What Good is Prayer

Reformation Sunday began at the unexpected prompting by Martin Luther, a German professor of theology, composer was also an ordained priest. He came to reject the teachings and practices of the Roman Catholic Church and on 31 October 1517, this 34 year old priest nailed 95 proposals to the door of the All Saints' Church in Wittenberg, His Theses, propounded two central beliefs—that the Bible is the central religious authority and that humans may reach salvation only by their faith and not by their deeds—set the religious world on its heels and sparked the Protestant Reformation. His theses were meant to propose an academic discussion as he had no intention of confronting the church. Pope Leo X did not see it that way and Luther was excommunicated and condemned as an outlaw. It certainly doesn’t sound like the circumstances from which a Reformation would ignite. Who was this Martin Luther and what made this budding Reformer so confident? Actually, his life exuded anything but confidence. His father forced Luther, the eldest, to become a lawyer. While in the university, as he was returning to school on horseback after a trip home, a lightning bolt struck near Luther during a thunderstorm. He confessed that he was terrified of death and God’s judgment and had cried out, "Help! Saint Anna, I will become a monk!. He left university, sold his books, and entered St. Augustine's Monastery. One friend blamed the decision on Luther's sadness over the deaths of two friends. His father was furious over what he saw as a waste of Luther's education. For the last 13 years of his life until his death in 1546, Luther served as the dean of theology at University of Wittenberg. During this time, he suffered a variety of illnesses, including arthritis, heart problems and digestive disorders. The physical pain and emotional strain of being a fugitive weighed heavily upon him. His writings contained angry and offensive language against Jews and Muslims. The central question is why a man so conflicted have been able to begin a Reformation that changed the world? More specifically, as we listen to the prayers Martin Luther prayed, can we gain a sense of the depth of this man, spiritually and emotionally?

Looking more deeply into the prayers of the Reformers can give us incredible insight into our own prayers and enable us to understand what our prayers mean. In a particularly touching letter Luther describes a time of his "weakness" shortly after the death of his young daughter, Magdalen, when he revealed that he knew he should be able to thank God for the fact that she was gone and the manner in which she had gone to be with her real, eternal Father. Yet even though he felt he should be able to pray thus, still he and his wife cannot do so without crying and grieving. As a result, he begs his friend, "Please give thanks to God on our behalf for Magdalen’s life and that she is now well and free.”

Luther was deeply saddened by his own weaknesses due to sin and his own humanity. It would be easy to suspect a man of Luther's spiritual magnitude and theological fortitude to come off as condescending and idealistic, but nothing could be further from the truth. In his letters, he repeatedly admitted to having struggles in prayer. Luther recognizes that prayer is hard work and he is not nearly as successful at it as he would like to be. He says, “There is no work like prayer. Mumbling with the mouth is easy... but with earnestness of heart to follow the words in deep devotion. Since there is such a great need for prayer, he emphasized that we continue to work at it, even when it is hard.

Actually he reminds me of the dichotomy found in the gospel story from Luke. The story contrasts two men as different as night and day. The first man was a well educated, upstanding intellect, known in the community as a religious scholar…the kind who always knows the answers to most of your questions about right and wrong. The 2nd man in the story was not so stellar. He was a tax collector, not known for his honesty. When Jesus told the story, tax collectors went door to door and whatever he said you owed, was what you were expected to pay. “Pay me now, with no option for small monthly payments”, plus it was usually 4X’s greater than the amout that you actually owed. Everyone knew this but because tax collectors had the weight of the government behind them, there was no disputing their word, and you were forced to pay or risk being tossed into debtor’s prison.

As usual, Jesus turns the tables in his telling of the story and Jesus emphasize the least likely in the prayer he preferred. Remember that Jesus’ reason for telling the story in the first place is to cut at the heart of those who felt they were better than others. The first man prays, “Lord, thank you that I have risen above those who live in the gutter – the robbers, molestors, those who commit adultery. Gratitude over refraining from lying, cheating and stealing behavior is certainly the pride of comparing yourself to a particular person is not the kind of example that we are to emulate. Perhaps his example will allow us to see images of “the Pharisee” within ourselves when we brag that we are not like “those people”, those we may consider spiritually, morally or culturally beneath us. This upstanding, religious scholar, on the surface does a pretty good job of living according to the rules, but in his heart reveals one who lives with a “holier than thou” concept.

The 2nd man, the despised tax collector cheated and robbed most of his customers, but as he prays, beats his breast (a symbol of public shame or sadness), lowered his eyes, and prayed simply, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” In no way was there pride in who he was, how he lived, or in what he had achieved. Absent in his prayer is in reminding God of his resume.
Charles Cousar writes, "Prayer is the occasion for honesty about oneself and generosity about others". "Prayer was not a last resort when all the plans and programs and power plays had failed; prayer was, rather, our first and primary task." How amazing that we can learn these valuable lessons from these unlikely sources, who in the beginning seem just the opposite of who we might expect to learn valuable lessons from. So how did Martin Luther pray? He said, Dear heavenly Father, say something. I will gladly remain silent and be a child and learner. If I should rule the church with my own knowledge, wisdom, and understanding, I would have been sunk long ago. Therefore, dear God, you guide and direct it. I will gladly forsake my point of view and understanding and let you rule alone through your Word. Amen. And also, “Dear God, give us peaceful hearts and a right courage in the confusion and strife against the devil. And so may we not only endure and finally triumph, but also have peace in the midst of the struggle. May we praise and thank you and not complain or become impatient against your divine will. Let peace win the victory in our hearts, that we may never through impatience initiate anything against you, our God, or our neighbors. May we remain quiet and peaceable toward God and toward other people, both inwardly and outwardly, until the final and eternal peace shall come. Amen.

