In Canadian novelist Yann Martel’s runaway-bestseller-turned-award-winning-movie Life of Pi, we’re introduced to Pi Patel, a precocious boy from Pondicherry, India. The son of a zookeeper, he survives a shipwreck on the Indian Ocean on a life raft, with a 450 lb. Bengali tiger named Richard Parker for a companion. Raised Hindu, he experiments with Christianity and Islam, as well, and decides he will practice all three simultaneously, saying he “just wants to love God.”
This pastiche practice of spirituality is enormously popular- “I just want to love God!” And yet, Christians stubbornly tether themselves to approaching God as “Father Almighty.” In his signature teaching on prayer, Jesus, following the practice of Israel, teaches us to approach God as “our Father in heaven.” Why? Why does it matter what name we use for God?
For one, all of us know from experience, and perhaps embarrassment, that names matter. Anyone who’s ever accidentally used the name of an old flame to address a significant other, or who’s labored beneath stacks of baby name books, agonizing over what to call the embryonic life she’s been entrusted to bring to birth, knows this.
The pastor/writer/novelist Frederick Buechner, in his fabulous Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC, under the entry for his own name, writes “It is my name. It is pronounced Beekner. If somebody mispronounces it in some foolish way, I have the feeling that what’s foolish is me. If somebody forgets it, I feel that it’s I who am forgotten. There’s something about it that embarrasses me in just the same way that there’s something about me that embarrasses me. I can’t imagine myself with any other name- Held, say, or Merrill, or Hlavacek. If my name were different, I would be different. When I tell you my name, I have given you a hold over me that you didn’t have before. If you call it out, I stop, look, and listen whether I want to or not.”
Names are doorways into relationship; they are gateways into intimacy and communion. And ironically, when we forsake calling God by name, in the name of pursuing spiritual experience, this is just what we miss out on- often, when it matters the most.
This came home to me as I listened to the late (and great) Jaroslav Pelikan, a leading church historian who taught at Yale for four decades, converse with Krista Tippett on NPR’s On Being. When he was asked by Tippett why the Creed matters, he wisely observed that “the only substitute for good tradition is bad tradition.” He went on to elaborate that, in life’s darkest hours, faith-in-general, or, in his words, “prayers sent To Whom It May Concern,” simply don’t cut it.
It is good news indeed that followers of Jesus aren’t left to address our prayers “To Whom It May Concern,” but, as our Lord taught us, are bold to say, “Our Father in heaven…”
Jared Ayers is the founding and preaching pastor of Liberti Church in Philadelphia, PA. He is a graduate of Lancaster Bible College, and is currently finishing an M.Div. from Western Theological Seminary’s Newbigin House of Studies. Jared and his wife Monica have been married for 10 years, and love calling Philadelphia home. They’ve been graced with two sons (Brennan and Kuyper) and a daughter (Rae Ann).