Preferred Prayers—Private and Pithy

April 26, 1998


Preferred Prayers:  Private & Pithy!

Last week we heard the advice of Christ about two ways people practiced religion in his time — charitable giving and occasional fasting — and what he said of both of them was that they should be done unobtrusively, without any blowing of trumpets to get recognition for one’s goodness.  He had similar advice about a third element in religion:  “Whenever you pray, don’t be like those play actors who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at street corners so that people may see them.”  There were certain fixed times for ritual prayer, and wherever you happened to be  at such a time you could turn toward the temple in Jerusalem and pray.  Apparently, some people managed to get caught at a busy intersection like Kellogg and Rock just at the moment for prayer — and, coincidentally, just when they would be seen by the largest audience.

We have our own ways of getting the same results.  I used to know a minister who when he stood to preach always closed his eyes first and dropped his head in silent prayer in full view of the waiting audience, some of whom  felt a little like voyeurs and were embarrassed. Others,  as you might guess, hailed it as proof of his deep piety.  I could not be certain of his motive, but it often occurred to me that  he might have been closer to the attitude of Christ if he had simply gotten in the habit of saying, quietly, when he worked on the sermon in his study each week, “Guide my words and keep me honest so that what I say on Sunday will be helpful.”

That going into the closet and closing the door is Jesus’ typical hyperbole for stressing the kind of privacy where it  makes no sense for us to pose or pretend.  We are not on stage, so we bow our heads and speak in short and simple words the naked truth.  Since we can’t showing off in the closet,  it never occurs to us to use flashy language and ask for everything under the sun.  We follow instinctively the advice Jesus gave when he said, “When you pray, don’t pile up empty phrases as pagans do, who think God hears them because of their many words.”

Any regular at church or at civic dinners has discovered how  prayer  as performance may tempt the clergy  to show off.   We’ve  heard the minister who dazzles us with a dozen names for God:  “O most holy and righteous Creator of heaven and earth and all that in them dwell, Almighty Sustainer  and Beneficent Provider of our lives, the very be-all and end-all of our existence, hear now our humble petition…..”  and then goes on to assault  God with 30 different requests for people and programs —  in the neighborhood and all  around the world.  Or, worse yet, tells  God all sorts of things as if prayer were a kind of information retrieval system for God.  I was present at a funeral once with an irreverent member of this choir who having heard a minister’s opening prayer decided to time his main one.  It rambled on for 12 interminable minutes.  I don’t know how God felt, but the rest of us had stopped listening.  Jesus must have heard prayers like that to have said so bluntly that God is not interested in prayer as performance.

The word “performance” reminds me of a famous story about a visiting bishop at Yale who spoke to incoming freshmen about the dangers of worldliness, using the four letters of the University’s name as his outline.  He rambled on for 10 minutes about how the “Y” might stand for Youthful Pleasures, but the students seemed unimpressed.  He carried on for another 7 miutes on “A” for Avarice, by which time he had lost the whole crowd.  He was determined, however, so he went on to “L” for Lust, and finally ended with “E” for Envy.  By now everyone was gone except for a young boy in the last pew who had knelt in an attitude of prayer.  When the boy stood up, the bishop (eager to think he had gotten through to someone!)  said, “Young man, perhaps you would be good enoughto tell me what it was that moved you so deeply.”  The boy said, “Certainly, sir.  I was just offering a small thanks to the Lord that I go to Yale and not to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.”

So much that is called  “prayer” isn’t.   Some never outgrow the child who sees God as a super Santa Claus who can be cajoled into giving the gift they want.   Some pray only when they are in trouble.  Others use prayer as a kind of auto-hypnosis, like the halfback who says through gritted teeth, “God, help me make this touchdown,” with no awareness that the big linebacker across from him may be pleading with equal passion for God to help him make the saving tackle.  But I am not, finally, a cynic.  I think there are those who, in prayer,   touch something deep and find strength to live well.   Such people, I have observed,  invariably keep their prayer life quiet and unobtrusive.  On a solitary walk, in their own room or office, they avoid the risks of praying to be seen.

Prayer can be silent or vocal and there are many ways of doing it.  Catholic Christians know that Counting beads may be a perfectly good way to pray, unless it becomes mechanical and part of the kingdom of magic — which I am sure, given human nature, it often does.  A Protestant, by the way, can finger words  just as idly and mechanically as a Catholic may finger beads  — something all of us have done at times  on a Sunday morning when we absent-mindedly repeat for the thousandth time what is called the Lord’s Prayer.

This famous prayer, oddly enough, has become sacrosanct in most churches — meaning that it has to be spoken exactly as people think Jesus may have spoken it.  There is absolutely no support for that idea in Scripture.  It was given as an example of how to pray, not as a prayer  more holy and sacred in itself than any other.   It’s really surprising how flexible the early church was in transmitting the words of Jesus.  This prayer appears in a  quite different form in Luke (11), and Mark and John and Paul don’t even bother to mention it.    Even as central as it finally became among the first Christians they reshaped the prayer with relative freedom, adapting it to local use, expanding it when they wished, obviously not feeling that it had to be repeated the same way without changing a word.  It would have astonished Jesus, I think, if someone had predicted to him that centuries later his suggested pattern  for praying would turn into something so untouchable, so sacrosanct, that one might be called a heretic just for venturing an up-to-date translation of it.

