Jesus taught them, saying “Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name …Matthew 6:9
Why pray the Lord’s Prayer? Isn’t it better to just talk to God, to share what is on our heart? Sometimes it is. But at other times, the Lord’s Prayer offers us the words that we need to address the God that we love. It is the perfect prayer, because God’s Son taught it to us. “In it,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes, “every prayer is contained.” All of our prayers, he goes on to say, “are summed up in the Lord’s Prayer and are taken up into its immeasurable breadth.” The prayer that Jesus taught us is the most beloved of all our prayers, with good reason.
Martin Luther said of this prayer: “Since our Lord is the author of this prayer, it is without a doubt the most sublime, the loftiest, and the most excellent. If he, the good and faithful Teacher, had known a better one, he would surely have taught us that too.”
The Lord’s Prayer is often the first prayer we learn by heart, and the last that we forget. In my ministry as a pastor, I have been blessed to pray this prayer with many people, in many different circumstances. One of the most moving experiences for me is when I pray this prayer with people suffering from dementia. They may not remember who I am, or even the names of their own family members, but they invariably join me in praying the Lord’s Prayer. It is always a holy experience for me.
This prayer connects us to one another in profound ways, across the generations, across denominations, and around the world. When I teach the Lord’s Prayer to young people, I like to point out that when they pray this prayer, there is almost certainly someone else in the world who is praying it at that very same moment. When we pray this prayer, we are never alone.
But, again, one might ask: Do we really need we rely on a memorized prayer? Can’t we just share with God what is on our heart? Of course! So why pray this prayer? I like how Eugene Peterson answers this question, in this story that he recounts in his book, “Tell It Slant“:
I was visiting a woman in her mid-forties. She had been widowed for several years, children grown, and feeling at loose ends. Nobody needed her; she had no need for employment. For a few months she had been worshiping, but erratically, in the congregation that I served as pastor. I was sitting in her living room, listening to this familiar rehearsal of mid-life meandering, a soul adrift. The conversation, like her life, didn’t seem to be going anywhere. There didn’t seem to be any place for me to get a foothold. She had a piece of needlework in her lap, stretched across an embroidery hoop. Then, with just a faint note of vibrancy in her voice, she said, “Do you know what I need? I need something to give tautness, shape to my life. I need an embroidery hoop for my soul. I’m a limp piece of cloth—you can’t do fine needlework on a limp piece of cloth.” She had given me my foothold. I said, “I’ve got just the hoop for you. The Lord’s Prayer is exactly that sort of device for your soul: a frame across which to stretch your soul taut with attention in the presence of God.”
Isn’t that great? The Lord’s Prayer is the frame that can keep our souls “taught with attention in the presence of God.” It can give us the foothold, the words, that we need. It can offer us the frame for all of our prayers.
Often, and with that idea in mind, I will pray this prayer until one of its phrases begins to speak to my current need, and then I will just pause and spend time with that particular petition. “Thy will be done,” for example, was a prayer that I kept coming back to at a time when I was struggling to discern God’s will for my life.
This are lots of reasons to love this prayer, without a doubt. But because of the very fact that it is so loved, the words of this prayer can become so familiar to us that they begin to lose their meaning. Have you ever heard of “semantic satiation” – that experience when we say a word over and over until it temporarily loses its meaning? That can happen with the Lord’s Prayer, too. It can even become the very thing that Jesus warned us about right before he taught us the Lord’s Prayer – it can become like heaping up empty phrases (“When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words” – Matthew 6:7).
With that in mind, I returned to the Lord’s Prayer through a series of midweek devotions and sermons this past Spring, a rather deep dive into this most beloved of prayers. I wanted to spend time with each and every phrase, so that they would never seem empty, but always full of their meaning for us. It was a joy to prepare these devotions and sermons, which have all been posted on this blog. And preparing them was a wonderful reminder to me of all the ways in which the Lord’s Prayer can serve as an embroidery hoop for the soul, that “frame across which to stretch your soul taut with attention in the presence of God.”
[Jesus taught them, saying:] “Pray then in this way: 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 do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.”Matthew 6:9-13