Pray like a barber
by Patrick Lafferty
“And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases... Pray then like this...”
His name was Peter Beskendorf and he was a barber. He’d applied razor to many a head in his day, including the once-tonsured monk Martin Luther, who happened to be the barber’s pastor.
Trimming Luther’s mop one day, Beskendorf confided to his pastor his own difficulties in prayer. Praying without ceasing had proved too burdensome, the promise of rich communion with God in prayer too elusive. With his spiritual shepherd now a captive audience, Peter made the most of the opportunity by asking Luther how he himself prayed. In response, Luther composed a 20-page letter on prayer. (I wonder if Peter was sorry he asked?)
Two Sundays ago Mark took us to Jesus’s stern warnings about spiritual hypocrisy, a sin, as we commented last week, whose ubiquity is part of its danger. Mercy and fasting, as two of Jesus’s examples, can devolve into something unrecognizable when ostentation overtakes them. No act of piety is immune to the parasitic presence of hypocrisy. That includes prayer.
Yet, in providing Beskendorf structure and simplicity for prayer, Luther showed how prayer itself supplies robust resistance to an outbreak of hypocrisy. Rather than suggesting he sit and wait for the impulse to address the Almighty, Luther sent him back to the scriptures as grist for prayer, with a four-fold meditative process later termed “Strand Prayer”:
- Consider the teaching of a given text,
- Give thanks and praise for the teaching,
- Confess one’s shortcomings in obedience to the teaching, and
- Make supplication for new strength to joyfully obey.
Far from a wooden way to prayer, this framework focuses a straying mind and frees the heart to speak. Luther’s comment to Beskendorf is as pertinent to our day as it was to his: “He who thinks of many things thinks of nothing and accomplishes no good.”
Luther applied this meditative process to any brief text, even to the historic creeds of the church. As an introduction to the exercise, Luther encouraged Beskendorf to begin with meditation on the Psalms, the Ten Commandments, and, in particular, the Lord’s Prayer (Mt 6:7ff). When meditating on the latter, Luther would give focused attention to each word or phrase—as Mark outlined last Sunday—until the consideration elicited words of gratitude, confession, and supplication.
I, too, recently meditated on just the word Father from verse 9. I wondered why Jesus would have us use that moniker for God. Why not “sovereign master” or “immortal, invisible one”—equally descriptive and honorific terms? Could it be that Jesus wanted us to know God as, of course, one with authority, but also one who provides and protects, who chastens and disciplines, and who loves and delights in those who are His?
The mere thinking on God as Father prompted questions in me that were really confessions: “Why am I ever anxious?” “Why should unexpected circumstances ever cause me to chafe?” If God is my Father, those responses betray a failure to believe that. Now I was beginning to see anew the meaning of the text, its implications, my heart’s own deficits, and what I need from Him to become more like His Son. The meditation doesn’t accomplish the change but lights the path for it.
It’s this kind of approach (but not the only one!) that keeps the hypocrisy Jesus warned of from infiltrating prayer. Why? For one, it can’t be done publicly. Yes, there is strong rationale for group prayer, but this kind of meditation requires the hiddenness Jesus urges. The absence of a crowd diminishes the propensity for pomp.
Second, it forestalls hypocrisy because the patient attention required can’t help but humble us. Consider how immersed we are in a culture of speed, stimulation, and multitasking. If this kind of meditation is new to you, the very effort to focus your attention will likely unnerve you at first—the idea of it will be more appealing than the actual experience.
Last, once the boat gets moving, patient consideration of His teaching will reveal how far we are from the heart He intends—and how much we need the gospel’s hope to persevere.
Lent is over half past us, but the opportunity to train our souls for godliness remains. Might you and I consider making Luther’s plan for prayer ours for the remainder of this season? Our souls could probably use a trim.