Thursday, March 22, 2007
A gentler version of “Now I lay me down...”
Lately at our church we have been discussing the Lord’s Prayer. Like so many things in the church it is the source of differences. Some say “debts” others say “trespasses.” The old saying goes that if a Scotch Presbyterian can forgive a debt, then he can forgive any other trespass! When we used to say the prayer at school, we always said trespasses. That early led me to believe that others than the Presbyterians were in charge of the way things were done — a suspicion of which I have never been entirely disabused!
Actually the word debts comes straight from the King James version of the Bible, and it is one of the few passages from the King James — along with the 23rd Psalm that people still know by heart. More’s the pity!
Certainly the Lord’s Prayer is one of the few texts that Christian persons can recite together. In an era where memorization is held in disdain, this is one of the few passages, religious or secular, that the average person commits to memory. That being the case, I think that wisdom has prevailed. The Lord’s Prayer is worth knowing.
I can remember exactly how and when I learned the prayer. Mrs. Ann Ross was my kindergarten Sunday school teacher. I remember her because she was rotund, gray-haired and grandmotherly.
She looked like she stepped out of a Norman Rockwell picture, and it was she who gave me the first of my many dogs named “Skipper.”
Our little class sat in those tiny wooden chairs that fill the Christian education wings of churches. And Mrs. Ross gave us the choice each Sunday of arranging our chairs in a circle, or in rows, so we could practice going to church. If we chose to have church, we would sing church hymns and work on learning the 23rd Psalm and the Lord’s Prayer. The effort must have been successful, for I can say both by heart, and have been able to do so since I was four years old. The promise of the puppy may have been a further encouragement.
I also remember in later years that we said the Lord’s Prayer in school. I always thought it unfair that we had to say “trespasses” at school — which I believed was the Methodist way — and so drew a child’s conclusion that somehow the Methodists were the dominant religion — a feeling that I confess I have never quite overcome.
In a more serious vein I wondered how the several Jewish children in our class at school felt about saying a Christian prayer — but none of them ever volunteered an opinion, so I cannot say how they felt. It is a prayer which, while composed by Him, does not mention Jesus and which is not offered in His name. Instead, it is a prayer which from beginning to end is phrased in words that any Jew of Christ’s day would acknowledge as ‘biblical’ in flavor and content. Indeed, as my professor at Princeton, Dr. Metzger, liked to say — the Lord’s Prayer, like so much of our Lord’s teaching was fully Jewish, so that it was not so much His originality, but His selectivity that gave this teaching its distinctiveness.
There is also the aspect of the rhythm and sound of this prayer. It does fascinate children. If you were to hear this prayer as it is recited in the Greek in which our New Testament is written, you would instantly know, I think, what is being repeated, because the phrasing carries right over from Greek into the English of our King James Bible.
Again, Dr. Metzger used to say that Jesus carved His teaching more for the ear than for the eye, because few who heard Him would have had access to a written text. So Jesus taught His disciples in phrases that could be easily remembered and committed to memory, and to this day it is why we can remember so many of the stories and sayings without even having to try to bring them to mind.
Chances are you more or less learned the Lord’s Prayer without it having to be drilled into your mind. Most of the sayings of Jesus work this way, and in that sense Jesus is considered a master teacher, even by those who do not recognize His divinity.
Now, have you noticed that the phrases of the Lord’s Prayer are as straight-forward as a child’s prayer? All parents who hear their children’s prayers can attest to what I mean.
By the way, my friend Bill Carl, who taught me preaching at Union Seminary, has published a revised version of the old “Now I lay me down to sleep” verse that my grandmother — mother’s mother — used to say with me every night. The gentler version goes like this:
I do not recall my grandmother teaching me the “if I should die” part of that little prayer. I think she would wait to say it until she knew I would fall asleep on the first phrase.
Prayer should not frighten children. Instead, like the revised form of the child’s prayer, a good prayer should stir within us — as Dr. Carl says, “the joys of heaven,” and the possibilities “on earth as it is in heaven!”
And that is exactly what the Lord’s Prayer does. It encourages an affirmative belief in God and of our participation in God’s will and work here on earth.
And so, like “Now I lay me down to sleep,” the Lord’s Prayer serves well as a bedtime prayer, and as such it has always been part of the nighttime liturgies of monasteries and convents throughout the ages. Like Mr. Rogers, the Lord’s Prayer comes as a sort of quiet, orderly word into the hubbub of our otherwise noisy lives. I think Jesus intended exactly this when He taught His disciples by the sea.
And if the Prayer has been with us from almost before we can remember, it also can take us to places we have never been before. I have told you how I am struck by the way the Lord’s Prayer is said in Scotland — whether by conscious design or simply longstanding custom I cannot say. But the phrase, “thy kingdom come/thy will be done” is carried over, so that it sounds this way: “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth — as it is in heaven.” One can learn a few things from the Scots!
Everett Fullam has said that Jesus taught the Lord’s Prayer to His disciples, not to supply another ritual incantation, but to set before them a way of life! What would our world look like if God’s will was really done here?
I received a notice of a religious symposium in Atlanta on “God’s Word for a Warming Earth.” Never before the last few years have Christians really considered God’s will and the environment as complementary callings.
But one could say that such concern flows quite naturally out of the Lord’s Prayer. So it really can take us to places where we’ve not been before. It is not the quaint language but our openness to its teaching that really brings the Lord’s Prayer up to date!
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