Blogger Peacebang recently reflected on the Lord’s Prayer, and I found the words coming into my own mind recently on a Sunday during the time of silence after the sermon, so I did some Googling on Unitarian Universalist approaches to this traditional prayer.
The Rev. Roger Fritts, senior minister at Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church in Bethesda, Maryland, preached this sermon on December 15, 2002, regarding his own personal interpretation of the Lord’s Prayer. I think his approach is extremely thoughtful, on both an intellectual and spiritual level.
An Interpretation of the Lord’s Prayer
by Rev. Roger Fritts
Our Father who art in Heaven,
Hallowed be thy name;
Thy kingdom come;
Thy will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread;
And forgive us our trespasses (or debts)
As we forgive those who trespass against us;
(or: As we have forgiven our debtors)
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.
(For thine is the kingdom
And the power
And the glory,
-Roman Catholic version with
Protestant changes or additions in italics
According to a 1992 study published in Newsweek, about eighty-eight percent of the people in the United States pray. According to a study of Unitarian Universalists conducted in 1987, fifty-seven percent of us say that we pray occasionally or often. I fall into this group of fifty-seven percent.
During difficult moments of my life I pray. I know that my silent, private prayer will not change the unchangeable. Nevertheless, in moments of doubt and fear my short, silent prayers give me comfort. They help me cope by calming me and soothing my emotions.
Some might say that my prayer is a form or regression. They might suggest that when I pray I am discarding my rational, logical side; I am setting aside what I have learned from science, and returning to my early childhood superstitious beliefs in God as a Santa Claus who will grant my prayer, if I say the right words in the right way.
I do not believe that if I say the right words something magical will happen. Still when the pressures build up, I find myself closing my eyes or looking off in the distance and talking silently to myself and to the unity that connects the universe, the ground of being.
- I pray that I make the right decisions as I live my life.
- I pray that the people I know and love, my family, my friends, and the members of this congregation will be kept safe.
- I pray for peace for all people.
- I pray out of Thanksgiving for all the blessings of life.
On the internet I found prayers attributed to children. I like the prayers because of their directness and honesty. Some children’s prayers are in the form of practical questions.
Dear God, “Did you mean for the giraffe to look like that or was it an accident?”
Dear God, “Who draws the lines around the countries?”
Dear God, “My brothers told me about being born, but it doesn’t sound right. They are just kidding, aren’t they?”
Others are statements of thanksgiving:
Dear God, “Thank you for my baby brother, but what I prayed for was a puppy.”
Dear God, “I think the stapler is one of your greatest inventions.”
Dear God, “I didn’t think orange went with purple until I saw the sunset you made Tuesday. That was cool!”
Still others are in the form of a confession:
Dear God, “It rained for our whole vacation and is my father mad! He said some things about you that people are not supposed to say, but I hope you will not hurt him anyway. Your friend (but I am not going to tell you who I am).”
Dear God, “I think about you sometimes, even when I’m not praying.”
Dear God, “I bet it is very hard for you to love all the people in the world. There are only four people in our family and I can never do it.”
Others, especially at Christmas, are petitionary.
Dear God, “I want to be just like my Daddy when I get big, but not with so much hair all over.”
Dear God, “Please send me a pony. I never asked for anything before. You can look it up.”
Children’s prayers are concise and to the point, and include a suggestion of self-respect and personal pride. I identify with the child who said: “Dear God, If you watch me in church Sunday, I’ll show you my new shoes.”
Of all the prayers that people have written and spoken, the one used most often by Christians is the Lord’s Prayer.
Obviously one reason it is so popular is that Jesus is likely to have actually said some of these words. The prayer appears in two forms in the New Testament—the shorter version in Luke and the longer version in Matthew. Many scholars believe the shorter version in Luke to be closer to the original. Using the New Revised Standard Version as the translation, Luke wrote:
Hallowed be your name.
Your Kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive
everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.
