How Shall We Pray? A reflection on the Lord's Prayer


Adapted from a July 28 sermon at the Chapel of St. James the Fisherman, Wellfleet, MA


The apostle Paul invites us to “pray without ceasing.” Good idea, but how? How shall we pray? Our patron James and his fishing buddies asked Jesus that very question; and Jesus, in turn, taught them to pray what we have come to call the Lord’s Prayer.

Last Sunday, we celebrated the Feast of St. James the Fisherman, taking a deep look at the Lord’s Prayer. But first, I asked the question: What is prayer?

I don’t know about you, but my prayers are usually fairly simple. They often start with “Thank you God,” and then I move on to words like: please, help, heal, give, strengthen, and protect. My prayers frequently include the line: “I’m sorry.” Sometimes, I offer up really profound phrases like: “I’m confused or lost, and I need guidance,” or “I’m tired, frustrated, or hurt, and I need comfort.” Sometimes, like Jacob, I wrestle with God; other times, like Moses, I complain to God; and once in a while, like Abraham, I bargain with God. And yes, there are times, when like Martha, I give God a piece of my mind.

Many of my prayers (and I bet yours, as well) are mundane versions of asking, seeking, and knocking. We come to God as beggars, asking for help and support; we approach God as seekers, looking for answers and advice; and sometimes, we knock on God’s door, in need of hospitality and companionship. These three words – ask, seek, and knock – are really the essence of the prayer that Jesus taught our patron James and the other disciples when they asked him, “Teach us to pray.”

Biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan describes The Lord’s Prayer as both Christianity’s “greatest and strangest prayer . . . a revolutionary manifesto and a hymn of hope.” He writes, “It is a prayer from the heart of Judaism on the lips of Christianity for the conscience of the world.”

In the words of Frederick Buechner, “We are asking God to be God; [and] we are asking God to do not what we want, but what God wants.” We also are praying that we might align our will with God’s will. Ironically, as Aldous Huxley once observed, “This third clause of the Lord’s Prayer is repeated daily by millions who have not the slightest intention of letting any will be done except their own.” Is that true for you and me?

When we pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” we’re looking to God to both “keep us alive with three square meals” and sustain us in our spiritual journey. In using the first person plural, we also pray that everybody else have enough. Thus, when uttering these words, we’re invited to consider what nourishment or help we actually need, and what we’re doing to provide for the needs of others.


As we pray “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us,” we are called to recognize our daily need for repentance and forgiveness. We also ask that we might be merciful as God is merciful. Whether we choose the word “sin,” “debt,” or “trespass,” this petition exemplifies Jesus’ new commandment of mutual love, perhaps even suggesting that we are forgiven only so much as we are able to forgive. Therefore, when praying the Lord’s Prayer, we should ask ourselves: What do I need forgiven? For what do I need to forgive others? Or, on whose door do I need to knock?

As we pray the final petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “save us from the time of trial,” or “lead us not into temptation,” we seek God’s companionship that we might remain alert during the challenging times of our lives. In doing so, we are not asking that we might be spared difficulties. Rather, we’re calling upon the love of God to abide with us and to give us strength so that we might pass through such testing, trials, and temptations with perseverance and without abandoning the core of who God has called us to be.

Beginning with James and his fishing buddies, this simple and short prayer has encouraged, comforted, and challenged believers and non-believers throughout the ages. It has been recited in churches, catacombs, colosseums, camps, and on crosses. It has been spoken, sung, chanted, and translated from the original Aramaic into thousands of languages. Over the millennia, the Lord’s Prayer has been faithfully adapted and edited in efforts to be understood in as human language evolves.

However we translate it, when we pray the prayer that Jesus taught, we ask that God will do the seemingly impossible – make the ordinary holy, make the reign of divine justice and peace a reality, lift up the voices of the oppressed, provide whatever is needed in the moment, forgive those who need to be forgiven (including ourselves), and save us all from the time of trial and temptation.


With each passing day, my prayer life becomes increasingly important to my spiritual well being, and as my Frontotemporal Degeneration advances, my conversation with God is becoming increasingly quiet. I joke that I can finally go on a silent retreat. As words diminish, much of my daily prayer is now expressed through movement and music.

The familiar prayers of my childhood are my favorites, and at bedtime, I still find myself praying, “Now I lay me down to sleep. . . .” Every morning, I sing the Shema (“Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one”), for it keeps me connected to my Jewish heritage. I love the prayer of St. Francis, but I’ve lost the ability to recite it from memory. I take comfort in Thomas Merton’s prayer that begins “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end,” but I can’t remember the rest of it.

