Once upon a time the citizens of a small town decided to merge churches, Methodists and Baptists combining their sparse attendance and modest offerings in order to provide one vital congregation.
This story begs a larger question: Should the Lord’s Prayer be recited at all, or is it just a thematic guide?All the negotiations regarding membership, polity and finances went smoothly. The one sticking point was how to recite the Lord’s Prayer. Would they say “debts” or “trespasses”? With no breakthrough in sight, the union was called off. The local newspaper reported that “the Methodists went back to their debts and the Baptists went back to their trespasses.”
We Baptists are a strange lot. We frown on written prayers, because Jesus warned against empty, rote phrases. But in our attempt to be extemporaneous, we end up thoughtlessly repeating empty, rote phrases!
Perhaps Jesus gave us a middle ground. He gave us his prayer, the model prayer (Matthew 6:9-13; Luke 11:2-4). He gave us a track to run on, but left us room to fill in the specifics.
In other words, sometimes I recite the Lord’s Prayer verbatim. When might those times be? Consider these: When I am dry and wish to “prime the pump;” when I am too broken with grief and my words won’t come; finally, when I am worshiping with strangers and we are seeking a common vocabulary by which to address our Maker.
On the other hand, sometimes the Jesus prayer is a broad outline. We don’t have to pray the exact words. We may use the prayer to help us think of areas to explore in communion with God.
“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name” reminds me that all true prayer begins with God’s worth (thus our word “worship” — worth+ship).
We do not begin with our needs or complaints; we begin with God’s majesty and glory. All true prayer begins with relationship. Jesus did not say, “Our God in heaven.” He began, “Our Father in heaven.”
We sometimes forget what a revolutionary truth this is — God is personal and pursues a relationship with us. The Greek gods were fickle, jealous and petulant. The Norse gods were violent and explosive. The Canaanite gods were bloodthirsty, often demanding the sacrifice of firstborn children. The God of Israel and of Jesus? Loving, personal, caring…Father.
Prayer is always relational, focused on building God’s community. Not my Father, but our Father; not my daily bread, but our daily bread; not my sins but our sins. There really is no separating meaningful prayer from meaningful relationships — with God and others.
Someone has pointed out that the Lord’s Prayer is perfectly balanced. First, there are three vertical dimensions: God is hallowed, his kingdom is to come and his will is to be done.
What if we really prayed and meant it when we asked for God’s will to be done? I’ve often said that this prayer should come with a warning label. “Danger! This may lead to changes in your life! If you pray this and mean it, God will work in your life!”
Corresponding to the three vertical dimensions are three horizontal dimensions: daily bread, forgiveness and deliverance from evil.
To utter the phrase “give us this day our daily bread” is to practice the art of asking. During my years as a pastor, I have had many people come to me with problems. Occasionally I will ask, “Have you prayed about it?” The person will look at me with a mixture of surprise and embarrassment. “My goodness,” will come the reply, “I have done everything but pray!”
We are all proud and would like to believe we are self-made. But when we regularly pray: “Give us this day our daily bread,” we are acknowledging God’s daily provision. We are expressing our trust in Him and we are reminding ourselves to live one day at a time (the only way it can be done).
To regularly pray the model prayer is itself a guide to living the Christian life. When we say: “Lead us not into temptation,” we are acknowledging that we do not want to walk down certain paths. How inconsistent it is to pray for deliverance, but then carelessly stroll into darkness and bondage.
Honest, Jesus-sponsored praying is not for the faint of heart. Over time, praying the Jesus way roots out our tiny, timid and unworthy goals and gradually aligns us with God’s heart and God’s purposes. If this column were a sermon, I would now ask that we stand and sing “Sweet Hour of Prayer.” Amen.
Doyle Sager (firstname.lastname@example.org) is senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Jefferson City, Mo. His column appears in every other issue of Word & Way.