On Sunday we started a new series digging deeper into the Lord’s Prayer. We pray it together almost every week, because it is good for us to pray together in a way that allows and encourages each of us to lift our hearts and minds and voices to God, and because familiar words can give us somewhere to begin from or something to hold on to when our own words won’t come, and because it is the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples and so we can be sure that it trains us in good habits for the rest of our prayer lives. But of course all of that only works if we pray the Lord's Prayer consciously, and it is important that familiarity does not breed contempt or complacency, which is we we are going to spend some time experimenting with different ways of praying it, and exploring what it means to not only pray but live those words,
It took me a while to settle on a reading for Sunday, but I chose Psalm 103 because it contains all of the key themes of the Lord’s Prayer, and so it brings us in to the prayer from a slightly different angle. God is compared to a father in verse 13, there is a lot of hallowing with ‘Praise the Lord’ repeated six times, the kingdom appears in verse 19, there is a promise of provision in verse 5 and of absolution in verses 9-12, and we find deliverance in verse 4.
I think the connection between the psalm and the prayer is striking for two reasons. First, it is a reminder that very little of what Jesus said was new. It seemed radical only because so many people had forgotten that God had been saying those things all along. Sadly we still keep forgetting and so it still seems radical. That’s something we need to remember about the Lord’s Prayer, that is always both old and always new. However familiar the words feel, it is still a powerful and revolutionary act to orient our prayers around its priorities, to desire God’s kingdom not our own power, to ask only for what we need, to promise that we will offer others the same forgiveness we ourselves seek. We need to pray these words with an awareness of their history, of how deeply rooted they are in all that God is and does, but also of their resonance now, of what they mean for what we are called to be and do in our turn.
Second, whereas the Lord’s Prayer is a series of petitions, Psalm 103 is a series of declarations, and that assures us that we seek the kingdom and daily bread and forgiveness in the assurance that they can be found. In fact that same assurance follows directly on from the giving of the Lord’s Prayer in Luke 11, where Jesus says “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” I’m sure we have enough experience of prayer here to know that we don’t always get the answer we want, so we will be sorely disappointed if we read this a promise that we always get what we ask for, but it should give us confidence that God listens and God responds. That’s an important thing to remember as we go into a deeper study of this prayer.
I also love this psalm because it includes one of several iterations of the declaration that the Lord is gracious and compassionate, which is a sort of refrain throughout the scriptures. It appears first in Exodus 34, where it is the way God announces himself to Moses as he passes by, and then again in at least three psalms and two of the prophets. It is to this gracious and compassionate and patient and loving God that we address all of our prayers, so I think it is good to have these words in mind as we reflect on this prayer in particular. Perhaps you might like to sit with them for a moment, or let them wash over you as you listen to this song.
Here is where we really get into the Lord’s Prayer, starting with Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. These eight words tell us even more about who it is we are praying to and emphasise our relationship with God, which seems to me to be a really good place to start any prayer. And I do think that relationship is important throughout this first phrase, as not only does Our Father in heaven speak of God's love for us and our ties to one another, but hallowed be your name is in large part about how we treat God.
Let’s focus on Our Father first though. It seems important to acknowledge that there are difficulties with Father language. I’ve said before that our overwhelming use of patriarchal language has limited our understanding of God and of ourselves There has been a tendency to think that if God is male then the masculine must be nearest to the divine, and so the church has at times forgotten the more traditionally feminine qualities that God also possesses, and afforded men levels of respect and power not also shown to women. And so I know people who are experimenting with using only neutral or feminine language for God, to try and shift them out of those patterns of thinking.
But for many the gendered nature of the language is not the most pressing difficulty. While for some the idea of God as Father can be helpful or even healing, for others it can be a painful barrier to relationship. If your earthly father has been absent or abusive, how are you supposed to know what it means for God to be a heavenly father? Do you even want to use the word father when it has caused so much sorrow?
I’m not suggesting for a moment that we should never name God as Father, I am just trying to recognise that it can be problematic, because if we don’t name and address the problems we have with religious and even scriptural language, they can become stumbling blocks. I would hate for anyone to feel that they can’t say this prayer because they can’t get past the second word. It’s okay to struggle with it and I think it’s okay to find ways around it by favouring other names.
Because fortunately there are countless names for God, many of which convey some of the same sense as Father, and there are versions of the Lord’s Prayer that already reflect that. A church I knew in Leeds used a form that began Our Father and Mother and the New Zealand Prayer Book has a version that begins Eternal Spirit, Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver, Source of all that is and that shall be, Father and Mother of us all, Loving God, in whom is heaven.
Father is how Jesus named God because that was how he understood his relationship to God, but perhaps you name God in a different way because you understand your relationship in a different way. Take a moment to reflect on that. When you are not praying Our Father , how do you name God?
We may not all naturally pray Our Father, but I do want to give a little more thought to those words, because I think it is significant that Jesus chose them. So what did it mean for Jesus to call God Father, and what might it mean for us to pray the same?
