In Search of the Vine: Practicing Prayer in Urban Ministry

 

grey vineWhen Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed . . . Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, Jesus gave thanks and broke the loaves . . . they all ate and were satisfied . . . The number of those who ate was about five thousand . . . After Jesus had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray.

There may be no greater mystery than the Christ’s apparent reliance on prayer. Jesus the Word made flesh often spoke his own words back to the Father. The Bread from Heaven turned to his Father to ask for earthly bread for the hungry. And in the Garden of Gethsemane, the God-Man begged God-the-Father for an alternative to the cross, before laying down his own will, and life, for his friends.

Unlike Jesus, I have always had a hard time with prayer. Not least when working with and for friends who are hungry, prayer often seems inadequate and distracting, a necessary ritual performed before and after the real work of training someone for a job, grieving with someone whose friend was recently shot, or discerning the wisest course of action in dealing with their slumlord property manager. Prayer just doesn’t get the job done.

But nor has prayer typically provided me the kind of revitalizing rest that it seems to have provided Jesus up on those mountain tops in the Gospels. Exhausted from a day serving 5 people, to say nothing of 5,000, I’m much more likely to look to a good meal with a friend, or a mindless hour in front of the TV than a night-long prayer vigil. My prayers mostly turn into endless verbal vomit anyway, containing a million requests or artificial sloppy “prayer-isms” that leave me exhausted. And if I’m honest, doubtful about whether anything is happening. Or could happen.

And so it is that many of us in ministries of mercy and justice decide that we, unlike God-made-man, do not need the life of prayer beyond the perfunctory requirements of our work, and seek simply to do our best on our own steam.

Abide in me and I will abide in you. And you shall bear much fruit.

This summer, I was required to take a course called Spiritual Formation for Ministry. I showed up to class weary with the world of work, broken relationships, injustice, and failure. I had low expectations, and so I was surprised when, instead of showing up and finding an out-of-touch fluff course, I found Jesus instead.

Not that we hadn’t met, even gotten pretty well acquainted. It’s just that when I read David Benner’s words that prayer is simply being attuned to and responding to God’s presence throughout the day, I started thinking about how most of my prayers fall into the “Thank You, Please, and I’m Sorry” category, as my friend Daniel put it. I also started thinking about what my relationship with my wife Rebecca would be like if all of our conversations began that way, and if they were all crammed into 5 minute slots at the beginning of the day and before meals. And I began recognizing that when Jesus called his disciples to abide, he probably meant more than either my ceiling-aimed verbal vomits or prayer-less activism.

So began my summer long journey into a set of spiritual practices suggested by Adele Calhoun’s phenomenal Spiritual Disciplines Handbook. For several weeks, in my morning hours, I spent more time in silence, lingering over smaller portions of Scripture. Then, I tried to find a one sentence prayer that I prayed repeatedly not only in the morning but, God willing, throughout the day. Prayers like “Father, you have given me all I need for life and godliness” from 2 Peter, or “Jesus wake me up to your presence among your people” from Revelation kept my heart just a bit more aware of this absurd reality we proclaim on a regular basis: that the Spirit of God has made his home in our hearts, that, to use the words of C.S. Lewis, “The world is crowded with God,” who “walks everywhere incognito.” And at the end of each day, I tried to spend 10 minutes walking through the day in the presence of Jesus, asking the simple questions: “Where did I sense God’s presence today? Where did I feel that He was absent?”

Each day of this experiment was different. Often I slept through scheduled devotions or found myself “meditating” on how big of a jerk somebody had been or on some scheme to make myself feel more important rather than on Christ. Other times, though, were breathtaking. Snuggling Isaiah to sleep and practicing my evening prayer and suddenly having this mental image that God was holding both my son and me in His own arms. Realizing at 4:30 p.m. that I was looking forward to my evening prayers, not out of duty or with any hopes of accomplishing anything but simply being before God. Taking the pain and struggle of my neighbors in the Jobs for Life class to Christ in prayer rather than burying them in my heart or processing them to death with a co-worker. Encountering temptation and finding that simple breath prayer “Father, you have given me all I need for life and godliness” spring unbidden to my mind and drowning out the voice of temptation. And maybe most powerfully, making me just a little less insecure, slightly less likely to let an offense kindle an inner rage, a tad quicker to forgive or extend the benefit of the doubt.

Class is basically over now, and faithful praying can no longer earn me an A. Honestly, I find myself wondering how to sustain, more, grow into the sort of praying that listens to God’s voice and invites Him to speak throughout the day, through His Word, through our hearts, and even through our neighbors. I am worried, if I’m honest, that as soon as I head down from the top of this spiritual mountain top, I’ll not only forget the views, but also the paths that got me there.

And yet, perhaps the deepest lesson I feel the Teacher teaching me in this classroom of prayer is simply this: the prayer-less road is the road to death. How many of us, I wonder, have lived much of our lives attempting to love others and do good, to bear much fruit, without spending any time attending to the love, the work, and the way of the vine Himself? According to Jesus, our efforts at flourishing apart from him lead only to fruitlessness, and eventually, destruction. As Nouwen says, in speaking about the connection between activism and prayer:

“Life becomes an unbearable burden whenever we lose touch with the presence of a loving Savior and see only hunger to be alleviated, injustice to be addressed, violence to be overcome, wars to be stopped, and loneliness to be removed . . . when our concern no longer flows from our personal encounter with the living Christ, we feel an oppressive weight.”

Neighbor love, according to Dean and Foster in The God-Bearing Life, happens when the cup of our lives has been so filled up with the Spirit of Christ’s presence that we overflow into the lives of those around us. But I have so often simply been a cup-half-full half-poured out and then empty, not because Christ has been absent, but simply because I have refused to take heed of Christ’s words: “take, eat; take, drink. This is my body, this is my blood, broken and poured out for you.” It is a matter of life and death for us, then. For only when we “discover the suffering of the world in the heart of Jesus,” rather than in our own efforts, can we face that suffering and live, “leading every sorrow to the source of all healing” (Nouwen).

There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is death (Prov 14:12). For me, and I fear for many of us, that way has been to try to pursue Christ’s work without pursuing Christ’s heart. And the result is not only fruitlessness, but emptiness, pain, burnout, even death. May Christ call all of us, not least those of us who desire justice for our neighbors, back to the place of prayer, the place where Christ so fills us with His love that we flood His world with it.

mrhodes@advancememphis.org