Prayer and the Common Life by Georgia Harkness
Georgia Harkness was educated at Cornell University, Boston University School of Theology, studied at Harvard & Yale theological seminaries and at Union Theological Seminary of New York. She has taught at Elmira College, Mount Holyoke, and for twelve years was professor of applied theology at Garrett Biblical Institute. In 1950 she became professor of applied theology at the Pacific School of Religion, in Berkeley, California. Published by Abingdon Press, New York, Nashville. Copyright by Stone & Pierce 1968. The material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Chapter 2: Prayer as Adoration and Thanksgiving
Prayer, like music, can make an impact on the soul without one’s understanding much about its construction. One does not have to be a John Philip Sousa to be set tapping the floor at the stirring rhythm of The Stars and Stripes Forever. One does not have to be able to compose Handel’s Messiah or Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony to be lifted by what Handel and Beethoven put into immortal harmonies. Nevertheless, in the field of prayer as of music or any other art, knowledge of form and structure is important. The composer must have technical knowledge before he can create the work of beauty, and the more the listener knows about the composition the keener his enjoyment. In prayer, one is at the same time composer and listener. The difference between random chatter and great praying is not simply a matter of feeling, but also of understanding and skill in putting into the prayer what rightly belongs there.
I do not mean to imply that prayer is to be judged mainly by beauty of expression. Public prayer ought to be beautiful, not with the adornment of elegant phrases but with chiseled simplicity of diction. In private prayer one need not think about this. But in any prayer there ought to be deep feeling and varied moods expressed in fitting form. To continue our analogy, if one has too shallow or too narrow an idea of prayer, he is likely to keep repeating the same words and phrases like a child strumming out some monotonous little tune. Much emptiness and aimlessness in prayer could be avoided by a better understanding of its structure. Prayer is never mainly technique, but without some system it tends to become emotional floundering instead of life-giving movement toward fellowship with God.
The Moods of Prayer
What must we have in prayer to make it prayer? Petition is what comes to the lips oftenest and most naturally, but if prayer is petition only, it soon degenerates into self-centered clamor for the things we want. Petition is a rightful element in prayer; in a sense it is prayer, but only in a setting that makes it an expression of the total religious life.
There is a natural sequence in the elements that constitute prayer. It begins in worship in lifting of the soul to God in adoration and praise. By this act the attention is directed outward and upward, and the worshiper assumes an attitude of reverent receptivity without which no prayer is possible. With adoration is usually joined thanksgiving -- a particularizing of praise in terms of emotions not only of reverence but also of gratitude. Contemplation of the greatness and goodness of God, if seriously engaged in, brings naturally a sense of the worshiper’s unworthiness and leads on to confession. Here belongs rigorous, honest, even painful self-examination -- the attempt to see oneself, without hypocrisy or self-justification, as he really is when measured by the high demands of God. It is basic to Christian faith that God’s forgiveness and mercy are available to him who truly repents and seeks God’s cleansing. Hence, confession should lead to petition. Petition covers a wide range of elements, but should at the least include prayer not only for forgiveness but for wisdom and strength to go forward in closer fellowship with God and obedience to his will. What we ask for ourselves, we ought to ask for others, and petition thus merges with intercession. But to ask for God’s good gifts, whether for ourselves or for others, is a shirking of responsibility unless we intend to act, and we are thus led on to the prayer of dedication or commitment. This is the point for the crystallization of resolution and strengthening of will without which prayer becomes an emotional luxury, evading action. With a final word of assurance of God’s power and victory -- "thine is the kingdom . . ." -- and the ascription of the prayer in Christ’s name -- "through Jesus Christ our Lord --" the natural movement is rounded out, and the prayer comes to an appropriate close.
The above is not intended as any fixed pattern for prayer. Though it may prove suggestive either for one’s private praying or the formulation of pulpit prayers, it is not to be supposed that a prayer to be "right" must conform to it. God demands of us no mold, and the Holy Spirit may move through quite other channels. However, if any of these elements is habitually neglected in prayer, something vital drops out of it.
Perhaps the reader may wonder why there has not been included among these steps what is often regarded as the most distinctive note in prayer -- wordless, inward communion. I do not discount its importance. It occupies a high place among the saints who have been masters m prayer. There is a measure of validity in the mystical "ladder of perfection" which finds a progression in the devout life from purgation through illumination to communion or union with God. Nevertheless, for most persons who pray within the setting of the common life it is not fruitful to regard such communion as a separate stage in prayer, set off as a higher attainment. All true prayer is communion with God. One may well regard all of the steps and elements outlined above as forms of it. But to suppose that one has not really communed with God until his own personality is lost in the Infinite and he is oblivious to all else is to call for an experience which, whether desirable or not, is seldom attainable. It is better to set one’s sights lower and find prayer meaningful than to long for a climactic experience which may never come.
