When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is Spiritual. †
It’s all about relationships, who we know and the nature of our interactions. When I was in high school, for example, my family used a particular service station. When I pulled up to the pumps one of two brothers who worked there would come out when the bell dinged and speak to me as he starting the pump. He would clean the windshield and check under the hood, usually finishing up just as the pump clicked indicated the tank was full. Then he would skillfully top it off with enough additional gas to make the sale come to an even amount before saying thank you and “come back to see us.” I took all that for granted until I went away to college and started dating a city girl from Jacksonville, Florida. When she came home with me one weekend and I was showing her around, we stopped to get gas. When the tank was full, Mr. Roy said it was good to have me home and I thanked him and drove off. My girlfriend said, “Wait, you forgot to pay!” I just smiled and kept driving. I explained that they would send Daddy the bill.
It would be easy to feel nostalgic about all that and miss the point. Think about the relationships involved in this interaction. There was trust on the part of the adults involved. The owner of the service station trusted my parents to pay for the gas and my parents trusted him to keep accurate records of how much we owed him. I, on the other hand, took all this for granted. Send Daddy the bill. I was just showing off.
Paul said when we cry Abba (which is the familiar word in Aramaic for father, like daddy or maybe pop) it is a spiritual event. Crying Abba is quite different than flippantly saying Abba will take care of whatever we need. “Send Daddy the bill.”
Before I was old enough to drive a car, when I was still a very little boy, one of my earliest memories is playing in our family car. I was not supposed to be playing in the car but I got in and must have been pretending to drive. I don’t remember any of that. What I remember is that apparently I had managed to take the car out of gear and it started rolling. Where I grew up is flat as a pancake. The car wasn’t going far or rolling fast but it scared me. What I remember was opening the door and trying to stop a 1955 Chevrolet with my bare foot like Fred Flintstone and, when I realized that wasn’t working, calling Daddy. I was crying Abba.
In both instances I invoked my father’s name. As a college freshman showing off for my girlfriend it was presumptive but as a child in danger it was an honest and urgent cry for one I loved, trusted and, though that wasn’t my first thought, feared.
“Presumptive prayer can be regarded as the seedbed for idolatry.” 1
When our prayers invoke the name of the One who creates, redeems and sustains us, that invocation is honest and urgent. Those prayers are occasions when we look deep within ourselves and humbly confess our utter dependency.
Isaiah’s prayer is such a prayer. In the year King Uzziah died the prophet tells us that he found himself in the presence of God. The description of the event is incredible. Uzziah died circa 742 BC coinciding with the end of a time of relative independence for Judah. Now the king is dead and the Assyrian Empire is a growing threat which will continue until 701 when Sennacherib invaded Jerusalem. This is significant because in a time of civil threat and political uncertainty, Isaiah sees God enthroned. He describes the presence of God as in the court of a monarch. His vision of God enthroned stands in stark contrast to the relative weakness of the most powerful mortal king.
It’s all about relationships, right? This vision of the One who is truly sovereign, the One we have come to know as Christ the King, the One who is and was and is to come, was the backdrop for Isaiah’s call to be a prophet. His prayer wasn’t a pedestrian list of nice things he wanted from God. It was a stunning moment of self-awareness characterized by unworthiness: Woe is me. We join the heavenly court singing Holy, Holy, Holy and occasionally fill the sanctuary around the Altar with holy smoke but how often do we cry out in distress and come before God with no more bravado than a frightened little child screaming to a parent for help?
We get it backwards. We try to learn about God before we experience the reality of God. We don’t learn to pray so much as we wait for the moment when we find ourselves in the present of God at a complete loss of words. In that moment when we can’t imagine what to say, the Spirit intercedes and we overhear our own voices saying with Christians through the centuries, Our Father in heaven, your name is holy! Really!
A friend of mine in Georgia put a picture of her son on Facebook last week. He is wearing what seems to be a choir costume, the sort of thing we put children in when we try to bring to mind Isaiah’s cherub choir. He has a big smile on his face. The performance for which he has been practicing is over. All those rehearsals he now realizes were for this. It is the first time the children’s voices have been their offering to a room filled with adults who are listening, really listening, to the children sing. Imagine how powerful that experience is for a five year old. He looks at his mother, both are beaming. “That was the real time,” said Micah after his first recital.
So it is after we pray, really pray. That was real. Then, and only then, does it make sense to speak of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
- I have been reading Worship as Theology by Don Saliers. This is a direct quote from that book, page 111. ↩