Help from Helmut: Learning to Pray Again

Helmut Thielicke is one of my vocational role models. Not only did he teach theology in a top-notch German research university, he also embraced the role of pastor and the discipline of preaching the Gospel. Perhaps more impressively, he counted as friends churchmen as diverse as Paul Tillich and Billy Graham. This post is inspired by his sermon on the 2nd petition of the Lord’s Prayer.

Dec 17

To contribute my share to the family income, I practice the strange art of preparing mass-produced coffee drinks at a chain-that-shall-not-be-named. During busy times, I enter a trance-like state, wherein my entire thought process consists of remembering how many shots of espresso go into a cappuccino. Then, during down times, while cleaning up milk foam and coffee grounds, my mind can wander to other topics.

Not too long ago, the Lord’s prayer floated into my head, and I got to thinking about how many times that I had recited it over my lifetime. Let’s say once a day for twenty years. That’s 7,300 times. But let’s not forget Sundays. That gives me an additional 1,040, which brings the total to 8,340. But during my internship year, I said the Lord’s Prayer 3 times a Sunday, which tacks on an extra 104. And I better throw in a couple hundred for Lent and Christmas Eve. Let’s just round up and say 9,000 times. That’s a lot of times.

But the amazing thing is, having recited it 9,000 times, I can still open up a devotional, or hear a sermon, and suddenly have the Lord’s Prayer confront me in a new way that never before occurred to me. That’s what happened when I began to read a collection of sermons on the Lord’s Prayer by Helmut Thielicke.

In his sermon on the second petition (Hallowed be thy name), Thielicke points out that the Lord’s Prayer is not simply a collection of petitions asking for things from God our Father. In fact, every petition of the Lord’s Prayer involves a personal confession. “In every petition we not only say, ‘Thou art my Father,’ but every petition mysteriously recoils upon us and God says to us, ‘You are the man’ (II Samuel 12:7).” The Lord’s Prayers forces me to confront the reality that I am the chief obstacle to God’s name being hallowed, to God’s kingdom coming, to receiving my daily bread, etc.

In a season of bluster and bravado, this realization about the Lord’s Prayer has made me pause. And so, 9,000 times in, I have to start learning to pray all over again.

The sermon that inspired this post can be found in Thielicke, Helmut. Our Heavenly Father: Sermons on the Lord’s Prayer. Translated by John W. Doberstein. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1960.