Lost in translation

Texts: “If it be You Will” by Leonard Cohen * Mark 14:32-42 (Jesus prays in Gethsemane)

Sunday mornings at Mill Woods United have some elements that are traditional and others that are new, and I hope you appreciate both. We may find comfort in hearing stories from the Bible that we know well while also appreciating the use of non-biblical sources of inspiration, such as the lyrics of a 1984 Leonard Cohen Song “If It Be Your Will” that Darlene read today ahead of the Gospel reading.

We may be happy when the choir sings a familiar anthem, and also when it presents something different. We may be OK that the chairs are set up in a similar fashion most weeks, and also be intrigued if they are in another configuration, which might indicate a different kind of spiritual experience.

Perhaps you appreciate the pattern of prayers I present while also liking it when we try prayer in motion, or guided meditation, or another kind of prayer experience that is new to you.

One of the traditional parts of our Sunday services is a weekly recitation of “The Lord’s Prayer.” There has only been one Sunday over the last six years when we didn’t read or sing The Lord’s Prayer. On that occasion, I substituted the United Church of Canada Creed in the place where The Lord’s Prayer would normally have been found, and several people told me they noticed its absence.

This is not to say that our weekly recital of The Lord’s Prayer – which is also known as “The Our Father” and “The Prayer That Jesus Taught Us” – is static. As I mentioned in the first of the four Sundays focused on this prayer on January 12, for many years the people of Mill Woods United have said “Our Father, Our Mother” to begin the prayer instead of the traditional English translation, “Our Father Who Art In Heaven.”

Sometimes we sing Wendy Edey’s version of the prayer. Other times we sing a more “Roman Catholic” inflected version of the prayer from Voices United. And for the last two years, we have recited alternate translations of this prayer on many Sundays as part of our effort to become a more expansive community of faith.

Today as I conclude a series of four Sundays on “The Lord’s Prayer,” I reflect on the challenges of translating this ancient prayer and wonder what might be lost and gained in translation.

The Gospel passage we heard today is usually only read in Holy Week. In it,  Jesus is praying in the Garden of Gethsemane after the Last Supper and before he is arrested. I chose it because John Crossan in his book “The Greatest Prayer: Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message of The Lord’s Prayer” argues that Jesus’ brief prayer from that night – “Abba, you have the power to do all things. Take this cup away from me. But let it be not my will, but your will”– is The Lord’s Prayer in miniature.  In it, Jesus addresses God as “Father.” He asks for mercy (“take this cup away from me.”). And he prays that God’s will and not his be done.

This prayer from Gethsemane brought to my mind the late Canadian poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen’s 1984 song “If it be Your Will.” Like many of his songs and poems, “If it be Your Will” echoes strongly with the gospels in general and with today’s passage from Mark in particular. These echoes are there even though Cohen was born into a Jewish family and he often followed a Buddhist path.

When I did a search on Cohen and prayer, I found the quote projected on the screen behind me – “Prayer is translation. An adult translates himself into a child who asks for all there is in a language he has barely mastered.”

I am intrigued by the quote. It reminds me of how strange a practice prayer can seem; and how, in its stance of humility and dependence, prayer might remind of us childhood. This is not to suggest that we need to give up prayer once we reach adulthood. Instead, I hope that in adulthood we will find ourselves in what French philosopher Paul Ricœur called a state of second naïveté.

In Ricœur’s thinking, children are naïve of necessity. When we are kids, we believe pretty much whatever our parents tell us, whether this be about Santa Claus, politics, or God.

But after childhood, we often become skeptics. We abandon a literal belief in Santa, figure out our own political preferences, and sometimes lose our faith in God.

Ricoeur says that many of us then stumble into a second naïveté. This second naïve stage doesn’t negate our adolescent skepticism. It incorporates it into a renewed faith. For example, in adulthood, we may find a renewed affection for Santa as in the essay I reflected upon this past Christmas Eve, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.” As adults, we may gain a deeper appreciation of our parent’s political leanings without necessarily following them. And as adults, we may make a new commitment to the Divine, to the Sacred, or to God, but with an image of God that is different from the one we received as children.

