Last week, as we began our Lenten sermon series on the Lord’s Prayer, I talked a little bit about my own relationship with prayer over the years, and the fact that I sometimes feel like I don’t really know how to pray. Luckily for me, and any others of you who might have ever felt like that, Jesus has some words of instruction for us, and that is this prayer we pray every week possibly without giving it a lot of thought.
Today, though, I want to back it up a little, and also turn it over to you: why do you pray?
(I’m assuming you pray. At least some of you. At least you do when we’re here together.) So why do you pray?
One answer might be that you pray because you need help – especially if you need the kind of help that only God can give. Or because you are grateful, or because you are sorry. You might pray because you were taught to do so as a child and it became a habit, or because you know you are supposed to. And maybe, once in a while, it’s because you want to seek God’s will.
The season of Lent is a great time to think about how and why we pray, since it’s the season of spiritual discipline and intentionally drawing closer to God. I know for me, expressing thanks and needing help are at the top of the list. In fact, that’s even how I’ve been teaching Evelyn to pray, by thinking of things we are thankful for and of people we know who need help. That’s similar to what we do here each week in our Prayers of the People, otherwise known as Joys and Concerns. Those are good reasons to pray, but I also sense that prayer is probably about more than that.
I’ve known people who don’t like pre-written prayers – whether it’s the Lord’s Prayer or the confession I wrote for one week – because they don’t like words being put in their mouth. I knew a guy in seminary like that. I said to him once, “Sometimes someone else’s words can say what you were trying to say,” and he said “Yeah, I’ve never found that.” I completely understand and affirm wanting to express to God just what is on your mind and heart. And I also believe that one of the good things about being given words to say in prayer is that those words can call us beyond ourselves and our own immediate needs and desires. We might say that the point of prayer, in a broader sense, is to little by little align ourselves with God’s will – not just to get God to do what we want, but to discern, and be empowered to do, what God wants.
The Lord’s Prayer gives us space to ask for what we need. But it’s bigger than that, too. Will Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas, in their book Lord, Teach Us, say that “The Lord’s Prayer is a lifelong act of bending ourselves toward God” (22). John Dominic Crossan in his book The Greatest Prayer calls it “a radical manifesto and a hymn of hope for all humanity” (2).
Through the season of Lent, we’re going to reflect on the words of this prayer and their power to bend our lives toward God and express radical hope for all humanity. One of the ways we’re going to do that is by hearing the prayer in different translations, because sometimes by hearing new words for an old idea, we can be shocked into hearing that old idea differently. I also want to encourage you to reflect on the words of this prayer by putting them in your own words. In your bulletin, you should have a blank index card. Each week as we talk about the meaning of one line of the Lord’s Prayer, I want to invite you to paraphrase that line, put the idea in your own words, and then either put the card in the offering, or hand it to me after worship, or email me after you’ve had time to think about it. I’d like to compile these lines into our own Lord’s Prayer, New Revised Arlington Temple Version. I want this to help us think more deeply about these lines that many of us rattle off by memory, and what they actually mean. I want us, this Lent, to make this prayer ours.
I titled this sermon “Hallowed Be Your Name,” perhaps leading you to believe that that is where we were going to start. But that’s not actually where the prayer begins, and the first words are important too.
Our Father, who art in heaven. It’s a simple intro; we’re just naming who our prayer is addressed to. But there’s a lot packed in there. We could start with the word “Our,” which is significant because it’s not the word “my.” This is the kind of prayer we pray together. And even when we pray it by ourselves, that consistent first-person-plural pronoun reminds us that it’s not just about me: Give us this day our daily bread. Forgive us our trespasses. Deliver us from evil.
John Wesley always said that there is no holiness but social holiness; we can’t be Christians alone. Sometimes we try: we’d rather know that our personal relationship with Jesus makes everything OK than be obligated to or challenged by each other in any way. But Jesus doesn’t teach us to pray the “My Father.”
Second, the God we pray to is the God we call Father. If you know me, you probably know that I try to not to lean to heavily on masculine language for God. It’s not that we can’t use it at all, it’s just that when we use it all the time, as if the only way we can think of God is actually as a literal man, it kind of gives me hives. So it’s true that if I were writing this prayer, or even putting it in my own words, I might have chosen something else. I know people who have had less than stellar relationships with their own fathers may prefer alternatives too.
But there’s a reason Jesus called the God he prayed to Father. It’s not because God is a man, though I’m sure it was easiest to think so in the cultural framework of the time, just as it is now. Instead, as Crossan suggests, we might think of all the titles Jesus could have chosen, but didn’t (32). He didn’t pray to our King, or to God our mighty warrior. Instead he prayed – and taught us to pray – to someone we can know, someone who loves us and listens to us and cares for us and provides for us. Crossan suggests the alternative “Householder,” the person whose job it is to run a household and care for a family lovingly and equitably. I admit it doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, and neither does the gender-neutral “Our Parent.” But it does help us think about what we do and don’t mean when we pray to our Father.
