Theology Matters: The Lord's Prayer
It is quite often the first prayer taught to children, and the foundation of many an individual and family’s nighttime prayer routine. It is the prayer of countless sickbeds and battlefield foxholes. It is the last prayer we say together to conclude the Eucharist, in a way that summarizes and completes all that has gone before. We call it the Lord’s Prayer, of course, because it is the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples when they came to him, desperate to know how to pray. And God knows that’s how so many of us feel today, too, desperate to pray, to commune with God, to speak to him and receive his guidance and blessing.
The funny thing about the Lord’s Prayer is that even though it is deeply familiar to most Christians – heck, it’s the only prayer a room full of Christians from various churches and denominations can say together at the same time – nevertheless, we easily lose sight of just how radical it is. We’ve said it so many times, in so many places and on so many Sundays, that it rolls off our tongues unconsciously. But that familiarity may cause us to lose sight of what we’re actually saying, what we’re saying to God. Because Jesus was doing more than giving his disciples something poetic or beautiful to memorize. He wasn’t just inventing a new holy incantation. In just a handful of lines, he framed his whole way of life, one that challenges and provokes and inspires us. This prayer has meaning: to pray the words of the Lord’s Prayer is to embrace the radically different way of Jesus, and to ask for God’s help in bringing it to life.
Even in those first few well-worn words, “Our father in heaven, hallowed be your name,” there’s a lot going on. Right from the start, Jesus is calling into question many of our commonly held assumptions about God. We live in an increasingly secular society, but belief in God remains remarkably high. Some 90% of Americans still claim to “believe” in God. When people I meet for the first time find out that I’m a priest, after the customary moment of awkward silence, they almost always blurt out “Oh, I believe in God, and all that. I don’t go to church or anything, but I believe in God.” But when Jesus teaches us to pray, he wants more for us than an intellectual assent to the idea of God. He wants relationship. He wants intimacy. And so he begins the prayer, “Our Father,” using deeply intimate language to talk about a God who for many people feels terribly distant and removed.
Next comes the petition that God’s Kingdom may come and God’s will be done on earth as in heaven. The God of Jesus may be “in heaven,” but that same God’s desire is to bring the heavenly reality down here to earth. The Lord’s Prayer is an antidote to pie-in-the-sky spiritual gobbledygook. When we pray these words, we’re asking for God to bring about a real, actual, dramatic transformation of the known, experienced world. If the kingdom Jesus talked about was just a spiritual realm of cloud tops and “kumbayas,” he would never have gotten so very many people angry at him. But his life and teaching revealed the inadequacy of our fallen world, with its cruelty and violence and injustice. Our society, no matter how noble its founding, no matter how perfect the union, is a far cry from the Kingdom proclaimed by the Sermon on the Mount. And it is for that Kingdom that we pray each time we say these words, that it may crash down upon our broken realm with the perfection of God’s glory.
But Jesus was just getting started. “Give us this day our daily bread,” he then has us say, in a direct homage to the Exodus, when God’s people depended upon a daily ration of heavenly food (manna) to sustain them. To hoard more than a single day’s share was impossible during those 40 years, reinforcing the people’s dependency on God’s providence and generosity. It didn’t take long for them to lose that hard-earned lesson once they exited the wilderness of Sinai, and we generally accept as wisdom the opposite practices of accumulation and stockpiling. Frankly, one glance at my pantry exposes my reluctance to live this prayer, because I could easily live for weeks only on what I brought home from my last trip to Costco. Yet, God asks for my vulnerability, my dependency, my trust, utterly and daily.
Then Jesus really starts to meddle. “Forgive my sins as I have forgiven the sins of others,” he teaches us to say. Pay even cursory attention to this statement and you quickly realize its implications for your relationship with God. Somehow our ability, our willingness to forgive others is profoundly and inextricably connected with our experience of God’s forgiveness of us. Our reception of God’s mercy is proven only when we reflect it out toward others. Failure to forgive others reveals that we haven’t actually experienced God’s forgiveness of us. It’s not that God is waiting to forgive us until we go around forgiving others; it’s that God’s forgiveness is a catalyst for our practice of forgiving others. Those who hold grudges, who withhold mercy, who resist forgiving others in their lives, no matter the reason, are under a judgement. According to Jesus, and to the words of the prayer they no doubt say ad nauseam, they have not ever fully experienced or even understood the forgiveness of God. But the contrary is true: those who engage in the hard, holy work of forgiving others have opened the sealed tomb of their hearts to the resurrecting power of God’s forgiveness.
The prayer ends in a burst of honest desperation. “Save us from the time of trial, and deliver us from evil,” Jesus has us conclude. We are lost without you, Father. Save us and deliver us, because frankly, we aren’t able to do this job on our own. There are powers alive and at work in this world that are beyond us, beyond our ability to overcome by good ole fashioned pluck and determination. Heck, just go to any 12-step meeting, and you’ll hear that the first step toward recovery is to admit your powerlessness and embrace the power of God. I sometimes wonder if all Christians, and especially all Episcopalians, shouldn’t be in a 12-step group. Because we typically don’t like to talk about our problems, let alone talk about evil. Our pride and vanity are so strong that we consider sin as a list of personal weakness or faults or foibles, something that we could or should be able to handle on our own. But to pray the words of Jesus, to pray to our Father in heaven to “save us” and “deliver us,” is an acknowledgment that there really is something in the world worth resisting, and that we are incapable of accomplishing the battle against it alone. We are somehow insufficient to combat this force.
Which is why we look to God, who is greater than any foe. The power of evil must be taken seriously, yet not too seriously. God did not merely create the world, then walk off, leaving us to fend off all assails of the enemy. God intruded, and got into the trenches with us. Evil is a threatening power, but in the cross and empty tomb, God vanquished evil forever. Though the battle rages, we know that God has already won the war. We may not know what the future holds, but we do know who holds the future. Knowing that, we can have patience in the midst of struggle, and trust that the evil we see and experience is not final, and will not have the ultimate word.
The whole prayer takes less than a minute to recite. It can seem inadequate when we consider how great are our problems, and how sin-drenched is our world. Yet in less time than it takes to brush our teeth, we can say profoundly, eternally true words to our God and to ourselves, and be reminded of the path set by Christ toward the Kingdom. In the Lord’s Prayer we don’t say everything that could be said, but what we say is enough to stir our hearts and our minds and our imaginations back toward God.
Now, if only we lived what we prayed.
The Rev. Casey Shobe is Rector for Church of the Transfiguration in Dallas