Prayer is a basic (and vital) aspect of the Christian life. The disciples asked Jesus for guidance in how to pray, and his response is known to us as the Lord’s Prayer (Luke 11; Matt 6). It is a widely used prayer and it is included in all the services in the Book of Common Prayer. The prayer is not long (it can be recited at a reverent pace in less than a minute) but it is packed with meaning. Because there is so much included in the prayer, a worthwhile practice is to work through the prayer slowly with time spent considering the implications of the phrases.

The prayer begins, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your Name….” We acknowledge our relationship to God as our creator, parent, and sustainer. And we affirm the holiness of God by reverencing the Name. Then we ask that “… your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven.” We desire the fullness of God’s kingdom throughout creation and request that God’s will be done. This means that we must subjugate our will to God’s; God’s complete reign requires that we put aside our vision for the future and accept God’s. We pray that God will guide us by revealing God’s will and will support us in putting aside our selfish desires so that we can follow God’s will.

We are all completely dependent upon God, and the prayer offers a simple plea: “Give us today our daily bread.” We ask God to provide the things we need to maintain our lives. The text seems to focus on food but we need to understand ‘bread’ (aka “the staff of life”) in a very broad sense. We ask God for the things needed to sustain our lives and to help us grow. This includes physical things such as food and shelter, but also people, significant relationships, communities, and even government. And we ask these things not for ourselves alone, or only for those dear to us, but for all people – ‘us’ is everyone.

The next line in the prayer is a hard one as we ask God to “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” It is difficult to forgive someone who has deliberately hurt me but that is what I am called to do. God’s forgiveness of my sins is tied to my forgiveness of the sins of others: “forgive me in the same way and at the same time as I forgive others.” I think everyone who takes the prayer seriously will struggle with this line at one time or another. Forgiveness is hard. It is a deliberate act of grace and it does not come easily. Our human nature wants to hurt those who hurt us, but God’s nature is to forgive.

We ask for God’s spiritual protection, that God will “save us from the time of trial, and deliver us from evil.” We admit our helplessness to stay faithful by ourselves. Without God’s assistance our daily lives would be full of error and sin so we ask God to deliver us from our weakness in times of struggle. We recognize that we are dependent upon God to protect us from situations which would try us beyond our capacities, and to protect us in times of struggle. 

The prayer ends with a simple declaration that everything good is of God and belongs to God. “For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours, now and forever.” All we have asked for in the prayer is part of God’s kingdom, and God receives glory and praise for the gifts God has given us. This includes our “daily bread”, our ability to forgive others, the forgiveness of our sins, the strength to survive daily challenges, and protection against spiritual error. We recognize and acknowledge that all which is good belongs to God and exists because of God.

The Lord’s Prayer, like all our prayers, ends with “Amen,” which is a word of affirmation. It is sometimes translated as “let it be so!” We can think of ‘amen’ as shorthand for “yes, yes, definitely yes!” Sometimes people think of ‘amen’ as functioning like ‘good bye’ or ‘the end’ but actually it is a beginning. We end the prayer by re-affirming what we have prayed, and then we move from prayer to action. We have asked for things for the upbuilding of God’s kingdom and our ‘amen’ affirmation signifies our desire to participate in the building. We “talked the talk” and now we must “walk the walk.”

Much, much more could be written (and has been written) about the Lord’s Prayer. I hope that these few comments will assist you in reflecting on this great text. Thinking of the words will greatly increase the meaningfulness of the prayer and will assist our spiritual growth.

January 6 is the Feast of the Epiphany, which follows the twelve days of Christmas. Epiphany celebrates the manifestation of Jesus to the gentiles in the persons of the magi (Matthew 2). Matthew is the only evangelist who tells the story and he provides few details. I’m sure you know the story: Magi come from the east seeking the newly born king of the Jews; they don’t find him in Jerusalem; upon the advice of Jewish leaders (via Herod) they travel to Bethlehem; they find Jesus, worship him, and give him gifts; and they return home. Matthew provides some additional details, but not many, and the story raises as many questions as it answers.

Matthew says that the magi came “from the east”. Given that they are called magi and were engaged in watching the heavens for signs, it is reasonable to assume that they were from Persia, or perhaps Babylon. Neither of these places is Jewish territory so why would the magi be interested in the birth of a Jewish king? The answer may have its roots several centuries earlier when Israel and Judah were conquered by the Assyrians and Babylonians. Many Jews were taken into exile from Israel and Judah to Persia and Babylonia. The people living in the area were polytheists so when the Jews came along and spoke of the God of Israel, the people living in the area would have listened, believed in this new god, and added the god to their list of deities. They would not have accepted the view that the God of Israel was the only true God, but they would have believed in God’s existence and willingly learned about this new deity. Many Jews stayed in Persia even after they were given permission to return to Judah so the exchange of knowledge between the Jews and Persians probably continued for centuries.

