How do you pray? Have you ever stopped to think about how you pray? Could you tell me how your practice of prayer was formed? Do you remember the first time you prayed – how about the last?
I can’t remember the first time I prayed, but I do remember praying as a child. I remember that one of the three kids – my brother, sister or I – would be asked to pray at the dinner table before meals. We never strayed far from the rote prayer, “God is great, God is good, let us thank him for our food. By His hands, we are fed, give us Lord our daily bread.” I know there are other renditions of this prayer – but this is the first prayer I can remember saying. I remember hearing my parents pray at the table – they were a little more willing to break from a rote and static prayer – but when they prayed it almost always ended with the phrase, “bless this food to our bodies and us to thy service. Amen.”
I’ve had times in my life when all I wanted to do was pray – I just wanted to remain in conversation with God and yearned for some sign of response that let me know God heard what I was saying. I’ve also had times in my life when I couldn’t pray – when the pain or grief I was experiencing was so restricting that I could only claim and hold on to Romans 8:26, that says when we do not know how or what to pray, the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.
I’ve always been attuned to prayer, wanting to know how to pray better – yearning to learn from others, to learn what’s the best way to pray. How do I know when to pray, how do I know the right posture in which to pray, how do I know where to go when I want to pray, how do I know why I should pray.
I imagine the searching for best practices for prayer has been a quest faithful disciples have wrestled with time and time again over the history of our faith. Prayer is our practice of communicating with the Holy – it is our direct line to the Creator, the one who calls us into relationship with the Savior, the one who offers us strength in our times of weakness and humility in our seasons of pride. We don’t want to fail at speaking with God – we want to know what to say, when to say it, and how to say it. But perhaps just as importantly as wanting to be effective in our communication with God, we like the disciples, want to live a faithful life that imitates the life of Christ, and prayer was Jesus’ go-to to strengthen his faith in the Father.
A quick glance through the gospels and we see Jesus praying before every important step in his ministry – he prayed before he chose his apostles, he prayed when he fed the multitudes, he prayed the night before he died, he even prayed from the cross itself. He also prayed at other times, the intermediate times – Luke’s gospel tells us Jesus would withdraw to a deserted place to pray and that he would go to the mountain to spend the night in prayer with God.
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus’ teaching on prayer is found in the extended teaching from the mountain – as part of the Sermon on the Mount. In Luke’s Gospel, we find this teaching takes place later in Jesus’ ministry. The disciples came to him after he had finished praying himself and they said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray as John taught his disciples.”
It was common for religious leaders – Rabbis, prophets, and others – to teach a standard prayer to their followers. The disciples knew that John the Baptist had taught his followers to pray in a certain way – likely a very specific prayer. Now they come before Christ and ask him, how is it we should pray? That is, teach us a prayer we should be praying.
The disciples knew prayer was important to Christ, so when he speaks the following prayer, they listen. The prayer he teaches them has become perhaps the most vital prayer in the life of the Christian church. It has been used from congregation to congregation, across denominational lines, across centuries of faithful believers. This prayer, known commonly as the Lord’s Prayer, the Our Father and the Pater Noster, goes beyond simply teaching the disciples – and us – the words to speak. Dr. David Lose, president of Lutheran Seminary in Philadelphia, says that in this prayer, “Jesus invites us into relationship with God … offering us the opportunity to approach the God whose name is too holy to speak.”[i] In this prayer, Lose says, Jesus’ focus isn’t on the ‘how,’ ‘why,’ or ‘when’ of prayer, but is instead shifting the focus of prayer to be on ‘who.’ “[It is an invitation] to a deeper, more honest, and more trusting relationship with God.”[ii]
Over the next few Sundays we will be breaking this prayer down to consider how each part is teaching us to pray – how each part is calling us into a relationship with God. This first part teaches us that “our prayers are legitimate only when they become mental marathons of self-abnegation and immersion in the ineffable Divine.”[iii] – Stay with me, we’ll walk through these two together.
First, our prayers are only legitimate when they become mental marathons of self-abnegation.
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be your name.
Our Father. We pray to the Father. When you are looking for a bathroom, you often see one of two signs – Men and Women. You know, because the context of the situation tells you, that these signs are exclusive signs. They really mean, “Men only,” and “Women only.” We know this because it is what we have learned through context and reoccurrence. If the bathroom is intended to be for men and women, it usually has an image of both a man and woman on the door, or it says, “Family Restroom.”
