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ON CULTIVATING A DEVOTIONAL SPIRIT AMONG
"teach Us To Pray."
[With reference to the important article headed, "On the want of the spirit of devotion among Sunday scholars," (page 128,) we have lighted upon a valuable communication contained in the last number of the "Scottish Sabbath-school Teachers' Magazine," which is subjoined as a practical guide to mitigate this serious evil.]
"How can children be taught to pray!'' has often been the distressing question which has passed through the mind of a devout Christian teacher, on a Sabbath evening, when he thought on the scene the school-room presented during the time of the opening prayer.
What that scene was, does not require to be described : every teacher knows how irreverent, how careless the behaviour, of most children are, at such a time. Yonder is a large class of twenty boys; the teacher has said, "Let us join in prayer," and the larger number of the scholars has risen; the exercise has commenced. Now, how are these twenty boys engaged? Three or four are whispering; one is reading a book, another having produced a toy from his pocket, is exhibiting it to his companions ; the boy next him is scratching the desk with a pin; about seven or eight of them are gazing listless about them; one has actually resumed his seat again; and only one seems, by his attitude, to remember where he is, or what he is professedly doing 1 This is not an exaggerated picture. Where the discipline is more strict, the children only hide from the teachers eye their various modes of passing the time more carefully; and the knowledge of this result prevents the experienced teacher from enforcing severe formal rules regarding the posture and stillness during devotional exercises.
The great aim of such a teacher is to make the scene less displeasing, and more pleasing to the eye of God,—not merely to model and improve it, so as to please the eye of man. In aiming at this, the question arises
What Ought The Prayers Of A Sunday-school To Be?
A number of boys grew up, from twelve years of age to fifteen or sixteen, under the same teacher. They were much attached to him, and, at his suggestion, they resolved to hold a prayer-meeting occasionally by themselves. Ho was to be present; but some of them were persuaded to conduct the exercises. It occurred to the teacher that such an opportunity might be useful, by affording the means of answering the important question, " What ought the prayers for a Sunday-school to be?"
lie remembered a toacher, who acquired much of his skill in addressing children from being permitted to be present at a rehearsal of the lessons by a good and clever little boy in his class, to a number of younger children, and it appeared likely to throw some light both on the thoughts and the language of children, to watch how a boy expressed himself on such occasions. Though it was inpossiblc to get the prayers written as they were uttered, still the memory could carry away much that would be
practical. The following may give some idea of what form these devotions assumed :—
"0 Lord, we thank Thee for another Sahhath-day—for meeting here to read the Bible, and to pray. O Lord we thank Thee for sending Jesus Christ to die for sinners. 0 Lord God teach us to pray, for we do not know how to do it. Forgive us our sins, for Jesus's sake. Our hearts are wicked, wash them, and make them clean, O Lord. Keep us from breaking the Sabbath-day, and doing wrong. Bless our teacher. Bless all who go to Sunday-schools: for Jesus Christ's sake Amen."
Thinking over the subject, the following hints suggested themselves as likely to be useful:—
First. The thoughts of the prayer ought to be the thoughts of a child —such thoughts as would or at least might, occur to children. Give thanks for things a child ought to give thanks for—things a child 'tvoulcl feel to be blessings.
Confess sins that a child's conscience would respond to—the sins of children. Pray for things a child would desire, or might desire, if it was a good child; every unchildlike thought ought to be excluded.
Second. The language of the prayers. Need it be said, that it ought to be intelligible to the children—easily intelligible, without any explanation?
It is no easy task for any one deliberately to examine each word ere lie uses it,—to see, not whether it expresses his thought accurately to such as himself, but whether it will convey, without any difficulty, the thought to the children who are listening to him. Yet, in leading the devotion of children, if you would do your duty, such a task must be performed.
Is it not better, as a general rule, not to use Scripture language in such prayers? The Scripture language does not readily start the thought in the mind of the listener, whatever be his age; and the reason seems to be, out extreme familiarity with it. It is a most humbling; yet we fear, an indisputable fact, that, from having heard the sound of the words, without eithet exercising our minds to recognise the idea, or our hearts to feel their power, these articulate sounds now vibrate on the ear, without ever penetrating deeper into our being, or awakening the corresponding thoughts and emotions within us. This applies, in some degree, even to the young. Besides, the words of our English Bible are in some respects very dissimilar from the " household words'' of our country; and these are the most open channels by which access can be obtained to the minds of our children.
