Monday, July 29, 2019

Being Shaped by the Lord's Prayer

Congratulations!  You all have been enrolled in my Bible 101 class.  Relax, you do not need to take notes and there will be no test.  The best case scenario… you will be able to answer a question or two on Jeopardy. 

Each of the four Gospels originally existed as independent works and copies of each circulated throughout the early church.  The Gospel of Mark was written first.  Scholars have long recognized Matthew and Luke get much of their material from Mark, although they often employ it with subtle changes.  There are instances when Matthew has material Luke does not and vice versa.  Such accounts are said to be original to the author.  There are also times when Matthew and Luke share material not found in Mark, leading scholars to hypothesis the existence of a now-lost gospel dubbed Q, the first letter in a German word meaning ‘source’.  John’s Gospel was the last to be written and is wholly unlike the others.  While the evangelist most certainly is aware of the other three works (or four) he does not draw on them in the way Matthew and Luke draw from Mark and Q.

The Lord’s Prayer is recorded in Matthew and Luke, but is not found in Mark or John.  This leads scholars to conclude it was originally included in the Q work.  Matthew places the Lord’s Prayer in a bundling of Jesus’ teachings known as the Sermon on the Mount, found in chapters 5, 6, and 7.  One section of this sermon compiles some of Jesus’ teachings on piety and prayer.  In it he instructs his followers to keep charitable acts private – “When you give do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.”  He advises not to make a public display when you fast.  And he counsels his followers to pray privately, unlike the religious leaders of the day who make long prayers in front of others to impress them.  It is in this context in Matthew’s Gospel that Jesus teaches his followers how to pray, using the words we now refer to as the Lord’s Prayer.

Luke’s presentation differs slightly from this.  He does not include it as a part of his version of the Sermon on the Mount, which is much briefer than Matthew’s.  And rather than include it as part of a more expanded teaching on prayer, Luke has it as a response to a specific question:

Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.”

This introduction raises more questions than it answers. 

First, where was this certain place Jesus was praying?  The previous chapter places Jesus at the home of Mary and Martha and while it is possible he is still there, the text appears to suggest he is somewhere else.  It also does not record the subject or the content of Jesus’ prayer.  And while Luke mentions John the Baptist taught his disciples how to pray, he does not tell us anything about its content.  Finally, Luke chooses not to identify the disciple who makes the request, “Jesus, teach us to pray…”  Perhaps the disciple is one of those minor figures in the Gospel who never seems to merit a mention.  It is equally possible this disciple is a woman because, as a whole, the Gospels tend to downplay their involvement in Jesus’ ministry whenever possible.  Regardless, we are deeply indebted to this person because without his or her request it is possible we would not have the words for what is arguably the most significant, meaningful prayer in human existence. 

Let’s shift gears from Bible 101 to Liturgy 101.  We Episcopalians are big on liturgy and there is a very good reason for it.  It is called lex orandi, lex credendi, a Latin phrase which roughly translated means “praying shapes believing.”  If, as we do in our worship, you pray the same words over and over again, week after week, eventually it has an impact on who you are and what you believe.  The words sink in.  You become them and they become you.

In our home when I was growing up we said a grace before dinner every night.  The act of saying grace said something important about life – before we eat we need to thank God – and the prayer itself formed in us a core theology:

God is great, God is good,
Let us thank him for our food.  Amen.

Lex orandi, lex credendi suggests the habit of offering this prayer helped to lay the foundation of what I believe about God and life.  So let’s take a few moments to consider how our faith is shaped by the daily act of saying the Lord’s Prayer.

“Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.”

The first thing to notice is the prayer begins with several words we no longer use in daily conversation – art, hallowed, and thy.  This, in an and of itself, is bad liturgy because ever since the introduction of the first prayer book, the service has always be written in the language of the people.  Yes, there is a contemporary form of the Lord’s Prayer in the prayer book, but lex orandi, lex credendi – we have be shaped by a version dating back to the Elizabethan era and no modern adaption has yet to supplant it.

The beginning of the prayer shapes our belief in several ways.  Referring to God as Father tells us God is personable – someone we can know and someone who knows us.  And while some struggle with translating to God their own experience of a less-than-desirable human father, most of us associate God as Father with qualities such as compassion, care, wisdom, and strength.  Abba is the Greek word in the text translated as Father and it indicates an extremely close and loving relationship.  It could well be translated as ‘Daddy’ or ‘Papa’, and while we don’t normally use such intimate language to address God, due to the influence of the Lord’s Prayer, this I suspect is how most people experience God’s nature.  Countering this cozy familiarity is the petition “hallowed be thy name”.  It reminds us there is something great and sacred about God – something completely beyond us.  “Art in heaven”.  This suggests God lives or dwells in a place different from us.  Heaven is not earth.  It is something other and something different. 

“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

This place where God dwells operates differently than how things go here on earth.  There is a different way of behaving there.  Kingdom is another one of those words from the past that does not correspond to anything we experience today.  I don’t think speaking about God’s government quite gets at it.  Maybe it is best to think of kingdom as being God’s society.  As such, the way things operate in heaven’s society serves as a template for how things should operate in ours.  God’s society is oriented toward living out God’s will.  The prayer states ours can be oriented this way too.  Pray it enough and you will come to believe it.  You will be dissatisfied with anything on earth not reflective of what it is like in heaven.

“Give us this day our daily bread.”

While our society is built on a foundation of self-sufficiency, the Lord’s Prayer states we are in a position of dependency.  We depend on God for sun and rain and recognize all of creation is a gift not of our making.  But even more, in this day and age we depend on one another in ways we seldom recognize.  I went a grocery store two days after Hurricane Irene made landfall in Virginia and was stunned to find mostly empty shelves due to the disruption in our distribution and delivery networks.  It reminded me, as the prayer book says, “our common life depends on each other’s toil.”  Very few of us could make it on our own.  The Lord’s Prayer reminds us we are dependent on God and dependent on one another.

“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

This prayer affirms we do things that hurt one another, that offend God, that damage God’s creation, and that mare the image of God within each of us.  Henri Nouwen said, “Forgiveness is the name of love practiced among people who love poorly.  The hard truth is all people love poorly.”  Learning to love and learning to forgive are intricately related.  Learning to be loved and learning to be forgiven go hand-in-hand.

“Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”

This final petition has been in the news of late because Pope Francis has approved a new version that says, “Do not let us fall into temptation”.  He argues God does not direct us toward detrimental enticement.  No matter what you think about this change, the thrust of the petition Jesus teaches focuses on God’s guidance in our lives.  We rely God to lead us to those places that are good for us and away from those that harm. 

The more you say the Lord’s Prayer the more you will come to believe it.  And the more you believe it the more you will be shaped by it.  You will recognize God’s closeness while acknowledging God’s sacred holiness.  You will determine not just to wait for the life to come, but work to make it present here and now.  You will affirm our need for God’s goodness and for each person’s contribution to the common good.  You may struggle to forgive, but you will always recognize it as the goal.  You will put your life in God’s hands and trust in the Holy One to guide you to green pastures and still waters.  Lex orendi, lex credendi – this is how the Lord’s Prayer shapes us.