Through his lyrical paraphrase of 1 Thess 5:17, Charles Wesley sang the importance of prayer into the hearts and minds of the early Methodist people.
Pray, without ceasing pray
(Your Captain gives the word),
His summons cheerfully obey,
And call upon the Lord;
To God your every want
In instant prayer display;
Pray always; pray, and never faint;
Pray, without ceasing pray.
Wesley’s sentiments about prayer could not have been more transparent! He most certainly identified the primary rationale for this life of prayer — both in terms of its inherent value and its constant character — with the witness of Scripture. “Look to the Lord and his strength,” advises the Hebrew historian, “seek his face always” (1 Chron 16:11, NIV). The Psalmist, who taught the people of God how to sing their prayers, reflects the same spirit: “Evening, and morning, and at noon, will I pray, and cry aloud: and he shall hear my voice” (Ps 55:17, AV). In an act of confession, the prophet reflects the condition of every human heart: “I set my face unto the Lord God, to seek by prayer and supplications, with fasting, and sackcloth, and ashes” (Dan 9:3, AV).
Prayer was no less central to the community that formed around Jesus. Luke tells us explicitly that the main purpose of the parable of the persistent widow (18:2-8) was to convince the disciples “about their need to pray continuously and not to be discouraged” (18:1, CEB). Time and time again, Jesus demonstrated the way in which the cultivation of the practice of prayer shaped the character of his life. It was no surprise to his disciples when he “spent the whole night in prayer to God” (Luke 6:12, NASB). St. Paul admonishes the Colossians to “devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful” (4:2, NIV). And in one of his most elevated statements concerning the life of prayer, he affirms: “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, shall guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil 4:6-7, AV).
But St. Paul, like the earlier disciples of Jesus, also recognized his limitations with regard to this particular spiritual discipline. “We do not know what we ought to pray for,” he confessed to the Roman Christians, “but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express” (8:26, NIV). Like the companions of Jesus, he understood that this practice had to be taught. It had to be cultivated. It is instructive perhaps that the writer of Matthew’s Gospel locates Jesus’ teaching the Lord’s Prayer inside a larger conversation about misunderstood prayer (6:5-13). The disciples realized from their interactions with Jesus that there were right ways and wrong ways to pray. In Luke’s Gospel, one of the disciples recognized his need to apprentice himself to Jesus in his quest for a meaningful life of prayer (11:1-4). He realized that he had much yet to learn. Perhaps he had not yet even any idea of how to pray in the same way that his rabbi did.
The Lord’s Prayer provides a wonderful starting point, therefore, in the quest for a cultivated life of prayer. In The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God (HarperOne, 1998), Dallas Willard observed: “There is, of course, much more to prayer than the Lord’s Prayer. It is a prayer that teaches us to pray. It is a foundation of the praying life: its introduction and its continuing basis. It is an enduring framework for all praying. You only move beyond it provided you stay within it. It is the necessary bass in the great symphony of prayer. It is a powerful lens through which one constantly sees the world as God himself sees it” (269). The disciples of Jesus are wise to cultivate this pattern of prayer daily.
The biblical witness seems to reveal that Jesus cultivated a practice of prayer in his disciples, combining repose and work, contemplation and action, the interior and the exterior life. Abiding and listening were as important to him as asking and speaking. One of John Wesley’s great mentors in the world of prayer, Thomas à Kempis, taught him the importance of the heart. What happens inside us — in our hearts — is as important as our external actions. Those who seek to cultivate an interior life seek God in everything. They practice a life of prayer and live in the perennial presence of God. The interior life implies intimate conversation with God. External action (like an act of compassion) remains a vital part of an interior spirituality, because such actions are transformed into acts of prayer. The disciples of Jesus are wise to cultivate an interior life with God.
When we turn to the Wesleyan heritage and the emphasis placed on prayer among the early Methodists, perhaps no characteristic stands out more clearly than the quest for holiness and wholeness in life. As in every other aspect of Wesleyan theology, balance also dominates the concerns of the spiritual life. This holistic vision conforms nicely to a prayer mnemonic that Brother Mark Gibbard once shared with me in spiritual direction. The first letters of the forms of prayer that he felt were required in a balanced life of prayer spelled out the word artist: adoration, repentance, thanksgiving, intercession, self-care, and trust. The cultivation of each of these forms of prayer leads to a meaningful interior and exterior life with God.
I once heard a wise man of prayer describe the phrase kyrie eleison (“Lord, have mercy”) as the ultimate prayer. Despite the purposeful cultivation of the practice of prayer in our lives, something essential to growth in the grace and love of God, perhaps the purpose of it all is an attentive abiding in the One who is mercy and peace and joy. The ultimate goal of this quest is a heartfelt desire for God’s presence to wholly inflame, consume, and transform us into the Christ-like children he has created us to be.