In the Eucharist, the Book of Common Prayer begins the Lord’s Prayer with the following words:
As our Savior Christ has commanded and taught us, we are bold to say “Our Father”.
It’s easy to read the tone of this as a command, an exhortation to obedience. Yet, taken within a wider context it’s really an invitation, although a rather formal sounding one.
We are being invited to pray as Jesus himself prayed. In giving his disciples this simple form of prayer Jesus invites them into a different kind of relationship with God, the kind of relationship that he enjoyed with God. In short, the Lord’s Prayer is Jesus invitation for us to model our relationship with God on the relationship he shows himself enjoying with God. Through the Lord’s Prayer we are being invited into the life of the Divine Community of the Lover, the Beloved, and the Lovesharer.
Intimacy -Father/Our Father
Our granddaughter Claire will be 11-years old on the 15th of August. When she was younger, she often referred to her father not simply as daddy, but my daddy. Hearing Claire utter the words my daddy, produced in me a kind of melting sensation; a sensation carrying the strongest intimations of warmth and intimacy, born of trust and an unquestioning presumption of safety. When Jesus told his disciples: when you pray, say Abba; is my melting experience what Jesus had in mind? Abba most directly translates in English not as father but as daddy or the more adult friendly papa. Yet, even when I address God as papa let alone daddy, why is it so hard for me to capture the experience I glimpse that Claire has in relation to her daddy?
This intimation of warmth and the intimacy can only arise from a sense of unquestioned trust and safety. This is the experience Jesus clearly had in mind when he told his disciples: when you pray, say Abba, hallowed be your name. Like nearly everything Jesus said to his disciples, this would have provoked in them the error message of this does not compute. Intimacy, affection, and unquestioning trust were not expectations they had when addressing God. For them, God was the God-of-our Fathers, the Creator of the universe. 2,000 years separate us, and yet we are not so different from them in our expectations when addressing God in prayer.
Paradoxically, I feel more comfortable with a little distance between God and me. Temperamentally, I am more comfortable addressing God as our Father, rather than as my Papa and to be truthful, Papa leaves me feeling a little silly. Maybe that’s because I am an Episcopalian? There is something in our religious DNA the balks at too much intimacy. It’s our Cranmerian legacy, the courtier bishop Thomas Cramer addressing God in the BCP in the same tones he approached Henry VIII. How can you hallow, which means to honor and respect as holy the name of God, if you call God daddy? This quality of intimacy is the very thing our parched souls cry out for? It is this quality of love and trust that Jesus shockingly holds out to us as the fruit of prayer that always begins with, My Papa- holy is your name.
Vision – Your Kingdom come – your will be done
Jesus believed himself to be the embodiment of God’s in-breaking kingdom. In his first teaching in the synagogue at Nazareth recorded in Luke 4:18 he proclaims the vision of Isaiah and tells them that:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he has sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, …
The notion of the in-breaking of the kingdom plays havoc with our sense of time, for it is both now and yet also something yet to come. We are all acutely aware from the evidence around us that in so many ways our world is still waiting for this vision to become a reality. When we pray these words we recognize that in Jesus the Kingdom of God, the age-old dream of the prophets of Israel, is already inaugurated, yet not fulfilled. Our task as Christians is to fight for the kingdom’s fulfillment in our own time and place as we pray: your kingdom come, you will be done on earth, dear Lord.
Confidence – Give us today our daily bread
In the time-span between the inauguration and fulfillment of the kingdom, we journey through a wilderness where there is no sustenance apart from what God gives us. Our Christian life unfolds within the New Exodus experience, evoking the memory of the Israelite’s dependency on the manna God provided in the wilderness of Sinai. Give us today our daily bread becomes both a personal and social request as we pray that we will receive that which is sufficient for our needs. For it is together we journey towards the Promised Land. In the wilderness, we pray give us not me that which is necessary unto this day. The potency of this request lies in the fact that it is intrinsically an inclusive one.
