Lord Teach us to Pray: understanding and revisiting the Lord’s Prayer.
By Rt. Rev’d Steven Croft, Bishop of Oxford
Summary of Keynote address given at the Festival of Prayer in All Saints’ Church Cuddesdon on Saturday 9th September 2017.
Almost 2 years ago the Lord’s Prayer became the subject of a major controversy. The Church of England campaign called Just Pray created a beautiful short film to be shown in cinemas on the release of the new Star Wars movie. The only words of the prayer itself were used and spoken by different kinds of people in various contexts.
The advertising space was booked and the website along with the press launch were designed. Then at the last minute the senior board of the chain of cinemas which were due to show the advert decided to pull it out and in effect banned it for being too religious. There was a big debate in the press and it ran as a significant story for several days.
I was preaching that weekend in Cambridge and pondered the debate. I wondered aloud whether in fact the cinema was not right to ban the Lord’s Prayer. I disagreed with their decision, but from the point of view of global corporations and consumer culture, from the perspective of the gods and spirits of the age, there are very good reasons indeed to ban the Lord’s Prayer from cinemas and from culture and from public life. We need to recover a sense that the Lord’s Prayer shapes us powerfully and stated as such in my blog.
This is a prayer said by billions of people every day in every language on the planet. In every single moment in time, someone is praying these words. They are the first words of prayer we learn as children and the last words we say at the moment of death. The Lord’s Prayer is powerful for a reason. These words shape lives and families and communities and whole societies.
There are only 63 words in the Lord’s Prayer. It takes less than a minute to say them. Yet these words shape our identity, give purpose to our lives, check our greed, remind us of our imperfections, offer a way of reconciliation, build resilience in our spirits and call us to live to the glory of our creator. No wonder they have been banned in the boardrooms of consumer culture.
The Lord’s Prayer in scripture
The Lord’s Prayer is found in two places:
Luke: ‘Lord teach us to pray as John taught his disciples’ and the Lord’s Prayer is given to Jesus’ disciples as a model prayer.
Matthew: where it is found as part of the Sermon on the Mount. Here it is prefaced by a series of statements on how not to pray (ie. to demonstrate your piety before others; at great length etc). Pray is to be brief but power and the words of the Lord’s Prayer are given as words in themselves to actually say. It is too easy to over complicate prayer. But here Jesus gives us the very words to say, a prayer which can be said on our own or with others. Jesus does not give a lecture or manual on prayer nor are we given a liturgy. Instead he offers a hands-on prayer which anyone can learn and pray.
Ever since, the Lord’s Prayer has been handed on within the Christian community. It is taught by parents to their children. From the earliest days in the Church the prayer was handed on to people who were being prepared for baptism as adults. Preparation often lasted several years and culminated with the season of Lent ending with baptism at Easter. The Lord’s Prayer was one of the last things you learned around the time of your baptism. It was handed to you as one of the great treasures of the church. There were no printed books in those days so the prayer was often learned by heart and still is today.
Often we become over familiar with it but when we look again at the words we begin to see how they shape our prayer and our lives. For in essence each petition answers seven key questions which are vital for our well-being as much today as ever they were. Let us look at those core questions:
Who am I?
Answer: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name”
First, this prayer gives to those who pray it an identity and a place in the world and a countercultural community. It opposes the myth that we are random specks of matter floating through space and time. It opposes the myth that our lives do not matter. It opposes the myth of a fragmented humanity.
The first line of the Lord’s Prayer states that we are created and loved and called into friendship with God who is our father and also into community with our fellow human beings who are therefore our sisters and brothers. Only someone who has found this new identity can stand against the advertising culture which night and day seduces us to define who we are by what we spend.
Humanity is on the verge of a new identity crisis. According to Kevin Kelly, “We’ll spend the next three decades – indeed, perhaps the next century – in a permanent identity crisis, continually asking what humans are good for”. While Yuval Noah Harari points out how through capitalism we have exchanged power for meaning. The rise in awareness of mental health is not an accident. We need to know who we are.
As the author of Ecclesiastes writes in chapter 3: 11 ‘He has made everything appropriate in its time. He has also set eternity in their heart, yet so that man will not find out the work which God has done from the beginning even to the end.’ Men and women cannot live without meaning. The Lord’s Prayer reminds me that I am known and loved by God.
How do I make sense of the world?
Answer: “Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”.
