Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Hardest Prayer

At church this week we were looking at prayer as our main subject matter; it lead me to reminisce on some thoughts I have had in the past on what I think is perhaps the hardest prayer you will ever pray, and I felt inspired to write these down and share them with you in a line-by-line analysis. So what is this prayer?

It is nothing less than the Lord's Prayer.

We say it every Sunday and many of us know it off by heart; I wonder though, how many of us slide into familiar patterns with such ease that we fail to resist the temptation to just phone it in. If we stop and examine it... maybe it will give us cause to take a step back and think about what it we are saying every week:

Our Father in heaven:
Right from the very start, just two words in and already we have made our first bold assumption - we have acknowledged the presence of an omnipotent God and summoned him to commune with us. Not only this, but we have dared to presume a relationship (however factual it may be through out adoption in Christ), with this almighty God... you have declared that he has a paternal bond with you.

Hallowed be your name:
We have acknowledged that God is holy and knowing ourselves to be imperfect and prone to unholy behaviour, that too is an audacious thing to do... something that requires us to acknowledge the truth about ourselves and compels us to prostrate ourselves in humility.

Your kingdom come:
Here we are calling on God to usher in his Kingdom - to call time on these "shadowlands", to end the imperfect tenancy of man's reign on Earth... and establish his reign in the new creation. In theology we  are taught that the kingdom is both "here"   and "near", that is to say that while we live as Christians, the values of God's Kingdom are present and alive within us as the Church... but that this is just a deposit and the full realisation of the Kingdom is just around the corner... awaiting the fullness of time. In the ultimate sense, when we pray this part of the Lord's Prayer... we are calling for nothing short of the end of the world (not in a cataclysmic sense... although the Bible teaches that cataclysmic events are the birth pangs to this)

Your will be done, on earth as in heaven:
Here we affirm that we are subservient to God. When we pray this line with an honest heart we are saying that whatever our will is, whatever the things we desire are... we are willing and prepared to submit them to God's divine plan and that we would rather see his heavenly will and design for our life and in the world around us... than our  own selfish desires.

Give us today our daily bread:
Interesting that phrase isn't it? Bread is a staple food... it's the basics, a food we fall back on when our banquet table isn't full (if we even have a banquet table). What we are effectively saying to God is that however much we think this life owes us, however much we feel we are entitled to or wish to satiate ourselves with, we are willing to only receive what we need... admitting that the things that we want are not necessarily as important to us as the things that we need... and sacrificing them for our own spiritual well-being.

Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us:
Now we come to the really big stuff... and in fact our church service books have let us off a little lightly in my opinion. Here's how the Gospels render that line:

"And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors."
Matthew 6:12

"Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us."
Luke 11:4a
So in Matthew's Gospel the past tense is used, whilst in Luke's Gospel a universal approach is required. In other words we are not to put limitations or criteria on when we forgive or who we forgive. Jesus is quoted in Matthew 5 as commanding us to be reconciled with those we have quarrels with before making an offering to God... and time and again there is the warning that if we don't forgive others, we ourselves will not be able to receive forgiveness because of the bitterness in our hearts. It is therefore clear that our willingness to forgive others must be paramount when we pray this prayer... and who those others are has no exceptions. whether it's the pettiest slight or the deepest grievance, we have to set aside our own desire for retribution and leave it in God's trustworthy hands.

Lead us not into temptation; but deliver us from evil:
Here we acknowledge that we are not in control of our lives and are susceptible to the many distractions and pitfalls that life has to offer us. We admit that we aren't always the best judge of the situations we find ourselves enveloped in.  As much as we love our independence as human beings, we confess that we are not qualified to self determine the best path for our lives. As much as our independence matters to us... we are calling upon God to direct us away from the harm that we find ourselves lured into. In Homer's Odyssey, there is a point where Odysseus and his crew need to navigate past the island of the Sirens; there's one problem - anybody who has heard the beautiful voice of the Sirens is irresistibly lured to their death on the island's rocky shoreline... where they are devoured mercilessly by the Sirens in their true form. To escape this fate, Odysseus orders his men to put beeswax in their ears and to lash him to the main mast in order that he can hear their song without dying. The plan works but Odysseus nearly rips himself apart trying to get to the island because confined as he is... his urges are too overwhelming. I've always found that a useful parallel for this part of the Lord's Prayer. We know that there are harmful things that are out there for us... seeking to devour us, often they wear a pretty face or have strongly desirable qualities.  In the times we find ourselves unable to block out the fatalistic lure of these competing desires... when we are either unwilling or unable to block out their appeal with the equivalent of beeswax, we need to call upon a power that will keep us lashed to the mast even when we scream and cry out in desperation to be sent to our deaths.  We need humility and courage to do that... and this what our appeal to God here is about.

For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours now and for ever:
We set aside all personal sense of ownership and hierarchy in the universe. We admit that God is sovereign in all and over all... and we reject the desire to to supplant him in our daily lives.

Really? Amen is a hard word to pray? You might not think so... but let me throw another element into the equation.  In the book/film The Princess Bride, the farm boy Westley keeps uttering a phrase every time Buttercup asks him to do something - "As you wish". But Westley isn't merely stating his willingness to comply with Buttercup... he means something deeper:


When Westley says "As you wish", he actually means "I love you". Can I challenge you to rethink what we mean by "Amen" in a similar way?  The word Amen translates in English to something like "so be it" or perhaps if you are in to Star Trek it could also translate to "make it so". Isn't that the same as "as you wish"? Shouldn't it mean the same? Rather than just saying that we comply with a prayer or simply confirm the desires expressed within prayer... couldn't we, shouldn't we actually be meaning "I love you"?

Just some food for thought. I'm sure there have been or will be hard times in people's lives where a specific prayer of the moment has been immensely hard (if you would care to share it, please do). I don't mean to belittle those experiences at all... what I'm driving at is that this is a general prayer, one we've all grown up with... and yet we fail to recognise the power and the meaning in the words we utter. In fact that's a charge that can be laid at our door for other things like the Creed... but that's a topic for another time.

  • What prayers do you find the hardest?
  • What do you think about the Lord's Prayer?

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