Pastoral Relief and Retreat

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Wethersfield, CT, United States
I am Pastor at Poquonock Community Church, Congregational (CCCC) in Windsor, CT. My wife Jama and I live in Wetherfield, CT. We'd like to invite you to Terre Haute -- High Ground -- That's what Jama and I call the retreat space on our property. We offer free intentional get-away retreats. We'll feed you and house you and give you space to be with the Lord. All are welcome; no questions asked. This blog is my daily devotional journal. I write it because it is so easy to go for weeks without ever taking the time to be alone with God. Writing helps me develop a discipline I need.

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Monday, February 28, 2011

The Lord's Prayer


“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.  Pray then like this:

“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

One could almost place a heading over Matthew 6 using Jesus own words, “Beware of a practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them.”  This section of the Sermon on the Mount has to do with public piety, and falls quite nicely into four categories: Alms Giving (charity to the poor), Prayer, Fasting, and Stewardship. 

Throughout the Sermon Jesus keeps wandering back and forth between second person plural and second person singular in his teaching, so that even the phrases addressed to the individual must be understood in the context of the community of faith.  Alms giving by the community must be done without flourish just as alms giving by the individual must be.  And that giving must take precedence over any desire on the part of the community to build a lasting legacy (do not lay up for yourselves riches on earth).  And the teaching on Prayer (the section printed above) and the teaching on fasting are sandwiched in between the two teachings on money. 

Jesus gives us three examples of prayer, not one.  The first two are negative examples – sort of “what not to do”.  Jesus finishes his discussion on prayer with a rabbinic commentary on his own teaching. 

The first negative example is “Don’t pray as the hypocrites (meaning Jewish hypocrites).”  Here, Jesus is chiefly, I think, referring to the Pharisees he so often rails against.  Clearly, though, he is talking about a public show of piety by publicly devout people whose religion is only in effect when a crowd is present.  Things don’t change so much.  As the church aged, this type of piety raised its demonic head in the form of eloquent Christian leaders who badly needed a platform to pray from.

The second negative example is a pagan example.  “Heaping up empty phrases” was how the Greeks kept the gods alive.  I think of the riot at Ephesus where a group of secularists gets the crowd so agitated that they begin to yell, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!”  (Acts 19)  It is really doubtful that these people had any real belief that the goddess Diana (Artemis) really had any power over their lives.  But the social order was such that if you wanted to “be” anyone in Ephesus in the first century, you offered gifts to idols. 

Finally Jesus gives a positive example.  It is clear that the distinction Jesus is drawing is between building the Kingdom of God, on the one hand, and venerating an idol or self-aggrandizement on the other.  And he places all of these in a very public or community context. 

If Jesus intended The Lord’s Prayer to be recited by the masses (which I personally doubt), why would he juxtapose it with “do not heap up empty [read: rote] phrases?”  However, as a catechism, The Lord’s Prayer is outstanding!  Each phrase offers me a different way of approaching God in prayer in community:

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.  
(Boldly address the holiness of God)
Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven
(Boldly address the sovereignty of God)
Give us this day our daily bread,
(Boldly approach God with your needs)
and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 
(Boldly seek forgiveness after boldly forgiving others)
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
(Boldly invoke God’s protection and deliverance)

This then is the way we should pray in our communities.  This is a far cry from the focus of most prayer during gathered worship!  The challenge Jesus issues us is to take the model of prayer back to our churches and pray like this.

At the end, Jesus adds this very important bit of rabbinic wisdom, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” 

Why would he comment on the fourth of five statements on prayer and not comment on all the others?  Because this is the one on which our ability to come boldly and corporately depends.  If we are harboring un-forgiveness in our relationships within the Body, all the rest of our prayer becomes a sham.    

Jon

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