Why do we pray?
As we together walk through the words of the Lord ’s Prayer this Lenten season, perhaps this is the question that sits in the back of the room quietly. Why? Why are we praying? What are we hoping to accomplish? Experience? Understand? Gain? Lose? Hear? See?
This week, the words from the Lord’s Prayer are rich and profound: “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. The Lukan version that we read from today shortens it to the basics: “Thy Kingdom come.”
Today, I want to offer three symbols to help us understand these three little words, even in the midst of a great deal of complexity, as we dig deeper in to that question: why do we pray?
My guess is that a lot of us start out prayer focusing mostly inwardly. Prayer becomes a mirror to hold up to ourselves, and ask what is happening in our direct vicinity. My body hurts, my family hurts, my friends hurt. Lord, hear our prayers.
During this season of Lent, perhaps the mirror is the best symbol of prayer. For it is during this time when we want to reflect upon our own lives and ask “what is God doing in our hearts and minds?” It is a time of taking a hard look into the mirror and asking what it is that we see. It is during the Lenten season in particular that we turn our mirror to see ourselves more deeply, confess our sins more accurately, and come to terms more fully with our own finitude. It is inherent as we pray the words “Thy Kingdom Come,” that we are also silently praying the inverse: “My Kingdom go.”
It is Kathleen Norris that clarifies this reflective prayer for us: “Prayer is not asking for what you think you want, but asking to be changed in ways you can’t imagine.” Taking a good hard look at your own reflection helps you to see what it is that God is doing in your life.
Last week’s metaphor centered on this concept. It is the blacksmith that understands that even the most rigid iron can be changed, remade, bent toward a new shape. But it takes some time and energy and work to get there. Hence, the work of Lent is a discipline of forty days, looking in the mirror and asking God to remake us again in God’s image.
But prayer as a mirror has its limitations. In Greek mythology, the figure Narcissus is usually depicted as looking at his reflection in the water. According to the story, he was kept from recognizing himself. But when he saw his reflection, he fell in love with it, staring endlessly at its beauty. In fact, he became unable to leave his beloved reflection, and eventually drowned in the pool.
There is a limit to healthy self-focus. Of course, the story of Narcissus is where we get our English word narcissism. It is a self-focused, me-focused, mirror-loving way to look at life. And it’s why we need more than one metaphor for the Lord’s Prayer and today’s passage.
Imagine the picture of someone looking in the mirror, but then noticing something in the background. How often while looking at yourself do you start to see something or someone else reflected in the mirror with you, over your shoulder, behind your focus. That is the beginning of our next metaphor, for the Lord’s Prayer is not just about reflection. It is about a new vision.
Ironically, a set of binoculars requires a mirror. Inside of these binoculars are prisms that act as mirrors that reflect the image around, magnifying it, and bringing it to our eyes in a new way. In the same way, I think that the life of prayer often needs to begin with this simple mirroring: we see ourselves, we see a bigger world over our shoulder, and then we begin to see a bigger God over our shoulder, until finally, we are not looking at ourselves, but instead at the world around us.
“Thy Kingdom come.”
Wright uses the metaphor of the binoculars to explain this phrase. When we pray “thy kingdom come” – and really mean it – what we are saying is that we yearn to see the world in the way that God wants us to see it: with “binocular vision.”
Binocular means simply that we see with two eyes. Two overlapping visions that become one. So in the sense that Wright suggests, with one eye, we see the world as “good,” as God pronounced it. We see it in all of its beauty, in all of its majesty, in all of its “goodness.”
I follow the photographer Dewitt Jones because I love the way he chooses to photograph the world around him. Mostly nature shots, but really anything he sees in life around him, become a celebration of beauty. His ongoing photography project is titled “Celebrate What’s Right with the World.” And he does! His pictures celebrate beauty, creativity, curiosity, humor, and life. It is one of the lenses that we must view the world through. If we fail to see the world in this way, we become cynical, jaded, apathetic, angry. We need to see and celebrate that beauty!
