Picture this scene with me, if you will: It’s about 300 years ago in a small village in England. The days are long, the windows are thrown open, the sounds of children echo throughout the house, some playing, some studying, some singing. A woman sits in a chair, still as still could be, seemingly oblivious to the chaos around her, her apron pulled up over her head.
Now fast forward three hundred years, a mother and a teenage boy sitting at the dinner table, chatting about the day. The boy a bubbly, troubled boy on the autism spectrum, spilling his stories of upsets and joys of the day, or speaking of superheroes and comic books. The mother listening and asking questions to keep the conversation going in between bites of food. He suddenly sees the time and the boy falls silent, looking at the mother and simply saying, “You should go, it helps us…. You need to go.”
The first scene was Susanna Wesley, the mother of John Wesley (and 9 other children) sitting in her home praying. Early in her life, she vowed that she would never spend more time in leisure entertainment than she did in prayer and Bible study. Even amid the most complex and busy years of her life as a mother, she still scheduled two hours each day for fellowship with God, and she adhered to that schedule faithfully. The challenge was finding a place of privacy in a house filled to overflowing with children. Susanna’s solution to this was to bring her Bible to her favorite chair and throw her long apron up over her head, forming a sort of tent. Every person in the household, from the smallest toddler to the oldest domestic helpers, knew well to respect this signal. When Susanna was under the apron, she was praying with God and was not to be disturbed except in the case of the direst emergency.
The second scene was in my home in California with my foster child. He had been a ghostly witness to my prayer life with my community, I thought, not really paying any attention to it, often reading in his room or taking his bath while I was on the phone calling in to pray with Saint Brigid of Kildare Monastery, but I was wrong. Each time I picked up the phone to pray, something was happening, and he was seeing a change in my energy, a shift in my patience, a strength coming from this time of prayer. And so, on that night when we were enjoying our dinner conversation, I was shocked when he witnessed this in me and simply said, “Alison, you NEED to go and pray. It helps us.” (not you, but us!)
John Wesley may never have voiced this to his mother, but he, too, was able to witness the way prayer helped his mother. The two hours a day she spent in her ‘tent’ gave her the energy and patience and wisdom and strength to be a mother and teacher and a pastor’s wife. Mothering 10 children that survived infancy, grieving another 9 that did not. With a husband who was a struggling preacher, money often squandered away, a farm to tend, and children to teach to ensure they had an education, boys and girls alike, it was prayer that kept her afloat…. these times with God were what got her though the days.
So great an impact did this have on John and Charles (our famous hymn writer) that when the brothers went to university they began what were called Holy Clubs, a gathering of fellow students to study scripture and pray together. Part of their practice was to ask themselves 22 questions each day, a way of praying over their day to see where they had done what they thought of as holy, and where they had failed. The questions included things like, “Can I be trusted,” Am I jealous, impure, critical, irritable, touchy or distrustful?” And “Do I get to bed on time and get up on time,” but also questions like, “Am I enjoying prayer,” (note the enjoying adjective!) “Do I thank God?” and “Do I give the Bible time to speak to me every day?”
But more than gathering for prayer and reflection, these clubs led the young university students out into the world. As a result of their prayer life, they decided that they needed to go and visit prisoners, take food to the sick and poor, and teach orphans how to read. In this time in England, the mixing of social classes in this way was almost unheard of. Upper class people, who had opportunities like going to university, did not build relationship with lower class people. They may have passed each other on the streets, or had an employer, servant relationship, but to sit with them and get to know them was most unusual. But this is what the young men in the Holy Club with their study of the Bible and times of prayer were called to do, much to the delight of their fellow students who disparagingly gave them the name Methodists as they had this strict method of trying to systematically serve God every hour of the day! Yet this form of being in the world led to the social principles of the United Methodist Church which Pastor Randy preached about a couple of weeks ago. Without prayer there can really be no service, without service there can really be no prayer. The two were so intertwined for John Wesley, that they became the foundation of how he lived his life…. And these led him to preach to everyone, led him to go to the coal mines at shift changes and pubs at closing time so he could reach people who most needed to know of God’s love for them where they were. It also led Charles to write hymns using the tunes they would sing in the pubs or on long work shifts, just writing Godly words to go with what the people already knew. And it was prayer that gave them the strength and patience and energy and wisdom to do these things. John once said, ““In using all means, seek God alone. In and through every outward thing, look only to the power of the Spirit, and the merits of the Son. Beware you do not get stuck in the work itself; if you do, it is all lost labor. Nothing short of God can satisfy your soul.”
