The God to Whom Jesus Prayed…
Feast Day of Dietrich Bonhoeffer—April 9, 2003
- Psalms 51
I want to thank this community for its efforts in prayer. Your prayers on Psalm 51 go out daily to about a thousand people around the country. More people write in each day to get on the listserv, than write to request that their names be deleted. I want to share the enormous outpouring of gratitude from all parts of the country and all points on the political spectrum: from Renee Larson, wife of the former pastor of Shepherd of the Hills, who wrote the day after she’d been arrested in Austin for a peace protest, to PLTS alum and military chaplain Robin Pizanti, who wrote the day after he sent a colleague off to the front. In the midst of uncertainty and positions that seem frozen into opposition, your efforts touched a chord. I thank you for that.
We all owe especial thanks to Christine Sinnott, director of communications, who organized this mammoth effort and prods us still for our scheduled contributions. I want to share a story that grew out of this effort. Institutions do very little story-telling, so its best stories remain untold. Families do lots of story-telling, even if the stories are sometimes false or slightly slanted. And nations, as we have seen, tell their own stories stridently and with victory in mind. But one story that I would like in the pages of our institutional annals happened last week.
So brace yourselves: “Once upon a time… ” The prayer listserv begins with a verse from a psalm. Then the writer of the day offers a brief commentary on that verse and concludes with a prayer and the Lord’s Prayer. Lately, the daily prayer offered alternative forms of the prayer that Jesus had taught us to pray, one of which began, “God our Father, God our Mother… ” Last week Christine got a letter from a prominent theologian who objected to this version, which he found unacceptable. He informed us of that fact with high theological dudgeon. Christine and I considered carefully his response.
We actually disagreed with one another on the theological arguments involved, but agreed that the focus of our effort was not God-language, but prayers for peace. We resolved the issue admirably: alternative prayers on our website and the standard version of the Lord’s Prayer signaled in the text. I add this tiny episode to the larger story of this institution. It illustrates three qualities I treasure about this institution: the seriousness with which we take theological argument, the civility with which we disagree, and an ability to find faithful compromise.
Of course, we can blame it all on Bonhoeffer… He’s the one, after all, who suggested prayer as an act of resistance in a time of war. He’s the one who directed us to both to the Lord’s Prayer and the Psalms, because he felt they “run through” each other. The Lord’s Prayer is the prayer Jesus taught us to pray; the psalms are the prayers Jesus himself prayed.
We need both prayers especially now. I want to speak about each, in Bonhoeffer’s context—and in our own. This whole part of the story got me thinking: Who was the God to whom Jesus prayed?
We get a clue from the way Jesus taught his disciples to pray, when he addressed their insistent question: “Lord, teach us how to pray… ” They’d watched this man weather crowds of needy people for weeks at a time. They’d seem him underslept, underfed, and overworked—and they were astonished at his calm, his resiliency, his gravity. “Lord, teach us how to pray… ,” they begged. The words are so familiar to us that we have to re-translate them to get the gist. There is awe here, to be sure. Jesus’ disciples searched for the source of Jesus’ centeredness, that strong tether that held him in place no matter how far he was stretched. But Jesus’ disciples also wanted to know his “secret.” There is envy in their request, and maybe we have to get on tabloid level to cipher it. “You’ve lost so much weight—what’s your diet?!” “You look great—who’s your trainer?” “You look like you had a square meal recently—where did you get it?” Translated into tabloid, Jesus’ disciples ask him: “Introduce us to the God to whom you pray. We want to meet this God. Maybe this God will work for us as well as this God works for you.”
As you might imagine, God doesn’t need any job descriptions from us! God does not so much work for us as work on us, creating in us hearts so clean we barely recognize them in the mirror. Little did the disciples know how much they’d change during the course of the journey and how little they’d resemble the crowd whom Jesus plucked off the streets and from the fishing boats to come and follow. As my mother keeps reminding me: “Be careful what you pray for!” I’ll amend her counsel just a bit: “Be careful to whom you pray!”
Who was the God to whom Jesus prayed? He advises his disciples to pray to “Our Father”—possibly so that we can argue for centuries about how to render that prayer and how to gender that God. It’s clear that Jesus himself prayed to God as “Father” and that address was simply unheard of in the prayer etiquette of the ancient world: God was distant, magisterial, with a name that the Jews would not pronounce. As a good Jewish boy, tutored in all the right schools and able to read, he surely knew the proper forms of address. He surely knew when to keep silent. Yet he persisted in calling this God “father.” That alone would have gotten him denounced him as a prophet in his own country. That alone should have gotten him suspended from Synagogue School. The intimacy that word claims, the familiarity it celebrates—it was unheard of!
But Jesus presses his point. It is not “My Father… ” but “Our Father… ” who is the God to whom we pray. Feminists and those who have experienced abuse at the hands of earthly fathers bristle at the gender designation the word Father implies, but far more prickly is the possessive pronoun “our.” This God belongs in this intimate way to all of us, friend and foe, rich and poor, black and white and yellow and red. All claim this God as their own.
