From Our Father Who Aren’t in Heaven
The Lord’s Prayer. The Pater Noster. The Our Father. The Disciples’ Prayer. It goes by many names, but it is perhaps the one thing Christians the world over have in common. Nearly all Christians observe Communion, or the Eucharist, or the Lord’s Supper, but in widely variant ways and with very different understandings of its significance. Likewise, baptism takes a number of different forms and opens itself to different interpretations. The Bible – well, don’t even get me started on the Bible. Catholics, mainline Protestants, Evangelicals, and the Orthodox can’t even agree on which books belong in the Bible, and the interpretation of the books they do agree on produces some of the most virulent intra-religious conflict in the church today. Many Christians recite the same creed, but others, including those of the Baptist tradition to which I belong, don’t accept the authority of the creeds. I only ever say the words of the Nicene Creed when I worship in an Episcopal church with my wife’s family, and when I do I always feel furtive about it. Even a little guilty. Hymnody, liturgy, style of preaching, and the language we use for God all vary from denomination to denomination and from church to church, and are as likely to divide as to unite Christians.
But every Sunday the world over, Christians of every color, language, and hermeneutical leaning say the words of the Lord’s Prayer. True, there are some differences – some say, “trespasses,” while others say, “debts”; some say, “forever and ever,” at the end of the prayer while others close with the more concise, “forever”; and Roman Catholics omit the concluding doxology. But these variations do not throw up any major obstacles to Christian comity and unity the way the different expressions of the Eucharist do, for example. The Lord’s Prayer seems to unite rather than divide Christians all around the world. With the possible exception of the ancient confession, “Jesus is Lord,” nothing else in the Christian tradition can make such a sweeping claim.
Anything that can make a claim of binding together more than two billion Christians from mud huts to mansions, war zones to strip malls, First World to Two-Thirds World and all points in between, will also, by its very nature, claim remarkable familiarity. Our circumstances, locations, and languages may differ, but at the heart of our shared faith lies a shared prayer that in its most familiar English version runs like this:
Our Father 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 debts (trespasses)
as we forgive our debtors (those who trespass against us).
And lead us not into temptation
but deliver us from evil.
Most Protestants add this doxology:
For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever (and ever). Amen.
Of course, anything that becomes over familiar runs the risk of losing its power. When we repeat the Lord’s Prayer for the umpteen thousandth time, we may fail to reflect deeply on the meaning of every phrase and clause. It’s like saying the Pledge of Allegiance; at some point in childhood we stopped wondering what “indivisible” meant and just said it and got on with our lives. I suspect we very often do the same with the Lord’s Prayer: “… for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever, amen” – and now let’s move on.
As an example of how easy we find it to stop hearing what we’re saying, try this experiment: read the prayer above aloud, choosing your preferred version when it comes to debts and trespasses and the extra “and ever” at the end. Did you notice anything odd about the prayer? Anything incongruous?
Now, you may have been on the alert because I called it an experiment, and if so, you may have noticed that the most common form of the Lord’s Prayer in English uses antiquated language – words and sentence structures that we use very rarely if at all in modern English. Words such as “thy” and “thine,” and clauses such as “hallowed be thy name,” and “thy kingdom come,” would have a strikingly unfamiliar ring if we heard them in any other context. But because they appear in this most familiar prayer, we roll them off our tongues without a second thought. Familiarity breeds… not contempt in this case, but at least a form of deafness.
I want to crack the hard shell of that familiarity and hear these old, old words in a new way. Or rather, in a way that may seem new, but that actually represents an effort to get back to the context in which Jesus first taught his disciples the prayer and in which they first heard it. I call my writing, subversive reflections on the Lord’s Prayer. That’s because this most familiar, most seemingly tame of prayers could very well be the most radical and revolutionary manifesto to come to us from Jesus’s time or any time. To take these words seriously might change our lives in profound and permanent ways, and to act on them might have the capacity to shake the foundations of the world.
Does that sound like an overstatement? Have I set myself too ambitious a goal? Maybe. On the other hand, maybe we underestimate the power of the Lord’s Prayer because so many of us have long since stopped expecting anything of it. We have long since stopped listening as we pray. To unlock the tremendous potential waiting inside these words, we must act on them. To act on them, we must first hear them. And to really hear them, we have to listen.
I invite you to listen along with me.