Living the Lord's Prayer
- 2008 5 Aug
EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is an excerpt from Living the Lord’s Prayer by David Timms (Bethany House).
Introduction: The Lord's Prayer and Spiritual Formation
In December 1911, Douglas Mawson, a twenty-nine-year-old Australian geologist and explorer, led a twenty-five-man scientific team to the frozen and forbidding tundra of eastern Antarctica. The team established a base at Commonwealth Bay and sent out small expeditionary parties. After a brutal winter at base camp, Mawson decided to explore the interior with two companions, a dog handler named Belgrave Ninnis and world ski champion Xavier Mertz.
The three men planned to travel twelve hundred miles across the largely uncharted territory, but the conditions proved far more arduous than expected. After six weeks, the men and their dogs had covered only three hundred miles. They decided to turn back, but that very day Ninnis, along with the six strongest dogs and the food sled, vanished into a crevasse. Mawson and Mertz had just a week's supply of food for themselves, no dog rations for their six remaining huskies, and a five-week journey ahead of them to return to Commonwealth Bay.
They set off, shooting the weakest dogs one by one for food as their hunger demanded. Mawson and Mertz noticed deep strips of their own skin peeling off, not realizing that the huskies' livers were poisoning them with toxic amounts of vitamin A. After three weeks—and still a long distance from the base camp—Mertz died.
Mawson pushed on. He made it to Aladdin's Cave, an outpost just five and a half miles from base camp, where fierce winds stranded him for a week. Finally the weather broke and Mawson made the steep hike down to camp. But he arrived too late. The ship sent to pick up his expedition had sailed away just six hours before. Remarkably, six men had waited in case Mawson returned, and they holed up in the camp with him until the ship came back for them—ten and a half months later.
We might marvel at such a story of courage, hunger, and survival. Yet those events a century ago reflect the spiritual journey for many of us. Just as Douglas Mawson could not be tied down to a mundane, ordinary life, many of us feel the same way about our spiritual lives. Surely God did not intend the abundant life to be drab, boring, empty, or tedious. We harbor deep suspicions that something deeper and vaster lies beyond our daily routines. We may not face howling winds and blistering cold or find ourselves stranded on the most desolate and isolated continent of the world, but many of us share the deep yearning to explore the spiritual realm more fully. We want to know the deep interior things of God. Along the way, we face a range of obstacles that stop some of us in our tracks. We find ourselves, at times, distracted—even poisoned—by things we thought were harmless. And then at the moment we feel like we've finally arrived home, we find that the ship has left with most of our friends.
The journey to know the heart of God can seem every bit as exhilarating and stretching as an Antarctic expedition. Thankfully, others have already explored and charted the territory. Christian men and women throughout the centuries have walked the Way ahead of us and left maps and markers, and Jesus has done it most clearly of all.
In the pages ahead, we'll examine some of their findings and discoveries. We'll walk behind them and explore places that perhaps we've not seen before. And we'll see how Jesus captures it all in the Lord's Prayer.
Not everyone wants to be an Antarctic explorer. It's easier and more comfortable to sit at home and let life pass by. Many of us prefer entertainment to exploration. But for those with a spirit of adventure and a hunger for the new, this book invites you to an old Journey. If you're willing to pack only the essentials and pursue the wonderful interior places of faith, we'll get underway.
A Shared Hunger
Our quest has a long history. For centuries Christian men and women have desired a deeper walk with God. The desert hermits of Egypt in the second and third centuries went to extreme measures in their pursuit of God. Some secluded themselves for years in caves. Others, known as stylites, lived long periods perched on tall poles. Can you imagine? Have you met any pole-sitters recently? They believed that withdrawal from a decadent society could propel them into divine intimacy. They too wanted to know God and change their world. But the hot deserts, lonely caves, and strange locations generally failed to yield the secrets of the deeper Christian life. The harsh environment by itself could not deepen the heart of a person.
For two thousand years various Christian mystics and devout believers have advocated a range of pathways to a deeper relationship with God. They shared our hunger for the holy.
Benedict of Nursia, one of the early spiritual pioneers, established a monastery and wrote his Rule to guide fellow monks to the heart of God. He insisted on seriousness, obedience, and humility as the three pillars for intimacy with the Lord. The spiritual life should not be treated lightly. Centuries later Bernard of Clairvaux found himself transfixed and transformed by the love of Christ. He preferred passion instead of rigid discipline and taught that Christian maturity emerges from an encounter with divine love. What contrasting pathways.
Julian of Norwich wrote of her deepest yearning, to share the afflictions of Christ. She believed the via dolorosa ("the way of suffering") would usher in mystical union. At about the same time, Catherine of Sienna used the metaphor of a bridge to describe the Christian journey. These women shared the same heart but very different approaches.
St. John of the Cross struggled to reconcile God's nearness with his own feelings of spiritual dryness. His Dark Night of the Soul explored the purging work of God in our lives. Simultaneously, Teresa of Avila addressed the deeper Christian life through her book The Interior Castle, in which she compared the journey of faith with entering more and more privileged courts within a castle. St. John explained spiritual formation in terms of testing, while Teresa described it in terms of privilege.
