How to pray the Lord’s Prayer.

by K.W. Leslie, 14 February

When Jesus’s students wanted to learn to pray, he taught them what we call the Lord’s Prayer. Wanna know how to pray? Here ya go: Practice with that.

Weirdly enough, in most of the Evangelical churches I’ve been to, when new Christians wanna learn to pray, we don’t always point ’em to the Lord’s Prayer. We point them to our prayer groups.

Why’s this? Well, there’s a weird Evangelical stigma about rote prayer. It’s because a lot of Evangelicals grew up in churches which prayed a lot of pre-written, canned material, and it felt like dead religion to them, and they prefer living religion. So, out went the rote prayers. Their only prayers are spontaneous. Sometimes they won’t even pray biblical rote prayers, like the psalms or Lord’s Prayer.

The down side? The only prayer examples they see aren’t from the bible, but from their fellow Christians. Some of whom don’t even read the bible. All their prayer behavior comes from mimicking other Christians, and after enough decades in an echo chamber of babbling pagan hypocrisy… well, you remember Jesus’s wisecrack about tying a millstone round children’s necks and tossing them in the Mediterranean. Mk 9.42 Better they not pray at all, than pray like some of us hypocrites.

What to do? Well, if our bible studies and prayer groups don’t spend any time talking about how to pray more effectively (meaning like God wants), it’s time to fix those groups. Drop the showing off, ditch the mini-sermons in disguise, quit padding and overcomplicating, and get bold. Talk about what really works, and what really doesn’t. Get honest.

And keep pointing back to the Lord’s Prayer.

Jesus taught this rote prayer. He wants us to recite it. Education in Jesus’s day—same as ours—meant memorization. He wanted his students to put this prayer in their brains. (Since the gospels weren’t written down for another three decades after Jesus taught this, obviously his students did as he wanted!) The Lord’s Prayer is the model for how Jesus wants us to pray, and base our own prayers upon. So if we’re gonna learn to pray properly and effectively, we gotta practice with the Lord’s Prayer.

It’s like training wheels. When people first learn to ride a bicycle, and haven’t yet learned to balance the bike upright all the time, a lot of us use training wheels which always hold the bike upright. The Lord’s Prayer isn’t only training wheels. But it definitely does the job of keeping our prayers upright. When in doubt, return to Jesus’s words.

Memorize the prayer.

No foolin’: Memorize the Lord’s Prayer. Put it in your brain. Know it by heart.

When your church recites it, which translation do they tend to use? Memorize that one. I know; you might have a favorite bible translation, and would much rather learn that version. Resist the temptation. Because when it comes time to recite the Lord’s Prayer together, all your recitations need to match. Otherwise this’ll happen:

You. [at the same time as everybody else in the room] “You’re in charge! You can do anything you want! You’re ablaze in beauty! Yes. Yes. Yes.” Mt 6.13 Message 
Everybody else. “For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.” Mt 6.13 NKJV 
Guy in back of room. [quietly whispering] “What’s with the weirdo?”

That’s right. You’re gonna be the wierdo.

So if your church is big on the King James Version, memorize the KJV. If they’re teaching the Sunday school kids the New International Children’s Bible version of it, memorize that translation. The idea is when the people of your church pray it, you can pray it together. Practice unity. It’s just as important and useful as praying it individually.

Some churches recite it every week. Other churches rarely recite it, if ever. So if you’re in one of those churches which rarely prays the Lord’s Prayer, best advice is to memorize the Book of Common Prayer version. Why that one?—especially if you’re not Episcopalian. Because it’s the default English-language version. I know; you thought it was the KJV. Well, you’re gonna find the BCP version managed to win out. Pray the Lord’s Prayer with enough interdenominational Christian groups, and way more Christians recite “forgive us our trespasses” than “forgive us our debts.”

Here’s that version:

Matthew 6.9-13 BCP
9 Our Father, who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name,
10 thy kingdom come,
thy will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us this day our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory,
for ever and ever. Amen.

Till you have it memorized, write it down on something portable, like a text file on your phone, a business card, a bookmark, the inside cover of your bible, something you can quickly grab hold of whenever it’s prayer time. Memorization is the goal, but if you wanna start praying it right away, fine by me.

Recite it. Meditate on it.

First week or two when you being reciting the Lord’s Prayer, it’s gonna feel a little fake. Like you’re reciting somebody else’s words.

Well, honestly, you are. These are Jesus’s words. Not yours. But the goal is to make them yours, and over time you’ll come to mean them. Till you mean them, they’ll feel a little strange, unfamiliar, maybe phony. The feeling’s natural.

A lot of Christians can’t get beyond this feeling, so they just stop, and refuse to recite any more rote prayers. Part of the problem is they’ve confused it with hypocrisy: They don’t mean the prayer, and isn’t it wrong of us to say what we don’t mean? But here’s why it’s not hypocrisy: Hypocrisy is lying. It’s pretending to be what we’re not. Are you pretending, or trying to fool God and other people, when you pray the Lord’s Prayer? Shouldn’t be; you should only be practicing.

