In my last three articles, what I’ve been trying to say is that the three words Lengthy, Lingering and Lonely are words that strike me as being absolutely critical to 1) Jesus’ own personal, perfect and powerful relationship with the Father and 2) an emphasised lifestyle of prayer that Jesus models as our Lord and Teacher for us to imitate.
So, I’m very interested in these three words when I pray “Lord, please teach me how to pray” because I think they act as important sign-posts to the place of effective and satisfying prayer that I long for.
But because the words perhaps conjure negative feelings with you and carry connotations of a lifestyle that is anti-intuitive and anti-cultural, all three adjectives may also seem like words that you might want to avoid and certainly not make sustained efforts of aspiring to. And yet, Jesus’ undeniable example of living and praying in exactly these ways (see Luke 5:16) is compelling evidence on the pages of your Bible as to how He wants to teach us to pray, even within the reality of all of our uniquely individual personalities. (cf. Phil. 4:9; John 5:19). Jesus must have been imitating the Father as He prayed like this because He only did what He saw the Father doing – so the Father must have been in lengthy, lingering, lonely prayer too.
I was at the Royal Albert Hall last year for a brilliant leadership conference with HTB, and it really was really brilliant. One of the seminars on prayer that I went to attracted me because of its title: The Monk, The Shrink and Me. I highly commend it to you – you can find it here. I enjoyed the seminar, and even more re-listening to it recently. But it also gave me concerns and questions – let me explain.
I was sat outside the RAH after the seminar, on the pavement, leaning against the building waiting for Mairi. As I sat on the pavement I over-heard conversations of some of the people milling about, streaming out through the doors of the venue off to find dinner somewhere in South Kensington. One conversation particularly caught my attention – between a group of friends who’d been in the same seminar on prayer as me – who were enthusing with each other about how good it had been and exclaiming that “that was it! short prayers count!”.
The seminar had included the poetic, theological, thoughtful, Jesus-loving musings of three phenomenal leaders: Pete Greig founder of 24/7 prayer, A Clinical Psychologist (The Shrink from Lincoln whose name I forget – sorry) and a Franciscan Monk, Father Luigi from Rome. Each brought some freshly inspired thinking to the thing we call prayer by focusing on the notion that short prayers count! This is more than a notion, of course, it’s a liberating truth that Jesus always hears the language of our heart before we even articulate it into words (Matthew 6:8). Ann Voskamp says, “Praying with eyes wide open is the only way to pray without ceasing” so praise God that we don’t need to be in a certain place at a certain time saying a certain thing for it to officially count as prayer, but that we ‘pray as we go’, seeking to grow in the reality of dwelling with more of a consciousness of God in all of life as it hustles and bustles.
For example, Eugene H Peterson phrases Peter, John and James’ experience of the presence of God on the Mount of Transfiguration as gradually being more deeply aware of God (Luke 9:34 MSG). ‘Short prayers’ help to cultivate this growth in our awareness of His presence, like Brother Lawrence’s pots and pans. And so I’m saying that this was a good and important thing for all of us in RAH to hear – that short prayers do count and, more than that, are vital too. But, there is so much more.
The reason I was concerned and dissatisfied after the seminar, and not animated like the ladies I overheard, was because it didn’t scratch the itch (it is often itchy where God is speaking to us) I have to better imitate Jesus’ radical life of prayer and intimate relationship with Abba that I see clearly in the bible. It’s only because I see Jesus’ lengthy, lingering, lonely lifestyle of prayer there that I want to ‘pursue this pursuit’ of radical prayer; not because, somehow, I have misunderstood grace and am trying to ‘earn something’, or that it suits my personality because I’m some kind of INTJ – I’m not and it doesn’t. And I’m not sure it even suited Jesus’ personality either.
I love what Paul E Miller says about this, that “God doesn’t like to be experienced. He wants to be known” – I believe this is what Jesus was doing – knowing God, not experiencing Him, for long, lingering, lonely time.
Of course lengthy, lingering, lonely prayer isn’t going to suit our personalities or our fancies – I think that’s why we talk about spiritual disciplines. If there was a way of being ripped and lean by swallowing a tablet, rather than working out, that would be very popular, so I can see why the short prayers count message went down popularly. I don’t want to liken time with God to a gruelling work-out – I have come to know time with Him more as a rest than anything else – but I also long to be a man whose life is morphing into something more akin to Jesus and how He prayed. And I want the church to be more like that too. I love that I can dart off into a toilet cubicle somewhere and pray a quick prayer when I feel weak before leading worship or speaking; but I want to experience hunger and appetite for long, enjoyable, powerful prayer when I’m at home too….just dwelling…with a candle on, some Sigur Ros and the thickening presence of the King of Kings.
Both And, Quick Slow
Isn’t it both/and? Short prayers do count, praise Him, and we need to celebrate and relax into that reality more – there is (absolutely) no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus! But there is more than short prayers and I know, for one, that I need more help with the latter: a lifestyle characterised not only by short prayers (let’s face it – for most, easier) but by the opposite type of prayers that are lengthy, lingering and lonely. You and I need to get away from the crowds too, because He did, (Matt. 15:39; Luke 4:42; mark 6:31). We need to become more disciplined and anti-intuitive and anti-cultural in how we come to God in humility to learn. He doesn’t want us as to be robotic clones; He wants our hearts to burn. And our hearts ignite and then burn when we ‘get away’ with Him.
These places aren’t infact lonely. When the Bible says that Jesus withdrew to lonely places (Luke 5:16) it was meaning wilderness places – away from noises, away from animals or temptations, or whatever – but unto a deeply nourishing, undisturbed dwelling with the Father. Jesus wasn’t lonely – He had a perfect experience of God with Him.
I do love short prayers, (I’m praying now as I write), but I want more than that and I want the church to want more than that before He comes. A bride is infatuated with the Bridegroom. He deserves my all, my best, as well as the ebb and flow of my consciousness as I do life quickly, hurriedly and inconsistently. He wants all of my heart and yours. Indeed, as Francis of Assisi ruminated, My God! And my All