Some months ago, as I was preparing a discussion for our community on the nature of prayer, it occurred to me that in responding to the unnamed disciple's need for instruction in prayer, Jesus really offered instruction in living the way of God's kingdom (Matthew 6:7-15, Luke 11:1-4). The Our Father, or the Lord's Prayer, lays out some concrete pictures of how we and our world were created to be.
Hallowed be your name.
A people who believe God is holy will live in ways that reflect that goodness. Praising and honoring God flows naturally into joining God's mission to bless and reconcile our broken world, and in a culture that has many gods our living in coherence with that mission brings honor to God.
Your kingdom come...
Jesus' constant theme was that the kingdom of God is at hand, that the healing and wholeness God promised were fulfilled in himself. So much of Jesus' teaching served to open his hearer's eyes and ears (sometimes literally!) to the possibility that God's kingdom is the reality that grounds and supersedes the earthly kingdoms we live in. If we believe that kingdom is here and now, our allegiances and priorities change, and we must say:
...Your will be done.
The Our Father teaches us that we must empty our egos and desires in order to discern God's will. We are creatures with our own wills, which are sometimes very strong. We have areas of influence (sometimes very small) where what we say goes. And we like that. Yet when we can yield our will to God's, we find that sometimes we are encouraged to continue on healthy paths, and sometimes we are challenged to lay down what is not useful and life-giving.
There is even a bit of control in praying this sentence, which only appears in Matthew's version. As if God's will can't be done if we don't ask for it! I look at it this way: If God's will is unfolding, then am I living in a way that furthers God's mission or hinders it? That is what I have control of.
Give us each day our daily bread.
Living in God's kingdom, living in harmony with God's creation, means learning to live with our human limits. Brian McLaren brilliantly points out in his new book Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope what happens when we live as if we're above limits: The rich keep storing up more wealth at the expense of the poor, we consume resources and release waste with little apparent concern for what we leave our grandchildren, and the growing prosperity gap creates global insecurity that sucks even more resources for defense.
If we concede that God truly provides what we need, then we might be able to escape the anxiety that drives this cycle of consumption. This is difficult for most of us, because we live in a world of manufactured desires that just happen to coincide with products available. God does provide what we actually need. (For example, the world grows plenty of food, if we could just get it to the people who need it.) But that might be a far cry from what we want.
Closer to home, I feel differently if I ask whether I have what I need now than I do if I think (read: worry) about whether I'll be able to live out my retirement dreams the way Dennis Hopper and Ameriprise promise.
Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
We live in an unforgiving age. In the richest society in the history of the planet many go to bed hungry, and many more are one bad decision or unforseen accident away. We love to place blame. You don't have to wait long to see an example of rude, selfish or self-centered behavior. We're like the character in Jesus' parable who begs for mercy and then puts the screws to people who owe him far less than he was forgiven. Jesus says this over and over because it's true: We need to admit to ourselves that we are not who we think we are. If we are to be more like God, then we need to show mercy and forgiveness because that is who God is.
As I contemplate this beautiful prayer, I see it as a form of self-examination rather than intercession. God is holy, generous, and merciful (and so much more!). We can't pray this prayer to make God be more God-like than God already is. We pray it, instead, to change our hearts, and ask that they be made a little more like God's.