Michelle threw her notes in the seat next to her, and tore out of the driveway in the dark. She was late for the airport, on the way to another business trip. Hopefully the TSA would be on her side this morning. She couldn’t find her normal travel portfolio, so she grabbed an older one out of the hall closet on the way out. She stuffed her notes into it at the stoplight, cursing under her breath that she was going to be late. In the dark, she rearranged her portfolio, and pulled out an old handout. She recognized it immediately in the light of the streetlamp: it was from the women’s retreat last year – a page of suggestions to find balance in her busy life. On the bottom were her notes — plans that she had made to read the Bible at least three times a week, pray a centering prayer for five minutes every morning, and journal once a week. Pretty simple goals, really. But ones that she had not even begun to accomplish. She didn’t even think she made it one week after the retreat. She was looking down at the paper when the car in front of her slowed down. She swore more loudly as she slammed on her brakes. She stuffed the paper back in the bag. For another day, she mumbled to herself.
Sound familiar? How many of you live this life? I know I do. My guess is that a lot of you get it. Maybe it is not kids or work, but caring for aging parents or volunteering at several agencies during the week, or taking care of grandkids, or getting to the long list of doctors during the course of a normal week. Or maybe it is all of it. How many of us simply find that we do not have the time to pray?
This Lenten season, we are going to talk pretty candidly about the ways that we don’t pray and what it costs us, and ideas of how we might be able to pray and how it can bless us. Our series title is “Prayer on a Tuesday,” emphasizing the ways that prayer can become a part of our everyday, normal lives. Again, don’t hear this as your pastor who has it all figured out, lecturing you on how you are supposed to be like me. Hear it as the guy who gets paid to be spiritual, still struggling to figure out how to bring prayer into his life. Perhaps during these forty days, we can share together some ways that we can bring some new Lenten practices into our busy schedules.
I am struck by the painting by Jean-Marie Melchior Doze titled Christ Cleansing a Leper. It shows Christ in the act of healing a man with leprosy. Doze’s work shows Jesus wading in through the humanity and chaos to bring healing into this man’s life. It seems a perfect companion to the first Chapter of Mark. It is at the very beginning of Jesus’s teaching and healing ministry, and he has just begun to get a name for himself. The passage I read this morning claims that the crowds were overwhelming Jesus, almost as though he had to wade through them. I can imagine the humanity swarming all over him, reaching to touch him and receive restoration. The passage says that they swarmed him “late into the night,” keeping him from being able to rest. We think that flight schedules and traffic are a problem; imagine the chaos of expectations that Jesus must have felt – just about every single person he met was in a life or death struggle and all he had to do was reach out and touch them to change their life forever. Imagine the pressure that he must have been under. Not only that, but his disciples were just as hard to get away from.
A few verses later, Mark tells us that they are looking for him, and the word that Mark uses is “hunt,” the Greek implying the way an expert tracker would doggedly track and hunt an animal. As if Jesus didn’t know it, Peter tells Jesus, “everyone is searching for you.” Jesus was pressed on all sides by incredibly urgent circumstances.
But Jesus didn’t care.
Not that he didn’t care about the people that he was healing – they were of utmost importance to him. However, in the midst of this life fraught with urgency, we read these words, “In the morning, when it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.” In the middle of what was a tremendous need, Jesus walked away from the cares of the world. Because he knew that he had an even more pressing need: the need to find solitude with his God in prayer. Jesus knew that if he was to continue his ministry of restoration, he would need to find a way to be restored himself. And he found that restoration through prayer. It was a pattern that Jesus repeated throughout his ministry. We see it again and again in the Gospels – stories of Jesus going to a quiet place to pray, and often doing it early in the morning, so that he could focus the rest of his day on the priorities revealed to him in prayer. It was in those places where the expectations that swarmed him would be muted. And he could focus on the expectations of the One who created him and empowered him for his ministry.
So when Peter shows up and tells Jesus, “everyone is searching for you,” Jesus doesn’t whine or tell Peter or leave him alone or scream, “can everyone just leave me alone for a minute?!” Instead, he calmly tells him, “let’s go.”
If it is necessary for Jesus, perhaps it is necessary for us.
