“Walking the Walk:” Prayer as Action.


P.T. Forsyth (1848-1921) is so quotable that you can practically open any of his books at random and find nuggets of truth and grace, which is pretty much what I have done today.

This one is on prayer.  For Forsyth prayer was not at all passive, but powerfully active. Here is one of his thoughts about what today we might call “walking the walk as well as talking the talk.” It is a perfect thought for Lent:

A prayer is also a promise. Every true prayer carries with it a vow. If it do not, it is not in earnest. It is not of a piece with life. Can we pray in earnest if we do not in the act commit ourselves to do our best to bring about the answer? Can we escape some kind of hypocrisy? This is especially so with intercession. What is the value of praying for the poor if all the rest of our time and interest is given only to becoming rich . . .

If we pray for our child that he may have God’s blessing, we are really promising that nothing shall be lacking on our part to be a divine blessing to him. And if we have no kind of religious relation to him (as plenty of Christian parents have none), our prayer is quite unreal, and its failure should not be a surprise.

To pray for God’s kingdom is also to engage ourselves to service and sacrifice for it. To begin our prayer with a petition for the hallowing of God’s name and to have no real and prime place for holiness in our life or faith is not sincere.

The prayer of the vindictive for forgiveness is mockery, like the prayer for daily bread from a wheat-cornerer. No such man could say the Lord’s Prayer but to his judgement.

What would happen to the Church if the Lord’s Prayer became a test for membership as thoroughly as the Creeds have been? The Lord’s Prayer is also a vow to the Lord. . .

Great worship of God is also a great engagement of ourselves, a great committal of our action. To begin the day with prayer is but a formality unless it go on in prayer, unless for the rest of it we pray in deed what we began in word. (“The Soul of Prayer,” p 27-28)

(Photo:  R. L. Floyd, Living Water 2,  Pittsfield State Forest, March 2010)

P. T. Forsyth on “The Sin of Prayerlessness”


Prayer often does not comes easily for me.  Like many theologs I frequently would rather talk about God than to God.  There have been times when I was too full of guilt, or shame, or whatever, to have the kind of self-scrutiny that honest prayer requires.  I confess that some of these long periods of prayerlessness have been during times when I was writing lofty theological ideas.  Sometimes I know I am just avoiding God because He just seems too much for me, which is, of course, a lie.  I am reminded of Abraham Heschel’s insight that “if it seems that God is silent in our time, it is because we are avoiding him.”

But prayer is essential to faith.  P.T. Forsyth once said that “prayer is to religion what research is to science.”  Recently Kevin Davis, whose blog, “After Existentialism, Light,” is well worth a visit, posted one of my favorite quotes about prayer from Forsyth.

This Forsyth quote always judges me, but also somehow lifts me up. It also has about it the ring of truth from a man who knew what prayer was about. In this Lenten Season of self-examination and repentance it is just what I need. Perhaps you, too?

The worst sin is prayerlessness. Overt sin, or crime, or the glaring inconsistencies which often surprise us in Christian people are the effect of this, or its punishment. We are left by God for lack of seeking Him. The history of the saints shows often that their lapses were the fruit and nemesis of slackness or neglect in prayer. Their life, at seasons, also tended to become inhuman by their spiritual solitude. They left men, and were left by men, because they did not in their contemplation find God; they found but the thought or the atmosphere of God. Only living prayer keeps loneliness humane. It is the great producer of sympathy. Trusting the God of Christ, and transacting with Him, we come into tune with men. Our egoism retires before the coming of God, and into the clearance there comes with our Father our brother. . . .

Not to want to pray, then, is the sin behind sin. And it ends in not being able to pray. That is its punishment — spiritual dumbness, or at least aphasia, and starvation. We do not take our spiritual food, and so we falter, dwindle, and die. “In the sweat of your brow ye shall eat your bread.”(“The Soul of Prayer,” in A Sense of the Holy, p. 137)

If you don’t know this little book on prayer, which is a reprint of three of Forsyth’s sermons, you should, for it is one of the best around. It is a favorite of Eugene Peterson, who wrote a foreword to one of the newest editions.

(Photo: R. L. Floyd.  Living Water.  Churchill Trail, Pittsfield State Forest,  3/2010)

A George Herbert Poem about PRAYER

The Welsh Metaphysical poet George Herbert (3 April 1593 –-1 March 1633) is one of my favorite poets who deals with religious themes, my other favorites being Isaac Watts, John Donne, and Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Herbert was a well-educated man who became an accomplished poet and noted orator. He served in parliament for two years, but in his late thirties gave up secular life to take holy orders in the Church of England. He spent the rest of his short life as the rector of a small parish, Fugglestone ST Peter with Bemerton St Andrew, in Wiltshire near Salisbury.

He was known as a faithful pastor to his flock, unfailing in his care of the sick, to whom he brought the sacrament, and to the poor, to whom he provided food and clothing. He himself was in poor health and died of tuberculosis just three years after his ordination. Here is one of his poems about prayer:

PRAYER the Churches banquet, Angels age,
Gods breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth;

Engine against th’ Almightie, sinner’s tower,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six daies world-transposing in an hour,
A kinde of tune, which all things heare and fear;

Softnesse, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted Manna, gladnesse of the best,
Heaven in ordinarie, man well dress,
The milkie way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bels beyond the stars heard, the souls blood,
The land of spices, something understood.

(Herbert, George. The Poetical Works of George Herbert. New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1857. 61-62.)

