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February 18, 2018

“​cantus firmus​: A Fixed Prayer for All Occasions, Part 1”

Rev. Dr. David A. Kaden

>>Open our eyes that we might see wondrous things in your word, Amen.<<

In his short story Three Hermits, published in 1886, Leo Tolstoy tells the tale of a Bishop sailing toward the Solovetsky Monastery.[1] On the ship he heard rumors of three old hermits who lived on an island nearby. Wanting to learn more, the Bishop questioned one of the fisherman on board. “‘They are holy men,’” said the fisherman, who “related how once, when he was out fishing, he had been stranded at night upon that island, not knowing where he was. In the morning, as he wandered about the island, he came across an earth hut, and met” the three old men who “fed him, dried his things, and helped him mend his boat. ‘And what are they like?’ asked the Bishop. ‘One is a small man and his back is bent. He wears a priest’s cassock and is very old; he must be more than a hundred, I should say … ,’” replied the fishman. “‘He is always smiling, and his face is as bright as an angel’s from heaven. The second is taller, but he also is very old. He wears a tattered, peasant coat. His beard is broad … , [and] he is a strong man. Before I had time to help him, he turned my boat over as if it were only a pail. He too, is kindly and cheerful. The third is tall, and has a beard as white as snow and reaching to his knees. …’ ‘I should like to land on the island and see these men,’ said the Bishop.” And so, preparations were made; the ship anchored off shore, and he was rowed to the beach in a small boat. The three old men were standing there to greet the Bishop. “‘Tell me,’ said the Bishop [to them] … , ‘how you serve God on this island?’ … ‘We pray in this way,’ replied [one] hermit. ‘You are three, we are three, have mercy upon us.’ … The Bishop smiled. ‘You have evidently heard something about the Holy Trinity,’ he said. ‘But you do not pray correctly. … I will teach you … . Listen and repeat after me: “Our Father.”’ And the first old man repeated after him, ‘“Our Father,”’ and the second said, ‘“Our Father,’” and the third said, ‘“Our Father.’” ‘“Which art in heaven,’” continued the Bishop.” Line by line the Bishop led the three hermits through The Lord’s Prayer, but the three men struggled: the hair of one’s beard had grown over his mouth muffling the words; another had no teeth and couldn’t pronounce every word; and the other didn’t hear well, and couldn’t make out all the Bishop’s words. “All day long the Bishop labored, saying a word twenty, thirty, a hundred times over … .” Eventually the hermits were able to recite the prayer in its entirety, and the Bishop left the island satisfied. His ship set sail again, but soon he glimpsed a ball of light approaching the ship. The three hermits were running on the surface of the water, their beards gleaming in the moonlight. “‘We have forgotten your teaching … ,’ they said when they reached the ship. ‘Teach us [the whole prayer] again.’” The Bishop sighed. “‘Forget everything I taught you,’” he said, ‘“and continue to pray in your old way’.”[2]

We are embarking on a journey through The Lord’s Prayer over the next few weeks, going line-by-line. Today’s line is “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” There are techniques for using The Lord’s Prayer effectively, but, to paraphrase the Bishop in Tolstoy’s story, if this prayer doesn’t feel right to pray alone, we can always just pray the way we usually pray – there’s no wrong way to pray. One fourth century monk named St. Macarius said of prayer that “It is not necessary to use many words.” But when we’re in trouble, he said, we should “use short, simple prayers drawn from the Psalms,” such as “‘O God, come to my aid.’” The great parable Jesus tells about the Pharisee and the Tax Collector contrasts techniques for praying. The Pharisee proudly looks up and spreads his arms so people can see his piety, and then prays, “Thank you God that I’m not like other people.” “I’m not like this tax collector, for instance.” But the prayer that mattered, says Jesus, was the one coming from the tax collector’s heart: “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” The prayers that matter throughout the Bible are the ones that tell the truth, and don’t try to perform for God. When the Psalmists are angry; they tell God they’re angry. When they feel sad or depressed; they tell God so. They also shout for joy when happy. Hannah told God exactly what she wanted while praying in the temple: “I want a son,” she said. Both Job and the prophet Jeremiah accused God of being abusive. Moses argued with God that he was the wrong man to lead the Exodus. Jacob wrestled with God. The writer of Ecclesiastes wondered whether there even was a God. And Jesus labored in prayer the night before his crucifixion – his sweat became thick like drops of blood, says Luke’s gospel – because he dreaded what he knew was coming, and discussed with God whether there was another way. “We do not need to be shy [when praying],” writes Richard Foster in his book on prayer. “[God] invites us … [to] share freely.”[3]

