Wednesday, July 27, 2022 | Trey Comstock
I have been a church mouse my whole life. Certainly, now, as a pastor, I spend the vast majority of my life in a church, but this has always been true. My mother sang in church choirs everywhere we moved. My father was always on finance committees or building committees or missions committees. So my life was a lot of sitting at church waiting on adults. When I got to an age, where I could make my own decisions about church, I was still always at church. As a teenager, I was a leader in my youth group and help form a contemporary worship band. In college, I joined a traveling worship team and literally lived for a year at the Wesley Foundation. As a 20-something, working a secular job, Sidney and I joined Pender UMC in Fairfax, VA, and I began writing and producing worship dramas for them. Exceeding amount of time in church undergirds my entire existence. This way of life, apparently, goes back for generations. Both of my grandfathers were deeply involved in church life in their own way. So, it never ceases to amaze me the amount of core Christian concepts that I no idea about prior to arriving in seminary. The Lord’s Prayer is one of them.
I new the words to the Lord’s Prayer. I learned those in Sunday School at Bethel Hill UMC in Pennsylvania at the age of six. I could and did lead the congregation in reciting them by the time I was eleven at John Wesley UMC here in Houston. What I had never truly considered, until I was a 25-year-old seminarian at the Candler School of Theology, was what any of those words exactly meant.
In my defense, the translation of the Lord’s Prayer that we are all most familiar with has not changed at all since 1772 and has barely changed since 1611. Spoken, written, and comprehended English has changed a lot since then. This makes it easy to get lost in the “thys,” the “arts,” the “trespasses,” and the “thous” and lose the thrust of the prayer entirely. It becomes another one of those incomprehensible things to memorize like the time that I memorized the opening of the Magna Carta in eighth grade or anyone one who has had to learn a song in a foreign language for choir. Who is Jeanette Isabella from the Christmas song and why is she flambeau? No idea. What does it mean to pray, “Our Father, which art in heaven; Hallowed by thy Name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, As it is in heaven?” How many of us can honestly answer, yes?
On top of that, the constant and forced repetition in a bored monotone, which is how I’ve most often seen it deployed in worship, hasn’t done the prayer any favors. I fled from traditional worship in my teens and twenties not because I didn’t like it but because most of the people that I’d ever seen doing it, didn’t seem to care about the words that they were saying. The “acceptable style” for saying anything in worship – be it sermon, scripture, prayer, liturgy, or joke – was to be as bland and censorious as possible. It was as if everything Jesus had said and anything that any God fearing person had ever written needed to be delivered as if they were Charlton Heston as Moses but with less conviction. No one that I knew actually talked like that, and it all felt so bland and passionless that I learned to tune it out. The words of church receded into the noises that adults made in the Charlie Brown cartoons, “Wah, wah, wah, wah.” I sat their diligently, didn’t learn from much, and then found God on the byways, on mission trips, and in more passionate and less restrained contemporary services. We said the Lord’s Prayer, so often, out of habit and with so little passion that I didn’t seem to be the only one lost in problem of saying something over and over again until it loses all meaning.
All of this does a tremendous disservice to the radical proclamation from Christ that becomes the Lord’s Prayer. It’s recorded in slightly different forms in both Luke and Matthew, and from Matthew’s usage, we can glean that it was in use in his Christian community. Thus, we’ve been praying some version of this prayer for coming up on 2,000 years, and for good reason. Christ, in attempting to teach us to pray, gives us a model prayer centered not on our own needs but in our hope in God, our need for God, and our need specifically for God’s forgiveness. The prayer as presented in Luke has five petitions. Hallow God’s name. God’s kingdom come. Give us our daily bread. Forgive us as we forgive others. Don’t bring us into the time of trial. The first two relate solely to our hope in God’s final victory where all will hallow God’s name and where God’s kingdom will be fully established. The last two, forgiveness and avoiding trials, are about us asking something from God. The middle one about bread is deceptively simple. In English, it reads as a request for daily sustenance – something else that we need from God. In Greek, the word daily, epiousios, only shows up here in Luke and in Matthew’s version of the prayer. In all other extant Greek literature, epiousios is nowhere to be found. This creates a translation problem. We can’t reference how the word is used in other literature. We can only look at the word, itself, and the scholars with far more Greek than me say that it can mean “daily” or “tomorrow’s” or “necessary.” The words around epiousios “give” and “each day” certainly give credence to the translation as “daily.” We do owe all of our existence to God, and whether we realize it or not, rely on God for all of our daily provisions.
Personally, I like the idea that Christ used epiousios to mean all three at the same time. We do need God for our daily needs. However, the prayer opens with us hoping, believing, and striving for God’s final victory which includes bread for everyone and every tomorrow. Also, we need to recognize that God is not Santa Claus, and what we should seek from God and from this life is what we need not what we want. Certainly this model prayer calls on us to pray not just for ourselves but for God’s bigger picture and our role in it. So, we should pray for our own sustenance. We should pray for what we need (and nothing more). We should pray for God’s Kingdom, where no one will ever do without again.
During the lockdown, I prayed online with my congregation every morning at 8:00 AM. I would keep a prayer list, pray for the big problems that gripped the world, lift up our secular leaders as they made big decisions, and take prayer request live from the audience. It became a way to ground our day with prayer and turns our eyes towards God in a truly tumultuous time. Everyday, I ended the prayer time with the Lord’s Prayer, and I tried to read it each day with all the conviction that I could muster, to connect our needs with God’s bigger picture. In that dire moment, it felt needed. I longed for God’s kingdom, for its restful and disease-free shores. Perhaps, I should have always been praying it that way. Hopefully, I always will from here forward.