In the Gospel reading for July 28, 2013 according to the Revised Common Lectionary we hear the classic words spoken by Christ which we call the 'Lord's Prayer' or the 'Our Father.' Our text from St. Luke read:
"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 forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial." (Luke 11:2-4, NRSV)
These words are deeply entrenched in many of us from our earliest years of life. For some of us it might have been one of the very first paragraphs we ever memorized, wether by habitual practice or purposeful memorization in a Sunday School class. Regardless, it is an anthem for those who consider themselves members of the Christian faith and even for many who do not. It is universally the prayer said most often by Christians on a daily basis and is used in most faith communities during their Sunday worship experience. It is a bedrock of prayer for the Christ follower. However, as with anything which is frequently spoken it becomes easy to simply say the words, or go through the motions, while missing the point of the prayer and its deeper meaning Christ wished to convey to us.
Today, I want to encourage us to seek deeper within this classic prayer and gleam from it eternal truths of spirituality and personal growth. Christ always had great purpose in all he shared with his followers, we see this in the parables and bold statements he made. His teachings often confused those who listened until they searched deeper within the words to truly see the heart of the message. I believe the heart of the Lord's Prayer is one heeding us to a higher life, a greater purpose, and a call to become God's icon (or image) to all those around us. Prayer is never meant to be passive but always full of action and the Lord's Prayer is one that truly calls us to action!
Saint Ephraim of Syria, a 4th century desert father spoke often on prayer, love, and relationship with God. He was once falsely accused of theft and rather than fighting, he grew through the experience in self-realization and patience and in time was fully vindicated. He said the following concerning the purpose of prayer:
"Virtues are formed by prayer. Prayer preserves temperance. Prayer suppresses anger. Prayer prevents emotions of pride and envy. Prayer draws into the soul the Holy Spirit, and raises man to Heaven."
This quote could truly be referred to as a brief commentary not only the Lord's Prayer but on prayer in general. We often tend to think of prayer as a magical act to force the hand of God to do our will or meet our desires but truly prayer is a calling to ourselves to grow, become more like God, and walk in God's way as we haven't before. In the 21st century we often question the need for prayer, we are now a people of science, we understand how natural elements work. We know God does not send tornadoes but rather they are a result of weather changes. We know diseases are not divine wrath poured out on mankind but rather our own doing from lack of knowledge or the creation of situations which lead to outbreak. While many of us do not doubt the possibility of the miraculous and the unexplainable we also have known far too many people who have died even while we prayed for their healing. We could easily stand with all this reasoning and ask why pray at all? As St. Ephraim tells us: we pray to change, we pray to become, we pray to transcend the situations that surround us and to tap into the presence of Holy Love, to tap into God.
The Lord's Prayer begins by invoking the name of God, as the 1st century Jewish population understood the Divine. Christ called God: "Father." Today, we have moved and are continuing to move beyond the terms of a patriarchal society which demeans women and we know God to not be limited to any gender. Christ here is not defining God in a gender or sex but simply telling us to call upon God as we see him or her. The word actually used was "Abba" a term of extreme intimacy between child and father. When you pray (or speak to the Divine), call upon God in an intimate way which is meaningful to you, this is what Christ asks of us.
Jesus continues, "Hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come." I dare say that is not so much us asking God to make his or her name holy but rather us reminding ourselves it is our task to make the name of God holy to our neighbors and all the world. God is love and love is always holy. However, as people of God, and therefore the face of God on earth, it is our calling to demonstrate God as such and to create the kingdom of love in our midst. St. Ephraim said, "Virtues are formed by prayer." When we pray we remind ourselves of Christ and the command to walk as he did. To love the broken, the dirty, the despised, and the greatest of 'sinners' without hesitation. This causes the growth of virtues, of good thoughts and actions in our own lives. When we, in return, display these virtues to those around us we show God forth as "holy" and we truly cause the Divine's kingdom to come among us. It is our calling to eradicate the notion that God is vengeful and angry and instead to exemplify his sacred love.
We are then told to pray, "Give us each day our daily bread." St. Ephraim tells us prayer brings temperance into our lives. Temperance is typically defined as control over excess and the ability to use reason and to not indulge in the unnecessary in life. It is considered by most psychologists, religious or not, to be a core virtue necessary for stable individuals and societies. Christ too called us to temperance in this petition found in the Lord's Prayer. Do we acknowledge that in this phrase Christ bids us not to live lives of excess and self indulgence but rather to ask only for what we need? If society began to operate more aligned with this temperate style of being and gave away its excess to those in need imagine how radically the world would change. Our lack of temperance, our refusal to truly believe Christ's words to ask for 'our daily bread' often leads us down a path of selfishness and ultimately harms others. Prayer therefore encourages us to give freely, practice temperance, and help those who we can, within reason - even if it is only one person.
Christ continues by telling us that we may ask for forgiveness because it is presumed we will forgive others. His word are, "And forgive us our sins, for we forgive everyone indebted to us." Prayer challenges us to acknowledge our own faults, our own mistakes and in return to forgive those who have hurt us. St. Ephraim told us, "Prayer suppresses anger. Prayer prevents emotions of pride and envy." This is why Christ spoke these words to his followers because no one can truly be a vessel of love and compassion if they are angry, prideful or envious of others. Our acceptance that we are equal in having all made mistakes helps us to let go of the hatred we carry and realize "all have fallen short." Forgiveness does not mean that we somehow become instantly healed of the wounds caused by others. Nor does it mean we become a doormat for hatred and those who seek to kill and destroy, we must protect ourselves for we are special to God and others. Forgiveness means we choose not to hate others for making mistakes, as we have often made them ourselves. It means we choose not to retaliate or seek vengeance. Eckhart Tolle in his book A New Earth says the following of forgiveness: "Non-reaction is not weakness but strength. Another word for non-reaction is forgiveness. To forgive is to overlook, or rather to look through." What does Tolle mean by "looking through?" I believe means to get past the mistakes others have made and see that within all people there is a goodness, no matter how disfigured it might be by their actions. We too are often disfigured by our actions and yet we dare to ask God's forgiveness because we know love forgives always. The question we must ask ourselves, as a modern people, do we give the same forgiving love to others? Will we look through mistakes and release ourselves from hatred by not hating others?
The Lord's Prayer ends with these words, "And do not bring us to the time of trial." Other versions also included the words, "Deliver us from the evil. & For yours is the kingdom..." St. Ephraim end his quote by saying, "Prayer draws into the soul the Holy Spirit, and raises man to Heaven." While these words may seem different their heart is very much the same. In prayer we ask God to free us from situations which are filled with baggage, error, hatred, and fear. Why do we do this? So that we may spiritually reside in the heaven, the kingdom of love. Prayer calls us to quiet ourselves and to be still so that we can begin to see the temptations which are laid out in front of us. Only then can be truly be delivered from evil by practicing unconditional love. We practice prayer as a modern people to escape the business of our lives and chaotic noise of the world. We pray to search deeply within ourselves for God and we then draw the Spirit of love, joy peace, patience, kindness, goodness, and gentleness into our very soul and being.
We pray, even though we are filled with the knowledge of the earth and science, because we know deeper still God, the source of all being and love, is calling to us to grow and become all we can be. We are beckoned by prayer to be temperate, to give, to love, to forgive, and to walk in peace and this happens not through science but rather in stillness beginning with our intimate call to God.
In those moments of prayer, whatever form they take, we are raised to heaven. Not a heaven above the clouds, but rather the kingdom of heaven which is within us and all around us!