Yes, the purest prayers in scripture are the ones that tell the truth without mincing words; they don’t pretend or perform – prayers like those uttered this week after the school shooting in Florida. One person prayed on Twitter, “I don’t understand the world I live in anymore, O God, where things that should never be normal are becoming normal.” Another person prayed on Thursday, “O God, this morning when we woke … we woke to a heavy world, and in this world, we can’t make sense of all the things that are wrong and should be made right.” And, a representative of the Reform Jewish Youth Movement offered these words on Thursday: “Some families woke up this morning in the debris of the world they once knew. Today we pray for the courage to mourn with them, and act to make yesterday unimaginable.” Pure prayers from honest hearts, not platitudes from politicians who spread their arms wide, like Pharisees in the temple, and offer “thoughts and prayers” in the wake of tragedy.

One of the purest prayers in our tradition is The Lord’s Prayer – a prayer that has sustained Christian spirituality for centuries. The Lord’s Prayer, writes Oxford historian Diarmaid MacCulloch, “lies at the heart of Christian approaches to God.”[4] It “is the quintessence of prayer,” wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer.[5] The Lord’s Prayer, said preacher William Sloane Coffin, “is the ‘ cantus firmus ’ of the churches” – it’s our “fixed chant,” our fixed prayer. “[It’s] the one prayer,” says Coffin, “that for centuries has literally spanned the world.”[6] The earliest Christians in the first century were exhorted to pray The Lord’s Prayer three times a day – to chant it even, like one would chant lyrics of a song – a song that is a prayer, a bit like the lyrics penned by the Psalmists who sing to God in prayer: “Listen to me!” “Be a rock and fortress for me! Save me!”; or, like the lyrics of Mozart’s Requiem : “Save me, O Fount of Goodness”; or, like Eddie Vedder’s song Big Hard Sun that seems to liken God to the sun that shines on all people; or, like Bob Dylan, who seemed to sing of God as “shelter from the storm”; or, like rapper Jay Z who spoke of trying to run from God in his song Legacy ; or, like Billy Corgan, lead singer of the Smashing Pumpkins , who entered a tea shop in Chicago, sat down at a piano, and sang a stunning rendition of his song Soma – a love song that is a kind of prayer about loneliness and relationship that sounds like a modern Psalm.[7]

Some of the purest prayers are found in songs; and The Lord’s Prayer, as William Sloane Coffin says, is our cantus firmus – our fixed song – even though, paradoxically, it’s a prayer with words that aren’t so fixed. It took different forms in earliest Christianity, probably because it was prayed so widely in the churches; different regions prayed it in different ways. The version in Matthew’s gospel is not the same as that found in Luke’s gospel even though both gospels claim to recount the words of Jesus. Luke’s version is shorter: it doesn’t speak of God as a “Father in heaven ”; and it doesn’t ask that God’s “will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” But interestingly, the version of the prayer we pray each Sunday is not found in either New Testament gospel. Our version doesn’t come from the Bible, but from a late first century Christian text called “The Didache” – “The Teaching.” The Didache is an extra-biblical, instructional manual that teaches about Christian piety; and it exhorts Christians to pray The Lord’s Prayer three times a day, like pious Jews pray the Shema , today’s reading from Deuteronomy, several times a day: “Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God is one.” The first word of that prayer in Hebrew is “shema,” “hear/listen.” The first line of The Lord’s Prayer, the first line we pray each Sunday, – “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name…” – is modeled after the Shema . The first word of the prayer Jesus taught is “Our.” We pray it together, as a collective family. The second word is “Father” – a word that makes two claims: first, that God is like a parent, a “Father” or a “Mother”; and second, that we are all God’s children. God is our “Father,” our “Mother,” and we are all God’s children. This relationship, says Jewish theologian Martin Buber, is “unconditional.” By calling God “Father,” writes Buber, we become God’s “child.”[8] But the language of the prayer shifts after this “Our Father” introduction. The next three lines all begin with demands in Greek: “let your name be hallow-ed” – “special,” “holy”; “let your kingdom come”; “let your will be done.” These are not requests; they’re commands; they’re pleas that demand God get to work in the world and set things right. The first part of this prayer is about identity and action: we are God’s children and we’re demanding that God get to work.

