This past semester Ed Searcy, minister at University Hill United Church, asked if I wanted to come and take some books from his office. He was retiring soon and was only going to take a few home, and the rest he was passing along. I gratefully accepted and while looking through his shelves I found Lord Teach Us To Pray- The Lord’s Prayer and the Christian Life by Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon. As I took that book home and began to read it sparks started to fly in my mind and I got very excited about what they were saying. A few days later I was rummaging through the cheap book bin outside of Book Warehouse, and I found a $2 copy of the newest book by the biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan, which is also on the Lord’s Prayer. I figured it was a sign. It was time to dive deep into this oldest of prayers, and try and understand the riches that lie in this deceptively simple set of lines. So today I want to share with you what I’ve learned, by doing a line-by-line meditation on the Lord’s Prayer.
First just a couple of words about the prayer itself and its historical background. Scholars believe that this is one of the oldest surviving pieces of Christian text, going back very close to the Jesus movement itself. And I don’t cite this fact in a magical thinking sort of way, that if it might’ve actually come from Jesus himself that it’s extra special, just that in this prayer we get something very close to the flavor of what that particular religious uprising was all about. Secondly, despite the vast variety of Christian denominations in the world, many of which are antagonistic to one another, virtually all pray the Lord’s Prayer. For instance, according to Wikipedia, “on Easter Sunday 2007 it was estimated that many of the two billion Catholic, Anglican, Protestant and Eastern Orthodox Christians who were sharing in the celebration of Easter would read, recite, or sing the short prayer in hundreds of languages”. There’s something heartwarming in knowing that this little prayer still holds the many fragmented parts of the body of Christ together. And lastly, scholars say that if you read the prayer in Jesus’ own language of Aramaic, the rhythm and even the rhyme of the words come through very clearly. So we can see that this was a prayer meant to be remembered, easily learned, and passed on to others. Others such as us. So let’s now move into a reading of the prayer one line at a time.
Our Father Who Art in Heaven
Willimon and Hauerwas make a great point when they say that the most controversial word in this opening line is not Father- which we’ll get to in a moment- but Our. In fact, the whole prayer is in the plural. This is a prayer about the power and importance of the collective, which is also why we say it out loud together. In a hyper-individualistic culture like our own- that teaches us at every turn to seek what I want and now- this is a positively counter-cultural sensibility. In an interview in 2012 after the Occupy movement broke out, Noam Chomsky spoke of the cultural forces that have been trying to break human solidarity and promote individualism- “There’s an ideology that takes a lot of effort to implant: it’s so inhuman that it’s hard to get into people’s heads, the ideology to just take care of yourself and forget about anyone else…For 150 years there have been massive efforts to try to impose “the new spirit of the age” on people. But it’s so inhuman that there’s a lot of resistance, and it continues”. The Lord’s Prayer says that Christians should be a central part of such resistance. The kingdom of God is inherently a collective project.
The gendered naming of God as Father is understandably controversial, and we can also use Mother, but it’s important not to not lose what Jesus was trying to impart with his choice of Abba, or Father, as his core symbol for God. He could’ve chosen Master, or Creator, or Lord, or even other male images such as Warrior or Judge. But he chose Father. Our relationship with God is a familial and personal one, and we are loved and forgiven and held, always. There’s a tender intimacy that’s invoked in Jesus’ central image for God, an intimacy that we can find in our own lives.
The phrase “in heaven” can be a misleading one, especially because we’ve come to understand it to mean something like “far away up in the sky somewhere”. But this is not what the prayer is getting at. By saying in heaven the prayer is indicating that the whole cosmos is God’s realm, that this is a God who moves through the sun and the moon and the stars. This is no transcendent aloof God up somewhere beyond the cosmos, but a thoroughly this-worldly God that’s infused throughout everything. Bruce’s prayer we read earlier nicely captures this sort of cosmic scope and understanding. (*)
Hallowed Be Thy Name
To hallow means to “make holy” or “sanctify”, and we are called not only to recognize God as holy, but to live in such a way that makes the holiness of God visible in the world. Thus it is a call to Christian discipleship and right livelihood. It’s also a proclamation that it is God, and not the kingdoms of this world, that is holy. As Hauerwas and Willimon write, “Any time you make a statement like “Holy be your name”, you have made a revolutionary claim that promises to land you in the middle of conflict, maybe even war”. This isn’t hallowed be George Bush’s name, or Goldman Sach’s name, or the name of Lockheed Martin. In this prayer we proclaim our faithfulness to a different order than these colossal principalities and powers that bestride the earth, and as Jesus discovered- or a Chelsea Manning today- this can lead to deadly confrontation. Allegiance to the Holy One can be risky business.
Thy Kingdom Come
The prayer has now turned to earthly matters, and voices the Christian hope for a kingdom here on earth in which God’s loving nature is infused into all affairs. Once again, to be Christian is to give loyalty to a different kingdom, the kingdom of God. It’s also worth noting that we are not asking for our nation to be helped, or my family to be protected, but are saying Your kingdom come. We are not working for ourselves anymore. It also says “Your kingdom come”, meaning that God’s kingdom isn’t fully here yet, but is slowly being born in a long and arduous process. But we have hope and trust in that ongoing fulfillment, for the very fact that we are saying these words together means that this new world has already begun.
Thy Will Be Done
Here we get the central practice of Christian spirituality- aligning ourselves with God’s Will instead of ours. And once again we see that Christian practice is deeply counter-cultural, for we live in a society where we’re told the whole word is in our hands, that we just need to take charge in getting everything we desire. It’s a culture of self-will run riot. But participating with God in the co-creation of Her kingdom means a life-long training in releasing the grip of our ego, and hearing the Word of God that’s forever whispering in our busy ears. Jesus even asked for Thy Will to be done when he was in his most fearful hour, and knew he was going to be put to a gruesome death (Luke 22:41-42). Jesus was all in. Through praying the Lord’s Prayer we remind ourselves of this path and realign with it joyfully.