The two men in Jesus’ example both prayed from a stance of gratitude. The wealthy man was grateful that his lot was not the same as those beneath him. He thanked God that he was not like the poor, the underprivileged, the lowly and like the miserable excuse for a man, ie., the tax collector who was hated and despised. But the other man prayed out of gratitude as well. Gratitude can be seen in his awareness that he was at the mercy of God. His gratitude was in no way centered within himself, for anything that he might have done. His life was nothing but to be ashamed of. Martin Luther prayed from this same gratitude when he said, “Lord, misery and misfortune annoy me and oppress me. I long to be rid of them. You have said, Ask and it will be given you. So I come and ask. Amen.

Another reformer helpful to learn from is John Calvin, who at the age of 25 embraced Protestantism, and as a result had to leave France. Calvin arrived in Geneva, after just experiencing the Reformation. Calvin began to write and composed a confession of faith. Many, however, refused to accept the confession of faith. At stake was who was able to decide who was worthy to be admitted to partake of the Lord's Supper. The city council controlled this decision and had no intention of letting this important power pass into the hands of the ministers. Slowly John Calvin was given an opportunity to make these decisions. Throughout the week there were to be seventeen sermons held not only on Sunday but on 3 weekdays as well. The church had oversight of the life of everyone. and exercised tyrannical supervision of the lives of the people. Nobody could possess crucifixes or other articles associated with the Roman worship. Fasting was prohibited, together with pilgrimages, prayers for the dead, and prayers in Latin. No one could say anything good about the pope. It was forbidden to give non-Biblical names to children. Attendance at sermons was required. In addition, one had to arrive on time, remain, and pay attention. In 1547, a man who left during the sermon and made too much noise about it was imprisoned. One of the offenses considered particularly serious was criticism of the ministers and especially Calvin. Cards and dice were forbidden. There were to be no taverns; instead, places were provided for eating and drinking, in which pious behavior would be encouraged. Was this indeed the Reformation or would it better be characterized as the Dark Ages?

It reminds me of the phrase, “These were the best of times, these were the worst of times. Our second scripture of the day comes from the words of the Prophet Joel. He speaks of autumn rains, spring and fall showers, abundant grain and incredible harvests of wine and oil. These were the good times. This is when life is going our way, the bank account is full, there is plenty to eat and the pantry awaits our next recipe. So then, why does Joel have to bring up that one year - “the year the locust ate.” Locusts were feared predators. Billions of them, 6” or 7” in length settle on the crops and eat everything in sight. Nothing is left. The year the locusts swarm is the year nothing is left. Perhaps you remember similar years in which the circumstances all caved in at once. It was the year of the cancer, the divorce and the pink slip. We remember the taste of pain from the years the locusts ate in our own lives. We think and cry, “Why Lord? Why me?” How could you? What have we done to deserve this? How could I ever learn anything from such loss? But the prophet Joel doesn’t leave us standing in a field of devastation. Instead is a promise from God…”I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten.” What we may never remember standing among devastating circumstances, surveying the destruction around us. The truth is that the greatest crop ever reaped by the farmers were those crops that came in the years after the locusts ate through land that had been fertilized by the corpses of last year’s locusts. Lost years and bad circumstances have the power to become our greatest growth. There is an underlying perspective of prayer that believes, in all times and in all circumstances, “God’s got this.” Whatever we face, “God’s got this.” Calvin’s prayers bear that out as well. He prayed, Grant, Almighty God, that since we are too secure and torpid in our sins, thy dread majesty may come to our minds, to humble us, and to remove our fear, that we may learn anxiously to seek reconciliation through Christ, and so abhor ourselves for our sins, that thou mayest then be prepared to receive us: and that unbelief may not shut the door against us, enable us to regard thee to be such as thou hast revealed thyself, and to acknowledge that thou art not like us, but the fountain of all mercy, that we may thus be led to entertain a firm hope of salvation, and that, relying on the Mediator, thy only-begotten Son, we may know him as the throne of grace, full of compassion and mercy.

In Joel’s words, the people to whom he wrote continued to predict trouble and why would they not. They had been devastated by an infestation of bugs! Joel wants to change their perspective from predicting trouble to a stance instead of predicting possibility. Our prayers can do that for us. They can turn the years that the locusts consume. We must turn our lives toward the direction of hope. Our prayers will guide us there.

Grant, Almighty God, that we may not be blind at mid-day, nor wilfully seek darkness, and thus lull our minds asleep: but that exercising ourselves in your word, we may stir up ourselves more and more to respect your name, and so present ourselves, and all our pursuits, as a sacrifice to thee, that thou mayest peaceably rule, and having strong and deep roots, and being firmly grounded in the confidence of that faith, we may never fall away from our worship of thee, we may ever hold fast the reconciliation which thou hast promised to us in Christ thy Son. Amen.