The Prayer That Contains All Prayer
A reflection on the Lord's Prayer
“He 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.’ 2 He said to them, ‘When you pray, say:
Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.” (Luke 11:1-4, NRSV)
Most mornings, just as the sun is rising, you will find my wife Emily and I on our porch, drinking coffee. For a half hour or more, we sit and sip, watching the birds and waking street, talking through our dreams, our reading, and life together. It is in that time we that we bring ourselves into tune with one another and make a plan for how we will live the day.
Those mornings on the porch are not the only time we talk, of course. Each day, we are in regular communication, checking in with calls and texts, the passing conversations of our comings and goings. But that morning coffee time is a centered moment that guides and grounds the ongoing work of our relationship.
All relationships, if they are to thrive, find their way to a pattern of regular conversation. It is no different with God. Prayer, the communication that crosses the divide of human and divine life, was for Jesus a conversation of ongoing relationship. And we see this in how Luke describes him. Jesus is regularly engaged in specific times and practices of prayer. But now, almost halfway through Luke’s Gospel, Jesus’ students have noticed and they want some specifics. What he gives in reply is a form of prayer that, though simple, contains all the elements necessary for a life of ongoing conversation with God. As the philosopher Simone Weil put it :
“The Our Father contains all possible petitions; we cannot conceive of any prayer not already contained in it…It is impossible to say it once through, giving the fullest possible attention to each word, without a change, infinitesimal perhaps but real, taking place in the soul.”
Following Weil’s insight, I’d like for us to say Luke’s version of this prayer once through, giving our attention to each of its key movements, hoping that even in a small way, some change is happening inside us.
Father. Pater in the Greek of the New Testament; Abba in the Aramaic of Jesus’ teaching. Some may have trouble with the term’s patriarchal links, but it is hard to find another word in the world of Jesus with similar meanings. What is important is that it is a term of both intimate relationship and authority. Imagine the parents, and mentors, and true teachers in your life—those who loved you and yet also had some authority over you. Think of the intimate, directed, and cooperative relationship you had with that person. By saying Father, Jesus is telling us that God is with us in love, and yet is also beyond and above us, a caring and cooperative authority.
Hallowed be your name. The name of this Father is holy. A name in the ancient world was connected to the essence of the person. Some families speak in this way about their identity—don’t do that, you’re a Sutterfield; or we live this way because we’re Willards. When we call on God to make his name holy we are asking for fullness of who God is to be present to us, for God to act in the world according to his nature. The call for God’s name to be holy is also asking that God clear away all the idols, all the false Fathers by which we seek to replace God’s presence. Holy be your name means that we want only God, in God’s full person and identity, to be addressed by such a name as Father.
Your kingdom come. Each of us has a kingdom. Some are small, some large, but even a person in the most horrific conditions of confinement has some sphere in which their will is effective. The kingdom of God is the scope of God’s effective will. God’s power is without limit, but God desires relationship not dominance. This means that there are whole areas of existence that currently lie outside of what God wants for the world. The work of prayer is always to extend the reality of God’s kingdom bit by bit by aligning our lives with God’s life.
St. Therese of Liseaux once wrote that God doesn’t want to do anything without us. Such is the reality of any true relationship. God wants to bring about the life of his kingdom in cooperation with our own reign. And as we move into maturity in our life with God, he offers us our own spheres of authority in joyful anticipation of what we might do with them. I love how the novelist Ron Hansen puts it at the close of his book, Mariette in Ecstasy: “We try to be formed and held and kept by him, but instead he offers us freedom. And now when I try to know his will, his kindness floods me, his great love overwhelms me, and I hear him whisper, Surprise me.” That is the invitation we receive in return for a life spent in praying, “Your kingdom come.”
Give us each day our daily bread. Will is a matter of desire, but it also requires power and energy. So it is that Jesus instructs us to pray for our daily bread. Bread was the basic staple food of the ancient world and was far more nutritious than what we now know by that word. This prayer refers not only to physical bread, but to all the realities that energize and sustain our life, spiritual and social and bodily. We are invited through prayer to trust that like the bread of manna, God will empower us with what we need for tomorrow just as we’ve been given energy for today. We don’t look forward to next week or month or year. Each day we anchor ourselves in the energy of God’s life as it becomes manifest in our will. Ironically, fasting combined with prayer has often been the way to learn the flow of this energy. A day or more without physical food can show us that we have bodily and spiritual sources of life that lie beyond our eating.
And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. The pastor and theologian Sam Wells has said that Christianity helps us live into authentic freedom in the present because it enables us to deal with our past and our future. Forgiveness is the essential task of finding release from our past. In terms of God it is a matter of sin. I recently heard sin defined as a desire to be more than human or less than human. But in abiding relationship with God we become the good creatures we were made to be. Being forgiven can free us from the shame of our past, the ways in which we tried to be more or less than human. But none of us exist alone, no person is an island. Our own liberation is tied to the liberation of everyone. We can help enact God’s work of restoration by also freeing the people who they owe us something. In doing this we will make an opening for God’s kingdom in a space no longer chained to the past.
And do not bring us to the time of trial. Tests of our faith, our love, our hope and humanity are bound to come, but the more deeply our wills conform to God’s reign, the less powerful those temptations will be. If I hear of someone tempted to betray a spouse, I know that the seeds of that betrayal were planted before any object of desire was even present. The time of trial came by way of a long-running neglect of love. If we are rooted and built up in Christ, then temptation will not be a significant problem in our lives. This is an ongoing process, of course, but we pray that God will make it so that any wrong against God, another, or ourselves simply isn’t imaginable. To pray that we do not come to the time of trial is to pray that our lives will be transformed so that we will always desire and do the good that love calls us toward.
In prayer we are invited into a partnership with God, a deep and abiding relationship. And in that love, God wants to fulfill our desires, our wants. The philosopher Dallas Willard once said that he truly believes that God wants to give us whatever we want, but God must first do work on the wanter. From the mundane to the significant, a cursory examination of our lives will make clear that much that we want will not lead us to wholeness.
We also live in the midst of rebellious powers and people who refuse to say, “your will be done.” And so there are the sad victims of a world disordered by sin and greed. But in the middle of such a world we’re invited to make manifest a different reality. It is a reality born of the prayer that works in our hearts and souls, the slow conversion of our wills into God’s will. So let us pray and pray again these words that Jesus taught, so that in our lives the way of God can find an incarnate space where the kingdom can come.
Beloved beyond us,
you are like no other.
May your will and way happen here.
Empower us today with what we need for tomorrow,
and release us from the burdens of our past as we release others from theirs,
so that we all can enter the flow of your love without wavering. Amen.
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