For whatever reason, prayer has always been the most intuitive aspect of my walk with God. That's probably because I'm a wordy guy to begin with, so talking with God comes as naturally as breathing. Other disciplines, mind you, often feel like pulling teeth (Bible study, or God forbid, fasting); it just so happens that prayer comes easiest. I'm not good at it in any significant way, I just love it. It feels like a gift.
Spiritual gurus throughout the ages have described prayer in such terms, as a gift rather than something we do in our own strength. The gift of tongues for instance is often referred to as a "prayer language," where God gives certain individuals words to pray that even they don't understand. In less charismatic denominations, too, prayer is commonly referred to as a practice in listening to and channeling God's prayers for us rather than crafting prayers of our own accord. It is said that God's Spirit "intercedes" for us, that is, prays for us, with us and through us.
"In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God." (Romans 8:26-27)
So it seems only natural that the most famous of prayers, said by boys, girls, men and women the whole globe round would be one given to us, as a gift, by God Himself through Christ.
"Now Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, 'Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.' And he said to them, 'When you pray, say:" (Luke 11:1-2)
"Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.'" (Matthew 6:9b-13)
Now I don't believe what we have in these verses is a compulsory formula for prayer, a my-way-or-the-highway blueprint on how to "get it right." Jesus instead offered His eager disciples, as a gift, a prayer which touches on many of life's most significant facets: a deep, holistic prayer.
And while I'm of the firm opinion that too much exposition can often kill a beautiful thing, I feel in this case it might be nice to dig into this prayer a little and explain what it's saying to me at this juncture of my life. Like a good prayer it may mean something entirely different to you, but it never hurts to share our insights with each other. So here are mine, and I'd love to hear yours too!
Just a heads up, some of my insights are colored by my recent reading of a chapter in Madeleine L'engle's The Rock that is Higher called "Story as the Lord's Prayer."
So here it goes, piece by piece:
Ok stop. Right there. "Our"? Who's doing the praying here? Me, an individual? Or a group? Or the Church as a whole?
In direct tension with our compartmentalized Western individuality is the prayer Jesus gave us, one which opens with a call to pray collectively, or if alone then on behalf of one's family or church or community or nation or world. The first word of this prayer reminds us that we are we. And that God is our Father, not just mine or yours.
Stop. So, "father" is a big word, and for those of us trying to navigate earthly fatherlessness, a loaded word. Considering all the PR issues associated with fatherhood nowadays, it's a wonder God asks us to call Him "Father" at all, but I have to believe there's a reason Jesus called the Creator of the universe Father (or elsewhere the more intimate Abba, Daddy). Indeed, there must be some value left in the term, in spite of all our cultural baggage weighing it down.
A true father is, after all, one who loves his children, who nurtures and protects them, who teaches them how to live and how to respect themselves. A father works in conjunction with a mother to help children grow into whole people. And God is both parents, together, complete.
Yes that's right, while God is more often characterized as "Father" is Scripture, there is no denying the inherent maternity of the Divine. "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem" Jesus cries in Matthew chapter 23, "How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!" (emphasis mine)
As a dear friend of mine once said, God can be all we need: Father or Mother, Brother, Sister or Friend. He is, astoundingly, intimate as those most loved, a notion which flies in the face of abstract philosophical constructions of God. The God of Scripture is imminent and intimate, like a loving parent. And perhaps He prefers the moniker "Father God" to remind some of us there is such thing as a loving Father.
"Yes, a lot of people have trouble with limiting God to Father, and so do I, but in the Lord's Prayer it has never seemed to me to be a limitation. Jesus is talking about his Father, talking out of the particular time and space in which he was born." (Madeleine L'engle, The Rock That is Higher)
Our Father which art in heaven...
This is how the King James reads, but I'm not sure why God is "which" rather than "who." The way my mom taught me was "Our Father who art in heaven." As in "our God, you are in heaven."
On a side note I understand if most of you have opted through the years to commit to memory a more contemporary translation of the prayer, but this is how it was taught to me, so this is how it is written on my heart. These goofy, old-thyme words have sacramental power to tether my spirit to God's own.
And these words speak of a God who is not only imminent (as a father) but transcendent (in heaven). These words remind us of God's mighty bigness, of which we too often lose sight.
I've also heard it said that the Greek actually translates to "in the heavens" as in "our Father in the skies." As in when you look up at the night sky you know God is there too, as well as in your heart and by your side. And He made all those stars. Trillions of them. Named and numbered.
Hallowed be thy name...
"How do we hallow a name that we do not know? We can start by having a sense of reverence and awe whenever we speak to or refer to God, Abba/Amma."
"Too often we try to hallow our own names, falling into the easy trap of hubris. We need to honor our names, but only God's is to be hallowed." (TRTIH)
Again we are reminded that God is God, that apart from His willingness to incarnate and walk among us He is wholly other, that His ways are higher than our ways (Isaiah 55:9). I'm all for the imminent God but we must remember, always, that God is God, and when we try to make our own names holy (hallow) we take upon our shoulders the mantle of sovereignty which is too heavy for us, for all but God Himself.