Third. The style of the prayers. By " the style," we mean all the other externals of the prayer except those already noticed. The prayers ought to be short; no prayer can be suitable that is not so. Yet it is not easy to be brief. Most who violate this rule know and approve its excellency.
A stranger, on a visit to a large school, kindly gave an address, at the conclusion of the class-teaching, when requested to do so by the superintendent. It was not long, but it was interesting to the scholars. They.listened it was over; he raised his hands solemnly, and said, "Let us seek God's blessing." He looked up, and said, distinctly and slowly, "Lord, this night forgive and bless each boy and girl in this school, all for the sake of Jesus Christ, Amen." A boy standing near the desk, as he sat down again on his seat, gazing on the stranger, exclaimed loud enough for those near him to hear, "That's the best prayer I ever heard V
It ought to be distinct and slow. Sometimes the voice may be load, sometimes it ought to sink almost to a whisper; but it must always be distinctly and easily heard by every one who is expected to join in the devotion. Each word ought to be distinctly and fully pronounced; and this can only be done when the prayer is offered up slowly and solemnly. Few people can think quickly, and, certainly, children cannot. If, therefore, their minds are to follow you in prayer, and not be left behind, it must be pronounced slowly.
Anotlter material aid is, to have the sentences very short and complete. Let a full pauge intervene between each. Did not our Lord so teach his disciples? The Lord's prayer is composed of such short sentences. Never iat any sentence be long; such sentences are always more difficult to understand.
Earnestness and reverence ought to pervade the whole service; so that if some one, totally ignorant of the language of the speaker, should enter the room, he could at once perceive that these feelings had full expression. Here is work for the teacher's heart! Language may be studied, thoughts may be prepared, the voice may be accurately modulated; but we question if any art ean so impart the appearance of earnestness and veneration as to impose on a school full of children. Men and women might be deceived; but the instincts of the young arc unblunted and keen; they are not easily cheated) and therefore the teacher, who would awaken reverence and earnestness In their hearts must fill his own with these divine graces from heaven's fountain."
Bach seems to be the ideal of the devotional exercises of a Sunday-school. The difficulty is, to reduce them to practice. It is difficult. AVe knew one teacher who tried, frequently and earnestly, to lead the prayers of his school in what he thought a suitable manner, and the result of his experience was this:—
First. The prayers-'-both the thoughts and the words—must be prepared previously by the teacher, just as he prepares his lesson.
Secondly. The best preparation he found was, just to write them carefully out—without reading them, however, when at the superintendent's desk.
Borne teachers may be able to find the right thoughts and the right words at the time they are required( without previous preparation: if so, it is well; but, surely, it is better to prepare carefully than introduce unsuitable thoughts and words into the service in which you invite children to join. The speaker in the prayer, is merely the mouth of the supplicants : it is not hit wishes, his sins, liis condition, which furnish the materials for prayer; it is their wishes, their sins, and their condition, that ought to mould the prayer; and it is thus speaking for others—those so generally unlike himself —which makes preparation so necessary to most teachers. It may be useful to subjoin a brief illustration of the written prayers above referred to:—
PRAYER FOR A SUNDAY-SCHOOL.
•'1 Our Father which art in heaven,' we, poor children, are come to pray to Thee. Help us to remember that God sees us uow—that God sees each boy and each girl—that God sees each heart—that God knows what we are thinking about just now. Lord, keep us from trifling—keep us from pretending to pray.
"0 God, Thou hast been very good to us. We come to thank Thee. We thank Thee for this Sabbath-day—for our Sunday-school. We thank Thee for kind fathers and mothers—for kind teachers and friends. We thank Thee for food this day—for our clothes—for our dear-loved homes. How many children have no fathers or mothers, food, or clothes! Lord, pity them; make us thankful. We thank Thee for our Bible3. We thank Thee for a Saviour, Jesus Christ our Lord—for all that He did while on earth—for all He said—for His love to poor sinners—for His love to us— for His death and his resurrection. Lord, we thank Thee.
"Oh, teach us to love Him. For His sake, pardon our many sins. Our hearts are very hard, and very wicked. We have been disobedient to our parents—we have been idle and careless—we have been proud and unkind —we have quarrelled, and told lies—we have not loved Jesus—we have forgotten the Saviour who died for us. Oh, forgive our sins now, even today.
