According to Luke, Jesus’ disciples came to him and said, “Lord, teach us to pray,” and Jesus replied, “When you pray, say, ‘Father’…” or as Matthew has it, “Pray then this way…” In either case, the Lord’s Prayer is (if you will) the principal text in Jesus’ school of prayer. Even if it were not presented to us as Jesus’ own teaching on how to pray, it would be well worth our time to pay careful attention to this prayer. It has been on the lips and in the hearts of Christians for 2000 years. Throughout that time it has been said innumerable times every day and in every human language. Along with “Now I lay me down to sleep…” and “God is great, God is good…” it is usually the first prayer that we learn as children. The Lord’s Prayer begins and ends in God’s heavenly kingdom: “Our Father in heaven…” and “the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours, now and forever.” But the route it takes away from and back to God’s presence runs through the very heart of human life. So I invite you to join me in sitting with the other disciples at the feet of Jesus to learn what he meant when he said, “Pray then this way, ‘Our Father…’”
Today I want to look at four lessons we learn from the Lord’s Prayer: First, prayer is a skill we need to learn. Secondly, all Christian prayer is corporate. Thirdly, the Lord’s prayer teaches us that God relates to us as a parent to children. And fourthly, that we can never go so far from God that he will be unable to hear our prayer.
“Pray then this way…” implies that we do not know how to pray. How could that be? Isn’t prayer a universal human impulse? Why did the disciples go to Jesus and say, “Lord, teach us to pray”? They were Jews, and at the time of Jesus’ birth, the Jewish faith was over a thousand years old. For over a thousand years the Jewish people had raised their hearts and hands to heaven and called upon the Almighty. Even if they had been Greeks or Romans, they would have known how to pray. All of the world’s religions have teachings and traditions about prayer. Doesn’t prayer rise spontaneously from a feeling of gratitude? I think that all of us have a natural desire to offer thanks for the good things that come to us unsought and unasked for – the startling red of a maple in autumn or the stranger who opens a door for us when our arms are loaded with groceries. Prayer seems not only natural but inevitable when disaster strikes – when a newborn’s fever grows higher and higher and nothing seems to bring it down, what parent in the world does not turn to prayer? When the crops fail, or the river overflows its banks, or there hasn’t been a drop of rain in months, is there anyone who does not at least yearn to believe that there is a God who will hear and answer our prayers? And especially at death, don’t we naturally turn to prayer to pray for peace for those who have departed this life?
Prayer appears to be a natural human response to both the good and the bad situations that inevitably accompany human life. And yet, whether we read Matthew or Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus seemed to think he needed to teach his disciples to pray.
Why do we need to know how to pray? The Lord’s Prayer itself is the answer. It is at once both simple enough for a child to learn and understand and also a deep vein of spiritual treasure from which the greatest of saints can mine inexhaustible riches. To be sure, prayer is a natural and universal human impulse and God hears all prayers. However, while our natural impulses are all God’s good gifts, they need to be shaped and trained. It is natural for a child to want to speak, but without hearing her parents talk to her, she will not advance beyond the oooohs and ahhs of infancy. Hunger is a natural impulse, but a child needs to be introduced slowly and gradually to healthy and nutritious food. And so it is with prayer. The spiritual life requires as much training as sports or music. The Lord’s Prayer is a set of exercises from which both the beginner and the advanced student can benefit.
The first word is the first lesson: “Our…” By nature our prayers are selfish and individualistic. We seek to get our own needs met. But the Lord’s Prayer teaches us that we are not isolated individuals but parts of a greater whole. As with the Nicene creed, so with the Lord’s Prayer, this is a text for the baptized. In the early church, those who were to be baptized at the Easter vigil were taught the Apostles’ creed and the Lord’s prayer either right before or immediately after baptism. Baptism makes us no longer an “I” but a “we” . “We believe…” “Our Father…”
Perhaps the greatest and most destructive mistake of the modern West is individualism. In contrast to human experience from the beginning of time, the women and men of the modern West believe themselves to be captains of their fate and masters of their destiny. But in John Donne’s words, “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main....” This is even more true for Christians. Baptism makes us members of the body of Christ and participants in a fellowship that extends throughout time and space. There is no such thing as a solitary Christian, and there is never a Christian who prays alone. And this is the first thing the Lord’s Prayer teaches us. “Our Father…”
The second lesson is about the nature of God. Without a guide us it would be natural to think of God as remote, removed, indifferent, or perhaps even hostile. This seems to have been the belief of the Hellenistic religions. It was assumed as a matter of course that the gods were vindictive and vengeful and so sacrifices were offered to acquire their good will or to avert their anger. One did not have a parent/child relationship with the gods; at best it was more like master/slave. But the Jewish faith taught that God freely bound himself in love to his people in a covenant relationship that could not be destroyed. And Jesus opened the vision of God’s love even more and taught that the relationship that Israel had with God was the relationship that God desires to have with each of us. And this is expressed in the second word of the prayer: “Father”.
