Sweet hour of prayer

by Phil Johnson

For more than thirty years The Evangelical Beacon, the monthly magazine of the Evangelical Free Church, printed a column “Nine O’Clock Prayer” by Mary. Mary was a Christian layperson who had experience, brains, and good will. She was a disciple of Jesus and a priest in the sense of the “priesthood of all believers,” a reality she did not doubt for a minute.

She was a mother of six. Mothering the firstborn was brief. Three months of dysentery for both mother and child, and the child died. This happened in Belgian Congo in 1926. She spent seven years on a Congo mission field with her husband. After returning to America in 1932, she continued her Christian calling as a pastor’s wife. Her experience and spiritual discipline were among the qualities that equipped her. These were the qualities she drew upon to write this devotional for thirty years and to live her life with friendliness, kindness, and generosity. (A reprint of one “Nine O’Clock Prayer” column can be found in the Winter 1993 issue of Pietisten.)

I have no doubt that her hours of prayer were sweet. They were islands in the river of life, good for repose and rest. They were also both sources and depositories of gratitude nourishing a thankful heart. Mary’s times were, best I can tell, the desired blessing that many teachers of religious practice say comes from meditating and praying—whatever variety, whatever form and practice, whatever size and shape: Buddhist mediation, monastic prayer, non-religious meditation, the widow in the closet, and many, many more—that are recommended as good, spiritually edifying, and therapeutic to the entire body and person.

Nonetheless, I have distanced myself from sweet hours of prayer. I have been unwilling to be identified with what some think of as a “saccharine” or “naïve” practice and form—authentic perhaps, but quaint. It’s awful to think this way, but it happens.

Putting distance between me and the practice of “Nine O’Clock Prayer” is akin to disdain, or easily leads to it. Disdain is not a good thing. Yet I have been loath much of my life to own what is sung about in the song “Sweet hour of prayer that calls me from a world of care…”

In this case, my case, how did and does disdain come about?

There were times during childhood and youth that I sincerely thought I should pray and did pray, or at least I gave it my best shot. Was it a sweet hour? Not really.

For one thing I wasn’t sure if I was doing it right, I doubted that what I was doing was the real thing. I was acting, going through the motions, pretending. I did what I thought I was supposed to do. I often got down on my knees. Most of the time I didn’t want a sweet hour of prayer. I’d rather play. Knowing this, how could my time of prayer, which I hoped would be over soon, be the real thing? So, even in times of earnest attempts, I was faking it. I gave up. But why disdain? That’s going too far. It’s not good.

For another thing, I did not want to be identified with it. I did not want people to think I was trying to be holy. And, in certain social contexts, I did not want people to think I really believed that stuff or that I presumed to have communion with God. I did not like the feeling that because I did not believe or pray correctly, that I wasn’t doing the right thing—that I was outside the fold. My mother, the Mary of “Nine O’Clock Prayer,” though always encouraging, thought I should be more willing and, probably, more humble. She didn’t harp on it, but I knew what she thought and I did not know how one could find her wrong.

Then I went to North Park College. At North Park Mary gained other names, such as “Jane Spirit.” Friends in the men’s dorm thought of her that way and gave her the nickname. They got their ideas of her from her letters to me. She wrote letters to me and to everybody she thought she should be in touch with. That being a lot of people, I wonder where she got the time. She was never behind, as far as I could tell, with housework or preparing meals, leading Bible studies, organizing Sunday School, writing stories and articles, and writing her voluminous journals. Yet, she never seemed stressed. I think she got strength and her good attitude from her sweet hour of prayer.

I was proud of her. I thought she was the best mother in the world and I came to that conclusion, in my mind at least, objectively as well as emotionally. Besides, no one else’s mother was being quoted or was known around the dorm. I smile to think of it.

And she kept up. She read every word of each issue of the North Park College News from 1956 to 1960. She read what students were writing. She thought much of it was clearly off base and that these students and this school and the faculty were in need of a lot of prayer. A burden that surely didn’t sweeten the hour of prayer and relieve care—or did it? It was a place and time to be open.

Prayer for Mary was not just for sweetness. It was a time and place to go with serious concerns, for facing the burdens on her heart and mind, and for thanking God for health and strength and for everything good that came about. I realize now that she was bent on finding good news and lifting it up, and in doing so making people feel better.

In one letter, Mary (alias Jane Spirit) critiqued a review written by a kid in the dorm covering the 1958 Billy Graham Crusade at Soldier Field in Chicago. She wrote: “Who is this Germ who dares criticize Billy Graham?” I laugh as I write this. The name stuck. He is called “Germ” or “the Germ” to this day. That’s a laugh that’s lasted.

Privacy is another aspect to formal prayer. What is between a person and God and no one else is probably not something to talk about publicly. I don’t think I have much going as far as prayer but, to my surprise, I do say prayers. That brings a chuckle. There is something valuable in this routine. Isn’t it true that a person can get focus by saying prayers like the Lord’s Prayer, or the prayer Luther taught in the Small Catechism, or a personal prayer for other people, or for important things like a thankful heart, a generous spirit, jovial courage, love and wisdom?

What’s the point here? I think there are a couple of things. Avoid disdain. Disdain is overkill even if you find yourself keeping prayer at arm’s length. Look on the heart. Honor your mother and your father, respect others including when what others do seems offensive in some way. And, for me, let go and swallow my pride.

Phil Johnson is Editor Emeritus of Pietisten.

See all articles by Phil Johnson