I was 7 years old. My sister was 9. We had just gotten our first 2-wheeled bicycle. A real beauty. No training wheels. It was used and a bit rusty, but nothing a little sanding and a strong coat of orange paint couldn’t fix.
Dad bought it for us, fixed it up and took us to the schoolyard to teach us how to ride. We took turns, starting off at home plate on the ball diamond, riding down the first base line. Dad running along behind us, his hand on the seat, saying, “Don’t worry, I’ve got you. Keep pedaling.” A few times down the baseline and he was gasping for air, but still spitting out between breaths, “Don’t worry. Keep pedaling.” When I think about my father’s love for us, I picture him running along behind us, kicking up dust with his heels, red in the face, half-bent over from exhaustion, panting out, “Keep pedaling, I’ve got you.”
When the Psalmist considers God’s love in Psalm 103, the image that comes to mind is that of a father who has compassion for his children. God knows that we are dust, feeble creatures who stumble around often in the dark. Trying our best but still coming up short. Like children learning a new task. And like a father who has compassion for his children, God runs along behind us, urging us on, “Keep pedaling. I’ve got you.” The Psalmist, looking back over the history of the people Israel, sees that God has been gracious and kind, patient and forgiving. Like a father who has compassion for his children.
Jesus picks up this image of God as a loving father and carries it even further. The disciples come to Jesus and say to him, “Teach us how to pray.” They have heard that John has taught his followers a special way to pray and they want to learn how to pray as Jesus would have them.
Instead of giving them a lecture on prayer, Jesus prays with them. He begins with “Abba.” We say, “Our Father” and yet the word is even more intimate than that. In Hebrew, “Abba” might be the first word out of a child’s mouth as the child looks at the loving faces of her parents. Abba. Something like “Daddy.” When you pray, says Jesus, pray as a child who is first learning to speak. Look to God as the loving parent who will provide all that you need. Approach prayer in this way, says Jesus.
This approach to prayer that Jesus teaches gives us a unique image of God. It also says something about who we are in relationship to God. We are children of God. Our prayers to God are the prayers of children, thankful for God’s love, eager to receive God’s blessing, to be forgiven, to be delivered from temptation. The simplicity it captures our hearts and minds. It provides us with an approach to prayer which gives shape to our life of faith, lifts up our greatest praise and gives voice to our deepest longings.
The Lord’s Prayer is a family prayer, spoken not just in the quiet recesses of our hearts, but out loud, in the presence of all God’s children. Some time ago, I was sharing communion with a man who is struggling with a degenerative muscle disease. He was far away from family and friends, worried about his finances, trying his best to keep up as a provider for his family during this time of crisis. Trying to be the best father he knew how. He shook my hand firmly when we met and he spoke with confidence. Underneath he seemed weighed down by the burdens placed on him, but firmly resolved to keep them to himself. When we came to the part of the communion service where we say the Lord’s Prayer, he burst into tears, barely able to speak. The prayer, in all its simplicity reminded him he is a child of God, loved and cared for. Needing love. And not alone.
My prayer for fathers and for all of us is that we become aware of the embracing love of God to whom we pray as children learning to speak. As we are pedaling along as fast as we can to keep our balance, to become aware of the voice running along behind us, “Keep it up. I’ve got you.”