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ON THE ABUSE AND NEGLECT OF PRAYER.
ON THE ABUSE AND NEGLECT OF PRAYER.
WHEN, in the sacred hours of devotion, our mind is uplifted to thee, thou God of love! and when the heart is blest in drawing near to thee then we feel most sensibly the high privilege of the Christian, to whom thou art Father, and the greatness of man, who may venture to address thee, although he is but dust and earth. We are thine, and thereby the entrance to all the riches of thy grace stands open to us, and the child rests glad and secure in a Father’s arms. Joy, and trust, and faith, and hope, and strength, and courage, take possession of our hearts, and in evil as well as good days, we are contented, because we belong to thee. O, let us never forget thee, and let us seek in thy presence that pure and lasting joy, which the world cannot give. Teach us to pray with devotion and faith, and make our hearts susceptible of that bliss, which a pious intercourse with thee imparts. Without thee there is no peace, and the soul wearies 44itself in the chase of worldly delusions. Thou alone canst appease its thirst; mayest thou fully satisfy it, here and in eternity! Rest on us thy spirit of strength and of prayer; even now we supplicate thee for it, as Jesus has taught us: Our Father, &c.
And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they nay be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, they have their reward. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou host shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.
ACKNOWLEDGE, my friends, in this direction for the right performance of a sacred Christian duty the superiority of the religion of Jesus, which removes all affectation of sanctity, all hypocrisy, and all pernicious superstition from our intercourse with God, and makes prayer the filial effusion of a pious, grateful,. and confiding soul. If it is undeniable, that this elevation of the heart to the Supreme Being must become a necessity to every thinking and feeling creature, which not even the most thoughtless and dissolute can always dispense with; if the slightest conception has ever been entertained of the blessing which attends such hours of devotion; 45it must appear incomprehensible, that what was most to be venerated, and conferred such blessings, should degenerate into idle ceremony; and that the expression of the holiest feelings should ever be exchanged for words uttered without thought, which deadens the mind and leaves the heart empty and cold. And yet our Redeemer found this abuse of what is most sacred general amongst his people. They had degraded prayer into a court-service, and thought to honour God, when they repeated words before him without consideration, and often and loudly addressed him, whilst they were far from him in heart and mind. They had converted their devotion into a trade, and prayed at the corners of the streets in order to be seen of men; that they might pass for pious, though their hearts were unclean and evil. They made many words, like the heathen, that they might without piety and faith, and merely through the charm of prayer, draw down heaven upon earth, bend the will of the Eternal, and extort his blessings; but as to the proper intercourse of a reverential soul with God, few amongst his contemporaries had any clear sense of it or any taste for it. The pious Man then taught men to pray, and opened to them therewith a new fountain of pure felicity, which hitherto had flowed copiously but for few. This is his merit, that he taught us to know the Father, and imparted to us a filial reverence of him, and only by these means was man 46qualified for prayer, and made capable of its blessings. As long, my friends, as love of the world, indolence, and religious indifference, prevent thousands from performing this sacred duty; as long as one portion of Christians is ashamed of intercourse with God, or asserts it to be useless and a waste of time, and another with gross superstition considers prayer as rendering a service to God, and as a secret influence for biassing eternal destiny; as long as others with vile hypocrisy profane what is most sacred, and carry on a sordid trade with their sanctimonious manners; so long are the instructions and warnings of Jesus not superfluous, and meditation thereon may still be highly fruitful in disseminating a pure worship of God, and a genuine religious temper. And this determines us to call your attention to-day to two equally important defects, and to discourse at present on the abuse, and the neglect, of prayer.
