“Lord, teach us to pray.” Over the years, I have had lots of conversations with people about prayer. Even people who have deep and intense prayer lives often struggle with prayer and seek to become more prayerful. Many others, like myself, feel wholly inadequate in our prayer lives. We struggle to find language to address God, we struggle to be authentic before God; we struggle as we seek to listen to God. It should come as no surprise that I struggle with prayer. One of the first courses I had in Divinity School was “Constructing the Concept of God.” I quickly learned that it was difficult to pray to a concept I had constructed.
One of the things that drew me to the Episcopal Church was the Book of Common Prayer. It is full of prayers written by people much smarter than, much more deeply spiritual than me, and with a much greater command of the English language. The prayers of the BCP speak to and for me and as I inhabit them, I grow more deeply in my relationship with God.
“Lord, teach us to pray.” Of all the things the disciples say or ask in the synoptic gospels, there may be none more poignant, powerful, or relevant to us, than this request made by one of the disciples, after he or she had watched Jesus go off to a deserted place to pray. Jesus’ praying is one of Luke’s recurrent themes. Often we are told that Jesus went off to a deserted place, presumably by himself, to pray. Occasionally, Luke tells us that Jesus prays in the presence of his disciples.
Luke tends to use this theme at significant moments in Jesus’ life and ministry. So, for example, Luke mentions Jesus praying during or after his baptism. We might think that these references to Jesus praying are not important but in fact they point to a couple of key elements in Luke’s overall portrayal of Jesus—first, that he is a good, observant Jew who prays regularly, and second; that he has an especially intimate relationship with God.
Lord, teach us to pray. It was a request, a plea from a disciple who had watched Jesus pray, who had some inkling of the intimate relationship Jesus had with God, and no doubt craved something of that relationship for him or herself. Jesus responded by offering his disciples a prayer, what we know as the Lord’s Prayer. The version recorded in Luke is much briefer than the more familiar one we know from Matthew, the one we recite together each Sunday in the Eucharist. Yet as the words roll off our tongues unthinkingly, we rarely take the time to reflect on their meaning and power. It’s also unfortunate that the Lord’s Prayer has become so ingrained in us that we treat it formulaically, that if we say these words in this order, we are being obedient to Jesus, and that obedience may prove our holiness and worthiness.
Instead, I would like to walk through bits of this prayer, and try to show some of its larger meaning. These are not words we are commanded to recite, but if internalized, they are the beginning of putting ourselves in an appropriate relationship with God and the world. They are about prayer, but they are also about our faith, our relationship with God in Christ.
The first thing to note is the beginning, “Our Father.” For many of us in the 21stcentury, to address God as Father is deeply problematic as it plays into gender hierarchies and the patriarchy, and for those of us with complicated relationships with our fathers, to refer to God as Father may be more stumbling block than life-giving. Still, it’s important to underscore the positive meaning of this address. To call God “Father” is to emphasize the relationship between us and God; at best, as we see in Jesus’ later reference to how a father should behave in response to a child’s request, such relationships are grounded in love, and yes, dependency.
To call God Father was not a revolutionary act by Jesus, there are places in Jewish scripture where God is so addressed, and we know it also from extra-biblical sources. Still, there seems to have been an intense intimacy in Jesus’ address and experience of God as Father; perhaps best expressed in the Aramaic word we know Jesus used, “Abba” often translated as “Daddy” a word that was remembered and used by early Christians who spoke no Aramaic. Paul tells us, for example, that early Christians in the Gentile, Greek-speaking communities to which he wrote letters, prayed to “Abba,” Father.
I doubt very much whether many of us, when we begin saying the Lord’s Prayer, “Our Father”—think or experience such intimacy, but it may be that the cultivation of a deeper and richer prayer life begins by opening ourselves and our hearts to deeper intimacy with God.
The Lord’s Prayer, in Luke’s version and in Matthew’s, begins with an outward focus—on God, not on ourselves. “Our Father, who art in heaven, may your name be holy—that phrase connects back with the 10 commandments and with God’s nature and identity. In Hebrew Scripture, a name is not coincidence or arbitrary, it connects with one’s identity. So to pray that God’s name be holy or sacred, is to pray that we remember not just our intimacy and relationship with God, but also God’s complete otherness.
There is in Luke’s version, but more so in Matthew’s an eschatological focus. To pray “Your kingdom come” is to pray that God’s justice will roll down like an ever-flowing stream and make the world right. It is also an expression of trust that God’s reign will come, in spite of all evidence to the contrary. We may need this prayer most of all in these difficult times.
After focusing on God and the coming age, the prayer turns to us and to our daily lives. “Give us each day our daily bread” reminds us that God is the source of all that we have. It is also an expression of trust that God will provide. But more than that, the breaking of bread is a communal, not an individual act and its mention here invites us to think of the ways we share bread together, in the Eucharistic feast and in fellowship as the body of Christ around common meals.
The communal aspect of the Lord’s Prayer is underscored by the reference to forgiveness. We are a forgiven and forgiving community. We ask God to forgive our sins. As we experience God’s holiness and otherness, we experience the guilt and shame of our own brokenness and sin. Such brokenness can prevent the intimacy we desire when we pray, “Our Father” and to ask forgiveness of God, is to ask that we might return to right relationship with God.
But that right relationship is possible only when we forgive others. Experiencing the joy of forgiveness opens us to the possibility of offering others that same joy by forgiving them. And so right relationship with our fellow humans is also restored. Through these prayers, we become the forgiving community God wants and calls us to be.
It’s a brief prayer, especially in Luke’s version but in a few short sentences, it expresses the possibility of deeper relationship with God, and with other human beings. It speaks of our daily life with all of its struggles and concerns, and it also speaks of the new age that God is bringing into existence around us.
Following the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus offers a parable and a number of sayings concerning prayer. They address questions that still arise in our hearts: Does God answer prayer? Those of us who pray know that this question arises directly from our experience, from the reality that so often, the thing we pray for doesn’t happen but Jesus’ words suggest that yes, God answers prayer. But he comes back around to those opening words, Our Father, when he uses the example of a child asking his father for bread. Knowing God, trusting in our relationship with God, we can be certain of that relationship and that intimacy.
Wherever we are in our lives of prayer, whether we pray often and intimately with God, or if we find it difficult to put into words what we feel or need, there is always room to grow more deeply prayerful. And as one who struggles mightily with my life of prayer, I have always taken great comfort in Paul’s words in Romans 8:26: “the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”
May we all grow more deeply in our prayer life, and when words fail us and we fall into silence, may the Spirit intercede on our behalf.