God is big, and we are small, and that is the natural order. In Western culture we spend so much time posturing like we're giants, gods in our own right. In doing so we hallow our own names, when what we small creatures ought to do instead is rest in the bigness of our Hallowed God, knowing He thinks no less of us because we're small, and in fact loves us for it.
Thy Kingdom come...
We Evangelicals don't often talk about the Kingdom, and it's a shame; it's always all about salvation, about being born again which, while important, is not what Christ prioritized most in His preaching. Instead every other thing He said was "the Kingdom of God is like" this or "the Kingdom of Heaven is like" that.
What, then, is the Kingdom, and what would it mean for this Kingdom to come?
As is the case with many of our other human institutions (marriage, parenthood), the earthly kingdom is a metaphor, a metonymic representation which helps us grasp the true Kingdom of God. The two kingdoms (God's and ours) have all the significant parts in common (a king and his subjects), but where one, at least by every historical precedent, is doomed to fail at the hands of a power-hungry leader, the other is a place where the true King reigns with sacrificial love and compassion. This is the upside-down Kingdom Christ spoke of with most all His breath.
Why, then, don't we?
Prioritizing Kingdom teaching would require us to re-remember the Gospel story from a new-old vantage point. Bishop N. T. Wright frames it this way: "the Western world has forgotten the story of how God became King." This is the point, not just that we as individuals are saved from our own private sin, but that God is redeeming the whole world from the curse of sin. And the cross, in Kingdom theology, is not just an act of sin atonement, but also a radically-countercultural demonstration of power which serves to inaugurate Jesus' reign as King of His people.
And for this Kingdom to come would mean, well, everything. It would mean the hungry would get fed, the sick healed, and the poor and homeless taken in and made part of the family. It would mean the aching in our hearts would cease as we finally arrive at the home for which we were made: God's redeemed land, where last is first and first is last and love is the glue which holds all together.
When we pray these words, "Thy Kingdom come," we're saying that we too are willing to put our hands and feet to work in order to make it happen, to shape the world in God's image. We ask God to make it so and commit our whole selves to fulfilling that holy dream.
Thy will be done...
This is a tough one. I don't know anyone who likes handing over the reigns, let alone to an unseen God. And I'm the chief offender when it comes to clinging to my raggedy notions of perfection instead of letting God be God. I convince myself that my plans are best, all those plans for my future, for my friends' futures, for the world. I believe if only I could have my way all would be well. Which is some mild psychosis.
In saying "Thy will be done," though, I'm admitting God might know a little more about this whole mess than I do. I'm confessing my own limitation as well as announcing my surrender to God's bigness.
"I can't save the world God," I say on my wiser days, "please help."
Help. A vulnerable word. A hard word.
Now, I've heard well-intentioned Christians claim that all moments, even those marked by violence and evil, are structured intentionally by God, within His purposed will for humanity. I don't know if that's what the will of God means, though, and to be honest I hope it isn't. I don't believe in a God who does evil, but I do believe in One who can make good from evil, who can lighten even the thickest darkness.
In saying "thy will be done," I'm not claiming to know what God's will is, only that He has one, and that it will ultimately win out. And that it will be best for all of us. So I pray these words, trusting that even if His will is not what I would prefer, it will still lead to the best end for all His beloved kids.
“There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, 'Thy will be done,' and those to whom God says, in the end, 'Thy will be done.' All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock it is opened. ” (C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce)
On earth as it is in heaven...
The Celts have theological idea which describes how in certain areas of our world the barrier between heaven and earth is so thin that some filtered form of heaven's glory might be experienced by those nearby. These pockets of transcendence are called "thin spaces."
I don't know if this describes any genuine spiritual reality but I'm in love with the image, of a world where the borders are melting away and heaven is seeping in. I think we've all experienced moments, whether laughing with friends over all-you-can-eat pancakes or para-sailing beside eagles, when we felt the transcendent, tangibly, and those are thin spaces.
When we recite these words, "on earth as it is in heaven," we ask God to break down the barrier entirely, to unite heaven and earth, and at the eschaton God has promised to do just that. In the meantime, though, we can only work with God to break it down piece by piece by living according to the economics of the Kingdom (love, generosity, sacrifice), thinning the veil in order to reveal patches of God's light to the dark world.
Give us this day our daily bread...
Depending on what church you attend, provision might or might not be a major buzzword. "Prosperity Gospel" types, for instance, read the Bible in such a way that they believe greater faith necessarily comes with greater financial reward. God wants you to be rich, so name it and claim it!
It sure is hard to justify this stance when you look at the lives of the Apostles though. To Paul, greater faith meant greater persecution, more time in jail. And the other disciples, according to Acts chapter two, thought so little of accruing private wealth they shared all their possessions with each other.