When man discerns in the appearances of the visible world the eternal, invisible, creating Spirit, which animates and fills all things, and whose breath pervades the whole creation; when he perceives his power and wisdom and goodness in the smallest as in the greatest of his works, and does homage to the Exalted One, whom no eye can behold and no thought can reach; when every thing around him points to a hidden first Cause, and the mind which thinks within him makes him sensible of his 47descent from this ineffable Being; then holy feelings are awakened in his breast, with high animation he utters the name of the Creator of worlds.—He, he alone, fills his whole soul, and his mute delight becomes a prayer, with which he praises that glorious Being, whose honour the heavens declare, and whose wonders the whole earth proclaims. At one time this holy feeling pours itself forth in loud hymns; at another it remains speechless, confined in the breast, the tongue devoid of utterance, and becomes the silent adoration of the soul in spirit and in truth. When man has a lively feeling of his dependence on this exalted Being, when he acknowledges his own impotency, and must be sensible that he is but dust which God’s breath animates during his pleasure; when with all his efforts he cannot add one cubit to his stature, nor secure one hair on his head, and receives and must expect all that he has and stands in need of from the hand of the Lord of nature; then he prostrates himself before the Mighty One, who creates and destroys, who gives and takes away, who orders the whole destiny of man, his prosperity and adversity, and brings the thanksgiving and the wishes of his heart before him who knoweth the heart, and stammers out his petitions for the manifold gifts of life to him, who rules over inexhaustible abundance—the sense of his weaknesses and his wants inclines the soul to lift itself devoutly to God, and prays! When 48man feels the iron stroke Of fate, and vainly contends against the hidden power, to which kings as well as beggars are subject; when he struggles with severe trials and sorrows, and in the night of misfortune beholds no guiding star enlightening his path till the coming of a brighter day; then he pours out his lamentation before the Lord of fate, and implores consolation and help from the Mighty One, from whom help must come; he prays in anguish of soul; and faith and trust, peace and hope, return into the mournful heart. The exigencies of life lead the way to devout, indefatigable prayer; when calamity assails a man, he seeks God, and, when he chastises, cries to him in his agony. Is it not then incontrovertible, my friends, that prayer is as much a necessity for man, as it is the duty of a rational creature towards the Creator? Every reflection on God and nature and ourselves involuntarily raises the soul to him; every remembrance of our limited faculties and weakness leads us to him; every earthly want bears us from earth to the heaven above, where dwells our help, and every wish of the heart seeks to be expressed before Him, who can satisfy the wishes of the heart. And whoever has not in his own life felt any incitement to prayer, verily, he has renounced his rational nature, and lives like the beast, without the most distant idea of his superior dignity and his nobler calling. Must it not then surprise us that there can be any persons, 49who have so little sense of holy things, that they profane these blissful outpourings of the heart to God, and convert prayer into an idle babbling; which gives the lie to devotion; who put on the semblance of godliness, whose power they deny? Men, who go forth with pious mien, and pray at the corners of the streets, with the crafty intention of being seen and praised, or who think that prayer is a service which must be agreeable to the Eternal, even when the heart has no participation in it, and knows not what the mouth speaks! Or those who ascribe a secret power to a multitude of words and the frequent repetitions of studied forms, and fancy they can give the law to heaven and turn fate by the charm of prayers uttered without devotion and without sense!
And yet there are hypocrites and superstitious persons in abundance, who know not the blessedness of a pious intercourse with God, and do not feel its necessity, and who exercise a mere trade with their affected sanctity; who would either deceive men, or prevail upon the Eternal to reward their thoughtless worship, and whose hearts are incapable of that sensibility, which true devotion must produce. “I tell you,” says Jesus, “they have their reward.’ ” They defraud themselves of the happiest hours of life, and of the sublimest feelings of which the mortal breast is capable.
Yet, perhaps, the number of those is still greater 50who do not consider it worth the trouble to deceive the world, and who entirely neglect and scorn prayer. The spirit of the time may be changed, but its fruit is not more gratifying than that of earlier ages. In the place of the abuse which was practised in prayer, an aversion from prayer has crept in amongst us, and superstition and hypocrisy are supplanted, not by the spirit of a purer sense of religion, but by levity and forgetfulness of God. Look into Christian families around you, look to yourselves and your nearest acquaintances. Where is that pious disposition of our fathers, which began and ended every thing with God? How many still think of making a quiet intercourse with him their most important and daily occupation, and of preparing themselves by devotion for the most decisive steps and the most momentous undertakings of their lives? How many can yet say with David, “It is good for me to hold me fast by God, to put my trust in the Lord God'?” “Have I not remembered thee in my bed, and thought upon thee when I was waking?” We are become strange to him, and he to us: we fancy ourselves gods who do not need his aid; we ourselves create and govern, and imagine ourselves to be supreme. We emerge from the arms of sleep, and lay ourselves down to rest, we enjoy the gifts of the earth, and take the blessings of fortune, and no eye looks gratefully, no hand is raised adoringly, towards heaven. We often 51hear prayer in the church, or at solemnities, or at the table supplied for our use, and we are ashamed so much as to clasp the hands before God; we act the part of absent men, and pity those weak persons, who are not yet able to break loose from the antiquated custom. We educate our children in all knowledge worth acquiring—the art of praying we hold unnecessary for them, and a generation grows up, to whom the first thing, which used formerly to be entrusted to the young soul to keep, remains unknown; and it is no exaggeration when I assert, that hundreds of adult Christians do not know nor understand even the prayer which Jesus taught his disciples. Thus we giddily proceed through life without God, and when at length his hand lies heavy upon us, and calamity reminds us of his existence and his power, then we have forgotten how to draw near to him; we are become strangers in our Father’s house, love and faith and trust have departed from us, and we are alone with our pain, and without comfort, on the day of affliction.
