July 28, 2013
When I was about 16, my grandmother had a stroke, and came to live with us for a while. Because our house was fairly small, she had to sleep in the same bedroom as me. One night, I was woken up by the sound of her voice. As I listened, I realised that she was repeating the Lord’s Prayer, over and over again, in her sleep.
I was surprised. My grandma was not a churchgoer when I knew her, and I had never heard her say a prayer before. Yet, in this time of illness, what came from the depths of her memory to meet her need was the Lord’s Prayer.
I would imagine that some of you may have had similar experiences – of people returning to these familiar words at times of stress, fear, pain or approaching death. They are, I would think, the words repeated most often by Christians – the only prayer used at virtually every Christian service (and even used twice in Evensong according to the Book of Common Prayer! ) – the one prayer that all Christians can say together.
In the Gospel today, we have one version of how the words of the Lord’s Prayer were taught to the disciples: in response to a specific request: “Lord, teach us how to pray”. In Matthew’s Gospel, it comes as part of the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus prefaces it with a warning against showy and repetitive prayers.
What, I wonder, was our Lord’s intention when he taught these word to his followers? Did he mean them to become a fixed format, repeated down the generations, to become the prayer of his church? Or were they, as many think, meant not as a fixed prayer, but as a pattern for prayer.
For one problem with the Lord’s Prayer is that we use it so often, it is so familiar to us, that it can easily become the sort of prayer that Jesus warned his disciples against in the Matthew passage – “vain repetition” as the King James Bible puts it, or “meaningless words” as the Good News Bible translates. You know how it is when you drive a familiar route, with your mind on something else – you do it on autopilot. It’s easy to do the same with the Lord’s Prayer. You repeat it without actually hearing what you are saying; you come to the end and realise with a jolt that your lips have been repeating the phrases automatically, and that although you’ve said the prayer, you haven’t actually prayed it at all: mouth in gear, brain and heart in neutral!
How then can we overcome the problem of familiarity with the Lord’s Prayer and bring it alive for ourselves again?
One way is to read these passages, in Luke 11 and Matthew 6, where the prayer first occurs. Each of the evangelists presents the situation slightly differently, and the contexts give the prayer different emphases. They also have quite a few differences in the words of the prayer. Matthew speaks about forgiving debts and debtors; Luke about sins. In the phrase about daily bread, Matthew uses the Greek form of the command ‘give’ which is used for something that happens once; Luke uses the form for something that is to keep on happening, and adds the words ‘each day’, whereas Matthew only has ‘today’. So, we can see Matthew taking things day by day ( since he wrote for a community that expected the Lord to return soon ) and Luke takes a longer perspective ( since, perhaps, his community no longer expected an early Parousia.)
It is also good to read as many different translations as you can, to pick up all the different nuances of the prayer. Different translators help you to find new insights into the prayer. It is particularly useful with the Lord’s Prayer, where there are difficulties in translating some parts. For instance the Greek word ‘epiousios’ in the petition about bread is found nowhere else in ancient Greek literature, so we can only guess what it means. It is usually translated ‘daily’ but it could mean ‘sufficient’ or ‘necessary’, ‘for today’ or ‘for tomorrow’.
You might even find it useful to read the Lord’s prayer in a foreign language! You don’t have to be an expert in the language to do so – after all you know the translation off by heart! But if you understand even a little of the language, the different words, the slight difference of emphasis in another tongue might bring a new depth of meaning to the prayer for you. Just an example: several years ago, I picked up a version of the gospel of Matthew in French from the chapel at Lyons Airport, in which the petition about daily bread was written ‘Donne nous aujourdhui le pain qu’il nous faut’: literally, give us today the bread which is necessary to us, which picks up one of the possible alternative meanings of the original Greek.
Although the process of liturgical revision has its down side, in that there are now several versions of the Lord’s Prayer in English, so that you can no longer assume that when you say ”We will now say the Lord’s Prayer together’ everyone will recite the same phrases, it has brought the benefit that we can now choose from three or four liturgical versions of the prayer, as well as the versions in Luke and Matthew, if we want it in a different form. And there are also unofficial translations, which bring the petitions up to date – like this one from Jim Cotter:
Eternal Spirit, Life-Giver, Pain-Bearer, Love-Maker,
Source of all that is and shall be,
Father and Mother of us all, Loving God, in whom is heaven:The Hallowing of your name echo through the universe!
The way of your Justice be followed by the peoples of the world!
Your heavenly will be done by all created beings!
Your Commonwealth of Peace and Freedom sustain our hope and come on earth!
With the bread that we need for today, feed us.
In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us.
In times of temptation and test, strengthen us.
From trials too great to endure, spare us.
From the grip of all that is evil, free us.
For you reign in the glory of the power that is love,
now and for ever. Amen.
A second way that you might find new depths of meaning in the Lord’s Prayer is to move as you say it. Many years ago, I took a youth group away for the weekend, and we spent part of out time exploring how to worship through dance. I worked out a dance version of the Lord’s Prayer to a folk setting of the communion service I had on tape, and I learned that to express the prayer with my whole body gives it a depth of meaning that it doesn’t have when I just say the words.
Perhaps the idea of ‘dancing a prayer’ fills you with horror. It is certainly an unusual thing to do in our religious culture, which is so word and brain fixated, that we have been encouraged to worship God from the neck upwards and forget the rest of our body. But if you read your Bible, and particularly the Psalms, you will find there a long tradition of worshipping God not just with words and music, but also with dance.
But perhaps you feel your body is no longer up to moving to music. In that case, move just your head and arms. Rosemary Budd, in her book Moving Prayer, has several suggestions of simple movements that can be added to the Lord’s Prayer, as an aid to a deeper devotional life. And if you obey Jesus’ instructions about prayer in Matthew’s Gospel, and go into a room by yourself and shut the door when you pray, there’s no need for you to feel self-conscious about moving your body as you pray.
A third way of getting more out of the Lord’s Prayer is to use it as, perhaps, Jesus intended, as a pattern for prayer rather than a complete prayer in itself. So you take each phrase separately, think about its meaning, and allow other prayers to arise from it. ‘Our Father in Heaven, hallowed be your name’ may lead you into praising God’s holiness and loving care for us, or into intercessions for the conversion of a particular person, or for mission to a particular part of the world. ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done’ might lead to prayers for political situations. ‘Forgive us our trespasses’ might lead to confession, and ‘as we forgive those who trespass against us’ to asking for God’s help in reconciling yourself to those whom you feel have wronged you – and so on.
You might find it helpful to read a book about the Lord’s Prayer by an expert theologian, to help you tease out the real meanings of the petitions, especially those that are difficult to translate adequately, like “lead us not into temptation’. One good book on the subject is William Barclay’s “The Plain Man looks at the Lord’s Prayer’ -which can be used by the plain woman just as well.
‘This is how you should pray’ said Jesus, and instead of giving us a lengthy treatise on prayer, he gave us ten short, easily remembered phrases – his prayer, the Lord’s Prayer, and the pattern for all our prayers. It is a prayer which puts God at the centre, and which lays before God our present, past and future lives. It is a prayer which is so simple that we can pray it unconsciously, yet which is so deep that we can come to it again and again, and find new meaning in it.
As we continue to use the words which our Lord taught us, as we use our minds and our voices and our bodies to explore its depths, may it bring us ever closer to him.
Jim Cotter. Prayer at Night. 1983