Three ministers were eating lunch at a local diner and arguing about the best position for prayer. The Episcopal priest insisted kneeling was definitely best. The pastor of a Charismatic church countered that the best results come from praying while you stand with your arms outstretched to heaven. An Orthodox rabbi argued that the only proper way is lying prostrate with your face to the floor. On and on and on the discussion went until an AT&T repairman, sitting at a table next to them, chimed in, “the best praying I ever did was hanging upside down from a telephone pole.”
Imagine you are with Peter, Andrew, James, and John, walking with them as they meet and begin to follow Jesus. Here is what you know so far about the man from Nazareth: He teaches with authority and he has authority over unclean spirits. Now you learn that he also has power over physical ailments. After healing Peter’s mother-in-law Jesus ministers to all the sick people brought to him over the course of an evening.
But then, in the morning, you go to look for Jesus and cannot find him. Where is he? Where has he gone? Has he left town? Did something upset him? Did something happen to him? A search party fans out and eventually Jesus is found in what the text calls a “deserted” place. He is praying. Different translations of the bible call it a “solitary” place or even a “lonely” place.
Millions upon millions of people are drawn to Jesus the teacher. Is there a single person who knows his name that has not reached out to Jesus the healer in a time of need? Many people respond to Jesus the prophet and his criticism of society and power. But far too few have a sense of Jesus the person at prayer. And a careful reading of the gospels reveals that Jesus the teacher and Jesus the healer and Jesus the prophet would not be possible if not for Jesus the person at prayer.
If you think it was difficult for Jesus to find a time and place to be alone in 1st century Palestine, imagine what that challenge is like today. We live in a world where everyone is driven to be connected. There is no place you can go that you cannot take your favorite TV show with you. It is now possible to be in electronic communion with dozens of people on different continents all at the same time. What we lack is the time, space, and capacity to be alone in order to be at the kind of prayer Ralph Waldo Emerson once described as “allowing the wisdom of centuries to speak to the hours.” Our existence is inundated with content from the present, with the hours.
In some respect our lives are not very different from the scene outside of Peter’s house were Jesus does nothing but engage one sick person after another after another. What does it say that Jesus withdrew from the content of his life for a time? Doesn’t it tell us that he needed time in prayer so that he could master the content of his life rather than have it master him?
The poet Robert Frost returned home after a particularly awful day, one that definitely had gotten the better of him. Everything had gone wrong, nothing had gone right, and he was ready to burst out in anger. But before he stepped into his house he decided to walk through his garden. It was a cold day, but in that lonely place Frost experienced something that he describes in a short poem called Dust of Snow:
The way of a crow
shook down on me
a dust of snow
from a hemlock tree
has given my heart
a change of mood
and saved one part
of a day I had rued.
Where is the quiet place you go that allows grace like this to bathe over you?
St. Paul famously instructed the Christians in Thessalonica to pray without ceasing. That seems darn near impossible if by prayer you mean the act of kneeling, standing with outstretched arms, or lying prostrate. I think what Paul advocated was something similar to the Buddhist notion of mindfulness. This is an active, open attention to the present where you observe your thoughts and feelings from a distance, without judgment. To this practice Christians add communion with God’s Holy Spirit in prayerful conversation around all that is.
I do my best to cultivate an on-going, inner conversation with God’s Spirit. My prayers are not for things, not like the little boy’s who, kneeling beside his bed with his mother nearby, prayed, “God bless mommy and daddy and grandpa and grandma.” And then the boy shouted as loud as he could, “And God, please bring me a new bike for my birthday! Amen.” His mother said, “Son, you don’t have to shout. God isn’t hard of hearing.” “No,” said the boy, “but grandma is!”
My prayers are not for specific outcomes but for understanding, for awareness, and for perspective. I seek to understand how I am to be in all that is going on around me. I look for ways to align my life with what I understand God desires for me and from me. Sometimes my prayer takes on a more structured pattern I was taught years ago. It is called ACTS prayer. A stands for adoration – praising and adoring God as One holy other. C stands for confession. T is for thanksgiving – a remembrance of the blessings of the day. S is for supplication – my prayers for myself and for others. Some times my prayers are an exercise in openness and invitation. I may place myself as a character in a particular biblical story and imagine Jesus approaching me. What will he say or what will he do? These are fascinating prayers.
The worst punishment we can administer short of torture and execution is solitary confinement – extensive, forced exile from contact with other humans. But equally as damaging is confinement from solitary – being constantly immersed in everything without let up.
When I was a child I had a terrifying dream that an invisible tornado was roaring across the landscape pulling up people into the sky causing them to disappear. In spite of my best efforts to avoid it, the tornado found me and took me away. I was carried into outer space and the stars went flying past me as it took me deeper and deeper into the darkness. Eventually a tiny planet appeared and it became clear that this was my intended destination. I was deposited just below the brink of a grassy hill. I crawled to top to see what was on the other side only to find myself looking down at all the other people who had been taken way. They were trapped and I was the only one with the freedom to move about. I knew that I needed to do something, but what? What was I supposed to do? And then I awaken, terrified to the core on my childhood being.
I don’t know why I have remembered that dream over all these years. Feel free to do some pew-side psycho-analysis if you like. The dream is no longer emotive for me. It does not put me back into that cold, trembling sweat. What it does now is serve as a reminder of my need to a person of prayer in a deserted, solitary, lonely place. Each of us needs a view of life looking down undetected from the brink of a prayer-filled hillside. It is only by going to a place like this to disconnect from everything around us in order to connect God’s Spirit – with the wisdom of the centuries – that we will learn what to do down in the valley when we reconnect with those we love and serve and encounter. This time away not only gives us direction, but it also has the power to transform us by filling every fiber of our being with God’s love.
Today we meet Jesus doing amazing things, but we must never forget that he could never do any of it without the regular experience of being in a deserted place.