John is teaching a class on Wednesday evenings right now, and the topic is prayer: what is it, what’s it for, how do we…etc. Last night the class talked about the Lord’s Prayer and what it teaches us about God and about prayer. A few highlights before we get to the really interesting part….
“Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be your name…” — right off the bat, we start by acknowledging God is much bigger and much holier than we are, we are but a moment, a grain of sand, in the vastness of God. And yet God knows and loves us like a perfect parent. So from the very beginning of the prayer, God is other, God is big, yet God is close.
“give us this day our daily bread…” — not “give us this day our daily lobster bisque” or “give us a week’s supply of donuts” but give us this day our daily BREAD…survival food. And not enough for tomorrow, or for next year, or for retirement, but for today. Give us today what we need to live today. This is a very in-the-moment, living in the present, do-n0t-worry-about-tomorrow prayer. It calls to mind the Israelites in the wilderness, being given manna every morning but not being able to keep any for the next day–learning that God provides what we need for today, and tomorrow will bring worries of its own (as Jesus says in Matthew 6).
And now the really good stuff: “lead us not into temptation…” — we talked a little about who is doing the leading and what is temptation? Why would we need to ask God not to lead us into temptation? Isn’t the point that we lead ourselves into temptation just fine, and God doesn’t want us to give in? Eventually we came around to the realization that: a) When Jesus was baptized, it says that the Spirit descended on him and then led him out into the wilderness to be tempted. So yes, God does lead people into temptation–at least Jesus, anyway; and b) the word translated “temptation” in Aramaic is a word that means “diverted from true purpose” or “whipped about like a flag in the wind” or “focus on the flashy rather than the real” or some such idea. So in many ways, that squares with the kinds of temptations Jesus experienced in the wilderness–to perform and to get glory for himself rather than to follow the path that points always to God and God’s purpose.
Thought of this way, lead us not into temptation sounds like a pretty good prayer, really–because we’re not asking God to please give up those tricksy ways where God somehow steers us in front of chocolate cake and someone who dropped 100 dollars or even whether to shop on amazon.com. This is not “God, please don’t use me for your next Job experiment.” This is “God, lead us in your path, away from the desire to put appearance ahead of substance, away from the desire to seek our own gain instead of yours.”
This led to an interesting discussion of what prayer is for–should we be asking God to do all these things, or should we be allowing ourselves to be the answer to prayer? In other words, the difference between a child asking a parent to do something for them vs asking for help using the skills they already have to figure out the next thing. Sort of a “do this please” compared to “can you help me do it.” When do we ask God for direct intervention, and when do we ask God to make us an answer to the prayers of others? And when do we just go and do it, rather than asking God anything at all?
No one came up with an answer to these questions…and, of course, they lead to further questions that relate to the book almost Christian (which we’re discussing on Wednesdays). if the purpose of prayer is not for us to talk to God, but to learn to use the skills we’ve already been given, then why involve God at all? Can’t we do that without ever spending time with God?
I think the answer may be found in the story that precedes the Lord’s Prayer. The disciples come to Jesus, who clearly has an active and deep prayer life, and say, “Lord, teach us to pray.”
What do you think? How do you pray? What parts of the Lord’s Prayer really resonate with you? Which parts are hard? Do you skip any words when you say it? Do you find yourself repeating any of it to yourself? What is prayer for?