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Permission to Pray

What comes to mind when you think of prayer? Do you think of monologues given by some suited guy on his knees who is more about how well he can speak than the One he is supposedly speaking to? Maybe you’ve heard those texts that tell us to pray without ceasing, to be thankful for everything, that God will answer your prayers before you ask, or that whatever you ask, God will give to you. Is God a genie who is required to grant your prayer wishes?

Is there only one way to pray so that God will hear you? What are the magic words for getting prayers answered? Maybe prayer was something we were supposed to learn by osmosis because all “good Christians” know how to do it, but the rest of us haven’t figured it out yet.

Maybe you feel like there are parts of you that block your connection to God and your prayers get caught hovering in the air, never quite able to break through the ceiling. You aren’t good enough; you haven’t lived up to the standards others tell you are needed to prove how much you love God. If people only knew what you were really like, the sins you deal with when you aren’t masking them behind a “Happy Sabbath.” If people would be disappointed in you, why would God be any different? Maybe if you hide those bits of you, hide your doubting, hide your anger, and frustration, then maybe prayer could work for you.

Sarah Bessey, in the introduction to A Rhythm of Prayer: A Collection of Meditations for Renewal which includes contributions by women from a variety of faith traditions and backgrounds, wants us to remember: “There is room for your whole self in prayer. You can bring your whole body to this altar, this place where you meet with God with words or with wordless knowing. You don’t need to pretend that you aren’t angry, that you aren’t cynical or afraid, that you aren’t feeling a bit hopeless or uncomfortable or envious or tired. That’s how the Psalms came to be, after all … Scripture gives us a more fulsome and complete view of prayer than we were perhaps taught.” This is an invitation for us to look at prayer in a new way.

What better prayer to re-examine than the Lord’s Prayer, the example given by Jesus, to see what prayer can be for both God and us. These five simple sentences have had a lasting impact on Christians around the world.

“Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name. Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done in Earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day, our daily bread, forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory forever. Amen.”

I don’t know about you, but I seem to say the Lord’s prayer in the antiquated King James Version style I was taught. But when Jesus spoke these words, He was using common everyday language to make it relatable. Therefore, it would be good for us to consider what this age-old prayer means to us in the 21st Century.

“Our Father who art in heaven.” Seems pretty basic, but do you see how at the very beginning this prayer is one of equality? God belongs to all of us, and we are all on the same level when it comes to a relationship with God. No one is loved less, or more. Each one of us is somehow, miraculously, and wonderfully made in the image of God. Each is worthy of the inheritance that comes from being part of the family—eternal life. We didn’t earn this anymore than any of us asked to be born. It is a fact of our very existence.

But this is not the nuclear family we think of today. God, the divine Creator, is the head of the family. Not you, not me, not the pastor, president nor parents. God, who is in heaven, who sees it all, wants to hear from us without any filters.

The next bit “Hallowed be your name” is a fancy way of calling God holy. In biblical culture, and maybe in yours as well, names held great importance. Names could tell the story of someone’s ancestry and give a prophecy to their legacy. Names described one’s character and calling in life. God’s intimate, personal name has often been considered too holy to be uttered by human lips. Yet, God often uses it when talking to us in the Bible—YHWH, with a meaning of “I am that I am”—the One who has always been and always will be, the One that is the source of all life. He is holy, special, and altogether different than you and me. He is different, but approachable, separate, but devoutly concerned with you.

Next, we get to a somewhat antiquated view of the world: kingdoms. “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done in Earth as it is in heaven.” The rulers of kingdoms could be tyrants or empathic sovereigns. Which is the view you have been given of God? When Jesus was on Earth, He proclaimed that the Kingdom of God was not just something to look forward to, but something that was already here. A kingdom founded on grace, mercy, and breaking free from oppression and toxic religiosity, a kingdom founded on love for your neighbor and love for your enemies, a kingdom in which God is allowed to be God instead of humans thinking they can do it better, was already here.

This is also a notice that much of the things that happen on this Earth are not the will of our God in heaven. There is a promise that God will be the ultimate righter-of wrongs, but we are not at that point yet. However, we don’t stand idly by. We still have a part to play because this part of the prayer is a call to action, a permission slip for the Holy Spirit to work in us and with us to bring about justice mixed with mercy and grace. It is about opening ourselves to be used by God to share His love—God’s will for Earth and Heaven. To live in empathy and care focused on relieving the pain of others rather than building ourselves up.

Now we move away from the “who” of God to the “what” of God, our divine honey-do-list, the asking for things that dominates most of our prayers. If God is the giver of all good things, and we are told to ask, then let’s get to asking. It starts off with “Give us this day, our daily bread.” This is an acknowledgement of reality. We have basic needs. Food, shelter, medical care, warmth. Nothing is too simple or complex to take to God. Some of these we can take care of through the ins and outs of daily life. Some we can’t.

Just like one meal will not nourish you for the entirety of life, there will be things that we keep needing, things that need constant renewal. Physical health, mental health, money, companionship, and love are some of those needs. There will never be a time on this earth that we won’t be in need. This is not something to feel guilty about. It also helps us to remember that we are not alone in our wanting, and while we do have control over some things, there are other needs that are only filled by Divine intervention.

Speaking of Divine intervention, that is very much needed for the part where we ask God to “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Now this isn’t specifically talking about student loans, but if God wants to take care of that for me, I’m here for it. This is the part that always messes me up when I say The Lord’s Prayer. Some versions say, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” I always panic on which one to use, but the meaning is the same. There is a need for us to be forgiven and a need to forgive others.

As long as we are breathing, we’ll mess up both intentionally and unintentionally. Forgiveness is hard, it can be a lifelong journey, one that we cannot do on our own. We need God to massage the rough edges and callouses in our souls. Let forgiveness be God’s work, not something we grit our teeth and force to happen. Another part of this is accepting God’s forgiveness. We don’t need to keep pulling up the past that God has buried for us. We are trespassing into Heaven’s domain when we believe that God’s forgiveness has an expiration date or isn’t genuine.

This is also not just about personal sins. We have a responsibility to each other, to all of humanity, not just those who think or believe like we do. We are invited to not just confess our own sins and shortcomings, but to name, acknowledge, and confess our communal and corporate sins. At the same time, confession isn’t enough. We are also called to the work of dismantling systems of oppression and separation.

Taking that call to action further, the prayer continues: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” Lord, keep us from apathy, from caring more about ourselves than God and all of Creation. We are asking for protection from those darker parts of ourselves. We are reminded of the reality that our heart’s default setting is evil. Sin is hardwired into us—it doesn’t have to be intentional. Admitting it, accepting it, and asking God to intervene is part of our daily needs.

This brings us back to the beginning: knowing that God is God and that we are not. We trust that God will right the wrongs and bring vindication, that even when nothing makes sense, when suffering and death abound, when you are searching blindly for that glimmer of hope we remember that we are in it together, that we have been empowered to be able to hope for one another and hold each other up. This is faith: asking God to help us trust in the reality we do not see: “For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory forever. Amen.”

This article was inspired by the Encounter Adventist Bible curriculum unit 4.8 “Teach Us to Pray: The Lord’s Prayer.”

Kristy Hodson, MA, MDiv, is currently serving as a hospital chaplain at AdventHealth Ocala in Ocala, FL.

Image by Rubenhutabarat on UnSplash.

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