Let’s not, though, go so far down this road of God as our Daddy that we forget that God is something and someone wholly other than us. Does anyone remember the country song from 10 or so years ago, “Me and God?” (We talked about this in Bible study a few weeks ago.) It features lyrics such as: There ain’t nothing that can’t be done by me and God. Can’t nobody come in between me and God. We’re like two peas in a pod, me and God.
This song does a good job of capturing the intimacy of a personal relationship with God – which is good. What it doesn’t do is acknowledge that God isn’t just like me: God is God, eternal, holy, mysterious, the one who breathes life into all that is. And that part’s kind of important, too. Both parts are. So we don’t just pray to “Our Father,” but to “Our Father, who art in heaven,” to God, who is here and also beyond here, whose realm is not our realm, who we can know but also can’t know, to God, who in the words of Willimon and Hauerwas, “is not some pale image of ourselves and our best aspirations” (37).
That’s the God we pray to.
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. This is, probably, the most old-fashioned part of the prayer: who really uses a word like “hallowed” anymore? We do, indirectly, on Halloween, All Hallows’ Eve, or the eve of All Saints Day in the liturgical calendar. And maybe you’ve walked the “hallowed halls” of your alma mater, or some other place where holy things happened or special people also walked. If we read the Common English Bible translation, we would read instead, “Uphold the holiness of your name.” Others say May your name be revered or May your name be honored; May your name be held holy; Let your holy name be known.
“Hallowed” is holy, revered, sanctified. Hallowed be thy name.
We might ask what we even mean by God’s name, in particular.
If you think back to the book of Exodus, when Moses meets God in the burning bush and gets commissioned to go back to God’s people in Egypt and tell Pharaoh to let them go, what’s one of the first questions he asks?: What’s your name? God tells him: I am who I am. It’s the letters of that verb, I am, or to be, that we usually vocalize as “Yahweh,” that is, God’s name. To know someone’s name is a powerful thing, because a name is a powerful thing. You may know that if you’ve ever changed yours. I know that when I got married and changed mine, it was a fairly simple legal act (paperwork aside) but also wrapped up in all sorts of questions of identity, who I had been, who I was now, and what it all meant.
In ancient times, especially, a name was more than just a name. There’s a reason our Jewish friends don’t read “Yahweh” when they come across those four Hebrew letters – they’ll read “Adonai,” (Lord) or “Ha-shem” (the name) or something else instead. It’s the same reason one of the top ten rules for God’s people is not to take the Lord’s name in vain. Names – especially divine names – are powerful things. A name is identity, reputation, character.
There was a time in my life when I was very careful about not taking the Lord’s name in vain, which I interpreted then to mean not saying “Oh my god.” I was probably more careful then, for better or worse, than I am now, and I remember a friend saying at the time: “Aren’t there better ways to spend your energy on being a good person?” And I thought about it, and for a time I think she convinced me. But then I thought more, and I thought about reverence, and how ideally, reverence should start with God’s name but not end there.
These days I would say that there are worse ways to take God’s name in vain. Willimon and Hauerwas give the example of the Nazi army during WWII and the words, stamped on their belt buckles and their helmets, Gott mit uns – God with us. “To invoke the name of the free, mighty God as patron of our causes,” they write, “is to take the name of God in vain” (48). And since Nazis are always the inevitable worst-case example, let’s not think you have to be a Nazi in order to do the same: we do it as Democrats and Republicans, as Americans at war; we do it whenever we use God as our justification to build walls that separate us from each other instead of knocking them down.
To use God’s name in vain is the opposite of it being hallowed.
It’s a little bit strange, if you think about it, that we have to ask God for God’s own name to be hallowed. Honestly, God’s name should probably be hallowed already, by definition.
And I think here we come back to the “why” of prayer, and to the “why” of this prayer in particular: that it’s not just for God to do what we want, but for us to align ourselves, or allow ourselves to be aligned, with the will of God.
And so we pray “Hallowed be thy name,” which I don’t read so much as the CEB “Uphold the holiness of your name,” as if I am giving God directions. Instead, I read it like this: “God, may your name be hallowed in this world.” Or in the words of theologian N.T. Wright in The Lord and His Prayer: “May you be worshiped by your whole creation; may the whole cosmos resound with your praise; may the whole world be freed from injustice, disfigurement, sin, and death, and may your name be hallowed” (9).
And, because it’s not just that someone ELSE might hallow God’s name: “God, may your name be hallowed in my life.”
May I put you first, above my precious hopes and well-laid plans. May I love what you love; may I love who you love. May the way I love and give and show mercy and act with integrity show others who you are. May I be your representative on earth, not in self-righteousness, but in humility. May I live up to, and into, the purpose you created me for. May all creation live into the purpose you created it for. May your name be hallowed as everywhere, people choose the path of peace.
It sounds like God’s Kingdom come on earth, and yes, that’s where we’re going next.
I thought some this week about how I might paraphrase this first line of the Lord’s Prayer for myself, and I thought of this: Unreachable God who holds us in your arms, may we always put you first.
How about you?
I invite you to think about these words this week. Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. How will God’s name be hallowed in your life this week?
If we let it, this prayer might be more than just some lines we rattle off each week. If we let it, as we say its words over and over so that they shape us over time, we might find this prayer bending our very lives toward God.