Scripture Reading: Matthew 6:1, 7-15
Teach Us How
When I was studying at the University of Chicago, I took a great deal of language and translation-based courses. My advisor would work his way around the room, instructing each of us in turn to do a line and asking probing questions that we struggled to answer. But every now and again—usually following a lengthy period of instruction prompted by our ignorance—he would lose track of which of us had last contributed. And that is when he’d speak those words that struck terror in our hearts: “Ok, let’s see who’s next……”
We students would freeze—like baby deer who just became aware of a nearby pack of wolves.
Do not make eye contact, do not make eye contact do not make eye contact……
And we would be held—breathless—until he called a name, which seemed to be my own name far more than standard deviation would suggest.
Now, all these years later, I experience the other side of that dynamic every single week.
I’m in a small group and we’re about to begin or end. I say something like: “Would someone volunteer to pray?” and it happens:
No one makes eye contact.
Not a whisper of breath passes for a moment……and then two……and then more……
And so I call out someone’s name (and they often respond with the suggestion that the lot falls on them more than standard deviation would suggest).
There’s all sorts of reasons for this fear of praying, I suppose.
Most of us have never been taught how to pray—we simply absorbed some of it by the osmosis of worshipping together as the church: we mimic what we hear.
Most of us are pretty private about religious and faith issues as well. We don’t readily talk about our relationship with God, our struggles and successes, and so on.
So when we’re asked to do something publicly that we aren’t terribly comfortable doing privately, we freeze.
Perhaps we should be encouraged that—for all the ages, and the chasm of culture between then and now—Jesus’ disciples seem to have had similar struggles. I think that’s what prompted them to ask Jesus: “Lord, teach us to pray” in Luke 11. As Luke tells the story of Jesus, it is this inquiry—this confession of how uncomfortable they were with praying—that prompts Jesus to give them the example that we call the Lord’s Prayer.
Intro to Series/Prayer
For the next few weeks, we’re going to be wrestling with prayer—and specifically the short, somewhat ambiguous template for prayer that Jesus offers as instruction to his followers.
For many communities of faith—and in fact for much of Christian history—an intrinsic part of our worship has been reciting this prayer together.
The prayer was not particularly groundbreaking, as far as faith practices go; nearly every line has an antecedent in the teaching of the rabbis.
Nor is it distinctly Christian; scholar Dale Allison has noted that “a Jew wanting to have nothing to do with Jesus could still pray the Our Father” (The Sermon on the Mount, 134).
But at the same time, this model for prayer is decidedly Jesus-ey, because praying like this can only open us up to the fulfillment of the Christian life as Jesus defines it: love of God and love of neighbor (cf. Mark 12:29-31). This is part of what we will be exploring over the coming weeks.
Our process will be straightforward. Each week, we will attend to a different line of the prayer. I have attached to each line a word of direction: praise, yield, ask, repent, trust, and celebrate. I’ve also joined each line of the prayer to a text from elsewhere in scripture—something to hold in dialogue with the prayer, to provide context for interpretation and application, and to remind ourselves that the important dimensions of faith do not rely simply on one or two verses quoted out of context—it is always the whole of scripture that must be considered.
Today we begin with the opening line of the prayer: “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” And already—from that very first word—we find the task of praying like Jesus to be almost too much to bear.
“Our” God: Interconnectedness
Whatever our preconceived ideas about prayer may be—and whatever our culture tells us about religion and personal worth—the prayer Jesus teaches his followers begins with the confession that our faith is not an individual practice.
God is not my God, but our God.
My prayer is not my prayer but our prayer—prayer by us and for us and from us, and directed to the God of us.
Matthew places this model prayer in a section that cautions against a purely private expression of religion—and the early church was quick to take note of this fact and guard it. In the early days of Christianity, the North African leader Cyprian expressly forbids praying this prayer in the singular. He wrote:
Before all things the teacher of peace and master of unity [that is, Jesus] is unwilling for prayer to be made singly and individually, teaching that he [or she] who prays is not to pray for himself [or herself] alone. For we do not say, “My Father who art in heaven,” nor “Give me this day my daily bread,” nor does each one ask that only their own debt should be forgiven them; nor does she request for herself alone that she may not be led into temptation, and delivered from evil. Our prayer is public and common; and when we pray, we do not pray for one, but for the whole people, because we the whole people are one. (On the Lord’s Prayer 8)
This goes against everything our culture has taught us. It even goes against what some of us may have been taught in church. But it is quite clearly what the scriptures proclaim and what our ancient forbearers in faith upheld. The great theologian Thomas Aquinas even said that to pray “Our Father” is to express love for our neighbor [Lord’s Prayer 1:4].
I love a practice that Roberta Bondi has suggested—a way of praying this particular word of the prayer that gets to the heart of what Jesus and the early church sought to teach.
She recommends beginning each morning with the words “our Father.” “After that [she says], I visualize the face or faces of the people I must be with that day with whom I am angry, or whom I would avoid because they have hurt me or sap my energy or exercise internal or external destructive power over me.”
“Then, I paraphrase the words “our Father” and repeat them as a prayer for myself and for the other person or persons together: “my Father and the Father of my student Stephen”; “my Father and the Father of the church group I am on my way to speak to”; “my Father and the Father of my uncle.” (A Place to Pray, 29)
God as Father (But Not Father)
This leads us immediately to our next challenge: God as father.
