09 July 2005

More on the Lord's Prayer

I remember the first prayer my mom taught me when I was a little nipper. It went like this:

Now I lay me down to sleep
I pray the Lord my soul to keep
If I should die before I wake
I pray the Lord my soul to take

I prayed that prayer every night before bed, and I liked talking to God, but I must say that I prayed with a bit of trepidation. I mean, "If I should die before I wake?" Was that a likely occurrence? Why did Mom think it was a good idea that I pray that every night? Did she know something I didn't? I was, like, four years old, and I preferred to consider myself firmly in the "too young to die" category.

Although I prayed that prayer--er--religiously for quite a while, I admit I was rather relieved when Mom taught me another prayer. The second prayer I ever learned was the Lord's Prayer, and this one seemed much safer. I was praying for bread (which I enjoyed), forgiveness (which I sometimes needed), freedom from temptation (I wasn't sure what that was), and deliverance from evil (that might have seemed scary, but I was already starting to run into bullies and the like, and I thought I could really use God's help in staying away from them, not to mention the ghosts in the attic). I didn't really know what the stuff at the beginning about "hallowed" and "kingdom come" was supposed to mean; I think I figured it was praise like the doxology at the end. The Elizabethan language was a bit awkward but kind of neat, and overall this was a comforting prayer that I enjoyed praying, and I think it's safe to say that, as for many of us, it's the single prayer I've prayed most often as my life has unfolded.

So the Lord's Prayer was safe and comforting, and eventually it became familiar and rote as I prayed it again and again, until I think I was incapable of praying it at all--the words just tumbled out without meaning or emotion. It was like the Pledge of Allegiance. (Do people really think making kids say that over and over makes it more meaningful for them, instead of the opposite?) I think that's the way the Lord's Prayer is for many Americans--safe, neutral, something well known to "pray" when praying is called for. I think it's like that for my wife, who isn't a Christian and who usually avoids joining in when prayers or creeds are spoken, but who will say the Lord's Prayer because, I guess, it's a neutral (neutered?) part of the culture; it doesn't really mean anything or imply commitment or faith.

And I can't blame her--like I said, even my first impression of the Lord's Prayer was that it was safe and comforting and unchallenging. But is that the kind of prayer it really is? If you'll bear with me, I'd like to examine it a bit.

Our Father, who art in heaven

The prayer starts right off with one of Jesus' more radical (and, for him, fundamental) teachings: the God who is in heaven, who is Creator and Lord of both heaven and earth, is as near to us and cares about each of us as a parent, abba, our beloved father, "daddy". Now that is comforting, and it does make me feel safe, but it's not neutral or unchallenging. To us, the idea is too familiar, but to many of Jesus' listeners, his referring to the Creator and Judge of all, the Lord of Hosts (i.e., of armies), as "daddy"--and not just his daddy, but our daddy too--was radical indeed. Also note the plural--not "my" Father but "our" Father. The entire prayer is meant as a communal prayer--even when we pray it alone, we pray it with the communion of saints, past and present. And whenever we pray it in fellowship with other Christians, whenever two or more of us are gathered in his name, the One who originally prayed this prayer is there too.

Hallowed be thy name
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done
On earth as it is in heaven

OK, stop and think about this for just a moment. What are we praying for here, really?

In these lines, we pray for nothing short of the utter transformation of the entire world. Is that safe, neutral, and unchallenging? We're praying for the sort of world in which God's name is revered. That's a different sort of world than we have now. We're praying that the Kingdom of God--the Kingdom that Jesus always talked about in parables, the Kingdom in which all are radically welcomed, valued, healed, forgiven, and saved, in which God's will is done (and not just debated)--will come here. Now. On earth as it is in heaven. This is end-of-the-book-of-Revelation, new-heaven-and-new-earth stuff, but we're not praying that God will bring it about "some day"--this entire prayer is about "this day", as is explicit in the next line. This is saving the world, and this is what Jesus came for. I didn't get this until fairly recently, but now, whenever I pray this part of the Lord's prayer, it becomes a recommitment of myself to discipleship, to the work of bringing about this Kingdom on earth as in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread

So we start by praying what I believe is our ultimate prayer as Christians and followers of the One who came to proclaim that the Kingdom of God is at hand: thy kingdom come. We've recommitted ourselves to helping to bring about that Kingdom. Now, in the rest of the prayer, we ask God for those things that we will need in order to do this work.

We start by asking for our daily bread. What we'll need first of all is freedom from the pressure of the present: we can't do the work of disciples if we don't have the basic necessities that allow us to survive the day--at least, not for long. This part of the prayer is phrased as an expression of trust: give us this day our daily bread--and I trust that tomorrow, you'll do the same, so I'm not going to worry overmuch about that right now; instead, I'll get down to the work you have given me to do. I've also read that it may perhaps be better translated "Give us this day our bread of The Day", explicitly connecting this line of the prayer to the previous lines and the eschatological theme of ultimate worldwide transformation--give us what we need to help Your Day dawn. And you thought it was nothing but a request for food!

And forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us

After freedom from the pressures of the present, the next thing we need in order to do our work on behalf of the Kingdom is freedom from the pressures of the past: guilt over our own sins and mistakes, and anger and ill-will toward those who have wronged us. We need to be free of both of these in order to do our work as disciples; both can hold us back from devoting our full selves to the Reign of God. Sometimes we hold on to these things like they're our most prized possessions, so when we pray this part of the Prayer, we would do well to search our hearts: do we really want to be forgiven, and to forgive? Is this as safe and neutral and easy as we like to think?

Lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil

Having become free from the present and the past, the last thing we need in order to be real disciples is freedom from the pressures of the future: fear and anxiety about evil that might befall us, and our tendencies toward temptation and sin which might at any time entrap us and take us off the path. As with forgiveness, we had better stop and think about this when we pray it to Our Father in heaven: do we really want to be free from temptation? In our more honest moments, don't we like temptation, at least a little bit? More than a little bit? Wouldn't we rather stay within the safe, comforting confines of the people we are today than be transformed like this?

For thine is the kingdom,
And the power,
And the glory,
Forever and ever,

So we've prayed for nothing less than the radical transformation of the entire world. We've prayed that God will free us from all tyrannies of the present, past, and future that might hinder us from being full, wholehearted, committed participants in helping to bring about that transformation (i.e., we've prayed that we ourselves may be transformed into transformers, or blessed so that we might bless). And now we finish with a powerful song of confidence in the One who alone has the power to bring about all this transformation. The one with the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever and ever. This is why we can pray this prayer, because of that One and because of our confidence in that One. Through God, even this is possible. Amen!

So, in the end, I think the common idea of the Lord's Prayer as a safe, neutral, meaning-free platitude is rather a colossal misjudgment. This is no empty, comforting prayer, though to pray it should be a major source of comfort (on the original sense of "strength") for a disciple of Jesus.

And, "dangerous" as it might be, I definitely prefer it to worrying about whether I'll die in my sleep. ;-)

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