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Praying with Strange Words

by Greg Welin

Perhaps our most familiar prayer is the Lord’s Prayer, but even as I write this, I have to ask, “which version?” This comes up at funerals when we all begin together and fumble a bit when we don’t all remember the same ending. I also have had the experience of worshipping in communities where people speak another language. Other cultures are not as careful to speak in the same cadence – people pray as slowly or as quickly as they want, and not everyone ends together.

For many years, I have been part of a class at Hartford Seminary where we translate the New Testament from ancient Greek. For a time, we had a teacher who would begin the class by having us recite the Lord’s Prayer from the Gospel of Matthew in Greek. I cannot claim to know Greek that well, and there is some question about using modern pronunciation with an ancient version of Greek, but I began to remember phrases and patterns that helped the ancient prayer become my prayer.

In my church, when we celebrate the Feast of Pentecost, we will have a printed sheet with the Lord’s Prayer in many languages. We are remembering the day when the Holy Spirit inspired the disciples to speak the good news in many languages. People are encouraged to pray in any language they can read. Unlike our usual, evenly paced recitation, there will be a great confusion of noise. We will likely feel uneasy. No one wants to be the last to finish and have their poor reading heard by others. Who’s to say that we ever really know what we are saying anyway, even when we speak in our native language? Do we really believe what we ask? Do we really expect God to hear?

It is not the cadence, or the version, or our understanding that makes the prayer. The words of Jesus are a pattern and a promise. Jesus gives us a gift of words not our own. Jesus gives us way to connect with God without needing to be clever or perfect. We don’t have to know Jesus’ words in Aramaic (or Greek.) We are invited to ask and trust, and nothing more. There is no deeper secret than that.

Our Father in heaven,
    hallowed be your Name,
    your kingdom come,
    your will be done,
        on earth as in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins
    as we forgive those
        who sin against us.
Save us from the time of trial,
    and deliver us from evil.
For the kingdom, the power,
    and the glory are yours,
    now and for ever. Amen. – from the Book of Common Prayer

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