Pray like a Reformer

The anniversary is over – now down to business.

Welcome to 2018 – the year after the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. If you and your church took the anniversary seriously, it was a time to examine our roots, to think again about why our faith is shaped the way it is and to consider why our churches seek to live it out the particular way we do.

If the tone of celebration seemed triumphant, there is also reason for sobriety. To the degree that being “Protestant” is tied up with “protest,” we stand on shaky ground: Many of the issues our forebears objected to have been long since resolved. Presbyterians are still vastly outnumbered, and shrinking. It gets harder and harder to make a convincing case that this is all due to the great faithfulness of the righteous remnant.

If we are on the ropes, this should make us look even harder at those leaders like Martin Luther and John Calvin who sought to rebuild the church and faith on the firmest possible foundation. If the church needs renewing today, we have our work cut out for us. But just what should we be doing?

Living faith starts with prayer
Those steeped in Reformation issues may jump to the priority on “Scripture alone.” The Reformers would tell us that our teaching needs to be grounded firmly in the Bible. That is foundational. But there was something else that the Reformers saw as essential to faithful engagement with Scripture. We need the Spirit to be shedding light in our darkened minds, and softening our hardened hearts. Without the Spirit we will never hear, much less live, what God is saying in the Bible. Many of our churches at least nod to this when we have a “prayer for illumination” before the Scriptures are read each Sunday.

The question, then, is how to get this presence of the Spirit that is the foundation stone underneath, or at least side by side, with our engagement with the Bible.

The Reformers thought that what Christians need is living faith. That living faith starts with prayer – or if it doesn’t start there, it gets there mighty quickly. Calvin would point to the prophet Joel who said, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Joel 2:32). When you pray you are calling out to God for help. You wouldn’t do that if you didn’t have faith that God is there listening, able to help. They could show it working the other way too: Calvin portrayed prayer as “the chief work of faith.” If we find ourselves justified by faith, we then find ourselves called to prayer.

So getting down to the business of Reformation in these far more secular times requires we start at the same place. We too need to pray. It is not optional. It is quietly, but radically, countercultural. It is the foundation and source of all the rest of our calling.

Pray like Luther: The Lord’s Prayer
If you want to pray like a Reformer, try Luther as a role model. Usually when Luther is quoted on prayer it is the famous (though probably apocryphal) statement that he had so much to do that he figured he’d better pray for three extra hours. I think you really see his priority on prayer in his instruction to pastors about teaching his approach to prayer and the rest of the content of his catechism: Those who won’t should be set in the street and pelted with horse manure. Either quotation you choose, Luther took prayer seriously.
When writing on prayer Luther always started with what Jesus specifically taught: the Lord’s Prayer. This was also starting with what people already knew. However, Luther wasn’t content to have Christians simply recite the words as they did in worship. It seemed obvious to the Reformer that what we call the Lord’s Prayer was really a list of topics. He thought we should take each line as one of the subjects Jesus invited (or commanded) us to talk to God about, and spend time praying on it in our own words.

Calling out to “our Father in heaven” we give thanks and praise that we are drawn close, adopted as God’s beloved children. At the same time we pause in awe and wonder that God is someone and somewhere outside our reach or control, as far removed as the heavens are from the earth.

Saying “hallowed be your name” we ask that God’s name, which is truly holy in its own right, be held and treated as holy. We may need to ask forgiveness for treating God’s name irreverently, or for bearing it unworthily. We ask that people everywhere would bow in worship and live in ways that reflect God’s holiness.

Saying “Your kingdom come” we are asking God’s reign to be effective. We do well to think in concentric circles: We ask God to help our own lives to be truly governed by God’s priorities, and we ask the same for our family, our church, our community, our country, and the world. And we pray for the final culmination of the kingdom, asking with the New Testament believers “Come Lord Jesus!”

Asking “Your will be done, on earth as in heaven” we do the opposite of much modern writing on prayer, where the point seems to be to get God to do our will. Here the Reformer prayed adamantly that God please not let Luther’s own will be done. He knew that his desires were warped, and if God focused on doing God’s own will things would work out much better. On the other hand, this line of the prayer is also a great help to intercession. We can look at Jesus’ actions and his teaching and ask that those same things be done for those who are on our hearts; healing the sick, feeding the poor, welcoming the outcast are clearly God’s own will, so we ask with confidence.