Over time, it’s probably not the word “Father” that becomes so difficult to speak as the word “our.” Feminist patristic scholar—you need to chew on that for a while: feminist patristics scholar —Roberta Bondi speaks of a colleague who’d betrayed her. Because she could find no words of her own forgiveness to bridge the chasm that yawned between them, Bondi prayed to the God to whom Jesus prayed. She borrowed the prayer Jesus taught her to pray. As a feminist, she expected the “Father” part to be tough going, but it far harder was the word “Our,” because the God to whom she prayed was not only her father but the father of Jane Ann, the colleague who had betrayed her. So she prayed, positioning herself and her colleague before this God as children, even as sisters.
Ah, the prayer that Jesus taught us to pray is not for wimps. It has teeth. I wonder: Can we pray that prayer for those who betray us? Recall the moving sermon that Rev. Julius Carroll preached in this pulpit for the Hein-Fry and ask yourselves: Can we pray that prayer for all the children of the world?
Who was the God to whom Jesus prayed? Clearly it was the God whom we address in the Lord’s Prayer as “Our Father… ” But Bonhoeffer invites us further into the mind of Jesus by inviting us into the world of the psalms. He identified the psalter as the “prayerbook of Jesus.” It is in the psalms that we meet the many faces of the God to whom Jesus prayed. Let me say two things about Bonhoeffer’s insights into the psalter. First, they were not popular in Germany. Bonhoeffer presented a Jesus who was basically a good Jew, one who knew the psalms by heart and used them as his prayers. Indeed, his published argument to this effect, “The Prayerbook of the Bible,” was a deliberate gesture of resistance in the face of the Gestapo, identifying him as a suspicious person and marking him as a resister. For that group the concepts “Jesus” and “Jewish” did not mix. They strove to present Jesus as the pure-blooded Aryan he wasn’t. Bonhoeffer knew his analysis of the psalms would register as resistance. Prayer as resistance: Yes, blame it on it on Bonhoeffer.
Second, and more important, Bonhoeffer’s insights into the psalter as the “prayerbook of Jesus” tell us something about the God to whom Jesus prayed. Read the psalms and meet this God. You could say anything to this God. You could lament; you could shout; you could weep; you could even whine. Beyond Father, this God was Shepherd, Fortress, Strong Rock, Creator, Judge, Abandoner—even Voyeur. At least that is how I understand the God addressed in Ps. 139:
O Lord you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away…
Not only could you say anything to this God who seemed to have so many faces, you could be anything before this God. For if this God was Shepherd, you were sheep. If Creator, you were creature. If Judge, you were in the docket. If Spirit, you were breath of fire. If Abandoner, you were accursed.
With Holy Week we enter the mind of Jesus, and we encounter the God to whom he prayed. We see Jesus calling on God in every possible way, now as a child cries out to a beloved Father, now as a friend beseeches another Friend, now as a criminal pleads with his Jccuser. The God to whom Jesus prayed was somehow big enough to soak it all up, and Jesus threw everything at God, from “Father, forgive them, for they know now what they do… ” to “My God, my God why have you forsaken me… ”
Praying to the God to whom Jesus prayed consoled Bonhoeffer in his long dark sojourn in prison. The psalter was his constant companion. The psalms offered him a range of verbal icons for portraying the divine: Judge, Shepherd, Creator. But the psalms also afford Bonhoeffer the prisoner a variety of places to stand before this God: beloved child, trusted friend, even accursed cast-off.
We know that Bonhoeffer worked with terrible intensity during his imprisonment. His Ethics comes out of the prison papers, as well as an avalanche of letters and journals. The letters are elegantly vested, calculated to calm his family and broker his release. But the journal entries are utterly naked. They reveal someone who feels abandoned—and has found in the psalms room even for abandonment. I regard the piece we read in today’s service, “Who am I?” as the counterpart to Jesus’ cry of abandonment from the cross.
Bonhoeffer’s lament echoes the disciples’ : “Lord, we have left everything and followed you … ” But it also shows that we can be naked before this God. It shows that we can doubt everything we thought we knew about ourselves—and still find embrace.
We stand on the cusp of Holy Week. As we enter the mysteries, we ask the God to whom Jesus prayed to guide us to the cross—and to the empty tomb beyond.
“Who Am I?”
Who am I? They often tell me
I would step from my cell’s confinement
calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
like a squire from his country-house.
Who am I? They often tell me
I would talk to my warders
freely and friendly and clearly,
as though it were mine to command.
Who am I? They also tell me
I would bear the days of misfortune
equably, smilingly, proudly
like one accustomed to win.
Am I then really all that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I know of myself,
restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat,
yearning for colours, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
trembling with anger at despotisms and petty humiliation,
tossing in expectation of great events,
powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,
faint, and ready to say farewell to it all?
Who am I? This or the other?
Am I one person today, and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
and before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army,
fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?
Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, thou knowest, O God, I am thine.
—Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison