Monday, April 2, 2012

Praying the Lord's Prayer -- Part 3

Give us this day our daily bread.

This phrase seems so simple, so straightforward. We ask God to provide that which we need for our sustenance today. Of course one can debate what exactly is necessary. I think that most of us Americans really have no idea what we need to survive. But maybe that's not the core issue here. Jesus invites us to ask the Father for what we need. He tells us that we shouldn't be ashamed or afraid to bring our concerns and our needs (perceived or real) before him. So as annoying as I find it, all those prayers in the home group, Bible study or Sunday School class for Uncle John's health or Cousin Joan's dog matter. They matter to God. He is not inattentive or indifferent to them. He may not choose to answer them the way Uncle John or Cousin Joan or anyone else desires, but that does not mean he doesn't care or that he doesn't hear. As N.T. Wright says in his book The Lord and His Prayer:

“To turn then to the specific things we honestly need right now is not trivial. Is is precisely what children do when they love and trust the one they call 'Father.'”

I need to hear this message, because sometimes I get into a hyper-spiritual mode where I think it is a sign of spiritual immaturity to pray for mundane, concrete needs, especially for myself. I feel that I should turn my prayer focus toward more lofty, weighty matters, such as those who are spiritually lost or those who are suffering real hunger, or injustice or oppression. But if God is my Father, then I should be comfortable and free to come to him with anything that's on my mind. That's what Paul tells the Philippians when he writes that they should not be anxious about anything, but instead pray about everything. As we do, he asserts: “The peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” How badly do I need to hear that word. I worry and fret so much about so many things, when Jesus would have me lay those things before the Father, asking him to provide my daily bread and then rest in the peace of knowing that I have a heavenly Father who will not abandon me.

N.T. Wright acknowledges this aspect of the phrase “Give us our daily bread,” the aspect that addresses our needs, as I cited above. “The Kingdom-prayer isn't a prayer, such as some religions advocate, for our desires to be taken away or annihilated.” Rather, as we pray them within the greater context of hungering for God's kingdom and will to be done, “it asks for our desires to be satisfied in God's way and God's time. And, since God himself is most truly the deepest object of our hunger, this clause asks that we may be fed with God himself.” When we pray these words we seek not only for God to meet our immediate and real earthly needs, but to satisfy our hunger for the in-breaking of His Kingdom in our lives and in our world.

This leads us to recognize that, even as we pray for ourselves, our needs and the needs of those we know and love, we must not forget the larger picture.

“It is impossible truly to pray for our daily bread, or for tomorrow's bread today, without being horribly aware of the millions who didn't have bread yesterday, don't have any today, and in human terms are unlikely to have any tomorrow either.”

The needs of the world can overwhelm us. People speak of compassion-fatigue and no wonder, given the level of need in the world and the ability we now have to be aware of it.  How can our prayers engage with the real need of the world? Wright suggests “we should be praying this prayer not just for the hungry, but with the hungry.” He elaborates on this by saying:

“We offer ourselves, in this prayer, as representatives of this world...turning into words the unspoken prayer from thousands of hungry folk in our own country and millions around the world, turning it into words that plead with our heavenly Father to feed the hungry, to care for the desperate. And when we have prayed in that fashion, the test of whether we were sincere will of course be whether we are prepared to stand physically alongside those for whom we have claimed to speak.(emphasis mine)

As I pray these words, I can freely bring my own needs and the needs of those closest to me before our heavenly Father without feeling shame that these needs are somehow too trivial or insignificant for the attention of Almighty God. At the same time, even as I pray for those needs, I do not want to forget the needs of the wider world. I think for each of us God can and will help us focus our prayers on specific areas of need, so that we can avoid feeling overwhelmed by the needs confronting the world. As we pray for those needs, we can also ask God to speak to us and help us to take concrete steps to be a part of bring the Kingdom to fulfillment precisely in those areas. Our part may be small, but we can still play a part if we will ask and listen and be ready to serve.

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