The word Father is not a bathroom sign. The text is not telling us that we are praying to an exclusively understood male who has children. In our study of the scriptures, we find, that like bathroom signs, context and repetition are important in understanding the text. Just as the gospel writers use the term brethren to extend the teaching of Christ to men and women, the term Father is not exclusively referring to a male parent. There are places in the text that are very specific to male parents, and others that are very specific to female parents … and then there are texts that are very specific to men and women who are not parents at all.
In his book on the Lord’s Prayer, John Dominic Crossan, hailed as the foremost historical Jesus scholar of our time, argues that in using the term ‘Father’ in this prayer, what Jesus is really referring to is the leader of the household that is all of creation. Crossan says, “The biblical concept of householder does not envisage the single-occupant or even nuclear-family household. It imagines the extended multigenerational household as in those Sabbath day commands. It contains brothers and sisters, unmarried sisters and married brothers, clients and dependents, male and female slaves, animals, lands, and tools.”[iv] In other words, Crossan argues, we are praying to the one who is Creator, Protector, Provider, and the Model for all of the created universe.
Thus, not only does the “Our Father” draw our attention to the fact that we are praying to the one is God of us all, but in confessing God as Householder of us all, we acknowledge that we and all of creation are equal as God’s created. Thus, this prayer, which can be deeply personal, is offered as “personal-in-community rather than personal-in-privacy.”[v]
In fact, we find that the entirety of the prayer is found in the first-person plural voice. This is perhaps noted best right at the start. We are no good to God when we try to segregate ourselves from the rest of God’s created order. This prayer – calling us into relationship with God – calls us first into community with each other. Paul says in Galatians 3, “You are all children of God through faith in Jesus Christ.” Thus, together, we, as those in the household of the Holy, we pray together, saying, “Our Father.”
Who art in heaven. Together, unified in voice, heart, and mind, we pray to the one in heaven. By naming that our Householder God is in heaven, we acknowledge that this realm of creation – the temporary realm of our earthly existence – pails in comparison to the realm of God. Christ, calling us into relationship with God, calls on us to acknowledge that it is not this world in which we should build up storehouses, or in which we should stockpile our treasures – it is in the realm of God, the heavenly realm for which our spirit should yearn.
Praying to the one in heaven also stands in stark contrast in the midst of this prayer to that for which we pray for here on earth.[vi] We begin with the acknowledgement of that which is heavenly. God’s name, God’s kingdom, and God’s will … which stands against that which is earthly: our bread, our debt and our temptation. But, before we get to our own needs, we first pray to the one “who art in heaven.”
Hallowed be your name. To be hallowed means to be sanctified or holy. To be hallowed means to be perfect, free from defilement, truly uncontaminated. In this prayer, we are naming the reverence of God. In the Greek, the verb for ‘hallowed’ used in this text is hagiazethai (ha-gee-ah-zay-thay), which means “to treat as different, or separate.”[vii] To claim God’s name as hallowed is to claim that we will hold the name of God up as be extraordinarily different than ourselves. We, like Moses who took off his shoes when entering God’s presence, we are called to acknowledge God’s hallowedness. By naming God’s place, God’s supremacy, we are identifying our place in relationship with God. It is this place of reverence that brings us together in worship.
Worship gets its root in the Greek and Hebrew meaning ‘worth-ship’ – it is our communal expression of naming God’s worthiness. We come together in worship not because we are worthy or because we have any need to be fulfilled – we should not be here because of the great organ from which our hymns bellow, or because of the history upon which this church stands, we should not be here to pride ourselves in the gift of service expressed as ushers or acolytes, and we shouldn’t be here because we have needs to be met – our call and purpose as a community, expressly named by Christ in this prayer, is to come before God in worship because God is hallowed – worthy to be praised.
When we put these first three pieces together – Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be your name – we learn that our prayers before God are only legitimate when they become mental marathons of self-abnegation. Self-abnegation means self-denial – it means denying one’s own interests in favor of the interests of another. We see this necessity in these first few words as first, this prayer can only be offered from the voice of the community of created. We cannot speak Our Father and reject the greater community of God’s created order. We can only be in relationship with God when we see ourselves as part of the whole. We see this secondly in our naming God’s holiness. To name God’s worthiness means to name our unworthiness.