"0 Lord, make us good. Give us new hearts. May we be sorry for our sins! May we not be disobedient any more! May we be kind to brothers and sisters! May we be humble! May we be dilligent at school, and at home 1 Oh, make us like the holy child Jesus.
"Now, bless our Sunday-school. Bless our lessons; may they do us good! Bless our fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters. Bless us all; and hear us, for Christ's sake. Amen."
Another mode for making these portions of our Sabbath worship more interesting, would be to choose a special topic for prayer, and fix the children's thoughts on it. Pray, for instance, against some special sin—as e. g., pride, anger, disobedience, untruthfulness, revenge, or idleness. Or some of the many blessings we need may be selected and dwelt on in prayer —such as health, soundness of mind, humility, docility, wisdom, courage, gentleness, repentance, faith, charity. Frequently the subject of the lesson may afford a suitable topic for the supplications of the school; and the prayer may serve to enforce the teaching, while the teaching prepares for intelligently joining in the prayer. Such an arrangement lessens the intellectual effort of the scholars most materially.
We annex another specimen, to give some idea of what we point to. We earnestly wish we had printed a number of good suitable prayers for our Sunday-schools? Dare we call it a sort of " Sunday-school Liturgy .*"
PRAYER AGAINST PRIDE.
•' 0 God, Thou art very high and holy. We are very little, and very sinful; yet we are very proud. Satan is proud, and we are like him. We pray that we may no longer be proud. May each girl and boy feel that they are proud; that it is very wrong to be proud—very foolish; that it makes God very angry; God hates a high look; God hates a proud heart.
"Teach us that we have nothing to be proud of. If we are strong.'.Qod gave the strength; if we have beauty. God gave it. We have nothing that is ours, but sin; all else is God's. Oh, make us humble.
"Teach us to remember our sins—how many, how vile they are. Teach us to see ow own faults, and to hide the faults of others. Teach us to think, little of ourselves—to be content with the lowest place.
"Teach us to think much of Christ—of His love to such sinners as we. Teach us to think others better than ourselves. May each boy and girl hear and obey Christ's call: 'Come and learn of me, for I am meek and lowly, and ye shall find rest for your souls.'
"Oh, Jesus, make us like Thyself, gentle and lowly, humble and meek. Oh, may we be no more proud! Oh, forgive our pride—our proud thoughts —our proud words, and proud looks. Give us new and humble hearts. Amen." j
THE TEACHER WITHOUT QUALIFICATION.
About this time a new teacher offered his services, who was deemed in every respect qualified to instruct this class; he possessed good natural understanding, a well-cultivated mind, and in some respects he was industrious and persevering. He rose early, except occasionally on Sabbath mornings, when he thought it prudent to indulge himself a little. Sundays were the only days when he ever left home without private prayer for a blessing on the concerns of the day. Indeed, he found no time: as it was, he generally went late to the school, and on more than one occasion he came in just in time to hear a stranger address the children on the importance of always being early and punctually at School. When he thus lost an hour in the morning, he felt somewhat displeased with himself, and nothing seemed to go right all day. The children soon acquired the habit of comiug late; perhaps they did not wish to hurt the feelings of their teaclier, by being in their places an hour before him. However this may have been, from his indifferent manner, one scholar after another stayed away altogether. As his class diminished, the superintendent continued to fill it up with new scholars Sunday after Sunday. The superintendent soon found that he might as well turn the scholars out of school, for it amounted to the same thing; and he found it necessary to urge upon this teacher the importance of complying with a rule of the school, which made it the duty of the teachers to visit the absentees, and report the cause. Indeed the teacher soon began to feel ashamed of his reduced class; perhaps he was fearful it might be thought by some that he did not possess natural ability to interest and instruct the class; and he determined that be would inquire after the absentees. About the middle of the week he found leisure, but then recollected that his roll-book was locked up in the school-room; and by the time he found it convenient to see the superintendent and obtain a list of the names, it was Saturday afternoon.
It proved to be an exceedingly unpleasant day, but he was determined to do something before another Sabbatli; and off he went with a list of absentees sufficient to have formed a large class, with hardly time to call upon half the number.