When I pray, “Our Father…” whom, exactly, does “Our” include? I remember several years ago, standing in the checkout line at Food Fair in Montgomery, Alabama, having an epiphany that had to do with that first word of Jesus’ prayer.
It dawned on me then that “Our” included all the people in that unnecessarily long line on Saturday afternoon, when I was tired from yard work and had only a bottle of salad dressing and a sack of charcoal to pay for. Most of my fellow standers were not my color. Some seemed not to bathe nearly as often as I do. At least half payed for their groceries with food stamps. I went there by choice, though I often resented that choice when the line stretched back into the grocery aisles. Many of those around me had less choice because they were without cars. I could have driven a few more minutes to the Winn Dixie in a “better” part of town. It was cleaner, smelled better, and more of the people who shop there were “like me.” I wondered why I didn’t make that drive, especially as I stood there in that line, unmoving.
I had a long time to think, standing in that line…and to pray, “Our…” How odd to share a Father with those people. I was in that moment dumbfounded that Jesus loved each of them just as much as He loved me, though He certainly loves me no less for loving them so much. Somewhere in me, down beneath feeling tired and out of sorts, I was moved to love them too, though the truth is I was frightened by them. As liberal, modern, and liberated as I claim to be–want to be–I was afraid of the darkness of their skin. I was even more afraid of what violent intentions might lurk underneath that dark skin, behind those dark eyes. (According to eye witnesses, the individuals who had burgled my house three different times in the past three years had been black men. One day when my young daughters and I were playing softball at the park, near our home—and near Food Fair—a young black man shouted a threatening racial slur at us.)
Still other African-American people I have worked with day after day. I have shared my life and my home with them. I have enjoyed being in their homes. They have, I think, looked through my skin color, as I have looked through theirs, to find a common human neediness. We have loved each other as best we can.
Racial issues are just one set of issues that are exposed by the word “Our…” I begin to wonder whom else I tend to exclude when I pray. Church people who irritate me? People in prisons, for all the worst reasons? Terrorists? Children of terrorists? Politicians with whom I disagree? Men who cheat on their wives? Parents who hurt their children? Rush Limbaugh?
“Our” makes praying risky. There are people in “our” with me who can hurt me if they choose to, yet God loves them no less. There are others in “our,” including saints of every age and place, who are eager to help me to be reconciled with all the villains. Some of those saints may be villains themselves. I know more and more as I pray Jesus’ words that I am being drawn to love every one of those whom Jesus includes in the word “Our.” My comforts and fears and relationships and hesitancy to open to relationships on Jesus’ terms do not change, cannot change, Jesus’ choice of words. It would be so much easier to pray “My Father.” “Our…” gets awfully crowded sometimes.