For years, my wife has been concerned about me because I am pretty much a prayerless guy. It’s true that compared to the hours my wife devotes to prayer every day, I’m pretty pathetic.
As a teenager, someone gave me a book called The Kneeling Christian, which held out an image of prayer that has made me a loser ever since. I’ve never participated in any kind of Christian growth experience without coming away depressed at my lack of personal prayer.
In my tradition, really spiritual Christians are athletes of prayer. In the traditions I’ve always admired, prayer has been a nearly full-time occupation. (My wife prays the Hours throughout the day and prays the Rosary faithfully.) If anyone ever diagnoses what’s the problem with my spiritual life, I can always start them out with my starving prayer life.
I don’t want to paint things worse than they are. I pray the office in Common Prayer. I pray with my classes and I pray for my family, my preaching and the Kingdom of God as I can. But it’s not something that comes easy to me or that I relish like the athletes of prayer around me.
I wasn’t around to check out the guy’s devotional life, but I think I’m fairly Martin Luther in temperament. Luther seemed to be the kind of guy who valued the Lord’s Prayer because it was short; the kind of person more inclined to study and read than to spend long hours in prayer, and who found himself praying intensely mostly when the situation was desperate. Luther was a man of prayer, but I sense in him that struggle with his own “spirituality” that I have; a struggle that treasures God’s many promises in the Gospel that forgive and cover my inadequacies as a spiritual guy.
But lately, prayer has become more and more a natural part of my life. Recent events have created in me a desire to pray, and even an enjoyment of prayer, which is pretty amazing for me. But my new habits of prayer are considerably out of the box.
I talk to Jesus and he talks back.
Yes, that’s what I said.
You can say I’m cracking up, or that I’ve read too much of The Shack, or that my emerging side has gone over the edge. It doesn’t matter to me. In addition to structured prayer and prayer guided by the Lord’s Prayer as a template, I’m talking with Jesus and he’s talking with me.
I could pause here and write all the objections and all the analysis that you want. I can’t prove anything. I’m not claiming anything. I wouldn’t wager my savings on the inerrancy of anything Jesus says to me. It may all be an exercise in dramatizing prayer in an imaginative way. I really don’t care.
What I know that it is is very, very helpful, and it’s changing me as I move through a difficult season of my life.
This all started when I was coming back from a speaking engagement and was in the car for about 5 hours. I was going through a tremendous trial in my faith and life, so I started conversing with Jesus about some of the things that were happening. I started telling him how I felt. I wept a bit, which is not normal with me. I asked questions.
Jesus answered. What did he say? He said things that Jesus would say. In a voice in my mind that I can understand and in words and concepts that are clearly part of my world, Jesus told me that he loved me, that I could trust him, that he loves my wife more than I do, that he understands my fears, that he wasn’t angry at me for being angry with him, and so on.
Yes, I know. It sounds a lot like the character of Jesus that exists in my own mind, based on all that I know about Jesus, his life, his teachings and his Kingdom. Maybe if you add it all up, that’s what we’ve got: me talking to me. A grown up imaginary friend, etc.
On the other hand, for Michael right now, Jesus is close and his voice is the voice I recognize from years of coming to know Jesus. It is the voice that calls me to the Gospel, to the Trinity, to the church, and strangely for me, to freedom in my choices. It is the voice of God’s kindness. It is the voice that knows and reveals the Father; the voice of accepted tenderness, hurricane-like love and endless patience. It is a voice that gives me dignity, assurance and an invitation to go at my own speed. If it’s not Jesus, it’s doing a fine imitation.
It isn’t a voice that I can confidently say is my own. It’s too much like him, and it’s too full of his love, patience and purpose. It isn’t the voice of my religious training or my own desires. It’s the voice that woos and carries; the voice that the sheep recognize; the voice that calms and creates.
It is the voice of tender thunder. It is the voice that knows me inside out but knows a lot more than what is inside of me. It is the voice gentle discipline, loving truthfulness and unwavering love beyond judgement.
Think whatever you want. Yesterday I sat in church, praying for each part of the service as it came into my vision. Instead of criticizing the sermon, I prayed for the pastor and the people. I prayed for the people of God and was grateful to be part of them. I prayed for the reminders and signs of the Kingdom that were all around me. Five students were baptized, and I prayed for God to fill them with his Spirit and to own them forever by his mighty love.
And I talked with Jesus. About being in church. About prayer, patience, adventure, disappointment, temptation, doubt and failure.
Jesus answered me and spoke to my open heart and mind. Not in some mysterious way that demands I write a book in his voice or claim something unique. He says what he’s said before, to me and many others; what I’ve heard and read and known from him all these years, but that never came into my experience as God’s patience, empowering Word for me.
Say what you want. Think what you want. Write what you want. You’re probably right.
But Jesus will tell me to listen to him and trust him anyway.