When my friend Scott began following Jesus a few years ago, prayer was a new idea for him. In fact, the thought of it was somewhat terrifying.
How do we approach the Master of the Universe? What words do we use?
Now, there are plenty of people who would answer those questions with a quick “Just say whatever is on your heart. Just be honest and real and God will listen.” That’s nice and true to a degree, but it’s also rather flippant when we’re talking about the Creator of all things.
Treating God like a personal sounding board and a super massive stuffed animal that we can pour out our secrets and woes to might be cathartic and therapeutic, but it doesn’t acknowledge the great King in his majesty.
Scott had a sense of this. He had a sense that praying is something we Christians do. But he also had a sense of the majesty of the Holy One. So, what did he do? He prayed the Lord’s Prayer. Over and over and over again.
He’s in good company. When Jesus’ disciples wondered how they ought to pray, they asked Jesus to teach them. And so, he gave them the Lord’s Prayer.
What’s interesting is that the Lord’s Prayer as we’ve received it in Matt. 6:9-13 is different from what we’ve received in Luke 11:2-4. But when we look at the manuscripts of those two gospels over the decades after they were written, we notice something odd: As time goes on, the Luke version morphs into the Matthew version until later manuscripts have the Matthew version in both gospels and the original Luke version is gone.
I love this. It proves there was no organized attempt to edit the Bible as conspiracy theorists often suggest. The differences in the manuscripts are so haphazard that there’s no chance that Constantine or anyone else manipulated the Scriptures. And when we trace the vast trove of manuscripts backward in time, we end up with a really good picture of the original texts.
But even more than that, what I love is that this shows how important the Lord’s Prayer was to the early band of Jesus followers. They used the Matthew version so often that when scribes were copying Luke’s gospel, with its shorter version of the prayer, they just slipped into their memories of their many uses of the Matthew version and wrote down that one instead.
This prayer was deeply ingrained into the praying imaginations of the first followers of Jesus. No other part of the Scriptures compared. This was the heart of gathered worship and personal devotion.
The Lord’s Prayer serves both as an introduction to prayer and as a model for prayer. It’s both and needs to be retained as both.
Scott was on the right track. Praying the Lord’s Prayer just as it has been given to us is one of our best introductions to prayer.
We don’t modify it. We don’t edit it. We don’t expand on it. We simply pray it in the words Jesus taught it.
Rather than starting with our flippant prayers that arise from our anxieties and devotion to ourselves and our wants and needs and feelings, we start with God and the words he has given us.
By doing so, we are quickly jolted out of our self-preoccupations. Yes, the Lord’s Prayer will get to me and my concerns when it gets to the second half, but only then. It starts with God, the reputation of his Name, and the purposes of his kingdom. It seeks to have the world reordered in such a way that the world begins to look a bit more like heaven.
But then it gets to me. My basic physical needs, like eating. My basic relational needs, like being forgiven and forgiving others. My basic spiritual needs, like not being overcome by temptations within me or by the forces of Evil outside of me.
And then the prayer circles back to God’s kingdom, power, and glory. Interestingly, these last words of the prayer were not original with Jesus, but were added very early on, as the manuscript tradition shows. So, although they’re not Jesus’ words, they reflect the wisdom of the earliest followers of Jesus that our praying needs to return to a focus on God and his kingdom so that we don’t finish our praying with a focus on ourselves and our own little, cramped self-kingdoms.
With just a few words, saying the Lord’s Prayer before diving into any of my own praying does this to me. I enter into the rest of my praying not as an anxious, self-absorbed punk but as someone Jesus has invited into the throne room of the King who also happens to be our Father.
When used this way, the Lord’s Prayer becomes both an introduction to prayer — the first words of our prayers that lead us into further praying — and a model for prayer — by introducing topics of prayer and attitudes in prayer that we might not otherwise engage in, it models and invites us into wider and deeper praying.
I asked Scott earlier today if he’s still praying the Lord’s Prayer daily after a half dozen years of following Jesus and he replied, “It’s really my one mainstay I can count on to get me through.”
I love that.
The Lord’s Prayer is a mainstay. It is solid rock. It doesn’t move. It doesn’t change. It’s simply there, as foundational today as it was two millennia ago. And on this rock, we’re able to build our praying lives.
When we have no words, it’s there offering us wise words to pray.
When we have too many words, it’s there offering wise corrections from our self-obsessed concerns to kingdom of God concerns that still has room for our own essential needs.
It’s a prayer none of us ever grows out of, because in its simplicity it leads us into our hearts and out into God’s world, giving weight to everything that needs our praying attention.