As I prayed the Lord’s Prayer this morning, I was reminded of how easy it can be to say it mindlessly because it is so familiar to us. In my tradition we say this prayer twice each day as part of our Morning and Evening Prayers and it is included in every Eucharist. Most other Christian traditions use the Our Father frequently as well.
I am also aware that the prayer is difficult for some because of its largely first-century world view and the dominant masculine and patriarchal imagery (“Father,” “Kingdom,” etc.). Allow me to share how I understand what generations of Christians including modern biblical scholars like Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan have called “The Greatest Prayer.”
First of all, when I say “Our Father” the emphasis is on the “our.” Alan Jones used to send his students at General Seminary out to ride on the New York subway and say the first two words of the Lord’s Prayer. “Our Father,” Alan would smile wryly, “surely not Their Father, God?” Yes, my friends, “father” of us all. And though the masculine image of parent should be supplemented in other prayers with more gender inclusive terms, no serious scholar debates that “Abba” was Jesus’ favorite way of referring to the God of Israel. It is at least one way to understand God.
This God “who art in heaven” surely does not only live above the clouds in the top story of a three-tiered universe. But just as surely God can be found in heaven…in the heavens. I see the Holy One in the beauty of a sunrise and in the orderly rotation of the planets around the sun, and in the dying and the birth of stars too far away even to imagine. That God is in the heavens as well as all around me and in the depths of my spirit.
“Hallowed by thy Name,” of course, refers to the holiness of the very name of God which the Hebrews believed had been revealed first to them. The Tetragrammaton (YHWH) of the Hebrew Bible is unpronounceable in the tradition but is perhaps best rendered “Yahweh” – I Am Who I Am or I Will Be Who I Will Be. Or, “Being” itself, “Existence.” For this is the essence of holiness. Holy is our very being.
I refuse to stop praying “Thy Kingdom Come” just because a monarchial system may be foreign to many today and not the best way to understand God anyway – as some kind of Middle Eastern potentate. But, as biblical scholars as different as Borg, Crossan, and N.T. Wright all remind us, to speak of the Kingdom of God really means God’s king-ship, sovereignty and reign. And it is another way of reminding ourselves that God is king and the principalities, powers, and rulers of this age are not. This has enormous implications for our mission as Christians.
In the Lord’s Prayer, we express our desire that that state of affairs, this commonwealth be established soon. And that it come into existence here on earth, in our societies just as it is wherever God is truly present. Our prayer is that the commonwealth of justice and peace which is God’s dream for this world be established in our communities just as firmly as the immutable laws of the universe in which this planet exists as a tiny speck.
Too many of our prayers are petitionary in nature, asking God to do this or that for us or for someone we care about. That can be a self-serving and egocentric thing. Yet surely it is appropriate to ask the Giver of all things to “give us this day our daily bread.” It’s a way of being grateful for the fact that everything we have, even bread enough for today, comes from the Creator of us all.
Now, I also believe that we spend way too much time, in my tradition, begging for God’s forgiveness (Lord have mercy upon us, Christ have mercy upon us, Lord have mercy upon us) as though God has not already forgiven us because God is the essence of love and forgiveness itself. We don’t need to beg for it. But, if we truly believe that we stand forgiven because of the love and grace of God we see revealed in Jesus, then is it not right that we appropriate it, receive it into our consciousness. And, even more importantly, that we forgive others as we believe we have been forgiven?
“And lead us not into temptation” is the most problematic phrase in the prayer. We have no idea what was intended. We know that God does not lead anyone into temptation so that’s out! “Do not bring us to the test” or “Save us from the time of trial” may well be about as close as we can get to its original meaning and should remind us that, if we are faithful witnesses to the God of our salvation, we may well be called upon to suffer, even to face persecution or death. In that eventuality, we call upon God for strength and courage.
I am told that I have a “high doctrine” of original sin. That is probably true even though I do not believe it had much to do with the follies of Adam and Eve in the mythological Genesis story. Whatever the cause (a “fall” from a primitive state of oneness with the creation we see in some indigenous communities still, or an “incompleteness” in this universe which is surely, but ever-so-slowly, evolving toward that perfection which will one day be) evil is real and this world at least is full of it. From street violence in Chicago to grinding poverty is the two-thirds world to the nuclear ambitions of a madman in North Korea. I am not too proud to ask God to “deliver us from evil” such as that.
I’m glad at least one of the Evangelists and church tradition has included the doxology at the end of Jesus’ prayer whether or not it was original. I often slow my words and try to experience each concept as I pray “For Thine is the kingdom… and the Power…and the GLORY” forever and ever” This universe belongs to God. The power that holds it all together is the power we call love. And the beauty and majesty we can glimpse in the night sky or hear in the harmonies of a symphony show us something of the nature of the Holy One. And this Divine Being will remain forever and ever. To the ages of ages. World without end.
Amen…So be it.