The Lord's Prayer                                     by the late Revd, the Major John R Berry (1980)

"Our Father, which art in heaven, Hallowed by Thy name."

So the Lord's Prayer begins as all meaningful prayer must begin - with God in the forefront of our minds, not ourselves, with God's purposes for us dominating our thought, not our personal desires.  It must always be remembered that prayer is not a method of bending God's will to our own but of offering our will to His purposes.  Prayer must always be God-centred, never self-centred.  Our prayers must always start with "Father", but the preceding word "Our" is just as important.  God is not only "my" Father but the Father of all men.  Because He is "Our" Father, this must influence the things for which we pray.  There may be things and needs which would be eminently desirable for myself but could, were they granted, be difficult, embarrassing or positively evil for my neighbour.  Can I really pray for fine weather when the farmers long for rain?  If He were just my Father then all would be well but He is everybody's Father, and there are others too, that I must consider when making my prayers.

These two opening words are, therefore, a sieve for my prayers.  They sort out what I may and may not pray for, or about.  It is well to remember here that Jesus promised us that whatsoever things we pray for in his name we may have.  One can only pray in HIS name for the things which he offers to us, and Jesus never offered anything material to men, except physical healing.

It is at this point that the words "which art in heaven" become of extreme importance.  God is God of the spiritual and the abstract, and it is the spiritual gifts which He offers for which we may pray: peace, comfort, strength, humility, power, refreshment of spirit, singleness of purpose, purity.  It is for such things that we may pray with the hope of receiving - the gifts of the spirit.  Here again our unworthy prayers are sieved a little more.  It is all summed up in "Hallowed be Thy name".  It is God who is to be glorified and His purpose for me must be seen against the background of the eternals.  For what then can I pray?  The next couplet leads us to positive request and needful prayer.

"Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven."

The subject which occupies most of the teaching of Jesus is that referring to "the Kingdom".  In these words the Kingdom is specifically prayed for and so it is essential to know just what Jesus meant by the term.  This is not a prayer for perfect world order, nor yet for the imminent arrival of some catastrophic event, such as the Jehovah's Witnesses profess to anticipate.  The whole teaching of Jesus on the subject of the Kingdom is crystallized into two short phrases.

The first, "The Kingdom of God is at hand", is not an announcement of the fact that the Kingdom can be expected as a finale at any moment.  In modern usage, the term "at hand" should be rendered as "on hand", in the sense of being immediately available.  The Kingdom is not something to be earned, acquired, worked for, or given at the whim of God. The Kingdom is on hand to anyone who wishes to have it.  Its possession depends on an act of will and desire rather than on merit of any sort.

Secondly, Jesus tells us, "The Kingdom of God is within you."  It is a state of heart, mind, will and dedication in which a person dedicates himself (or herself) to the service of God and attempts to do His will in all things.  The power to deal with all aspects of life, to master all circumstances triumphantly is the mark of being within the Kingdom.  "If I, by the finger of God, cast out devils, then is the Kingdom of God come upon you."

The second line of the couplet reinforced this prayer and makes the request more specific, "Thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven."  This is a prayer that the will of God be actually expressed in the events and reactions of everyday life.  These days, the word "on" is frequently used in relation to earth, but this is a grave error which alters the whole meaning of the prayer and is out of harmony with the first line.  In the earliest manuscripts the word is "in". "On" has been retained in many modern versions because folk are under the impression that the "earth" referred to is the planet on which we exist.  This is not so!  "Earth" refers to the stuff of mortality, the material of the human body, the flesh.  The prayer is a request that the abstract characteristics of God should be actualised and humanly expressed in the normal bodily events of the ordinary day.  In other words, that God may be incarnated in the person making the prayer.

The word "heaven" refers to the realm of the spirit, of the abstract.  There is a hint here of the platonic principle of the ideal and the form.  This whole prayer is a request that the whole life of him (or her) who prays shall be a constant demonstration of the nature and character of God and that his (or her) life shall, as far as he (or she) can make it, be an incarnation of God.

"He who has seen me," says Jesus, "has seen the Father."  It should be the wish of the Christian that this should be so in his (or her) case as far as our limitations allow.

"Give us this day our daily bread."

Well, what sort of a person will he be who allows God to come into his life and establish His Kingdom there? This little single-line prayer certainly deals with one very important element in such a life. It will be obvious to all that this is no prayer for physical food. One does not have to pray for that; one has to work for it. Jesus said, "I am the Bread of Life," and "Seek not for the bread that perishes."

"Bread," on the lips of Jesus, meant not that which gives physical strength and nourishment, but that which feeds the mind and heart and spirit; that which gives us the spiritual power and resources to do His will. But it says "our DAILY bread." Rather, it says something slightly different, but a slight difference is the clue to the whole meaning of the words.

What it really says is, "Give us this day our bread for today." In the present day we might say, "Give us the spiritual resources and power for the tasks and responsibilities which this day brings to me." Surely this is something we all need to pray for as one of our great weaknesses, and one of the main causes of trouble, wasted time and broken relationships, is our ability to dodge the responsibilities and tasks which each day brings.

How easy it is to say, "Oh, I'll do that tomorrow," and keep putting it off for so many tomorrows that it may not get done at all. We call it by the ugly word, procrastination, and it is an ugly word for an ugly thing. Many friendships have died, many people remained unhelped, many letters remain unanswered, many responsibilities remain unaccepted because, with no evil intent at all, we just put them off until tomorrow 'ad infinitum'.

