Prayer. How does one even begin to understand it? There are entire books, lots of them, written about how to pray. I’ve read a number of them, I’ve tried a number of the different methods suggested in them. I’ve searched for the “right way” to pray. And I’ve come to the conclusion that the only way to mess up prayer is not to pray. I’ve let go of formulas, and just show up with a desire to connect with God. Some days I don’t pray a word, I just sit intentionally in God’s presence. Some days I pray with words. Some days I read scripture and converse with God as I read. Some days I intercede for the world and for people I know. Some days I journal. Some days I worship with music. Some days I read the prayers of others and make their words my own. Most days I ask Jesus what He wants our time to look like that day. Sometimes I feel a strong sense of connection, some days not so much, but my “feelings” aren’t what my prayer life needs to be about. Connecting with my Father (which includes listening) is what prayer is about.
Sunday, in our Like Never Before series, Pastor John had us look at the prayer life of Jesus. Last week we looked at Jesus’ authority and the long day that He’d experienced. He’d taught in the synagogue, driven out an impure spirit, healed Peter’s mother-in-law, and after dark when “the whole town” showed up at the house, He healed many and drove out many evil spirits. (Mark 1:21-34). I imagine He was tired at the end of that day. How did he even get all of those people to finally go home so he and his disciples could rest? Do you ever think about things like that? I do.
However, the following day we learn that very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. (Mark 1:35). In that moment Jesus was showing us the the priority of His life–His desire to connect one on one with His Father, before any other distractions of the day called to Him.
I am an early morning pray-er. I’ve learned that, for me, starting my day with Jesus, before anyone else is up, works best. However, not everyone rises early and that’s okay. Prayer is not a legalistic activity. It’s not about the time of day–it’s about the connection. Prayer is about our need to connect with the One we are following. Prayer helps us to understand God’s will and God empowers us to carry out His will as we spend time with Him.
What Pastor John showed us Sunday about Jesus’ prayer life are that His words and actions matched. He connected both soul and body to prayer. And He connected heaven and earth in prayer.
In Matthew 6:5-8, Jesus teaches us some things about prayer. He says:
And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.
But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.
Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
In other words–don’t pray to impress others, and just because someone prays out loud doesn’t mean they have an intimate relationship with God. We aren’t in a place to judge the hearts of others, but Jesus did tell us that we can have an idea based on the fruit of people’s lives. Is there evidence of Holy Spirit fruit?
Pastor John even reminded us not to say to people “I’m praying for you”, or “I’ll pray for you”, and then not pray. Anything that makes us sound good, but not followed through with could be what Jesus was addressing, and our only reward will be that people think we’re great. Jesus wants us to spend some alone time with God–connect with Him in solitude–whether anyone else ever knows that we do that or not. And then He modeled exactly that in Mark when he left the house early to go pray. (Note: prayer is not legalistic and corporate prayer is absolutely something that the church does together; however, corporate prayer alone will not sustain us and help us grow.)
When Jesus left the house early, He was involving His physical body as well as His soul in the act of prayer. He got His physical body out of bed. He walked to a solitary place. He got Himself into a position of prayer, and he prayed. There was intention in what He did with His physical body. And then He connected His soul, the part of us that we can’t see–our thought life, our emotions, etc. with God. Pastor John pointed out that it was not outside obligation that caused Jesus to get up–it was the internal desire of His soul that wanted to connect with His Father that caused Him to move.
I find that the longer I walk with God the more I have that internal desire to connect with Him. Without a doubt, there is some discipline involved in making time to connect with God, but once the discipline has been established, that time of connection becomes as life-giving as food and water. If you haven’t experienced that yet in your walk, don’t guilt yourself, just ask the Holy Spirit to give you the desire, and then follow through with intentionality. I can honestly say that I am not who I used to be. God has changed me, and it has been through my time with Him. I don’t know how He’s done it, but I know that He has. It is true that whatever we are doing with our physical bodies shows the priorities of our soul. Our inner life is reflected in our outward actions. If prayer becomes a priority, our lives will change.
Possibly my favorite part of prayer is that it connects heaven and earth. Jesus began His ministry by saying “the kingdom of heaven is here”. Somehow we’ve missed the significance of this in modern day Christianity. Our focus has become the after-life and we talk a lot about going to heaven when we die; however, that was not the message Jesus focused on, nor did the Apostles in the book of Acts. The message they preached is that God’s kingdom has come to us—right here, right now. Jesus taught us to pray “Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. He taught us to “Seek FIRST the kingdom of God”-right here, right now. Christianity is not about what happens after death, it is about life right here, right now. We have got to understand this! And, I’ll say it again, we have got to know the real Jesus in order to know what heaven on earth looks like.
