He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, "Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples." He said to them, "When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial."
And he said to them, "Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, "Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.' And he answers from within, "Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.' I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs. "So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!"
Don’t tell the Bishop, but I found myself wondering this week, if the Lord’s Prayer is everything it’s cracked up to be. I’m not about to remove it from our liturgy, or stop teaching it to our Faith Formation kids, or pretend there’s not abundant power in the way it binds us together as God’s people on the planet. Certainly, through Christian history and tradition, what we call “The Lord’s Prayer” or the “Our Father” has become a beautiful, unifying, comforting, familiar part of our faith’s expression that is invaluable in more ways than I could count, if I tried.
But what if it was never meant to be all of that?
I mean, look at these phrases and petitions and the context in which they are offered up by Jesus to his curious disciples: Jesus was in a certain place praying and when he was finished, one of his disciples came to him and said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray as John taught his disciples.” Jesus said to him, “When you pray, say, ‘Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. Forgive us our sins as we, ourselves, forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.”
If you take Jesus off of his pedestal and put him in the plain clothes and dirty, dusty sandals of First Century Galilee, as the man, milling around the countryside, preaching and teaching and whatnot… If you see him, just back from “a certain place,” praying as he was wont to do… If you see him as a teacher and as a leader, being asked by one of his followers for some advice about how to pray…
Maybe you can imagine, like I do, that Jesus, that guy from Nazareth, never meant for these little nuggets of advice; these little petitions of prayer; these short, sweet little mantras – pregnant with meaning, mind you – to be turned into one single prayer, to be prayed – as one; to be lifted up as the prayer of all prayers, until the end of time.
“Lord, teach us to pray, like we’ve heard John taught his disciples.” It’s a simple enough request, right? Let us know what you’re up to when you go off by yourself. What do you do? What do you say? Why should we bother?
And so, maybe Jesus stopped for a moment and gave it some thought… maybe he considered the prayers and petitions he’d just offered, himself, a moment before… or maybe not. Maybe Jesus just rattled off the first things that came to mind, as a way to get his friend’s own wheels spinning about how he might have a conversation with God.
Jesus says, “When you pray, say, ‘Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come.’ Say, ‘Give us each day our daily bread.’ Say, ‘Forgive us our sins as we, ourselves, forgive everyone indebted to us.’ Say, ‘And do not bring us to the time of trial.’”
And of course, the advice still stands, whether we string Jesus’ petitions together as The Lord’s Prayer, or not.
In other words, to start, “recognize that there’s a God bigger than you – ‘Father, hallowed by your name’.” Acknowledge that there is a source of love and grace and life in the universe you’d like to tap into; and be part of; and live in response to. And let ‘Your kingdom come’ among us, God. Give us a taste, here and now, of what your kind of love and mercy and grace can feel like in the world, as we know it. Don’t make us wait another day, another minute for the kind of goodness and mercy we long for so desperately.”
And he goes on. “Give us each day our daily bread.” Appropriately humbled, as much as you’re able, then, and full of hope, don’t be afraid to ask for what you need. ‘Give us each day our daily bread.’ Not more than we need… Not more than we deserve… Not more than we can use… Not more than our fair share… But, daily bread… nothing more, nothing less.
“And ask for some forgiveness, while you’re at it. Admit that you need it. Acknowledge what your creator already knows about your faults and your shortcomings and your sins. And then ask for the same kind of forgiveness on behalf of your enemies, too. If you can pray for God to forgive them, it might help you move in the direction of forgiveness, yourself. And God wants that – for you and for the world.”
And finally, when you don’t live up to your expectations, Jesus suggests praying, ‘Save us from the time of trial’.” “When you forget your place, when you lose your perspective, when you take advantage of God’s abundance in your life, when you can’t forgive, when you can’t love your neighbor – ask God to spare you the consequences. Please God, ‘Save us from the time of trial,’ because not one of us could bear the judgement we deserve, if we’re honest. Be gracious and merciful and kind; give us second-chances and grant us some measure of hope for tomorrow; and let us try again when we fail.”
Now, taking the Lord’s Prayer out of the context of worship like this, and imagining it as nothing more and nothing less than a conversation – if not a teaching moment – between Jesus and one of us followers, may seem a little simplistic…maybe a bit irreverent, even. But whenever it shows up in Scripture like this, instead of in the Sunday morning bulletin, it reminds me to dust it off, to see it at face value, and to try to make sense of it in new ways.
See, I’ve thought for some time now that Jesus teaching his disciples how to pray is like me teaching my boys how to order dinner at a restaurant. I say things like, “Speak up. Talk clearly. Look the server in the eye. Tell them what you want. Say it like you mean it.”
I think Jesus is doing the same with all of these petitions and with all of that talk about asking and knocking and searching; and with that stuff about fish and snakes and eggs and stones, too. He’s encouraging us to engage a conversation with God. He’s suggesting we not be shy. He’s inviting us to be bold and brave and faithful and to use our words. He’s encouraging us to get into a relationship with our creator, the way he, himself, was in a relationship with God the Father.
Now, God is not a server at a fine restaurant, so we may not always get just what we want or all we think we deserve. But I don’t know any relationship worth anything that’s that easy.
Still, we ask. We search. We knock. We are not afraid, or bashful. We don’t worry about being right, even. We just say it like we mean it and let God do the rest – the giving, the withholding, the loving, the blessing, the forgiving, and whatever else we trust God sees that we need.
Because prayer – and our relationship with God as children of God – is about trusting God to deliver… and to take good care… and to love in ways only God can manage, with all the grace and generosity that comes to life in Jesus Christ.