Praying the Lord’s Prayer in a Pandemic
March 28, 2020 – David R. Weiss
Perhaps no prayer is more widely known among Christians than the prayer given to us by Jesus himself. Many have come to know it by heart simply by praying it again and again and again in weekly worship. It’s almost like Christian “comfort food.” Words we might recite to calm ourselves in a moment of crisis. Like now.
Yet this prayer has more than comfort in mind. Which is good, because while we surely long for comfort in this season of such uncertainty, we also need wisdom, conviction, and courage. This prayer is overflowing with the things we need right now. And Jesus not only offers it to us, he commands it of us.
I present it here as a prayerful meditation. I invite you to slowly read your way through it, phrase by phrase. Let the bits of insight I offer deepen the meaning of each phrase as it rests—or moves restlessly about—in your heart. You may never say this prayer the same way again. But right now there is a pandemic afoot in our world, so let us pray in this moment with Jesus.
Jesus said, Pray then in this way. The verb is imperative—an order: Pray! As though Jesus knew that discipleship—following in the way he set forth—required prayer. And “in this way.” This prayer offers us a way to align ourselves with Jesus, to tune our hearts to God. In a hospital ER or ICU when the doctor gives an instruction followed by the word, “stat!” it means “do it now!—immediately!” Today Jesus says, Pray then in this way. Stat!
Our Father/Mother who is in heaven. Before we even get to the gender question, note the very first word: Our. Even if I pray this prayer alone, that first word reminds me—commands me—to acknowledge that I am praying to our God. This prayer is no private act, it is political because it joins me to my fellow Christians who pray with me, even if their prayers rise at different hours and from different places. In this prayer we pray always together.
Father/Mother—yes, the Greek says “Father,” but we know the Aramaic word Jesus used to name God was Abba. And that word would be better rendered as “Papa” to capture the respect-saturated-with-affection that Abba hints at. From toddler to grown adult, one might call one’s father “Papa,” and thereby wrap the relationship in warmth and trust and love. Indeed, what is striking about the word Abba is not its gender but its emotive content. The sacred energy that swirls at the beginning (and ending) of all that is, is wholly beyond our finite notions of gender. But this prayer tells us that this Presence is worthy of our warmth and trust and love. Hence we say, not with formal distance, but with happy affection, Our Papa/Mama who is in heaven …
Hallowed be your name. Hallowed, as in “made holy”: set apart; beyond ordinary—that is, extraordinary; held in highest honor. But what name? YHWH, the tetragrammaton (literally, “the four letters”) that comprise the name of God. Our Jewish cousins hold it as too holy even to speak. It is, in a sense, God’s personal name. When Moses is being commissioned to lead the Exodus he says to the voice speaking from the burning bush, “Tell me your name.” On one level it’s like asking God for a business card. “If I’m going to tell the rest of my people to pack their things and follow me out of Egypt, I’m going to need to tell them on whose authority I’m speaking. Who are you?” But, more than this, it is Moses’ desperate plea to have a foothold in the relationship. “Look, this sounds like a suicide mission. Freedom? Bold idea. Maybe worth dying for … with a friend. So if we’re going to do this together, at least tell me who you are.”
To both of these question God says, YHWH, which means, “I will be who I will be.” In other words, “Whatever deeds must be done to set you free, I will do them. Whatever is needed to get you to a land flowing with milk and honey, I will provide.” “Oh, and the terms of trust between us? My name is liberation and freedom. I exist only—and always—to promote the flourishing of my creation, to undo oppression in any corner where it arises. Any label, box, or building you make for me will be too small. I will be at your side, Moses, but the sheer freedom of my being-for-liberation means that my nickname will always be “surprise’.” That’s the name we pray to hallow. May your name—your faithful longing for liberation and flourishing … and your capacity to surprise us—be made holy, held in highest honor by us.