I think we get some clues in what Jesus says about his Father elsewhere in the gospels. Most famously there is the story of the prodigal son, in which the father (who represents God) allows his wayward son to make his own mistakes, and then welcomes him back with love and forgiveness. There is also the passage following on from the Lord’s Prayer in Luke, in which Jesus says that the Father in heaven knows even better than our fathers on earth how to give good gifts. Then there is Jesus’ promise that there are many rooms in his Father’s house. And he cries out “Abba, Father” in his moment of greatest distress in the Garden of Gethsemane. For Jesus, the Father is one who acts towards his children with freedom and mercy, who blesses them with faithful generosity, who makes for them a home, and who is a source of comfort and strength - and the fact that he invites us to call God Father means that God can be all those things for us too.
I think we can also remember that Jesus is clear that he and the Father are one. In a particularly striking passage in the supper discourses in John, he declares that he is in the Father and the Father is in him, and that anyone who has seen him has seen the Father. So to pray to God as Father is to pray to God as the one who is revealed in Jesus, and we can ascribe to the Father all the qualities that we see in Jesus. Compassion, mercy, hospitality, authority, truth, justice, love...these are all a part of what Father means.
Perhaps most significantly, Father is an intimately relational term which speaks of an unconditional bond. For good or bad, a father is always a father, and so the word conveys something eternal and unbreakable, a relationship which simply is. The intimacy of this language is particularly significant because it is one of the ways in which Jesus does introduce something new - there is some father language in the Old Testament, but it is never as strong as it is in Jesus’ speech, and God is more often referred to with words which convey him as a lord or ruler, someone elevated and separate. It is clear from the way Jesus speaks about fathers that for him Father assumes a much closer relationship, with contact and even a family likeness. The call to name God as Father is then an invitation into deeper relationship.
But before we become too focused on that relationship, it’s also important to remember that we pray Our Father not My Father. We pray as siblings, and our relationship with God is direct but not exclusive. This prayer keeps us in conversation with God, but it also maintains us in connection with all who pray it. That is why it is good that we pray and study it together.
A few years ago I came across something called the Father’s love letter, a collection of paraphrased verses from scripture put together to read as a letter from God to us. It is a promise of the kind of relationship Jesus seems to have in mind when he begins his prayer Our Father, so I invite you to read it now.
We’re going to move on now to the next little bit, hallowed be your name. Now my Greek is horribly rusty, but I think a more direct translation would be ‘let his name be hallowed’. Of course ‘hallowed’ isn’t a word we use very often, but it means ‘made holy’ which in itself means ‘exalted’ or ‘honoured’ or ‘worthy of devotion’. So here Jesus is calling us to express a desire - and I would suggest feel a desire - that God’s name be praised. I think there is both a passive recognition that God should be praised, and an active wish to see God praised, a sense of saying ‘you are worthy and I want that to be known’.
As a slight side note here, I have wondered about the fact that the focus is on God’s 1name rather than God’s person, but it seems that in Jewish tradition, a name conveys the nature and essence of a person, and so there is perhaps not much of a distinction in meaning between the two. Or perhaps it is that God is already holy and so does not need to be made holy, but rather it is God’s name - the way we speak of God, or the reputation we give to God - that needs to be made holy, because that is the bit we have control over.
So how do we make God’s name holy? Well we can praise God, as the scriptures time and again call us to do. That surely means being aware enough of God’s goodness that we can be thankful for it. Perhaps you might commit to finding something to be grateful for each evening, or remembering to say grace before each meal. It might mean quite literally singing God’s praises. I frequently find myself singing worship songs as I’m walking and working, and I’m sure it does my soul good. It could mean naming God’s attributes as well as God’s deeds. One activity I did with a previous church was compiling an ABC of God’s goodness, with people taking it in turns to speak out a quality of God for each letter of the alphabet. Why don’t you take a moment now to praise God?
We can also use God’s name well. A couple of months ago I heard my son say ‘Oh my God’, and so I had to explain to him that we don’t say that because God’s name is special and so we only use it when we are really talking about or to God. It was an interesting exercise, trying to explain blasphemy to a toddler, but it seems to have worked as I haven't heard him say it again, and it was an important reminder to me of why I need to treat God’s name with care and pride.
We need to represent God’s name well too. I have worn my clerical collar a couple of times over the past month, and I am always struck by how much more conscious I am of how I behave, and how my behaviour represents God. It’s difficult to escape being an ambassador for the gospel when I have a dog collar on, because everyone knows who I represent, but of course the truth is that we should all be ambassadors at all times. Perhaps even more than in our praises and our politeness, we make God’s name holy when we live in ways that reveal God’s love and truth and justice, when we make another glimpse the holiness of God.
So hallowed be your name isn’t just a recognition or a wish, it is a commitment - a promise to make God’s name holy by our words and our deeds. That’s really important, because often we approach prayer wanting to commit God to something, and we forget that it is as much about changing us as it is about influencing God. If we pray hallowed be your name and we remember to go on and hallow it, it will transform us and our relationship with God, making us more thankful and more aware of God’s holiness and better ambassadors of the gospel. We’re only eight words in, and already this is a powerful prayer.
That's a lot to going on with, and you may be relieved to know you are nearly at the end. I just have one last thing to offer. I used a poem by Malcolm Guite as one of our readings for Pentecost, and here you can find another of his poems, from a series based on the Lord’s Prayer. May we make this prayer our rising and our rest, that we might bless the name by which we're blessed.