The praying world within Christendom is divided fairly neatly into two groups: those who pray spontaneously or extemporaneously, and those who use written or set prayers. Amongst Bible-believing Christians, the tendency is to think of those who use set prayers as being less than spiritual. When it comes to praying to God, how can we use somebody else's words?
Good point. And yet in the history of the Christian church, lots of saintly Christians have found using prayers written by others a great stimulus for their own spiritual development. Even those who had not been comfortable with it, and were "coerced" into using written prayers (and even writing the prayers themselves!), have discovered a fountainhead of spiritual refreshment for both themselves and those to whom they minister.
One such person was Peter Marshall. When he was appointed as Chaplain to the United States Senate in 1947, his main duty was to lead in prayer at the beginning of each day's proceedings. And the proceedings of the Senate required that he submit the written text of his prayer before each session. Peter Marshall found this disturb-ing. He was eventually counselled by a personal friend (Starr Daily) that preparing his prayers in the quietness of his study was something that would make him a more effective spiritual influence.
Unknown to Peter, many people had been deeply touched by the formulations of his prayers. Some of them were recorded in shorthand by worshippers, notably one Elizabeth McNaull, and his own secretary Ruby Daughtry. Others of his prayers that accompanied sermons were recorded on tape as the sermons were audio-taped.
And the result? The Prayers of Peter Marshall was published in 1954, and requests in excess of 200,000 copies pushed the book into more than 20 printings. The book is divided into two main parts: Part One consists of the pastoral prayers; and Part Two, the senate prayers. Why does the book enjoy such popularity? Perhaps a sampling of some of Peter Marshall's prayers would provide a clue.
Under the "pastoral prayers," in a section one "personal needs," Peter Marshall has a prayer on asking the Lord's guidance on how to pray:
In these moments we have no polished phrases with which to impress one another, no finely molded, delicately turned clauses to present to Thee… We know, our Father, that we are praying most when we are saying least. (p.15)
It would seem that what attracted people to Marshall's prayers was just this sense of candour and vulnerability. In a prayer of mending friendship, he confesses:
In subtle ways I confess to Thee that I have used friendship to cushion and make comfortable my own ego. All too often I have sought my friend for my own pleasure and convenience; all too seldom have I thought of what pleasure I could give. (p.43)
In addition, Peter Marshall has the gift of zeroing in on the crucial issues of knowing how to pray. In a prayer for prisoners, he says:
Release from the prisons of their own making all those who struggle with habits that bind them. If Thou wilt make them free, they shall be free indeed. Release them, we pray. (p.58)
And who can beat this Mother's Day prayer?
Help us, their children to be more worthy of their love. We know that no sentimentality on this one day, no material gifts - no flowers or boxes of candy - can atone for our neglect during the rest of the year. (p.78)
We could multiply the examples: there are more than 250 prayers in the collection. Some of them will touch the raw nerves of our psyche and make us realize how shallow, empty and hypocritical we can be even as we pray or lead others in prayer. And some of them are a treasure house of spiritual wisdom. In the senate prayers, for example, Peter Marshall wrestles with the issues of speech and silence (i.e., when to make a stand or hold one's tongue), excellence and expedience (viz., being morally upright verses being politically correct), and the need for obedience.
Teach us that obeying Thee and Thy will is a forced option - like eating. We do not have to eat, but if we do not, we cannot live. We are not forced to obey Thee, but if we do not, we hurt ourselves. (p.163)
Even if we do not believe in using other people's written up prayers, the value of reading published prayers is, I hope, self-evident. In addition to the beauty of crafted diction, they are a heritage of spiritual treasure. I for one do not believe that we can lead others (including leading in prayer), without first being a disciple in the school of prayer. Of course Christ is ultimately our one Teacher and Master. But if He has provided other models of spiritual depth, then both wisdom and humility would suggest that we do well to learn from them. And so may you be as richly blessed as I felt I have been in learning from Peter Marshall's prayers.
(Review by Ng Seng Chuan)