Many among us, particularly those of my vintage, will remember a pretty standard morning routine in school, called, euphemistically, the morning exercises: announcements for the day, followed by O Canada, followed by the Lord’s Prayer. Just to be clear, I’m not taking this little stroll down memory lane to suggest that we should return to school prayer; our society is now far too pluralistic to justify that kind of thing. What I’m actually wanting to observe is something that I witness when I’m leading worship in retirement homes or when I’m visiting people who are sick or shut in….and that’s the reality that the Lord’s Prayer has become for me and many others something automatic, something lodged deep in our memory banks that we can rattle off without really giving it much thought. To be sure, it’s a bit of a rallying point, which along with the 23rd Psalm might be termed one of the more emotionally significant touchstones of our faith. As you may also be aware, it turns up in the catechism along with the Apostle’s Creed and the 10 Commandments as one of the three things necessary to be learned before confirmation…. so it’s been viewed historically within the church as something with profound theological significance …. something that Jesus offered as a way of approaching God in prayer.
The question for us, though, is whether Jesus was being prescriptive and giving us words to say for all time; or whether he was simply giving us an outline, a framework for prayer: less of a ‘what’ and more of a ‘how’, encouraging something that comes from the heart as well as the head.
Looking at it from this point of view, I hear Jesus calling us to three pretty basic things whenever we engage in prayer. The first is to praise God whom we acknowledge to be as close to us as a loving parent, present with us always, and whose kingdom values we wish to see embodied and enacted upon this earth. Foundational to this kind of relationship is the need to approach God with simplicity and honesty. There is nothing, after all, that God doesn’t already know about us, so there’s really nothing to hide. (We couldn’t if we tried anyway!)
The second is to acknowledge our dependence and our trust in God – to provide what we need to sustain us, and for guidance, strength, and protection. In a world preoccupied with material extravagance beyond all rational expectation, this prayer reminds us to ask only for what we need, and for defense against those things which would draw us away from hearing God’s voice.
And last, and by no means least, it is a call to exercise forgiveness. We simply need to routinely bring to mind that since God forgives our various and assorted transgressions, the very least we can do is to extend that same generosity of spirit to others in the same human boat. So to be right with God, a regular taking stock of our own conscience is undoubtedly a spiritually healthy thing to do.
I think it was CS Lewis who once said, “Prayer doesn’t change God, prayer changes me.” The only way I think that can happen, for prayer to be transformative, is if prayer comes from deep within, from that place where we recognize our utter dependence on God, a place where we actually think about the words we say, and offer them with simplicity, honesty, and trust….knowing that we are pushing against a door that God has already opened wide. Lord, teach us to pray.
The Venerable Nancy Adams