God’s Love the Wesleyan Way: Prayer
When I was a kid, one of my favorite prayers was the Johnny Appleseed song. My family would hold hands around the dining room table before meals and sing: “O the Lord is good to me, and so I thank the Lord for giving me the things I need–the sun and the rain and the appleseed.” But I loved it when my uncle Bruce was around. He’s an avid skier, so instead of thanking God for the rain, he’d thank God for the sun and the SNOW and the appleseed. We always laughed about Bruce’s word change and his devotion to skiing. But, whether he realized it or not, Bruce was also teaching me how to pray. It wasn’t that he was necessarily telling me specific words to pray. But rather, he was showing me how to make my prayers personal–to praise God for very specific things that meet my needs or bring me joy. Bruce was showing me how to pattern my prayers.
And in Luke, chapter 11, Jesus is doing the same for his disciples. As he finishes a time of prayer, one of his disciples says, “Lord, teach us to pray [...].” And so Jesus shares with them what many of us have come to know as the first part of the Lord’s Prayer: “Father, uphold the holiness of your name,” or “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” But then Jesus goes on, inviting them to imagine themselves knocking on the door of a friend’s house in the middle of the night, asking them to share bread for a guest who has just arrived. Now in those days, homes were usually just one or two rooms, often with multiple generations living under one roof, so opening the door in the middle of the night would not only have disturbed the friend, but it would have awakened the entire household. It wasn’t something the friend would have done lightly. And yet, both the disciple and the friend would have been compelled by social custom to provide hospitality to others. And so, Jesus says, because of the disciple’s brashness, the friend would open the door. The implication, of course, is that God, who is our loving Parent, wouldn’t even hesitate to open the door. Jesus goes on to say that everyone who asks receives, everyone who seeks finds, and everyone who knocks will find the door opened to them.
Much like my uncle Bruce, Jesus isn’t just giving the disciples specific words to pray. He’s modeling for them how to pattern their prayers. By naming God as Father, Jesus is showing the disciples who God is and who they are. God is the loving parent, and they are God’s children. God is holy, and as they seek God’s kingdom, God provides what they need. And so while the specific words that they use for their prayers might differ based on their situation, Jesus is inviting them to pattern their prayers after the loving relationship of a parent and child. Their prayers should have a pattern of love.
In her book, “Five Means of Grace,” author Elaine Heath offers an example of this. She tells the story of taking over the leadership of a group of women at her church. Her mentor, Betty, had led the group for years, but was now handing over the reins to Heath. And Heath felt overwhelmed by this task. But Betty gave her some important advice: that is, start with prayer. Betty said, “Teach them to gaze into the face of Jesus, who gazes back with infinite love.”
This story reminded me of the moments after my son was born. I had read a LOT of books to prepare for his birth, and several of them had discussed something called “The Golden Hour.” The Golden Hour is the hour immediately after birth when a baby is usually awake and able to eat for the first time. It’s the first opportunity for parents to bond with their children. Of course, those books I’d read had also made a big deal about having a birth plan, and my son’s birth had definitely not gone according to my well-crafted plan. I guess that was my first lesson in parenting. But at least for me, in this case, those books were right. Because when the nurse placed my son in my arms and we looked at each other for the first time, I had no words. All I could do was gaze at this tiny being with all of the love I had.
Perhaps that kind of gaze is what Betty had in mind when she told Elaine Heath to gaze into the face of Jesus. Heath calls this way of praying a practice that “grounds us in a beloved relationship with God.” In other words, it helps us to recognize God’s unconditional love for us–that no matter who we are, no matter what we’ve said or done or not said or done, God will always gaze at us with infinite love. Period. After all, we are God’s beloved children. So no matter what words we use, when the pattern of our prayer is love, we’re able to recognize the infinite love that God has for us.
Author Richard Foster also describes this pattern of prayer. He says, “With simplicity of heart, we allow ourselves to be gathered up into the arms of the Father and let him sing his love song over us.” I love that image, because I can just imagine myself relaxing into God’s loving arms. There’s a sense of letting go, a deep exhale, because I know I can trust the one who holds me. But there’s also a vulnerability in that, too. When we open ourselves to God’s infinite love, we place our whole selves before God–the good, the bad, and the ugly. Of course, God already knows all of who we are anyway. It’s not like we can hide anything from God. But when we remember that Jesus is always gazing at us with infinite love, we can be honest, real, and raw with ourselves and with God–without any posturing or performing. We can offer praise for all that we have received from God. And, we can ask for what we really want and need, trusting that God hears our prayers because God’s door is always open.
Of course, it’s also important to recognize that God isn’t Santa Claus. Prayer isn’t just meant to be a kind of transactional interaction where we ask for what we want and God grants our wishes. Pastor David Lose says that prayer “is not primarily about getting things from God, but rather about the relationship we have with God.” He argues that God desires to be known primarily as a loving parent, the “provider of all that is good and protector of all in need. While this may not give us everything we want,” Lose says, “it [...] gives us what we most need.” So while God may not grant our every wish, God invites us to bring our whole selves to the relationship–to spend time with God the way we’d spend time with anyone we love deeply. And when the pattern of our prayer is love rather than transaction, we may also find that love working in our lives to help us grow more and more into the likeness of Jesus.
You know, when Jesus says, “ask and you will receive,” he’s assuming that our asking will be in the context of his earlier words from the Lord’s Prayer, “Bring in your kingdom,” or “Thy kingdom come.” When we seek God’s kingdom, our asking and knocking will naturally be shaped by Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of God. And this will necessarily expand our own vision beyond ourselves toward others and the wider world. The 6th century monk, Dorotheus of Gaza, had such a vision. He imagined the world as a circle, with God at the center and people around the outside of the circle. In this vision, when we move closer to God, we also move closer to other people. And when we move closer to other people, we move closer to God. In this way, our love for God also grows our love for other people. And our love for other people grows our love for God. This is what John Wesley meant when he said that “the gospel of Christ knows no religion but social; no holiness but social holiness. Faith working by love,” he said, “is the length and breadth and depth and height of Christian perfection.” When the pattern of our prayer is love, that love begets love, and that love energizes and empowers us to reach out to others.
And so, our prayers become infused in all aspects of our lives. As we gaze at our neighbor, or the store clerk, or the person on the street corner, we realize that we’re gazing into the face of Jesus. And love begets love. As we seek God’s kingdom, we seek to be less transactional with others and more relational. We find that we begin to care about what they care about. And love begets love. We pray with others and for them, trusting that God will hear all of our prayers and provide for their needs and ours. And love begets love. Finally, we put feet to our prayers and work for the well-being of all people, because we recognize that they, too, are recipients of the infinite love of Jesus. And love begets love.
So this is our invitation, my friends: to make love the pattern of our prayers. Whether sung or spoken or silent, whether individual or communal, in sunshine, rain, and snow, may our prayers be personal, honest, and heartfelt. And may we trust in our loving and holy Parent, whose door is always open. Amen.