The rub – Forgive us our debts/sins as we forgive others….
Healthy societies need a periodic social reset. We feel ourselves today catapulting into the unpredictable because we have no ready to hand mechanism for social reset. In forgive us our debts as we forgive others …, we hear Jesus echoing the Jewish concept of the Jubilee, the year in which all debts were canceled. The English translators chose to use the word trespasses here. I find this very helpful because the definition of trespass is to find oneself where we have no right to be. In our relationships, we encroach upon one another and structure our social and personal relationships as instruments of self-assertion. Holding others in our debt and being in debt to others in relational terms, is a gross example of trespass. Jesus is inviting us to enter into an experience of the relationship he enjoys with God. His invitation is predicated on God’s prior forgiveness. Being forgiven requires us to also be forgiving.
Endurance – Lead us not into Temptation, but deliver us from the Evil One
What is the temptation here and who tempts whom? A traditional reading is that it’s God who tempts us as a way of testing our resolve and capacity for endurance. However, it’s not from the time of trial sustain us, but in the time of trial sustain us, good Lord. In last Wednesday’s daily E-message Obedience –Brother Give Us A Word, Br. David Vryhof SSJE noted:
There are times when the path to which God calls us leads us into trouble or difficulty. Being faithful to that path, being obedient to that call, can prove to be very costly. We have only to recall Christ’s agony in Gethsemane to know that this was true for Jesus, and he assures us that it will also be true for many of those who choose to embrace and follow him on the way.
The temptation to take the line of least resistance is a continual danger for us as we work for the realization of the kingdom in our own contexts. Whether we locate the source of evil in a being – the Devil, or in a collective malignancy that thrives in what Augustine called a privation of good, evil’s continual attack is real. We must always be mindful that the conditions that allow evil to thrive require only that good people do nothing.
Parables of prayer
Jesus does not simply hand his disciples a form of words. He demonstrates what the praying of the words involves in the three parables that follow his giving this prayer.
In the story of the man waking his neighbor at midnight for three loaves of bread, we can note a startling characteristic of Jesus’ attitude to prayer. The request for three loaves is an excessive request given that bread was baked fresh each morning and not kept longer than the day of baking. No one would have at midnight that much bread left over from the day. Therefore, we note that prayer involves the audacity of asking for a lot rather than a little.
We are told that his neighbor gives-in to his insistence not because he pities the man or feels generous, but because of the man’s anaideia mistranslated into English as perseverance. Yet, perseverance is not the meaning of anaideia. The correct English translation is not perseverance but as shamelessness, as to not care what anyone thinks of our behavior. Prayer involves abandoning our cherished self-respect and exposing ourselves to the shame of wanting and longing. For us, it’s a shameful thing to be at the mercy of our longing and a fearful thing to risk the humiliation of exposing our neediness to another. In our prayer with God, we must be audacious, impudent, and also beyond shame in our expression of our need of God.
When we pray in the only words Jesus has given us to pray we become audacious and shameless, reveling in the intimacy of a loving relationship in which trust and safety are assumed. When we pray in the only words Jesus gave us we strive to make present the future fulfillment of the kingdom as we live according to its expectations in the here and now. Forgiveness becomes the hallmark of our mutual relationships, and as we face up the costs of discipleship, in doing so we loosen the grip of evil in the world.
Prayer involves the courage to ask in order to receive, to seek in order to find, to knock so that opportunities will open to us. This text is put into perspective in the famous Holman Hunt painting The Light of the World, now hanging in London’s St Paul’s Cathedral. Jesus is pictured standing with a lamp, knocking at a door overgrown with ivy and brambles. He clearly seeks entry, yet on closer inspection the door has no handle. The implication is that it can only be opened from the inside. What is depicted here is the door of the heart. Hunt captures who it is that knocks and who it is that opens to the knock. Paradoxically, it is Jesus who is doing the knocking, and it is we who have the power to open, or not.