One of the interesting parts of getting up early on Sunday morning is listening to the radio in my truck on my way to church. Usually, I’m listening to classic rock or sports talk, but before 7:00 on Sunday morning every station that I listen to has a public service program on it featuring an interview with the leader of some non-profit organization. It’s kind of a tradition that comes from the days when the FCC required commercial stations to air at least 30 minutes of this kind of programming each week—early Sunday morning being the most prevalent time—when only preachers can hear it, apparently.
A couple of Sundays ago I was listening to a program featuring a doctor who was talking about flu season and public health including the fact that virtually no one in our culture washes their hands properly. In order to mitigate the spread of germs, we’re supposed to wash our hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, or the time it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” through twice. 20 seconds—it doesn’t sound like a long time but it feels like it when you’re standing at the sink. Who does this? We know we should, it’s an obligation, but we don’t. Why not? Well, the doc said, we’re busy people, after all. This takes time. It feels weird standing at the sink for that long. We’re not prepping for surgery, after all, just getting ready for lunch. Maybe professionals wash like that, but who has the time?
It struck me as I was listening to this, while driving to church, mind you, that a lot of Christians kind of feel the same way about prayer. We know it’s something we should do, but it feels more like an obligation. Yes, we know it would make us spiritually healthier, but it feels weird spending too much time talking to ourselves (although we have no problems talking on a cell phone in public, which really looks like the same thing). We’re pretty busy, after all. Gotta get the day started. Oh, sure, there are professionals out there—pastors and monks—who obviously need to pray longer, but we’ve got places to go and things to do.
But here’s the thing…even a lot of professionals struggle to pray even as long as singing through “Happy Birthday” twice. If you ask most pastors if they pray enough, most of them would admit that even they don’t give it the requisite time. I have gone through periods where I felt like my prayer life was very deep and other times when I have been too busy to put my hands together in prayer just like putting them together at the sink.
If a sermon on prayer makes us feel guilty, however, we should take heart. Even Jesus’ disciples wanted to know how to pray and we learn later in the Garden of Gethsemane that even they weren’t very good at it at first. Guilt is not a good motivation for prayer, and we need to understand it differently if we’re going to want to pick up a healthy habit that sticks.
Prayer is as important to life as hand washing—even more so when we consider the larger context. The God who loves us, who gives us reason for rejoicing, who is present with us always, seeks a relationship with us—indeed, that relationship is life itself for us. This is why John Wesley included it as one of the key marks of being a Methodist—a Methodist Prays Constantly.
That word “constantly” sounds rather ominous. If someone washes their hands “constantly” we think they might have a mental problem. If we think of prayer primarily as an activity, one where we bow our heads and close our eyes and speak formally to God, then doing so “constantly” doesn’t even seem practical, let alone doable.
Here’s where John Wesley’s definition in The Character of a Methodist can help us, however. Wesley begins this section by saying that it is given to Methodists to “always pray and not to faint” but then he goes on to say what he means by prayer. It’s not that we spend all our time in God’s house in prayer, though he is quick to add “though he neglects no opportunity of being there; neither is he “always on his knees, although he often is, or on his face before the Lord his God. Nor yet is he always crying aloud to God, or calling upon him in words.”
Certainly, these are important activities. Wesley himself spent four hours in prayer every morning, beginning at 4:00am. When I visited his house in London, there is a little prayer room where Wesley spent that time—the kneeling bench had grooves in it from where his knees were every day. Wesley was disciplined about his prayer life and it’s something we should be disciplined about as well.
The difference between guilt and grace, however, is the focus on the end product. The activity of prayer is important but the activity itself is not the end product. In fact, Wesley called prayer the most important means of grace—the means by which we receive something far greater—not merely a gold star for having regular prayer times, but rather, we get the opportunity to be in the presence of God at all times and receive the grace that God offers to us. When we feel guilty about prayer it’s because we see it as another activity than we need to do. When we see prayer as a means of grace, however, we recognize the real benefit of God with us, strengthening us, empowering us, sending us, and loving us.
Let me see if I can illustrate this a different way. I go to the gym just about every day to exercise. I have a program that I follow—weights three days, cardio the other three days, and one day off (Sunday—which is enough of a workout in itself). Now, I’ve been doing this program for several years but, just like my prayer life, that hasn’t always been the case. After I got out of the Army (where they guilt you into doing it) I went through periods of fits and starts in exercise, mostly because I focused on the activity. Others are doing it, I probably should, too. I can’t be a slug. I need to do it because I’m supposed to do it. Guilt was my primary motivator. At various times I dreaded the weights and embraced them but was never consistent.
