“Our Father, who art in heaven…” is how Jesus begins his teaching on prayer. Interesting that Jesus thinks it’s important that we know the location of the God to whom we pray. He is “in heaven.”
And with that phrase we find ourselves in a bit of a situation. Praying the word “our”, remembering that we are in the company of the saints when we pray is well and good; and praying the word “Father”, remembering that we are to relate to God not first as slaves to a master or subjects to an imperial ruler, but as children to their dad… well that is well and good too.
But then… “in heaven”… so we’re like a bunch of kids sending off letters to a guy we are obliged to call “Dad” but who lives in a place totally remote from us? “In heaven” sounds so far away for us who are inevitably knit to the earth, made of dust as we are.
The trouble of course is in the translation. What in English we translate “in heaven” in the Greek text of Matthew is actually a plural – “en tois ouranois” – in the heavens… For many of us, the word “heaven” conjures up images of streets paved with gold and naked babies holding harps, but for the Bible writers, “heaven” was no such “place in the sky”… it was instead everything that was “not earth”; that is to say, it was everything from the immediate atmosphere surrounding our very bodies (in Genesis, the birds fly “in heaven”) to the “highest heavens” – the planets and stars and beyond.
For Matthew, the God we call “Father” dwells in and fills “the heavens”…
That is to say, He is near. As Paul will later put it, “in Him we live and move and have our being.” He is both IN our immediate atmosphere AND, to put it one way, IS OUR ATMOSPHERE.
He is near.
It was Dallas Willard in his book “The Divine Conspiracy” who first opened my eyes to this translational problem. Of viewing God as “up in heaven” (= “out there” somewhere), he wrote:
The damage done to our practical faith in Christ and in his government at-hand by confusing heaven with a place in distant or outer space, or even beyond space, is incalculable. Of course God is there too. But instead of heaven and God also being always being present with us, as Jesus shows them to be, we invariably take them to be located far away and, most likely, at a much later time–not here and not now. And we should then be surprised to find ourselves alone? (p. 71)
The mental image most of us conjure up when we say “Our Father in heaven” is exactly the opposite of what Jesus intends. He intends for us to picture God as a Father who is fundamentally near us, with us, and closer to us than we are to our very selves. After all, Jesus, who reveals the Father, is called “Immanuel”–God With Us.
Which changes how we pray. I grew up in a tradition that taught me to invoke the Presence of God in my prayer life. We would “wait on God” until the Presence fell. “Come with your Presence” we would pray.
Years later, I see that prayer as exactly backwards, coming out of a warped view of how God relates to his World. He does not stand outside of it like a man standing outside of his fish tank, anxiously wondering what’s going on within it. Instead, he is more like the water in which the fish swim.
Maybe we need our view of God healed. And maybe the result of that healing will be an increased ability to pray, “Help me remember that I’m always in your Presence”, which, after all, the Psalmist said we “cannot flee” from (Ps 139).
Or better yet, maybe we could just pray, “Our Father, who art in heaven…”
May you know God’s nearness today and always.