A priest and performer considers religion, the arts, and the often thin space between sacred and secular, church and culture, pulpit and pew.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Teach Us to Pray

Whenever those first verses of Luke’s eleventh chapter come ’round in the Sunday lectionary, as they do this week (and at other times, as well) I find myself wondering if the Lord’s Prayer has lost its power for us. It’s so familiar; most of us could recite it (the “traditional” version, at least) in our sleep. We argue about “debts” versus “trespasses”, over how many “evers” should be said at its conclusion, and over the afore-mentioned traditional version as opposed to the contemporary form introduced in recent years. It’s comfortable; saying it makes us feel good and probably safe as well. But the truth is that every Sunday, just before we break the bread in anticipation of being fed at God’s holy table, we offer up a manifesto of the Kingdom, and ask God to help us live into those holy habits that will help us transform the world in God’s name. Some thoughts on the prayer Jesus taught us:

“Father, hallowed be your name.”  In addressing God as “father” we claim an intimacy with God that speaks of a loving and yet authoritative relationship.  Jesus called God “Father”; he bids us, as God’s beloved children, do the same.  At the same time we establish intimacy in that relationship, we also acknowledge the holiness of God – hallowed be your name – and we acknowledge the fact that we expect God to live up to that (much as Abraham does in Genesis 18:20-32, the Hebrew passage that accompanies this pericope in the alternate RCL cycle); we expect that God will be God.  We hear it throughout the Hebrew scriptures – God’s name is holy – so holy that it cannot be said or written in its entirety.  God’s immanence and God’s transcendence are reflected in one short petition.
“Your kingdom come.”  God’s will and God’s desire for ourselves and our relationships, for our communities, for our world, becomes our desire as well.  In praying this petition we acknowledge that we will try to structure our lives according to God’s rule, God’s way.  In asserting that God’s kingdom, that is God’s sovereignty and ultimate fulfilling of the divine purpose for all of creation is paramount, we also commit to being partners in that fulfillment.
“Give us each day our daily bread.”  The people who heard Jesus would have understood daily as meaning either ‘that day’ or possibly ‘tomorrow’.  First century peasants were not prone to worrying about the long-term future; just getting through this day and the next was enough.  But this might also be taken to mean ‘give us what we need’.  What if we sincerely and faithfully asked God only for what we need, and no more?  Might we begin to be satisfied with that, and no more?  In a world where the privileged – and that includes us - demand and usually get near-instant gratification, how would that shift the balance of have and have-not?  What would our world look like if we who have so much were content only with what we need – not just in terms of material commodities and food but emotional goals as well - knowing that in God’s abundance everyone’s needs, including our own, were being met?  A huge number of world crises could be solved right quick if that were our reality. 
“And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.”  (Do we?  In our better moments, at least, I suppose we try.)  God is a forgiving God.  God is a merciful God.  And God has entrusted us, as the Church, with the ministry of reconciliation and justice.  When we say that we forgive everyone indebted to us (and Jesus does say everyone) it means forgiving the hurt inflicted on us by others, repented of or not; it means letting go of grudges, ‘justified’ or not; it means that we live free of the notion that others ‘owe us big time’.  There was a common understanding that if one had wronged another person, he or she was in that person’s debt until repayment could be made or retribution exacted.  In many cases a monetary debt was the wrong.  That’s how we get the word ‘debt’ for ‘sin’ and why rich nations are often entreated to help struggling ones by issuing ‘debt forgiveness’.  It’s difficult if not impossible to live in the light of God’s forgiveness of us if we cannot share and show that forgiveness to others.  Letting go of anger and resentment – the debts others owe us - is tremendously freeing.  Once again, think how the world would look – individually, communally, corporately, nationally, internationally – if we would learn to live that way.  Another huge number of world crises might just disappear if we did that.

“And do not bring us to the time of trial.”   Finally, we ask God to help us live lives that are free of anything that will tempt us away from God and God’s ways, not because God is prone to ‘lead us into temptation’ but because only with God’s help can we live a life that is free of selfishness, despair, violence, un-righteous anger and all those things that, in the words of our Baptismal liturgy, ‘draw us from the love of God’, and keep us from being heralds of the Good News of the kingdom.


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