For years, my grandfather used a phrase when describing parts of his spiritual journey: I am how I pray. I loved that phrase from the moment I first heard it, although I really didn’t appreciate its meaning until much later.
Over the course of my ministry, I have seen many examples of people who ‘lived as they prayed’—both from positive and negative definitions. And just as my grandfather insisted, the condition of their prayer lives dictated so much of what would become of their life’s journey.
Of course, I am chief among the suspects in this conversation. As one who has faced so many struggles in my life—hemophilia, becoming HIV-positive from medical treatment for my hemophilia, contracting Hepatitis C from meds for treatment, open-heart surgery, diabetes, high blood pressure, liver damage, a detached retina, and so on, I have been conscious of pretty much my every thought, decision, and intention of my relationship with God. And there is no better marker for the next steps of my life than how and what I pray.
Like everyone else, my journey looks like that of one who “is as he prays.” And in order to describe or measure the ups-and-downs of my life, one only has to look at my prayer journal for an accurate timeline or outcomes.
When writing What the Prayers of Jesus Tell Us About the Heart of God, however, I discovered that Jesus’ prayer life during his earthly journey unveiled the same view of his own relationship with the Father. Indeed, Jesus was how he prayed. To know that Jesus lived his own prayer life as a model or example of what our relationship can and should be with God is humbling . . . no, profound. But, I have mentioned to several friends that there are countless books on prayer, there are very few on the prayer life of Jesus. That is a shame, because I have come to believe that there is no better way to insert oneself into the journey of Jesus than to spend time with him as he spends time with the Father.
In writing the book, I shared the moments when Jesus slipped away to be alone with the Father, prayed in the midst of difficult situations, or simply found prayer as his only solace for approaching the earthly pain and sorrow his humanity encountered. During the months of preparation, I felt closer to him than ever. Sure, I still call him Lord and Savior, and I am in awe of his power and presence. And, yet, there were moments when I could see him sitting under the tree, on the side of the hill, or around the campfire, and I felt as though he was beckoning me join him and his followers on their path. Particularly during those months, as I was also undergoing chemotherapy, though I limped along in my ailing body, my soul bound over to where he was, and I felt well and whole.
The prayers of Jesus are more than words. They are about the quiet places that caused even the Son of God to pause and breathe in the presence of a Father who so desperately wants a relationship with us. They are also loud, victorious moments where Jesus says, ‘Yes, I knew they would get it!’ and he watched his followers choose God’s wisdom over that of the world. The prayers of Jesus are those places where Jesus pleaded for unity among the faithful. And, they are about a Son who gave everything for this mission of grace and reconciliation for God’s people. It had to be lonely and so different for Jesus, who, as Philippians 2 reminds us, had known a different existence before this. But, there, along the dusty roads and next to the lapping waters of the Sea of Galilee, we find Jesus taking the steps that we just could not take for ourselves. With all the stories that give me glimpses of Jesus’ life and humanity, nothing is more powerful to me than to know that while he made the journey, he also took time away to ‘stay in touch’ with his Father. And, maybe even sweeter in the whole scene, is to know that they actually spent most of their time talking about you and me. How undeniably humbling . . . how unbelievably powerful.
Shane Stanford is the Senior Pastor of Christ UMC in Memphis, Tenn. and the author of several books including What the Prayers of Jesus Tell Us About the Heart of God.