Forms of Prayer


Psalter[This is taken from Russell H. Conwell’s Praying for Money.]

It appears that the extremest ritualist does not feel wholly bound to his prayer book. The people exercise great liberty in the choice of words or postures when they go to Christ in anxious prayer. Appropriate forms are reasonably sought for varying occasions, and some of the forms of prayer which are venerable for age and sublimity are reverenced and adopted because so often they best express the heart’s sincere desire. The Lord’s Prayer is recited with profit in a formal church service, but is seldom recited in time of extreme need. During the earthquake at San Francisco no one was known to have repeated the Lord’s Prayer. Christ directed his disciples to pray “after that manner,” and the spirit of that prayer, as well as the divine ideas or principles it contains, are applicable everywhere.

But the exact words in English are not adjustable to every occasion. Men in earnest ask for what they need in their own words and in their own way. The effectual and fervent prayer of the righteous man availeth much because it is fervent and righteous. To be in every way right, and then to add the inspiration or fire or fervency, are conditions which only the righteous can fill. But, happily, the sinner is not required to be right in all things before his prayer is heard. The stately dignity and beautiful phraseology of the Catholic churches, the impressive forms of the old English ritual, or the simple appeal of the mission worker are all alike acceptable to God when they are the expression of real heart worship or of a call for relief in some actual need.

In the worship at the Baptist Temple there has been no form of prayer in which the people so sincerely and so generally joined as in the prayers found in some of the hymns. A study of the human or apparent agencies which may have had some influence does not fully account for the spirit of prayer which some hymns awaken. A cool and analytical examination of this subject was made by the preacher one Sabbath morning for the purpose of recording it here. A relation of the plain facts, without using the circumstances to establish any sectarian theory, will most clearly set out the case before the impartial critic. The hymn chosen that morning for the opening of the service was selected chiefly because it is a prayer. The three verses are as follows:

Father, Whate’er of Earthly Bliss

Father, whate’er of earthly bliss
Thy sovereign will denies,
Accepted at thy throne of grace,
Let this petition rise:

Give me a calm, a thankful heart,
From every murmur free;
The blessings of thy grace impart,
And make me live to thee.

Let the sweet hope that thou art mine
My life and death attend,
Thy presence through my journey shine,
And crown my journey’s end.

The people were everywhere in motion. Some were coming in, some were standing near the doors, some were talking in low voices in the rear of the deep gallery, and many were arranging for their wraps or hats, while all, in the freedom of the social atmosphere ever prevailing there, were smilingly nodding to acquaintances or searching for hymn books. The opening chorus of the Children’s Church, at their regular service, in the lower hall, could be indistinctly heard. The painful and awkward silence which embarrasses and chills the incoming worshiper in some churches was altogether absent that morning. The preacher began to read the hymn without waiting for silence or attention. He simply remarked, “Let us sincerely and intelligently use this old hymn for our opening prayer.” The congregation arose while the organist played a sweet, tender prelude, giving the impression that the organ itself was praying. A fair-haired child, kneeling in a snow-white night robe, lisping its evening prayer, was suggested to hundreds by the worshipful music. The well-trained religious chorus began to sing with devotion and unity and opened the prayer with the harmonious call, “Father!” The congregation instinctively raised their eyes toward heaven. Then all came strongly into the hymn with the petition:

“Father, whate’er of earthly bliss
Thy sovereign will denies,
Accepted at thy throne of grace,
Let this petition rise:

“Give me a calm, a thankful heart,
From every murmur free;
The blessings of thy grace impart,
And make me live to thee.”

There was a single strain of an interlude and then the solemn prayer was entered upon with an unction and appreciation that thrilled every soul in the great audience:

“Let the sweet hope that thou art mine
My life and death attend,
Thy presence through my journey shine,
And crown my journey’s end

Then came a pause, and with a magnificent volume of sound the emphatic “Amen!” confirmed the earnestness of the prayer. That was a real prayer! The holiness of the spirit of worship had taken possession of the whole congregation. All were interested in the reading of the Bible, and when the notices were being read a most saintly old deacon sent up a slip of paper to the preacher on which were written these words—”Pastor, please give us another prayer for the next hymn!” The pastor read the note to the people without comment, and looked over the hymn book for another prayer, when his eyes fell on the following hymn:

Jesus, I My Cross Have Taken

Jesus, I my cross have taken,
All to leave and follow thee;
Naked, poor, despised, forsaken,
Thou, from hence, my all shalt be:
Perish every fond ambition,
All I’ve sought, and hop’d, and known;
Yet how rich is my condition,
God and heav’n are still my own!

Let the world despise and leave me,
They have left my Saviour, too;
Human hearts and looks deceive me;
Thou art not, like man, untrue;
And, while thou shalt smile upon me,
God of wisdom, love, and might,
Foes may hate and friends may shun me;
Show thy face, and all is bright.

Go, then, earthly fame and treasure!
Come, disaster, scorn, and pain!
In thy service, pain is pleasure;
With thy favor, loss is gain.
I have called thee, “Abba, Father”;
I have stayed my heart on thee,
Storms may howl, and clouds may gather,
All must work for good to me.