Let us, therefore, review the elements involved in the natural movement of prayer, expecting to find our communion not beyond but within it. Some words will be in order on questions that emerge along the way.
Adoration and Praise
About the appropriateness of adoring and praising God there can be no question if one believes in God and in worship. It lies at the heart of all religion, and is the point at which glorifying God, which is religion, is to be differentiated from using God, which is magic. It has practical value, for much of the self-centered worldliness and hence the collapse of modern society can be traced to its disuse. However, it is not to be judged by its usefulness or measured by any considerations of expediency. To praise God is to rejoice in God; to turn attention from self to God; to glory, not in anything that one is or possesses of his own, but in the supreme fact that God is and we possess him. This must, of course, seem foolishness to the atheist or to the "hard-headed" man who wants to calculate the dividends on any emotional expenditure. But so must any adoration -- whether in romantic love or dedication to ends and ideals beyond oneself. To adore and praise God is no more irrational than is any other high commitment of the soul, and it is the natural, most elemental mood of prayer.
How to formulate fitting words of worship and praise is a more difficult question. It is necessary on the one hand to avoid sentimentality, and on the other sterility. "Comely praise" must have dignity and good taste, as befits the majesty of God; yet it must be vital and from the heart. It must be true to what we believe about God; yet it must quicken the emotions rather than give information or theological analysis. Adoration is the surge of the spirit of man upward and Godward.
Fortunately for public worship, our heritage is rich with great materials. The dominant mood of the psalms is that of adoration and praise. There is scarcely a page of the Bible that does not yield some such expression, and the more familiar with the Bible one is, the more its majestic and meaningful phrases find a natural place in one’s praying. Consult, for example, the Private Devotions of Lancelot Andrewes, who was one of the translators of the King James Version of the Bible, and note how the Biblical phrases permeate his prayers to give them great overtones of devotion.
The prayers of the Church which have been used through the centuries, such as the English Book of Common Prayer, contain many moods but center in the adoration and praise which lie at the heart of worship. Fortunately the Episcopalians have no monopoly on the Prayer Book! Many of these prayers have been incorporated in the Methodist Book of Worship for Church and Home. Others may be found in Prayers Ancient and Modern compiled by Mary W. Tileston, and in numerous other devotional manuals. The more one familiarizes himself with such time-honored prayers, the more his own praying is enriched by alignment with the central sources of vitality from which the Church has drawn its power.
Most of the great church music also provides a fitting vehicle of worship and praise. In music the petitionary end of prayer, at least petition for specific things, is at a minimum and praise and adoration are the dominant moods -- think of the hymns you like best, and see if this is not the case. Not all of our hymns, but many hymns, spirituals, carols, chants, and oratorios express with marvelous beauty and dignity the impulse of the human spirit to bless and glorify God.
But how shall we do this in our private prayer? There is no single pattern to follow. However, I suspect that this element is often left out of private praying for sheer lack of knowing what to say that might be appropriate. Certainly not many persons can be expected to think up, offhand, words adequate to the greatness and glory of God! Rather than omit such expression, one may well draw upon his memory of passages in the Bible, or repeat the words of a familiar hymn. Such words as these never wear out:
Bless the Lord, O my soul;
Blessing, and glory, and wisdom, and thanks-
The use of a devotional manual can be very helpful. That is, it can be if one takes the time to let the words convey their message, and does not make the reading of words a substitute for prayer.
At a conference held some years ago a student arose at the opening session and said, "I move that we make the devotions snappy, for we’ve a lot of work to do!" This epitomizes the tendency of our age to trust in speed and efficiency. In our praying, as in everything else, we want labor-saving devices to get it done for us as soon as possible. This is one point at which God firmly but insistently says No. "They that wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary." We are nowhere told that the way to "wait for the Lord" is to keep on the wing.
With praise and adoration to God comes thanksgiving to him for his good gifts. In the devotional life these moods are intertwined, and we discuss them separately only for the sake of further analysis of the place of gratitude in prayer. We ought to praise God anyway for being what he is, quite regardless of our particular blessings. Otherwise our worship is not centered in God but in ourselves. Yet praise leads normally to the mood of thanksgiving for God’s bounties.
This linking of thanksgiving with praise is evident in great numbers of the Biblical prayers. The one hundredth psalm -- from which the hymn "Old Hundredth" is derived -- is typical:
Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands.
Here in one unitary act of worship we find expressed thanksgiving, praise, assurance of God’s creation and continuing care, and the abounding joy of the worshiper. All of these elements hang together, and if any one of them were omitted, all the rest would be weakened.
This note of rejoicing, thanksgiving, and praise is the mood of virtually all of the psalms. This is not surprising, for the Book of Psalms is a collection of hymns. It was the hymnal of the temple that was rebuilt after the return of the Hebrews from exile in Babylon, and reflects the mature religious experience of the people.