Your kingdom come. Kingdom, as in God’s kingdom, is frequently on Jesus’ lips. More verb than noun, it names a dynamic: the ongoing, unfolding, disrupting, in-breaking activity of God-reigning-as-king. It is life echoing the liberating-flourishing name of God. I often say “kin-dom” of God, because we see clearly in Jesus’ ministry (and in the early church) that God’s “reign” happens not via top-down power relationships but via ever-widening circle of kinship. In a world hell-bent on division, the activity of God reigning as king is kin-making.
At all times, but especially in the face of a pandemic, to pray for the coming of God’s kingdom is to make our pledge of allegiance to any worldly flag or nation … conditional. Our true allegiance is to the kin-making activity of God … and to the kin we are joined to in God’s kin-dom. Which, to be eloquently blunt, is the whole of humanity and the entire web of creation. Nothing less. Thus, May the regal kinship we have with all persons—and all of creation—come to be known in our hearts and seen in our deeds.
Your will be done on earth as in heaven. Here it begins to get tricky. God’s name (liberation-flourishing-justice) and God’s in-breaking kingdom (kin-making activity) are God’s will. And, if you haven’t noticed, at least most human societies on earth have a different agenda. A different will. My advice is that you either pass over this petition in trepidation without saying it—or recognize that as these words move on your breath, passing from heart and lungs across your lips, you become a co-conspirator—literally one who breathes with Jesus—in facing down the claims of empire … including our own. I hope you say the words. But it matters that you know the stakes when you do. These are no words of easy comfort, as though God will take care of everything without disturbing anything. Not at all.
And during a pandemic, when there are pundits, politicians, and presidents who set an agenda decidedly against God’s will—to place profit above public health, to restart the economy at the expense of our least ones, to miscommunicate while catastrophe festers—in times like these … times like now, these are words of resistance and uprising. Those of us who dare, we pray Against those who mock your name, O God, and against those who dismiss your dawning kin-dom—we breathe with you, conspiring to birth your will now … here … on earth.
Give us this day our daily bread. Who knew such a mundane phrase as “daily bread” could curry such exegetical controversy? The Greek word behind “daily” appears only here in the New Testament and seemingly nowhere else. While “daily” has clearly won the day in the tradition we inherited, the nuances are plentiful, and if there is any consensus among the scholars, it’s that “daily” falls short in translation. Arguments are made for “bread of the day,” as in Eucharistic bread. Or “bread enough for this day,” as in all things needed for life. Or “bread for a single day,” as was true of manna in the wilderness during the Exodus, which rotted if you tried to hoard it. Or “bread of that day which is to come,” as in the feast of God’s final fulfillment of all things. Or “bread that is superessential or supersubstantial,” as in that which truly feeds our souls. Or, finally, “bread that never runs out,” as in sustenance that persists without fail.
Are we then to pray for this whole cacophony of meanings? In a pandemic we could do worse. Tempted to hoard—is toilet paper the new bread?—the analogy to manna is pointed at any who profess to be Christians with stockpiling the TP. Longing for Communion while our communal worship is suspended in cyberspace, praying for that bread is certainly poignant. Living beneath the specter of a world beset by fevers and coughing spells, a shuttered economy, and an outbreak of anxiety, the hope for a meal signaling that all is fulfilled is surely heartfelt. And in these days when familiarity is in short supply, to pray for bread that feeds our souls in ways we did not even know that we were hungry for, that bread is priceless. Pray then as your hunger leads you, remembering that, at a minimum, this bread is ever ours: shared. No loaf of any sort in this prayer is private. Give us that bread—mundane or holy, future or soulful—but please, O Lord, give it now. Or hallow our very hunger for your ends.
Forgive us our debts, as we have forgiven our debtors. We might prefer the abstract “sins” or the more archaic “trespasses,” but the Greek says “debts.” And we all have debts. In our present society debt seems to be the cost of doing business … even if one’s only business is trying to stay alive. Student loan debt, credit card debt, medical debt, our lives are hemmed in by debt on all sides, especially among the least of us, for whom our economy has become so predatory. But the earliest Hebrew society, formed in the aftermath of their harrowing experience of slavery, imagined a Jubilee: a festival of debt forgiveness that regularly reset social opportunity and aspiration—and limited anyone’s capacity to build wealth on the debt of others.
