Monday, July 25, 2016

The Disciples' Prayer

A Sunday School teacher began her lesson with a question, "Boys and girls, what do we know about God?"
A hand shot up in the air. "He is an artist!" said the kindergarten boy.
"Really? How do you know?" the teacher asked.
"You know - Our Father, who does art in Heaven... "
Polls report that 55% of Americans pray daily and another 21% pray at least weekly.[1] The Lord's Prayer, part of today's reading from Luke, also occurs in Matthew's gospel.[2] The brevity of Luke's version compared to Matthew's suggests that the Lukan version is older because texts tend to expand through retelling and revision. The Lord's Prayer both summarizes Jesus' teachings and teaches us how to pray.[3]
First, the prayer addresses God as Father, asking that God's name be hallowed or made holy. The word Father emphasizes that we are God's children. Persons who find thinking of God as a father or in masculine terms troubling can usefully substitute Mother in their private devotions. Mother and Father are both biblical metaphors for God; both, at their best, point to God's loving embrace and care. Matthew's addition of the word heavenly is a helpful reminder that many people, including me, often feel as if God is remote or distant. We hallow God's name by honoring God's presence by not misusing or demeaning God's name, keeping a weekly Sabbath, and intentionally thinking of God during our waking hours.
Second, praying for God's kingdom to come, which Matthew underscores by adding a repetitive petition that God's will be done on earth as in heaven, defines our hope and the goal towards which Christians strive. If God's kingdom existing on earth depended only on God, presumably God's kingdom would now fully exist throughout the cosmos. However, God works primarily, but not exclusively, through people. Homelessness in Hawaii, murdered police officers across the US, slain innocents in Nice, war in Syria, de facto apartheid in Palestinian territories, and many other evils highlight the urgency of God's people engaging more assertively building God's kingdom on earth. Thus, this petition is more about us than God. We pray that God will help us to overcome indifference and inertia so that we will love all of our neighbors as much as we love ourselves.[4]
Third, praying for our daily bread has a different emphasis in the twenty-first century than it had in the first century. Most of Jesus' hearers were peasants working in a subsistence economy who struggled daily to obtain sufficient food. While some of us probably live paycheck to paycheck, none of us faces the real prospect of being hungry tomorrow if something goes wrong today. We are more affluent, and some much more affluent, than were most of Jesus' original hearers. Consequently, praying for our daily bread is now praying for freedom from the idolatry of believing that our money or possessions can offer us security. Churches receive an offering as part of worship partially to thank God for God's good gifts but more importantly because generously contributing our money and possessions to building God's kingdom can liberate us from the false belief that possessions or money can guarantee security against life's vicissitudes.
A woman lay in a hospital bed, her body ravaged by a rapidly spreading cancer. Day after day, her family prayed that God would heal her. A silent, pervasive disappointment had taken root among the family because the cancer continued to spread in spite of their prayers. God did not seem to care about her. Driven by desperation and frustration the woman began to reflect about how they were praying. After much thought she told her family, “Today let’s not pray that I will be healed; God knows that I hate this illness and want to be healed. Instead, let’s pray that whether or not I am healed, what I really want is to feel close to God.” She was a woman whose begging for bread grew into a request for living bread.
Fourth, we pray for God's forgiveness. Three English words translate Greek word hamartia: sin, debt, and trespass. Sin denotes rule breaking, debt an unrepaid loan, and trespass an inappropriate border transgression. Spiritually, all three illuminate different types and areas of sin. None is inherently superior or more theologically accurate than the other two. Sin, debt, and trespass each appear in contemporary versions of the Lord's Prayer. Alternatively, an unknown pre-K child may have unwittingly framed the most memorable translation: "And forgive us our trash baskets as we forgive those who put trash in our baskets."
Jesus ties experiencing God's forgiveness to forgiving those who have sinned against us. Specifically, if you wish to experience God's forgiveness, you must forgive those who have lied to you or otherwise hurt you, failed to repay kindness or a loan you extended to them, or abused your trust or respect. When I harden my heart – and the heart in the Bible represents the whole self – against others, I unintentionally but invariably harden my heart to God's presence in my life. My difficulty in receiving God's forgiveness lies not with God but with me.
Fifth, we pray that God will not bring us to the time of trial. This final petition is one of two reasons that I strongly prefer the new version of the Lord's Prayer found in the Book of Common Prayer.[5] Asking God not to lead us into temptation is nonsense. The devil, not God, leads people into temptation. Incidentally, the other reason that I prefer the new version of the Lord's Prayer in the Book of Common Prayer is its use of you and your instead of thy and thine. English is a living language and usage continuously changes. When translated into English in the sixteenth century, the Lord's Prayer used thy and thine because those were the familiar terms, emphasizing our intimacy with our divine parent. You and your were formal terms used to address one's social betters. In the intervening centuries, the usage has reversed and pronouns that originally signified intimacy now ironically connote distance and formal respect.
Saying the Lord’s Prayer is a wonderful habit that can inculcate the pattern of prayer into our spirit. Praying the Lord’s Prayer is even better, that is, when the words carry our spirit to God and God’s spirit to us, when through our meditations on the petitions we hear the voice of God speaking to us. Living the Lord's Prayer is better yet, because then we actually follow Jesus, living as his disciples.



[1] Michael Lipka, "5 facts about prayer," Pew Research Center, May 4, 2016.
[2] Matthew 6:9-13; Luke 11:2-4.
[3] N.T. Wright, The Lord and His Prayer (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), p. 2.
[4] N. T Wright, The Lord and His Prayer (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), p.31.
[5] Cf. Book of Common Prayer, p. 364.

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