This call to self-abnegation – identifying our uselessness in isolation from God’s greater creation and our call to offer worship before God’s reverence – will be a mental marathon for we are part of a broken part of God’s creation. We want to be praised in this realm, we want to be seen as worthy – perhaps if we’re honest, there are times we want to be worshipped. This is part of the culture in which we live. The culture we live within says, live for you. It gives incentives for being the one in charge. It promotes those who are willing to take advantage of community. It will be a cyclical fight between the American culture and God’s call – but in Christ’s invitation to this prayer, in his invitation to be in right relationship with God, the invitation is to humble yourself, to self-abnegate, to see yourself as part of God’s creation, called to worship only one – the Creator.
Our prayers are then found to be legitimate only when we are immersed in the ineffable Divine.
Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. As the faithful, we know that the ultimate end to this earthly realm will be marked by the return of Christ as he ushers in the heavenly realm – the realm of God. At that time, God’s realm – the kingdom of God – will be experienced in full. That is our dream, our hope, it is that promise that defines our faith – that the triumphant, sovereign love of God will no longer simply be something we hope for and experience in part, but will be “a manifest reality in all human affairs.”[viii] There will be no more crying, no more war, no more death, no more lying, cheating, or destruction. But this prayer is not written in a passive and hopeful voice, it is written in the imperative. These are commands – exhortations by the faithful. To pray ‘your kingdom come’ is to exclaim that the one praying will be an active participant in bringing about God’s kingdom. To be in relationship with God, Christ invites you to protest against all that is contrary to God’s kingdom. To be in relationship with God, to pray, “your kingdom come,” means to ask yourself, how am you actively living today as if God’s kingdom were already here?
Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. In the same way as praying for God’s kingdom to be here, to pray for God’s will to be done means you must examine yourself and name that as a people, we don’t always seek God’s will – we are often more interested in living out our will than God’s. And to that extent, to seek God’s will to be done on earth, we must take the time to learn, what is God’s will? What would be different in our lives, in our families, in our church, in our world if God’s will were known on earth as it is in heaven? In praying this way, Christ is inviting us to know God more fully. It is again an imperative – to pray that we want God’s will to be known on earth, we must be willing to live faithfully to ensure God’s will is known and experienced by the world.
These imperatives are a call to be immersed in the ineffable Divine. To be immersed is to be wholly submerged. That is the root of our prayer in desiring God’s will and kingdom to be known here – on earth – now. We don’t want to be experiencing God’s kingdom in part – we want God’s love to claim every life – every soul. We want God’s will to be experienced in full – we want all people to know God’s love – we want for no more people to die, to suffer, to be alone and isolated. If our prayer includes any, “expects” or “exclusions” – we are not immersed. We are called to pray, for those we love, and those we hate. This is what it means to be immersed – to always be in prayer – to pray without ceasing – to always be engulfed by the ineffable Divine.
To be ineffable is to be beyond description. To say the Divine is ineffable is to say that God is beyond our human concepts. It is what God meant in Isaiah 55, when he spoke, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are my ways your ways. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” To proclaim to know the will of God is to assume the role of the divine for yourself – to claim to know the explicit ways of God is to seek to trump the role of God as the hallowed Creator. To be immersed in the ineffable Divine it to always be aware that we are nothing without the Lord, our thoughts, desires, goals, actions – our being is nothing if not centered and immersed in the one who created us.
For our prayers to be legitimate, Christ names, we must humble ourselves before God and one another and that only in our humbling, in our complete surrender to God’s will, in our earnest desire for God’s kingdom to be made known today will we be able to enter into a right relationship with God.
In teaching us to pray, Christ is calling us into a deeper relationship with God and with one another. As we pray, we are to be overcome with a humble mentality that acknowledges the greater realm in which we are called to be a part. We are called to deny the role of self to play a part in God’s larger creation. We are called to acknowledge that we, as the created community, should be striving together in preparation for God’s kingdom and will to be made known fully.
This prayer, offered by Christ, is not simply given so we have words to speak wen it is time to pray – this prayer is offered as a guide for all prayer – that through prayer we may enter into a deeper relationship and greater knowledge of God. This prayer is a prayer for God’s created beings that we may truly know and be in right relationship with Our Father.