The prayer Jesus taught his followers as a model for prayer is what we might call the universal prayer of Christianity. For even when Christians seem not to agree about much of anything else, one thing we do have in common is the Lord’s Prayer.
There are some very interesting things about this prayer when we stop to look at it. Most of this prayer speaks directly or indirectly about relationships – between us and God and us and one another. The Lords Prayer is not really asking God to do things for us but giving us things to think about, ways to live, and remind ourselves of the things we need to do to live as God instructs us to live.
First we notice this is one place where Jesus calls God Father. But let’s look at what that might mean. In at least one version of the prayer, the Aramaic one, the term specifically used is Abba: and freely translated to an equivalent in English, it would be something like Papa. In other words, we’re not talking formality here, we’re talking the language of the very youngest children.
Abba, papa, holy is your name; Now what specifically does that mean? Years ago, a philosopher named Rudolf Otto wrote a book called “The Idea of the Holy,” that examines of what “holy” really means. There are three essential meanings: separateness, awe, and what he calls, the tremendous overpowering mystery. This prayer is combining that sense of holy with the closeness of Abba -presenting a paradox. Abba indicates a closeness of relationship while the overpowering mystery almost demands maximum distance. Yet Jesus combines them and asks us to hold them in this tension in our lives. To recognize that God is both as close to us as breath and yet mysterious and apart from us.
Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” Part of our difficulty in really understanding the Lord’s Prayer is that it speaks a language of a time long before us, with concepts of place and ideas which are foreign to our way of understanding. In this case, perhaps the best way to understand this phrase might be “May our lives reflect the directions and purposes which you want for all your children, yesterday, today, and forever.” This phrase is about US being the hands and heart of God accomplishing God’s purpose on earth.
“Give us today our daily bread” Reminds us that there really is a difference between needs and wants. This prayer addresses our needs, not our wants. In our consumer society so much time is spent by advertisers trying to remake our wants into things we think we need. The prayer simply asks that what we truly need for each day be met. If we look at our world, how can we ask for our wants to be placed before the truly desperate needs of so many others across the globe.
I recall an NPR discussion years ago of the medical needs of developing countries between one of the leaders in the campaign to use generic drugs in the fight against HIV/AIDS and the head of an International Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association. The first pointed out that the pandemic was so great that the choice to use medicines under patent protection would condemn 3 out of 4 HIV/AIDS sufferers in the developing world to death because neither they nor their country could pay the great cost. The pharmacy executive said if they don’t pay those costs, then the companies will no longer do the research.
Interestingly, the Pharmaceutical rep was reluctant to admit that one of the highest profit margins in the world are those of international pharmaceutical companies, and he only grudgingly admitted under specific questioning that the main interest in developing drugs in recent years has been aimed at diseases of the developed world where more profits can be made. They are no longer researching antibiotics even in a time of drug resistant strains emerging. We recall news in the past 18 months of an individual buying up a small pharmaceutical company and increasing the cost of the medication by several thousand percent. That is unmitigated greed. He wanted to make a fortune off the backs of people who could barely afford the original price of the medication. Perhaps the time has come in our smaller and smaller world, for the real “needs” of people to take priority over the “wants” of a few.
“Forgive our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” , there we find three words (which if they are taken seriously) are down right scary. They are “as we forgive.” Too often we skip over those words without much thought. But every time we pray those words, we are asking Abba to treat us just as we treat others
Jesus speaks elsewhere is the Gospels about the measure we give is the measure we shall receive. I have long believed that we set the standard by which we will be judged by God – and that will be the way we judge others. And if we have a very demanding standard that we use when we are asked to forgive others that is the same standard that God will use in judging us.
In the Lukan version, there is one last petition: “Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.” I am sure that most of us can think of times when our faith has been tested, times, perhaps, when we did not feel or recognize the presence of God. They are so common that they even have a name. The mystics call them “the dark night of the soul.” When we pray, do not bring us to the test, we are asking God to be with us, even when we cannot sense God’s presence. Our prayer to Abba not to be put to the test is really a prayer not to be left alone in the struggle. May I not be tested, but if the test comes, please be with me as I face it.
I believe the purpose of Jesus in giving this model of prayer was not simply to teach his followers to pray. Every Jew had many examples of prayer that they could turn to. Rather, the Lord’s Prayer is an instrument of transformation.
If we really pray it, thoughtfully, phrase by phrase, thinking about it and come to really mean it, we cannot help but be changed.
When Don first got to the Cathedral in Albany in 1970 – they had daily morning and evening prayer. And what struck him day after day me was that these people who read these daily devotions had become so used to the words, that the Lord ’s Prayer was said so very fast it was not possible to think about what was being said. It had become a series of sounds uttered from memory- not words prayed. And after a while he stopped saying the prayer aloud at these services, saying it more slowly in his mind, so he could say it as a prayer.
For too long, this familiar prayer has been something that everyone knows and which many say by rote. But when we really pay attention to the words, – listen to them and pray them – it truly has the power to change us. We cannot pray the words without the ideas entering into our inmost being. And when we do, we know the real meaning of what it is to love God and to love our neighbor as our self.
Let us hear the prayer again but not in the familiar words but in the translation of the prayer by the Maori people of New Zealand – as contained in the New Zealand book of common prayer. The prayer was explained to the Maori people, they prayed it and then translated the concepts into their language – their translation was later translated back into English – and it presents us with a wonderful fresh look at this very familiar prayer.
Eternal Spirit, Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver.
Source of all that is and that shall be. Father and mother of us all,
Loving God in whom is heaven:
The hallowing of your name echo through the universe!
The way of your justice be followed by all people of the world!
Your commonwealth of peace and freedom sustain our hope and come on earth.
With the bread we need for today, feed us.
In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us.
In times of temptation and test, strengthen us.
From trials too great to endure, spare us.
From the grip of all that is evil, free us.
For you reign in the glory of the power that is love
now and forever. AMEN.
We invite you to say the Lord’s prayer more slowly, phrase by phrase – thinking about what we are saying and allowing it to seep deeper into us – to transform us…