When praying “give us today our daily bread” the young Luther thought of the presence of Jesus, the Bread of Life, whom we receive in the Eucharist. Later, when he had a family and a large household to maintain, he prayed for basic bread and other daily needs. We need both, and the Lord’s Prayer allows us to ask for them.

Dangerously we pray “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors,” setting a limit on our own forgiveness. The Lord’s Prayer reminds us to do our hard work first, and not hold a grudge or nurture a wound: We ask only as much forgiveness as we model for God.

We ask not to be led into temptation or, in the words of the NRSV, “and do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.” Some find it puzzling, since Scripture says God tempts no one – but we all know the reality that unless God leads us elsewhere, we will jump into temptation on our own. So, ever in need of guidance, we ask God’s help on the journey of salvation.

Finally, we end with the familiar “Amen!” which Luther said to pray boldly. We are declaring confidently that we trust God to hear and answer in ways that are good and right – as in the words of the liturgical response, “for yours is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever.”

If you take Luther’s advice and spend even a few minutes praying each topic of the Lord’s Prayer in your own words, you will find yourself bringing topics to God that you would otherwise neglect. It makes sure you have a well-rounded conversation rather than following your own inclinations, whether to praise or lament.

Pray like Calvin: The Psalms
John Calvin also followed biblical teachings on how to pray, but he thought the Psalms were the best teachers. After all, the 150 ancient hymns were in large part human words to God – unlike most of Scripture in which we listen for God’s word to us. They are prayers, but God has seen fit to approve them, including them within the canon of Scripture in all their variety.

Calvin studied the Psalms as poetry and as Scripture. But in important ways he studied them as lessons in prayer, scattering his observations on the topic throughout his commentary on the Psalms. But if you just read the preface to the commentary you get a sense of the impact they had on him. The Psalms brought Calvin, the reserved scholar who seldom discussed his own life in print, to outright vulnerability.

The Psalms prompted him to tell his conversion story (such as it was), as well as the story of his call to ministry (under duress when threatened with God’s curse). As Calvin dove deep into the Psalms, parallels to his own life bubbled up. David faced opposition from outsiders as well as from close colleagues, and Calvin did too. David prayed about these things – and that gave Calvin permission to do the same.

Today’s readers are shocked by the anger and other harsh emotions the Psalms express in prayer. The lectionary and our little red “Book of Common Worship: Daily Prayer Edition” often quietly excise them, presumably lest they cause the youth to blush. Calvin had no such quibbles. The Psalms function like an anatomy textbook of what is in the human soul, and by their status as biblical prayer they invite us to bring everything within us into conversation with God – every single thing. In Geneva the full Psalter became the model for public prayer as well, with all 150 of them, uncut but put to music, sung in a regular cycle at worship.

And consider: If there is hatred, vengefulness, bigotry and other nasty stuff within us, are we more likely to be healed by hiding it from the Great Physician? When you go for your physical, is it likely to help if you hide a lump or an ache? Better to bring it all out in the safe space of prayer so that God can deal with it.

Pray like a Reformer
Whether you use the Lord’s Prayer as an outline like Luther, or let the Psalms guide you by the hand like Calvin, I hope 2018 will be a year when you pray like a Reformer.

Either approach, taken as a daily discipline, will move you forward in living the life in communion with God that gives life and direction to all the other things we are called to do. That life of intimate trust and love for God is the core of our calling, after all.

And either approach, taken seriously over time, will stretch and deepen your prayer life. Many of us, left to our own devices, will pray in very limited ways. Some focus on praise and thanks, editing out lamentation and anger – which can be simple denial or a shocking neglect of our neighbor in a world where so many suffer injustice. Some focus instead on lamentation and anger, neglecting praise and thanksgiving – which is an equally shocking neglect in a world so rich in beauty, where our daily bread has been regularly provided.

So let the Reformers stretch you beyond your past experience and your present habit. Let prayer become the broad and deep conversation with God that Scripture portrays. If that conversation brings every part of us to God, and prompts us to discuss all the topics Jesus suggested, we might find our lives reshaped. It might be part of renewing us according to the image of Christ. And if that is happening to you and to me, what might happen in our life together as the church?

Gary Neal Hansen, author of “Kneeling with Giants: Learning to Pray with History’s Best Teachers,” is a writer, teacher and retreat/conference speaker. He lives in Pittsburgh with his wife and their two children. You can connect with him and get a free copy of his book on classic lectio divina at