Updating the Lord’s Prayer

About a year ago, Pope Francis stirred up some controversy. I’m not talking about when he thought about reconsidering the prohibition on granting communion to the divorced and remarried or when he talked about climate change and economic inequality or when he said, “Who am I to judge?” when asked about gay people.

No. A year ago, he said that the phrase “Lead us not into temptation” from the Lord’s Prayer was not a good translation of the ancient texts. He said, “God does not lead us into temptation”. Pope Francis argued that “do not let us fall into temptation” would be a better translation.

French Catholics adopted this linguistic change but others were quite angry with the pope. The editor of a conservative Catholic website said that while what Pope Francis says is not unreasonable it is still very upsetting because the Lord’s Prayer is so deeply ingrained. “It just makes you wonder, where does it stop? What’s up for grabs?”

Please don’t think I am picking on Catholics or conservative Christians. We all have a hard time changing, especially those things that bring us comfort or carry nostalgia. I was in the Chicago area last weekend to attend Mission and Ministry Board meetings. I talked to a man who hadn’t been to the denominational offices for a decade. Everything looked so different. The way things operate now felt foreign. The change was hard and he found it hard to settle into the meetings.

I felt that same dismay when I learned that cursive is not an integral part of education anymore. I do get it on a rational level. Things change and education has to adapt to the change. We don’t need people to become steamboat captains. We need people who can master social media. We don’t need people to make change in their heads or know how to read a map. Things change and people and institutions have to adapt.

But it appears that people especially hate change when it comes to their religion. Thus when Pope Francis says we may have translated Jesus wrong in our most beloved prayer, people feel unbalanced. It doesn’t matter that there isn’t unified wording around the Lord’s Prayer. After all, there are two versions of it in the New Testament. Plus, those last two lines, “For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever. Amen” aren’t scriptural. They were added by some well-intentioned church person who felt like we shouldn’t end this prayer with sin. Then there is the whole issue of translations and traditions. Some say “debts/debtors”. Some say “trespasses and those who trespass against us”. Others say “sins and those who sin against us”.

Traditions have different ways of saying the Lord’s Prayer and we all want it said the way we learned it…the way it comforts us. Therefore, Pope Francis stirred up the hornets’ nest by suggesting something different. And what usually happens when someone tries to move us to a new understanding, we fuss over the words rather than hear the deeper meaning.

Pope Francis wasn’t trying to take away something of comfort for his fellow Catholics. He was saying something important about temptation and God’s role in it. He wanted them to grasp something deeper about God.

Temptation is more than a concept. It is a reality. None of us can avoid temptation. It will find us, just as it found Jesus. No one is exempt from temptation. We humans can be tempted by just about anything. The desert fathers of the fourth century tried to create some order around our temptations and came up with the list of the seven deadly sins: pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth.

In 2013, the Barna Group, a research institute, did a study of American adults concerning temptation. Here is what we Americans reported as our temptations:
• Spending too much time on media
• “Going off” on someone via text or email
• Eating too much
• Spending too much money
• Gossiping
• Feeling jealous
• Viewing pornography
• Lying or cheating
• Abusing alcohol or drugs
• Being sexually inappropriate
• Procrastinating
• Worrying
• Being lazy

Temptation is real and while some of what tempts us is good for us, too much of a good thing can harm us. What Pope Francis was trying to get to was “What is it that causes us to succumb to temptation?” The words from the traditional Lord’s Prayer, “Lead us not into temptation,” makes it sound like God takes our hand and walks us right into the lion’s den. Some people believe in a god like that who is constantly testing us. Perhaps that idea originates from the wording in the English translation of the Lord’s Prayer. But Pope Francis says, “God doesn’t need to lead us to temptation, we fall in all by ourselves.”

I do believe that is true. God created us with freedom to make decisions. God didn’t create us as robots to merely take commands and be at the beck and call of our master. No. We are free individuals and freedom makes our temptations real. And freedom is dangerous…..and fun.

The reason we fall into temptation can be traced right to the brain. Let’s take the example of ice cream, since many of us in the sanctuary love our ice cream. Every time we eat ice cream we teach our brain that this is an action we enjoy – something to replicate. If we only eat ice cream on rare occasions our brain doesn’t take too much stock in it. However, if we frequently repeat the action of eating ice cream, our brain increases the craving. The urge to eat ice cream becomes a drum playing a steady beat in our brains: “Ice cream, ice cream, ice cream. I have to have more ice cream.” Pretty soon we are craving ice cream night and day. What we feed is what we crave. Feed that craving more and the temptation increases exponentially.

Now some might say that God, the creator made us with brains like this to test us. I don’t believe God is like that. Look at this from an evolutionary perspective — our brains formed this way to keep us alive….to keep us eating, staying warm, procreating.

Half of the people surveyed by the Barna Group reported that they have no idea why they are tempted by these things, which makes sense. But most Americans (59%) say they don’t do anything to avoid their temptations. Instead we play all kinds of mind games to convince ourselves that our surrender to temptation is justified.

In a press conference in 2010, Tiger Woods said:
I knew my actions were wrong, but I convinced myself that normal rules didn’t apply. I never thought about who I was hurting. Instead, I thought only about myself. I ran straight through the boundaries that a married couple should live by. I thought I could get away with whatever I wanted to. I felt that I had worked hard my entire life and deserved to enjoy all the temptations around me. I felt I was entitled.

59% of us have decided that we don’t want to do anything about the things that tempt us. We have probably convinced ourselves that somehow we deserve to watch too much TV or eat ice cream whenever the mood strikes or lash out at someone via social media.

Now for those 41% who want to resist that which tempts them, there are some techniques you can use. The book You Are Not Your Brain suggests four steps. 1. Relabel it. Notice what tempts you. Think, “Oh, there is that voice in my brain singing “ice cream”. 2. Reframe. Say to yourself, “That is my brain talking, not me.” 3. Refocus and choose to do something different. If you are hungry you can choose to eat something healthy. If you are just bored you can take a walk or call a friend. 4. Revalue the experience. “That is the feeling of craving and that craving does not define me.”

But what the Barna Group found to be the number one thing people reported as their coping mechanism for temptation was prayer. Which leads us right back to the prayer Jesus taught his disciples. “Let us not fall into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” “Thank you God for making me free….now help me walk away from this temptation to cheat on my marriage….binge eat….spend money I don’t have….drink too much.”

Jesus knew what he was doing when he said to his disciples, “Let me give you an example of how to pray. I don’t think he was suggesting that it was the only prayer they should pray or that they should never change it. Jesus was saying, “Prayer is your friend. Here is an example of how to talk to God. See God as the one who loves you like a good parent does. Glorify God. Seek God’s will to be done here on earth. You don’t need to be rich. Don’t ask for what you don’t need. You only need what will get your through this day. Forgive and be forgiven. And when temptations come and evil seems to be winning, reorient yourself back to seeking the mind and heart of God.”

There is no magical formula in saying the Lord’s Prayer….but there is deep truth in it. And just as important is this truth…when you pray the Lord’s Prayer or any prayer you have chosen, in your freedom, to refocus yourself on God and God’s direction. You have pivoted your life towards God. In that simple act, you have reminded yourself who and whose you are. Amen.