Some of the magi of the land knew enough about Jewish scriptures to know that an important king was expected. These magi watched the skies for omens and when a certain “star” appeared they interpreted it as heralding the birth of the new Jewish king. They set out for Jerusalem to pay homage to this important person. When they arrived they learned that those in authority knew nothing about the birth of a new king.

King Herod (who was not a Jew) asked the chief priests and the scribes about the birthplace of the expected king. They told Herod that the messiah would be born in Bethlehem of Judah. When telling Herod this, they state, “so it has been written by the prophet.” This addendum is a formula to state that the message was accepted by the Jewish religious leaders as the word of God spoken through a prophet, and thus was certain. Upon receiving this information the magi continue their journey to Bethlehem. There they found the child, worshiped him, and gave gifts.

The magi knew enough of the scriptures to know the prophecy of the king’s birth but lacked the detailed information which would have guided them to Bethlehem. The chief priests and scribes knew to look for the king in Bethlehem but they didn’t accompany the magi or send a delegation to investigate. Why did the chief priests and scribes stay in Jerusalem after hearing the magi’s report of the star? The messiah was long awaited and was the hope of all Israel; his birth would be great news to his people.

I think the reason was hubris. The chief priests and the scribes studied the scriptures; they were the religious experts of God’s chosen people. Why would God reveal the messiah’s birth to pagan, polytheistic magi? It just wasn’t reasonable to their minds. They were the important people, the authorities among God’s chosen. They were sure that God would not send an announcement to anyone other than them. And they were wrong.

God chose to reveal the messiah’s birth to foreigners. God also revealed it to Jews who were not very important in the world’s (or the religious leaders’) eyes: Mary, Joseph, Elizabeth, Anna, and Simeon among others. There’s a lesson for us: God speaks to those to whom God wishes to speak. It is not our position in the world or church, our value in the eyes of others, or our self-evaluation which determines whether God will speak to us directly. God often, perhaps usually, speaks to us through others, and sometimes those other folks are not ones we expect to bear God’s message. Over the course of our lives, God’s words will come to us from many directions – some expected and some not. It is our task to listen and discern the word of God while being aware that it may come from a place we would never expect (and perhaps not respect). Once discerned we must accept the word of God regardless of the messenger. As Jesus said, “Wisdom is vindicated by all her children” (Luke 7:35, NRSV). We need to keep our ears open regardless of our view of the person who is speaking to us; it may be magi who bring us good news of God’s work.

The Psalms often speak of God’s love and concern for people. In one place a psalmist says:

Why should the wicked revile God?
why should they say in their heart, “You do not care”?
Surely, you behold trouble and misery;
you see it and take it into your own hand. (Psalms 10:13-14, BCP)

The writer affirms that God not only sees what happens to us but that God gathers our woes into his hand and pulls them close to him. God wants to be involved in our trials and travails; God is moved by events in our lives because God cares. It is God’s nature to love and this love blossoms into compassion. Our trouble and misery aren’t forced into God’s hand; God chooses to reach out and take them.

Throughout the Old Testament we read of God acting to be closer to people and to bring people closer to God. In the law (Torah), the prophets, and other writings we are told of God’s work to bring us closer. The building of the temple in Jerusalem is one of the high points of this story. David planned, and Solomon built, a house for God’s presence in Israel. God, who cannot be contained in any building, accepts the temple as a place for God’s presence. (1 Kings 8,9). The temple is God in Israel’s midst; it is a place for God’s eyes and heart (1 Kings 9:3).

Despite God’s presence in the temple, and God’s words through prophets, the people moved away from God. We read the results of disobedience in 2 Kings and other books. One result of the disobedience is that the temple was destroyed. But the destruction of the temple and the punishments for disobedience did not negate God’s care and concern. God still desired to be close to the people and for the people to be close to God. God’s desire did not abate.

The best way the psalmist had to tell us of God’s caring is by saying that our trouble and misery are taken into God’s own hand. God watches from the heavens and reaches out to us. Later writers of scripture have a newer, and more sublime, way of speaking of God’s love and concern for us: “The Word became flesh and lived among us.” (John 1:14, NRSV) In that short phrase John the evangelist revises the psalmist’s statement. God had reached out a hand (repeatedly); God had accepted the temple as a place for God’s eyes and hearts; God had spoken through prophets; what more shall God do to be close to us? God shall come and live among us. The way to be closer to us was to become one of us, so the Word, which was in the beginning, and was with God, and was God, came to live with us as one of us. (John 1:1)

This is how God came closer to us: God the Son became flesh and lived a human life. Jesus was born, grew up, loved, laughed, cried, made friends, had his heart broken, grieved, suffered, and died. This was a human life lived by the Son of God, the Word made flesh. These human experiences, the trials, the thrills, the joys, and the pains, were not just put into God’s hand. They went into Jesus’ heart – God’s heart. In the New Testament we learn that God, not being content to take our misery into his hand, instead took it into his heart. The heart of Jesus, the heart of a man, is also entry into the heart of God.

