Clip, clip Snip, snip. Clumps of thick Saxon hair fell around the man’s shoulders and dropped to the floor. The barber, one Peter Beskendorf, engaged his customer in one more conversation about spiritual matters. “Pastor,” he said, “how should I pray? How long should I go on? What exactly should I say?”
We don’t know what the man in the chair, Dr. Martin Luther of Wittenberg, said, but we do know that Peter Beskendorf’s questions prompted Luther to write a small book called A Simple Way to Pray.
Here is an excerpt from this heartfelt bit of pastoral advise on prayer:
Dear Master Peter: I will tell you as best I can what I do personally when I pray. May our dear Lord grant to you and to everybody to do it better than I!
When I feel that I have become cool and joyless in prayer because of other tasks or thoughts (for the flesh and the Devil always impede and obstruct prayer), I take my prayer book, hurry to my room, or, if it be the day and hour for it, to the church where a congregation is assembled and, as time permits, I say quietly to myself and word-for-word the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and, if I have some time, some words of Christ or of Paul, or some psalms, just as a child might do.
It is a good thing to let prayer be the first business of the morning and the last at night. Guard yourself carefully against those false, deluding ideas which tell you, “Wait a little while. I will pray in an hour; first I must attend to this or that.” Such thoughts get you away from prayer into other affairs which so hold your attention and involve you that nothing comes of prayer for that day.
It may well be that you may have some tasks which are as good or better than prayer, especially in an emergency…. When your heart has been warmed by such recitation to yourself (of the Ten Commandments, the words of Christ, etc.) and is intent upon the matter, kneel or stand with your hands folded and your eyes towards heaven and speak or think as briefly as you can, “O Heavenly Father, dear God, I am a poor unworthy sinner. I do not deserve to raise my eyes or hands toward you or to pray. But because you have commanded us all to pray and has promised to hear us and through your dear Son Jesus Christ has taught us both how and what to pray, I come to you in obedience to your word, trusting in your gracious promise…”
Luther then suggests praying the Lord’s Prayer, word for word, elaborating on things that come to mind. He then goes on:
Take care, however, not to undertake all of this or so much that one becomes weary in spirit. Likewise, a good prayer should not be lengthy or drawn out, but frequent and ardent…. With practice one can take the Ten Commandments on one day, a psalm or chapter of Holy Scripture the next day, and use them as flint and steel to kindle a flame in the heart.”
That inquisitive barber knew, like the apostle Paul, that prayer begins with the confession “we do not know what to pray,” and then day by day discovering that “the Spirit helps us with our weakness” (Romans 8:26).
As a pastor, one of the luxurious blessings I receive is the sincere and intent prayers of people in our church. Often people will tell me, with a clear-eyed look of complete sincerity, that they pray for me and my family regularly. I always immediately feel like a huge gift has been given me tied up in large gold bows. Or, it is like sensing being bathed in God’s own Spirit. It is something I don’t take for granted. I know that in ways too mysterious for us to understand, such praying bears us along.
And in the end, I don’t think I need to understand it. It is probably good for me that there is a great mystery to it all. That way, I can just keep praying, just talking to God, being built in faith.