Singing it with Janis
Most of us who are Christians feel that we should be able to relate to God in something like a personal fashion. The consistent witness of the church is that God is more than some remote, disconnected, and even disinterested being. God is personal.
But our relationship with God is also different. God is not like us. We don't relate to God in the way we relate to our partner, and we can't. I can get a pretty good idea how happy the other person in the house is by looking at her face. Not so much with God. And even when I am sitting in the same room at home, I can get things very wrong... how much more opportunity is there to get things wrong with God whom I cannot see in anything like the same way?
But I long to relate to God. There is something in me which knows that, in this relationship, a lot of my empty spaces and hurt places can be filled and healed. How can I do it?
The person who questioned Jesus was in no doubt that they wanted to pray. The question was: how?
When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. 3Give us each day our daily bread. 4And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.
It's a bit different to the version in Matthew's Gospel, and even there, the gloria at the end— for thine is the kingdom the power and the glory— is not present in the oldest manuscripts of Matthew's gospel.
How do we understand this prayer which we used to sing each Sunday in the church where I grew up?
What if we looked at it as a mnemonic, a memory tool? You know that thing where you remember how many days there are in the month by saying the months as you touch them off on your knuckles... January, February... that's a mnemonic. It's a way of remembering.
Well the Lord's prayer can be like that. But to understand how, we need to do something else first. Let's look at the way we can pray.
There's lots of ways to pray. We pray each Wednesday here at Bible Study simply by spending time wrestling with the lectionary reading for the week. That's actually prayer; it makes time for God to speak into our lives. We discover things. Over the years, it's been a healing and a growing time for me.
At Fulham each Monday morning, we pray in a different way. We sit and share the needs of the congregation, and ourselves, and then we directly talk to God and ask for healing and safety and love. It's very different. It's not my style at all, but I'm finding it quite powerful.
And we pray in another way here each time we use the words we say in unison from the laminated sheets. I find that moving, too.
But there is another prayer. It goes like this:
Oh Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz ?
My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends.
Worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends,
So Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz ?
Oh Lord, won't you buy me a color TV ?
Dialing For Dollars is trying to find me.
I wait for delivery each day until three,
So oh Lord, won't you buy me a color TV ?
That was a hit for Janis Joplin in 1970. She sang it as a protest. She said “It’s not what isn’t, it’s what you wish was that makes unhappiness.” It's not that long ago that Mercedes Benz, with a total lack of irony, and in full obeisance to the god mammon was using that song in advertisements to sell cars.
And a lot of the church is like Mercedes Benz, using prayer in completely the wrong direction. Using it for greed. Forgetting that we cannot serve God and mammon. Completely unaware that, in Jesus' world, to be rich was a sign not that God had blessed you, but that you were an unrighteous person.
When we get it so wrong with our partner sitting in the same room, let alone when we lust after material goods, how do we relate healthily to God?
The Lord's Prayer reminds us. It is a mnemonic about who God is, and who we are. When we take time to pray it; when we pray it slowly and thoughtfully rather than gabbling it off, it re-minds us— re minds us, and orients us towards God.
Let's look at some of the words:
Father: despite all the limitations of that word, it is used by Jesus as a subversive corrective to our self-centred-ness. To pray Father is to place myself under authority. A good father loves me but does not indulge me in things which will harm me.
And to pray Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come— is to say no to Empire, and to say no to all the things and glitter of Empire. It says no to Mercedes Benz's and Porches which are indulgences which harm others because we cannot use that money to help them. And which are indulgences which harm us because they prevent us helping other people.
To say Father is to accept my contingency and dependence as a created being. It says I don't own myself; I came from someone else. The real holiness, the real thing which matters, in our existence, is not us, not money, not power, but the Being which loves us, and which is full of love for us. And calling God Father, also reminds us that God is benevolent; many of us have been taught to fear God.
Now while I've been saying all this, some of us have been sitting here with a very different experience of father; we may experience the word father as irredeemable because of abuse we have suffered. And if I told you to pray Father anyway, that would be an abuse, too. Sometimes it is entirely appropriate to pray
God who loves me
and who will make the whole world again
so that then I can live unharmed
hallowed by your name...
Then it says, your kingdom come: Do you see that we are asking for something, but it is not for a Mercedes Benz. We are asking for the whole world. When we say your kingdom come we are saying that the world is not right, but will be put to rights, by God.
In Matthew's version of the prayer he says, Pray like this... which means... pray for the world. Pray for yourself, but not at the expense of the world and of other people. How would you feel if you were saying your prayers out loud together with one of the people who beg in the city? If the kingdom we pray for cannot be for them, then it is not the kingdom we are praying for, but for our own greed.
And then there are the words about daily bread. I wonder if that's a reference to communion... to the daily presence of Jesus in our lives... just as much as it is about having food to eat. Daily bread is a life shaped around dependence and trust upon God; it's a life which is seeking to develop that dependence, rather than a life which trusts only our own devices. It doesn't say. "God, let us store up years' worth of grain for Australia while other countries starve."
And then... what a prayer! Forgive us our sins for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. See how it questions us and reminds us? Can we lie straight in bed and say those words?
And finally, do not bring us to the time of trial.
This acknowledges something really difficult about our world. We would like it to be a perfect place but, clearly, it isn't. Our trust in God is a trust for rescue. The way Jesus' people saw it, if God was really in charge, then in some form or another God allowed bad things to happen. One of the commentators from the 1800's said God suffers some things to be done. (Adam Clarke pp73) So, in all the imperfections of the world we ask, do not bring us to the time of trial; we want to be spared that, but if it does come to us, deliver us from evil— again, this is a statement of trust. It's acknowledging that we depend upon God, and we can only depend upon God.
Now how does this work for us— saying this prayer?
Well, back when there were no clocks people would measure time by a number of ways. One way, when you were cooking, was to say the Lord's Prayer. An old recipe might say "simmer the broth for three Lord's Prayers"! (Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat.) You made time for the cooking by saying the prayer.
One way of looking at us, and at our relationship with God, might be to say we are a bit... undercooked. We need to make time to be in the presence of God. That's what prayer does. And the Lord's Prayer, if we take time to say it slowly, changes all our other praying. It reminds us what our praying should be about. It reminds us that Mercedes Benz's and Porsches and big TV's have nothing to do with a good life. In fact, wanting them, and praying for them, makes us sad.
Some of the Mercedes ads have such an upbeat version of Janis Joplin's song; it's such fun— they want to sell us a car, after all. But listen to Janis Joplin sing it as her life was falling apart and you hear misery and pain and despair. She had a Porsche. She knew it didn't work.
Dear God, save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil. May we hallow your name, for yours is the kingdom, the power and the glory. Amen
Andrew Prior (2019)
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
Also on One Man's Web
Made by Prayer... (2019) which is the source of some material above, and
Luke 11:1-13 - Persistent Prayer (2010)
Luke 11:1-13 - Science and Prayer (2013)
Luke 11:1-13 - The Scientist Prays (2013)
Luke 11:1-13 - Praying with God (2013)