Psalm 96; Matthew 6:7-11
As people of faith, it’s good to stop from time to time and look at spiritual routines we do so often they may have become rote. The Lord’s Prayer is one such practice. We pray it in worship each Sunday, we say it at memorial services and weddings, at the end of church meetings. The Lord’s Prayer is so familiar we can easily glide by it without noticing.
Over the next five Sundays in Lent, we will delve into – and sometimes challenge – the Lord’s Prayer line-by-line, in order to re-engage with it as an essential spiritual practice, one used by Christians the world over – and sometimes misused. That’s the other reason why it’s important – even urgent – to spend time with the Lord’s Prayer in this season: it’s being used inappropriately, wielded at public events to cloak certain positions with a false veneer of righteousness.
The Lord’s Prayer has been shouted by protestors at anti-vax rallies. It’s been yelled at government hearings and at school board meetings. It was a rallying cry for those who assaulted the U.S. Capitol on January 6 two years ago. As the attackers entered the Capitol, the version of the prayer with “trespasses” was being shouted over a bullhorn. The irony was probably lost on those who heard it that day.
A similar hijacking of prayer in his time prompted Jesus to teach his followers how to pray. “Do not be like the hypocrites,” Jesus says of people flaunting their religion in public, “For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others.”
Our Lenten engagement with the Lord’s Prayer is meant to rehabilitate it for us as a deep spiritual practice. We aim to re-discover the power of the prayer as an expression of Christian faith.
To start with, though, it might be good to step back from this specific prayer and ask ourselves a more general question: what is prayer?
Mary Oliver offers her perspective in the poem, Praying:
It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could
be weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.
The poet offers three insights into prayer that will help us as we explore the prayer Jesus taught.
First, it doesn’t have to be eloquent or a theological masterpiece. In fact, just the opposite. Jesus said as much. “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as (some) do; for they think they will be heard because of their many words.”
Prayer can be intimidating to some of us, as if we weren’t good enough or holy enough or learned enough to try it ourselves. Our Presbyterian emphasis on an educated clergy may be partly to blame here. One does not need to go to seminary to turn to God in prayer! From what Jesus teaches, we learn that God is much more interested in our authentic, honest, broken, needy, confused, thirsty selves than in some well-polished ecclesiastically approved work of art. It doesn’t have to be the blue iris. It could be weeds in a vacant lot.
The second insight about prayer the poet offers is this: just pay attention. Prayer requires that we stop long enough to turn to that which is holy, to wonder at what we cannot know but ache to comprehend. Jesus does this by withdrawing from others to find such moments. He goes up the mountain to pray alone. He advises us to go into our rooms and close the door to attend to the mystery. We will never fully grasp the one whose presence we seek when we pray. It is enough merely to pay attention.
The third insight Mary Oliver gives us is the function of prayer. It is not meant to produce things. It is not transactional, which is how some people use it: Give me this, God, and I’ll give you that. God is not interested in that approach to prayer. “This isn’t a contest,” Oliver says, “But the doorway into thanks, and a silence in which another voice may speak.”
Good advice on praying, including the Lord’s Prayer, from the poet’s point of view: Don’t worry about getting the words precisely right. Instead, pay attention, and with gratitude move into the silence and listen.
The Lord’s Prayer is found in Matthew and Luke. The Matthew version, which is the core of the Sermon on the Mount, became the one used most widely in the Church.
The prayer Jesus taught starts, as prayers do in Judaism, by addressing God. So often our prayers can be used to make points or are directed more at other people than to God. We say, “Sending prayers your way,” to show support for someone, when it is God to whom those prayers should be directed. The simplest test of any prayer’s authenticity is this: does it speak in a way that lets God be God?
The Lord’s Prayer begins in a way that echoes the psalms of old:
O sing to the LORD a new song.
Sing to the LORD; bless God’s name.
Hallowed be thy name.
Worship the LORD in holy splendor.
Ascribe to the LORD the glory due God’s name.
Hallowed be thy name.
Prayer begins when we praise God’s name with adoration. Jesus chooses to name God “Our Father” to start his prayer.
Using the word Our places us with Jesus in praying to God. The first-person plural possessive pronoun signals that although this prayer may be said by an individual, that individual is never alone in offering it. Imagine the difference if it had begun, “My Father who art in heaven.”
Christian faith does not privatize religion and our prayers should not either. We might have a personal relationship with God through Jesus, but it is never singularly privileged. The prayer Jesus taught places us within the community of all those who address the same God every time we say it, together or alone.
The term Father appears in Hebrew scripture. Male references to God occur there, like that which we heard in the psalm today where God is called “king.” And Father was used occasionally by Jews in their prayers and worship. But the way Jesus employed the term that day in his sermon on the hillside must have caused a murmur in the crowd.
