Most any clergy person who has prayed with a dying person will confirm the following as a common experience. On a number of occasions I have stood at a bedside sharing prayers with a family saying goodbye to a loved one who is on the threshold between life and death. When I have invited all gathered to join with me in reciting the Lord’s Prayer, the dying person usually joins with us. Rarely are his or her words audible, but invariably their lips move. I expect that scientific research might explain how the familiar is triggered and retrieved from the deepest parts of our brains, but that doesn’t diminish the significance of that moment. Indeed, it only points to the great value of practicing ritual regularly so that it is available to serve us in our moments of need. The universal familiarity of the Lord’s Prayer raises it to the status of being THE prayer that we all use when no other prayer can be remembered.
Annie Lamott says that there are really only two prayers; “Help me, help me, help me!” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you!” We all know how to pray those two. No doubt we started by talking that way to our parents, or at least I hope that we all learned the value of gratitude and not just how to get our needs met. So it makes sense that this prayer encourages us to approach God as a parent. Since not all of us have good relationships with our parents, it is important (as previously bloggers this week have pointed out) not to get too literal in our understanding of the prayer. Still, we can all appreciate how a loving parent cares for a child and rejoice that we are invited to have that sort of relationship with God. So with the caveat about the danger of limiting God to fatherhood, the word that strikes me most in the beginning of this prayer is the very first work, our. God is not just my father, God is also your father. God is the father of all who pray this prayer and even of those who don’t or won’t. The truth is, whether we like it or not, we are all connected. Just like you can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family, when you pray “Our Father…” you are admitting that you are connected to the entire human family.
Our small town, Brimfield, MA (population around 3000) was hit hard by a tornado ten days ago. The our of the Our Father has become very concrete in these days. It only took seven seconds for Countryside Community Church, UCC (DWB’s mommy) to concretize it in a video that simply said “We are praying for you Brimfield!” The prayers that we know are plentiful for us right now from so many people in so many places are palpable. We feel them when the tears well up, threatening to baptize our cheeks with the blessing. The prayers are also the unspoken presence of an abundance of food, supplies and most especially volunteers which continues to swamp our hallways and rooms here at First Congregational Church, UCC. The great Jewish practical theologian, Abraham Heschel, said of his time marching with others during the Civil Rights marches of the 1960’s, “I felt like my legs were praying.” He was right. When people of any faith or no faith work together to make love real in a hurting world they are indeed praying together to Our Father, who is not sitting back in the heavens, but in that moment breaking in to our lives.
Beautiful reflections, Ian…Thank you!
Love the choice of “our” as your focus. That’s going in my Sunday morning sermon!
I loved the line in here about “my legs were praying”. One thing that has drawn me over to the dark side (pun intended) is this notion of doing over believing. Of course I believe in God, but when I see the Gospel preached this way (doing not hearing only) I have a greater connection with the Divine. I was able to witness the outpouring of love at Ian’s church on Wednesday. It truly warmed my heart. Great blog friend. Thanks for showing the rest of us how the Gospel is done.
Thanks for this blog, Ian. I agree with Eric that ”our” is a great focus. As someone who isn’t a fan of reciting the Lord’s Prayer, the statement, “when you pray ‘Our Father…’ you are admitting that you are connected to the entire human family” unlocked a barrier to this prayer that I was unaware I had.
For 10 years after graduating from HS & moving away from my home UCC church it seemed as though every single “Christian” I met did not share the same understanding of Jesus’ life/Christianity as I had. Long story short…I basically decided that my little church must have been an exception (equating it to not truly Christian). I couldn’t connect with the beliefs my Christian friends espoused, & rather than learn any more I turned away from the Christian title (but not away from my faith).
I realized that I was literally holding my breath after I read your reminder of “Our” Father. I finally exhaled & a light bulb went on… I consider The Lord’s Prayer a “Christian” prayer sooo…. instead of “hearing” Humanities Father, I “hear” Christianities (exclusive) Father….and I guess that is still a little barrier for me…(good to know!:). Thank you for your words. They are playing a part in enriching my relationship with OUR Living God while renewing my trust of Christian faith traditions.
oops…meant to type Humanity’s Father & Christianity’s (exclusive) Father 😉 …now I must go to sleep zzz…..
The focus on “our” is superb. Thank you for that.
As for the legs praying citation, I wonder if Herschel was familiar with Frederick Douglass’s comment that he prayed for years for salvation from enslavement, but got no response until he prayed with his legs. Which puts me in mind of the words ascribed to St Francis of Assisi, calling for the gospel to be preached constantly and if necessary to use words. How are our various actions, with feet, hands, eyes, tears, wallets–and if necessary, lips–prayers?
I hadn’t heard that about Frederick Douglas before, it is very powerful. We are indeed to look for the answer to our prayers in our own hands and feet first, that is why God made us. And when we can’t do it on our own we have each other.
I am very familiar with the quote from St. Francis, I use it often…including this past Sunday when we were contemplating how we respond to the “problem” that the Holy Spirit created at Pentecost giving us a story that we can’t stop from telling. It is indeed a story we tell with our actions more than with our words.
Another wonderful thought comes from Teresa of Avila who reminds us that God has no body now but yours; no hands, no feet on earth but yours.