One of the most beautiful things that one can ever read on the subject of prayer is a verse found in a Norwegian novel, The Wind from the Mountains, by Trygve Gulbranssen. Adelaide hands to old Dag, who amid his sorrows and difficulties is struggling toward the light, the bishop's Bible, with these lines on the flyleaf:
Our human thoughts and works are not so mighty
That they can cut a path to God, unbless'd,
And so from Him the gift of prayer is sent us
To hallow both our labor and our quest.
Over life, and death, and starlit spaces
The highroad runs, that at His word was laid,
And reaches Him across the desert places;
By prayer it is our pilgrimage is made.
How true that is! Over life and death and starlit spaces runs for us the highroad of prayer, and by prayer our pilgrimage is made.
What a friend we have in prayer! What a protector! And how little use we make of it! When the Adantic cable was laid in 1850, there were great celebrations and rejoicings on both sides of the Atlantic. But what is the Atlantic cable, with the messages of war and peace, of nations in commotion and sore travail, which flash across it, compared with the heavenly cable of prayer, whereby the tempted and tried man communicates with the God of heaven, and receives messages and messengers of encouragement from heaven just as Jacob did at Bethel when he saw a ladder set up on earth, the top of which reached to heaven, and the angels of God ascending and descending.
When Grant was fighting his last campaign with cancer at Mount McGregor, General O. O. Howard, who had honestly won the title "The Christian Soldier," came to call on him. He spoke for a time to Grant about some of the battles and campaigns of the war in which both men had played so illustrious a part. Grant listened for a time and then, interrupting him, said, "Howard, tell me what you know about prayer." Face to face with death and the unknown, the question of prayer was of greater interest to the dying soldier than the reminiscences of his battles.
In the diary of his prison experience at Fort Warren, in Boston Harbor, Alexander Stephens thus describes the close of his prison day: "He undresses and stretches himself on his bunk. Here with soul devout he endeavors through prayer to put himself in communion with God. To the Eternal, Prisoner, in weakness and full consciousness of his own frailty, commits himself, saying from the heart, 'Thy will, and not mine, be done.' With thoughts embracing the well-being of absent dear ones, and all the world of mankind besides, whether friend or foe, he sinks into that sweet and long sleep from which he arose this morning."
A medical missionary captured by bandits in China, informed that he was to be shot at a spot ten minutes' distance away, tells how a terrible fear and helplessness came over him at the thought of such a death so far away from his native country, from his friends and his family. But he had strength enough to pray. This was his prayer: "My Lord God, have mercy on me, and give me strength for this trial. Take away all fear, and if I have to die, let me die like a man."
Instantly, he said, his terrible fear began to disappear. By the time he had reached the gorge where he was to be shot he felt perfectly calm and unafraid. At the last moment, however, the bandits relented and his life was spared. In the days which followed, full of danger and suffering, the memory of this experience was cherished more and more. "My own will had failed in the most critical moment of my life. But the knowledge that I could depend on a power greater than my own, one that had not failed me in that crisis, sustained me in a wonderful way to the very end of my captivity. What ingratitude it would be in me not to proclaim this power."
Harold Dixon, one of the three men on a raft who drifted for thirty-four days a thousand miles in their rubber raft, eight feet by four, with no food and no water, speaking of the prayer meetings which they held every night, said: "There was a comfort in passing our burden to someone bigger than we in this empty vastness. Further, the common devotion drew us together, since it seemed we no longer depended entirely upon each other, but could appeal simultaneously to a Fourth that we three held equally in reverence."
That reference to a "Fourth" with them in that raft makes one think of those three Hebrew lads in the fiery furnace who prayed to God and put their trust in God, and how, when Nebuchadnezzar came to look into the fiery furnace to see what had happened to them, he saw that they were unharmed by the flames, and lo, in the midst of them, he saw the form of a Fourth, like unto the Son of Man! That is one of the great blessings of prayer. It puts you into fellowship with the form of a Fourth—with God, with Jesus Christ, the Saviour of men.
There was once a godless seaman who was in a boat fishing with his companions when a storm came up which threatened to sink the ship. His companions begged him to offer a prayer; but he demurred, saying it was years since he had prayed or entered a church. But finally, upon their insistence, he made this prayer: "O Lord, I have not asked you for anything for fifteen yeairs, and if you deliver us out of this storm and bring us safe to land again, I promise that I will not bother you again in another fifteen years!"
There is no doubt that many of those who pray earnestly in time of great distress, afterward, when the storm is over and the danger is past, forget God. But that in no way invalidates the fact that in their distress and danger they realized that there was a higher power than themselves and turned to that power in earnest supplication.
Madame Chiang Kaishek, who is a product of Christian missions and whose father and mother were devout Methodists, relates how her mother would spend hours in prayer in a room on the third floor of their home. At the time of the Manchurian invasion Madame Chiang said one day to her mother: "Mother, you are so powerful in prayer, why don't you pray that God will annihilate Japan by an earthquake or something?"
Her mother looked gravely at her and said: "When you pray or expect me to pray, don't insult God's intelligence by asking Him to do something which would be unworthy of you, a mortal."
"After that," said Madame Chiang, "I can pray for the Japanese people."
Few persons, perhaps, have read the sequel to Robinson Crusoe's story of his captivity on the lonely island—Serious Reflections—in which Crusoe tells how he revisited the island and endeavored to convert to Christianity the mixed colony of English and natives. Most notorious among these islanders was the wicked and profligate seaman Will Atkins. After his conscience had been reached and it was suggested to Atkins that he and his companions teach their wives religion, he responded, "Lord, sir, how should we teach them religion? Should we talk to them of God and Jesus Christ, and heaven and hell, it would make them laugh at us." In his ever charming style Defoe describes Atkins sitting by the side of his tawny wife under the shade of a bush and trying to tell her about God, occasionally going off a little distance to fall on his knees to pray, until at length they both knelt down together, while the friend who was watching with Crusoe cried out, "St. Paul! St. Paul! behold he prayeth!"