Last night at the Custer Road United Methodist Church in Plano we had our October Faiths in Conversation program on prayer in the Muslim, Christian, and Jewish spiritual traditions. There was something powerful about coming together as Christians, Jews, and Muslims to seek mutual understanding and to find common ground on a day when an act of terrorism in New York City that was rooted in misguided religious extremism and that was met, from some quarters, by an equally misguided extremism, was the story of the day. As I asked in my presentation –
Does the Lord’s Prayer tap the subterranean spiritual stream of an experience with God that we all share, and from which we are all being nourished? Is the spiritual experience of “absolute confidence” and “total dependence” of which the words of the Lord’s Prayer are so expressive, something that we share as Christians, Muslims, and Jews? More than just the essential prayer of my Christianity, what I’m curious to know is if the spirituality of the Lord’s Prayer is expressive of the spirituality of your branch of the Abrahamic family (Muslim and Jewish), and if it is, whether or not we can find in its rhythms a way for us to relate to one another at a deeper and more receptive and respectful level?
“Relating to one another at a deeper and more receptive and respectful level” — could anything be more important for us as Christians to learn to do, especially with our Muslim cousins, in a day when misunderstanding is the rule and violence is increasingly becoming the way. What follows is my presentation from the program last night. May it serve the cause of understanding and respect. DBS +
Prayer – Faiths in Conversation
A Christian Perspective – Dr. Douglas Skinner
Custer Road UMC – Plano – Tuesday, October 31, 2017 – 7:00 pm
In wide swaths of the church, baptism is viewed as a covenantal sign much like circumcision is in Judaism. Infants are baptized into the community of faith on the promise of family and church to raise them in “the fear and admonition of the Lord.” Later on, at an “age of accountability,” they are then expected to make their own decision about the faith in which they have been raised. This act of faith’s personal acceptance is called “Confirmation.” It’s when and how the faith of the family and church that was the basis for their baptism as infants gets personally “confirmed” by them when they can think and decide for themselves.
I was confirmed by the Right Rev. Francis Bloy, the Episcopal Bishop of Los Angeles back in 1966 when I was 12 years old. I had been baptized as an infant, and on that occasion my parents and their church promised to raise me in such a way that I would grow into a faith of my own. Specifically, what they promised to do was to teach me three things – the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments.
In the Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church there is a Catechism which is the official curriculum that is to be taught to every person before they can be confirmed, and the backbone of this standard teaching tool, not surprisingly, are these same three things. The Apostles’ Creed spells out the core convictions of the Christian faith. The Ten Commandments establish the basic code of conduct for the Christian life. And the Lord’s Prayer serves as the basic guide to a Christian’s communion with God.
Now, I tell you all of this in order to say that whenever the Christian Church has talked about prayer, it has always talked first and foremost about the Lord’s Prayer, and that’s because for Christians, the Lord’s Prayer is the Model Prayer. It’s the prayer that Jesus gave His disciples when they asked Him to teach them how to pray (Luke 11:1-4), and it has been a prayer that has been prayed by His disciples ever since. In fact, no prayer has been prayed by more Christians over a longer period of time than has the Lord’s Prayer.
In many of the denominational families of Christianity the Lord’s Prayer is prayed publicly every week in worship. For instance, at the church I serve we pray the Lord’s Prayer together out loud every Sunday morning. I think it’s safe to say that the Lord’s Prayer is the most widely shared liturgical text in all of Christianity. But it’s not just limited to our public acts of shared worship. Many Christians also pray the Lord’s Prayer individually when we are all by ourselves. For Christians, the Lord’s Prayer is a primary text for our life of public worship as well as for our life of private devotion.
The “Didache” is a second century document that describes the some of the practices of the early church right after the close of the New Testament era, and it instructed Christians to pray the Lord’s Prayer three times each day. This was the first Christian Rule of Prayer: pray the Lord’s Prayer first thing in the morning, then pray it again at midday, and then finally, pray it one more time at night right before going to bed. Now, understand, there was more to this practice than just mechanically rattling-off the 70-or-so words of the Lord’s Prayer.