It's harder still to ignore Christ's sharp words regarding personal wealth. "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle," He tells His disciples, "than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God" (Matthew 19:24). It's not impossible, mind you (as nothing is impossible with God), but it sure sounds difficult, and certainly not the best-case-scenario. So maybe, just maybe, being filthy-stinking-rich isn't in the cards for all of God's people.
What does it mean that God provides then?
In this case (as in few others) those who have known financial insecurity and real hunger may be at an advantage. Because when the poor and hungry pray "give us our daily bread," they have to completely trust God to provide bread, water, and shelter. Or they starve.
It's harder for the rest of us to trust God's provision because, more often than not, we can get by without it. But every now and then a circumstance finds us in desperate need, of money, of food, of faith, and in those moments we can truly learn what it means that God is Jehovah Jireh, Provider.
And forgive us our trespasses...
"Forgive us our trespasses." Hmm, only four words in the whole sixty-plus word prayer. To hear some preachers preach you'd think that repentance is all God cares about, that unless our ledgers are clean God wants nothing to do with us, so we pray for forgiveness until we figure God is satisfied with our contrite breathlessness.
But in the scheme of this prayer asking for forgiveness is not even the main thing. It does not come first, it does not come last but comes somewhere in the middle and takes up less than ten percent of the prayer's bulk.
Now I don't mean to downplay the importance of forgiveness or repentance, but I think it's telling that our own sin is not the primary focus of this prayer. God desires relationship with us independent of (or at least in spite of) our sin. We are His children and He's not about to throw us out the front door because we've made mistakes.
But these words are present in this all-important prayer for a reason. Not one of us is perfect, and we all long to be washed clean of our pasts, our records, and our transgressions. We all need healing, and healing comes with forgiveness. We ache for shalom, for wholeness, and part of that process is asking God to deliver us from the dark places. And He loves to offer that forgiveness.
As we forgive those who trespass against us...
C. S. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity that we Westerners do not have such a high view of forgiveness:
"Every one says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive, as we had during [World War II]. And then, to mention the subject at all is to be greeted with howls of anger. It is not that people think this too high and difficult a virtue; it is that they think it hateful and contemptible."
Now, I'm not one to lament the "depravity of the age." I think by and large we're God's beloved children and there is much beauty left in our world. Still, our culture's aversion to forgiveness (which isn't hard to notice if you pay it much mind) is a pretty clear perversion of God's design. Instead of being tender, merciful and compassionate to one another we take pride in our hardened hearts, as if we're too good to forgive those who have transgressed against us. Granted, this is a perfectly reasonable stance to take against those who have really wronged us, but the Christian calling is to offer forgiveness unconditionally, not because our transgressors deserve it, but because they need it. Just how God did for us.
- Be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you. – Ephesians 4:32
- Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others. – Colossians 3:13
- If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven. If you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven. – John 20:23
- Do not judge others, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn others, or it will all come back against you. Forgive others, and you will be forgiven. – Luke 6:37
- and forgive us our sins, as we have forgiven those who sin against us. – Matthew 6:12
- If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. – Matthew 6:14
- But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins. – Matthew 6:15
- Then Peter came to him and asked, “Lord, how often should I forgive someone who sins against me? Seven times?” “No, not seven times,” Jesus replied, “but seventy times seven!" – Matthew 18:21-22
Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.
And just like God is real, and significant, so are the adversarial powers. There are those (spirits, not persons) who wish to steal from us our health and wholeness, our peace and place in the Kingdom. And there is one who, instead of reconciliation, desires to cultivate division and separation, to section us off from each other, and from God. For then we will find ourselves in Hell.
It's hard to avoid temptation. Impossible really, for as long as we live in a fallen world we'll be enticed by the siren songs of materialism, greed, selfishness, apathy, lust, etc. Even Christ, in His full and robust humanity, was not immune, as we saw in His desert trials.
It would be a scary state of affairs indeed if it wasn't for God and all He's promised us. As it is, we have a good Father, and when we ask Him to deliver us from evil, from addiction, from depression, we can be confident He hears us, and loves us, and will take care of us.
For thine is the Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory, for ever and ever.
"God's. Not ours. The minute we want it to be ours—and that's one of the temptations, after all—it's grief. Grief for us. Grief for God." (TRTIH)
"Amen" means "let it be so" or "let it be done." That's why we end our prayers this way, asking God that what we've uttered would become more than just words, that it would affect the world in real and tangible ways. "Amen" isn't just an appeal either, it's a commitment. It's a promise to do what must be done in order to help God build the world we're asking Him to create.
And at the end of this beautiful prayer, after having asked so much of our Abba, it's nice to take a little moment, pause, reflect, and be with God before re-entering the world with renewed fervor to be His hands and feet, loving and serving the world the way God's children must.