Nov 4, 2023

Martin Luther


Peter Baskendorf was a “master barber” in Wittenberg, Germany. One of his regular customers was the Protestant reformer, Martin Luther. Luther was sitting in a barber’s chair one day in spring 1535 when Peter asked, “Dr. Luther, how do you pray?” Luther took his question seriously. He went home and composed a 34-page response, later published as A Simple Way to Pray. Luther cautioned his friend to guard against thinking, “Wait a little. I will pray in an hour. I must attend to this or that.” Luther advocated setting aside regular times for prayer, making it “the first business of the day and the last at night.” He urged Peter to devote to prayer the same focus given to a man receiving a shave or a haircut. If a barber allowed his eyes and mind to wander, he could cut a customer’s nose or even his throat. Luther began his time of prayer with Scripture meditation, to “warm his heart to the things of God.” He often prayed the Psalms which John Calvin, his reformed colleague called, “An anatomy of all parts of the soul.” Luther commended music as an aid to prayer. He once arranged for a music composer to set his favorite Psalms to music, as a help in praying them. Luther incorporated the Lord’s Prayer into his daily routine. He prayed it once and more slowly a second time, pausing at each petition to add his own reflections in prayer. I came across a fascinating letter Luther wrote in 1521 to Philip Melanchthon about prayer. His letter has application to any who become discouraged about our paltry prayer life. Luther expressed upset in the letter that his friend was ascribing too much piety to him and closed with the confession, “I sit here like a fool and hardened in leisure, pray little, do not sigh for the church of God, yet burn in a big fire of my untamed body. In short, I should be ardent in spirit, but I am ardent in the flesh, in lust, in laziness, leisure, and sleepiness…. Already eight days have passed in which I have written nothing, in which I have not prayed or studied.” Take heart, my friend. If this great reformer struggled with prayer, there’s hope for folks like us who chastise ourselves for being intermittent and inconsistent about prayer. Luther leads us in morning prayer:

Behold, Lord, an empty vessel that needs to be filled. My Lord, I am weak in faith; strengthen me. I am cold in heart; warm me and make me fervent that my love may go out to my neighbor. I do not have a strong and firm faith; at times I doubt and am unable to trust you altogether. O Lord, help me. Strengthen my faith and trust in you…I am poor; you are rich. I am a sinner; you are upright. With me, there is an abundance of sin; in you there is the fullness of righteousness. Therefore, I will remain with you, of whom I can receive, but to whom I may not give. Amen.

Luther’s Prayers, Herbert F. Brokering, ed., (Minneapolis, Augsburg Publishing House), 1994.                                                                                                                                                                                                            Martin Luther, A Simple Way to Pray.

Rev. Dr. Peter James served 42 years as the senior of Vienna Presbyterian Church in Vienna, VA — 21 years in the 20th century and 21 years in the 21st century. He retired in 2021 and now serves as Pastor-in-Residence at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

Even as a pastor, prayer came slowly to Pete. Read Pete’s story.