Prayer for a Retired Pastor

In the several months since I started this blog I have had quite a number of visits from people doing a Google search for “Retired Pastor.” Many of them are looking for things to say at a retirement for their pastor, a farewell sermon or a prayer. Instead they have found things like long treatises on eschatology, rants about the Red Sox, and borscht recipes.

Never being one to want to disappoint I decided to write a prayer for a retired pastor. I may be retired, but I can still write a prayer. So here it is. I started out writing a rather generic one with (name) and (his/her), but it came out eerily disembodied. So I fell back on an ancient practice, and called my retiring pastor Theophilus, the addressee of Luke’s Gospel and the Book of Acts, a name that translates from the Greek roughly as “friend of God,” or “beloved of God.” Since I never knew Theophilus I just wrote the kind of things that I would have liked to have been prayed when I retired, so in a sense this prayer is, at least partly, for myself.

Prayer for a Retired Pastor

Almighty and ever-living Father, before whose face the generations rise and fall, we give you thanks and praise for all the blessings of this day, and for all the ways, in season and out of season, that you provide for us.

In this season, on this day, we invoke your Holy presence upon this congregation as it gathers in memory and hope to thank and bless this, your servant, Theophilus, at the conclusion of his active ministry.

We give you thanks for those early promptings of your gentle Spirit that stirred his heart to consider this holy calling. As “young men shall see visions and old men shall dream dreams,” we praise you for the persistent vision that led him through long years of service as a minister of your Word.

We thank you for bestowing the necessary graces upon him for carrying out the work to which you called him. Through trials and temptations your eternal presence strengthened and comforted him. In the dry seasons you provided him with living waters to restore his soul. Your unseen hand supported him with the courage needed for the struggles to make real the love of Jesus Christ by word and deed. In the face of disappointments you surprised him again and again with unexpected joy.

Lord God, without whose daily grace none could stand, we earnestly entreat you now to forgive Theophilus all his shortcomings and failures in your service, and to endow him with a calm mind and a peaceful heart as he concludes his days of active service. Remind him that your ways are not our ways, and your thoughts are not our thoughts, and that the seeds he sowed and planted and watered during his ministry often only bear fruit in your good time, unseen and unknown except by you.

Our times are in your hands, O God. Bless Theophilus now in this new season of his life and this new chapter in his calling, that his remaining years may be full and fruitful, and assure him of his place, by your grace, among the great cloud of witnesses, living and dead, who have witnessed to your truth and lived out your love. And when his days come to an end grant him the gift of peace and the assurance of everlasting life, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

More Ruminations on Prayer

Last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine article “Is There a Right Way to Pray?” (by Zev Chafets) stresses the dizzying diversity of practices among different religious traditions. But even within all this diversity there seems to be a common felt need.

This raises the question of whether the impulse to pray is a universal human experience, an example of what my tradition calls “common grace.” Could it be that we are “hard-wired” to speak our deepest needs, hopes and fears to the Other who transcends us.

Author Frederick Buechner suggests as much when he writes: “Everybody prays whether you think of it as praying or not. The odd silence you fall into when something very beautiful is happening or something very good or very bad. The ah-h-h-h! that sometimes floats up out of you as out of a Fourth of July crowd when the sky-rocket bursts over the water. The stammer of pain at somebody else’s pain. The stammer of joy at somebody else’s joy. Whatever words or sounds you use for sighing with over your own life. These are all prayers in their way.”

These are all prayers because in some sense they are addressed not merely to oneself but to an(other.) To use the language of Martin Buber, prayer in any form is an “I-Thou” relationship, where our address, even when it starts as interior monologue, finds the unseen conversation partner. The “I” finds a “Thou.”

My friend and former colleague Rabbi Dennis Ross and I used to talk about this from the perspectives of our respective traditions. He uses this language of “I-Thou” from Buber to explore all our relationships, including the primal relationship with God, in his fine and accessible book God in Our Relationships. Like Beuchner, Rabbi Ross (who is also a social worker) finds prayer not by looking inward to special spiritual states, but by paying attention to one’s relationships. It is here, in the shared quotidian activities of ordinary life that God may be discerned and known. Rabbi Ross says, “The I-Thou relationship comes easily and often, over breakfast or at work, in the classroom or at the gym as well as in turning points of life.”

“Gimme! Thanks! Oops! And Wow!”

I always thought I had a simple explanation for the types of prayer. In innumerable sermons, children’s messages, confirmation classes, and adult education sessions I told people there are four kinds of prayer: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication.

To quote from my own A Course in Basic Christianity: “Many prayers begin with Adoration, which is a prayer that asks for nothing but simply praises God and expresses our love for God.

Often such prayer brings us to a realization of God’s majesty and power and our humbleness in relationship to it and we are drawn to Confession, which is prayer that expresses to God the things for which we are sorry and need forgiveness.

Thanksgiving is prayer that expresses gratitude to God for all the blessings we have received at God’s hands

Supplication is prayer that asks God for something to be accomplished, whether for ourselves, which is called Petition, or for others, which is called Intercession. If you take the first letter of each type of prayer, Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving and Supplication, you get the word ‘acts.’”

>Pretty neat and simple. But in Sunday’s NYT Magazine in an article by Zef Chafets asking “Is There a Right Way to Pray,” Rabbi Marc Gellman does it even better when he is quoted as saying, “But really, when it comes right down to it, there are only four basic prayers. Gimme! Thanks! Oops! And Wow!” Now that is simple.

Does it fit my template? Well. let’s see: Gimme is Supplication (Gimme for me is Petition, Gimme for them is Intercession); Thanks is Thanksgiving, obviously; Oops is Confession; and Wow is Adoration. There you have it. Wow!