“How Not to Pray”
In his little book called A Simple Way to Pray, Martin Luther remembers an old joke about a pastor who was praying one thing but thinking another. Luther says the pastor’s prayer went something like this.
“O God, intend Your ear to me (Hired hand, have you lashed the horse to the wagon?).”
“Make haste to deliver me, O Lord (Young lady, go milk the cow).”
“Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit (Get cracking, you rascal or the plague take you!).”
Luther notes that the pastor illustrates an old Latin proverb: “a person engaged in various pursuits, minds none of them well.” “A true prayer,” Luther concludes, “meditates on all the words and thoughts of the prayer from beginning to end” (Kindle Location 188).
Many people would define prayer as “talking to God.” That’s true, but it’s a very limited definition. Talking to God puts the emphasis on what I have to say. It puts me in charge of the conversation. Worst of all, prayer as talking to God leaves no room for listening! One of the problems with the prayers Jesus describes in Matthew six is that there is so much talking and so little listening.
Prayer that makes a difference is rooted in listening. Listening happens in silence. “Silence,” writes Kallistos Ware, “is not merely negative—a pause between words, a temporary cessation of speech—but, properly understood, it is highly positive: an attitude of attentive alertness, of vigilance, and above all of listening.” (The Power of the Name, Kindle Location 27).
Bishop Theophan the Recluse put it this way: “the principal thing is to stand before God with the mind in the heart, and to go on standing before Him unceasingly day and night until the end of life.” To stand before God with the mind in the heart—that is a deep definition of prayer. That is what it means to store up treasures in heaven—to stand before God with the mind in the heart.
Prayer is not merely request. Prayer is relationship. “Prayer,” writes Anne Lamott, “means that, in some unique way, we believe we’re invited into a relationship with someone who hears us when we speak in silence.” (Help, Thanks, Wow, page 4).
Prayer does not begin with me. It begins with God. Prayer is not primarily something I do. Rather prayer is something God does in me and to me and through me. “True inner prayer,” Kallistos Ware concludes, “is to stop talking and to listen to the wordless voice of God within our heart; it is to cease doing things on our own, and to enter into the action of God.”
Praying restores us to our full humanity. The function of prayer is to place us in the presence of God. This was God’s intention from the beginning. In the garden, God strolled with the humans in the cool of the evening. They were always in his presence and happy to be there. That is the way we are made. We are restless, irritable and discontent when we separate ourselves from God.
Is it any wonder that Jesus criticizes the actions of the religious leaders of his day? What they did were not bad things in and of themselves, Alms, prayer and fasting are helpful disciplines at any time, and especially during the Lenten season. But who is the focus of these actions? If it is me, I have already gotten what I want. If the focus is God, then that’s how I need to act.
Humility is the doorway to holiness. So there is no real prayer without humility. Anne Lamott reminds us of an old riddle. “What’s the difference between you and God? God never thinks he’s you.” Those who advertised their alms, prayers and fasting indeed got their rewards. What they wanted was public applause, and that’s what they got. Arrogance leads toward applause and away from God. Humility precedes holiness and leads us toward God.
Humility is the doorway to holiness. Holiness is the real goal of being human. We were made to stand in the presence of God, to walk with God as friends in the cool of the evening.
C. S. Lewis wrote: “I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God. It changes me.” God already knows what we need better than we know ourselves.
Matthew 6 is the longest instruction Jesus gives about praying. So we should probably pay attention. At the center of these texts is the confidence that God is our Father. We can approach God with confidence. We don’t have to prove our value in advance. Our Father sees our secret places and stays with us. So we can come to receive the ashes, knowing they are not the end. We go from the ashes to the altar. We remember that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. Then we remember Jesus in his body and blood, given and shed for us and for the life of the world.
Your Father who is in the secret place–this is God is waiting in the hidden depths of our hearts to speak to us. Real prayer springs us from the trap of showing off before God and others. God knows who we are better than we know ourselves. So we can be honest. We can be real people. In prayer, we can be free to be who we truly are and who we truly are created to be. “Talk to God,” says Rowan Williams, “as if you are Jesus.” That’s a startling statement, but that’s exactly right.
We were prepared for that relationship by the words of the Prayer of the Day this past Sunday. We prayed that God will “transform us into the likeness of your Son, who renewed our humanity so that we may share in his divinity…” We can pray as if we are Jesus because that’s what God intends us to be–more and more like Jesus.
After some good listening, then perhaps we are better equipped to speak. One of the challenges is simply learning how to pray in a helpful way. In 1535 Luther’s barber, Peter Beskendorf, asked Luther for some instructions and training on how to pray. Luther wrote a letter, which became a booklet, describing Luther’s personal prayer practice. I like to summarize that practice with the acronym “ITCH.”
“I” stands for Intercession — first lifting up the needs and concerns of our neighbors before God. “T” stands for Thanksgiving. God is the Giver of all good things and deserves our thanksgiving and praise for such grace, mercy and love. “C” stands for Confession. We come before God in our brokenness and lack of faith, and God heals us in the honesty of our self-disclosure. “H” stands for Help. Whoever we call on in life and in death, Luther notes in the Large Catechism, that one is our God. We are encouraged to call upon God in every time of need and to never be bashful in our requests.
Much of the book is specific examples of how Luther uses this and other methods to pray his way through the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments and the Creed. But this little book also has nuggets that are precious to me. For example, Luther urges concentration in our prayer and suggests that we refrain from multi-tasking while we pray.
“Just as a good and diligent barber must keep his thoughts and eyes precisely on the razor and the hair and not forget where he is while cutting hair,” Luther writes to Besekendorf the barber, “even though he may be chatting a great deal, he will be concentrating carefully, so that he keeps a close eye on where the razor is so he doesn’t cut somebody’s nose, or mouth, or even slice somebody’s throat.” Perhaps Luther had some mixed experiences with barbers! But his concrete illustration makes the point.
Luther encourages us to regard prayer as a necessary form of spiritual nourishment. “To this day, I nurse on the Lord’s Prayer like a little child,” he writes, “and like an old man now, I eat and drink from it, but never get my fill.” Again, Luther’s imagery is earthy and precise — one of the many things I value about his writing.
I have taught and used Luther’s prayer method for years and rely on it whenever I find myself at a prayer road block. That is especially the case when I find myself, as Luther did, under some kind of spiritual assault. Luther was convinced that these moments of “Anfechtungen” were not times to have to make up prayers on the fly and off the cuff. Instead, at such moments a tried and true discipline can be useful to allow the Spirit to haul us out of the depths and into the light.
I look forward to re-engaging with this prayer discipline in the season of Lent 2021.