Friends, if this is to be the fruit of our superior information, O then let us wish back again the times of pious simplicity and an unsophisticated fear of God; the world was then happier, and richer in nobleness of mind than in the enjoyments of life. The wisdom in which we pride ourselves does not replace that peace-inspiring belief in a higher Being, 52who is a Father to us, and the independence of which we boast, does not render us so happy as the feeling that we belong to the Lord of Spirits, who accepts and guides with love those who come to him with love and a clean heart. O, ye know not what delights ye rob yourselves of, when ye shun acquaintance with the holy and gracious One, who ought to be all things to you! In the stillness of solitude the mina collects itself to more serious thoughts and to holy feelings; it is then nearer to that Being who fills all in all, and is blest in this proximity. Then is the soul elevated to God, the restless turmoil of earth and its low occupations disappear before the Eternal, and man looks on himself as a citizen of a higher world. Then faith and love and hope bear him on the wings of devotion to God above, and a heaven opens to the enraptured sight. Then confidence gives utterance to our wishes, and heavy distress is poured out before the Father in meek lamentation, and the heart beats with more ease and tranquillity. Then composure and consolation flow into sorrowing souls, and we collect fortitude from these hours to bear the anxieties of life, and God’s strength proves mighty in the weak. Then we learn worthily to wage the hot conflict of life, and remain conquerors even in death. In every thing we triumph, for “Faith is the victory which overcometh the world77 1 John v. 4..” 53O, all ye pious souls, to whom prayer is not yet foolishness nor a subject of ridicule, declare aloud to your brethren what enjoyment ye owe to conversation with God, and that ye have known no brighter and more delightful hour than that in which ye have lived to him and to yourselves alone. Tell them aloud, “one day in his courts is better than a thousand” spent elsewhere; and teach them that man, whether in prosperity or adversity, cannot do without his God. If in the storms of life and in severe trials ye have indebted to a belief in his wisdom and love, and to the effusions of the oppressed heart before him, for rest and strength and comfort and serenity, proclaim it loudly, that faith and prayer were the firm supports which prevented you from sinking, and that there is no joy to be compared with that of holding fast by God.
May this pious temper again return to an erring generation; may the Holy One, who taught us to pray in spirit and in truth, find us obedient disciples! Ah! we stand in need of this temper in times of disturbance, of care, and endless confusion; and when the mind does not learn to seek refuge in God, it loses itself in the stormy tumult of life, and its fairest hopes and joys perish. Let us pray, in order to be acquainted with the God to whom we belong, and to whom we go; let us pray in the time of prosperity that lie may hear us when we are in trouble. Let us pray in the stillness of solitude 54and in the assembly of our brethren, where congregational devotion more strongly affects the mind, and excites feelings which disclose a heaven to us. Let us pray even in this hour, as Jesus taught us to pray. O, this hour is sacred to me, which has gratified the fondest wish of my heart, once again to pray with you, with you, whom no distance has estranged from the heart that loves: with you and for you, and for the welfare of this country and mankind. That the kingdom of God may come to us; that truth may spread abroad, and virtue predominate; that piety and the obedience of childhood may rest upon us all, and godliness be productive of a happy life; that our native country may prosper, and its revered prince enjoy a calmer evening; that his good disposition may descend upon all the sons and daughters of the country, and the fear of God dwell in the land; that we may be delivered from every trial of life, and that a better home may one day receive us into more perfect happiness;—this we beg in the name of Jesus, and with devout faith in a God of wisdom and love. To him, the Glorious and Eternal, be honour and thanksgiving and adoration, now and for evermore. Amen.55
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