Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, July 25, 2010:

First Reading: Genesis 18:20-32

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Hosea 1:2-10

Psalm: Psalm 138

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 85

Second Reading: Colossians 2:6-15 [16-19]

Gospel: Luke 11:1-13

When I was younger, I hated the fact that so much of the church service remained the same, week after week. My attitude only got worse, as I got older and went to youth retreats. I couldn't understand why the grown ups in charge didn't do something new and fresh with the liturgy. Didn't they understand how boring it was to do the same thing again and again?

I also chafed against the parental imagery used when we spoke of God. Didn't the people in charge of church know how damaging that could be? I knew that I was lucky; I was one of the few in my high school who still had my original parents who were still married to each other and stranger yet, still loved each other and their children. But I had friends who had neglectful parents or worse, downright abusive. How could this language of a heavenly father speak to them?

Now I am older, and I hope wiser. Now I understand the yearning for parental love that we all feel--and those who weren't so lucky in our relationships with our earthly parents probably feel that yearning most keenly. Now I've seen passages (and they're not usually read from the pulpit, alas) that use maternal images for God too; the Bible, while not as inclusive as I might wish, is not the tool of male chauvinism that I always assumed it was, although it's often been used that way by women haters. The image of God as womb speaks to me in the same way that the image of God as Father giving us bread speaks to me.

Jesus knew what he was doing when he gave us this prayer. Anyone who knows humans knows that we do better when we don't have to make everything up as we go along. Most of us have memorized this prayer as children. In fact, I know grown up children of non-religious parents who were taught this prayer--perhaps as a sort of spiritual immunization? I imagine parents saying, as mine did, "Learn this prayer--you never know when you might need it."

It surprises me how often we probably need this prayer. It's good to have prayers pre-written for us. There are times when we try to pray, and we can't come up with what to say. This prayer that Jesus teaches us covers many of the concerns that we would bring to God, if we didn't feel so muted.

We pray for our daily sustenance. We pray for forgiveness. Some translations interpret this passage as a kind of debt relief ("forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors"). Marcus Borg notes that these two aspects--food and debt--would have spoken to Jesus' followers in the first century, who often found themselves short of bread and currency. Many Jews found themselves in a downwards spiral as they leveraged their land, and eventually lost their land, to pay an increasingly heavy tax burden imposed on them from Rome.

We pray not to be led astray. I like the language "save us from the time of trial," but all the variations speak to me. I often pray an expanded version of the Lord's Prayer and include them all, praying not to be led into temptation, to be delivered from evil, and to be saved from the time of trial. Sometimes I meditate on the fact that I expand and focus on this part of the prayer, while I tend to assume the regularity of my daily bread. I suspect that people in other countries would focus on other aspects of the Lord's prayer.

Notice that Jesus doesn't tell us we have to be in a certain mood to pray. We don't have to wait for the right time. We don't even need to come up with the language for ourselves. Christ provides it.

And notice that Jesus once again reminds us that our God is a loving God. We are to ask for what we need. We should not be afraid to yearn. God has not abandoned us to our own devices. We have chosen to partner with a powerful force when we pray--and yet, it's not a distant force. God loves us, the way a parent loves a child. Even people who haven't had children understand the metaphor. It's the rare grown up who doesn't yearn for that unconditional love and protection. We often seek it in less than effective ways: we fall in love with fellow humans, we have babies of our own, we go shopping, we drink, we do charity work. Some of those ways lead us back to God, the source of the love we seek. Some lead us down wrong paths, and we find ourselves yearning for love again and wondering what went wrong.

Jesus gives us a simple prayer. Most of us have already memorized it. But how many of us pray it outside of church?

Maybe it's time for a mid-year resolution, something simple. Try praying the Lord's Prayer daily. Maybe twice a day. Pray when you wake up, and say a quick prayer, asking God to help you become your best self throughout the day. Pray before you fall asleep, and say a quick prayer of thankfulness for your many blessings. You'll be amazed at the change in your attitude by Christmas.

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