One of [Jesus’s] disciples said, ‘Lord, teach us to pray. …’ He answered, ‘When you pray, say … Luke 11 vv1-4
How’s this as a manifesto for living well:
We are endlessly thrilled and astonished by the wonder and beauty of the universe we inhabit.
We understand that all people are descended from the same ancestral stock
and have the same basic abilities and powers, needs and hopes.
We earnestly wish that this sense of wonder and our shared humanity may be expressed in the life of the world.
We therefore pledge ourselves not just to pay lip-service to these values
but rather to try to live our lives in constant awareness of them.
We will not take for granted the things that are vital for our survival.
We recognise that in trying to live fulfilled lives we sometimes hurt or offend other people;
in the hope that they will not let this destroy their relationships with us,
we will try not to let the times they hurt or offend us destroy our relationships with them.
We will try to avoid situations which excite obsolete aspects of our human nature.
We hope that we will not have to face situations that would completely overwhelm us.
Will anyone say ‘Amen’ to that little manifesto? I hope so, because I hope you recognise in it the Lord’s Prayer, the prayer that the gospels tell us Jesus taught his followers. I can’t say that it’s as poetic or as concise as the usual version of the Our Father, and it certainly won’t catch on. But it does at least attempt to unpack the original version and make of it something that is genuinely meaningful for people today. And if you don’t like it, perhaps you ought to try making your own version. In fact, perhaps you ought to try that anyway. You ought to try because an important part of Jesus’s mission was to rescue the beneficial bits of religion from ritualistic rigmarole so that they could become a living reality in the lives of his hearers. And who could deny that the Lord’s Prayer has become, for many of those who can still recite it, a piece of ritualistic rigmarole, vaguely comforting perhaps, but not really very meaningful? If you do have a go, I can guarantee that your several versions will have nuances that reflect your different individual concerns and understandings; that is simply part of the wonderful uniqueness of every person.
You may ask if this manifesto version was what Jesus meant by his prayer. I think the answer has to be No. It speaks a language that was not his – and I don’t mean English. To try to explain in terms we really understand what he, or anyone else from the past, meant by the words he used requires a great imaginative leap. He meant something, clearly, and that something must relate to other things he said and the things he did; and he expressed whatever it was that he meant in terms of his worldview. His world was that of a Jew in first century
; Jesus could no more enter into our world view than we can truly enter his. We know how easy it is to misunderstand what one of our contemporaries says to us; the scope for misunderstanding Jesus is vastly greater, and we can’t ask him to try to explain what he meant in a different way. Our task is to do our best to translate not just the words but the ideas into something we can understand well enough. The question is not so much whether Jesus would have recognised our version as his prayer, but whether our version means something to us that we can recognise as expressing for our day the thrust of his teaching as best we can understand it, remembering all the while that this is not an academic exercise in translation. The point of making a new version is that we can make of it something that, if we so choose, we can call our own and use as a kind of aide memoire in our everyday lives. Palestine
If you were to try to persuade your local community school to display the traditional Our Father in the entrance hall – and I hope you won’t – I’m confident they would quickly turn down the idea. Quite right too: although, apart from the to-them blasphemous assertion of a parent-child relationship between God and ourselves, our Muslim and Jewish friends at least would be content with the prayer, the traditional Lord’s Prayer is divisive, a badge of difference between Christians and everyone else, religious or not. Yet if you tried to get the same institution to display the manifesto version that I have quoted – and perhaps you will – they would at least think twice before turning you down. They almost certainly wouldn’t spot the source, and even if they did they would still, I think, feel that the sentiments are proper ones for a publicly-funded social institution to promote openly, and that they are expressed in terms that no right-thinking person could quarrel with.
And what a difference it would make if this manifesto were to be embraced across society! Like its model, it does not lay down moral rules; it does not ask for our desires to be satisfied; it does not promote conformity; it does not imply particular social structures; it is not local to a particular culture; it is devoid of the usual kind of religious imagery; it does not grovel or claim a sense of unworthiness we do not feel. It tries instead to suggest the basis in fact on which we may all, both as individuals and as a community, lead fulfilling lives. It makes room for people to be themselves and in doing so to do things that other people sometimes may not like, but it suggests that this should be done in ways that acknowledge our deep need for good relationships. It is clear-eyed about our frailties, our propensity to disappoint ourselves, and our fears – and simply by being honest about them helps us begin to deal with them. It acknowledges too that we can best enjoy our lives when we keep ourselves aware of how wonderful they are and how fortunate we are to have them. We could do worse than to begin each day by reminding ourselves of these simple tips on how to live well.