Remember the training wheels? Kids who ride a bike with training wheels aren’t pretending they can balance themselves: The training wheels make it obvious they don’t have the hang of it yet. Same thing with newbies and the Lord’s Prayer.

So relax. It feels strange, but it’s a new experience. It’ll become normal. God knows you’re only practicing. Nobody’s trying to con anyone. You’re good.

If it helps, before you recite the Lord’s Prayer, first tell God, “Help Jesus’s words become my words.”

If your discomfort is because the Lord’s Prayer is so short, and you’ve got it in your head that prayers oughta be way longer than that: No, they don’t. Those people are praying way too long. Twenty-second prayers are fine. If Jesus wanted us to pray for 15 minutes, he’d have composed a 15-minute Lord’s Prayer. He didn’t; you’re good.

As you recite it, meditate on it. Think about it. Talk to the Holy Spirit about the concepts in it. Ask him what he wants to reveal to you through it. Meditation’s where God talks back the most, so try to meditate very time you pray. Even when you’re praying rote prayers. Especially when you’re praying the Lord’s Prayer.

How do you meditate on the Lord’s Prayer? Simple: Take the ideas in it and pray them to God.

Our Father—“God, be a father to me. Show me how you’re being my father. Show me how you’re a father to all Christians. To all people.”
Who art in heaven—“God, tell me about heaven. How do you see things from there? How much of heaven have you already brought into the world? What more are you gonna do? What more do I have to do?”
Hallowed by thy name—“So God, make your name holy. Draw attention to yourself. Make yourself famous. Lead people to respect you just as I do. (Lead me to respect you more.) Make it so people know you as you are, not as we Christians sloppily portray you. Be obvious. Be awesome. Shake the heavens.”

…And so forth. You start with the scriptures, and riff on them, to use the jazz term. The foundation is all Jesus. The rest is all you.

In meditating on the scriptures, you’re learning to think like Jesus—assuming all your improvisations don’t wander too far from the original. Sometimes that happens. It’s why we keep going back to the original words on a regular basis. Stick to “Our Father who art in heaven,” and less “Avinu, shba shomayim.” Mt 6.9 OJB Seriously; I know Christians who insist on doing the Lord’s Prayer in Hebrew, ’cause they feel it makes things more authentic. (Actually less authentic, ’cause Jesus spoke Aramaic; and showing off your Hebrew is more about pride than humility. It’s faux authenticity, and it comes at the detriment of our own understanding and growth.)

This is why I suggest you don’t memorize the Lord’s Prayer in out-of-the-ordinary translations. The Message is awesome for personal devotions, but that translation’s version of the Lord’s Prayer is Eugene Peterson’s riff on the prayer; not yours. You need to do your own improvising. Go ahead and check out how The Message did it, but riffing needs to be your words. Not mine. Nor Peterson’s.

Meditation will take a little practice. If it helps, sit down with a pad and paper and brainstorm. (Relax; it’s totally okay to write out your prayers. God can read.) Think up some ways to expand upon Jesus’s ideas. They’ll start to feel more like your personal input to God, and less like you’re just reciting lines.

Over time you’ll get better at creating prayers off the top of your head. In the meanwhile, just start with the Lord’s Prayer. That’s what we must always fall back on. Base everything on Jesus, always.

Then add your own prayer requests.

Once you’re finished reciting and meditating on the Lord’s Prayer, feel free to tell God anything else you want or need. Ask him for anything. I know, you already asked for daily bread and forgiveness; go ahead and throw in all your other needs. Feeling stressed, and want the stress to go away? Worried about family members? Need to be cured of an ailment? Just plain want something? Ask.

Don‘t feel like you can’t make any other prayer requests because you gotta stick to the Lord’s Prayer. Like Jesus was trying to show us through this prayer: It’s okay to ask God for stuff. Ask!

If you don’t need anything—if everything’s all good—man are you lucky. Thank God he gave you a life where you have no worries.

And you’re done.

Even after praying the Lord’s Prayer—plus a bit of meditation, plus adding your own requests—if you find all this has only taken two to five minutes, that’s okay. Don’t get the warped idea you have to pray for hours, monk-style, and pad your prayers with gobbledygook. Most real prayers are short. In my experience most of God’s responses are also short. It’s not about how long you pray; it’s that you pray. Regularly.

The Didache instructed ancient newbies to pray the Lord’s Prayer three times a day. Really, we needn’t do it more than once a day. But if you wanna pray it more than once a day, go for it. Do as comes naturally; don’t pray it a bunch of times under the misbegotten belief it’s gonna make you holier, or grow in Christ faster, or to set an impossible goal for yourself, or to show off for God. Don’t do that to yourself.

Pick one time in the day which you know you can devote to prayer time. Early morning, late evening, during lunch, coffee break, whatever works. Set an alarm if you have to. Then, when it goes off, pray the Lord’s Prayer. Pray it till you mean it—then keep right on praying it.