A Letter Concerning the Lord’s Prayer

During Lent, we’re exploring the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer in worship. Each sermon takes up the implications of each section and we’ve created worship around that. As part of this exploration, we have begun to use a newer version of the prayer as part of our regular liturgy. This has created a lot of curiosity around the history of the prayer and why we would be changing what we’ve traditionally been saying. This letter went out as part of our weekly email to the congregation. I’m posting it here, not because it is comprehensive, and definitely not because it is groundbreaking research, but because the compilation of material here might be helpful to others who are trying to do this work in their own settings.

Dear UPC Family,

Our shift to the more modern language version of the Lord’s Prayer has brought up some questions so I thought I’d take a moment to share about the origins of the prayer and how we come to the particular translation we’re using in worship at this moment.

The Lord’s Prayer has emerged from three basic foundations – each one important for us as 21st century Presbyterians. 1) The Bible 2) Liturgical Tradition 3) The Protestant Reformation and our Presbyterian heritage

1. The Bible
Because we believe it is important to follow Jesus in all things, the prayer he taught to his disciple is a crucial part of our discipleship both in our practice of daily prayer at home and in our weekly worship. But if we look to the Bible to find the right words to say, we could quickly become confused. Matthew 6:9-13 has one version and Luke 11:2-4 a shorter version. To see what liturgical and biblical scholars have been up against, here are the two versions in Greek with their literal translations (Matthew’s version, Luke’s version). So from the beginning, followers of Jesus in the early church had at least two versions to choose from and these made their way into the liturgy of the church as people gathered to worship together.

2. The Liturgical Tradition.
The Lord’s Prayer was included in a very early writing (2nd-3rd century) called The Didache which scholars believe was used as a way to help people understand their discipleship. This is where many of our liturgical practices originated. This is what that ancient teaching said about what we know as The Lord’s Prayer:

“You shall not pray like the hypocrites but like the Lord commanded in his gospel; in this manner you shall pray: Our Father, who is in heaven, your name shall be made holy, your kingdom shall come, your will shall come to be as in heaven and upon earth; you shall give to us our bread for our need today, and you shall forgive us our debt as also we are forgiving our debtors, and may you not bring us into a trial, but you shall rescue us from the wicked one, since it is your might and glory into the ages. You shall pray three times of the day in this manner.”

The early church may also have even added material which subsequent scrolls included as part of the original Matthew text. Check out this article for some history around this. Over time, different iterations of the Christian Church (prior to the Reformation) used a variety of translations and versions many of which were derived from both Scripture and the Didache. 

3. The Protestant Reformation and Our Presbyterian Heritage.
As important as it is to know about the different versions found in the Bible and in ancient liturgies, we also need to remember that whenever Jesus spoke, he was using the common language of the day so that his teaching would have relevance to the people around him. Jesus was considered a radical because he chose to spend time with “sinners and tax collectors instead of the wealthy and powerful. That’s why he used stories, symbols, words, even language (Aramaic) that would have been spoken by everyday people. This was one of the fundamental concerns lifted up by Martin Luther – the people needed access to scripture in language they could understand. He was also considered a radical by the church and forced out of communion because of what he hoped for.

I was surprised to learn that the traditional version of the Lord’s Prayer that we have been accustomed to using, with its familiar “thy will be done” and “for thine is the kingdom,” came from another radical (so named by Queen Mary) who was trying to bring the prayers of the church into alignment with the language of his day. Thomas Cranmer, the first Protestant archbishop of Canterbury and the author of the original Anglican prayer book, was following the work of reformers like John Calvin and Martin Luther as he worked to create a prayerbook that would resonate with the people. That’s why more than 500 years ago, when he translated the liturgy out of Latin, he used the language that common folk in England would have been speaking every day. Even so, his reformations on behalf of the people weren’t appreciated by the higher powers. They were seen as a threat to their power and he was ultimately burned at the stake for heresy.

What about us?
I know that when I pray the Lord’s prayer, I’m not often thinking about the political ramifications of the words I recite, but there was a lot on the line for those like Cranmer who attempted to create prayerbooks and Bible translations that the people could read and understand. 

Fast forward 500+ years, here at UPC we are engaging in our Lenten series around “the prayer that Jesus taught.” And we’re also wondering about what’s the right thing to say, what’s the correct way to pray. Though the version we are using during Lent may feel unfamiliar, it has been listed first in our 1993 Presbyterian Book of Common Worship (p. 73). It is also in the hymnbook we have in our pews (check out page 16 for the ecumenical version). If you’ve worshipped in other Presbyterian churches, you might have heard one of these versions, or even a third or fourth version. 

Still, all of this (somewhat nerdy) information doesn’t change how we feel. And that’s important. We learned to speak this prayer in worship with our parents, our grandparents, our great grandparents. We studied it in confirmation and Sunday School. We pray it at home every day. When familiar words change, it can throw us off balance. Whenever that happens, it’s always good to ask ourselves “Why?”. Tradition and family are important. Prayer is important. Worship is important. And as Presbyterians, we also understand that one of our fundamental understandings is that our we are “ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda”. We are the Church reformed and always being reformed. That means that as a Church, we need to both take seriously the truths, traditions, and insights of the past and at the same time be ready to adapt to current conditions on the ground that will enable us to grow and nurture followers of Jesus for the future.

As we worship together this Lenten season, I hope we grow in our understanding of what this prayer means for us and what it can mean for the generations that will follow us.

Grace and Peace,
Pastor Debra

P.S. I know everyone doesn’t nerd out like I do, but I thought you might appreciate some additional materials that will can inform us as we step out in prayer together!

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