I write these next statements gently, knowing that we all wrestle with making Jesus in our image, but we must be willing to recognize when we have done that and change our way of thinking to reflect who He has shown Himself to be.
If the Jesus you follow is connected to a political party, either one, He might not be the real Jesus. Jesus is connected to the “party” of the Kingdom of Heaven.
If the Jesus you follow is not concerned about people who are oppressed, who live in poverty, who live in danger, who are discriminated against, who are treated as less than, and who are unwelcome, He might not be the real Jesus. Remember the lepers, the women, the foreigners, the demon-possessed, the uneducated, the outcasts who were Jesus’ friends and ministry partners.
If the Jesus you follow favors your religious denomination, your nationality, your state, your education, your points of view, He might not be the real Jesus.
If the Jesus you follow is angry about “rights”–the right to pray in public, the right to post the 10 Commandments, or any other “rights”–He might not be the real Jesus. Jesus is gentle, and kind, and concerned about our transformation from the inside out.
Following the real Jesus means that we become like the real Jesus and the kind of people attracted to Him will be attracted to us.
How do we get to know the real Jesus? Connection through prayer, through the gospels, and through the power of the Holy Spirit. Seeking God in this way, leads us to what He says is eternal life. In John 17:3 Jesus prays Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.
When we know Him, we know God’s will, which is to spread the message that the kingdom of heaven has come to earth, the love of God is available to everyone, we were created with divine purpose and can be part of His kingdom and its advancement on earth…and He’ll lead us every step of the way, showing us our next steps, just like the Father did with Jesus while they were alone together.
Jesus, while he was still praying in that solitary place, was interrupted by the disciples who said “Everyone is looking for you!” (Of course they were, Jesus had healed, and delivered people from demon possession the previous night –nothing like this had ever happened before.) Yet, Jesus replied, “Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come. (Mark 1: 37-38)
I imagine the disciples were a little surprised by that. Yet Jesus, in His time with His Father, knew what to do next. I’m sure people were disappointed in Him–He didn’t do what they wanted. But He is Jesus. His life is all about the Father’s will, body and soul, words and actions, connecting heaven and earth–all fueled by connection with God through prayer, and He invites us to do the same. Will we enter in?
Luanne wrote, “It is true that whatever we are doing with our physical bodies shows the priorities of our soul. Our inner life is reflected in our outward actions. If prayer becomes a priority, our lives will change…”
What we do with our physical bodies shows the priorities of our soul… With the exception of cases of physical disability that can prevent us from doing with our bodies what our souls long to do, I absolutely agree with this statement. We make time and space in our lives to do the things our souls prioritize. Even in the midst of life’s responsibilities and demands, we find a way to do the things our souls desire. It’s how we’re wired. Sometimes the wiring gets crossed though–we’ll come back to that in a minute…
During his message, Pastor John mentioned that whether Jesus needed to or not, His getting up early to pray showed us what He wanted to do–where His heart and His priorities were. We know He was fully God as well as fully man. So we could argue that He didn’t NEED to go away to connect with God. We don’t know for sure how that all worked. But to me, seeing that it’s what he wanted to do, what he longed to do, speaks deeply to my heart and reminds me of my own longing. We come into existence with eternity set in our hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11), and with an ache for “home” that we can’t really explain… In Jason Upton’s beautiful song, “Home to Me”, he articulates this ache a bit:
“…Before my lungs could breathe, I was alive in you;
Before my eyes were open, before my tongue could speak,
Before the bond was broken between you and me;
You were home to me…
You are where we all have come from,
You are where we long to go…”
Jason writes of a longing we all have, whether we’re aware of it or not. It’s the desire to live in the realm of the kingdom of the heavens, the kingdom Jesus brought to earth with Him–the kingdom that is absolutely available to us, if only we’ll make it a priority, like Jesus did, to plug into it. The last line of Upton’s song is,
“Let the way of Jesus lead us back where we belong.”
This is the opportunity we always have before us. The life of Jesus–His ways–will lead us where we belong, if we choose to follow Him. He showed us how to plug into the power source of His Kingdom. And it all begins with prayer. We are wired for it. But, like I mentioned above, sometimes our wiring gets crossed. We know that Jesus taught us to seek his Kingdom daily, to ask our Father for our daily bread… yet so often we settle for the bread of our yesterdays… And, I believe, this is what leads us to follow an idea of Jesus that is nothing like the real Jesus.
