- Written by Pastor Shawn Nettleton Pastor Shawn Nettleton
- Created: September 01 2021 September 01 2021
After observing the prayer life our Lord Jesus, His disciples asked Him, “Lord teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples” (Luke 11:1b). This request reveals at least two things about the disciples and about us. First, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer notes, “in making this request, they confessed that they were not able to pray on their own, that they had to learn to pray.” 1 And secondly, since we need to learn how to pray, we are essentially always learning how to pray.
To borrow a line from John Kleinig, Jesus is the only “expert at prayer.” 2 For the rest of us, we are always learning from Jesus and from His Word how and what to pray. Just as a child learns to speak by listening to his parents and others speak, “so we learn to speak to God because God has spoken to us and speaks to us … Repeating God's own words after him, we begin to pray to him.” 3
Of course, our Lord Jesus gives us the most excellent and most exemplary prayer of all to pray. He gives us His very own prayer that He prays to His Heavenly Father, literally “The Lord's Prayer” as we have properly named it. His prayer covers all the bases. There is nothing that we need to pray for that is not covered in this prayer! Each petition is “so great,” as Luther observes, “that it should impel us to keep praying for it all our lives.” 4 For “in these seven petitions are found all our anxieties, needs, and perils, which we ought to bring to God” and the “great things” He intends to give and do for us. 5
In a very real sense then, the Lord’s Prayer serves as the source, guide and norm for all other prayers, petitions, intercessions, supplications and thanksgivings. And while our Lord's Prayer should be prayed daily and often, there remain many other prayers for which God’s people may learn to speak in boldness and confidence to our Heaven Father. The Old and New Testaments give us numerous prayers to use as our very own, most especially the Psalter which Luther considered the Christian’s prayer book.
In addition, there are many fine prayers that have been handed down to us over the centuries through the church’s liturgies, daily prayer offices, hymns, collects and catechetical materials such as the Small Catechism that all have their roots in the Scriptures. Luther, in fact, intended his Small Catechism to be a prayer book as much as concise summary of Christian doctrine for teaching.
One of the greatest prayers that we have preserved in our church body is “The Litany.” 6 The name “litany” comes from the Greek litaneia which means “prayer, supplication or entreaty.” It is one of the most ancient forms of prayer dating all the way back to the fourth and fifth centuries. Our Litany is based on Luther’s revision of the Great Litany (1529) and follows the English translation made by Thomas Cranmer (1544). 7 Purged from the Litany of All Saints, Luther removed the unbiblical prayers to the saints and enlarged the element of intercessory prayer. Today, “the Litany stands as a great and comprehensive pattern of prayer for the Church, the world, and for all sorts and conditions of people.” 8
The Litany is appropriate for penitential seasons such as Advent and Lent or for special days of repentance and prayer. With the recent state of the world, especially the last few weeks, I have found myself on my knees in prayer much more these days. And in moments of frustration, anxiousness, deep concern and even anger, I have personally found the Litany to be an exceedingly helpful prayer to lift before our Heavenly Father. 9 During these trying and uncertain days, I invite you to join me in praying this great prayer for the Church, the world, and for all those in need.
As we continue to learn to pray from our Lord, from His Word using some of these ancient forms of prayer handed down us, we approach the Lord with sure and certain confidence that He hears our prayer, that He desires to help us, to give us and do for us great things in Christ our Lord. For as Luther quips, God “did not command [prayer] in order to deceive you and make a fool, a monkey of you; he wants you to pray and to be confident that you will be heard; he wants you to open your bosom 10 that he may give to you. So open up your coat and skirt wide and receive God's gifts for which you pray in your prayer.” 11
Serving you in Christ,
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible (Augsburg Fortress, 1970), 9.
- See John W. Kleinig, Grace Upon Grace: Spirituality for Today (Concordia Publishing House, 2008), 156–161.
- Bonhoeffer, 11.
- Luther, The Large Catechism, III, 34.
- Martin Luther, Ten Sermons on the Catechism (1528) in Luther's Works, Vol. 51, 181.
- You may find “The Litany” on pages 288–289 in Lutheran Service Book (Concordia Publishing House, 2006).
- Cranmer (1489-1556) used and included Luther's version of the Litany in the Book of Common Prayer (1549).
- Lutheran Service Book: Altar Book, (Concordia Publishing House, 2006), 410.
- Interestingly, Luther was prompted to revive the Litany when the Ottoman Turks threatened the faith and freedom of Christian Europe. He then insisted people pray or sing it during the Matins and Vespers.
- Luther is either referring to the chest or the innermost part of body.
- Luther, Ten Sermons on the Catechism, 171.
Rev. Shawn Nettleton is Senior Pastor at Saint John’s Lutheran Church. You can reach him in the church office, by email at nettleton@StJohnsFC.org or at 970-305-2420.