A stranger’s fingers grip mine. The words reverberate from my throat and into my ears. Liturgy is new for me–but stepping into the same words every Sunday works like a garden hoe on my heart. After weeks and months of hands grasping mine as we pray together, “Our Father in heaven,” two realizations have churned up from this regular tilling of the Lord’s Prayer.
Even though I grew up in nonliturgical churches, like many Christians, I memorized the Lord’s prayer. I could say it in my sleep, and when I started attending my husband’s church last fall, the words tumbled out of my mouth, often on autopilot.
Photo by Diana Simumpande on Unsplash, edited
In the months since, I’ve stubbed my spiritual toes on two truths about the Lord’s prayer, so large I’m shocked I never saw them before. (I’ll stick to tackling the first one here). In both cases, my blindness stemmed, in part, from treating the Lord’s prayer like a newspaper clipping. I learned it out of context and never asked how the surrounding paragraphs should shape my understanding of what Jesus intended to teach with this string of phrases.
Two versions of this model prayer show up in the Gospels. In Luke 11:2-4, the disciples ask Jesus how to pray and he offers a Cliff’s Notes version. Matthew records the longer prayer as part of the Sermon on the Mount (6:9-13). A crowd sits on a grassy slope overlooking the Sea of Galilee, mothers and fathers, rabbis and day laborers. Houses left untidy, bread left unbaked, and fish left uncaught. Each person leaning in to hear what Jesus will say.
How does God want them to pray? Jesus begins with “Our Father in heaven…”
Not Just My Father
Without the context of the preceding verses (Matt 6:5-8), it seems magnanimous on Jesus’ part to call God “Our Father.” Jesus isn’t hogging God all to himself, and preachers get a lot of mileage out of this. But there’s no real surprise here. Jesus spent the last four verses assuming that the crowd was already praying to God as their Father. The shock comes with plugging this phrase back into its socket.
Before Jesus guides his listeners to pray “Our Father in heaven,” he warns against two common pitfalls in prayer (v.5-8). He cautions against using conversations with God to bulk up our spiritual reputation. He points out the foolishness of treating prayer like a battering ram and piling up words in attempts try to break open the doors of heaven. As if God didn’t already know what we need.
In those two paragraphs, each time Jesus says “when you pray” and “your Father” he uses singular pronouns, painting a picture of each person praying by herself, to her Father in heaven. So, when Jesus begins his exemplar prayer, his listeners would expect him to keep using the singular. Instead he switches to, “Our Father,” and jars the grammatical flow.
Jesus teaches us to come to God as one of a collective, even when we pray alone. He invites his followers to start from the right position–seeing God in Heaven and themselves, in counterpoint, on earth. But the picture is not just of God’s heavenliness and my earthiness, but our earthiness. Jesus challenges us to pray with a new identity. If we call ourselves children of God, we’re no longer simply individuals.
Shifting My Identity for Prayer
Thinking of our relationship to God in fiercely individual terms has functional perks, but it springs more from American culture than the Bible. Certainly you and I are the only ones who can confess our sins, trust that what Jesus did on the cross counts for us, and choose to follow him. No one else can do that for us, not even church membership. Still Jesus teaches us to step into a way of prayer that is shaped by an awareness of our communal standing before God.
Jesus’ call for each of us to pray to our Father taps into a bigger theme of scripture. While each human possesses individual consciousness, will, and responsibility before God, our nature as humans is also collective. The American ideal of pure autonomy fails to account for the complexity of our relationship as humans to God.
Community pervades the story of our salvation. And in a very real sense, no falls or gets saved alone. When Adam fell, we fell. When Christ died and rose, we were made alive. The Apostle Paul hammered home this reality: “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Cor 15:22, see also Romans 5:12-20). We find community rooted at the heart of our own salvation.
The metaphors of the Bible reinforce this collective singularity, this new identity in Christ. Once you and I repent and believe, we become the church (Col 1:24), the body of Christ (Col 1:24), the household of God (Eph 2:9), the assembly of the firstborn (Heb 12:23), a royal priesthood (1 Pet 2:5), the bride of Christ (Rev 21:9).
My church was onto something, then, when they decided to make us stand each week and grasp the hand of a nearby worshipper before saying the Lord’s prayer. I need that weekly prompt, that pressure on my palm, to remind me of my new identity. Hopefully Jesus’ words will seep deeper into me, into the prayers I offer up behind the steering wheel and at the kitchen table, until I begin to envision my relationship with God not just as something wonderful between him and me, but part of a bigger story between him and his world.
Question: What part of the Lord’s prayer do you most connect with?