One of the things I most admire about John Wesley is the way he kept at prayer, even when it did not seem to have any effect on him. He knew of its’ transformative powers, as witnessed in his mother, but was something to do, rather than something that was a felt experience for him. He was so touched by what he witnessed in others that he longed for it and sought it for himself. He spent decades in prayer training waiting for an actual, felt experience of God and his own worthiness in God’s eyes. He prayed and fasted and prayed and served and gave money away to those in need and studied scripture and prayed. He was curious about what others felt and how it made them behave, and prayed for an experience that would let him know God was real, wondering if it was service or prayer that would allow him to feel God. One time he was on a ship heading for Georgia. On the ship were other English people, and a group from Germany who were Moravian. He writes: At seven I went to the Germans. I had long before observed the great seriousness of their behaviour. Of their humility they had given a continual proof, by performing those servile offices for the other passengers, which none of the English would undertake; for which they desired, and would receive no pay, saying, “it was good for their proud hearts,” and “their loving Saviour had done more for them.” And every day had given them occasion of showing a meekness which no injury could move. If they were pushed, struck, or thrown down, they rose again and went away; but no complaint was found in their mouth. There was now an opportunity of trying whether they were delivered from the Spirit of fear, as well as from that of pride, anger, and revenge. In the midst of the psalm wherewith their service began, the sea broke over, split the main-sail in pieces, covered the ship, and poured in between the decks, as if the great deep had already swallowed us up. A terrible screaming began among the English. The Germans calmly sung their psalm. I asked one of them afterwards, “Was you not afraid?” He answered, “I thank God, no.” I asked, “But were not your women and children afraid?” He replied, mildly, “No; our women and children are not afraid.”
This effect of prayer, too, stayed with Wesley. He continued to pray and serve the world, looking for this peace, this felt experience, this certainty. But it wasn’t until 2 ½ years later that he was rewarded. At the age of 35, in a time when he was struggling with his faith, doubting his calling to be a preacher, heart broken and failed in love, and wondering what he was doing on this earth, he was invited to a Moravian prayer meeting.
Reluctantly he went, and sat among this group of people prayerfully gathered. Wesley wrote in his journal that at about 8:45 p.m. "while (the reader) was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death." Finally, John Wesley had FELT the presence of God, the answer to prayer, the assurance of God’s love for him, and for all. These were no longer just words he spoke, but a real, lived experience he knew.
This led Wesley, and later the Methodist movement, to adopt the term, Practical Divinity, the tension between a felt experience of God and the ways we live this experience out in the world by good works, a walk of faith that becomes, in Wesley’s words, “inner and outward holiness in heart and life.” He also wrote, “We must love God before we can be holy at all. We cannot know God’s love for us until God’s Spirit witnesses to our spirit.”
As Methodists we continue to hold this practical divinity at the core of who we are. We pray, and even if we don’t see or feel the results ourselves, assured those around us will pay attention! We serve, and when we feel like giving up or our energy leaves us we return to prayer. We live in the tension of seeking felt experiences of God and living as Christ’s hands and feet in the world around us. And we prayer in ways that may surprise us. John Wesley said, when asked how to pray, “All sorts of prayer- public, private, mental, vocal. Do not be diligent in one kind of prayer and negligent in others... let us use all.”
In the church I served in California there is a woman who is 94, and still very active in the church. She helps with meals for the unsheltered population, sets up communion, is on several committees, and has been a Methodist her whole life. When she found out I was leaving she said, “But how will I know how to pray? You have taught me that washing dishes is prayer, exercising is prayer, doing jigsaws puzzles is prayer, walking in the garden is prayer. Before this I thought kneeling at my bedside at night was really the only prayer that counts, but you have shown me so many other ways to pray. How will I know new ways when you are gone?” So pray in surprising ways, allowing space for God to speak too! Listen more than you speak, while gardening, walking the dog, cooking dinner, driving to work, creating art and music, cooking the dinner or washing the dishes. Listen and pray, and speak to God and pray and work and serve. And allow others to witness the transformation they see within you. And as you pray, may your hearts too, be strangely warmed by God’s great love.