I’ve been back from Ireland for a week and it has taken me that long to get back in the rhythm of the life I know. I preached on Sunday but am just now posting my sermon; my newsletter for the week will follow shortly.

I am starting a summer sermon series on the Lord’s Prayer, looking at it phrase by phrase. I began this week by looking at what it means to pray and why ritual (meaningful repetition) matters. My Ireland connection was the Red L that marks a learner’s permit for a new driver.


If you were wondering if I was going to tell any stories about my time in Ireland, let me answer that question by starting my sermon with one—and I am quite sure it will not be the last as we work our way through the summer.

Last week the group who gathered for the Peace Retreat visited the Clonard Monastery in West Belfast, which is the Catholic section of the city. We had eaten lunch at St. Christopher’s Larder, a small congregation that houses a food pantry in East Belfast, which is the Protestant neighborhood. As we crossed through the city center to get from one to the other, Gareth Higgins, one of the leaders of the retreat, commented that we were making a journey no one in Belfast makes. The two worlds stay quite separated.

Clonard Monastery is significant for many reasons, but one near the top of the list is that the Good Friday Agreement that ended the sectarian violence in Northern Island was signed there in Parlor #4, which is a rather innocuous meeting room made famous only because of what happened there. We got to stand around the table, but more importantly we got to hear from a couple of people who have given their lives to waging peace where they live.

One of those was a man named Ed who has worked at Clonard for over twenty years. He is not a priest and he was not a part of the Good Friday negotiations; he came to Clonard soon after. This summer marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of its signing. Ed talked to us about his vocation and his faith. At one point, he held up a white piece of paper with a red “L” (like this one) and told us it was what you had to tape to your car window when you got your learning permit to drive so people could identify you.

Then he said, “When it comes to faith, we should all wear red Ls because we are always learning more about what it means to be a Christian.”

As he was speaking, I made a few quick notes on my phone because it was the image I had been looking for as I thought about today and the weeks ahead as we look at prayer through the lens of what we have come to call “The Lord’s Prayer.”

It is one of the few things that many people who have attended church can recite from memory, though we publish the words each week in case someone isn’t that familiar. Though I think most of us assume there is a standardized version, those who learned it in Catholic worship did not learn the ending lines about the kingdom and the glory—and they know the prayer, mostly, as the “Our Father”—and the Episcopalians add an extra “and ever” where most Protestants settle for just “forever.” Then, of course, there is the whole debts, sins, and trespasses discussion, which can turn into a sort of Red Sox-Yankees divide if we aren’t careful.

The heart of the words said in most congregations goes back to the translation authorized by King James I of England in 1611, just five hundred years ago. If we were to count up how many times we have said the prayer, it would number in the tens of thousands, I’m sure. The words are familiar. They ground us in a way; they make it feel like real worship because we said them. They offer familiar comfort in their persistent presence.

But what if we were to pray them—and think about them—not as words we know by heart or that have to be said a certain way, but as words we want to learn from? What if we approached the prayer the way a new driver approaches an intersection, wearing a Big Red L and open to learning new things about streets we may think we knew well?

The version of the prayer we read this morning (and that we say every week) is from Matthew’s gospel, where it is a part of the Sermon on the Mount. As we saw, it sits in the middle of a whole section on prayer as honest conversation with God rather than a means to other ends. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus’ offering of the prayer is a response to a request from the disciples: teach us to pray. Even Jesus might have repeated the words, it seems.

Over the next few weeks, we will discover—or remember—this short prayer offers much to think about; yet the biggest question it raises, perhaps, is what happens when we pray?

If there is a question that leaves most all of us feeling like learners, that may be it: what happens when we pray? Some think we pray to find God’s will for a situation, which leads to a whole other theological discussion. Some of our situational prayers are for healing, wisdom, comfort, even hope. We pray for one another, even when those for whom we pray can’t hear us or may not even know we prayed. I prayed for you every day I was away, for example, even though I don’t have a grasp what that meant to your lives. I know what it came to mean to me. Lastly, we repeat these words—this prayer—week after week, yet I wonder how often we think of it as a real prayer instead of a ritual.

Over the next six or seven Sundays, as we look at the prayer phrase by phrase, I am going to leave the red L hanging on the pulpit to remind us we don’t have it figured out. I hope the little red letter gives us the freedom to see beyond our familiarity and focus on how we talk to God and how God responds.

Being a learner is risky business because sometimes we don’t know what we don’t know. Then again, faith is risky business, too, because the God we trust is larger than our knowledge and our imaginations. But, to paraphrase C. S. Lewis, one of Belfast’s finest, when we grow God gets bigger.

Come, let us learn together. Amen.


  1. Thank you for your words of wisdom, Milton. The Spirited Sisters of All Saints’ – Fort Worth will soon be reading KEEPING THE FEAST!

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