But our English versions of the Bible have  to be modified a little in each generation if we hope to keep Christianity fresh and alive.  However familiar, or even beloved, the English words of the King James Version of the Bible may be after 350 years, and however musical they may sound, it’s  naive to think they communicate with us as sharply and clearly as the language of 1998 .  You do not hear words like redemption  and atonement  and sanctification  and remission of sins  from this pulpit — not because the ideas they represent are not important, but because they only have meaning for people who have been given special instruction through sermons or classes.  They become a kind of in-house vocabulary which separates the church from the world it hopes to reach.  The first Christians, by the way, did not make that mistake.  They wrote the Christian story not in the classical Greek of Plato or Aristotle, but in koine Greek — the language of the street and of the marketplace, contemporary language.    The church runs the risk of turning itself into a museum artifact when it insists on dealing with ideas only in the vocabulary of the past.

Churches create confusion at times by insisting on traditional language that is no longer  the language of daily life.  You’ve all been present at some public event where, when the Lord’s Prayer was to be recited, the leader first had to instruct the audience whether to say “debts” or “trespasses” when they came to that moment in the prayer.  This is  not only awkward, but totally unnecessary since what those two words point to in the prayer is much more clearly expressed in modern times by other words.   This is why we say in this church, “Forgive us the wrongs we have done, as we forgive those who have wronged us” — which is exactly what Jesus meant when he spoke the prayer  in either Aramaic or Greek.

But this surprises people who have not heard it before, and they wonder — as one of today’s new member class did — where we came up with  those words.  I’ve even had a few people ask if I made them up myself, so this is a good time to tell all of you once again where they came from, and in the process explain something about Bible translations in general — which are sometimes done by a single person like Moffatt or Goodspeed or Phillips or Campbell but more safely done, in my opinion by large committees of 40 or 50 of the finest Bible scholars in the world.

So in 1946, recognizing that any English translation of Scripture starts to go out of date within one or two generations, an impressive group of British scholars got together to start work on a new version of the Bible.  Oxford and Cambridge University were represented, as well as experts connected with the Church of England, the Church of Scotland, the Baptist Union of Great Britain and Ireland, the Congregational Church in England and Wales,  Methodists,  Presbyterians and the Society of Friends among others.  These were not fly-by-night amateurs who wrapped up their work in six months.  They were the cream of the crop of British Bible scholars and they worked at this monumental task for 15 years before publishing their first edition of the New Testament in 1961, having labored over the text verse by verse to make sure of being faithful  to its original meaning.  In the case of the Lord’s Prayer, for example, they knew that when people do wrong to a neighbor they no longer speak of it as a debt  or a trespass , so they made the original sense crystal clear by translating: “Forgive us the wrongs we have done, as we forgive those who have wronged us.”

I felt  the moment I first read those words that  this is how we should say the prayer in church.  I tested some students one day in my Bible as Literature class  at the University to see how “debts” or “trespasses” worked for them, and sure enough several of them rambled on  about how it meant we ought to pay our debts when we owe somebody, and about how it’s just not right to trespass on other people’s property.  So in the church I was serving at the time I decided to try  out the more sensible language of The New English Bible  — and promptly made two or three ultra-conservative members  unhappy, including one man who mixed piety and cussing in a fascinating way by asking me in a letter “what the hell I meant, changing the Lord’s prayer?”   This feisty gentleman knew absolutely nothing about the history of that prayer and its language, but he had been sing-songing his church’s version  for years and, by golly, no one was going to make better sense of those words if he could help it.

That famous prayer begins with the words “Our Father” — but many churches have changed that form of address for the sake of less sexist, more inclusive language.  As a child of his own patriarchal culture, Jesus would quite naturally address the Supreme Being as “Father” but if he were sitting with us this morning I’m  confident he would be sensitive about how the exclusive use of the designation “Father” sends a wrong  signal to women.  Don’t ever think for a moment that the idea of God as male has not influenced the way women have been treated in most religions and in secular society as well.

This church continues to use the title “Father”  in our recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, but years ago I began using other names for God in my own prayers and sermons.   I can’t bring myself to join those who say  “Our parent who is in heaven,” which sounds dreadfully prosaic to me, or to say “Mother-Father God” which still keeps gender in the prayer and to me seems strained and cumbersome.   So in public prayer I simply use  “Gracious God” or “Almighty God” or “Eternal Spirit” as a way of signalling that with regard to a Supreme Being gender doesn’t make much sense.  And not only because it has a subtle influence on how women have viewed themselves, but also because it is an obstacle for children who grew up in abusive or loveless homes and for whom the gender word “Father” may summon up all sorts of feelings that are not helpful in establishing a prayer life.

If you are interested, by the way, in translation problems  (and this sermon has to count on that)  I might add this note.  In certain South Sea cultures there existed no word for father.  The concept of fatherhood itself was completely unknown.  Either the sex act was not connected with birth nine months later, or promiscuity was so widespread that fathers were not identifiable, so a child was cared for by uncles.  If you translated the Lord’s Prayer  for those people, you would either have  to add the word “Father”  to their language, or else  begin the prayer by saying, “Our Uncle who art in heaven.”  And for them that would be the right translation for suggesting the authority and caring of a Supreme Being.

So the message of the morning is that Jesus strongly recommends private prayer because it does not tempt us to perform for others;  that if we must pray in public our words should be brief and deeply felt;  that what we call the Lord’s Prayer was a sample of how to pray, not a prayer we were commanded to repeat verbatim every time we come to church; and finally that words change their meanings over generations so that we have to retranslate from time to time.  More on that next week, but as for the whole business of piety and prayer, nobody has captured the feelings of Christ about not showing off in religion any better than a modern poet named Christopher Morley, who says:  Out for my evening stroll/  I discovered on 84th Street/  A power-house quietly humming to itself,/  And though I lived nearby/  I had never known it was there. /  Some people  are like that.   Indeed they are…..and some are listening at this very moment.  Never loud or ostentatious, but filled with quiet and steady power when one of us needs it.  They make this a great church.

Keep us endlessly curious, Eternal God, to learn more about the things we believe,

and how they may best give shape and meaning to our lives.  Amen.