But guilt doesn’t work for long. In fact, the cycle of guilt often precludes us establishing good habits. We feel guilty when we fail, so we try harder. Trying harder, however, leads us to fatigue, just like people who come to the gym in January are usually gone by late February because they try too hard to get results quickly and end up sore and tired. So, they quit, but eventually feel guilty and then try harder again. And thus the cycle goes on…
Now that I’ve gotten older, however, I think about my health a lot more. I want to be healthy and active for the next several decades. I envision spending time hiking and teaching my grandchildren to throw a changeup. I realize that the time I spend in the gym is simply a means to a larger end—the end of health. That my heart and lungs will be strong, my muscles firm and flexible. I put in the time joyfully because I have the end result in mind. I rarely miss if I can help it. Six or eight hours in the gym each week makes the other 160 hours a week more fulfilled and productive. It’s less about the activity than it is about the outcome.
John Wesley seems to be saying that this is the kind of approach we need with prayer. Yes, we need those spiritual exercises of being in worship, spending time in prayer on our own, of crying out to God, but the real goal is this: a “heart ever lifted up to God, at all times and in all places.” In others words, we are not merely doing prayer, we are living prayer at all times—we are seeing God at work in every breath we take and every encounter we have. Our minds are focused not merely on the exercise but on God and the end result—our spiritual health. As Wesley puts it, “In retirement or company, in leisure, business, or conversation, [a Methodist’s] heart is ever with the Lord. Whether he like down or rise up, God is in all his thoughts; he walks with God continually, having the loving eye of his mind still fixed upon him, and everywhere ‘seeing Him that is invisible.’”
To put it another way, the goal is not to pray; the goal is to see all of life as prayer—to focus on God in every situation. The more we focus on God, the more we become like him. The more we see God at work, the more we want to join him in that work. The activity of prayer is the means to that end.
And, thankfully for us, God gives us a coach in this process. Part of the secret to exercising, at least for me, has been someone pushing me along. I go to classes and stay at the front so that I’m standing right in front of the instructor who can correct me and keep me from cheating. I work with a personal trainer who checks my form and holds me accountable. In the life of prayer, God gives us the presence of the Holy Spirit as our coach—but even more than a coach. As Paul says in Romans 8, the Spirit actually picks up and prays for us (and not just cursory prayers—“groaning” prayers) when we don’t know how to pray. The Spirit will spot us and help us, just as the Spirit enables us to love God and others, as we said in the first sermon in this series. God doesn’t merely command us to pray, God gives us the help we need to do it. Why? Because God doesn’t ultimately want just our prayers—God wants us!
And because God wants us, God invites us to ask—to ask persistently—to seek first God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness and then all these things we pray for will be added to us. Now, remember what we said last week—God’s disposition toward us is to always be good. Our prayers are not always answered in exactly the way that we want them to be, but we can be confident that if God’s gifts to us are good, if we have the faith to recognize the goodness. As Jesus said to his disciples, God isn’t handing out snakes and scorpions to those who ask for something else. Rather, the more we become immersed in a relationship with God, the more that we focus on God as the end result of our prayers, the more we can be trained to recognize the goodness in what first might look like a snake or a scorpion. We develop a maturity in prayer that doesn’t see it as a kind of cosmic vending machine, where God dispenses what we want and choose. Instead, the more deeply connected to God we become as the result of prayer, the more we begin to see God at work in every situation, knowing that God is right there with us and willing everything for good.
So, we now know the goal of prayer—intimacy and relationship with God—but how do we do it? Well, the good news is that the specific means are less important than the ends. There is no one-size-fits-all kind of praying. Jesus gave his disciples a prayer model, but it’s a very short one. John Wesley used the Daily Office from the Book of Common Prayer, a practice I have found helpful myself, since it is series of written prayers used several times a day. It keeps my mind from wandering and keeps me focused on God. Some people prefer silence, while others like to walk when they pray. Some use devotional book while some simply engage the ancient practice of praying the psalms. Whatever the form of prayer, the goal of its regular exercises is to focus us on God during the exercise so that we focus on God the rest of the day and see God at work. As Wesley put it,
“This is true prayer, lifting up the heart to God. This is the essence of prayer, and this alone.”
A few weeks ago I accompanied one of our church members to look at some old books that a retired preacher was selling. In the midst of the pile I found this old book by E.M. Bounds titled Preacher and Prayer. It is a fount of wisdom and I read a line this week that has stuck with me:
“The preachers who gain mighty results for God are the [ones] who have prevailed in their pleadings with God [before] venturing to plead with [people]. The preachers who are mightiest in their closets with God are the mightiest in their pulpits with [people].”
I think that’s true for laity as well. The more we consider prayer as a means to the end of knowing God, the more we will see God and work and the more we will have to say about it. Without the daily exercise of prayer, we will continue to miss out on the relationship God wants with us. Without the regular scrubbing of our souls, we will continue to perpetuate the sickness of sin, focusing on ourselves instead of on God. A Methodist prays constantly because God is constantly wanting to be with us. The Creator of the universe seeks an audience with you!
We all need to put our hands together and wash them thoroughly with flu season on the way. Even better, however, we need to put our hands together in prayer, knowing that it is the means by which God makes us clean and healthy for eternity.