Of course, the debts we ask God to forgive are not monetary. But they’re no less concrete. From the prophets to Jesus, we learn that what we owe to God is care shown to others in the most concrete ways. Think feeding the hungry, clothing the naked. Think, too, living wages, union rights, and universal health care. And while we seek forgiveness for the times we’ve missed the mark here, notice that the very forgiveness we seek is directly related—“as we have forgiven”—to the forgiveness we offer. Not that we “buy” our forgiveness. Rather, the only way we know—actually experience—the forgiveness we seek is in the very deed of paying it forward to others. Pull us, O God, into the swirling grace of debt forgiveness that is the beginning of justice and hope for us all.
Lead us not into temptation (or the time of trial). Consider all the ground we’ve covered with the few prayerful words to this point. The our-ness of praying, the Abba-ness of God, the holy disrupting name, the kin-making kingdom, the heavenly will that wants our conspiratorial breath, too, the bread of our hunger, and the debts we are called to forgive. The ground staked out thus far is no retreat into the safety of our tribe or the comfort of our privilege. Wittingly or otherwise, we have prayed to be stretched towards others, to overcome the “social distancing” baked into our racial-economic-class-gender-cultural differences.
Luther names the primary temptation we face as the desire to become “curved inward upon ourselves” (or with those whom we consider most like us). This temptation is omnipresent in times of pandemic. From hoarding goods to judging others, from escalating anxiety to debilitating despair. Our temptation is to see only from our perspective when the best choices we can make come from a perspective that weaves as many others as we can into our angle of vision. Even sadness and outright anguish can be a bridge that joins us to others. Keep us from turning inward in this moment when the world needs us moving outward—even if at a distance —more than ever before.
But deliver us from evil. There are—always have been, maybe always will be, persons and social forces (Paul calls them “principalities and powers”)—that are focused on curving self and others inward. They use language to heighten xenophobia, fear, and hatred of others. They prey by phone/email/web scam—or by public policy or podium pronouncement—on the most vulnerable ones … for whom God’s concern is greatest. Against these efforts we pray—and the “us” is universal, covering those who will be fine but more fervently those whose wellbeing is on the line—that all of us might be delivered.
One might argue that narcissism is Luther’s notion of incurvatus se (Latin: curved in upon oneself) elevated to pathology. It manifests both in persons and in systems. Death itself is not evil; but the grotesque impulse to sell stock based on inside pandemic knowledge, to barter the lives of the elderly for economic gain, to trade the (often unseen) vulnerabilities of our siblings to steady Wall Street wealth, to downplay the threat as a political strategy, or to wield power with partisan bias during a public health crisis, this is evil. And we pray against it. Deliver all of us from evil—and do so by opening our hearts and deeds to one another—every last one of us made kin by You.
For the kingdom, and the power, and the glory are yours forever. By now this prayer we ran to for comfort has turned out to ask so much of us, we might regret ever beginning to pray. What confidence do we have that these paltry words can unleash the wild hope we’ve dared to invest in them? This petition tells why. We assert—declare by virtue of radical faith and grounded in glimpses of truth experienced in our own lives—that the power to do these things is real and active among us. From before the beginning and until after the end, God is. And kin-making, freedom-launching, justice-doing, mercy-sowing, world-changing—these things are the power and glory of God. So we pray, All that we have asked and pledged, rest in You … and, by your grace, in us.
Amen. Much more than a liturgical period on a prayer, “Amen” means “Indeed!” “May it be so!” (The tone of the word supplies its own exclamation point.) So, even as we come to an end of prayer, we “double-down” and shout (regardless of how loud our voice is) one last word of conviction. Amen!
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David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community Supported Theology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.