Shortly thereafter, the Catholic Church confiscated and burned the writings of Madam Guyon because she proposed "praying the Scriptures" and encouraged the common people to listen to the Lord. Her suggestion could have put the clergy out of business! A century later, and across the English Channel, John Wesley believed spiritual awakening sprung from Bible study, and he strongly urged folk to immerse themselves in the Word.
At the turn of the twentieth century (1906), Pentecostalism erupted from Azusa Street in Los Angeles. This movement framed the deeper Christian life in terms of ecstatic experience and sensitivity to the Spirit of God.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, martyred at Flossenburg Concentration Camp at the end of World War II, decried cheap grace and urged his readers to a radical commitment to Christ and the Christian community. We cannot be one with God and only half-hearted about Christ or the body of Christ.
Twenty years later Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, wrote prolifically, calling Christians to contemplative prayer and social engagement. And Henri Nouwen, who died in 1996, became a surrogate spiritual director for countless thousands of believers through his writings. In them, he insisted that intimacy with God emerges from belovedness and brokenness.
If we summarize these saints of the past, we develop quite a catalog of possible pathways. We draw nearer to God through:
- Seriousness, obedience, and humility
- Spiritual disciplines of silence, solitude, fasting, study, and more
- Encountering the love of God
- Sharing the sufferings of Christ
- Crossing metaphorical bridges and entering metaphorical castles
- Enduring the purging work of God in our lives
- Praying the Scriptures
- Studying the Scriptures
- Spiritual gifts and revivalism
- Devotion to the body of Christ
- Meditative prayer and social engagement
- Belovedness and brokenness
Assessing the Options
This brief scan of history neglects a host of other great and influential thinkers like St. Augustine, Brother Lawrence, Søren Kierkegaard, Frank Laubach, Martin Luther, Thomas à Kempis, Francis of Assisi, John Chrysostom, and George Fox. But our brief survey shows that sincere believers have ventured down considerably different paths in pursuit of the same goal: closeness to the Father. Their suggestions and experiences range from spiritual disciplines to spiritual encounters. Each one offers earnest, sincere, and authentic insights, and while their reflections merit our prayerful attention, they raise several questions.
First, does their diversity have a common denominator? Second, are these suggestions explicitly Christian? Third, can we collate the tremendous insights of the ages in one place?
The vast array of insights inspire, but also confuse us. Every tidbit of wisdom sounds good and right, but without a fixed point of reference we become rudderless in a sea of generic spirituality. Our hearts resonate with those who have walked close to God, but we lack the experience or wisdom to accurately assess their advice.
Nevertheless, a fixed reference point does exist—in Scripture. We find a ready-made summary not in the saints or scholars of the past, but in Christ himself.
The Lord's Prayer
Jesus lays out what we commonly call the Lord's Prayer, and in it He provides the greatest Christian teaching of the centuries on spiritual formation. The Prayer exceeds simple passion or fancy rhetoric. It incorporates and reveals some of the most profound spiritual truths of the kingdom of God. Jesus does not borrow His words from any cultural clichés of the first century. His phrases transcend the ordinary fare heard in synagogues of that day.
More than a prayer, the Lord's Prayer outlines the most fundamental features of the deeper Christian life. Long before the desert hermits and the medieval mystics, Christ himself laid out the pathway to spiritual fulfillment. He did so with a startling economy of words, but with clarity that still speaks to those of us weary of the cheap wisdom of our day and desiring genuine intimacy with God.
Just when we might expect lengthy explanations of the mysterious, Jesus uses just seventy-two words, and in those few words He outlines life-giving attitudes and paradigms. We also encounter a prayer that does not seek to get God's attention but to give our attention to Him. Barbara Brown Taylor notes:
Our corporate prayers are punctuated with phrases such as "Hear us, Lord" or "Lord, hear our prayer," as if the burden to listen were on God and not us. We name our concerns, giving God suggestions on what to do about them. What reversal of power might occur if we turned the process around, naming our concerns and asking God to tell us what to do about them? "Speak, Lord, for your servants are listening."
The Lord's Prayer definitely guides us into a "reversal of power" and turns around the process of both our prayers and our lives.
Luke recalls the Lord's Prayer in its shortened form. Matthew records the longer version. In Matthew 6:9–13, the Prayer appears as a centerpiece to the majestic Sermon on the Mount.
The Prayer functions less as a chant and more as a challenge. The words seem deceptively simple. Memorizing ten short lines poses little difficulty for most of us. But the concepts and insights have the capacity to remold our lives entirely. Overstatement? Exaggeration? Not at all. Indeed, as we'll see, this prayer offers a simple framework that steers us through all the suggestions of the ages and into the very intimacy with Christ that our hearts desire. It reveals the building blocks for authentic spiritual formation.
Copyright © 2008 by David Timms
Published by Bethany House Publishing, a division of Baker Publishing Group
PO Box 6287 Grand Rapids MI 49516-628
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