The Lord's Prayer Across Cultures: Ever Comforting, Ever Convicting
Mark R. Elliott
Editor's Note: The first half of this article was published in the previous issue of the East-West Church and Ministry Report 12 (Winter 2004), 9-10.
I met economist Alexander Zaichenko in 1990. Working with him on various projects, I have developed a deep respect for this dear brother in Christ. Alexander has shared with me the extraordinary role the Lord's Prayer played in his own path to faith. In Soviet times, he explains,
We had no chance to read the Bible. It was forbidden not only to read it, but even to search for it. I remember when I was a student I bought a rather rare collection of short stories by Tolstoy [see "The Wood Cutter"]. While reading it I unexpectedly came across a very strange combination of words and phrases. They were not only strange, but filled with vigorous power. And I decided to learn them by heart. And for many years I repeated them in the hard moments of my life. Only after 20 years did I manage to get a Bible, which was smuggled from the West by a friend. In the very next day of reading this strange book I again came across these wonderful verses. And I immediately recognized them as my "old friends," because I had learned them by heart many years before. It was the Lord's Prayer. Thanks to this, I remained with the Bible and met Christ as Lord and Savior. Later I realized that by some heavenly reason Communist censors didn't wipe this [prayer] from Tolstoy's book.
Over and over, Jesus' model prayer has proven to be a lifeline in the face of the extremities of life and death. Alexander Zaichenko puts it even more pragmatically: "I don't know how it is in the West, but here in Russia the Lord's Prayer is the most popular 'emergency prayer.'" Asking the Lord for daily bread is rarely an emergency prayer for believers in the West, but it is for many worldwide. This fourth petition, writes a missionary to Ukraine, "takes on a whole new meaning when you finally leave the U.S. and have to depend on supporters to send money so that you can live." In the same vein, a Russian seminary professor shares, "We do not receive our salary precisely on payment day, let alone workers of state factories, therefore we pray, 'Give us this day our daily bread.'"
Nazarene missionary to Russia Carla Sunberg shares that there have been times in recent years when "our elderly people only had tea and bread for many days. I think the entire concept of daily bread," she continues, "makes much more sense in this part of the world. Good bread is made without preservatives. It doesn't last long so we need it daily. Just as the manna in the wilderness could not be collected and stored up, our bread over here also cannot be stored up. We need it--every day--and we must go to our Father every day."
Carla Sunberg is exploring a theme that others have recognized as well, that the word "daily" can serve as a warning against amassing wealth and stockpiling material possessions. In the fourth century, St. Basil the Great explained his understanding of "daily" this way: "The bread that is spoiling in your house belongs to the hungry. The shoes that are mildewing under your bed belong to those who have none. The clothes stored away in your trunk belong to those who are naked."
Czech theologian Jan Lochman notes that in his native tongue one traditional term for "bread" also means "prayer before meals": "bozi dar", "God's gift." Lochman's point is that daily bread and gratitude to God should never be separated. Bread is needful, but so is gratitude for bread. Lochman says, "lack of gratitude" for daily bread helps explain our modern "madness of consumption and waste." Vladimir Dudintsev was able to assert publicly in 1956, in a momentary thaw in the Soviet cultural deep freeze, that man is more than a material being. The title for his novel, taken from Matthew 4:4, is stunning, given the dominance of Soviet atheism at the time: Not by Bread Alone.
The Lord's Prayer with Feet
The modern rap on the Lord's Prayer, indeed on prayer in general, is that it's passive. It can be, but it need not be. What we can say with confidence is that the Lord's Prayer can have feet. In 1989-91, we witnessed the televised spectacle of the collapse of Communism--from Prague to Warsaw to Bucharest to Moscow to Alma Aty. What stunning times those were, and not least for the role played by the Lord's Prayer in public protest. In Prague hundreds of thousands knelt in Wenceslas Square and prayed the Lord's Prayer in unison. Within days a Communist regime fell.
Thy Kingdom Come
And on Christmas Eve, 1989, in Timisoara, Romania, Baptist Pastor Peter Degulescu spoke to some 200,000 of his countrymen from the city's opera house balcony. This was the same vantage point Communist dictator Nikolai Ceausescu had used to address crowds on annual visits to the city. But on this occasion the story was radically different. Pastor Degulescu, who had been summoned by the crowd, declared, "For almost 45 years we have been told there is no God [but] I want to speak to you in the name of this God." For several minutes thousands upon thousands in the square below chanted, "There is a God. There is a God." Then Degulescu led the citizens of Timisoara in the Lord's Prayer. No one had told people to kneel, but all did. That Christmas Eve the people prayed, "Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." And the next day, Christmas, Ceausescu's hated regime collapsed and one of the twentieth century's most evil rulers paid with his life for his crimes. Romanian Emil Bartos remembers more than once in those heady days mass recitations of the "Our Father." "It is interesting," he notes, "that the entire country knew how to pray the Lord's Prayer, although [Romania] was called an atheist country." Karl Barth once said, "To fold one's hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world."
A Call to Family and Community
This powerful prayer is not only a call to faith and a call to justice, it's also a call to family and community: the first two words, "Our Father," say so much. When I asked my friends worldwide if they could share any especially meaningful times of worship involving the Lord's Prayer, Bill Vermillion, missionary and acting dean of the Moscow Evangelical Theological Seminary in Moscow, wrote back, "Yes. At chapel one of the students used this as the text for his message. Then at the conclusion of his sermon, we prayed line by line. Several students had tears in their eyes as they reaffirmed the Father's care. This was especially meaningful since two-thirds of our students have no father figure and one-third never knew their father." But in the Lord's Prayer we not only have sonship, we have brotherhood. As early as the third century, Cyprian made the same argument from North Africa before his martyrdom: "The Teacher of peace and Master of unity would not have man pray singly." We don't pray "'my' father;" we pray "'Our' Father." We don't pray: "Give 'me my' daily bread;" we pray "Give 'us our' daily bread." We don't pray "Forgive 'me my' sins;" we pray "Forgive 'us our' sins." We don't pray "Lead 'me' not into temptation" and "deliver 'me' from evil;" we pray "Lead 'us' not into temptation" and "deliver 'us' from evil." We are such slow learners. I guess that's why we are bombarded with so many plural pronouns--to make sure we get it, that the Lord's Prayer is a call to community and family.
Self Absorption, the Mother of All Sins
Not long ago missionary Mary Raber discovered a devotional gold mine in a bookshop in Lviv, Ukraine: "Molitva Gospodnya" ["The Lord's Prayer"], published in 1996 but written many years before by Metropolitan Veniamin of Pskov. "Until recently this study was just a typewritten manuscript in a monk's cell." But now Mary Raber shares this treasure with us. Metropolitan Veniamin wounds our egos as, like Cyprian, he probes the difference between "me" and "us". He writes,
We must remember that God does not love me alone: He is not only my Father, but Father of us all....We modern people have become so egotistical, so in love with ourselves that we don't even think about praying for everyone. Each one lives by himself and for himself. This self-absorption is the greatest evil in the world. Everything comes from that. By that sin the first angel fell. It is the mother of all other sins. But that's not the way it was. And it's not the way it should be, or the way it will be in the Kingdom of God.
May the Lord forgive us for those many times when our prayers on our knees have not been our prayers on our feet.
Mark R. Elliott is editor of the East-West Church & Ministry Report.
Mark R. Elliott, "The Lord's Prayer Across Cultures: Ever Comforting, Ever Convicting," East-West Church & Ministry Report 12 (Spring 2004), 16, 15.
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