But here’s the paradox of the prayer. It’s not a prayer that knocks on heaven’s door as Dylan once sang. This prayer is more like praying while peering into a mirror: I am God’s child; I need to get to work. Pope Francis once said, “You pray for the hungry, then you go feed them. That’s how prayer works.” Because prayer is a way to remind us of what is most important in our world. This is why “thoughts and prayers” after tragedies seem like platitudes to me. “Thoughts and prayers” push responsibility away from us and onto God. It’s magical thinking without material teeth. It’s knocking on heaven’s door without looking into a mirror. The Lord’s Prayer is much more concrete. Praying into the mirror reminds us that we are God’s children, and that God’s name is special, is “hallow-ed,” is “holy.” Praying into the mirror reminds us that God is God, God is holy, and guns are not. God is God, God is holy, and the dollar is not. Praying into the mirror – singing the cantus firmus – reminds us of what God requires: to do justice, to love mercy, and to be humble, as the prophet Micah once said; or, as Jesus once said, God requires that we be peacemakers, that we love our enemies, that we “bring good news to the poor; release to the prisoners; recovery of sight to the spiritually blind; liberty to the oppressed; healing to those who mourn; relief to those in debt.” The first line of The Lord’s Prayer reminds us of who we are – God’s children – and reminds us of what we’re supposed to be about as followers of Christ.

…Let me close this morning with a story about the heart of faith told by journalist Bryan Mealer.[9] “A few mornings a week, I go running with a priest,” writes Mealer. “We meet … under a streetlamp in central Austin and make our way down to the state capitol building and back … . It’s a routine we started nearly two years ago, and it came during a pivotal point in my life. I was 40 years old, the father of three small children, and beginning to wrestle with some of the bigger questions that loom at middle age, particularly about faith. After growing up in the church and leaving for many years – even abandoning my beliefs at one point while covering war – I was contemplating a return. On a visit to my parents, my children had inadvertently exposed a void that I’d been trying to ignore. My three-year-old daughter asked my mother, ‘What is God?’ only to have her brother reply: ‘Don’t you know, silly? God is Harvey.’ Harvey is what we called our Honda. The look my mother shot me is still burned into my retinas. … [But] I wondered how [I] could … call myself a Christian, and raise my children to do the same, while feeling separate from [the] gross distortion of Christ’s message … [by] moral crusaders … , who wielded ‘Christian values’ like a blunt instrument against gay people and transgender schoolkids … . Decades of culture wars had sullied the whole institution for me … . I was grappling with these issues when I met David Peters. David was a priest at an Episcopal church in south Austin … . He was also a former marine and chaplain in the army who’d served in Iraq. After the Texas legislature allowed people to openly carry handguns in public and concealed weapons into public universities, David wrote a piece for the Huffington Post advocating the open carry of prayer beads, not bullets. I thought he was a good writer and reached out to chat. Turned out he was also a runner, like me … . In 2003, following the invasion of Iraq, David was commissioned as a chaplain in the army and later went to Baghdad. … Around the time David joined the army, I moved to Africa to become a freelance correspondent and wound up in eastern Congo, covering a largely neglected war that had killed millions. For three years I reported military operations, massacres, and cholera outbreaks, losing count of how many children I saw buried in some unfamiliar ground where their families had sought refuge. … One day while I was visiting a displaced camp, my guide took me on a tour of tents where babies had died during the night, the mothers still cradling the tiny corpses, catatonic with grief. ‘It’s God’s will,’ one woman told me … . ‘Then I want no part of this god,’ I thought. … In the years after leaving Congo, I knew that God was out there somewhere, waiting in whatever form. Around the time I started running with David, my family and I began attending a progressive Methodist church here in Austin, one committed to social justice and offering sanctuary to the LGBT community. …” Mealer concludes, “I’m reclaiming my faith at a time when American Christianity is in crisis, when the institution of Jesus Christ – a radical humanitarian who was killed by the police – has been co-opted by corporate … interests, [and] culture warriors … just as it was by slavers and segregationists. Reclaiming the title [“Christian”] is a moral protest against those who attack immigrants, refugees, minorities, and the poor and the sick, the very people whom Christ instructed us to help along the road … .”

…Maybe we should think of The Lord’s Prayer as a form of protest – a way to look in the mirror and connect with the spirit of Christ. Amen.

1 http://www.online-literature.com/tolstoy/2896/

2 This final line is a gloss from Richard J. Foster, Prayer: Finding the Heart’ True Home (New York: HarperCollins, 1992), 80.

3 Foster, Prayer , 1.

4 Diarmaid MacCulloch, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (New York: Penguin, 2009), 81.

5 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995 [1937]), 165.

6 Randy Wilson Coffin, ed., The Collected Sermons of William Sloane Coffin: The Riverside Years, vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008), 343.

7 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u95hlSGr5o0

8 Martin Buber, I and Thou (trans. Walter Kaufmann; New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1970 [1923]), 116.

9 https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/dec/25/christianity-religion-conservative-protest