Monday, 28 January 2008

The Lord's Prayer (3)

THE LORD'S PRAYER (Matthew 6:6-15)
A series of talks given on retreat, January 2008
3. GIVE US TODAY OUR DAILY BREAD

Not sure we fully appreciate this part of the Lord's prayer, until we learn to pray this prayer as if our lives depend on it. This is the prayer of a person who is totally dependent on God.

It seems a totally unnecessary prayer for someone who lives in our society, and who can safely presume that there will be three square meals a day. But it is not unnecessary

This is a prayer that

1. Expresses our total dependence on God

Having prayed for God's kingdom to come and his will to be done, we now pray that God will give us what we need here and now.

I had a friend who lived in East Germany, and who I met when he was allowed to study for one term at the theological college where I was. It was before the fall of the Berlin wall. He told us about one day in his school, when the philosophy teacher took the children to the dining room and said, 'Today we are going to ask God for our food'. She prayed a prayer. Nothing happened. The plates remained empty. 'See', she said, 'Prayer does nothing. Now, if we ask the dinner ladies for food', she clapped her hands and the dinner ladies came in bringing the food. 'This food', she continued, 'comes from so and so farm, has been prepared by so and so factory and cooked by the kitchen here. We thank them and not God’.

She completely misses the point. Of course we should thank them, but we should also thank God. It is God who gives us the gift of life, of hunger, of grain, of sun, of rain, of human wisdom and skills. It is God who ultimately gives us our daily bread.

When we pray this prayer, even if we think we know where our next meal is coming from, we are acknowledging that everything depends on him.

For Jesus and his followers, it really was a prayer that would have been prayed from the heart. My guess is that often they would not have known from where the next meal was coming. That would also be true for many of the people who Jesus was teaching, and it is still true for many people in our world today.

And then there are the people like Francis Assisi or George Muller; people who have literally taken Jesus at his word and sold all that they have and given to the poor. Sometimes George Muller, who set up and ran an orphanage, found that he literally had no food to feed the children. His graces were as every bit as dramatic as that of the atheist philosophy teacher: the difference was that his life depended on it. For him, this part of the Lord’s prayer took on a new dimension.

For us, it is a challenge. Every time we pray this prayer we need to ask ourselves if God is calling us to move out. But it is also a call to reflect on our dependence on him for the very basic substance of life.


2. This prayer reminds us that the physical matters.

Most of the Lord's prayer is about the invisible stuff, unseen things - about heaven, God's name, God's kingdom (working at the moment underground, like a mustard seed), relationships, temptation, protection from evil and the evil one
But this is about bread. It is hard to get more physical than bread. It touches 4 of the 5 senses: taste, touch, smell, sight (it is quite hard to hear bread).

And the physical does matter.

One of the things that many of us struggle with, is how it is possible to be a Christian in such a wealthy country as Britain. Is it right to be surrounded with so much affluence? Should we be trying to get more, or newer, or better? Should we be following the desert fathers - renouncing everything and walking off into the desert?

I guess it comes back to the question: How should we handle things?

But this prayer teaches that things are OK. Jeremiah urges the exiles in Babylon to pray for the welfare of the city in which they dwell. The desire to make things more attractive, more convenient, more effective, more simple is a good desire - so long as it does not become our overriding desire. According to 1 Timothy 6, it is not money that is the root of all evil. It is 'the love of money' that is a root of all kinds of evil.

So we do not all need to give up business, or to sell everything we have and go and live in a monastery, or become like Francis Assisi or George Muller. (Having said that, I suspect that God is calling many more of us to that kind of absolute freedom than wish to hear!)

We can pray for and work for the welfare of the city in which we dwell, so long as we realize that this city is not the ultimate city, and is not really our home.

The physical does matter. We are physical beings. And we need to be dependent on God not just for forgiveness and protection from evil and heaven, but for our body here and now. And we need to care for our body.

