Growing Up: Prayers that Refocus Us
January 19, 2014
This past week, I opened up the January issue of Christianity Today magazine to read an article about the new releases the magazine had selected as the best Christian books for the new year. One of those mentioned that quickly got my attention was entitled Crazy Busy: A Mercifully Short Book About a Really Big Problem. The book is by Michigan pastor Kevin DeYoung and as you can quickly surmise from the title is focused on the reality that most of us today are overscheduled, overworked, overstressed and thus overwhelmed in the modern world. From DeYoung’s perspective, this reality is not only ruining our lives it is also destroying our souls. (“The 2014 Christianity Today Book Awards,” Christianity Today, January/February 2014, pg. 44-45).
I don’t disagree with DeYoung for one minute and quite frankly I am eager to read his work because I suspect that all of us, including myself, could benefit from what he has to say. But, I am not sure that DeYoung has deciphered a problem that is a product only of modernity.
In fact, on the very same day that I read about DeYoung’s book, I was reminded of a book that came out in 1972 called A Circle of Quiet written by the famous children’s writer Madeleine L’Engle. The title of L’Engle’s memoir came from a brook near her family home that she returned to regularly. For L’Engle, walking back into the woods to that brook allowed her at the same moment to walk away from all of life’s busyness. Being there created a “circle of quiet” for her in the midst of the never ending voices and demands of each day. In the book, now 42 years old, L’Engle said, “every so often I need OUT; something will throw me into total disproportion; and I have to get away from everybody — away from all these people I love most in the world — in order to regain a sense of proportion.” (L’Engle, A Circle of Quiet, pg. 4)
Again though, I don’t think L’Engle was onto anything new either. For on the same day that I read of DeYoung’s book and I was reminded of L’Engle’s work, I also read and spent time with our text for today from Mark 1. To say the least, if there is one thing you can say about Jesus is Mark chapter 1 it is that he was one busy figure. In the chapter, over the course of roughly one Sabbath day, Jesus traveled to the synagogue for worship and to the home of Simon and Andrew. What is interesting is that every step of the way he was bombarded by people. While teaching in the synagogue, a demon possessed man approached him needing help. Later in the day, while in the home of Simon Peter and Andrew, Simon Peter shares with him that his mother in law is sick and would benefit from Jesus’ healing power (which incidentally says something about the compassion of Simon Peter in that he would even want his mother in law healed?!!)
And then, once nightfall comes, which signaled the end of the Sabbath — on which it was technically illegal to heal people by the way — people come to find Jesus since he could now heal them legally. In turn, the scene ends with folks lined up outside of Simon Peter and Andrew’s home waiting to see him. Again, he was overwhelmed. To use the title of Kevin DeYoung’s book, Jesus was crazy busy. And that is what makes what comes next in Mark’s account so interesting.
Notice what happens in verse 35. Even while the disciples search for him, Jesus gets away, early the next morning while it is still dark, so that he can have some peace, quiet and time to pray. What Jesus recognized is something that we would all do well to embrace — taking time to pray and be silent is not what we do when everything else is done. Rather, the discipline of making time for prayer and silence is what we must do so that everything else on our plates can be brought into focus and be better understood. Without question, there is one thing we can be sure of. Just as was the case for Jesus, we can be certain that the world is not going to slow down for us in order to accommodate our need to be with and in the presence of God. No, this is a discipline that we must both cultivate and commit ourselves to for more than likely life is going to do everything within its power to encroach upon this needed time.
There is something about this passage and about Jesus in the gospels related to prayer that I think deserves being said at this point. Notice that as we read the gospels, beyond the offering of the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus offers very little instruction on how to pray. Rather, the focus seems to be more on the fact that we simply should pray. As Sharon shared with the children a few moments ago, there are some things that we learn how to do primarily through doing them. And, I think prayer falls squarely into this category. Sure, there are books, friends and guidance that can certainly aide us in deepening this discipline, but, ultimately, our ability to pray – that is to speak to and listen to God — develops best I think as we simply spend time doing it.
I recall a woman that we went to church with when I was growing up named Betty. Betty and her family went to church with us and her son was a friend of mine in the church youth group. Years before, Betty had married a gentleman from Puerto Rico and before moving back to Alabama, they had lived for several years on the island. When they returned, Betty was fluent in Spanish. One day, I heard her share with someone about how she learned this second language. What was interesting to me is that she didn’t go to a class, she didn’t listen to tapes and she didn’t read a book. Rather, she developed a friendship with another woman in the town where they lived who came to her house for an hour or so every afternoon and they simply talked. That is how she learned Spanish — by daily speaking the language.
So, this morning, again, not to dismiss the value of others and of resources in helping us to deepen our prayers, let me invite us in simplistic terms to recover our prayer lives by making space each day for conversation with God. What this means is taking time to simply talk with God about what is happening in our lives — our thoughts, our fears, our hopes and our dreams. And, as is the case with every good conversation, to make space to simply listen as God speaks to us. If we will only set aside the time and if we will but risk having the conversation, we may be surprised at what begins to take place in our relationship with God.
Beyond developing the discipline and committing to the practice of simply praying, there is one last thing to note here about Jesus in this passage. Notice, if you will, how the story resolves. Jesus gets away. He makes space in his day to be by himself and to pray that he might be refocused on the things of the kingdom of heaven. But, then, he comes back from that deserted place and apparently directed by his prayers, goes back to work.
What I want us to see here is that Jesus’ prayers were evidently not an end in and of themselves. He didn’t pray so that he could say that he had prayed, he did so that his life might be changed and so that he might live in light of his prayers. Like our conclusions about Jesus and scripture last week, the purpose of the disciplines of scripture and prayer for Jesus were so that his life might be directed and changed as a result of being in the presence of the God the Father.
A couple of weeks ago, I was in a community to which I had never been. I happened to be in a shop and while there, I asked the woman behind the counter for a local lunch suggestion. I had seen several chains on the way into town but I wondered if there might be somewhere good to eat that was unique to that particular town. She was very nice, eager to help and quickly made a suggestion and told me how to get there. She even made a suggestion as to what I might order. Without a doubt, her suggestion was one that I would have never discovered on my own.
For the next thirty minutes or so, I followed her guidance almost word for word. I went where she suggested. I followed her directions as to how to get there. And, I ordered as she had instructed. Why? Because, this was her town, she was the expert and thus I trusted what she had to say.
Let me remind us as we begin a new year that this is our father’s world. We are strangers traveling in God’s land. In essence, the discipline of prayer offers us the great daily gift to be refocused by meeting with the one who is the local expert. Prayer gives us the chance to stop, listen, speak and then to act as he suggests.
Tell me, why would we do otherwise? Amen.