Man and trouble may distress me,
‘Twill but drive me to thy breast;
Life with trials hard may press me,
Heaven will bring me sweeter rest.
Oh, ’tis not in grief to harm me
While thy love is left to me;
Oh, ’twere not in joy to charm me
Were that joy unmixed with thee.

Know, my soul, thy full salvation;
Rise o’er sin, and fear, and care;
Joy to find in every station
Something still to do or bear.
Think what Spirit dwells within thee;
What a Father’s smile is thine;
What a Saviour died to win thee:
Child of heaven, shouldst thou repine?

Haste thee on from grace to glory,
Armed by faith and winged by prayer;
Heaven’s eternal day’s before thee,
God’s own hand shall guide thee there.
Soon shall close thy earthly mission,
Swift shall pass thy pilgrim days,
Hope shall change to glad fruition,
Faith to sight and prayer to praise.

Oh, pity the seekers after God who go to a house of prayer to be provoked and harassed by the performance of some gymnastic performance in acoustics, by some professional entertainer of theatrical audiences. Pity, indeed, the devout soul pleading for comfort in some deep sorrow whose sore heart is wrenched and bruised by the discordant attempts to leap, catlike, from shelf to shelf, up and down the musical scale. Pity the overtempted contrite sinner who enters to pray for the strength to keep his resolution to reform and finds himself in a sham ceremonial which introduces the inartistic performers who almost force him to do worse.

The extremely cultivated voice which seeks a prize exhibition of varied tones, or the extremely crude egotism of the community singer who ties himself in squirming knots as he yells the sacred and pathetic hymns which were written for the deep devotions of a broken heart are both sacrilegious and disgraceful. Pity the congregation who, after wasting a most precious hour inside, hasten out, discussing along the street the wonders of the wild musical exhibition, and forgetting that they went in to worship.

When the hymn we mentioned above was announced and read deliberately the preacher said, feelingly, “Let us pray!” The prayer in that hymn was used by all. As they sang, their faces flushed. Old men shed tears, and the preacher decided, before the last verse was sung, to take for his theme the last two lines:

Hope shall change to glad fruition,
Faith to sight and prayer to praise.

One could almost catch the gleam of the glories that John saw at Patmos. The place was a Bethel to all the assembly. All were glad they were marching on to Zion, and praised God with all their hearts for his promise of a home in that land where there is no night. The deep, soul-filled joy of the morning worship carried good cheer, hope, and courage into a thousand homes and made the week’s labors enjoyable and prosperous.

In choosing the form of prayer the temperament and state of health of the worshiper may be an important consideration. But whether in hymns or psalms or gestures, the call must be earnestly sincere. When the formal, monotonous recitations of the customary Church rituals are recalled it becomes a marvel that the Church survives the pious hypocrisy and sacrilegious indifference of the Church pulpits and altars. The pulpit is seen by all and the words and tones of the preacher are heard by all; the place is the most conspicuous in the church life; and if the action or the ceremony is hypocritical or careless there, then the whole church is permeated by the same spirit. The form of expression must be a secondary consideration in all prayer, while appropriateness and custom have rightfully an influence on the petition. Yet the essential thing is in the natural cry of a needy soul. Prayer, as a public function, should be a stimulant or an instructor leading the individuals in the congregation to pray by and for themselves. The people must pray. The need of this was apparent in many of the requests made for prayer at the Temple in Philadelphia. “Lord, teach us to pray,” is ever the appeal of the religious masses. The union of two or three in concerted prayer for a definite thing was very effective. The observation of the same hour by many people has often developed a deep religious life and secured practical results. The testimony of one active business man exhibited triumphantly the use of continuous prayer and may serve as a comprehensive illustration. He wrote:

I fought it out with myself, knowing the Lord Christ would work with me. When I awoke in the morning I thanked God for shelter and sleep. Then I began to pray for the least things of my morning preparations—my clothes, my bath, my comb and brush, my articles used in any way. I thanked God for, and prayed for, the continuance of his kindness. I managed to keep in a state of prayer at the breakfast table. I prayed for instruction in purchasing the necessities of the home. I prayed as I left my door. I prayed along the street for wisdom to transact business. I prayed for the persons I met on my way. I prayed for the clerks, for the customers, for thoughts, for words, for farsightedness, for a contented disposition consistent with activity. If I wrote a letter I asked the Lord to aid me in the writing and to protect the letter on to its delivery. I did not speak aloud or tell people I was praying. I kept the Lord constantly in mind. I had some discouraging experiences with myself, but I kept pursuing the idea. At last it grew easy and enjoyable. It was in every way a success. I did not waste my money. I did not carelessly destroy articles I used. I did not overeat. I did not get angry with my employees. I felt a real interest in the welfare of others. I did my best and left all to God. It is now a settled habit. My health is almost perfect. Before I began to pray I was asthmatic and gouty. If this has anything boastful about it, the Lord forgive me. But in the request for my experience you insisted on “frankness in all accounts.”

Whether it be possible for all to reach that prayerful condition and retain it permanently cannot be denied or asserted infallibly. But it is evident that but few reach it. The exhortation that is appropriate here appears to be to urge an honest effort to get as near to that devotional condition as possible and to hold all the ground we do gain.