National Lutheran News

Pray as though your life depends on it — because it does

there is no single “right” way to pray and it should not be left to “experts”

Kathryn Koob was either in the wrong or the right place at the wrong or the right time, depending on your perspective.

The then-director of the Iran-America Society was living in Tehran, Iran, when insurgents took her and a host of other U.S. citizens captive and held them for 444 days, at the end of the Carter administration.

Obviously, living in captivity was no walk in the park. But Koob got an unexpected benefit from the experience. It became formative for her prayer life and discipline. “I built on what I learned in childhood, and when I was at Wartburg College as a student. But in Iran I explored contemplative prayer. I had the gift of time.”

Prayer became an important component of her Iran captivity. “I tried to listen to God, to be in God’s presence. At first, I was left only with what I could recite from memory. After a while, we were given some books. I received a Revised Standard Version of the Bible from my captors. That became a valuable tool for me. I started reading prayers in the Book of Psalms.”

She says, “Those psalms are amazing prayers. The ones that speak anger were especially helpful. I realized it’s okay to be angry. I learned the importance of reconciliation. I realized that wishing someone would ‘go to hell’ helps no one. It will destroy the one wishing it.”

She remembers, while in captivity, making a discovery in a Bible verse she thought she already understood. “In Luke 6 we are told to love our enemies. We are not asked to ‘try to do it.’ We are commanded to do it! It’s a direct command from Jesus.”

The discovery was surprising. “I figured that, if it’s a command, God will enable me to do it.” As a result, she says, “I didn’t come home from Iran carrying bitterness with me.”

How is it possible that her captors would give her a Bible while she was in prison? “Islam respects Christianity’s concern for ‘The Book.’ In addition, they knew I was religious.”

These days Koob teaches a course in reconciliation at her alma mater, Wartburg College, an ELCA school in Waverly, Iowa. And she does numerous workshops on spirituality and prayer. One was planned for Mount Carmel Lutheran Church in northeast Minneapolis on October 7-8 (see this month’s on-line calendar).

“Prayer is instinctive,” she says. “People say, ‘My God!’ That’s a prayer. But there’s a lot we can — and should — learn about prayer.”

She says, “I pray in many different ways. Prostration — lying flat on the ground — is a very significant style. There is something about humbling one’s self.” She admits she rarely uses this posture.

“I also regularly do ‘prayer walking.’ I did it in Iran, often in my room, walking in place. I’d devote some of my steps to certain people.”

She also recommends “popcorn prayers,” little prayer thoughts that just “pop out.”

Can a believer actually obey the scriptural injunction to ‘pray without ceasing?’ Koob says yes. “It has to do with the rhythms of our life — even when breathing in and out. Prayer can crowd into all sorts of things and plans and times. You can talk to someone and be praying for them at the same time.

She suggests imitating those who pray through their Christmas card mailing list, dividing the names into months and weeks and days, attending to the names they write to at year’s end.

She says we can, and do, even pray for people we don’t know. “In Iran, I knew people were praying for me, people who didn’t really know who I was.”

Does intercessory prayer ‘work?’ Koob says, “That’s not at issue. Praying can move me to take an action. Prayers for the sick can help. Medical staff often report patients do ‘better than they should have.’ Those of us who prayed for them know why they did.”

And, why don’t people pray more? “I think people are afraid of praying. They think they ‘can’t do it right.’ Prayer doesn’t have to be formal or sculpted, just heartfelt.” Not to pray, she says, is to deny God, and to deny part of who we really are.