"Take no thought for the morrow, for the morrow will take thought for the things of itself," said Jesus. He established a most important rule for Christians. This is not an injunction to abstain from planning ahead - a man would be foolish who fails to do that - but rather the laying down of a principle by which one should deal with today's responsibilities before worrying about tomorrow's. Worrying about tomorrow, whilst today's jobs remain undone, is a sure prescription for neither getting completed. If today is adequately dealt with, tomorrow begins uncluttered by any work left over.

One of our hymns begins, "New every morning is the love our waking and uprising prove," while a poet has reminded us that "The morning comes with gold in its hands." How many people can never grasp the morning gold of God's love because their hands are full of yesterday's undone tasks. If we would find life productive, satisfying and useful to all, says Jesus, then pray for the strength to do the tasks which each day brings. This is a rule of God's Kingdom. We must pray for the spiritual bread which will enable us to fulfil it, the strength which knowledge of God, in Jesus, brings to us.

This prayer is all about human relationships and human attitudes, and the next parallel takes us even further into the realisation that attitudes to people depend upon our attitudes to God. Indeed, that our attitudes to people are our attitudes to God.

"Forgive us our trespasses, As we forgive them that trespass against us."

An awkward word, 'trespasses', as is the alternative, 'debts', which is sometimes used. We are on safer ground if we just think of it as meaning 'those attitudes which destroy human relationships - pride, hardness of heart, contempt, vengeance.' We all know our particular weaknesses.

Let us look at "Forgive" first. There are so many people who think forgiveness means letting off a penalty but, of course, it is much more than that. To forgive a person who has done you wrong is to refuse to accept the almost inevitable break in your relationship with each other; to accept the wrong and go on as though nothing had ever happened; to take the suffering which the situation has caused into your own heart and mind rather than in visiting it upon the wrong-doer in spite, vengeance and retribution.

This does not necessarily mean the abandonment of punishment, for punishment itself can be part of love and forgiveness. Nature exerts punishment from those who break her laws, not in spirit of vengefulness and hatred but as a deterrent and a warning that ignoring of the law will bring consequences which are harmful to all. Fire burns those who abuse it and wrong-action in the moral and personal sphere must often demand a similar reaction.

The great fact of forgiveness is the retained and unbroken relationship of love and concern. It is that eternal relationship with God, that dependable, ever-present certainty of unchanging love which we pray for in the first line of this couplet; not that we have to ask for it, because it is constantly there whatever we do or are. The love of God for every man is reliable and certain. Why then, do we pray for it? Because, although the relationship will never be broken by God, it can be broken by us. We can reject and ignore the divine grace and render it ineffective in our lives by wrong actions and attitudes. The prayer is that we may so live our lives that the link is never severed from our side.

The second line amplifies and explains the first, "As we forgive them that trespass against us." We break our relationship with God as we break our relationships with our fellow men. We can only experience the joy of being one with God in the acceptance of His grace as we react to our fellow men with that same unbreakable love.

So, the prayer says, "May I experience oneness with God as I retain a perfect unity with the people around me." Man breaks his fellowship with God as he breaks it in his human relationships.   

"Lead us not into temptation, But deliver us from evil." 

What a perplexing prayer this is! How can God, who is perfect, faultless and the fount of all that is good, ever consider leading His children into temptation, for temptation is the wish to do evil. In this instance, we go directly to the second line to make sense of the first. A miss-translation, or rather an imperfect translation from the Greek places quite a wrong emphasis on the prayer.

The word which the old translators rendered as "evil" should really be "the evil one", that is Satan, the devil. Once this is portrayed, and was certainly always understood in the ancient world as the symbol of pride, the first of the deadly sins. Satan was Lucifer, the chief of the archangels, the nearest to God of all the heavenly host. So near to God was he, so close to the heart and mind of the Eternal, that he imagined he was no longer dependent upon God and could rebel against Him. He did, and thereby suffered the tremendous consequences of alienation from God.

So it is with us. We can be so near to God, so aware of the power and dignity which He has given us, that we can feel the need of Him no more. Our very sense of the greatness and the power which God has given, and our exercise of it, can encourage us to feel that we are self-sufficient and no longer need Him.

God does not lead us into temptation, but the very fact of God's love can make us abandon Him. Power is not evil in itself, but possession of power can lead men to abuse it. Financial genius is not an evil thing, but it can lead men into business practices which ignore the needs of others and destroy the lives of others in the pursuit of gain. Artistic ability is not evil, but its possession can lead men to exploit it to degrade and destroy. So it is with God. God cannot lead men into temptation, but the very gifts and dignity which God gives can lead men into a sense of self-sufficiency and a belief that he can do without Him. This is a prayer for humility but, even so, we must be careful for some of us can become proud of our humility. 

"For Thine is the Kingdom, the power and the glory, for ever and ever! Amen."

John Berry was born in Barrow-in-Furness.  He candidated for the Methodist ministry prior to the start of the second world war.  Became a commissioned officer in the Indian Army.  Captured and spent two years as a prisoner-of-war in Germany.  Returned to the UK on VE Day and went into Circuit.  Became Director of Religious Studies at Manchester Grammar School.  Retired into the county he loved and lived in Kendal, then in Allithwaite. Frequently grieved by the inadequacies of the Church, very often depressed by those who confuse credulity and piety, even (at times) tempted to cut his ties with organised religion, he joyfully confessed that he was always drawn back by the "strange man on the cross."  The Lord's Prayer is an extract from his book, The Carpenter's Son.