A Review of
The Lord’s Prayer —
A Guide to Praying to Our Father
Reviewed by Trent Crofts
I woke up from a nap earlier today, feeling quite safe and contented—only to find some fantastic furry creature lurking above my brow. Its prickly whiskers tickled my face as its lemon-yellow eyes came level with mine. Its maw opened wide, showing sharp fangs and a blood-red tongue. The creature let out a baleful “meow.” Thankfully, it was only my cat Mikah, who, when viewed right-side-up looks like a loveable, domesticated loaf of bread. But when viewed from upside down, all her wild lioness features are accentuated.
All great writers have the ability to take everyday elements of life and flip them upside down. To show the ordinary as extraordinary, to make the natural seem unnatural, and to change the familiar into the unsettling. This aptitude is all the more important in theological writing because it’s one thing to take for granted things like a walk in the woods, fresh baked bread, and even our pets, but it’s another thing entirely to take God for granted. To not experience every day as a gift from God not only denies Him glory, but also undermines our enjoyment of all the little things in life. And so it was my pleasure to find something so familiar like the Lord’s Prayer re-enchanted by the meditations Wesley Hill penned in The Lord’s Prayer — A Guide to Praying to Our Father.
I use the term meditations endearingly because, at roughly 100 pages, the strength of Hill’s book is not in its scope. One could read the book in a couple of hours—but only at one’s own loss. Instead, The Lord’s Prayer offers its readers an opportunity to slow down and ponder, to chew rather than chow-down. Hill takes something as rote as the “Our Father” and puts it in a new frame, namely the very life of Christ. Hill states in the introduction, “Above all, I want to show that the Lord’s Prayer is first and foremost about Jesus Himself. Each petition is not only His instruction to His followers about how they are to pray. More fundamentally, each petition is a window into Jesus’ own life of prayer—His reliance on and manifestation of the One He called Father” (4).
The structure and flow of the book are straightforward. Hill sets out to demonstrate his argument by going through each line of the prayer, clarifying the historical or theological issues along the way, and then grounding each aspect of the petition in the life of Christ. So we see that to call God “our Father” is to enter into a new reality, namely the familial relationship enjoyed by the Father and Son in the love of the Holy Spirit. This relationship takes on flesh in Jesus and becomes possible for us to experience through our union with him. In another section, Hill shows how asking “your kingdom come” means to look for the redemptive and healing characteristics of God’s reign, demonstrated in Jesus’ ministry of healing the sick and casting out demons. Furthermore, Jesus exemplifies what it means to ask “your will be done,” by giving himself over to the will of God, enacting the redemptive work of God through his own suffering—suffering that is representative of Christian life in this world. “Give us today our daily bread” underscores our nature as needy creatures while also reminding us of Jesus’ temptation in the desert, our paradigm of a life sustained by God. Ultimately, his death becomes our sustenance, our daily bread. Even as we pray for God to “save us from the time of trial,” we can take comfort in knowing that Jesus, who experienced the horrors of Gethsemane and Golgotha, has already gone through the ultimate trial on our behalf. And when we pray “and deliver us from evil,” we can remember that, despite present circumstances and experiences, Jesus has overcome the evil one through his death and resurrection and promises us a share in his victory.
Thus Hill presents the Lord’s Prayer as a portrait of the Gospel, shaped in the image of Jesus’ own life. By doing so, he follows a pattern of representation used throughout the Christian tradition known as figuration, where one image or thing points to another thing. For example, this is the logic of baptism, which takes us into Christ’s story, a visible sign that his death becomes our death and his life our life. Or consider the church calendar, where time itself figures the life of Christ. As I write this, the penitential season of Lent is underway, shaping our lives to Christ’s testing in the desert in preparation for Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday. Or consider St. Augustine’s teaching on interpreting Scripture through the lens of the Head and the Body, that is Christ and the Church. In reading something like Psalm 22, we can clearly see Jesus calling out to God in great distress, and yet because of the nature of the Head and the Body we may also read ourselves into Psalm 22 and hear ourselves crying out to the LORD. One may even think of Ignatian prayer, which involves imaginative exercises of not only being an observer of a gospel story but even imagining yourself as a participant. This strong foundation of tradition provides a bedrock for the chapel of prayer contained in The Lord’s Prayer. With Hill as our guide, what can often be a familiar list of requests becomes transfigured into the Gospel itself.
And while it might be greedy to ask a small book to provide more than an electrifying reading of a 2,000-year-old prayer, Hill is a generous author and does exactly that. The Spirit of the Lord’s Prayer might be the life of Christ, but the flesh of this Prayer is still a template of requests and acknowledgements directed to “Our Father.” Hill never loses sight of this dynamic and in fact forms a kind of frame or bookend by grounding the petitions in a Father-Son relationship. Beginning in chapter one, Hill emphasizes how addressing God as Father must always be connected to the love shared between Him and His Son. And at the end of the book, which I found the most striking of all, the author describes his own use of Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son as a vehicle to picture himself as a desperate son in need of the Father’s kindness. By doing so, Hill provides another image of what our prayer life might look like.
My priest recently referred to the Sunday on which Americans “spring forward” as Snoozy Sunday. For me a few weeks ago, this was a very apt description. I confess that I even nodded off during certain parts of the liturgy. But having just finished reading The Lord’s Prayer earlier in the week, I immediately found myself energized as we approached the “Our Father.” Jesus’ life began flashing before me, giving me hope that what I prayed for would be true—because it is already true in Christ. Something so familiar had become flipped into something so fantastic.