Before I go any further I have to acknowledge that “Father” is a problematic word. A few years ago a wit took a jab at our preoccupation with inclusive language:
How shall we sing the praise of Him
Who is no longer He?
Where shall we go to learn
The sex of Deity?
“Father” is problematic for many reasons. First, it implies that God is male or at least masculine. But feminists have taught us that masculine and feminine are cultural constructs. They are categories we impose on each other, but in no sense are they natural or universal. God is beyond our limited concept of what it means to be masculine or feminine. The great Catholic feminist Dorothy Day said that God’s love can be “harsh and dangerous”, but God’s love is also soft and yielding. Love makes God vulnerable. Isn’t that one of the main things we learn from crucifixion? Love took God the Son on a journey from heavenly glory to ignominious death on a cross, from the right of the Father to the right hand of a petty criminal. Harsh and dangerous are categories many of us associate with masculinity, but vulnerability is a quality often associated with the feminine. In a sense, addressing God as Father is a subtle way of undermining our assumptions about both the feminine and the masculine, because we see in God qualities associated with both genders. God is both yielding and resistant, both fierce and tender. We limit ourselves when we define masculine and feminine too narrowly, but God defies our limits and expectations.
However, the great problem of addressing God as Father is that it appears to bless a form of patriarchy. I think the way to deal with this is to acknowledge that it is true. While I believe that the Lord’s Prayer is a universal prayer that Christians always will and always should pray, it is also a product of a different time, place, and culture. The world out of which the Lord’s Prayer came privileged the masculine and could not conceive of God as other than Father. Jesus shared many of the assumptions of that world, but in his acceptance of women as his disciples, in his defiance of the conventions that kept women and men apart, and in his choice of women to be the first witnesses of his resurrection he helped lay the groundwork for the full empowerment of women, even though that took centuries and is not yet fully complete.
I sincerely believe that the day will come when someone will compose a prayer addressing God as Mother, a prayer that will catch our imaginations and move our hearts. Such a prayer will not supplant the Lord’s Prayer but it will balance it. But that day has not come yet. However, when we pray “your kingdom come” I believe we are praying for the day when women and men will share equally in God’s work and when we will perceive that all along God has been as much our Mother as our Father.
The last point I want to make to day is about how we locate God. The Lord’s Prayer addresses God in heaven. The third and fourth words of the Lord’s Prayer give people almost as much trouble as Father. To many “in heaven” implies that God is far away and not near, that God is out there instead of in here. Heaven is infinitely far away. How, we think, could a God who dwells in heaven be concerned with whether or not we find a job or our spouse’s emotional cruelty or the incessant phone calls from bill collectors? How, we wonder, could the high God of heaven bend his ears to hear not only our voices but even the silent prayers of our hearts? That is precisely the point. By teaching us to pray to our Father in heaven, Jesus is telling us that distance is not a factor with God. No matter where are and no matter where God is, God hears us. As Paul writes in Romans 8, “nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus”, not even the distance between heaven and earth.
However, there is another message in the third and fourth words of the Lord’s Prayer. To pray to our Father in heaven is an acknowledgement that our world is not yet as it should be and we are not yet as we should be. We are not yet ready to welcome God’s rule. Our world is still a place of injustice and cruelty, of deceit and treachery. The Bible does promise that God will one day come to dwell among us, but that day has not yet come.
The Christian faith teaches us that God is both beyond us and within us, both transcendent and immanent. The Lord’s Prayer expresses the longing that God’s world and our world will one day be identical. But in this present time we must sadly acknowledge that that is not yet the case. While present with us by the power of the Holy Spirit, God does not yet dwell fully in our world.
When we pray the Lord’s Prayer we discover that we are not alone, but rather God’s beloved daughters and sons who are invited into a relationship with their heavenly Father and with Christians in all times and all places and that that the deepest desires of our heart are heard in heavenly places. “Pray then this way…”