The language of our most recently composed scriptures is still nearly 2000 years old. The language of a dominant bible translation that many continue to use is over 400. Even translations completed in the last 50 or so years look at little rough around the edges on account of the evolution of the English language and archaeological and textual discoveries that have emerged. And then there’s the cultural shifts—some for good reasons, a few perhaps not so good—away from such gendered language and it’s sociological consequences.
For some good Christian folks, calling God “father” is simply a remnant of an archaic, patriarchal societal model that has been responsible for so much oppression, domination, and violence done to so many over the years.
But many more face an immanent and personal problem—many of us have not had positive connotations with “father” in our earthly experience.
At one extreme end are those who have experienced terrible violence and trauma perpetrated by their fathers.
At another: there has been no experience of “father” at all, besides an awareness that a “father” isn’t there, or doesn’t love and want your existence.
Roberta Bondi, who I quoted earlier, writes that she realizes she “transferred to God the Father all the pain [she] felt around [her] human father” (p.23). She expected God, like her father, was impossibly perfectionistic and expected his children to demonstrate a superiority over others that she just couldn’t manage.
This prayer modeled by Jesus gives us an opening to talk about our father issues. But since it is a model (rather than a rule), I do not believe it forces anyone to address God as father whether they want to or not.
Be reminded, Church, that we only know God by analogy, and analogies are by nature imperfect.
Remember too: the Bible does not envision God to be a gendered being, communicating rather that both male and female are made in God’s image.
But against all these obstacles, I do also think God works to redeem fatherhood, just as the cross has been redeemed and transformed from an instrument of torture and death, to an emblem of hope and life. In God and across a lifetime, we may discover a parent who is the perfection of what a parent ought to be—a parent who can
love us unconditionally,
challenge us and appropriately motivate us to become who they know we can be,
correct us when we are heading down the path of self-destruction or the destruction of others,
and teach us how to be better parents than any we may have known.
After all: “Is anything too hard for [God]?” (Jeremiah 32:27).
Hallowed Be Thy Name
“Our Father, who art in heaven. Hallowed be thy name.”
With “hallowed be thy name,” we arrive at the first of six petitions in this prayer. The first three attend to the lordship of God, and the second three attend to human need. All (as we will see) transform us and our actions into the fulfillment of Jesus’ only rules: Love God and love neighbor.
Now, contrary to the way we sometimes think about it, it is God (and not us) who is tasked with making God’s name holy. In praying “hallowed be thy name,” we pray like Jesus in John 12:28: “Father, glorify your name” (NRSV). Or put differently, we request that God fulfill the promise offered in Ezekiel 36:23: “I will sanctify my great name” (NRSV).
Yet even if we recognize that this holy-making is something that God does rather than we do, we cannot get around the fact that in this communal prayer we are requesting that God do it in us. Back in the fourth century, Gregory of Nyssa “explained that what Christians pray for in ‘hallowed be your name’ is an ability to mirror the characteristics of God so that anyone looking at us can see in us something of who God is.” (quoted in Bondi p.42n1).
But thinking about God’s holiness gives us fits, just like “Our Father” upsets our individualism and pushes against our human experiences. Too often over the years, pastors and churches have talked about God’s holiness almost exclusively in connection with sin. Especially in the ways we have taught children, “the very idea of God’s holiness carried with it God’s dangerously righteous hatred of sin, as well as the threat of God’s anger, which could blaze out suddenly against even the most innocent of mistakes” (Bondi p.33).
But more often in the bible, “holy” is how we describe our experience of awe upon encountering God’s transcendent otherness. As we read in scripture, encounters with God’s holiness enables us to see differently—to see a kind of beauty, for sure; but more often, to see our experiences of things like poverty or success or even faith in an entirely new light.
Learning to pray “hallowed be your name” involves inviting God to open us up to the truth and justice that God is pursuing in the advancement of the Kingdom. But as we have already seen, that involves learning to love one another as God loves us.
Here again, Roberta Bondi writes with power, saying:
“Very rarely does a day go by now that I don’t pray for the compassion and love that comes with an awareness of God’s holy beauty in the lives of the other people with whom I share my world.
‘Hallowed by your name,’ I pray as I catch myself pushing away the knowledge of what it is like to be poor and demoralized, unable to find a place to live on minimum wages, to provide good food and medical care for your children.
‘Hallowed be your name,’ I pray as I read in the paper of crimes, wars, and atrocities committed here and in places far away.
‘Hallowed be your name,’ I pray; ‘may I not turn my face away in callousness, judgment, or cynicism from any human life, from anyone who reflects your image, whether it be an image of your glory or of your humiliation.’” (Bondi p.49)
That, sisters and brothers, is a demonstration of the Gospel.
“Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.”
How remarkable, O God,
that even as we seek to praise your name,
you are forging within us
an appreciation of the value of one another.
Help us, we pray,
to remember that just as we pray together,
so we fail together, and we succeed together;
we sin together, and we are forgiven together;
we confess together, and we discover together
the bottomless well of your love and grace.
Make your name hallowed,
and true in our lives,
and in the whole of creation.
Just as you looked upon our initial creation
and called it “good,”
so may we be transformed by your goodness
into your likeness—an image that bears the imprint
of the good news of your love and redemption.
Our Father, who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name.