Waking Up to The Lord’s Prayer
Years ago, when I first entered the ministry, I performed my first wedding. It was the wedding of a young couple who did not attend church, but whom I came to know through counseling. The couple chose, instead of looking for a church, to have a simple ceremony in the back yard among family and friends.
Fortunately the weather was good and the wedding proceeded like most weddings. Using the prayer book we went through the declaration of intent, the vows. I gave a brief homily. Things were going well. Near the end of the service, we came to the place where it was time to recite the Lord’s Prayer. I began with the familiar “Our Father”, and paused, waiting for the gathering to chime in… dead silence. I glanced over at my wife, who was looking back at me. She waved me on. I began again, louder this time. “OUR FATHER”. I was rewarded with a barely audible response from one woman – the grandmother of the groom, who seemed to be the only one in the wedding party who knew the prayer. I pressed on, “Which art in heaven”? It came out sounding like a question, but this time several people seemed to realize that I expected them to repeat after me, “Which art in heaven”, they all said, obviously relieved now that they knew what I wanted them to do. We continued through the whole prayer in this call and response manner. No one in the crowd seemed at all familiar with the Lord’s Prayer, except the grandmother, my wife and me.
I am not telling this story so that I can gripe about the increasing secularism of our society. The truth is, these were not churched people, and I should have known that they might not be familiar with the rites and rituals of the church. But the experience became like a seed planted in my mind. Until that moment, every person in every church service I had ever been to had known the Lord’s prayer.
Not long after this, I was worshipping at another church, and we came to the part in the service when it was time to recite the Lord’s prayer. I began to go through the familiar phrases along with the congregation and to hear, for the first time, the monotoned boredom – the complete lack of conviction and meaning – with which the prayer was recited by everyone, including me.
I began to think about the way the church uses the Lord’s prayer in worship – and the ways in which the church doesn’t use the Lord’s Prayer. Surely, when the disciples came and asked Jesus to teach them to pray, he did not just give them a mindless mantra to recite over and over again. It occurred to me that Jesus actually taught the disciples how to pray.
A Pattern of Prayer
What is the Lord’s Prayer? That may sound like a strange question to ask. After all, most people say the Lord’s prayer in church every week. The Lord’s Prayer is probably the most familiar prayer in Christendom. But what I am asking is this: What is the point of the Lord’s prayer? When Jesus’ disciples came to him and said, “Teach us how to pray”, what exactly did Jesus teach them? Did Jesus just give them one example of the kinds of words people should pray? Is the prayer a kind of enchantment against evil as people in the middle ages believed? Is the prayer important because it is a ritual that must be observed regularly to please God? Or is the prayer simply an example of prayer, a beautifully stated way of addressing the Father? What is the Lord’s Prayer for? What did Jesus intend for his disciples to do with this prayer?
For the most part the church uses the prayer today as part of the liturgy, or in non -liturgical churches as a kind of ritual prayer as part of the worship service. Most of us who were raised in the church have learned to chime in at the words, “Our Father”, and to join the familiar monotoned rhythm. The words have become familiar and typically pass through our lips without ever engaging our minds.
This is bad! What Jesus intended when He gave the disciples this pattern of prayer was not thoughtless recitation. In fact, Jesus meant for this prayer, which he gave to his disciples, to be thought provoking and challenging. The truth is that the Lord’s Prayer should give us pause because it is a difficult prayer to say. Not that the individual words are difficult, of course, but the affirmations of the Lord’s Prayer are challenging to our typical lives. Rightly understood, the words of the Lord’s Prayer break down our self sufficiency and pride – call us to submission – set our hearts on God’s kingdom – and call us to forgive and love our enemies.
The church – by approaching the Lord’s Prayer first as a kind of magic spell to ward off evil, and then later as a ritual saying, has missed the core truths and meaning of the prayer, and consequently, of prayer itself. Jesus did not give the disciples words to ward off evil or a mindless mantra to be recited in a monotone. Jesus gave the disciples a pattern of prayer that would shape their understanding of how to follow him and that would change their lives.
I do not mean to sound alarmist, but one of the great tragedies of the church is that this prayer – before us all the time in liturgies and ceremonies – has, nevertheless, been lost. We have prayed this prayer of discipleship too quickly, concerned only with whether we should say, “debts” and “debtors”, or “trespass” and “trespasses”. But in our ritualism something central to what the church ought to be, has been lost.
Jesus did not mean for the prayer to be a ritual to be practiced merely to please God, nor did he mean the prayer to be some sort of method by which we might, by saying the right words, find ourselves in the presence of God. Rather, Jesus meant for the prayer to be central to our thinking about God and the world and the church and our own lives. Jesus meant for the Lord’s Prayer to be formational and instructional.
The Lord’s Prayer Can Capture Our Hearts
The brilliance of the prayer is that, as we take each petition and come before the Lord to Hallow God’s name, or to pray for the coming of his Kingdom, a change begins to happen in the heart. Specifically, the one who prays, “May your kingdom come”, begins to take that concern into their consciousness. The Lord’s Prayer is a study in spiritual formation. Praying through the Lord’s Prayer thoughtfully, actually engages both our minds and our hearts. It takes us through process of growing up spiritually – of learning to love and value the things God loves and cares about. Through the prayer we know Christ, not in the mystical or emotional sense, but in an increased understanding and sympathy with those issues which were central to Him. Through the prayer we take on the concerns which were the concerns of Jesus and they change us. As we pray we begin to become like Christ – we begin to know him in the sense of knowing what is important to him. We come, through the prayer, to love what he loves and to hate what he hates, to long for what he longed for.
It is this conversion of the desire that begins to re-form who we are. Our opinions come to be changed by the concerns of his prayer. Our responses to the events of the world around us come to be shaped by his prayer. Our understanding of Christianity, and salvation and politics and wealth and power and the future, are all unalterably changed by his prayer. In essence, the Lord’s Prayer, if we are willing to pray it, reformats our hearts.
We Need to Recapture the Prayer
This is what the church has missed by treating the Lord’s Prayer as a ritual – a rote recitation. That which should have been central and formational has been merely included as an archaic relic. Consequently the church has wandered from much that should be central to the practice of Christianity and has been shaped more by the culture around it than by the kind of discipleship called for in the Lord’s Prayer.
This prayer is something that the church needs to recapture. Quite honestly, most Christians struggle with prayer. Those who have tried to bring prayer back into the church have tended to focus on technique (new and exciting ways to do prayer), rather than on content (what we should actually be praying for or about). But when Jesus’ disciples asked him to teach them how to pray, he did not give them methods or secrets – he gave them content. Jesus taught his followers how to pray by telling them what to pray about.
So where do we begin? We should begin by looking at the shape of the Lord’s prayer briefly. The first three statements – or phrases – have to do with the concerns of God, the Father. The last three statements – or phrases – have to do with the needs of the disciple. Specifically…
- The glory of his name
- The coming and establishment of his kingdom
- The importance and supremacy of his will being done
- The call to trust God as a Father for our daily needs
- The call to confess sin and show forgiveness to others
- Our need for deliverance from temptation and from our adversary the devil.
My goal is to look at each of these six statements in turn in order to say something about what it means to pray – but also about what it means to be a disciple and follower of Jesus. The Lord’s prayer is a prayer that outlines our basic call to be disciples. If we take the Lord’s prayer seriously, we will learn not only how to pray and grow in prayer – but how to practice following Jesus.