He taught the prayer in Aramaic, not in the formal liturgical Hebrew a rabbi would use in ritual and worship of that time. Instead, he spoke in the common vernacular of that time. He used Abba for Father. That is everyday family language you would hear around the home. It’s the wording of intimate relationship between son and dad, and Jesus uses it repeatedly in the gospel, especially in Matthew.
Christianity listens in as Jesus teaches about prayer and hears Jesus using this wording for God repeatedly in the gospels. The early Church picks up where Jesus leaves off and embeds male language for God in its worship and creeds and teaching. This happens to such an extent through the years that, over time, God simply becomes male. Male language about God becomes the norm for worship in community or in individual piety and prayer. And over two millennia this language about God comes to ratify and solidify patriarchal power inside and outside the Church. A male God rules in heaven and men rule on earth.
But language is shifting, as it always does, in every age. In our time, gendered terminology is yielding to new ways of speaking not bound to old categories. That is true for the language of faith and for the language we use commonly among ourselves. How many times have you logged into an online meeting and next to the names of those on the call they have placed their preferred pronouns?
Language is not fixed; it is fluid and dynamic. That is certainly the case for today’s religious vocabulary. Our understanding of God and how we speak about God is evolving, and doing so in ways that may make us uncomfortable or cause us to feel as if we were losing our faith because the words have changed. This evolution can be especially threatening to those who cling to male domination.
We live in an era when traditional patriarchy is being challenged all the time – and patriarchy is defending itself. You may have heard Putin refer to a “spiritual catastrophe” in the West in his speech this week.
“The Anglican Church is considering a gender-neutral God,” the Russian leader said, as if such a view of God would be a sign of inexcusable, anti-male weakness. “May God forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
The Anglican Church knows precisely what it is doing. They are trying to discern what language to use to reflect God’s inclusive vision of God’s own self and of the diversity of the human community. And Anglicans are not alone in wrestling with gender-neutral language about God. Presbyterians went through this thirty years ago.
We set up a national committee to write a Brief Statement of Faith. The group split over whether to use Father in referring to God. Some insisted on using the traditional term because it connected so deeply to their own personal faith. Others insisted on avoiding the term altogether because they had come to understand God in a broader way. In a compromise, they finally agreed on this line: We trust in God, whom Jesus called Abba, Father.
That satisfied those on both sides of the debate. That rationale can be used to make peace with continuing to pray the Lord’s Prayer by using “Our Father” as a quote of what Jesus said, while avoiding male language to refer to God in our own words. And it makes room for more traditional wording, if preferred. That is essentially the approach Westminster uses in its worship.
The Roman Catholic Church addresses this issue in paragraph number 239 of its official Catechism, where it says, “God transcends the human distinction between the sexes.” So far so good. And then it goes on to say: “He is neither man nor woman. He is God.” (https://www.scborromeo2.org/catechism-of-the-catholic-church)
We don’t mean to pick on the Catholics – and good for them for struggling with language around God – but it is evident there is more work to do. Using the logic of the Catechism, let’s try substituting female terminology and see what it does for our image of the Almighty: God transcends the human distinction between the sexes. She is neither man nor woman. She is God.
Or how about, Our Mother, who art in heaven, hallowed by Thy name. Imagine teaching that prayer to our children, generation after generation. Imagine 2,000 years of that wording about God crafting our understanding of the Creator. Language matters. It forms our worldview. It shapes our consciousness and defines our human relationships. And it certainly molds our faith.
This is more than a pronoun problem. A church members wrote me recently,
“I want you to know,” she said, “The Lord’s Prayer is problematic for many women, and I doubt that is what Jesus would have wanted. After all, he was a revolutionary who bucked tradition.”
I couldn’t agree more. The Church finds itself today in the awkward position of having wording in its central prayer that some find off-putting, exclusive, or even traumatizing.
So how can those who need to, pray the Lord’s Prayer in a way that expresses the loving tenderness of Jesus toward God – son to dad – without using Father, or only Father? The term Creator is a possibility, but it doesn’t express a family-like relationship. No one refers to their parent as the Creator. The word Parent is another, but it, too, lacks intimacy. How do we find language that expresses the tenderness and love that Jesus shows in prayer, but doesn’t get in the way of our relationship with God?
Some have found it helpful to add Mother to the prayer. Our Father and our Mother, hallowed by your name. Feel free to try it. The point Jesus is after here is to use language in reference to God that expresses a deeply held relationship that is loving and tender and intimate.
As we will see through this Lenten series, the Lord’s Prayer is so central to our faith, and so far-reaching in its implications, that the worst thing to do would be to give up on it altogether or cede it to those who would misuse it.
Perhaps remembering Mary Oliver’s advice would be helpful here. When we pray, we should not let our language be a barrier between us and God. We will never get the words exactly right because we will never fully understand the One to whom we pray.
Instead, let us be mindful that, in the poet’s words,
“This isn’t a contest
but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.”
To God be the glory.