DeacoNote 22: Abracadabra
March 8, 2023
If I think back to some of my earliest memories of childhood stories, many of those early stories contained magical elements. These ideas were further reinforced by children's cartoons and movies. Even if we did not remember the specifics, we somehow all knew, that if you rubbed the right old oil lamp, an Arabian Night genie might appear and grant you three wishes. Only later, perhaps in a world literature class, would you learn that this character originated in an Arabian folk tale, dating from well before the second century, narrated in some instances by Scheherazade.
And then in more modern times, we had illusionists, magicians, like Harry Houdini, David Copperfield and David Blaine. At some moment in their show, the magician would utter an incantation, like Abracadabra, and Presto! something would appear or disappear, or change, according to the apparent whim of the performer. Most of the kids of my generation received a magic kit as a gift at some point, or at the very least learned a few card tricks to amaze their friends. And always in the performance of the trick, the instructions suggested that you say an incantation before your big reveal.
More often than not, that incantation was some variation of Abracadabra! Interestingly enough, this is not just a random collection of syllables. While its exact origin is unknown, it has been suggested to derive from the ancient Aramaic phrase, Avra kehdabra, which means, "I create as I speak," or "I create like the word." Its use was from a time, when words were thought to contain power, of and by themselves, like spells from Harry Potter.
In fact, the oldest known surviving published use of the word, Abracadabra, is in a medical treatise, Liber Medicinallis, by Quintus Serenus Sammonicus in the third century. He was a physician to the Roman emperor, Caracella, and in chapter 52 of his treatise, he prescribes the use of this word, inscribed on an amulet, as a cure for malaria.
In our modern scientific age, however, we are quick to dismiss such prescriptions, and ascribe any observed effectiveness to a placebo effect, or coincidence with other factors. We reject the idea that the word, of and by itself, has any power over the circumstance in question.
But now I would like to consider something else that I first "learned" as a child, but did not fully understand. That was a verse from the Bible that tells us how to pray.
John 14: 14 You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.
When this verse is viewed from the perspective of a child-like understanding, the phrase "in my name," sounds suspiciously like a Christian Abracadabra. It almost sounds as if you can get whatever you want through prayer, if you just remember to include the magic words, "in Jesus' name."
In Richard Wagner's book, Christian Prayer for Dummies, he tells an anecdote of a fictitious man, named Ned, that reads this verse and decides to pray for a brand new Porsche convertible. On day One of praying, he writes in his prayer journal,
"Wow, Jesus is better than a genie in a bottle. You only get three measly wishes with a genie, Jesus gives you a lifetime supply."
On day Three, however, he writes,
"Still no Porsche. Bummer! Trying to think what I did wrong and came up with a theory that looks pretty solid. In rereading those verses again, I saw that John 14:14 says that you need to ask 'in his name.' I am not sure I did that! So when I prayed just a moment ago, I made sure and tacked on the phrase, 'in Jesus name' to my request. I have all bases covered now, so I look forward to driving it down the highway tomorrow! Sincerely In His Name, Ned."
Richard Wagner reminds us that while Ned's journal is fictitious, many Christians treat the phrase, "in his name," as if it were a magical incantation, like Abracadabra, rather than seeking to fully understand what the phrase, "in his name," means.
It definitely does not mean that we should make sure we add that specific phrase onto the end of every prayer. What it is intended to tell us is, that when we pray, we are to do it, as if we were acting on Jesus' behalf, as His ambassador, so to speak.
Another way to look at it, is to ask ourselves, What Would Jesus Do?, if He were there / here in our specific circumstance. What and how would He pray? Once we determine that - that is what we should pray for - that is what it means - to pray in His name.
At some points during my 30 year career in the halls of a multi-national corporation, I had an assignment as a technical assistant to a very senior executive. In my capacity as his assistant, I could call any of one the 25,000 people in his organization and get them to do whatever I asked. They did not do it because I called, however - I quite literally meant nothing to them.
They did it, because it was understood, that I was speaking for my boss - it was not my wishes, but those of my boss, that I was conveying. They did it because of who I represented.
Similarly, if the things we pray for and about are an expression of the mind and wishes of our Lord and Savior, Jesus, it will be done. It will be done because, we were acting as His representative, His ambassador, if you will - we were acting in His name.
Let's look at the other famous verse on praying. This is where the disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray:
Matthew 6: 9 - 13 This then is how you should pray: "Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one."
Now, ask yourself the question - does this say to pray "in Jesus' name?"
If you fully understand the meaning of praying in Jesus' name, the answer is yes. It is worded a bit differently, but the meaning is the same. Jesus instructs His disciples to pray,
"your will be done on earth as it is in heaven"
A last way to look at this question is to realize that, if our mind is in sync, so to speak, with God's mind, so that our thoughts are His thoughts, then whatever we ask, whatever we pray, will be for God's will to be done. And guess what? By definition, He will do it.
John recorded Jesus telling His disciples this very thing
John 15: 7 - 8 If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. This is to my Father's glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.
This verse adds yet another way of expressing the same idea - "showing yourselves to be my disciples" is another way of saying we are to be Jesus' representatives or ambassadors - with the clear purpose of bringing glory to the Father and bearing much fruit - that is, bringing others into relationship with Him.
The next time you are about to append a prayer, or anything else you are saying or doing, with the words, "in his name," stop! Stop and make sure it is for the express purpose of declaring your intent to bring glory to the Father and bear much fruit for His kingdom. Then, it truly will be ... done "in his name."
I invite each of you to leave a comment below, or share a related story or anecdote of your own.
Your Brother In Christ,
Warren J. Ayer, Jr.
Chairperson, Board of Deacons
United Church of Colchester