When we look back to ancient wisdom, we often find some forgotten keys to a better and brighter future. Let talk about “The Lord’s Prayer”.
It’s the first week of January as I write, a time I often think of the year ahead: what to leave behind and what to maybe do different. When considering a fresh start, why start with something so old?
The answer is cartography.
Were you expecting that? The Lord’s Prayer is full of surprises when we look closer. It’s simple yet subversive and puts things right side up by turning them upside down.
Cartography, or the study and making of maps, is a practice that started in Ancient Greece with the invention of paper. In recent history the Colonial team of Lewis and Clark were hired by Thomas Jefferson to map out the Western Territories following the Louisiana Purchase.
What does the Lord’s Prayer and cartography have in common? Sometimes we all need some help to find our way home.
Barely out of high school I took my first road trip – 5 hour drive solo, just me and my music – to see a band who would probably never make the trip to my hometown. I’d packed my paper map and headed out. Driving home the midnight rain made the roads darker and signs more difficult to read. Just outside Chicago, I saw a sign for Rockford, my hometown, and took the hard right from where I was heading. An hour and a half later I discovered Rockford ILLINOIS, not Rockford MICHIGAN. Pulling over to pull out my map, I was tired, angry and just felt…lost. I needed some help to find my way home.
Years ago I got a call from a middle-aged man in our church. He asked if I was available at noon on Friday. Assuming there was food involved, I said yes. We met up and headed over to an office complex I’d never been to before. Lots of parked cars but no restaurant in sight. “Where were we?” I asked myself. He didn’t offer so I didn’t ask.
We went in through a back door, down a small hallway with the charm of a cheap hotel. On our left we walked into a packed room, chairs around the edges and filled in the middle. We took 2 chairs in the back corner and waited. Like everyone else we shared a few hushed whispers here and there like the librarian was listening in or the movie was about to start, until…
A mild-mannered looking man came in, settled into a seat and said, “My name is X, and I’m an alcoholic.” I imagined he’d said these words a hundred times before. I have to admit my shallow compassion was overshadowed by an unexpected level of cynicism. How does reciting a phrase over and over through the years – with all the energy and enthusiasm of a drone – save a life? (Too often in life I don’t start with questions or curiosity, but with criticism. God save anyone who’s known me.)
I think back to Annette, my wife signing up at Weight Watchers. My first impression was again cynical. As a kid I’d watched close family members yo-yo their weight loss. I assumed no one really loses except maybe lose your money and lose hope. Thankfully I kept my cynicism to myself and in less time than I knew, watched her lose her waist. Her too tight pants were getting loose. She showed me how she could put two fingers between her pants and her hips. As she celebrated I was humbled. I knew I needed to go too. Sometimes, we all need some help to find our way home.
The older I get, the more I embrace my own need for rhythms & rituals. They anchor me to healthy habits and meaningful relationships in the midst of everyday demands. None of us can control our outcomes but we almost always have power over the process. We end up where we are through everyday decisions we make over and over. A glacier doesn’t crack overnight and a marriage doesn’t fail in a moment. We are who we are and have what we have today based primarily on the rhythms & rituals from yesterday. I’m learning how to embrace the process.
Luke 11, where we find the Lord’s Prayer, is a more meaningful passage than most for me as a father. It’s my job to teach our kids, whether they want it or not. When one of my children comes to me and asks me for advice, it warms my depth of my little daddy heart because I know that they are beginning to walk in wisdom, As Solomon once said “the beginning of wisdom is the get wisdom”. I love that! In other words the first step to as life of wisdom is stop waiting for someone else to give it to you. Go get it!
Luke 11 opens with “the kids”, Jesus’s students, asking for help. Oh how it must have warmed his heart to hear their humility! Their request would not only change them through a new rhythm and ritual, but be remembered through the pages of history and into the cultural current of today, “Lord, teach us to pray…”.
This request captured my curiosity years ago. Why did they need to be taught? These young Jewish boys would’ve been raised around prayer. The Siddur (pronounced ‘sid-door’) was to them what The Book of Common Prayer became to Christians during the Reformation of the 1500’s. The Siddur was then a collection of 18 Jewish prayers taken from tradition and Scripture. Prayers that were read and recited around meals, weddings and funerals. Prayers for the Sabbath and prayers for the 3 major Jewish feasts – Passover, Pentecost and The Feast of Tabernacles. Prayers to be prayed in private and prayers to be prayed in public. With the Siddur as a foundation to their community’s faith, why ask Jesus to teach them to pray? Didn’t they already have it down? Maybe for some of us raised in church we are asking something similar – why are we even talking about this?
Sometimes you can be so close to something you don’t see it. Until you see it. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it. Here’s what I saw….
Next to Jesus their immaturity was exposed. “Teach us to pray” is the prayer that opens the door to prayer. It’s an honest admission that we are weak and sometimes lost, like the lost sheep or prodigal son. They wanted a road map to the Father, a way to get from here to there. Sometimes we all need some help to find our way back home.
It might be of help to first consider what Jesus didn’t tell them. Unlike my younger youth pastor days when I said this to my students, “Just talk to God. He’s like your best friend.”, he doesn’t refer to His Father as homeboy or the big guy upstairs. There is reverence and ritual to this prayer. Some might argue as I did that the formality of it all can form a wall between us and God. If all we had was the Lord’s Prayer, then yes. I can’t imagine only just reciting the same words to my wife 3 times a day and calling that a rich, meaningful relationship. But didn’t this marriage start with a ritual….”I do”? And don’t my days open up with a rhythmic “I love you”?
That’s when the power of Jesus’s prayer started picking away at my natural cynicism. When we need to get from here to there, it’s a series of steps, not just one big breakthrough. What Jesus was teaching them seems to be “start here”. The Lord’s Prayer is cartography for the Christian life. My friend at Alcoholics Anonymous wasn’t claiming that repeating this simple phrase “I am an alcoholic” cured him of addiction. He was saying it was the first step (of twelve – how did I miss that?) to get from here to where he wanted to be. Annette going to Weight Watchers was just the first step of many to get her from where she was to where she is today, over 60 pounds lighter. The Lord’s Prayer, like any other roadmap, is not a magic bullet but rather a starting point into a more meaningful experience of prayer than just giving God a list of requests. It points our hearts and minds and money and energy in a different direction – a better direction – than the temptation to be like everyone else. It’s subversive in its message of healthy submission to ultimate authority and puts the world right side up by turning our world upside down. It’s the “start here” on the road map to the Godward life.
Certainly these young Jewish students knew the stories of prayer : Abraham praying for his nephew, Hannah weeping for a baby, David crying out to God. In times of crisis “HELP!” is sometimes all we can muster. Unfortunately it’s too easy to only pray with fervency when we need help or want something better for ourselves. Jesus gives us an evolved, deeper way to pray through stages of spiritual growth moving from “me” to “we” and centered on “thee”.
In the weeks ahead I pray we find renewed power, as the first century students of Jesus did, to pray with clarity and authority. Our friends, family and world around us need it now more than ever.
Would you take some time this week to pray the Lord’s Prayer, out loud, at least once? Would you teach it to your children and pray it with your family? Will you help the next generation to memorize it? Lord, Teach us (again) how to pray, because eventually we will all need some help to find our way back home.