I believe, even though I don’t always practice, that there is power to beginning every day in prayer. Our Lenten series is shaped by various moments throughout the day, as a way to imagine how prayer touches each hour of each day. And we begin this week in the beginning. At the first of the day: “in between a shower and a bagel. Just like a teacher who begins the school day with a list of the schedule and assignments, or a manager who begins the work day with a staff meeting to prepare for the tasks ahead, a day that begins with prayer is one that begins with the right priorities. It will not necessarily make the day easy – just like Jesus’ days were still filled with swarming chaos. But because his day was centered on the one who gave him power, he was able to withstand the swarm. And so it will be with us. Not easy, but more centered and prepared for the swarm when it comes.
Of course, it means a life of saying no to other expectations. No to the tyranny of the urgent. No to whatever in your life takes the place of a beginning of prayer. No to flipping the TV on as soon as you get out of bed? No to checking in on social media before we do anything else? No to staying up late to binge watch Netflix, making the next morning a stumbling mess? Prayer must become a priority. St. Francis de Sales said it well, “Everyone of us needs half an hour of prayer each day…except when we are busy – then we need an hour.”
“Need.” Hear what I mean when I say that word:
- I don’t mean to say that if you don’t pray more, you aren’t a “good enough” Christian; what I mean instead is that when we pray, we are reminded that we are always “good enough”
- We don’t pray because we are supposed to. We pray because we need to.
- We don’t pray because of obligation or shame or guilt; we pray because we need to listen to the One who wants us to leave obligation, and shame and guilt all behind.
- We don’t pray because we are trying to earn more points in heaven; we pray to center ourselves on the grace and forgiveness that Christ came to preach.
- We don’t pray because it is yet another expectation; we pray because the alternative is an untethered, reactive, tyranny of the urgent, everyone-else’s-expectation-driven lifestyle that honestly, a lot of us live, and honestly, wears a lot of us out. We pray because we need it!
We have a family friend who used to live with their children in a cul de sac. Their son would see his friend out the window and want to play, and come tearing out of the door and across the street. But it was a street and sometimes busy, so they had to teach him, “you have to look both ways before you cross.” But to him, that was an unnecessary obligation, so when he saw his friend, he would still tear out of the front door, run to the end of the driveway and whip his head back and forth, too fast to ever actually see a car! And then race across anyway. There was no way he could see if a car was coming. But his obligation was complete! He looked because he was supposed to, not because he understood that it was a lifeline to him. It is what he had to do to survive and thrive.
This is the way so many of us pray. Whipping our heads back and forth between a shower and a bagel because we know we should. We must learn to pray not because we are supposed to…but because that tethering to our Creator is our lifeline…the very thing keeping our souls from being crushed by the traffic of your world! It is only by this centering that we, like Jesus, don’t whine or complain or scream, “just leave me alone!” Instead, like Jesus, we are able to say, “let’s go.”
Michelle finally took a deep breath as she sat down on the flight. She started to pull out her work to get a little ahead and found that handout again. Before, it felt like it was shaming her. Now it felt like it was inviting her to reread it. She smiled as she read about prayer practice from Anthony Bloom, called the “Here I Am Prayer.” They had practiced it at the retreat and it had been so meaningful. Now, instead of doing her urgent work, she felt a very different urgent need. She followed Bloom’s suggestions:
She gave herself at least five minutes without distraction. Less than that and she would always be looking at her watch for when it was over.
She repeated in her head, “Here I am seated, doing nothing. I will do nothing for five minutes.”
Next, she said to herself, “Here I am in my body.” She began to notice her bodily presence. How the seat felt. How her feet felt against the floor. The feeling of the air coming from the vent on her face. She relaxed and attended to her body.
Next, she noticed her physical surroundings, saying to herself, “here I am in this place.” She listened to the child talking to her mother behind her. The chatter of teens a few rows up. The clouds outside the window of the plane. She relaxed even more as she attended to the environment. As she chose to simply be present.
Finally, she began to say aloud in her mind, “here I am in the presence of God.” “Here I am.” “Here I am.” “Here I am.” She allowed herself to simply be in God’s presence. Her eyes closed for a time, and when they opened again, the plane shot out of the clouds that had surrounded it. And Michelle saw the sunrise with new eyes, piercing above the gloom. She saw a new day before her, and gave thanks.