Second this prayer gives us the courage to live in an imperfect world. The world is not as it was meant to be. It is distorted from its true purpose. But God is at work to redeem and transform this world, to establish his kingdom. The Lord’s Prayer invites us not to retreat from the world in fear and pain, to anaesthetise or indulge ourselves. Instead it invites us to join the struggle to see justice and peace prevail.
What about stuff?
Answer: “Give us this day our daily bread”.
Our culture is one saturated by materialism and the desire for more. Our lives: cluttered with things we do not need. It is also the crisis of our generation to now have reached the intersection between capitalism and growth and the possibility of the finitude of the natural resources of our planet. There are various different answers to that dilemma.
Usually this line or petition is seen as an intercession, a prayer to give us what we need. But there is more to these words than simply a request for material gain. The origins of this line lie in the story of the manna in the wilderness. Where the people of Israel were instructed to only gather enough for today. In the Lord’s Prayer bread stands not only for food but for all the essentials of life. In the Sermon on the Mount we are bidden not to worry for the Lord will provide for all our essential needs as he clothes the lilies of the field and the birds of the air. We like the people of Israel before us are bidden to take just enough for today.
Third, and most powerfully, the Lord’s Prayer teaches us to live with just enough. For a culture that is dependent on consumerism this is a most dangerous statement and the reason why it cannot be shown with the adverts at the cinema. For it teaches us not to want more. It teaches contentment, the most subversive virtue of them all.
This is not a prayer for more. This is a prayer only for what we need. Every other advert in the cinema is there to encourage us to spend money in pursuit of happiness. This one restrains our greed.
How do I handle the rubbish?
Answer: “Forgive us our sins”.
Every house a waste disposal system. In Birmingham during the Winter of discontent we saw what happens when that waste disposal system breaks down and rubbish piles up in our streets. Our bodies also have a waste disposal system as well and if it goes wrong we become poorly.
This line of the Lord’s Prayer is about handling the rubbish. There are two kinds of rubbish: the first is our own rubbish, the things that we do wrong which we need to bring to the cross for forgiveness. The Lord’s Prayer helps us to recognise our need of God. There is only the possibility of sins being forgiven because it is Jesus himself who gives us this prayer. The Lord’s Prayer teaches me to live with my imperfections and the imperfections of others. There is a way to deal with the rubbish in our lives. Consumer culture holds before us the image of perfection. We cannot be happy until we look like this person, live like that one. Each image is a lie.
The Lord’s Prayer acknowledges human imperfection and sin, daily. The Lord’s Prayer offers a pathway to forgiveness, daily. The way of forgiveness cannot be bought. It is a gift. Grace. Grace subverts the whole culture of advertising.
The second kind of rubbish is the things people do to us. The Lord’s Prayer offers a way of reconciliation. “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us”. We are not meant to feud or live in hostility or rivalry. We are meant to forgive and be forgiven, to be reconciled to each other. That reconciliation happens without expensive presents, without going into debt, without credit. People are not made happy by more things, another consumer lie. The greatest happiness comes from relationships. The key to great relationships is reconciliation and forgiveness.
What about the bad stuff?
Answer: “Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.”
This world is imperfect. We see this daily in our news: hurricanes in the Caribbean, wars in the Middle East, drought and climate change, disease as well as human created disasters. We are living in an uncertain world: many things grouped together as evil.
The Lord’s Prayer builds resilience in the human spirit. When you say this prayer each day you are prepared for the bad days. When we say this prayer we remind ourselves that we are not living in a Disney fairy tale, a saccharine creation of film makers where every story has a happy ending. We are living in a real world of cancer and violence and difficulty, where we are tested, where bad things happen for no clear reason. We live in that world confident in God’s love and goodness and help even in the midst of the most challenging moments of our lives. Faith is for the deep valleys as much as the green pastures. We may not have the answers but we know that God dwells with us and in us.
How will the story end?
Answer: “For the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours, now and for ever. Amen”.
This line was rightly added by the church and in it the prayer returns to how it began with the praise and glory of the living God. Our hearts return to their origin and source, the one who created us. Life is to be lived to God’s praise and glory, not to satisfy our own small desires. We are beings with a higher calling and a greater purpose.
In the Lord’s Prayer we find our place in the world, we trust in the unfolding of God’s kingdom, it teaches us contentment, enables us to enter a cycle of forgiveness and reconciliation, gives us resilience for the hard times and empowers us to life to the glory of God. There is a crucial link between the Lord’s Prayer and the Lord himself, the one who gives us these words for He is present within each of these lines and in them we find him and through Him we can speak these words which shape our very identity and sanctifies our life individually and together.