God wants to be close to us, and wants us to be close to him. There was a gulf between God and us. We could not bridge the gulf so God bridged it for us. Why would God do this? There is nothing we can add to God, the eternal, omnipotent, omniscient creator and sustainer of the universe. Let’s face it – God does not require us. The Word became flesh not because God needed the experience and not from curiosity about human life but because God loves us.

God shared in our life so that we may share in God’s life. This is the meaning of the incarnation: God is love, and that love covers all of creation, including, perhaps especially, us humans. The mystery of the incarnation is the mystery of God loving us and longing to be ever closer to us, and wanting us to be closer to God. This is what we celebrate in the Nativity.

Merry Christmas!

When I was in graduate school I attended a chapel on campus. Not surprisingly, most of the congregation was students or faculty or staff of the university. Several of us students formed a ‘ministry’ group. We were concerned with service to Jesus and the community, and looked for ways to help people in our area. Since we were students we suffered from a lack of funds and this hampered our mission activities. We were able to do some things on our limited budget, such as organize a clothing drive for the poor. Other things we wanted to do required money. We had a few fund-raising activities but these met with limited success.

After about two years of struggling, our priest made a proposal. He told us that he had a discretionary fund through the diocese for use in meeting the needs of people he encountered. He worked part-time at the chapel and had another position which did not involve pastoral work. As a result, he didn’t receive the number of requests which fall on those in full-time pastoral situations. His proposal was that he hand the discretionary fund to us for use in our ministry and mission work. We were thrilled both with the prospect of having money available for projects and with being judged as responsible enough to manage the discretionary fund. The group managed and used the discretionary fund for about a year and a half. Our oversight ended when the chapel gained a full-time priest and we placed the discretionary fund under his control.

The time of administering the discretionary fund was valuable. It taught us to be responsible not only fiscally but also spiritually because we had to discern the best use of the limited funds. Taking to heart Jesus’ parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30) we also used our time to raise additional money to place in the discretionary fund. The priest had made us stewards of the fund and we had to learn to think and act as stewards. We were representatives of Jesus in our community and we had to behave appropriately. The money obviously could not be used for a pizza party or to pay for our college textbooks; the money was not ours — it belonged to Jesus through the church. We were agents for Jesus and the church. We were stewards and we learned stewardship.

I was reminded of this bit of my personal history recently when my daily Bible reading was from Acts. Part of the reading was, “Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common.” (Acts 4:32, ESV) Clearly none of us could have said that the discretionary fund was “his own” and that understanding led us to reasoned, loving use of the money for the furtherment of God’s kingdom. The early Christians could could easily have said, “This is mine, and for my use,” but they did not. They had a view that their possessions were to be used as needed to meet whatever needs were existed. They did not see their “personal property” as a source for their private use but rather as a fund for communal support.

This is very different from our usual way of thinking of possessions. In fact, the use of the word ‘possessions’ betrays our attitude: “This is mine! I earned it, and I have it.” It is mine to use as I please for whatever I want to do. Certainly that attitude is an accurate reflection of our laws. However, it is not a proper Christian attitude. As Christians we are taught (or we should be) that all “our possessions” are in fact God’s possessions and are only entrusted to us. In other words, we are stewards, and we are to use the possessions as representatives of God.

Paul talks about this attitude in the first epistle to Timothy: “But godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content.” (1 Timothy 6:6-8, ESV) Paul tells us that we bring nothing into the world with us when we are born, and we take nothing with us when die, so how should we say that something is “ours”? Whatever goods or wealth we have are given by God and are in our possession only temporarily. We are stewards, and we will have to give an accounting of our stewardship. The catechism teaches us that our duty is “to use our talents and possessions as ones who must answer for them to God” (Book of Common Prayer, p.848).

As I read the verses from Acts and remembered my experience with the discretionary fund, I began to wonder what my life would be like if I had the fullness of the attitude of stewardship in my life, if I treated “possessions” as items on loan from God for use in meeting needs wherever they arise. What if I made all fiscal decisions on a communal and Christian basis? What if all Christians did? What if we were of one mind that all that we have is for use in the expansion of God’s kingdom? That we are managers and not owners? What would the world be like? Perhaps it would be like the early church with new members joining every day, and people being healed of diseases, and the masses speaking of the love of Jesus and of the power of God.