Scholars believe that early Christians added the extra words in Matthew’s version sometime in the sixty years after Jesus’s death. The concluding words in the Protestant version were added sometime in the first four hundred years of the Christian era. They appear in some, but not all of the earliest manuscripts of the Gospels. Still, speaking in Aramaic, Jesus probably said the words at the core of the prayer. For millions of people the words are a connection to a great teacher who lived two thousand years ago.
A second reason the Lord’s Prayer is important to so many people is the act of repetition. If you grew up attending a Catholic or a Protestant congregation, you have heard the words thousands of times. If you are active in a Twelve-Step group like Alcoholics Anonymous, you have heard the prayer said repeatedly. We associate the words with the environment we most often heard them spoken. If it was a safe place, a place where we felt comfortable, where we felt surrounded by friends, hearing the words today brings back those positive associations.
Third, I think the power of the prayer is tied to the meanings of the words. According to the story in Luke, Jesus was praying. When he finished, a disciple said to him, “Lord, teach us how to pray, just as John the Baptist taught his disciples.” Jesus spoke the words of the prayer.
In Matthew Jesus said, “When you pray, go into a room by yourself and shut the door behind you.” Then in Matthew’s story he spoke the words of the Lord’s Prayer.
OUR FATHER, WHO ART IN HEAVEN . . .
Prayers often begin with “Almighty and everlasting God” or “O God, the King eternal” or in some Unitarian Universalist churches “To Whom It may Concern.” All experts on the Bible agree that when he addressed God, Jesus spoke the word “Abba” the Aramaic word for Father. Jesus used a familiar form of address and then asked his followers to regard the familiar name as sacred.
Jesus did not say My Father, or Your Father, but Our Father. In those two words Jesus including everyone, despite their sex, their ethnic or racial background, or their life history. All of us, he said, share a common, familiar God. In these two words, Our Father, Jesus challenged the tendency of the Jewish community of his day to fragment itself and in the name of God to reject some of its own members. Personally, I prefer to begin by saying “OUR MOTHER, FATHER WHO ART IN HEAVEN . . .” This represents the inclusive spirit that Jesus taught.
The prayer continues: HALLOWED BE THY NAME.
Some Bible scholars have suggested a better modern translation is “Your name be revered” instead of HALLOWED BE THY NAME, illustrating the fact that scholars are not poets.
I like the word “hallowed,” which means “greatly loved, greatly respected.” I like the way my mouth feels when I say it and the way it looks on a page. I like the way it is not an overused word, like the adjectives “wonderful” or “excellent” or “fantastic.” In our own nation’s history the word appears in another sacred document, when Abraham Lincoln said, at Gettysburg: “. . . in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground.”
In all cultures people believe that over against the common place things of life some things are of a different quality. We treat them with great respect.
- It could be a hallowed place—such as the site of the World Trade Center.
- It could be a hallowed time—such as the dark hours of Christmas eve.
- It could be a hallowed person—such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
In contrast to the common things of life some things are sacred, are hallowed.
THY KINGDOM COME. THY WILL BE DONE, ON EARTH, AS IT IS IN HEAVEN.
Jesus did not speak these words. The author of Matthew’s Gospel added them. Still I like them. In the evenings when the sky is clear, I look up into the night sky and see the stars, the moon, and the planets. These words of the prayer remind me of the universe of stars. They put my life in context. My few years of life are part of a vast universe of matter and energy, and I think of my very limited understanding of that universe. Much of it is a mystery. I feel humble as I imagine the scale of the universe.
GIVE US THIS DAY OUR DAILY BREAD.
The prayer moves from cosmology to our practical everyday needs. Jesus probably taught his disciples to ask only for bread for the day.
Most of us are lucky enough to take our daily meals for granted. We are one or two or three generations away from the farming life of our grandparents. We are blessed with great plenty. It is easy to take our daily bread for granted.
Still, many of you in this congregation have lived and worked in places around the earth where hunger is a reality. Some of you know much better than I of hunger and starvation in Asia, Africa, and South America. I pray that all people will be provided with the bread we need for the day.
