“‘Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us. And lead us not into temptation.’”
If we really listen to what we are praying in the Lord’s Prayer, would we be able to pray it?
The time is the early 1950’s. The place is Hawthorne Grade School. The scene is Miss William’s second grade classroom. The school day is just about to begin. The first bell signals that we can enter the building and make our way to the classrooms. The second bell meant that you needed to be sitting at your desk and ready for the day to begin. Miss Williams calls the day to order. First, we stand for the Pledge of Allegiance; hand over one’s heart, posture erect, facing the classroom flag. No sooner had we said “with liberty and justice for all” we each bowed our head and recited in unison the Lord’s Prayer. No one asked to leave the room; no one raised any objection; no one thought twice about the appropriateness of this exercise. Such was the culture in those days of innocence in lily white, mostly Protestant Glen Ellyn, IL.
The recitation of the Lord’s Prayer was certainly not meant to offend anyone, for whom could it have offended? Most of us went to church; we were Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, Congregationalists, a few Baptists and Episcopalians thrown in for variety. There was a Roman Catholic Church and school in town, but I didn’t know many Catholics until I met some who were on my Little League team.
Jews were some historic people in the Old Testament, and I had never even heard of Muslims, let alone someone who called themselves an atheist. Since it was presumed that everyone in my class was a Christian, who was there to object to the praying of the Lord’s Prayer? What may have been appropriate in an earlier era can be seen as insensitive and inappropriate today. The point here, however, is not to debate the appropriateness of prayer in schools, but to evoke a memory of how many of us, early in our learning experience, encountered the Lord’s Prayer.
One of my favorite TV shows several years back was Friday Night Lights. If you watched the show, you will remember the locker room scene just before the Friday night football game; the coach would quiet the team down right before they were to run out of the locker room onto the field, and in that moment of sanity, one of the captain’s would lead the team in the “Lord’s Prayer.” They would end with, “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.” And then two or three seconds later, they’d all scream, “Let’s get out there and kill ‘em!”
In that earlier era, the Lord’s Prayer, whether recited at school or just before the team ran out onto the field, or at church, it was for me, just that – a recitation – a memorized script mumbled forth on cue. No thought as to its meaning, no reflection on its implication for my life, just a recitation.
Its words were as familiar to all of us as those of the Pledge of Allegiance, but our understanding of the Lord’s Prayer was no more profound than our understanding of the words, in the segregated America of that time: “One nation, under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.”
For many of us in my generation, this scenario is familiar. Yet there are other ways to experience the Lord’s Prayer. One is through the liturgy of worship. The scene goes something like this: Following the Morning Prayer often called the Pastoral Prayer, the minister or lay liturgist will say something like: “And let us now all join together to say the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples saying…
And the congregation then prays the Lord’s Prayer. Yet, even here, the prayer often comes forth as a memorized recitation rather than an expression from the heart.
The only point of reflection is whether to recite the phrase “forgive us our trespasses,” or “forgive us our debts,” or “forgive us our sins.” I have led services where each phrase had its advocates and where the public praying of the prayer was a battlefield with one group trying to “out-pray” the other. These “shout-outs” quickly give way, however, to the desire by all “not to be led into temptation.”
Another way to encounter the Lord’s Prayer is through a Bible study class. Here the Lord’s Prayer becomes an object to be examined rather than a recitation to be memorized. In this setting one might learn of the intimate character of the term “Abba, Father,” or the meaning of that strange word, “hallowed,” and the sorts of evil from which one ought to pray for deliverance.
However it may have been learned, today the prayer may have lost some of its meaning. It still is a liturgical component in most mainline protestant congregations, and occasionally a Lord’s Prayer sermon series is preached.
Perhaps it is time that the Lord’s Prayer is dusted off and looked at again. Looked at: With an attitude more seasoned; With eyes that have seen too much, yet want to see more; With a heart more tender and less rational. Let’s sit once again among these ancient words to hear them anew and afresh. As we do the realization may come that in this prayer we had been standing on holy ground and did not have the good sense to remove our shoes. But more significantly, we might realize that the Lord’s Prayer is a prayer we are not ready to pray.
In his book, “The Lord and His Prayer,” Biblical scholar, N.T. Wright points out that even though the word Abba is a word of intimacy, the real importance of the idea of God as Father is to be found in an earlier reference. He says:
“The first occurrence in the Hebrew Bible of the idea of God as the Father comes when Moses marches in boldly to stand before Pharaoh, and says:
‘Thus says YHWH: Israel is my son, my firstborn; let my people go, that they may serve me’ (Exodus 4:22-23). For Israel to call God ‘Father,’ then, was to hold on to the hope of liberty…. The very first words of the Lord’s Prayer, therefore contains within it not just intimacy, but revolution.”
To pray this prayer, therefore, indicates a desire to be set free from those ideas, those habits, and those attitudes that seek to hold us captive. The question is: “Are we at all certain that we want to be set free?”
