Let us pray: O God, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be pleasing and acceptable in your sight; for you are our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
In the spring of 2000, I graduated with a Master’s Degree in Communication Science and Disorders and moved back home to begin working as a Speech-Language Pathologist. When I moved back, I found that my mother had begun meeting with a small group from our church, and so I, too, joined this small group. The group met weekly and shared with one another about times when they felt close to God in the past week, times they denied God in the past week, times they received and accepted a call God had given them in the past week, and they always closed in prayer. The leader of the group was a woman named Nancy. Nancy was about 50 years older than me when I met her. She was a two-time cancer survivor, a widow, and she lived in a home that had been re-built because her home had been destroyed in a fire. Encountering Nancy, one would not necessarily know that she had been through these things in her life because she lived a joy-filled life. She was a non-anxious presence, and she always made people feel like they were immediately welcomed and loved, something she had learned from her own life’s experience and her relationship with God.
A few years later Nancy was diagnosed with what would be her third and final battle against cancer. Early in her diagnosis, she came over to me after one of our meetings. She placed her hands on my shoulders and pressed down, so that I would feel the weight of what she was about say. “I am Elijah,” she said. “And you are my Elisha.” I knew what she was saying, and I felt completely unprepared to step into her place as a leader. After all, there were more seasoned members of this small group, but I also knew that just as Nancy looked on each person she encountered with the love of God she had known through her practice of accountability and prayer, so now I was to do and teach others the same.
Elaine Heath, in her book, Five Means of Grace: Experience God’s Love the Wesleyan Way, describes the practice of prayer as “gazing into the face of Jesus, who gazes back with infinite love.” Let that description sink in for a moment. “Gazing into the face of Jesus, who gazes back with infinite love.”
Recently, Nick and I had a conversation with someone who has recently began fostering a teenage daughter. When we asked how her adjustment was going, our friend replied that when she first came she would not engage in any confrontation, but after some time, and the consistent presence of persons who care for her, she is now beginning to test some boundaries and engage in healthy confrontations. This, on an infinitely more perfect plane, is what our relationship with God in prayer is like.
Because Christ always gazes back in infinite love, we can be vulnerable before God; we can trust in God’s presence as we pray; we can be honest, and know that God’s love and care for us remains secure. Because of Christ’s infinite love for each of us, we are able to grow in holiness—laying aside self-destructive thoughts and behaviors in order to learn, to love, and to guide others in a life that leads to abundant life.
As we have seen through Christian Conferencing, The Lord’s Supper, and Searching Scriptures, the foundational basis of our faith is love: God’s love for creation and for humanity; Christ’s overwhelming and sacrificial love for all of humanity; and the Spirit’s love for humanity which draws us back into relationship with God when we wander over and over and over, never ever giving up on any single person. Since love is the foundation of our Christian faith, then prayer is a means of experiencing that love in our lives. Prayer, according to Heath, is “the very breath of God breathing life into us, opening us to who God is, who we are, and to this world which God loves.” Prayer is as necessary for our spiritual life as breathing is to our physical life.
Prayer takes on many forms, and it is much more than simply talking and listening to God. We are all engaged in prayer right here, right now—worship is a form of our prayer to God. Praying on behalf of another person, or intercession is a form of prayer. Offering to God our laments and our thanksgivings are prayer. Prayer is being present to God who is always present to us. With that said, I am reminded of what one of my pastors taught me about prayer: because God is faithful and loving towards all of creation and humanity, wishing harm or ill-will towards another person is a wasted prayer. Asking God to damn someone in a moment of anger is a wasted prayer. In the Sermon on the Mount in the gospel account of Matthew, Jesus calls the disciples and those gathered with him to a deeper relationship with God when he teaches,
“You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate you enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. [God] makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain to both the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don’t even Gentiles do the same? Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.” Matthew 5:43-48
We do not pray for our own benefit or even for the benefit of another person; we engage in prayer in order that we might grow in a deeper understanding of who God is and how God engages in creation and in our lives. We engage in prayer so that we may know the will of God more fully and then offer ourselves more fully in service and in ministry throughout the world.
Like the other means of Grace which we have already examined together, John Wesley had a method for engaging in prayer. Wesley used the Daily Office, a set of prayers offered each day at a certain part of the day. Today, we can find the Daily Office in The Common Book of Prayer a resource used by our Episcopal siblings. We can also find a similar pattern of prayer in the backs of our red United Methodist Hymnals. On pages 876 through 879, there are orders for daily praise and prayer both in the morning and in the evening. Praying in a methodical manner like this may feel imposing or impersonal to some people.
As a child, I grew up in the Roman Catholic Church; today, when I find myself unable to articulate the words to pray; it is not uncommon for me to pray the rosary. The rhythm of praying The Lord’s Prayer and Hail Mary help ground me and remind me of God’s presence with me when I am at a loss for words of what to do, think, or say. Like Wesley, I prefer to pray prayers that have already been written. Praying a prayer that someone else has written invites everyone present to experience the person, nature, and work of God in broader ways than my own limited perspective can provide.
As an ordained elder in The United Methodist Church, I would be remiss if I did not mention the abundance prayers found within the hymns of our hymnal. Charles Wesley, brother of John Wesley, wrote more than 9000 hymns. Several of his hymns are contained with our United Methodist Hymnal.
Long my imprisoned spirit lay, fast bound in sin and nature’s night; thine eye diffused a quickening ray; I woke, the dungeon filled with light; my chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth, and followed thee. My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth, and followed thee.
These rich words of praise from Charles Wesley’s Hymn, And Can it Be that I Should Gain, and many more are in our pews for us to offer up to God. If you have access to the internet, I invite to search some Charles Wesley hymns and offer praise through our tradition of faith to God. If you don’t have access and promise to return it, I invite you peruse a United Methodist Hymnal. There is an index of authors and hymn writers in the back of the hymnal that will direct you to Charles Wesley’s hymns.
Though methodical in nature, Wesley did also employ the practice of extemporaneous prayer as well. While he held his beliefs in the value of The Daily Office, Wesley also recognized that extemporaneous prayer was good and necessary in ministry as the context demanded. For some people, extemporaneous prayer can be anxiety-producing. If you want to quiet a group of church goers, all you have to do is ask, “Who would like to pray for us?” I have seen this work in groups of pastors, too. Likewise, when my husband and/or I are out with a group of people, and a meal is served, all eyes will turn to one or both of us, as people expectantly wait for us to pray.
The truth is that there is nothing in any of my prayers that are not contained in your prayers as well. Every person is invited to look into the face of Christ through prayer. Every person is invited to share and to speak to God: creator of all that is, and was, and is to come. Every person is invited to trust in the Spirit born in us through God’s grace. Every person is invited to experience Christ gazing back at us in infinite love. I offer this to you all in the name of God: Father, Son, Holy Spirit, mothering One of us all.