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March 10th, 2009 at 9:54 am

The Prayer Jesus Gave Us

(This article appeared in the march 2009 edition of The ARP Magazine, as part of a monthly series  ”God’s Indispensable Word.”)

As I sit down to write this article I am looking out the window at the buildings of downtown Greensboro, NC. It is quiet downtown. It snowed last night leaving a slippery glaze on the roads. Looking out I am reminded of the words of Jeremiah at the beginning of Lamentations, “How lonely sits the city that was full of people.”

A flurry of needs and issues sweep into my mind. I am compelled to stop what I am doing and pray. But what shall I pray?

I am a member of the “free-form” generation, baby boomers who grew up in a spiritual environment that “had a form of godliness but without the power.” I got carted off to Sunday School and church by parents who were not believers, and into a service of worship that meant very little to me, and, as far as I could tell very little to anybody else. I have only a few memories of church back then, one of them being the recitation of Apostles Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. That and the tie, and the organ…

I began my life of faith in Jesus Christ when I was sixteen, after several years of not going to church anymore. I heard the gospel taught and explained in a para church setting. There was a lot of emphasis on being “real.” In today’s parlance the word closest in meaning to our “real” is the word “authentic.” The older I get the less I know what either of these words mean.

But back then I instinctively defined these ideas as meaning “not religious,” “not by rote,” “from the heart,” etc. Like many people my age I had a built in bologna detector when it came to matters religious. And this bologna detector was calibrated to sift out all vain repetition, such as The Apostles’ Creed and The Lord’s Prayer.

Prayers were “conversations with God” and were best done free-form. I had a “relationship” with God that couldn’t be boiled down to a creedal statement. Like many people of my era I was drawn more to the intimate rather than the transcendent aspect of God’s nature.

Apparently a whole lot of other people were in the same boat. Despite the more recent draw of many folks back into a kind of liturgical worship, the vast majority of Christians of my generation prefer the free-form approach to prayer and most other things. In like manner we have taught our kids by word and example the value of free-form, protecting them as it were from the empty rituals of our childhood.

Eventually I grew up. It dawned on me gradually over time that I should not be guided in my prayers by whatever happens to bubble up from my mind and heart in the moment. In fact, having tried to escape from formal and meaningless rituals of my childhood I had merely replaced those vain repetitions with another set of vain repetitions.

How is it that I would seek to place myself under the authority of the indispensible Word of God in this or that other area of life, yet not when it came to my praying? It didn’t make sense.

There are few places in the Gospels where the disciples specifically ask Jesus to teach them. In Luke 11, it says that Jesus had been “praying in a certain place.”  He must have made an impression for when he rejoined the disciples one of them asked him, “Lord, teach us to pray.” Apparently John the Baptist had taught his disciples how to pray, and Jesus’ disciples wanted Jesus to do the same for them. So he did. “Prayer is a conversation with God,” Jesus said. “Close your eyes and imagine yourself in His presence and just let your heart guide you. And be sure to use the word ‘just’ over and over.”

OK, Jesus didn’t say that, though judging by my generation it would seem that He did. Rather Jesus offered a series of petitions beginning with “Father.”

The same basic prayer shows up in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6:9.” Jesus had been teaching his disciples how not to pray, before turning his attention on how to pray. Don’t pray to impress. Don’t say things over and over as if the repetition is required to get God’s attention.  No, when you pray, pray like this:

“Our Father in heaven,

hallowed be your name.

Your kingdom come,

your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread,

and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

I look over these words now and I think: simple, thorough, appropriate, balanced, perfect! I can hardly think of any impulse that comes from within me that does not fit into one of these petitions.

I am to approach God as Father, and as “our” Father, not just “my” Father. I know that I can only call God my “Father” but through the saving work of the Lord Jesus who is teaching me to pray this prayer. So right off I am centered upon God who is God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ.

My instinct may be to jump right into my or other people’s needs, but not yet. First I am to focus on the holiness of God’s name, which is another way of speaking about the holiness of God Himself. Whatever else may be pushing its way into my heart, I need to pause before God’s otherness, His holiness, acknowledging it, and asking that it be honored within my heart and in the world.

Wow, intimacy (our Father) and transcendence (hallowed be your name) all in eight words!

OK, so now I can jump into my list. I told so and so I’d pray for them, and there is the economy, and my guilt, and my struggle to be obedient, etc.

Not yet. This prayer is teaching me to consider God’s greater will and plan first. I am to pray for the coming of His kingdom. This includes praying for Jesus’ return, but also for the kingship of God to be fleshed out in my life as well as in the world as a whole. I am to pray that God’s will, His prescriptions for His people and His world, to be done here on earth just as they are done in heaven.

Having now focused on God’s name and His will, my immediate needs (and our needs as a people) have faded a bit from the forefront of my heart, but they are still there. I can now ask God to provide for me and my brethren. We need food. I need work to buy my food. I may need a car to get to my work. I may need things other than food, as do my brethren round about me.

Finally I get to ask for forgiveness. Why isn’t that first? Don’t I need to get right with God before I pray? Well, yes I do, and that is covered in the “our Father.” I can only call Him Father if I am praying through His Son who died for my sins so that I might have access to God. And focusing on “our” Father I am being trained to think of the forgiveness of sins more broadly than my own need for forgiveness.

For everything there is a time, and my own sins do matter. Now I get to ask specifically for forgiveness of y sins, along with an implied petition that I would forgive others as the Father forgives me.

And speaking of sin, I need His help. I am “prone to wander, Lord I feel it,” right into the traps of the evil one. I desperately need God’s help that I may stay strong in Him, and that I may resist the devil and his wiles.

As I have grown up as a Christian I have had to grow down as well, down from confidence that I know how to approach God, down from putting myself in the center of my concerns, down from giving too much consideration to my varying feelings, down from thinking of the kingdom of God too individualistically.

There it was all along, a simple easily remembered template for our life of prayer as God’s people, straight from the mouth of the Lord Jesus. If I really think that His word is indispensible why have I dispensed with it when it comes to my praying? I should not have.

The Church of Jesus Christ has acknowledged the indispensible nature of God’s Word regarding prayer all along, even if my generation has forgotten it. How do I know this? Because there is an exposition of the Lord’s Prayer in all the major catechisms of the Christian Church, going back in time well before the reformation, and stretching across the Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant Churches.

The disciples asked the Lord Jesus to teach them to pray. And He did. It is odd that we who may seek Jesus’ will so readily in other area of life would so readily dismiss it when it comes to our praying. Should we not pray accordingly, as He has taught us? I think we should.

We don’t have to say the exact words of the Lord’s Prayer over and over, though it is fine to do so. We can pray “in this way” by using the structure of the Lord’s Prayer as a template so to speak. Can we think of any request, praise, or cry of the heart that is not covered under one of these headings? It’s all there, right before our eyes, in God’s indispensible Word.

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