We tame the Lord’s Prayer. We have to, so it isn’t nearly as disturbing to us as an incautious reading would reveal. Certainly it is a comfort. We use it for everything. It is often the first prayer we learn in worship and frequently the last to escape our lips. Routinely, we use it to conclude church meetings. That may be a misuse, the prayer being more radical than a mere way to clear out the room, but I’ve done it too.
What we miss in its casual use is the touch of death it represents. A whiff of musty scent leaks from a tomb as we pray itour own, as it happens. It struck me this Lentdoubtless an old insight made fresh in my own reflectionsthat the Lord’s Prayer is a prayer for our own death. It is against us as much as it is for us.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (a Lutheran pastor may read it profitably) speaks of a “battle of prayer.” Personally, I don’t like phrases like “prayer battle” or “prayer warriors”; I don’t know what “assaulting the throne” means exactly. But in this case, a “prayer battle” seems fitting, except it is we ourselves who are under assaultby a prayer so familiar we hardly consider it twice when reciting it.
In this battle we ask to die to the world and, unsettlingly, we may expect a favorable response. This fastened on me while preaching about that old prayer during a series of evening services this Lent.
Some scholarship asserts that the prayer did not originate with Jesus. He never said it. It is instead the collective work of early Christians who strung together a number of ideas, thoughts, passing remarks and the like that Jesus may have offered at one time or another to anybody listening. I cannot say which is more surprising: rejection of the prayer as Jesus’s own, or the notion that a church committee could have agreed on the wording. (Yes, for the record, I think the Lord’s Prayer is authentically Jesus’s.)
Jesus has us begin by asking that God’s kingdom will come to us in a way that we will know him as Father, that we may count on him in every time of crisis, doubt, and in every low, lonely, and desperate moment. Praying for that, we have prayed for things Jesus himself believes most essential: We have prayed for the Word of God, and we have prayed for the faith to believe it.
Yet in praying for those things we have also come to the verge of Jordan. To pray for God’s kingdom coming is to pray that his will will be done. We are not always as interested in that as we think, because in praying for God’s will to come to us, we are coincidentally praying to preclude our own will from ever coming at all. We die right there.
Martin Luther’s Small Catechism explains “Thy will be done” doesn’t require our prayer. Luther makes the reasonable point that God’s will is done without our help. We pray only that we will recognize it when it is done among us.
Here we enter a prayer for our own deaththe death of self. That is what we have sought in baptism and it is what we have received. There we join in the death of Christ. We are given what we sought; that’s the deal. Christ emerges from the new creation we have become. We were baptized so that we may pray “Thy kingdom come” and “Thy will be done.” We were baptized for that.
Yet there is a bucket load of alternatives available to us. Most days before I’ve even had coffee I readily warm up to the idea of my kingdom coming and my will being done. It’s a simple idea: that I can take life by the neck and wring from it what I want.
My name, hallowed, so I can do in one phone call everything I want done in my name. Then, naturally, my kingdom, where the people I live with always turn out the lights when they leave a room. I want to say “I want” and have everybody else say, “Hey that sounds good.” Maybe that’s why we like shows with wicked people getting away with wicked things: It’s their kingdom, they built it. We’re envious.
That’s why the Lord’s Prayer bids me die, and why I must pray for it. That need springs from the first garden with the old Adam, the old Eve, asserting their wills against the strictures of a will they would not recognize. It is the will of the old unwashed self that must be put to death daily in baptism.
So we pray against ourselves. Praying against ourselves, this is hardly anything we would do without prompting, which makes me doubt very much that a church committee could ever have composed it.
Russell E. Saltzman is a dean in the North American Lutheran Church and assistant pastor of St. Matthew’s Church in Riverside, Missouri. His latest book, Speaking of the Dead, is being published this year by ALPB Books. His previous articles can be found here.