Yet, there is another eye, another lens through which to see the world. Wright reminds us, that God also sees the world clearly “with deep grief for the battered and battle-scarred state” in which it finds itself. When we see the world as God sees it, we realize this with a similar grief and pain. How simple, yet profound, are the questions that Justice Matters has been asking over these last months? In house meetings all over the city – some in your homes – thousands of individuals answering the same questions: “What keeps you up at night?” And “what makes you angry?” At the heart of these questions beats the heart of grief that God must feel when looking at our world. If we fail to see the world in this way, we live in a Pollyanna world where everything is rosy and easy.
And so, we see the world through both of these lenses, as indeed Wright suggests God does. Binoculars work because of this binocular vision: both eyes. If we close one of our eyes, our vision will be hampered. In the same way, we must see the world around us with both of these lenses: beautiful yet broken. Humorous yet haunted.
And for us to pray “Thy Kingdom Come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” means that we are embracing this binocular vision for the way the world works. It is to look over our shoulders and say “there is a bigger world that is broken and battle-weary.” But also “there is a bigger God out there who is bringing about peace and justice and beauty in the midst.”
John Dominic Crossan also talks about this new vision, and he sets it in the context of what Jesus was doing when he taught his disciples to pray these words. “Thy Kingdom Come” was not just an inward meditative trick. It was a culture-wide, paradigm-shifting innovation. When the disciples heard Jesus talking about a new Kingdom coming, most of them would have thought in terms of a new governmental structure. So many of his followers, even the predecessor John the Baptist, believed that Jesus was coming to set up a new political rival to the oppressive Romans. He would set up a new government, a new army, a new building program. A Kingdom. They believed that the Kingdom is coming. It is imminent.
But Crossan argues that Jesus believed that the Kingdom is already here. It is already happening. His parables talked about the Kingdom that could be found there – in their midst. Jesus never preached like the guy with a sandwich board on the sidewalk, “the Kingdom is coming.” He always preached “the Kingdom is here!” Because his Kingdom is less about governmental structure and more about a way of living. A life of faith, like a mustard seed. A life of commitment, like an annoying woman knocking on the judge’s door who won’t take no for an answer. A life of service, like an unholy and undocumented foreigner who becomes the hero of the story and shows the good church people how to love. A way of seeing the current world through new eyes. Through the binocular vision of hope and grief. Jesus said, again and again, it is here! He who has eyes to see, let him see.
Yet, even the binoculars are not enough. So far, the mirror and binoculars have used glass to help us see things differently or better. But the third metaphor uses glass in a different way. It encases in glass a magnet, designed to help us know where we are supposed to go next. A compass. Showing us the way to go. For when we pray the prayer that Christ taught us, we are engaging in a new reflection. We are seeing the world with a new vision. And we find ourselves drawn into a life of action.
N.T. Wright’s phrase for this is that the Lord’s Prayer teaches us both “submission and commission.” Just like we commissioned the Justice Matters Network members this week, so we are to be commissioned by this great Prayer. Commissioned to join the work of God.
And Crossan’s quote is equally memorable: “you have been waiting for God. Meanwhile, God has been waiting for you.” Again, if we put ourselves in the mind of the disciple hearing this for the first time, we understand that Jesus’ ministry and work was one of collaboration. When Jesus taught his disciples this prayer, There were plenty of faithful Jews that sat and waited for the sweet by and by. They thought God was going to come in at any moment and fix everything for them. A group called the Essenes went out into the desert and waited for God to bring the Kingdom. Pay attention to this reality: Jesus did not join them. He didn’t believe in a Kingdom of Divine Intervention. He believed in a Kingdom of Divine and Human collaboration.
Why do we pray? Why do we pray these words especially?
The closer we look at the Lord’s Prayer, the clearer it becomes that these words are mean for reflection, meant for a new vision, and meant for action and collaboration.
Thy Kingdom Come.
Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
May it be so.