Performing The Lord’s Prayer

Lent in 2022 is becoming darker, war casting a horrific shadow over our fortunate prosperity on this side of the world. I treat gratitude as a kind of sacrament, the foundation of everything; we begin with recognition that we are so lucky here in North America.

I’m praying every night. Is it for me? perhaps. I hope that when I ask for mercy for my loved ones, for the safety of those who might be in danger or harm’s way, that perhaps my prayer is heard. At the very least I am meditating, making myself feel better.

I’ve been thinking about The Lord’s Prayer not just because I run it through my head several times every day, but because it exists in multiple versions for me. If we read it in the Sermon on the Mount as it appears in Matthew Chapter 6, we already encounter multiple versions: depending on The Bible we read. The King James Version was drilled into me early, and so it’s still my go-to if I am reciting, a prayer I learned long ago. Although Luke 11 has a version of a prayer that’s startlingly similar (considering the divergences we get in parts of the Gospel accounts), Mathew’s is the one I’ve been reciting, especially since COVID disrupted church services, forcing me back on my own devices.

It’s ironic that in being chased out of church, we might in some respects be closer to honouring what Jesus told us to do: as I shall explain.

I think that chapter six of Matthew, which includes that prayer, is mostly about performing. No it’s not Stanislavsky or the Method, we’re not being taught the mechanics of performance. But Jesus is talking to us about sincerity and purity of purpose in our actions. Actors going through the motions, simulating piety are the problem, and we shouldn’t be troubled if we’re not simulating faith as boldly. That’s not what He wants.

The opening of chapter 6 may seem to be talking about charity, when it says “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.” The chapter will also speak to us about prayer and fasting. But it’s less about charity or prayer or fasting, and much more about our sincerity of purpose: how we perform the actions.

When I speak about performance I mean Jesus’s underlying question. Are you really praying, really giving sincerely: or is it all an act, all for show?

We’re told “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. ”

I have always found this hard to reconcile with performances of sacred text, and perhaps I’ve even talked your ear off about this? (sorry!).

I used to be a soloist in churches. While I am still comfortable in the role of organist or in a choir, I’m troubled, conflicted about singing text to a congregation who listen. Indeed, the last time I sang –when I was especially tormented—someone came up to me afterwards to comment on how sincere I seemed to them. It was a lovely gesture, yet I felt horrible, because I was being torn in two, and haven’t been able to sing a text in church since that time.

Yes I can play the organ, or sing in the choir because that’s a more purely spiritual thing, free to each person to interpret.

Indeed, this commentary could just as easily apply to sung versions of “Ave Maria”: featured so prominently in the current Batman movie, sung by the Riddler, please note.

Sometimes when I pray I employ the sung version of The Lord’s Prayer in my head, silently. It’s an oxymoron. To perform this aloud, especially if it were admired for its sincerity, would be in direct contradiction to what we’re told to do, how to pray in the very chapter of Matthew where he gives us the prayer. How weird to perform this prayer–meaning to model faith before others—when the prayer was given as an example of something to be done silently in private, not before others.

Perhaps I sound like a prude or a stickler. But I find the contradictions illuminating. Perhaps in church we’re not really praying, given that we’re all hearing one another, hearing the organ and the choir that might resonate inside ourselves later when we pray alone.

Maybe the way it should be done in church is in its context: with Jesus’s admonition (via Matthew): to do this alone in the dark, not on a street corner where we’re showing off our piety. To sing it without the preamble is to miss the most important part of the lesson.

I stumbled upon a sermon from Justin Schwartz today that made me very happy, thrilled when my own wandering in the dark corresponds to something another person is thinking or saying. Justin served an internship at Hillcrest Church in Toronto during his graduate school days, before taking up a post in the USA. His recent sermon comes about two minutes into the video after a crisp clear reading of the relevant text of Matthew’s Gospel, from First Christian Church, Disciples of Christ in Louisburg Kansas, USA. I feel lucky that I can follow him and hear his sermons through the magic of social media.

His words are applicable every day of the year, especially now.

When we sing the Lord’s Prayer in church –in a sense contradicting what Jesus said in Matthew 6—I wonder: what are we doing? Are we praying, or is church like a school where we practice what we’ll do at home on our own..?

As I ponder this question (one I’ve been mulling over for over 50 years), I’m going to briefly look at the four versions of The Lord’s Prayer in the Chalice Hymnal. Each one has its merits.

#307 is the one that employs the nice old King James Version text. As such it takes us to a place that in some respects is even more of a contradiction to Matthew’s words. If the text says “for Thine is The Kingdom and the power and the glory”, surely it’s wrong-headed to be glorifying ourselves on those words. The glory and the power and The Kingdom are His. Not ours. The big musical climax on that phrase (going up to a big high note in the music) is very much like the behaviour being castigated at the beginning of Matthew Chapter 6.

So how can one sing this without puffing out one’s chest like one of those people Jesus spoke of?
“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. ”

Each of the next three versions in the Chalice Hymnal offer something as a sort of answer to the conundrum.

#308 gives you a West Indian song that has a meditative quality reminding me of Taizé singing, where we seem to be hypnotized away from pure logic into something more genuinely spiritual. I love this tune and hear it in my head long after. That the melody functions as a sort of “ear-worm” is to me a true blessing, allowing me to use it in the night when I pray silently alone.

#309 is more of a spoken litany, another pathway that may help make the prayer meaningful. This doesn’t work for me when I try it alone but I can see the value in this, especially if the opening invocation helps to focus one on a prayerful mindset.

#310 is the one I find myself using most often, possibly because it was our usual sung version at Hillcrest. This one is in a soft folk-rock style, with a direct address to God in the second person. I find this very helpful when I pray at night, whether sung or not. And in contrast to #307, it’s crystal clear when we sing that “the pow’r and the glory are yours”, we humble ourselves.

I’m still spellbound by the contradiction, the performance of a text meant to be heard in solitude.

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