In the Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition they say that we learn how to pray first with our lips – by saying the words; and then we learn how to pray with our heads – by understanding the meaning of the words that we are saying; and then finally we learn how to pray with our hearts – by experiencing the reality of the God who is behind the concepts and beneath the words. And it is this movement from mouth to head, and then from head to heart, that informs the use of the Lord’s Prayer by Christians.
There is more to the Lord’s Prayer than its words, beautiful and meaningful as they are. In this prayer that takes less than a minute for us to recite what we who are Christians are given is a summary of the spiritual life from the perspective of Christianity. In the affirmations and petitions of this prayer taught to us by Jesus Christ Himself, the building blocks of our relationship with God as Christians get spelled out for us simply and specifically. This is why the church has, right from the beginning of her life, insisted that knowing and praying the Lord’s Prayer is an indispensable part of what it means to be a Christian.
On the handout that I prepared for you this evening you will find the text of the Lord’s Prayer as we pray it each week at my church.
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 debts, as we forgive our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.
The Lord’s Prayer consists of a combination of affirmations about the God to whom we pray as Christians, and petitions addressed to this God that inform our expectations of what it is that He wants for us as human beings. The Lord’s Prayer teaches us absolute confidence” in God, and “total dependence” on God as human beings.
I find that who you think God is will largely determine how you pray. If you think that God is distant and disinterested, then you pray to get that God’s attention. And if you think that God is fastidious and stern, then you pray to try to win that God’s favor. But if you think that God is personal and affectionate, then you pray as a conversation with a friend, and this is exactly the kind of God to whom we pray as Christians in the Lord’s Prayer. Christians pray to God as “Father.” Now, the picture that immediately comes to my mind and heart when I think about what this looks like is the one that Genesis chapter 3 paints for us of God coming to the Garden of Eden in the cool of the evening to go for a walk with Adam and Eve (3:8). This is a picture of intimacy and affection, and this is a picture of the kind of relationship that I as a Christian believe God wants to have with all of us.
When Genesis chapter 1 tells us that we are created in the image of God as human beings (1:27), I think that part of what we’re being told is that we are made with a capacity and a need for a relationship with God. We are intrinsically and incurably religious as human beings. I just love the way that St. Augustine put it, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord,” he prayed, “and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” Just like a reflection in a mirror, we are created to correspond to God, we are built to respond to Him. We are created to talk with God face to face and as friend with friend (Exodus 33:11). And the God who is addressed in the Lord’s Prayer is just this kind of God, a God of intimate and affection relationship, a parental God. This is a God in whom I can have “absolute confidence.” And because I do, this is a God on whom I can “totally depend.”
When I was a kid growing up, once everyone was seated at the family dinner table every evening, my father would fold his hands, bow his head and say – “The eyes of all wait upon you, O Lord,” and then my mother, my sisters and I would immediately answer saying – “and you give them their food in due season.” “You open wide your hand,” my father would continue, and again we would all respond, “and you satisfy the needs of every living creature.” These words come from Psalm 145, and they were an important part of the nightly dinner table ritual for my family when I was growing up, and I’m glad they were because they taught me something important about God that I have never forgotten – He is the source of every good and perfect gift that I have in my life and that I see in the world. And the Lord’s Prayer is built on this same conviction.
When I pray the Lord’s Prayer asking for God’s provision, pardon, and protection, the confidence I have that I am actually being heard, and that my requests are going to be taken seriously, rests singularly on what it is that I know to be true of the God to whom I am praying. The God to whom Jesus Christ taught His disciples to pray in the Lord’s Prayer is a God who knows us by name and need. The “Heavenly Father” God addressed in the Lord’s Prayer is a God that we as Christians believe has both the intention and the ability to do good for us and for all of creation. And it’s on the basis of these affirmations that we then make our needs known to Him.