Elsewhere in the Old Testament petition is more common than thanksgiving, as it is ever too prone to be. Yet notes of thanksgiving appear on many pages. Sometimes this takes the form simply of a pervasive joy. Again, it is more specifically stated. It was one of the chief duties of the Levites "to thank and praise Jehovah" each morning and evening. (I Chronicles 28:30.) The people were enjoined to bring a basket of the first fruits to the altar and with it to offer a prayer of thanksgiving. (Deuteronomy 26:6-10.) In various places prayers of gratitude are recorded for the birth of a child, (I Samuel 2:1). for recovery from illness, (Isaiah 88:10-20.) for land and sustenance, (Deuteronomy 8:7-10.) for victory in battle. (Exodus 15; Judges 5). Sometimes such prayers are tainted with human weakness, as in David’s rejoicing that God had put Nabal out of his way by death. (I Samuel 25:39.) In other passages they rise to heights of grateful joy in God’s redemption of the soul of the worshiper from destruction. (As in Isaiah 38:17; Job 33:26-28; Lamentations 3:55-58.)
In the New Testament thanksgiving has relatively a larger place than in the Old. Both Jesus and Paul followed the usual Jewish custom of giving thanks before partaking of food, and the example of Jesus has made grace before meat an important part of the Christian cultus. That this is now so often neglected even in Christian families is an evidence of the inroads of secularism upon the religious life.
Not many of the prayers of Jesus have been preserved, but we can be grateful for the fragment which represents him as saying, "I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou didst hide these things from the wise and understanding, and didst reveal them unto babes." Such thanksgiving for God’s disclosure of himself to the humblest is in keeping with Jesus’ spirit and sense of mission. The prayer at the Last Supper recorded in John 17, though mainly intercessory, has in it great overtones of thanksgiving for his disciples, for God’s care of them, and for the work he has been permitted to do. Though we can only guess what Jesus said on the numerous occasions when he went apart to pray, we can scarcely doubt that gratitude to God had a large place in such seasons of withdrawal.
The literature of the early church overflows with joyous thanksgiving for Jesus Christ and the gift of his gospel. Whether we find it in the Magnificat of Mary,
My soul doth magnify the Lord,
or in the lovely prayer of Simeon,
Now lettest thou thy servant depart, Lord,
or in Paul’s turbulent outburst of joy in the gift beyond all description,
Thanks be to God for his unspeakable gift,
or in the hallelujahs with which the book of Revelation abounds, the mood of the first Christians was decidedly one of grateful praise. Paul in his letters often thanks God for his fellow Christians and calls upon them "in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving" to let their requests be made known unto God.
This brief survey of the Biblical prayers of thanksgiving suggests the place that gratitude ought to have in our own praying. First, there is the general prayer of thanksgiving. Whether we use the great Prayer of General Thanksgiving that has been used through the centuries, or formulate our own, we ought daily to give humble and hearty thanks to God for "our creation, preservation and all the blessings of this life." To be a Christian is to be happy in God, and whether or not we can sing with our lips, we ought with grateful hearts to render to him our tribute of thanksgiving for our very existence
But beyond this, there is a place for many specific prayers of thanksgiving. There is a gospel hymn with a too jingly tune but a sound meaning which says,
Count your many blessings, name them one by one,
If one is tempted to feel discouraged or unhappy, there is no better corrective than to do exactly this. And whether downcast or lighthearted, we ought to thank God for such great blessings as homes, friends, health, enough to eat and to wear, freedom, the beauty of the world and its nourishing sustenance, the chance to work and to play and to enjoy many things. Until something happens to withdraw for a time one or more of these great gifts, we are altogether too prone to take them for granted.
The question may arise as to whether we have a right to thank God for these bountiful blessings when so many lack them. Certainly we have no right in the spirit of the Pharisee to thank God that we are "not as other men are." It is by the gift of God, not through our merit, that any of these things has come to us. We ought not to thank God for them without being sensitively aware of the misery and confusion of the world, penitent for our share in causing it, responsive to the call of God to help make possible for all men the blessings in which we rejoice. "To whomsoever much is given, of him shall much be required."
Finally, we ought to do what the early church did, and what many Christians in persecution and imprisonment in our time have done -- rejoice in the Lord Jesus Christ. When Paul was a prisoner in Rome facing towards death he could say, "Rejoice in the Lord always: again I will say, Rejoice . . . . The Lord is at hand. In nothing be anxious." When earthly securities have been swept away, the vitality of Christian faith has again and again been seen in the power of Christians to rejoice in the Lord in the midst of tribulation. What is so clearly demonstrated in time of crisis ought to be the constant, daily experience of the Christian.
We shall not attempt here to say much about how this note of thanksgiving and joy in the Lord shall be woven into our prayers. If one feels it in his heart, the words will come. Every prayer whether public or private ought to have something of this mood in it. Even in the midst of business or pleasure one may well utter inwardly little shafts of joyous thanks. To do so makes the day brighter and gives the soul an orientation desperately needed in our troubled times.
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