Prayer is the end of preaching

August 20th, 2019

My goal is to show that when “Praying’s the end of preaching,” prayer is not an escape from the terrifying realities of here and now to a privatized piety, but rather prayer is a different mode of being and doing that engages us with the world in ways that can start and sustain the impulses of transformation.

Henry Ward Beecher holds prayer in as high a place of esteem as Herbert does. Beecher titles one of his major lectures with the single word: “Prayer.” In that lecture he states:

“I think the most sacred function of the Christian ministry is praying. . . And it is better than a sermon, it is better than any exhortation. He that knows how to pray for his people, I had almost said, need not trouble himself to preach for them or to them; though that is an exaggeration, of course.”[1] 

I believe that Beecher here comes close in spirit to putting in prose what Herbert expresses in verse:

"Resort to sermons, but to prayers most:
 Praying’s the end of preaching."

At least one subsequent Beecher lecturer strongly shares Beecher’s desire to have preachers give more attention to prayer. William Pierson Merrill, who lectured in the academic year 1921-1922, observes: “Protestantism did a great service when it re-exalted preaching: but it went off the rails when it did so  at the expense of praise and prayer. Preaching will not lose, but gain, when it is seen in proper proportion, and when it is rightly related to other acts, in which worship obtains a more complete expression.”[2] 

"The End of Preaching" by Thomas H. Troeger. Order here:

“Praying’s the end of preaching” is a deceptively simple statement. The matter is much more complex than it sounds. For prayer is a comprehensive, multi-dimensional phenomenon. As Carol and Philip Zaleski observe in their magisterial volume, Prayer: A History:

"Traditional spoken and written prayers display a breathtaking variety of forms, including invocation, proclamation, exorcism, novena, meditation, hymn, didactic wisdom, and lament. They may be intricate and lengthy. . . Or they may be as short and sharp as a dagger. . . They may conjure or abjure, curse or jest, praise or blame, plea or give thanks; they may be joyous, bitter, calm, choleric, charitable, or vindictive; they may burst forth at any hour, under any circumstance, in any place."[3]

As complex and multi-dimensional as prayer is, there is something elemental about its character, as though it is a reality woven into the very fabric of the world. The Zaleski’s write:

“When we ask men and women from traditional cultures, those endowed with a lively mythic consciousness, about the origin of prayer, their answers send us back to the beginning of time. Prayer, they tell us, is written into our world primordial charter; it echoes the creator’s speech, the animal’s lament, the angels’ chant.”[4] 

The contemporary poet Ellery Akers reveals how we, supposedly sophisticated, post-modern people, may in fact be in touch with the primordial character of prayer through the kind of common experience that Akers probes in his poem: “The Word that Is a Prayer:”

     One thing you know when you say it:
     all over the earth people are saying it with you;
     a child blurting it out as the seizures take her,
     a woman reciting it on a cot in a hospital.
     What if you take a cab through the Tenderloin:
     at a street light, a man in a wool cap,
     yarn unraveling across his face, knocks at the window;
     he says, Please.
     By the time you hear what he’s saying,
     the light changes, the cab pulls away,
     and you don’t go back, though you know
     someone just prayed to you the way you pray.
     Please: a word so short
     it could get lost in the air
     as it floats up to God like the feather it is,
     knocking and knocking, and finally
     falling back to earth as rain
     as pellets of ice, soaking a black branch,
     collecting in drains, leaching into the ground,
     and you walk in that weather every day.[5]

To say that “Preaching’s the end of prayer” is to affirm that one of the tasks of preaching is to awaken us to the realization that we walk every day in the weather of prayer. But how is preaching to accomplish this when prayer is itself such a sprawling, varied, multi-dimensional, primordial reality?

George Herbert provides us with a framework for responding to this question through his metaphor of the temple. Carol and Philip Zaleski reflect on how temples help to sustain the praying that goes on in a multitude of places:

“We may pray in the bedroom at dawn, in the fields at midday, in the kitchen at dusk. But we are able to pray there because we pray also in a more powerful place, where prayer goes on endlessly, day and night. Prayer does have a wellspring, and its name is the temple.”[6]

When Herbert says “Praying’s the end of preaching,” he has in mind the prayer of the temple, the prayer of the house of worship, the prayer of the church gathered together in holy service. For Herbert the corporate nature of prayer does not domesticate and smooth the ragged edges of what the human heart wants from God. Mark the astounding range of images and phrases that Herbert employs in this sonnet that is one continuous series of appositions for prayer:

     Prayer the Church's banquet, angel's age,
             God's 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' Almighty, sinner's tow'r,
             Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
             The six-days world transposing in an hour,
     A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
     Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
             Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
             Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
     The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
             Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul's blood,
             The land of spices; something understood.[7]

[1] Beecher, Vol. II,  pp. 46-47.

[2] Batsell Barrett Baxter, p. 203 originally appeared in William Pierson Merrill, The Freedom of the Preacher, New York: The Macmillan Company, 1922, p. 45.

[3] Philip Zaleski, Carol Zaleski, Prayer: A History, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005, p. 251.

[4] Philip Zaleski, Carol Zaleski, p. 22.

[5]  Ellery Akers, “The Word That Is  a Prayer” in NY Times Magazine, July 5, 2015 p. 21.

[6] Philip Zaleski, Carol Zaleski, p. 241.

[7] George Herbert, pp. 45-46.

Excerpted from The End of Preaching by Thomas H. Troeger. Copyright © 2018 Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. A version of this article originally appeared at Ministry Matters in August 2018.

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