“You cannot have Christian worship without the Lord’s prayer.” After saying that to me, the old Baptist layman gave me a look that said, “What I just said is not negotiable.”
Back home in Kansas, you only gave that sort of look to people at church when matters of great doctrine were being defended, or worse, when somebody tried to cut in line at the church potluck. Scowl, say what you need that other person to hear (as they are obviously incorrect), and look intense. Such a look scares off heretics and people aiming for seconds alike.
The conversation about the Lord's Prayer revolved around a church looking for ways to revise its worship order. The Baptist layman was perfectly fine with changing the type of music (a battle in itself in other churches), yet when it came to the place of the Lord’s Prayer in worship (the proposal was to lessen the regularity of its use in worship), the proposal was not received very well by the Baptist layman, hence the scowl reserved for times such as these.
I didn’t quite know what to say. (The scowl serves as a conversation killer after all….). I grew up in my “home congregation” with the practice of the Lord’s prayer in worship being very sparing, hardly used except on occasions when the minister decided it was appropriate to a given worship service. (Also, he believed communion should be held only quarterly.)
What I thought was “normative” about praying the Lord’s Prayer (pray the Lord’s Prayer sparingly) was “fighting words” to another Baptist who valued highly a frequent use of the Lord’s Prayer (it isn’t proper worship without this prayer). Admittedly, much of Baptist history could be explained as variations on the tenor of the conversation: Baptists have differing practices due to our strong emphasis on the “local church” shaping belief and ritual in ways that puzzle outsiders yet are quite “normal” to the average Baptist. For our tradition, the variation is more important than the “theme”.
Interestingly, both of the Baptist churches I highlight (the one I grew up in and the one that I attended in college) represent the differing attitudes about the Lord’s Prayer over the two millennia of Church history. In one corner, you have the Christians who have used the Lord’s Prayer as a significant and essential part of devotion and worship. In the other, a group of Christians who have appreciated Christ’s instruction to pray in this manner, yet they vary in their frequency and use of the Lord’s Prayer.
For example, in the early days of Christian monasticism (ca. the 4th century in Egypt), the Lord’s Prayer was used as part of a disciplined life of prayer. The monk was called to pray in this manner:
Prostration for prayer, silent confession, rising, signing with the cross (to recall baptism), followed by ‘the Prayer of the Gospel’ (meaning the Lord’s Prayer), followed by another signing, another prostration, silent penitential prayer, standing up, another signing, silent prayer, sitting (for readings). (Cited by Kenneth W. Stevenson, The Lord's Prayer: A Text in Tradition, SCM and Fortress Press, 2003, p. 64).
Several centuries later, the regularity of the Lord’s Prayer in devotional and worship life was not without its critics. In 1605, a pastor wrote, “I had rather speak five words to God in prayer from understanding, faith, and feeling, than say the Lord’s Prayer over a thousand times ignorantly, negligently or superstitiously” (Cited by Stevenson, p. 179). This was the assertion of John Smyth, an English pastor who led his congregation in 1609 to become the first “Baptist” church. Smyth was reacting to the Lord’s Prayer in worship use among Christians whom Smyth felt were too given over to repeating the prayer yet not connecting with the meaning of the words.
Thus, the tension among Christian followers is illumined. What is the better path: frequent or infrequent use of the Prayer given to Jesus by his disciples? Is the Lord’s Prayer to be used daily or occasionally? How do we most faithfully follow Jesus’ instruction that “when you pray, pray in this way…”?
The Lord’s Prayer is quite familiar to our congregation with the emphasis on weekly use, however, were you puzzled by the version as told by Luke’s gospel? Luke 11 sets the Lord’s Prayer as part of a conversation between Jesus and his disciples after he has finished his own time for prayer. The disciples ask how to pray, and Jesus gives this prayer along with a few other words on prayer. Elsewhere Matthew sequences the Lord’s Prayer as part of Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount”, various teachings for those who would follow the way of Jesus.
Historically, Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer has not fared well against Matthew’s version. A historical survey of the Lord’s Prayer evidences a bias toward Matthew’s version in the various Lord’s Prayers used by Christians down the centuries. Even as early as a generation after the time of the New Testament’s writings, second century Christians were teaching the Lord’s Prayer with a version closely patterned after Matthew’s gospel, leaving Luke’s “shorter” version aside. Each time we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we know we participate in a prayer handed down from generation to generation, though admittedly, we pray with the modifications (theological, liturgical, and sometimes politicized) that have happened since the day Jesus and his disciples spoke of prayer.
Stepping aside from the two millennia of Christian history, the British scholar N.T. Wright takes us back to the “source material”, that of the gospel writers. Wright observes, “In Luke’ gospel, Jesus waited until his followers asked him for a prayer; and they reason they asked was because they saw what he was doing. Something tells me there is a lesson there.” (Christian Century, 1997) Indeed, Luke’s gospel notes Jesus kept a strong prayer life. He tells the disciples always “to pray and not to give up”. For Luke’s gospel, the disciple is one who persists in the practice of prayer, despite whatever life throws at you.
Luke’s motive for prayer is about prayer that knows how to live faithfully for the long haul. The Lord’s Prayer is bread for the journey, words given so that we might pray rightly (though not meant to be rote). The disciples in Luke’s gospel are a group of people learning how to follow Jesus and ground yourself in God’s ways, not by the disjointed rhythm of life lived under the shadow of Rome or the struggle to get by (barely so) in a society living with few resources (food, land, status) to go around. Pray this prayer so that you might live. As Tom Wright notes, the disciples saw Jesus more than “just praying”. He seemed to be embodying something far greater. If you will, what one prays to God shapes how one lives their lives before God.
The modern day Baptist scholar Glenn Hinson traced the theme of “persistence in prayer” through Luke’s writings, better known as “the Gospel of Luke” and its sequel “the Book of Acts”. Hinson demonstrates how the first churches were known as “individuals and early [church] communities being persistent in prayer”, which was “a key to the faith spreading from Jerusalem throughout Judea to the ends of the earth” (Hinson, “Persistence in Prayer in Luke-Acts”, Review & Expositor, 104 (Fall 2007): p. 721).
What Jesus is teaching in Luke 11 about prayer and the way of discipleship becomes crucial to the followers of Jesus being able to grow in faith, grow in numbers, and spread the gospel across the first century Roman Empire. To be persistent is to believe in something enough that you do not give up. Prayer grounds you back in the beliefs you profess. The prayer life of Jesus is one prepared to move against the grain of Empire and Temple, to proclaim a different order to the world than the competing voices of the world want you to believe. In this one prayer (despite the tangle of biblical and historical developments), Jesus gives us the heart of the gospel as well as what is on his own heart. This Prayer comes from the depths within Christ himself, words that he lives by and offers to his disciples to guide them in this same way.
To pray the Lord’s prayer is not necessarily about “how often” one prays it. As early Baptist John Smyth grumped back in 1605, the repetition alone is not the point. The Prayer should be like most of our prayers: said in the midst of life, when in rough seas or calm waters alike. The Prayer is given to us to follow, words that comfort, words that challenge, words that summon us to the humble obedience of the Christ we claim and follow.
The Prayer is a prayer given to bring us through the difficult times of our lives and the task of remembering ourselves before God, the maker of heaven and earth. Generations before us have prayed this prayer (and as we have learned) in a variety of ways and with sometimes bewilderingly diverse convictions about praying the Prayer. However we say it, we go in trust that this is a prayer that Jesus offered long ago so we might be his faithful witnesses, ready to serve and live out our lives in faithful and persistent ways.