I also love the prayers of praise in our hymnal and those embedded in the music of Taize. I even like some of the psalms, including the contemporary ones of Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Joan Osborne, and the Airborne Toxic Event.

When I get anxious (which is a major symptom of early-stage dementia), I repeat the prayer mantra: “Be still and know that I am God, and I am here with you.”

But for me, the Lord’s Prayer remains the center of my prayer life. I say it, not once, but many times a day. I recite it upon waking up in the morning and falling asleep at night. I say it while swimming, walking, biking, holding a yoga pose, sitting in traffic, and watering my garden. And it is the prayer I pray most with other people.

The more I pray the Lord’s Prayer, the more confident I become that God’s will can be done on earth as in heaven if we all bend our ears, hearts, and minds to God’s way. And saying it has changed my life and my heart. In fact, every time I pray it, I go deeper into the mystery that is God.

Jodi Picoult, in her 2008 novel entitled, Change of Heart, made this observation about the Lord’s Prayer: “Before I realized what I was doing, my own mouth had started to form the words, a muscle memory. And to my surprise, instead of it feeling false or forced, it made me relieved, as if I had just passed the baton to someone else…It felt like putting on flannel pajamas on a snowy night; like turning on your blinker for the exit that you know will take you home.“

That’s how I feel when I pray these words. They come from a muscle memory deep inside, they signal my way home, and I am confident that they will remain with me, even when my ability to speak is gone. Then, in the stillness and silence of my heart, I will pray: “My God in heaven, holy be your name,”

This morning, I encourage you to “pray without ceasing.” And when you’re not sure how or what to pray, I suggest you try the Lord’s Prayer. In the end, it’s as good as it gets.


Welcoming the Stranger, Jesus Style


When Jesus sent 70 disciples on their first evangelical mission, His instructions were specific and clear:  Approach the world with innocent, gentle and trusting grace, as if it’s a friendly universe – even though you will meet those who reject and wish you harm.  Do not allow possessions or pretenses to get in your way. Trust God to provide what you need. There’s an urgency to this mission, so don’t get sidetracked, diverted or distracted, but go where you are sent.  When you get to your assigned location, knock on the door, and bid “shalom” to its occupants.  

Shalom is a wonderful Hebrew word - far more than a friendly greeting.  Shalom is a biblical vision of a world with a place of welcome for everybody and enough food and shelter to go around.  Shalom is God’s dream for a world where there is no disease, where there are no prisons,  no violence, no oppression, no war. Shalom is a commonwealth where everybody gets to enjoy Sabbath rest, including those who put food on our table, make clothes for our bodies, and clean up our mess.  Shalom is the divine hope for human beings to live together as sisters and brothers of the one God whom we call by many names and to whom we come by many routes.  Shalom is God’s realm where peace, justice and kindness reign.  As commonplace a Hebrew greeting as it is, to bid shalom with intentionality is to wish the very best for the one you greet.

 Jesus instructs his disciples, if welcomed,  to eat whatever is offered and to not look for better accommodations.  In other words, they are to be good guests. After receiving the hospitality of strangers, Jesus’ followers are to proclaim in word and deed the kingdom of God - wholeness of body, healing of spirit, and peace for the household and their community.

 Idealistic but not naive, Jesus prepares his followers for rejection: “Whenever they do not welcome you, shake the dust off your feet and move on.”  As Michael Ondaatje observed in his 2018 novel, Warlight,  you “can learn as much from those who bar the door as from those who let [you] in.” 

After cautioning his disciples about the inevitability of rejection, Jesus says, “On that day it will be more tolerable for Sodom than for that town.”  To be clear, the residents of Sodom were punished not because of homosexuality, but because of their inhospitality and lack of compassion and regard for the stranger.  Jesus concludes by reminding the disciples that "Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me" (Luke 10:16).

Thus,  we learn of Jesus’ idea of mission and hospitality.  Ambassadors for Christ, including you and I, are simply to be ourselves.  Evangelism Jesus-style does not involve great techniques of salesmanship. There are no special tools or gimmicks, no formula and or sales pitches for success.  Jesus’ disciples are commissioned to just be gracious, genuine people, sharing in both word and action the love of God. Jesus’ concept of hospitality is simple and clear: if you are the host, welcome the stranger, offering food, drink, shelter, attention, and protection; if you are the guest, receive what is offered with gratitude and thanksgiving.

