Cracking open the pomegranate of prayer

NT Wright The Lord and his prayer (SPCK/Triangle/Eerdmans/Forward Movement, 1996).


Reviewed by Gideon Strauss


To give spine to the uninspired flabbiness of my morning devotions I follow the liturgy of the Daily Prayer edition of the Book of Common Worship of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Cumberland Presbyterian Church (Westminster / John Knox Press, 1993).


Toward the conclusion of Morning Prayer, this liturgy includes the Lord's Prayer.


Habit  -  the sediment of perfunctory public school religious instruction, sanctimonious catechism, and sermons marked by either tedium and torpor or misguided agitation  -  has turned this prayer, in my experience, into a dull, mould-mottled fruit.


In my devotional reading I recently turned, however, to NT Wright's The Lord and his prayer. This slim volume (89 pages) for me broke open this prayer like a pomegranate, revealing its brilliant blood-red, many faceted meat.


NT Wright is one of the pre-eminent biblical scholars of his generation. In this book his erudition functions, however, like the craft in Matisse's paper cut-outs or in Rembrandt's pen and ink sketches: not as a decoration or obtrusion, but as a quiet inner shape and support.


In a manner appropriate to their nature, Wright does not in these pastoral reflections allow us to linger in a state of meditative reverie. Within sentences of the beginning of the book he throws his topic like a steak upon the griddle, and its sizzle snaps us to attention (pages 1-2):


"Jesus' message summons us to focus our thoughts on the coming of the Kingdom of God.  [. . . ]  [The Lord's Prayer] cries out for justice, bread, forgiveness and deliverance. If anyone thinks those are irrelevant in today's world, let them read the newspaper and think again.  [. . .]   This prayer sums up fully and accurately . . . the way in which [Jesus] understood his own vocation and mission and invited his followers to share it."


Then Wright bids us take this meat and eat. Having succinctly introduced his topic in terms of the difficulty - yet necessity - of prayer (pages 4-9), Wright treats each of the six utterances of the Lord's Prayer in the manner we have come to expect of competent reader-preachers of the Bible: sound exegesis of what the text says, followed by apt application of its meaning to our lives. Wright exceeds our expectations, however, with his incisive depth of insight, his lucid brevity of statement, and the breath-taking expansiveness of application on which he insists for his text.


For Wright, the Lord's Prayer fills the horizon. It embraces the whole of the sky. There is nothing upon which it does not touch. It is a manifesto of revolution: it would change the world - all of it, entirely, now. It contains a message of hope (page 15), it announces "something that actually happens, within the space-time world" (page 27), it cries out for "the blessing of the coming kingdom - right now" (page 41).


Shaken awake to the absolute, extravagant claims of the Lord's Prayer, I am aghast at the habituated perversity in our rote mumbling of this prayer: oblivious to its radical declamations, dismissive of its radical demands.


If we in dependence cry out to God as "Father," how can we remain so unmoved by the tyranny and pain in this world (page 19)? If we dare pray "kingdom come," how can we fail so relentlessly in looking at the whole world "with the love of the creator for his spectacularly beautiful creation," "with the deep grief of the creator for the battered and battle-scarred state in which the world now finds itself" (page 31)?  If we insist on the outrageous demand for "daily bread," how dare we not rush into the company of famine and despair with such crumbs as fall into our hands (pages 45-46)?


To summarise in review a book this brief, this striking, would be to violently steal from the reader the vital shock of an own encounter. Let me conclude by again commending The Lord and his prayer in terms of my own experience: not only did NT Wright in this book dust off and crack open the Lord's Prayer to my nurture and delight - he returned a true zeal and vigour to my entire practice of prayer, and to my prayerful practice of everyday faithfulness.


The Big Picture Volume 1 Lent 1999 page 28