AND FORGIVE US OUR TRESPASSES, AS WE FORGIVE THOSE WHO TRESPASS AGAINST US.
Today, Bible Scholars believe that this part of the prayer originally read: “Forgive our debts to the extent we have forgiven those in debt to us.” For Jesus these words concerned the plight of the oppressed poor of his time, whose debts were probably overwhelming.
Forgiveness is one of the most difficult and pervasive elements in Christian ethics. In the 1950s a Unitarian Universalist seminary professor announced in class that he would give ten dollars to the student who could find a Protestant sermon that did not include the word, forgiveness. Yet many in our culture see forgiveness as a sign of weakness. Personally I define forgiveness as the effort to understand ourselves and others. If we truly understand ourselves and others, we may be better able to heal the pain inside us. We try to understand ourselves and other people, not as a favor to them, but so we can let go of the past and get on with our lives. This, I believe, is forgiveness. It is a great release, a fresh beginning.
AND LEAD US NOT INTO TEMPTATION, BUT DELIVER US FROM EVIL
This was the original end of the prayer. Modern Bible Scholars, proving again that they are not poets, suggested that here what Jesus really said was, “And please don’t subject us to test after test, but rescue us from the evil one.”
In classical Greek, the word translated “temptation” means “a test,” and refers to any experience that tries our health or our will. An illness, a death, a financial crisis, any hardship is a “test,” a temptation to which I may prove unequal. So we pray, “help me into the future. Save me from myself.”
During the last century Unitarians had mixed feelings about the Lord’s prayer. In the 1930s Unitarians published a Red Hymnal, and the prayer was part of many sample orders of service printed in the book.
However, thirty years later, in 1964 when Unitarian Universalists published a Blue Hymnal they dropped the Lord’s Prayer. Indeed, there was no section of readings in the Blue Hymnal called “prayers.” The 1960s and 1970s were a time when many who joined Unitarian Universalist churches had negative experiences with prayer from having attended other churches. Many of our churches avoided traditional, religious language. So, we called the Sanctuary —the Great Hall, we called the sermon— an address, hymn singing was called congregational singing, and we eliminated prayers from the liturgy.
In the 1980s the theology of our religious congregations began to shift again. Many persons coming to our churches were looking for more spirituality in their lives. In 1993 the Unitarian Universalist Association published a new hymnal (which is seldom called the “gray hymnal”). It is called Singing the Living Tradition. It has a section called “prayers” and includes two versions of the Lord’s Prayer.
Today, many in our congregation still have bad associations with prayer. They have watched the hateful and the greed prayers of ministers. They are sick of the fake healing prayers which exploit the vulnerable. They have a right to their negative feelings. No member of this church is required to pray or to even like prayers.
On the other hand, if we can separate the good from the bad, we may discover that prayer can be a meaningful part of our religious life. Over half of all Unitarian Universalists say that they do pray.
Personally, at times of stress and crises I find the words of the Lord’s Prayer comforting and reassuring.
- Part of the comfort comes from the familiarity of the words that I have heard repeatedly during my life.
- Part of the comfort comes from the associations I have with the words. Spoken first by Jesus, I have heard the words said in religious sanctuaries, safe places, holy places, when I have worshiped with friends and family.
- Part of the comfort comes from the meaning of the words themselves, which ask for daily bread, for forgiveness, and for freedom from temptation.
But when I feel the stresses of my life building up; when I have been wrong; when I have promised more than I can do; when I find myself in conflict with another person; when I am faced with illness in myself or in others; I take a deep breath, and say a short, silent prayer. And I pray for strength, for wisdom, and for humility.
For further reading, see also, “Who needs prayer?”
Source: “An Interpretation of the Lord’s Prayer” by Rev. Roger Fritts, senior minister at Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church in Bethesda, Maryland, preached on December 15, 2002.Tags: deepening, God, prayer, religion, Roger Fritts, theology