Getting away to pray
I recently read this story in a book called ‘How to Pray’ by Pete Greig, leader of ‘24-7 Prayer’. As we engage in a time of prayer in the lead up to Pentecost, I wanted to share it with you, and pray it motivates us to spend time in the quiet place with our heavenly Father.
I was eating a Hawaiian pizza in an Italian restaurant with an old Franciscan priest called Brennan Manning. It was near the start of 24-7 Prayer and he was plying me with questions. We were using knoves and forks, which isn’t how pizza is meant to be eaten. ‘So you guys are praying night and day?’ I nodded. ‘All the time?’ I caught a mischievous twinkle in his eye. ‘So tell me - how do you even know when you’ve prayed enough?’ I garbled an answer, trying to explain our model. How we were praying in shifts in dedicated rooms. Trying not to sound defensive. Trying to ignore his ill-concealed amusement.
The truth is that we were praying non-stop because we were desperate to see more people saved, more people healed, more miracles, the activations of hundreds of languishing prophecies. We were standing on tiptoe, trying with all our might to reach a big, red switch labelled ‘REVIVAL’. Surely the whole point of night-and-day prayer was that it equalled the maximum amount of praying you could possible do. This was the dial turned up to eleven, the secret sauce our mediocrity required.
The priest put down his fork and picked up a slice of pizza in his hands, clearly more interested in it that anything I was saying. ‘So, would you like me to tell you how we see praying in the contemplative tradition?’ he asked. ‘Please,’ I said with a sigh.
‘Say you spend sixty minutes in the prayer room. It’s your quiet time, right? Your chance to read a bit of the Bible and check off your prayer list for the day?’ I nodded. An hour of prayer seemed pretty good to me. Frankly, I thought he should be impressed. None of us had ever dreamed we’d pray this much.
‘Well, if that’s really how you think prayer works, I guess you should consider your time in the prayer room as an hour off. The hour in the day you don’t pray.’
‘Wow,’ I said, a little too enthusiastically. No clue what he meant. The priest sighed, pushed back his chair and stared at me. ‘Look, what if you spent your hour in the prayer room just re-centering yourself the Lord? Enjoying his presence. Listening to him in silence. Not bombarding him with words and lists and all that dutiful, earnest…’ - he was saving his pizza around absentmindedly - ‘... all that religious activity!’
Suddenly he reached across the table and patted my chest. ‘You wanna know how God changes you in here, Pete? Silence! Contemplation! That’s how you pray continually. It’s like Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet doing the one thing needed, while he sister is getting all hot and bothered in the the kitchen.’
‘I hear you,’ I said slowly, and this time I meant it. ‘I get it, but…’ How honest could I be? ‘But if we all just sit around listening to the silence, how will anything ever get done? What about intercession? What about the way the early church prayed? What about all the problems in the world?’
The priest took a sip of his Pepsi. ‘I’m not against intercession and all those other kinds of prayer,’ he said. ‘In fact, I think they’re essential. It’s just that they’re not enough. The world is so full of need. You watch the news and there’s so much tragedy. How many things do you have to your prayer list after that? And then there are you friends: marriages breaking down, kids bullied, money worries, relatives dying. It’s exhausting. It’s overwhelming. There has to be another way. That’s why I asked how you know when you’re prayed enough. I wasn’t being facetious.’
‘And you think the way to address the world’s problems is silence?’ I countered.
‘No. I think the way to address the world’s problems is presence.’ I stared at him blankly. ‘What is the hour you spend in the prayer room is when you refocus on Jesus so that you can carry his presence with you into the other twenty three hours of the day with a heightened awareness that he is with you, he is for you, that he likes you, that he hearts your thoughts? You start to pray in real-time. You instinctively lift situations to the Lord in the actual moment that you experience them - while you are watching that distressing new report, or hearing about your friend’s latest crisis. You’re no longer deferring all your prayers to some later, holier moment, because you whole life is becoming that holier moment.’
May this inspire us to go to the quiet place, whether the prayer room or your own prayer space, and connect with Jesus, that we may take his presence with us everywhere we go.
The “Inner Circle”
Aside from a few weeks over the Easter period, our sermons at The Billabong have been focussed on the opening few chapters of Mark’s gospel. The end of Mark chapter 3 closes out a section focussed on Jesus ministry and the various reactions to it, before we start to hear Jesus teach and tell a few more stories (parables) in chapter 4. And the last few words of chapter 3 paint a picture of Jesus ‘inner circle’, gathered around him to listen and learn.