In the prayer that Jesus prays in the Garden on the night before his execution; in Leonard Cohen’s song from 1984; and in The Lord’s Prayer, we hear encouragement to elevate God’s will over our human wills. But what does “God’s will” mean? As children, we might have thought of it as nothing more than the will of our parents or another authority figure.

But in adulthood, the phrase “God’s will” might remind us of our dependence upon cosmic and cultural forces that are far beyond us. While our skeptical minds might no longer accept the word God as one that refers to a Santa Claus-like judge who knows if we’ve been naughty or nice, we might nevertheless find ourselves entering a state of wonder, humility and reverence. And in this second state of naïveté,  we might hear the phrase “God’s will” as an acceptance of the flow of life and the smallness of our egos in the face of this flow . . .

Today, as we did three weeks ago, the paraphrase of The Lord’s Prayer that we will recite  at the end of The Prayers of the People is my own.

In the place of “Our Father, who art in heaven” I wrote “Source of Life and in-dwelling Spirit.” This changes the image of God from that of a person-like Being into something more abstract. It also reminds us that “heaven” is both that which transcends our small egos, and that which flickers inside us as The Risen Christ.

“Hallowed be your name” becomes “May we respect all life as sacred.” “Your kingdom come and your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” becomes “May a commonwealth of love arise among us and encourage us to unite with all people in justice and peace.”

“Give us our daily bread and forgive us our debts as we have forgiven our debtors” becomes “May hunger disappear from the earth and may those burdened by oppression find release.” Instead of being a series of requests, the second part of the prayer becomes a series of statements of intention and hope.

“Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” becomes “May the forces of evil yield to the Spirit of Love.”

“For yours is the power and the glory forever” becomes “For Love is our source, our calling, and our sure destiny both now and always.”

I don’t see this paraphrase as an ultimate version of The Lord’s Prayer. Nor do I imagine it will frequently be a part of our services. Instead, I view it, and the many other paraphrases of this ancient Greek prayer, as a way to seek renewal in our prayer life despite no longer being children and despite our skepticism about so many aspects of our traditions.

Tradition has its place, and in ecumenical settings as in the three seniors’ home where I lead worship once every month, I always recite a traditional English translation of The Lord’s Prayer. But in other contexts, tradition can become a stumbling block.

Last Sunday, Kim and I worshipped in an Anglican church in Puerto Vallarta, which was the same English-language congregation we had visited last February. We appreciated being there especially because of a conversation we had with a retired Lutheran pastor and his wife from Minnesota. But I felt smothered by the traditionalism of the service.

It included numerous prayers lifted from an Anglican prayer book. All four Bible readings suggested by the Revised Common Lectionary for February 16 were read. The Nicene Creed from the year 325 was recited. Communion was celebrated. Fancy vestments, eighteenth and nineteenth century hymns, and bowing before the Bible were all present and accounted for. I suppose the nature of the service might have been a comfort to many in the congregation. But I would not enjoy fitting into this traditional order every week.

Perhaps you feel something similar with Sunday mornings here at Mill Woods United. I recognize that I rely upon repetition in the order of service both to make the work manageable and because I find comfort in a flow of energy and spirit that is similar from week to week.

But if you are finding things a little stale here, I have good news. Over the six Sundays in Lent, we are going to offer different forms of worship. Next week on March 1, we will celebrate communion and provide space for sharing our thoughts on Lent and communion. On March 8, I will reflect on one of the movies several us saw last night, “Parasite” from South Korea. On March 15, we will be adapting worship materials designed by Affirm United that focus on how we might become more inclusive of people of all cultural backgrounds. On March 22, I hope we will have a service focused on Indigenous spirituality. On March 29, we will have a meditative service inspired by an ecumenical community in Taize France. On April 5, we will experience Palm/Passion Sunday by singing through the communion prayers.

My hope is that these six Sunday spiritual gatherings will open our hearts and minds to more of the many ways in which sacred values can be upheld and in which the Spirit of Love we call God can be experienced.

As for The Lord’s Prayer, I hope that regardless of the translation used when we sing or recite it,  we might approach it as though we were children asking for everything in a language we have barely mastered; and with an adult realization that this is more than sufficient to our needs in this awesome, sacred, and loving cosmos.

Thanks be to God. Amen.