The concept of “daily bread” has cycled through my mind on repeat for about a week now…
I think we sometimes try to master the gift of daily provision. We try and hoard what we’ve been given today, and expect it to carry us into our tomorrows. We want our initial experience with Jesus to “cover” us, and to guarantee our eternity, without any further “plugging in” to His kingdom and His ways. We intuitively know that doing so will change us and our priorities–priorities that, along the way, have covered up our primal longing to connect with the Creator of our souls. But when we eat today’s bread tomorrow, and the next day, and on into the next month, year, decades, etc…, we end up eating stale, decomposing, bread. It makes us sick–and it leads us to follow a “Jesus” that doesn’t exist.
I’m not saying that the bread of yesterday was bad. It was what we needed then. It served it’s purpose for that day. It was intended to carry us to the next day, when we could again go to the source for that day’s bread. Bread doesn’t stay fresh for long. It molds, it rots, it gets stale, it decomposes. But Jesus is the bread of life, right? He won’t ever get stale or rotten, right? Right… IF we stay plugged into Him. But a taste of Jesus, a one-time experience of Jesus, in our imperfect human hands? That can absolutely “go bad” and decompose as the dirt of us mixes with the beauty of Him. This is where theologies that look nothing like His kingdom begin. We must go back to the source, daily, if we expect our relationship with God to stay fresh, and if we expect to grow into people who reflect the One we say we follow.
Luanne wrote, “I can honestly say that I am not who I used to be. God has changed me, and it has been through my time with Him. I don’t know how He’s done it, but I know that He has.” Coming to Jesus daily, knowing He is the daily bread we need, and seeking His kingdom first allows God to do His good work within us and change us in the way Luanne wrote about.
But eating old bread changes us, too. Plugging into our old understanding of Jesus, praying disconnected, formulaic prayers, doing religion for show–all of these are examples of what can happen when we try to make what we were given at first into what sustains us into eternity. We have to keep plugging into our Source. When we come to our God daily, hungry for the Bread of Life and thirsty for Living Water, we tap into the new wine of the kingdom of Jesus… We become familiar with His ways, and we begin to realize that His kingdom is exceedingly bigger and abundantly better than anything we’ve imagined. When this realization dawns on us, we stop trying to make today’s provision last into tomorrow, because we can’t wait for the fresh revelation tomorrow’s bread will bring. Continuing to return daily, remaining fixed in the presence of Jesus, will remind us of our own weakness and smallness as we encounter His power–the power of earth and heaven becoming one in His presence. We begin to see more and more of the heart of our God as we seek Him in prayer. Our own hearts expand, and so does our vision. We begin to see those around us, and we begin to see the stark contrast between the Kingdom of the heavens and the kingdoms of this world.
And… sometimes the presence we encounter in prayer is overwhelming. We know that choosing to follow this Kingdom path will lead us to rearrange our priorities, to be open to being changed at our core–and that can feel like too much. So we choose, sometimes, to choke down the rotting bread of yesterday and tells ourselves that’s good enough for this life. Our actions, words, and mindsets reveal the kind of bread we’re eating, as well as the priorities of our hearts. But we go on filling the ache for “home” with bread that, unbeknownst to us, is making us–and others–sick. Eating the old bread keeps us just full enough to check out, and allows us to mostly silence the cry of our souls for the bread of life that satisfies.
Eating the old bread doesn’t disqualify us from an eternity with Jesus–but it does render our present lives entirely useless for Kingdom purposes. It will keep us from experiencing the empowerment and freedom that only comes when we plug into the Kingdom. Plugging into the Kingdom happens when we follow the way of Jesus and connect with our God through prayer.
Have you been feasting on the maggoty bread of your yesterdays? Are you plugging into a source that has rewired your priorities? Take heart. There is fresh bread available for all of us. Is your heart not in it yet? Just move. Move toward God. He’s waiting for you. Ask Him for today’s bread. Let it carry you today. Then come back tomorrow and ask Him for that day’s bread. And the next day, and the next. The Bread of Life will fill you and heal the sickness of yesterday. And as you connect with “home”, your priorities will change. And you will change. There is no “right way” to pray, to connect with your Father. But Jesus did give us a model of where to begin. Let the way of Jesus lead us all back where we belong…
Our Father in heaven,
let Your name remain holy.
Bring about Your kingdom.
Manifest Your will here on earth,
as it is manifest in heaven.
Give us each day that day’s bread—no more, no less—
And forgive us our debts
as we forgive those who owe us something.
Lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
(Matthew 6:9-13, VOICE)