Our manner of behavior often times contradicts our claim to faith. And having become comfortable in that behavior, seldom do we really want to undergo the discomfort associated with change. Our daily routine may not leave room for those things that nourish the soul, yet there often isn’t a willingness to make the hard choices that are required to find the space in our schedules for spiritual disciplines.
We know that we are impatient, unforgiving, sarcastic or inattentive to those we love and who love us, and we really don’t like being that way. But given the choice between exerting the energy to change and continuing to hurt others by our attitude, we too often choose the well-worn path of sameness. Or, to use Wright’s analogy, we prefer to slave away in the house of the Pharaoh rather than embrace the implications of calling God “Father.”
In short, we may need to be freed from our captivity to culture and comfort, the haunting question is whether we want to be set free. If praying the Lord’s Prayer – if calling God “Father” – is to acknowledge his liberating power and to confess our desire to participate in that liberating experience, then, perhaps, the Lord’s Prayer is a prayer that cannot yet be prayed.
Stanley Hauerwas, Professor of Christian Ethics at Duke Divinity School, gives attention to another of the phrases in this prayer. He speaks of the petition, “Thy kingdom come,” He reminds us that unlike earthly kingdoms with borders and boundaries, checkpoints and crossing guards, God’s kingdom knows no boundaries. Nationality? It doesn’t matter; Ethnicity? It doesn’t matter; Language? It doesn’t matter; Skin color? It doesn’t matter; Political affiliation? It doesn’t matter; Economic status? It doesn’t matter; Theological position? It just doesn’t matter.
If this prayer is to be believed, Christians are bound together by cords of grace to all persons who profess faith in Jesus as the Christ, for in God’s kingdom there are no boundaries. Now while all of this theoretically sounds like something we agree with – society and experience have conditioned us to see the one who is our theological or political opposite as an enemy rather than a kingdom-mate. It is much easier and, quite frankly, much more self-justifying to battle against a theological arch-rival than it is to embrace that person as a brother or sister in the kingdom of God. After all, we have the integrity of the faith to defend. Our theological heritage, our church’s history, no less than our pride – insists that there be no meeting, no common ground between us and those whose Christian beliefs do not agree with our own.
Yet, along comes this prayer with the petition for the kingdom of God to come here on earth – an unlimited and boundary less kingdom to be established, not just right here on earth, but right here in our own backyard.
A kingdom in which there are no opposing camps; A kingdom where the differences that would divide are less important than the One whose kingdom it is. And we are supposed to seriously pray for this? Are we ready to embrace the one whose differences we find disagreeable? Are we really ready to pray this prayer?
There’s another reason why one might find this prayer difficult to pray, and that reason is bound up in the phrase, “Give us each day our daily bread.” The problem here is twofold. First, “bread” speaks of basic necessity, the bare minimum one needs in order to survive. Implied in this petition is a satisfaction with the mere basics of life, but, if truth be told, our satisfaction requires more than just bread. Many of us have worked hard to surround ourselves with creature comforts – a nice home, a nice car or two, the latest toys, dinner out at a four star restaurant.
Now while all of these things don’t guarantee happiness, it is nevertheless true that we have developed a rather strong attachment to this lifestyle and the symbols of success it represents. A simple lifestyle may be okay for some folks, but most of us Christians are just not there yet. So how does one pray for “daily bread” when what is really wanted is so much more? But secondly, how do we pray for our own daily bread when there are so many others who have little or no bread?
N.T. Wright is correct when he says,
“It is impossible truly to pray for our daily bread, or for tomorrow’s bread today, without being horribly aware of the millions who didn’t have bread yesterday, don’t have any today, and in human terms are unlikely to have any bread tomorrow.”
It seems to be a cheap grace to pray, “give US OUR bread” when I know where my bread is coming from, but I leave it up to God to figure out where YOU will get YOUR bread. Of what value is it to pray for bread for the breadless, when there is an unwillingness to contribute seriously to hunger relief or to advocate changes in policies, both locally and internationally, that keep people impoverished and hungry? How can your needs be included in my prayer when I am unwilling to be an instrument of God to help meet your needs? If someone sees hunger or knows of hunger and chooses not to respond in some sort of hunger relief, then perhaps this is a prayer that is not ready to be prayed.
Things were so much simpler when I was in Miss William’s second grade class. I could stand with my classmates and recite the Lord’s Prayer with a sincerity that came from my innocence, and maybe best of all, I could feel good for having done so.
But now I cannot claim innocence. Now I know that I’m still not ready to truly pray this prayer. I know too much about God, about the world, about myself. I now understand this prayer too well, or at least well enough to realize that this is one prayer I am not ready to pray. But then our Master comes and says, “When you pray, say this…”
And those gentle words are compelling… for out of our humanness and all our shortcomings, we cannot give up praying the Lord’s Prayer. We desperately need to pray it, not just recite it, but pray it, and so we begin, “Lord, make us able to pray your prayer.”
“‘Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us. And lead us not into temptation.’” Amen!