I recently met with a young couple who are preparing for their marriage and for the first time in ages I was asked something which used to matter a great deal to many people: “Please”, they said, “can we have the older version of the Lord`s Prayer? We really don`t like that newer one”. And I was, as I say, reminded of how people can react quite strongly to what they regard as `messing around` with the Lord`s Prayer. I suppose I was just heartened by that strength of reaction and the value placed on what I would call one of the `Treasures` of our faith. On the other hand of course, it`s very familiarity and the regularity with which we say it can lessen the impact of what we`re saying so once in a while it`s worth taking a closer look; which is what I hope to do this morning.
The first thing to say I suppose is that as its name indicates we received the Lord`s Prayer directly from Christ and it`s sometimes easy to forget that he gave it to us in response to a request from the disciples: “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples”. I rather like to imagine the disciples as it were pulling Jesus up to the mark, as if to say “Do teach us to pray, it`s what a proper Rabbi would do”; and that way they could boast that theirs was a proper teacher of faith….. Anyway, when we remember its origins like this the Lord`s Prayer is placed in its context: on the one hand it`s a prayer for disciples; when we use it we know that we are praying according to his mind and will. And on the other hand it acts as a model or pattern for prayer. In other words when we break it down into its various elements we see that there`s an awful lot going on in each word and phrase.
I can hardly begin to do it justice in the short time we have today but perhaps I can touch on a few things that might lead you to look at it a little more closely. Practically speaking there`s one way of saying the Lord`s Prayer which you might like to try: For example why not spend a little time with it. How about saying it word by word and line by line with a lot of pauses? In fact why not pause and stay with each word or phrase and refuse to move on until you have allowed it to open itself up to you. So for instance, instead of racing on you might like to spend your whole prayer time with the word `Father`. And just say that word over and again under your breath until all that you associate with it becomes available to you. Or `hallowed be your name` or `forgive`….. and so on.
Beginning as it does with the word Father invites us to ponder, appreciate and explore what it means to be in relationship with THIS God. I mean from your personal experience it might carry associations that draw you in and warm the heart. On the other hand, of course, if your experience of parenting is less than positive it might prove difficult; but don`t let this trouble you. One of the things which helps me as both a son and a father is that we don`t paint our experience or understanding of Father onto God but on the contrary we allow the Scriptures to redefine our understanding of what fatherhood means.
So, when Jesus uses that word to lead us into intimacy with God the question is, “What does he want us to hold in mind? What picture of Father is he pointing to?” Well, probably quite a lot of things but for instance, to call on God as `Father` could take you back to the Book of Exodus; to the time when Israel was in slavery and needed rescuing. You might recall, Moses and Aaron were told, `Go to Pharaoh and say, “Israel is my Son, my firstborn…. let my people go”`. And so straight away your picture of Father is stretched. To call on God as Father is to call on the liberating God. So you could pause and reflect on what `liberation` might mean to you. And interestingly when you recall the rest of the Exodus story and how this same God gives bread to his people; acts with compassion and mercy and delivers them from their enemies then it becomes clear that the pattern of this whole prayer comes into focus. But we`ll come onto bread, forgiveness and evil in just a moment.
But having established and affirmed the character of our God the next couple of phrases direct our response. And Jesus directs us to wonder, awe, respect and worship. “Hallowed be thy name”, which is followed by submission to his will and agenda. “Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. Don`t ever let it be said that religion and politics- the ordering of human affairs- are not God`s business, this is what we pray for. I recently heard someone complain about the way new verbs have been created. What they were getting at is the way that instead of saying “She won a gold medal at the Olympics” some sports commentators are prone to say things like “She medalled at the Olympics. Or instead of “He received a red card” they say “He `carded`”. Now personally this is just irritating but at the risk of irritating you- and purely for the sake of getting you to remember this you could say that these parts of the Lord`s Prayer tell us how God wishes to be a Verb. God wishes to `God`- to be all that he is and has right to be in our lives and in his world and in saying this prayer we say `Amen` to that.
It`s only after all of this that we move on to Petition or `asking for stuff` like bread, forgiveness, a forgiving heart and deliverance. But what stands out for me is that there isn`t really a clear dividing line between these requests and what has gone before because each petition illustrates more deeply who we are when we come before this God our Father. For example, in saying “Give us this day our daily bread” we own up to the truth of our basic and fundamental need. In other words, no matter how we might pretend otherwise our sense of dependence is emphasised. We are creatures before our creator. This again is why it`s good to pause and reflect on a phrase like this; especially if control is your thing- or particularly if what you really mean is that you want a particular `kind` of bread or “bread without the crusts, thanks very much……”
And then I reminded that one useful exercise is to pray with some of the things you wish Jesus hadn`t said. You see my guess is that the next couple of lines about, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” might well figure somewhere on your list. It`s certainly on mine; not least because we know how challenging forgiveness can be. So why`s it there? Why won`t Jesus let us off the hook? Well firstly, there`s something here about being drawn closer to the heart of God. God IS love, which is very easy to say but of course it includes mercy and forgiveness and this prayer is about these things becoming part of US as well. But secondly, I`ve found it helpful to think of it this way. To forgive is to acknowledge that I can`t control other people; and more often than not what we`re really being asked to forgive is nothing more or less than the fact they are different from me.
Forgiveness of course is hard but that final phrase “Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil” gives us more of the same. It`s here that we contend not just with our own culpability but with the reality of a creation gone wrong. This is the realism of Jesus whose teaching on prayer sets us in real time and calls us to a certain bravery and perseverance. In other words this request opens our eyes and prevents of from becoming soft and naïve about the world that tries to live without reference to God.
Many years ago when I was at University the Warden of the Halls of Residence I stayed in gave a welcome dinner to all the new students followed by a pep` talk about what he expected of us in terms of our behaviour. I was there for three years and yes, I heard the same speech three times…. The Professor was an extremely genial man but I still vividly recall the way he kept on using the word “Reasonable” to describe how we should behave. It was all very amusing and enlightening and that was fine. But of course beyond that Student accommodation we know that the world is not reasonable. And one of the failings of our generation is that we like to pretend otherwise. That`s why one of the interesting things about the reaction of our leaders after the 9/11 terrorist killings was the way they started to use the word `evil`. It was as if they were saying, “We thought we`d got rid of all that. Wherever did that come from?” And again they thought they could deal with it by dropping bombs on it!
I get a little weary of people describing Christians as `too heavenly minded to be of any earthly use`. Prayer, if it gets a mention at all, is often considered the last recourse when all the really practical things have been done. But of course, you won`t be surprised to hear me saying that Prayer is actually the first and most practical thing we should be about. This is because as the Lord`s Prayer demonstrates, Prayer is about opening our eyes to God, his nature and His purposes. It`s about opening our hearts in devotion and our lives in service. It`s about seeing ourselves and the world around us more often than not in its very raw-ness and not running away from that and the challenges it presents in terms of need, forgiveness and evil.
All of this and more I would suggest is contained in the Treasure of faith we call the Lord`s Prayer. And I suppose, putting it simply, I warm to the polarities we`re given. On the one hand the Fatherhood of God and on the other engagement with the world. It`s summed up in one of the best definitions of prayer I have heard: (by Michael Paul Gallagher). To pray is “to relax into the reality of being loved by God… and rising to the realism of loving like Christ”.