Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Prayer: The Essential Conversation, Part 5

One of the most striking things you and I would have noticed about Jesus if we had traveled with Him back in first-century Judea is how often He went to be alone with God the Father in prayer. I've heard more than a few deep students of His life say that Jesus seemed to value these times more than anything else. To Jesus, prayer really was the essential conversation.

I suppose that if I were some neutral observer, this obsession on the part of someone who had as big a mission as Jesus claimed to have would seem strange. He had to let as many people as possible know that He had entered the world to seek and save those who had become lost and were flailing through their lives without the direction and help of God. He had to reach as many folks as He could in a short time with the news that if they would turn from sin and receive Him as Savior, they could live with God forever. And all of this needed to be accomplished prior to the main event of Jesus' life--what He calls His "glorification" in the Gospel of John: His death and resurrection.

With those sorts of daunting goals before Him, why would Jesus involve Himself in such a tangential, non-productive activity as prayer? And why would He do it so much?

I think that there were several reasons for this strange, we can say, obsessive practice of Jesus.

One was His need to remain close to the Father. One of the most interesting passages in the New Testament, coming at the start of a section of Luke's Gospel that the scholars call the grand inclusio, says that Jesus "set His face to go to Jerusalem." (Luke 9:51) Jesus was intent on going to Jerusalem, where He knew that He would fulfill His mission of dying and rising for us. He would not be deterred from that.

As is true today, when many people would prefer not having Him to answer to in their lives, not everyone Jesus encountered wanted Him to stick it out with His mission. If Jesus could be lured or intimidated into failing in that mission, His call to follow and to surrender to Him could be ignored. So, lots of people came to oppose Jesus in one way or another. One of the reasons so many ultimately wanted to kill Him was their disappointment over Jesus' unwillingness to become a simple human king who--like a Gallup Poll-obsessed politician--would subordinate himself to the whims of the people, rather than God the Father's will for His life.

And Jesus was no doubt tempted by the crowds' offer of an easy way around the cross, rather than through it.

If you were Jesus, wouldn't you be personally predisposed to not wanting to go through arrest, torture, scourging, derision, and death on a cross?

Wouldn't you be tempted to take a pass on the whole thing?

We're told that the devil tried to dissuade Jesus from going to the cross at the very outset of Jesus' earthly ministry, during a time of temptation in the Judean wilderness. The New Testament says that when he'd been unsuccessful in this, the devil "departed from Him [Jesus] until an opportune time." [Luke 4:13]

I believe that one of the ways Jesus avoided giving temptation any opportunity to sway Him was by spending time with God each day. Jesus fortified Himself against a "mission drift" that would have been fatal for all of us, by reconnecting with God the Father often.

Another reason that Jesus prayed every day is that the busier we are, the more we need God the Father working in our lives.

After turning from atheism some twenty-nine years ago and turning to belief in the God made known through Jesus, I slowly made a discovery: The days when I took the time to have a conversation with God turned out to be more productive than the days into which I just took head-first dives. Pathetically, because I'm an imperfect sinner, it's a discovery I have to keep re-making all the time.

This counterintuitive discovery isn't new with me. Martin Luther was one of the most productive people in human history. At one time, while still a monk and priest, Luther taught at Wittenberg University in Germany; wrote extensively; served as pastor of a parish church; and administered something like fourteen monasteries. Luther said that he had entirely too much to do at that time to even consider spending less than three hours a day in prayer.

For any of us engaged in professions largely composed of interruptions (including the profession of full-time parenting), having a quiet time with God, seeking His help, can fortify us for the day to come. (That's true if the only quiet time you can manage with God is in the shower. Try it; it's worked for me in the past!)

The last three years of Jesus' earthly life were filled with interruptions. But He was able to be responsive to the needs of others and to keep His face firmly set on Jerusalem because He took the time to pray.

In the Old Testament, you can find a tragic story from the life of King David. The Bible describes David as a person after God's own heart. He knew that all of the good things that had come to him were from God and came because of his close relationship with God.

But one spring time, when David would have been expected to lead his country's army against enemies who wanted to invade his nation and enslave his people, David became spiritually lax. He stayed behind while his forces fought.

It was then that he spied a beautiful woman, the wife of another man. One thing led to another. David and the woman, Bathsheba, had an affair. She became pregnant and David arranged for the murder of her husband.

Fortunately, God heard David's prayer of repentance, Psalm 51, and forgave David's sins. But the whole horrific business wouldn't have happened if David had remained spiritually diligent and maintained a daily appointment with God.

Who knows what sorts of character breakdowns we avoid in life by making sure that we spend time being fortified through prayer conversations with God the Father? Who really wants to know? It's better just to avoid such breakdowns?

The biggest mistakes of my life over these past twenty-nine years as a Christian, the most grievous errors and hurtful sins, have come when I have failed to pray.

Conversely, the most gratifying times, when I feel that I have been most in tune with the best self God wants to help me be and when I've been the most alive, have come on those days when I've maintained my intimacy with God through prayer.

Another reason I believe that Jesus took time to pray in the midst of a busy life was so that He could be reminded of the wisdom of heaven.

I remember learning how to ride a bicycle. The back of our house set before a large warehouse, the blacktop in front of which sloped down to the bays where the semi-trailers offloaded and reloaded their cargo.

During the days, lots of trucks would back up to and drive away from the warehouse. But after 5:00, all was quiet. Just a few semi-trailers typically sat in front of the bays each night, allowing for an otherwise huge, though sloping, expanse of blacktop on which I and a lot of the neighborhood kids could perfect our bicycle-riding skills.

Before I tackled the warehouse's blacktopped surface though, Dad made sure that I became proficient on my twenty-two incher on the sidewalk in front of our house. I got pretty good at it, too, remembering to keep my balance, swerving to avoid pedestrians and others riding bikes, trikes, or pedal cars, and braking when I came to the end of the sidewalk. Finally, after a period of practice, Dad thought that I was ready for the warehouse blacktop. I was excited!

But I have to tell you that the first time I took this ride in the big leagues of bike-riding, it was as though I'd forgotten everything my dad had taught me. When I hit the downward slope of the blacktop toward the warehouse bays, I heard my dad yelling, "Brake, Mark! Brake! Hit the brakes!" I couldn't remember how to hit the brakes and BAM!, my front tire slammed into the brick of the building, separating my bicycle and me and giving me a few strawberries.

When life gets hectic, we don't always have time to think. We simply must act and react. It's in those circumstances that we hope that the wise and appropriate things are so ingrained in us that we automatically do them, rather than the dumb stuff that panic can induce us to do.

In the New Testament book of James, it says, "If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, Who gives to all generously and ungrudginly, and it will be given you." (James 1:5)

If Jesus, truly God and truly human, spent time in prayer partly to be reminded of the wisdom of heaven, I think it's certain that we need to seek wisdom for our lives, too.

Why should we take time for prayer--earnest conversation with God--each day? For at least three reasons.

To remain close to the Father;

To ask God to work in our lives;

To seek God's wisdom when life gets busy or overwhelming.

Take it from someone who's tried to go through his days with and without regular prayer, prayer is the better way to go.

[To read more, see:
Prayer: The Essential Conversation, Part 1
Prayer: The Essential Conversation, Part 2
Prayer: The Essential Conversation, Part 3
Prayer: The Essential Conversation, Part 4]

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