As a teacher and writer, I am constantly juggling, examining, ducking, burying, testing and launching words. Day and night, I read and talk and write. I seldom escape the weighing of my words for timing, accuracy and fit. I love this word-riddled life, this chance to mimic the One whose mere saying something makes it so.
There are casualties, though, one of which is my prayer life. You see, the rest of my life is saturated with words, and I find that, in prayer, I have little left. Really, it’s that I have little left that’s worth much. I can still talk — only my speech quickly descends into the narcissistic babble of native talkers. Prayer, it is not.
And so I struggle with this question: how am I to pray faithfully, when word-fatigue casts such a long shadow over my life?
The answer, at times, is to pray first rather than last. It’s the principle of firstfruits, that the Lord God deserves the best, coupled with enough self-awareness to know I rarely save the best for last. Another answer, one recently helpful, is to borrow. When I don’t have enough words, when they are bad words, or when I simply don’t trust my own speech, I can take someone else’s. Of course, I don’t know that I’d trust your words either. But when the words are words of Scripture (and, thus, God’s words) coupled with the words of the Church, well, those I can trust.
Recently I’ve been borrowing words from the Book of Common Prayer. It has four short ‘Daily Devotions for Individuals and Families’ (pp. 136-40) to be prayed in the morning, at noon, in the early evening and at the close of day. Life finds a rhythm in this kind of prayer, and my idiosyncratic prayer life finds a structure that is deeply scriptural and christological. I can move beyond word selection to prayerful meditation on these words I’m given.
But that is all by way of introduction. The point of this post is something I’ve been learning about the Lord’s prayer, a prayer that I’ve prayed each time I’ve done one of these daily devotions. It’s not a prayer that I’ve found overly meaningful over the years (which I say to my shame, no doubt), in part because, while I can sense a loose logic to it, it seems more of a laundry list to me.
Thankfully, I am part of a small group at my church (with the risk of moralizing — you should find one of those to be a part of, too!). A few weeks ago we discussed Luke’s shorter version of the Lord’s prayer, which reads as follows:
Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread,
and forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us.
And lead us not into temptation. (Luke 11.2-4)
Now, I get that this is a prayer beginning with God, particularly in the worship that flows from recognition of God, along with a prayer that all would join in the hallowing of his great name. But when it transitions to the nitty-gritty petitions, that’s where I lose the flow. What, after all, do physical nourishment and forgiveness have to do with one another?
Quite a lot, turns out. It is key to recognize the ‘whence’ of our difficulty in forgiving others. The bitterness in which I cross my arms and refuse to forgive you (whoever first called this ‘nursing a grudge’ had a poet’s sense for image and irony) is not for nothing. Rather, it flows out of a feeling of being incomplete. I feel that I need something from you. ‘You owe me’ an apology — that is, a token of your recognition of being in the wrong, your sorrow and your commitment to doing things differently. At its heart, then, our lack of forgiveness betrays need.
Scroll up a couple of lines. ‘Give us each day our daily bread.’ A prayer almost entirely symbolic for those of us in the West. We pray it, but have difficulty entering into the need it expresses. Without doubt, the petition evokes God’s provision of manna for Israel in the wilderness. Every morning Israel would awaken and gather the manna — only enough for the day, as its shelf-life was just that. The food I get at the grocery store lasts long enough, and my fridge is cold enough, that I can go weeks and weeks without praying for daily bread. This is probably bad for my soul.
‘Bread’ is representative here, though, of all that the sovereign Lord provides for his people. And this is what helped unlock the Lord’s prayer for me. When we pray that the Lord would provide us with daily bread — that he would give us everything we need for a life of loving him and others — we remember his past provision and hope and trust in him to provide today. After all, in the jabbing words of Jesus only a few verses later, ‘What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’ (Luke 11.11-13)
And so, by the time I recall the need to ‘forgive everyone who is indebted’ to me, I can. I no longer have the felt need to collect on my debts, because I have been given absolutely everything I need for today (including, as the middle clause points out, the Lord’s forgiveness of my debts). As little as my grudge-clutching heart might believe this, it is simply the case that the Father of lights, from whom comes every good and perfect give, the one who gives daily bread because he is himself the Bread of Life, has given me everything I need for life and godliness. So — finally, and thanks be to God — I am released to release you from your debt to me. Wonder of wonders, I can forgive.