How we are physically, does affect us spiritually. One spiritual director I know always asks people who come to him when they are spiritually depressed, 'Are you eating your greens?' To that could be added: are you drinking enough (water - although a little bit of wine helps), are you eating enough or too much; are you taking exercise; are you breathing right; do you have a balanced life, do you say 'yes' to the things you should be saying 'yes' to, and 'no' to the things you should be saying 'no' to (even if it is the vicar asking you!).

I confess that I prefer to ask those questions about lifestyle rather than answer them. But they are questions that are very good to ask ourselves when we are on retreat.

It is right to pray about our 'daily bread'. Of course this can be spiritualised: Jesus teaches that he is the true bread. Many commentators on the Lord's prayer have done that, and the very fact that we say the Lord’s Prayer just before communion is significant.

But Jesus was human. He knew that physical food was important. He fasted, but at the end of the 40 days 'angels came and ministered to him': he needed food and they provided him with food.

And it is right to pray about physical needs. 1 Timothy 4:3-5 is key in this. We pray with thanksgiving, recognising that the source of all bread, of all life, is God.


3. This prayer reminds us of our corporate responsibility.

We cannot pray this prayer just for ourselves or for those around us. It is not about praying that there will be food on my plate.

We have privatised this prayer.

The prayer actually says, 'Give us today our daily bread'. The 'us' in this prayer is the whole Christian community, all who follow Jesus and call on God as Father.

(In saying 'the whole Christian community', I am not suggesting that we should not pray for the material benefit of unbelievers. The emphasis of the New Testamtent is that Christians have an overriding responsibility for our brothers and sisters who are Christians. But it also teaches that we are to love our neighbour as ourself: and our neighbour clearly includes unbelievers.)

So this clause, 'Give us today our daily bread' is a challenge to us to lift our eyes above our own plates, to look for the needs of others and to do something.

I have often wondered how people cope with this part of the prayer in, say, Zimbabwe, when they are watching their children die of starvation. Is it meaningless? Where is God? Why is he not answering the most basic of prayers?

But it is not just their problem. Because this is our prayer as well as their prayer, the fact that believers are starving today in the Sudan or wherever, becomes quite literally as much an issue for us as it is for them.

And so I do believe that this prayer - as with all the Lord's prayer - is not only an expression of dependence on God, but also a call to do something. When prayers are not answered, there are two things we need to do. We need to examine whether the prayer is valid. In this case there is no question about that. We then need to see whether there are obvious human obstacles that are preventing it from being answered. In this case there are very obvious reasons. There is quite sufficient food to go round everyone, believer or unbeliever.

So this is a prayer which should shake us out of complacency. God's kingdom, for which we have prayed, is a kingdom in which the poor are satisfied. God's good will, for which we have prayed, is not that some should starve. So having prayed for it, we should be willing to roll up our sleeves and do something about it.

John writes, 'How can the love of God be in you if you see your brother or sister in need and do nothing?' And in our global society we have no excuse. We may not like TV or the internet; we may hate the way that the media turns humanitarian crises into 'stories' or media events, but it does mean that we, quite literally, see our brothers and sisters in need. We have no excuse for sticking our head in the sand.

So as part of this prayer, we do have a role to play: whether that is supporting Tearfund, the work in Tanzania, Water Aid, or whatever. We are interconnected.

One final thing on this clause.

I began by saying that because this line is here, it is important to pray for the physical.

But it is only one line. One line on material needs, one line on the 'seen' things. The rest of the Lord's prayer is about 'unseen' things. In the Kingdom of God, while the seen things are not unimportant, the unseen things come first and take priority. That certainly is the message of the first of Jesus' temptations, when the devil urges him to turn stones into bread. Maybe that is a corrective we need in our praying: maybe we dwell too long on the seen things, asking for material blessings, for stuff, resources and healing, and not realizing that the real battle ground is in the realm of the unseen.

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