I continue to look at prayers that have both pulled me through in my personal trials and struggles, but also others I’ve supported as a pastor and chaplain. One prayer that can’t be overlooked is the Lord’s Prayer itself. This prayer takes such a central place in our faith. In many churches it is prayed every Sunday before the offering or as a part of the communion liturgy. Many people pray it daily in their own homes. I know as a chaplain often I am invited to pray it to the point I now offer to include in my prayers for families and patients if I know they come from a Christian background as a part of my otherwise very extemporaneous personal prayers for them.
Here are the words of the Lord’s Prayer, as included in my United Church of Christ Book of Worship:
Who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
As we forgive those who sin against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.
For this is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.”
It will take several posts to really explore the significance of this prayer both in our lives generally and in times of crises or trial specifically. Today I want to just focus on the prayer itself in a general sense.
It always amazes me that this prayer, of all the prayers of Scripture, is so dear and important to people that it is prayed so much. It is, after all, pretty simple. On its own it can be said in just a few minutes, and focuses on such simple everyday concerns: gratitude, bare necessities of life being met, forgiveness, protection. It is far simpler, more down to earth, than the beautiful prayers of the preachers or even the Psalms.
But perhaps, beyond the fact this prayer is said to have come from Jesus’ own lips, this simplicity may be the reason the prayer is so important and so well loved. I remember when I first was learning to pray as a teenager newly awakened to faith and its importance. It was almost at times like picking up the phone to call that cute girl in class when I decided to open my mouth to pray. I would get tongue-tied, nervous. I couldn’t think in the fancy words of the preacher I heard on the weekend. I didn’t know what all the religious words meant. I found myself eventually just embracing that and talking like I always do, in simple words as to a friend.
Having simple words given to us that speak to our every day need is I think a point of this prayer. Pretty words are nice and inspiring and, to be fair, the Scripture and church tradition provide aplenty. But as an entrance way into the life of prayer, this model prayer shows us that yes, God, is concerned about our needs from bread to eat, to protection, to forgiveness. We can talk about things that seem far too simple to God.
In fact in the Gospels when this prayer is presented by Jesus it is in the context of answering the question “how does one pray?” and Jesus telling us that fancy words, long treatise-like prayers, are really not necessary. Instead praying simply from the heart is what is best. And this simple prayer is given as an example. This – simple words of praise, of request, about things as everyday as bread, as estrangement and forgiveness, about fears of falling into trial or temptation – this is all that is needed. This alone.
In times of trial, fancy words may be unreachable anyway. This is a part of why coming from a tradition of very extemporaneous prayer I am learning to embrace liturgy like these prayers of the church we’ve been considering. They are God’s gift to help us find a place to stand when the legs of faith we hope to carry us are weak and wobbly. They give us a place to stand. They show us steps we can make, with a little aid, while we regain our strength and footing.
It reminds me of when I was learning to skate as a kid. I remember grabbing the bar on the side of the skating rink, to get the feel for skating until I could on my own. So in trial and crisis having such simple words provided for us help us find space to connect with God without having to invent words at times in which words are so hard to come by. Let’s be honest, in trial and crisis, trauma and pain, the hurt can be so strong our tongues grow mute. These words give us a gift of having an entry ramp to the highway of God’s presence provided clearly for us.
This simplicity can be seen even in looking at the history of this prayer. Many Bible scholars suggest it is not necessarily completely original to Jesus himself. After all, prayer to God as Father and King had long been a part of Jewish prayer. As far back as the Psalms we find God being spoken of as father, the father to the fatherless, father of Israel, and even of key leaders in Jewish history being called sons of God. Today there is still prayer to God as King of the Universe as part of regular Sabbath dinner in the family of observant Jews. Although Jesus crafts this prayer in ways that point to his unique message and mission, at heart it is the simple prayer of his people. In a way, it is the prayer of all people everywhere.
That such simplicity is at the heart of the prayer Jesus gives us is a challenge and an invitation. In the face of crushing pain, overwhelming wonder, or even just the awkwardness of learning to speak to God for the first time, we are challenged to lay aside our need to appear educated, religious, or proper. God sees through all of that, right to who we really are. We can lay aside pretenses, coming to God in our own everyday language with our own everyday concerns. No concern is too small to raise to God. And if that concern is what weighs on our hearts, why not share it?
Wherever you find yourself today know God is near and God hears. God is ready, willing, and interested in your every concern. Let yourself open up, whether in your own words or the simple words provided in this prayer. Know that as you open yourself up, you don’t have to have the “right” words for whatever words come from your heart are exactly what God is longing to hear.
Let us open our hearts and lives to that one, my friends.
Your progressive redneck preacher,