When it says on earth, as it is in heaven, this is a reminder that we are talking about a profoundly worldly religion, that our desire is “for the glory and beauty of heaven to be turned into an earthly reality as well” (**). We pray for the transformation and restoration of this world, here and now.
Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread
The prophet Isaiah depicted the kingdom of God as a great feast where all are welcome, and all can eat (Isaiah 55:1). This vision, and this line of the Lord’s Prayer, is a universal hope, a petition for all the peoples of the earth to have enough. Note again that the language is plural, it’s give us and our, not give me and my. It’s also a reminder that we are dependent on others for our daily sustenance, God in particular, but many farmers and workers and other strangers who we will never meet but everyday rely on. And it’s a humble prayer; it doesn’t say give us today our second car, but simply that which is sufficient for daily living. In a society where many people perish from too much material consumption, this is a radical vision in a world out of control.
And Forgive Us Our Trespasses, As We Forgive Those Who Trespass Against Us
The prayer now asks us to do something that is very difficult, even unnatural- to forgive others who have harmed us. Not only that, but Jesus assumes that this will be a regular activity, an ongoing process. This is a sobering thought. But the key thing in this sentence is that God forgives us first, and we forgive others after in His image. If we can’t first be forgiven, if we can’t open to that river of forgiveness that is always flowing into our hearts, then we will not be able to do so ourselves. So we need to first let ourselves be forgiven by God for our trespasses, a vulnerable and painful thing to do. This emphasis on forgiveness does not mean that our trespasses don’t hurt others, or that we are not harmed by the trespasses of others ourselves. It just means that Jesus wants to finally break the endless cycle of retaliation and retribution- one that we still see all too often in our world today- with a different kind of order. The human growth into forgiving beings is a sure sign of a new epoch and the emerging kingdom.
And Lead Us Not Into Temptation, But Deliver Us From Evil
The first half of this sentence has a long history of also being written as “save us from our time of trial”, and the Greek word here can be translated as either “temptation” or “time of trial”. The word temptation is important; Jesus undergoes- and rejects- a series of temptations in one the most famous passages in all of religious literature. But the words “time of trial” recognizes that loyalty to the kingdom of God brings one into conflict with worldly powers. I think of Archbishop Oscar Romero who wrote these words just before his assassination in 1980- “Let my death, if it be accepted by God, be for my people’s liberation and as a witness of hope in the future”. That is someone who walked willingly into his time of trial with full knowledge of the grim consequences. Words like “trial” and “deliver” and “temptation” indicate that we are involved in a cosmic struggle, and we pray that we may be up for the task when our time comes.
To ask to be delivered from evil is to acknowledge that there are malevolent forces in the world, and that they can take over people and institutions. Modern liberal Christians don’t like to talk about evil much, but this line “deliver us from evil” is actually a mini-exorcism, another thing that has become taboo to take seriously. But what about the “the demons of greed and lust, of self-sufficiency and pride and sloth and envy and hopelessness” (***), have we not experienced these in our own lives? I know I have. And have we not witnessed the mad, power hungry militaries and governments and corporations as they hoard and waste and destroy? To ask to be delivered from evil is to release our own demons through our alignment with God, and to pray that they be cast out of the sick Legions that rule over us.
For Thine Is the Kingdom, the Power and Glory, Forever and Ever
This final line is actually a doxology, or hymn of praise to God, that was added a couple of centuries after the original and has become a permanent part of the prayer. It contains some potent and even dangerous words, for as Hauerwas and Willimon point out, “The world loves those words. When your congregation prays, “Yours is the kingdom, the power, and the glory”, the folks at City Hall ought to get nervous”. It’s one more proclamation of our ultimate allegiance, and it tells the powers of this world that their days are numbered (Daniel 5). A vision of a new earth has come into being, one that will not relent until the old order has finally passed away.
The last word of the prayer is Amen, a Hebrew word that means “right on” or “so be it”. It’s also the last way we signal collectively to each other that we are in on this journey, that we are committed to the kingdom and to each other, and that we joyfully participate in our trial together. So, right on, and may it be so.
(*) The Word Made Flesh
O Holy One,
we have been asleep to our true nature.
Awaken us to the mind and heart of Christ within.
Rouse us to the realization that your love for this planet–
sacred orb of life and consciousness–
was confirmed in Jesus of Nazareth,
love’s form and function,
for us and for all creation!
Salt waters coursed through this blood,
fire-forged elements formed his bones and sinews,
ancient bacteria communed in his gut,
fired in his neurons.
The Word made flesh,
mind of God realized,
heart of the Holy manifest.
Help us fall in love with everything,
to fall into oneness with all that is,
as you did in Christ,
so that everything and everybody
may be known and honoured
as sacraments of the sacred.
Bruce Sanguin, from ‘If Darwin Prayed- Prayers for Evolutionary Mystics’ (2010)
(**) Tom Wright. Matthew For Everyone- Part 1. Britain: SPCK, 2002. p.59.
(***) Line from sermon by the Reverend Richard Topping- http://canadianmemorial.org/sermon/march-30th-2014/
Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon. Lord, Teach Us- The Lord’s Prayer & the Christian Life. US: Abingdon Press, 1996.
John Dominic Crossan. The Greatest Prayer- Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message of the Lord’s Prayer. New York: HarperOne, 2010.