Imagine being one of those first disciples.  Can you see yourself leaving home and going on such a mission?  Can you even talk to your next door neighbor, friend, or co-worker about the good news of Jesus or the realm of God?  Or imagine receiving one of those disciples in your home. Would you offer hospitality to a stranger who comes in the name of Christ?  It’s one thing to hear the Gospel proclaimed on a Sunday morning. It’s another to actually live the Gospel on Monday morning.

In light of what’s happening on the US-Mexican border, let’s think about Jesus’ instructions from the perspective of an immigrant seeking entry into the United States.  

Like a loving parent concerned for a child, Jesus says to those who are leaving home and coming to America:  “On your way! Go in search of a better life. But be careful—it’s a dangerous journey. Travel light. Be polite to those whom you meet along the road, but don’t loiter. Tread gently on the earth, picking up after yourself.  Receive the hospitality that is offered to you without complaint, and don’t neglect to say, ‘Thanks.’ Once you settle in a community, be a source of help, healing and hope. Be prepared for rejection, but know that in rejecting you, they’re also rejecting me.”

Imagine this gospel message from the perspective of our sisters and brothers (the vast majority of whom are Christian) coming from Central America (usually walking) to the US in search of asylum, protection, freedom, and relief from the violence, war, and economic hopelessness in their native lands.  Imagine this gospel proclaimed in detention centers, tent communities, migrant camps, and churches with undocumented parishioners. Like our immigrant ancestors, the hundreds of thousands of men, women, children, and infants coming to this country are not seeking to take advantage of us. Rather, they hope to start a new life among us.  


For over a decade, I served a church where the majority of my parishioners were immigrants, coming from the Caribbean, Latin America, and Africa.  Many of them were or had been undocumented for a period of time, and some had fled their homelands with only the clothes on their backs. Their first-hand accounts were often tragic and terrifying.

During those years, I would make an annual pilgrimage to Ellis Island as a way of connecting my congregation’s immigrant experience with that of my paternal great grandparents, who, like forty percent of all Americans, immigrated through what has been called an “island of hope and tears.” 

Walking the vast empty halls, looking at old photos, and listening to tape-recorded voices, I could hear and see echoes of my own immigrant heritage.  Reading the words of Emma Lazarus inscribed on the Statue of Liberty reminded me of what people have been willing to sacrifice for freedom, hope, prosperity and peace:  “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”

The immigrants who have settled in the United States — whether they were 17th century British pilgrims on the Mayflower; masses of European immigrants in the steerage of 19th century steamships; or recent arrivals from Asia, Africa, and the Americas landing at Miami, Newark, and Los Angeles airports, or crossing borders in Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico — have come to this nation bringing new hopes, new dreams, and new lives in search of freedom.  

For those who came to this land in chains, shackled in the bottom holds of slave ships, freedom became the quest after they arrived.  And for some, as the old spiritual reminds us, freedom came only with death.

What makes us all Americans is our quest for freedom.  When we’re seeking it, it’s all we can think of, and we are willing to take enormous risks for it.  Once we have it (especially those who have had it all our lives), most of us tend to take it for granted, and some of us want to deny it to others.


Undocumented immigrants, disparaged as “dangerous and illegal" by those who want them out of this country, present a moral dilemma for people of faith.  When it comes to immigration, the biblical values of welcome and hospitality have been discarded.

As people of faith, we must speak up and act.  I believe Jesus is calling us to educate, donate, advocate, and, yes, vote        

First and foremost, we must educate ourselves about immigration in this country. To be informed citizens, we need to learn about the history of immigration.  We need to understand the present crisis at the border: what is really happening and why it is happening. We also need to study both the root causes for the surge in world-wide migration and the vast and varied solutions for a just and comprehensive immigration policy.          

Once we are educated, we are called to act.  We can donate to organizations that provide assistance to immigrants on the border and in local communities and to NGOs working in countries of war, starvation and strife.  Some might feel called to volunteer their time and talent with such efforts. Others might feel called to offer an undocumented family sanctuary in their home. 

I know from experience that people of faith can be very effective advocates in this immigration crisis.  We can communicate with legislators and write op-Eds to our local newspapers. We can show up at demonstrations and vigils.  We can even bear witness at the border and at local ICE offices.

Vigils will be held across the country on July 12 as part of a national day of concern and action. I intend to show up, and I hope some of you will join me.

Details about local Lights for Liberty vigils across the country can be found online here.

Finally, when the time comes, people of faith can and should express their values at the polling booth.  That is how democracy works. We show up and vote.

Yes, we do have an immigration, humanitarian and political crisis.  And it’s not going away anytime soon. So, heeding the words of Paul’s letter the church in Galatia:  “Let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up.  So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.” (Galatians 6:9)