On Mindless Repetition

Most Protestant ministers preach, at least once, a sermon or sermon series about the Lord’s Prayer. We look carefully at the context in which it appears in scripture; we analyze the verbs and the order in which they appear; we look at different versions and translations, and pretend that we have the original Aramaic text to study. We try to make it relevant or modern or at least interesting. The goal is to make the prayer more “meaningful.”

Maybe all of that is, well, wrongheaded. Maybe the thing we ought to be preaching about the Lord’s Prayer is not what the words mean, but what saying the words means.

It means, in the first place, trying to take the words of Jesus to be our own words. It is an imperfect effort, of course, because we don’t have a transcript of what Jesus said to the disciples when they asked him to teach them to pray. What we do have is the record of the early church about the prayer he gave them as a model. So we speak those words as a kind of verbal Eucharist – bringing something out of memory and into the present in an embodied way.

It means, in the second place, to pray with Jesus-followers in all times and all places. When we recite these words together in worship, I often see that whole company in my heart’s eye, spread out in great ranks around and behind and ahead of me. I am reacquainted with the great cloud of witnesses that share my longing to follow the Jesus-way.

And it means that when we recite these familiar words, we can enter a kind of meditation in which the words are no longer central and the possibility of connection with the divine is heightened. Think of the Lord’s Prayer as a Taize chant that you sing until you are done singing, or a Hail Mary that you repeat as you finger the beads. “Mindlessly” repeating these words can restore their sacredness in surprising ways.

Prayer: Holy One, help our prayers to be deeper and wider than our words. Amen.

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