I’m not sure exactly what the world would be like if we all had the attitude of the early church. But I would like to find out.

2741759137_a40f850dcd_oFor many years I used a loose leaf notebook for my prayer list (the Personal Prayer Notebook — see the earlier post on prayer lists). It was easy to update my prayer list and the Personal Prayer Notebook kept it organized. The Personal Prayer Notebook has a recommended organization for prayer with tabbed sections for (in order) Adoration, Thanksgiving, Confession, Intercession, and Petition.

Adoration is praising God — not thanking God for specific gifts received but rather praising God because of who God is, and praising the characteristics of God (holiness, abounding mercy, complete goodness, etc.). Many of the Psalms can be used here; Psalms 95 and 100 are two traditionally utilized for this purpose.

Thanksgiving is thanking God for gifts received whether requested or not. This helps us recognize what God has done, is doing, and will do for us. It is good to keep a list of answered prayers for use in this section. We should write on our hearts and in our minds that God loves a thankful heart (Psalm 50:14,23) and we should work toward having a general attitude of thanksgiving and gratitude.

Confession is the acknowledgement of our failings and request for forgiveness. I do not recommend keeping a list of sins (as some people do) as I find it better to do a brief examination of conscience and ask God to give me awareness of my sins. I rely on God to lead me in examining my faults and guide me in understanding the areas of my life where I need to improve.

Intercession is offering prayer for others. Many people ask for prayer if we but listen to them. Some requests are quite specific, for example in the case of illness. Many are vague: a person may say that he or she is having a difficult time with a spouse or a child. People may ask me personally to pray for them or they may make a general request so I also use the intercession list from my church bulletin for this part of prayer.

Petition is offering prayer for oneself. Let’s be clear: God knows our needs (Matthew 6:8, 32) but God also wants us to ask for what we need as the Lord’s Prayer makes clear (“Give us each day our daily bread”, Luke 11:3, NIV). We need to cover spiritual, mental, and physical needs.

During both intercession and petition we need to be keenly aware that God knows our needs better than we, and that God will give good gifts even if they are not the gifts we desired or expected (Luke 11:11-13). We certainly should not treat intercession and petition as a “shopping list” of what we want or as a “to do list” for God. It is better to approach with the thought, “Here are some things I want to discuss with you,” and then be open to God working in our lives. God’s gifts to us, in the long run, are better than anything we could have specifically requested.

One can maintain a prayer list for each section using Psalms, songs, poems, scripture portions, and of course, lists of needs or problems of others and ourselves. This is particularly useful for Adoration and Thanksgiving as psalms, songs, poems, and scripture often have the effect of raising our hearts and minds to God. With familiar verses the result is sometimes automatic — a line from a Psalm or a song may immediately transport one to a realm of praise or gratitude.

The order of Adoration, Thanksgiving, Confession, Intercession, and Petition is important. All the liturgical daily offices with which I am familiar follow this order. We need to begin prayer by focusing on God rather than ourselves. We need to confess and repent so that we can discuss intercessions and petitions with a clear heart and mind. It is also important to pray for others (intercede) before praying for ourselves (petitioning). Jesus call us to focus on the welfare of others before focusing on ourselves. There’s an old adage that the way to joy is to think of Jesus first (J), then others (O), and lastly yourself (Y) (Matthew 22:37-40).

Another order for prayer, which is very similar though not identical to one above is given by the acronym ACTS: Adoration; Confession; Thanksgiving; and Supplication. Use either order — the important thing is to focus on God and not on ourselves, and to be thorough by giving attention to the several aspects of prayer.

An earlier post on this blog provided information about N.T. Wright Online which offers courses by New Testament scholar Bishop N.T. Wright.  At that time a free course on Philemon was available. Bishop Wright now offers three additional free courses:

I found the course on the Lord’s Prayer to be especially helpful and insightful; it provided me things to ponder for several days.

askntwrightanything1Bishop has also expanded his cyber presence by offering a podcast. The fortnightly Ask N.T. Wright Anything podcast consists primarily of Bishop Wright answering questions sent by listeners.

The podcast is a joint partnership of Premier Christian Radio, SPCK Publishing, and N.T. Wright Online. After subscribing to the podcast, one ought to visit the Premier web site and sign up for the email list. The Premier site has additional content with short videos of Bishop Wright addressing various topics. Additionally Premier offers give-aways of N.T. Wright books and signing up for the email list enters one in drawings for the give-aways.