I am honoured to host this post from Gary Neal Hansen, author of the marvellous book, Kneeling with Giants, in which he offers practical ways to apprentice ourselves to history’s great pray-ers, Benedict, Luther, Calvin, Ignatius of Loyola and Teresa of Avila, among others.
Martin Luther, the catalyst of the Protestant Reformation, needed a shave. And his barber, like the one I had when I had hair, liked to talk. Master Peter the Barber’s question was something like “Dr. Luther tell me: how can I improve my prayer life?”
The sharp blade scraping his neck might have put some pressure on for a clever response, but Luther’s advice was the same as he gave to theologians, ministers and parents: “Pray the Lord’s Prayer.” His full answer came in a lengthy letter, a little book actually, translated as A Simple Way to Pray.
His passion for the Lord’s Prayer knew no bounds. In a preface to his Small Catechism he wrote that if ministers won’t make good use of it “we deserve not only to be given no food to eat, but also to have the dogs set upon us and to be pelted with horse manure.”
Well, Dr. Luther, tell us how you really feel.
Maybe you are thinking the same thing my students say whenever I teach about Luther’s way of praying: “But I already pray Luther’s way! We say the Lord’s Prayer every Sunday in church.”
For Luther, the Lord’s Prayer is not merely “a prayer” to be recited and be done with. The Lord’s Prayer is a list of topics that we are invited to pray about; commanded to pray about, actually. It is an artist’s palette, a full range of colours for our prayer life — more than the monochrome we find when guided by personal interests.
So how does Luther’s method really work? I say a lot about this in Kneeling with Giants but here’s the short version:
I recommend writing out the Lord’s prayer on an index card, no matter how well you know it. Hold it so your thumb is on the first line, and spend a few minutes talking to God about that first topic; then move your thumb to the next line and spend a few minutes on that; and so on.
What might you pray for in these almost too-familiar words?
Praying “Our Father in heaven” you can thank God for adopting you in Christ as a beloved child, and praise the mystery of God who dwells in light inaccessible.
Praying “Hallowed be your name” you can intercede for the Church and the world — God’s name is indeed holy already, but we ask God to help his glory be known.
Praying “Your kingdom come” we ask God to truly reign in our own lives, and in our families, and in our churches, and in all the world. God’s kingdom won’t be complete until he comes again, so here we also pray with the early Christians “Come Lord Jesus!”
Praying “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” can lead to confession: we all have ways of resisting God’s expressed will for us. This can also be a great tool for intercession: when praying for a sick friend we can remind God that the Gospels show Christ’s will is for healing.
Praying “Give us today our daily bread” reminds us to ask God for everything, even the food we eat — even if we don’t like to ask things for ourselves, here Jesus commands us to do so. And we can pray for the millions who do not have even bread to eat.
Praying “Forgive us our sins [or trespasses, or debts] as we forgive those who sin against us” reminds us to keep at the hard work of forgiving others, since we set up our own forgiveness as the standard by which we ask God to abide!
Praying “Save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil” reminds us that we have struggles, whether inner weaknesses and temptations, or oppressive outer circumstances. We admit that we need God’s help to get through.
Luther did not comment on the familiar conclusion “For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours now and forever,” but praying it we acknowledge that God has all the power needed to answer our prayers, and that what we really want in asking is God’s glory.
Luther always had a lot to say, however, about the final word, “Amen!” He said to pray it boldly, expressing the confidence that God has surely heard us and will surely answer.
There is not just one thing to pray for in any line of the Lord’s Prayer. Each clause can lead to praise, thanksgiving, confession, or intercession, as needed at the moment. Luther’s point is to pray all the parts, and let Jesus’ own prayer stretch us to bring God everything — even the things we usually forget to pray about.
You can pray through the whole prayer at a sitting, or follow Luther’s other suggestion and sticking to one line for your whole prayer time. One clause per day will bring you through the Lord’s Prayer once a week.
Luther is right about one thing: we need something to guide us into a richly-hued conversation with God. That’s why he thought this was Jesus’ very best prayer. As he put it once, “If he, the good and faithful Teacher, had known a better one, he would surely have taught us that too.”
Give it a try. Take a week or two and follow Luther’s advice. I’d love to hear how it goes for you.
- Which line of the Lord’s Prayer is most important to you — and why?
- What helps your conversation with God take on more and richer colours?
Gary Neal Hansen is the Associate Professor of Church History at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary. He is the author of Kneeling with Giants: Learning to Pray with History’s Best Teachers (InterVarsity Press: 2012), winner of Christian Resources Together’s “Devotional Book of the Year” in the UK, and Hearts and Minds Books “Best Book of the Year on Spirituality” in the US. His current book project explores movements in the history of the Church whose ways of being Christian community blossomed into effective mission and service in the world. He lives in Dubuque Iowa, USA with his wife and their two small children. (Blog: GaryNealHansen.com, Facebook page: Gary Neal Hansen, Twitter: @garynealhansen. Links to Kneeling with Giants (Amazon.com) and Kneeling with Giants (Amazon UK).)