I can’t think of a day better than Father’s Day to talk about the Lord’s Prayer - or, as many Roman Catholics call it, the “Our Father.” While the claim that Jesus was somehow unique in referring to God as “Father” is not true (a more accurate statement would be that he was steeped in the prayer tradition of his Jewish roots, and those who followed him took the interpretation from a more metaphorical one to a metaphysical one), still, the references to God as a heavenly Father in the New Testament do greatly outnumber such references in the Hebrew scriptures. And although we repeat the Lord’s Prayer nearly every Sunday, this best-known (with the possible exception of the Serenity Prayer of AA) of all Christian prayers deserves a closer reading and reflection from time to time, since we might, by virtue of its regular repetition, fall into the trap of reciting by it rote without really thinking about we’re saying.
Why do we pray the Lord’s Prayer — other than Jesus’ recommendation that we do so? And what are we really supposed to doing when we pray it?
I’ve been thinking about our Neighborhood Prayer Walks and how people we’ve met have tended to respond when we ask for prayer requests. We usually get one of three answers: 1) “I don’t need anything” or “no thank you;” 2) a statement of gratitude about something; or (and this is the most common one) 3) a request related to health or medical concerns. And I wonder, especially with regard to the third response, how much magical thinking is going on — both “out there” and “in here” –when it comes to prayer. Do people (including you and I) tend to think of God as a big cosmic vending machine, or a giant Santa Claus, to whom we pray in order to get something — a healing, a blessing, a direction, an answer or what-have-you? If that is our attitude, do we think that “thy Kingdom come” and “give us this day our daily bread” are the magic words that open up that celestial vending machine?
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
In probably every one of her popular Mitford series novels, Christian author Jan Karon includes a scene in which one or more of her characters — most notably the protagonist, small town Episcopal priest Father Tim — pray what he calls “the prayer that never fails,” which is “thy will be done:’ I really love this, because it is a way to center and surrender in the midst of a crisis, but on another level, if God’s will is always going to be done anyway, what is the benefit, to God, of our praying it? Why do we say these words as part of the Lord’s Prayer?
My belief is that God is not one who coerces, but one who loves and who longs to be in relationship, and whose power is more about persuasion than force.
Last week, as many of you know, our Wednesday Bible study group wrapped up a DVD study, featuring Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright, called Simply Christian (by the way, if you missed it, you are welcome to borrow the DVD; it’s really great stuff!). Every session has generated deep and fascinating discussion, and this final session was no exception. We have delighted in the Bishop’s fresh use of language as he has spoken of what he sees as the four overarching themes of the Bible, which tap into deep human longings: justice, spirituality, relationship, and beauty. These are qualities we all long for, he says, but which we can’t seem to grasp, get right, or hold onto for long, on our own. Over and over, we, and the people of God before us, fall short, and these things slip away from us. But, he says, by the power of God through the Holy Spirit, we can find hope and purpose in working toward the new creation that God is effecting, where these things will all be healed as heaven and earth interconnect, and where “all will be put to rights” — a delightful British-ism, don’t you think?
I particularly like this idea of “heaven and earth intersecting” (Bishop Wright often interlaced the fingers of his hands when he spoke of this in the videos) as I think of the Lord’s Prayer. What are we praying for when we say “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven?”
Consider this: we are not just asking for God to do good things on earth. We are making a declaration of our desire for God to work in, and through, us. We are surrendering our wills to God’s, praying that they be aligned. Not that God will do what we want, but that we will do what God wants.
The Lord’s Prayer isn’t about “gimme gimme:’ It’s about inviting God to change us, to use us to make God’s will be done and God’s kingdom come on earth. It’s saying “yes” to the “intersecting of heaven and earth;’ as Bishop Wright calls it, saying “yes” to that happening within us. It is not primarily for our benefit, although we are blessed in the process, since our perspective, our focus, goes off what we will get out of the deal and onto God’s greater purposes, and God’s timetable.
The Bishop shared an illustration that people in the Bible study particularly liked. He asked his readers and viewers to imagine the building of a great cathedral, and of a young apprentice stonemason who is tasked with carving a single stone for one of those walls. This apprentice will not have input in the whole finished work the way the architect or engineer, or even the bricklayer, will; he simply does his part and leaves the final results up to time and to others. Bishop Wright said our individual lives, or the efforts of the faithful in one particular time and place, are like that. We don’t get to see the whole picture, but we are called to be faithful, and we trust that God is creating the whole, and that it is something right, and just, and beautiful.
Another illustration of this principle of “thy will be done on earth,” through me, I found in a little book on the Lord’s Prayer (A Layman Looks at the Lord’s Prayer. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 1976) that I received from my parents. (I actually have a retired colleague, a pastor and artist, who was known for bringing his pottery wheel into the sanctuary and preach as he threw a pot. He gave me this chalice that he had made, when I moved from his circuit to here.)
More than one biblical writer employs the metaphor of clay and the pottery making process, among them Job, Isaiah, and Paul. The prophet Jeremiah tells (in the 18th chapter of that book) of being driven by the Spirit of God to go watch a potter at work, and God sharing a message with him — about the people’s resistance and God’s desire to reform the nation — as the prophet watched. The author of this Lord’s Prayer book had a similar experience, as he visited a Middle Eastern potter’s shop and meditated on the Lord’s Prayer. Now, his storyteller description was rather sentimental and a bit dated — I rather prefer Bishop Wright’s way of putting things — but I was taken by the play on words as he described the “will” of the potter “being done in earth” — comparing that, by inference, to God’s will being done “in earth, in clay” — in us. And I see a resemblance to Bishop Wright in this keypoint that he makes: “The sooner a child of God discovers the great delight of moving in harmony with the will of God, the sooner [that person] has set … feet on the threshold of heaven. For it is in doing the will of God and responding to it positively that heaven actually does descend to this fragment of earth and becomes a reality within”.
On this Father’s Day, my prayer, for you, is for a deep and lasting relationship with God our Heavenly Parent. I pray that you might surrender, daily, not only into the comfort of knowing that God cares for you, but also that you would allow heaven to work through you, let go of your own agenda, and set your gifts and skills and energy onto making God’s will be done on earth, as it is in heaven. Amen.