This tomb, seen along the roadside in Israel, reminds me of another tomb where God testified regarding eternal blessing and renewal.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Time with God: The Gospels' Truth, part I

So, this is what I'm pondering this past year: where do we get (much less buy into) these ideas we claim about what defines true spirituality? And, how long must we spend chasing these pictures of holiness before we realize that once we achieve the goal, we may not yet arrived at any station, much less the one we are pursuing.

I wish I could recall right now the exact title of the lesson I was asked to teach that started me on this journey, but I can't. However, the topic erupted from a heart that desperately desired to enhance daily quiet time. Since I myself hunger for the same, the quest soon became one of my own heart. How could I help others to enhance their daily quiet time when I myself long for the same experience? The only way I knew was to spend time reflecting on the life of one man, the life I regularly dissect and inspect for Truth: Jesus. After all, wasn't he the king of quiet reflection with God? Like others, I had always claimed He was.

What I discovered launched me on this year's long journey: Jesus didn't practice daily the kind of quiet time ritual I was seeking to perfect.

Whoa!!! What????

He didn't. He couldn't. Like me and my friend, he hungered for it; he chased it; he even lived every moment of the last three years of his life, looking for any opportunity to practice it, but he rarely found the necessary, uninterrupted moment for quiet and prayer. It is true. Let me give you some facts I discovered in my study before I taught those lessons.

First, the gospels don't record a Jesus who was primarily known as a man of quiet and prayer. Instead, they record the story of Jesus' last three years of life--hectic years lived by a man who was suspect, followed, chased, pursued, harassed, invaded, and eventually arrested and killed. He was a man who accepted a mission that should have permitted him years longer to accomplish--but he was out of time. He was a man who stood in direct opposition to the powers that be, a man who had his own ideas about life and living, about a relationship with God and yes, even God himself--a man whose message was rarely heard though he preached it repeatedly in crowds of thousands. He was a man who lived at least the last months of his life knowing that he was out of time and that by every available indication, he was failing to do the job he had set out to accomplish.

Whoever said that Jesus didn't live a hectic life? Who told me that he had more to do than any man on earth, but he was never in a hurry, never felt rushed, never on edge, never near the brink of insanity? Who said that?

I know I did--more than once. But I know I was taught it, too. I believed it. But that is not the story of the gospels.

In fact, if one were merely a concordance student, content to measure the import of a topic by the number of times it occurred, Jesus and prayer might not receive much attention. I was startled that the New Revised Standard Version found no place to translate a word from the Greek of John's gospel as "prayer" or "pray." Though Jesus' longest and possibly most instructive example of prayer occurs in John, it is not named a "prayer," so a concordance for the NRSV will not pick it up. But that isn't the end of the surprising truth about Jesus' prayer life as reported by the gospel writers. All the gospel writers combined tell us of only 13 specific and individual situations in which Jesus prays.

Matthew's Jesus, the consummate teacher, instructs his disciples regarding how to pray, but he Matthew records Jesus praying only four times. In Mark, we find a Jesus who will pray all night for direction to understand his mission (twice), to select his disciples, and for strength before the crucifixion. Granted, Mark's Jesus continually seeks sanctuary, an escape from the crowds for a time of refreshing and (we assume) prayer, but he is interrupted or distracted most of the time. Luke, who gives us seven of the 13 instances, also records this charge: "The disciples of John and the Pharisees frequently fasted and prayed, but your disciples eat and drink." Truly, such an evaluation of Jesus' prayer life as noted here might leave us to wonder whether prayer were an important spiritual discipline practiced by Jesus.

Luke alone tells us of a Jesus who "would withdraw to lonely places and pray" as if his habit might have ended in some success. Matthew tells us that people brought little children to Jesus so that he could touch them and pray over them. Jesus' own teaching on prayer, that we not "pray to be seen" or heard by others, helps us to understand that this part of his life was both private and intimate--certainly not on display for the Pharisees or the world at large. Jesus prayed; he did; and some people seemed to know it. But, more than the quiet, reflective outpouring we know as prayer, I would argue that Jesus' very life, his every thought, his every action was lived as prayer, begging the fulfillment of intimacy with God. Only nine of the 13 mentioned times might be considered classic "quiet time" situations. I would dub the other four conversational moments in which Jesus recognizes the Father's presence with him and begins conversing son to Father, friend to friend. (Once, God answers, and Jesus responds back!) The "quiet times" were sought--experienced in proportion to need--to make a decision, to determine priority, to re-center life according to His purpose--but the Father was never far away. He was at hand.
  • I can do nothing on my own....I seek to do not my own will but the will of him who sent me." (John 5:30)
  • "...the one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what is pleasing to him." (John 8.29)
  • "I did not speak of my own accord, but the Father who sent me commanded me what to say and how to say it.... So whatever I say is just what the father has told me to say." (John 12.49-50)
I doubt Jesus ever taught that "time with God" could be reduced to a regular, early morning ritual made up of prayer, Bible study, and meditation. I am equally convinced that he never bound that definition of spirituality on anyone. I doubt he would have termed the ritual we know as "quiet time" as the most necessary or apparent fruit of a spiritual being. To Jesus, time with God was an every minute, every thought, every word experience. That's why he looked to escape a lifestyle so hectic that he missed enough meals to prompt his family to come looking, expecting to find him insane. He hungered for time alone with God. He craved it. But he had to pursue it. He needed it; I need it...enough to keep me in His Presence every, every minute.

Jesus was a busy man, a man whose life mission often left him exhausted and spent. He took his calling--to be the presence of God in the midst of a world gone haywire--seriously. And note this: His world was not so much different than our own.

More later.

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