This ‘inner circle’ includes, but is not limited to, the twelve he chose to be “apostles” a few verses earlier. It’s actually a pretty packed house, but some, like his blood family are very clearly on the ‘outside’. And Jesus makes a surprising statement when they ask to see him: “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?” Then he looked at those around him and said, “Look, these are my mother and brothers. Anyone who does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:33-35)
He even defines those sitting and standing around him as his family. Families, by definition are exclusive. You don’t just invite yourself into someone’s family! But the almost paradoxical thing about Jesus’ “inner circle”, those he now calls his “family”, is that it’s open to all. You don’t need to have special birthright or be connected to the right institution or religious system - faith in Jesus is all that’s required (I encourage you to read Romans to learn more about this - especially chapter 9).
Are you in Jesus’ “inner circle”? The good news is that you don’t get in because of special privilege, status or birthright - in fact those who think those things give them access to Jesus actually find themselves on the outside. All that’s required is a sincere desire to be with Jesus, to learn from him, to walk closely with him and bring yourself, fault and all, to him. Anyone can join the circle. Anyone is welcome into the family of God.
Jesus is Lord
One of the themes we find in the gospel of Mark is the unveiling of the authority Jesus has been given by the Father. This is an authority over the spirit realm, the physical world and sickness, authority to forgive and to speak on behalf of God, authority over laws and biblical mandates, authority over all things. Jesus is becoming Lord of all. The crucifixion, which we will remember, in just a few weeks time, is the climax of this story. But it's not the way we'd expect someone to be 'crowned' as the one who has been given authority and dominion over all of creation.
The words of Jesus in his final hours are staggering. This man who is being revealed as Messiah - promised King of the Jews, is humiliated in every way possible. Yet he submits himself fully to God and accepts his humanity, not using his divine authority to escape the pain but saying "I thirst". Having declared the entry into this world of God's Kingdom, he lives what he has preached this Kingdom to be about when he prays "Father, forgive them". And to a man with no opportunity to prove his faith in Jesus through good works, he sees the heart of a repentant criminal and declares "Today you will be with me in paradise". In the midst of his greatest pain, he still cares for his mother saying "behold, your son", he takes the weight of the world and cries the words of the Psalmist "why have you forsaken me", and having obeyed God to the end without fault, shouts "it is finished" and "into your hands I commit my Spirit".
For me, Lent, Holy week and the Easter weekend are times to reflect on the staggering 'other-worldliness' of Jesus and be reminded of the reasons we worship and serve him as Lord. In this world, submission and suffering does not equal power and authority. But his Kingdom, which will have no end, is established through an extravagant love like no other. And it's this sacrificial love, his life given up for us, that is the final stamp of his authority over all things. Even death itself.
So it's with praise thanksgiving that we say Jesus is Lord! Not anyone or anything else will be our Lord and Master with love, grace, kindness and mercy. And not anyone or anything else is worthy of our worship, devotion, service, time or attention. He alone is worthy. The cross proves it.
May the worship we express with our whole lives return wholly to Jesus this Easter as we declare that he is Lord.
The Controversial Jesus
This year we're journeying through the gospel of Mark on Sunday mornings, and as of mid March are just starting to read about the words and actions of Jesus in his 3 year ministry. Mark (or 'John Mark', the writer of this account) focusses a little more on the events of Jesus' life and less on his teachings and parables. It's the shortest of the 4 gospel accounts, one that challenges us to simply observe the life of Jesus and consider how our lives might look different if they are modelled after his.
Some of what Jesus did and said may be surprising to us, even (or especially) in the church world, but still quite comforting and reassuring. For example, the fact that Jesus started off not with a bang but walking along the beach taking an interest in some ordinary fisherman reassures me that he's interested in ordinary folk like myself and will choose the least likely for his great purpose. But much of what Jesus did and said is not just surprising, it's controversial. Sometimes, it's downright scandalous!
The chances are that if we are not challenged by the life of Jesus to speak and act in ways that don't feel "right", we may be following Jesus from a distance. Jesus challenged the assumptions of people in his day about marriage, money, the Bible, God, forgiveness, and most importantly himself. I suspect that the differences between the 1st century culture and ours today are not that great, and that Jesus would still be a controversial figure.
But I don't think Jesus is the same kind of controversial figure as various political or cultural commentators in our world today. Jesus is different, whilst the pattern of his life does (or should) make us uncomfortable as he calls us to change, we are simultaneously drawn to him and want to change because we know his heart for us is deep love and compassion. Some may be repelled from Jesus and his followers because of the controversial things he says and does rub them the wrong way, but only if there is no knowledge of his pure motivation of love.
I pray that over the course of this year you will be made uncomfortable by the controversial Jesus and simultaneously be drawn closer to him as you understand his motivation of love in moulding your heart and mind to become more like him.
Grace and Peace,