The Lord’s Prayer has shaped how Christians pray ever since. Ideally constant repetition of the Prayer gets it so firmly rooted in our psyches that it becomes part of who we are. I have heard stories about people who can no longer recognize their family members, but can still recite the Lord’s Prayer.
That internalization of the Lord’s Prayer is a great gift. But it comes with a danger. The Lord’s Prayer can become so routine, so normal and natural, that we lose sight of its incredible good news.
The Prayerbook can help us here. We traditionally introduce the Lord’s Prayer with these words: “And now, as our Savior Christ has taught us, we are bold to say….” I have often been asked about that. Why does it require boldness to say the prayer that Jesus himself commanded us to say?
The answer is in that first word, “Father.”
It is not obvious that we should approach God as father rather than as judge, for example. It is not obvious that we should approach God with confidence and love rather than with fear.
Think about popping into the White House, wandering into the President’s office, and saying, “Hey, Barack, old buddy. How’s it going?” That would be wildly inappropriate.
And yet we call God “Father.”
How we pray says a lot about our relationship with the One to whom we pray. When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, when we call God “Our Father,” we are claiming an intimate, loving relationship with the Lord of the Cosmos, the Creator of heaven and earth. Claiming that kind of intimacy with God requires startling, outrageous boldness.
Here is a way to make the same point with a less familiar prayer.
In the “Collect for Guidance” in Morning Prayer, we say this: “We humbly pray you [God] so to guide and govern us by your Holy Spirit, that in all the cares and occupations of our life we may not forget you, but may remember that we are ever walking in your sight, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen” (BCP 100).
How do you hear that line about “ever walking in God’s sight”? Does it sound like a threat? Or does it sound like a promise?
When I first prayed that Collect, I felt it more like a threat. In my mind, this was a prayer about staying on the straight and narrow path. It was as if God were saying to me, “Remember, Harvey, I have my eye on you. Don’t think you can get away with anything.”
That is not all bad. In the privacy of our own homes or with people we trust, we may well say or do things that we would be ashamed to say or do more publicly. And yet, God is watching all the time. If we took God’s ever-present gaze more seriously, we might be a little less inclined to say or do those things.
But one day, I realized I was missing the whole point of the Collect. It is not a threat at all. It is a promise. It is not a prayer to a potentially harsh judge. It is a prayer to a loving father.
Listen to the words again. “We humbly pray you [God] so to guide and govern us by your Holy Spirit, that in all the cares and occupations of our life we may not forget you, but may remember that we are ever walking in your sight, through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
The prayer is not about God watching over us to catch us when we do something wrong. The prayer is about God guiding us in the midst of our cares and occupations, asking God to help us remember that God is always there, reminding us of God’s love and support. Even when things are hard, even when it seems like we are on our own, this prayer promises that God is there with us, and that God will help us.
The Collect for Guidance is a bold prayer. It presumes that the Lord of the Cosmos cares about us, relates to us, is interested enough in our petty lives that God will help us through our day.
The Lord’s Prayer is bold in that same way. When he teaches his disciples, when Jesus teaches us, to pray to God as to a loving father, he is giving us not obvious but very good news! Pray to God as to someone who loves you and wants what is best for you. Pray as if you could trust God to meet your needs. That is a lot of good news packed into a single word!
Then, after giving us the substance of the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus tells an equally astonishing parable to illustrate how we are to pray.
Suppose you need a loaf of bread in the middle of the night. You knock on the door of a friend, and he refuses. If you keep knocking, you can eventually harass him into getting out of bed and giving you the bread. Pray like that.
Now, Jesus’ point is NOT that we can harass God into giving us what we want. Jesus is teaching us something important about the God to whom we pray and about our relationship with the God to whom we pray.
If a casual acquaintance woke me in the middle of the night for a loaf of bread, that relationship would be over.
On the other hand, my children have woken me in the middle of the night many times. And I have sometimes been irritated about it. But of course I still love them. And I do not mind them waking me up—at least not in the long run—because I want to do what I can to meet their needs.
In the parable, Jesus is telling us that our relationship with God is like that, except better. Jesus is telling us, we can trust our relationship with God. We can depend on God’s love. We can pray with persistence to our heavenly Father because God loves us and cares about our very ordinary needs.
Implied in everything Jesus says about prayer is one last point. The relationship that we have with God, our ability to call God Father, does not depend on us. We can address God as our Father with confidence and hope not because of anything we have done, but because of who God is, because of what God has done, because God has adopted us as beloved children.
Our reading from Colossians describes our adoption as children of God.
“You were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision.” “When you were buried with [Christ] in baptism, you were also raised with [Christ].” “When you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with [Christ], when he forgave us all our trespasses….”
We can call God Father, we can approach God as a beloved child approaches an indulgent Father, because Christ has bridged the gap that separated us from God, because God has forgiven us our trespasses, because we have been buried and raised with Christ. Thanks to Christ’s saving work, we can be so bold as to call God our Father, and we can be persistent in asking of God what we need.
For that great gift, for that good news, I give thanks to God in the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of God who makes us all God’s children. Amen.