking of a word as a mere abstraction, step into the fuller biblical sense of word as how God speaks life into creation, the place where your life resides in God. The words God may be speaking into your life right now may be people, situations, relationships, and even conflicts that hold possibilities of new life for you. We’re also invited to imitate God by speaking our own words of love, justice, and creativity back into our lives and all creation.
In the end, the deepest word God speaks to us is our life, a life that is seeking to come fully alive in faith, hope, and love. How might God be calling you into fuller life, life that comes with a quality we can only call eternal? In other words, what kind of bread is God offering you today? Take time to let God suggest these words to you, and, when you’re ready, write about them in your prayer journal.
I can’t speak for you, but I waste too much time waiting for God to do something spectacular or even magical in my life. I keep thinking that someday I’ll get knocked off my horse like Paul the apostle and find my life finally free of raggedness and difficulty. One of the lessons we learn slowly, however, is that God’s business is grace, not magic. We need to keep our eyes open for tiny traces of God’s reign that are always opening up for us without fanfare in the all-too-ordinary places in our lives.
For instance, have you ever had an opportunity to say something mean and ugly to somebody, but, for some reason, held your tongue and spared that person a verbal wound? Or what about when somebody you really dislike went out of his or her way to be kind to you, doing something so remarkably gracious it made you forget—even if only for a few seconds—how much you disliked that person?
But we also have sufferings and disappointments, don’t we? No amount of pious hokum can magically take away the permanent suffering that surrounds our fragile hearts. We rail against irredeemable pain, but there comes a time when we want to be whole. It’s then, isn’t it, that we have to be taught, slowly and patiently, to let love from our Abba transform our isolating pain into redemptive suffering.
Perhaps we just need to let go of our delusory belief in self-reliance and embrace the deep-down need we all have for relationship, for not just giving, but also receiving—the fundamental rhythm of all real living. When we learn to live in this grace, we gradually start to see what God is really like, and, perhaps even more to the point, it’s then that our shared Abba teaches us who we really are.
Go back over what you’ve written and see if you can identify one word that best expresses the new life God is offering to you right here, right now. Spend the time you need to learn the healing wonder of just spending time in God’s sheltering silence. And as you do, remember how God’s reign often shows up apparently out of nowhere and is waiting to be found, almost out of sight, way back there, back by the Dockers.