Fireflies. I love them. I love seeing them light up in the dark as they flitter around in my backyard. But here’s some troubling news. Fireflies are misnamed. No matter what we say, fireflies are not flies. They are beetles. But I promise you, even if fireflies did nothing different and were just as enlightening and sweet as they are now, but we had to call them firebeetles, I would hate them with a passion. And while we are at it, Koala bears are not bears; they are marsupials. Now, I don’t care if they misnamed the Koala because of marketing; it is misleading. I would suggest that we throw whoever is responsible for this misrepresentation to some grizzlies so he (or she) can know what a true bear looks like. And let’s talk desserts. I don’t care what they say. Boston cream pie is definitely a cake, and cheesecake is definitely a pie. How could they have gotten that so wrong? Not that I care at all, but Guinea pigs are not pigs, nor are they from Guinea (they are rodents from South America). And let’s be honest, far from being cute, Guinea Pigs are just sewer rats with good PR. Behold, the strawberry! It looks like a berry. It feels like a berry, and it even tastes like a berry. Hence, I would say it was a berry, but I would be wrong (and wrong about blackberries and raspberries, as well). But hold on, because this going to hurt. The strawberry, raspberry and the blackberry aren’t berries, but bananas are. You can try to explain that to me; but I promise, I won’t be listening. And the worst lie of all, the Hawaiian pizza isn’t Hawaiian. It is Canadian. This is a hard one to swallow. I am thankful that they created this spectacular pizza, but it is hard to overlook the lie. But as they say, Hawaiian pizza covers a multitude of sins.
Now, it would seem like someone would have noticed these misnomers and fixed them long ago, but no. The real problem, though, is not that they continue, but that we don’t even notice. Now, I don’t really care if a firefly is not a real fly; as long as it still has a glowing posterior, I am happy. The fact is, I don’t think a whole lot about the names, and I bet you don’t either. And while that is not a problem in regards to strawberries, Koala bears and cheesecake, it is a huge problem in terms of our prayers.
Here’s what I think. When we pray, we give very little attention to the name we use in addressing God. Our concern is getting our words from here to heaven. Do we care what name is used on the envelope? Not at all. As long as we are aiming our prayer towards God’s direction, we don’t really pay attention to what name we use. But in so doing, we are making a huge mistake.
Here’s today’s prayer (it’s the prayer set apart to be prayed on Palm Sunday). I invite you to read the whole thing, but to pay special attention to how this prayer addresses God:
Almighty and everliving God,
in your tender love for the human race,
you sent your Son our Savior Jesus Christ
to take upon him our nature
and to suffer death upon the cross,
giving us the example of his great humility:
Mercifully grant that we may walk in the way of his suffering
and also share in his resurrection;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
“Almighty and everliving God” is not a typical way we address God. We may be tempted, as a result, to see it as a bit of antiquated verbiage or archaic theology. But it is neither of these things. It is proclaiming a truth that serves as the foundation for this whole prayer and, in the process, gives this prayer a proper introduction. And here’s an added benefit: when you pray these words, unlike other contemporary prayers, you really know you are entering into the very presence of God.
See, it is easy to overlook the theological richness and depth that the Book of Common Prayer demonstrates as it addresses God in prayer. And, frankly, we don’t often think about such things. Instead, we are quite content to call God all sorts of names, even if they don’t quite fit our prayer. And why not? If it looks like a berry and tastes like a berry, it’s a berry. If our hearts are praying to God, even if we get the name wrong, he will hear us. In other words, how we address God is mostly irrelevant, we suppose. But think about how many different names you have for the people closest to you (for instance, your spouse, your kids or even your pets). I would argue that each different name brings out a different aspect of their character; and as a result, the name we use matters. Imagine your husband or wife turning to you and saying, “I love you, ‘first, middle initial and last name’” – something would definitely be lost in translation.
Now, naming God properly takes skill because it is not always easy to balance God’s immanence and his transcendence in prayer because, while God is holy and other (transcendent), we want to feel his closeness in prayer (immanence). When we pray, we need to remember that God is holy, holy, holy, but we also want to know that he loves us as his children and cares deeply for us and that we can approach him without fear. But many of our prayers fail to do that. Consider these introductory lines from actual prayers. Do you think they balance God’s transcendence and his immanence?
“O God of Rainbows”
“O God of plenty” (which I first read as, “O good and plenty”)
“Holy God, holy and strange”
“Exuberant Spirit of God”
“O Party-Giving God”
Now, I don’t mean to vilify the prayers that come after these addresses, because they could be great; but these first lines (for me, at least) make our relationship with God in prayer way too casual. Now, I understand that, when it comes to prayer, words don’t matter as much as the heart; but that is not to say that our words are insignificant. Hardly, our words do matter.
Consider this for some perspective. Even today, to honor and preserve the holiness of God, Jews never say God’s most sacred name (Yahweh). Instead, whenever they see it, they substitute the word Adonai (Lord). Even scribes, when copying the Hebrew text, would switch writing instruments when they came to the tetragrammaton. It was too holy for their common pen. In other words, how Jews address God matters a lot. And if that does not stir you to think more seriously about how we are to address God in prayer, let me ask you this. What difference would you feel about the above prayer if, instead of praying, “Almighty and everliving God,” we prayed, “O Heavenly Dude.” I would argue that it changes the whole tenor of the prayer. All of that to say, it would be very wise for us to consider deeply who God is before we go to him in prayer.
The Book of Common Prayer utilizes four basic names for God in its prayers. It addresses God as:
Almighty (affirming God’s power and glory)
God (affirming God as the creator-king; the only true God)
Lord (affirming God’s authority over all)
Father (affirming God’s love for us in Christ Jesus; we are the children of God)
But while the BCP utilizes these four names, it never does so mechanically. Instead, takes these basic names and builds on them. And you can see that in the prayers that we have looked at in this series. For instance (the four basic names are in italics):
- Our two prayers of confession begin, “Most merciful God” and “Almighty and most merciful Father”
- Our prayer of thanks starts “Almighty God, Father of all mercies”
- Our prayer of dedication speaks to the “Almighty and eternal God”
- Our prayer of grace is offered to our “Almighty and everlasting God”
- Proper 21, a prayer seeking God’s strength, commences simply, but beautifully with “O God”
- The morning prayer addresses God as “O Lord, our heavenly Father, almighty and everlasting God”
- Our prayer for grace and protection relies on “Almighty God”
- The first line in our prayer asking God to develop trust in us reads, “Grant us, O Lord”
- And our Lenten Prayer also calls on “Almighty God”
Now, those are some rich and thoughtful names! Here’s my problem: I rarely think deeply about who God is before I pray. I just pray. I can’t speak for you, but my main take-away from this post is that, if I want to see increased depth in my prayer, I need to think a whole lot more before I pray about the God to whom I am praying. And maybe I should vary the way I address God, not only so that my prayers will have some added freshness to them, but so that my prayers will flow out of an understanding of God’s character expressed in his name. See, the way we address God is important. The name we use is important. Maybe that is enough to think about for today.
Now, we’ve barely touched today’s prayer, but don’t despair. We’ll talk more about it next week. In addition, we will also look at some ways that the “collects” of the Book of Common Prayer are put together. Now, I know that today’s post was a bit on the heavy side, and I could justify that simply by saying that how we address God matters. But instead, let me give you some advice on how to unwind after wrestling with all of this: grab an extra-large Hawaiian pizza and kick back for half an hour. See, pizza makes everything better.