At this stage in my life, I find that the Lord’s Prayer is the only form of supplication I can enter into with sincerity. As I understand them, Jesus’ words to his Father are a humble expression of hope laced with an awareness that this life is one marked by complexity. Because the Lord’s Prayer reflects reality, I find I can speak these words both truthfully and with a sense of expectation. For me, the most beautiful aspect of this prayer is that although Jesus is cognisant of the trials and sufferings of life, he avoids the easy allure of a resigned cynicism. Instead, he simply acknowledges the cosmic rule of his Father and asks for his basic needs to be met. The concise nature of the Lord’s Prayer is, I believe, a model for how to approach prayer in a spirit of confidence and humility. Jesus does not ask for power to conquer the world. There are no guarantees of personal prosperity. Instead, the Lord’s Prayer accepts that the world will continue on as it always has. What changes here is not the external reality of things, but rather the heart of the individual who has chosen to place their faith in the Creator of all things.
The Lord’s Prayer is so perfect in its completeness that I need not pray anything else. In fact, I find it almost impossible to pray anything else with the same sense of conviction. And because of this, I find praying in groups particularly problematic. When the Lord’s Prayer is spoken, my experience has been that it’s often used to signify the end of a meeting or service. It functions as a sort of pith summary statement as to what we think we believe. If I can be so tasteless as to use an academic analogy, the Lord’s Prayer, when used in this way, is kind of similar to a thesis abstract. It gives you a sort of outline of the content of genuine prayer, but the full impact can only be felt by immersing oneself in the main body of the work. This ‘body’ of work takes the form of collective open prayer. Open prayer is the chance for the gathered faithful to enter into the presence of God, and to plead for divine intervention on any number of topics; from John’s bung knee to the success of the upcoming charity bake-off.
It’s clear from the New Testament and early Church that the practice of praying in groups is theologically justified, but it seems to me that despite Jesus clear teaching on the in Matthew 6:9-13, the Lord’s Prayer is rarely considered enough. The Church so frequently seems to feel some collective need to wax eloquent with meaningless dribble, to the extent that prayer is often turned into a tragic, (or worse) comedic mockery. I can distinctly remember a prayer meeting I had the misfortune of attending some years ago. One dominant member of the group used the occasion to ask God to bless his shareholder investment. Another chap generously asked for God to provide each of us with nice homes and financial success (actually, I could almost get behind this one!).
Of course, it’s easy to write this off as the erroneous category of prosperity theology, and indeed these materialistic requests are at significant variance with what the Apostles, early Church Fathers and later reformers understood of prayer. However, much of the mockery of prayer emerges in more theologically nuanced ways. The same man who pleaded with God for millions of dollars was knowledgeable enough to be aware of the many and varied Old Testament names of God, which he listed (over several minutes) before getting to the central request of money. The point of this eluded me, but I can only assume it was to remind God as to who he was (and is), and to display his own theological maturity. As a theology student, it certainly left me intimidated. On another occasion, a Gentleman invoked Jesus’ words in John 10:10 as evidence that God owed us a life of abundant material blessing.
Such examples highlight the self-serving and performance elements of prayer. They are reflections of an understanding of God that fails to adequately grasp the distinction between the creator and the created, and thereby assume that God’s desires for our lives are congruent with our own. As the final words of the Lord’s Prayer affirm, the kingdom and the power belong to God. Because of this, our own desires are subservient to the will of God. Ultimately, prayer is not a tool through which we can get our own desires met. Nor should it be used as a way of measuring the depth of someone’s theological maturity. Even the most lofty, eloquent prayer can be meaningless when spoken by one with a conceited heart. Instead, prayer is a reverential attempt to orient one’s heart away from the constraints of individual desire and toward the will of God.