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. 

A Note on Humility and Diligence

As an academic with a short attention span, I have the tendency to bounce from subject to subject. Yesterday, I studied the Norwegian-American church, today I study New Testament. Yesterday, I read a book about the history of China, today I’m reading a book about geology. With that in mind, this devotional from Martin Luther struck me, and reminded me that no matter how many degrees I pile up, I have to return to some things over and over again.

2015-03-22 10.18.07

Give attendance to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine. – 1 Timothy 4.13

I am often aware of my temptation, and even to this day can scarcely guard myself sufficiently against it. This I confess openly as an example to any who are interested, although I am an old doctor and preacher and am so much more versed in the Scriptures, or at least ought to be, than all those wise ones who attack me; I must still grow daily, like a child, saying aloud every morning the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and such precious psalms and sayings as I choose, just as the children are now being taught to do, although I have daily to study the Scriptures and to fight the devil. I may not say in my heart: You know the Lord’s Prayer, you know the Ten Commandments, you know the Creed by heart, etc. No, I must go on learning every day and remain a pupil of the Catechism. I feel how noticeably it helps me, and I find by experience that the Word of God can never be exhausted, but that it is really true as Psalm 147 says: “His understanding is infinite.”

-From Day by Day We Magnify Thee: Daily Meditation’s from Luther’s Writings, ed. Margarete Steiner and Percy Scott (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1946), 348.