In the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer there is a mix of human needs mentioned, some of them are material, some of them are spiritual, but all of them of real concern to the God to whom we pray as Christians in the Lord’s Prayer. I had a professor in seminary who liked to say that if we can’t trust God with the temporal needs of our bodies then why should we bother trusting Him with the eternal needs of our souls? And that question nicely reflects the scope of God’s concern for us as human beings in the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer.
Our spiritual needs get gathered up and voiced in the petition for God’s kingdom to come, for things to be on earth as God has always intended them to be from eternity. This is a prayer for shalom, for human beings and all of creation to thrive in a harmonious web of mutual interdependence. And the petitions for forgiveness, guidance, and deliverance from evil are all cries to God to help us move in this direction. And our material needs all fall under the umbrella of the petition for daily bread. Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformer, said that this petition of the Lord’s Prayer is about “everything that has to do with the support and needs of the body – food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, home, land, animals, money… good weather… health… a loving family… good friends… [and] faithful neighbors.”
“Total dependence” on a God in whom we have “absolute confidence” is what the Lord’s Prayer teaches me as a Christian. And in teaching me this, I believe that it is teaching me the essence of how Christianity understands the spiritual life. The intriguing question for me as a Christian is how expressive of the essence of the Abrahamic spiritual tradition is this “total dependence” and “absolute confidence” that the Lord’s Prayer teaches me as a Christian?
When you look around and listen, the two biggest conversations that are being had on prayer when Christians, Muslims, and Jews talk are: (1) Are we praying to the same God? and (2) Can and should Jews and Muslims pray the Lord’s Prayer when it is being offered as the “universal” prayer in public non-sectarian settings like Alcoholics Anonymous? My question is different. It’s not about the God we are praying to, a God I believe we in fact share as Christians, Jews, and Muslims. And it’s not about whether or not you as Jews and Muslims can or should pray the actual words of the Lord’s Prayer. No, my question is different. It has to do with the spiritual dynamics that are at work in the Lord’s Prayer. You see, from my years of being involved in interfaith conversations like this one here this evening, I have learned that when we talk about doctrine, what we believe, that’s when our greatest differences become evident, but when we talk about spirituality, how we believe, that’s when our greatest similarities show.
For example, when we talk about Jesus Christ and who we think He is, that’s when I find that we’re furthest apart as Christians, Muslims, and Jews, and I don’t see any way of closing that gap without one of us changing what we believe. But when my Jewish friends talk about their long experience of “chesed” – God’s steadfast covenantal love for them, and when my Muslim friends open up their Korans and read – “I begin with the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful. All praise is to God, Lord of all the worlds, Most Gracious, Most Merciful…” – my heart can easily say, “that’s the God I know too in Jesus Christ.”
We have a hymn we like to sing at my church about how in shared devotion “true hearts everywhere their high communion find.” This hymn is about how Christians of different races and backgrounds find our unity in the relationship that we all share with Christ. And my question is, does the Lord’s Prayer with its spirituality of “absolute confidence” in and “total dependence” upon God create a similar kind of “shared devotion” in which we as the three branches of the Abrahamic family tree of faiths can find “a high communion” from “true hearts”?
Does the Lord’s Prayer tap a subterranean spiritual stream of an experience with God that we all share, and from which we are all being nourished? You see, whether or not you can pray the words of the Lord’s Prayer with me, what I’m really interested in knowing is if this spiritual experience of “absolute confidence” and “total dependence” of which the words of the Lord’s Prayer are so expressive is something that we share as Christians, Muslims, and Jews? More than just the essential prayer of my Christianity, what I’m curious to know is if the spirituality of the Lord’s Prayer is expressive of the spirituality of your branch of the Abrahamic family, and if it is, whether or not we can find in its rhythms a way for us to relate to one another at a deeper and more receptive and respectful level?