Have you ever noticed that Jesus didn't seem all that bothered about inconveniencing other people?
Given that he lived the perfect life it can be surprising to see him do things that put other people out, but this is exactly what we see - particularly when it comes to dealing with something that is far more significant than the convenience of his friends - prayer.
Consider these verses in Mark's gospel:
35And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed. 36And Simon and those who were with him searched for him, 37and they found him and said to him, "Everyone is looking for you."
Jesus had decided to go for an early morning pray. This is not an entirely unexpected thing to see him doing, and something that most of us know is a very good thing to do. However, there was a social knock on effect to what Jesus did - he was staying with some of his disciples and they would have had no idea where he was.
He had a whole host of options before him: he could have waited a couple of hours until everyone else got up and let them know his plan; he could have mentioned it the night before; he could have found a quiet room or space just outside the house where they could easily see him when they woke up; he could have left a note or message of some kind.
But Jesus didn’t do any of those things. He wanted to pray so he prayed. He wanted to go early in the morning, so he went early. He wanted to go to a desolate place so he went to a desolate place. He didn’t mention it to anybody. The result of it all was commotion. People woke up and he was gone. Their leisurely breakfast was turned into a frantic search party being sent out as everyone was trying to find where he had gone.
Very few of us would do what Jesus did on that day. We are too concerned with being polite. Jesus is more concerned with being in the presence of God. It didn’t really matter whether his friends had a frantic few hours, but it really did matter that he spent quality time with his Father (this is the same single minded approach to God's presence that we see when Jesus as a young boy turned up in the temple after giving his parents a scare by going missing).
Jesus realised what we often don’t grasp - Prayer is absolutely crucial when it comes to building God's kingdom.
There are a few features of Jesus' prayer in these verses that I find striking:
1. He Went Alone
The first thing that I notice is that he went on his own.
Praying with other people is not a bad thing at all, and it is something that we should look to build into our community life and can be really helpful in fuelling our prayer life. Nevertheless, we are poorly served if we make corporate prayer the mainstay of our prayer lives and it is no substitute for being alone with the Father.
It is crucial for church planters (and indeed for all Christians) to develop a vibrant personal prayer life. Church planting can be a lonely business, and without intimacy with the Father this loneliness can be overwhelming. Personal prayer is a key time to enjoy fellowship with God, to open up about your joys, hopes, fears and worries, to connect with God's heart and to let your soul cry out.
Any form of leadership, and particularly church planting, involves carrying a weight of responsibility. It is in our personal prayer that we give this load to the Lord and are renewed in the simple truth that though we plant and water, it is He who gives the growth.
2. He Went Very Early In the Morning
The important thing here isn't particularly about the time of day, as though some hours are more holy than others, but the situation that was brought about by praying first thing in the morning.
Jesus didn't cram his prayer into tiny gaps between everything else that he was doing. He didn't pray in such a way that allowed his time with God to be interrupted by other people (hence going to a place where nobody could find him). He chose a setting for his prayer where he could get with the Father for as long as he wanted and where he would not be disturbed.
In prayer, it is crucial to find unhurried 'quality time'. For Jesus this was first thing in the morning. Personally, I have never been able to make that work for me. I am wired as a night owl, and if you spend any time with me before midday you will see a face with eyes glazed over and a mind where the wheels aren't quite spinning yet. Until that second cup of coffee hits home I can't do anything. What this means is that whenever I have tried to do my prayer time in the morning I haven't really engaged well with it. I might put the time aside but I have found it difficult to connect with God, to bring forward the concerns of my heart and to pray as I would like to. So early morning prayer isn't really 'quality time' for me, nor is leaving it too late into the evening when I am starting to wind down for bed.
For me the golden time is mid-afternoon. I am fully awake and engaged in the day. My mind, my emotions and my soul are able to come together and connect. I tend to pray more faith filled prayers, hear God more clearly and enjoy his presence more deeply when I am in this frame of mind. So mid-afternoon it is for me, which means that I need to fight hard to engage like Jesus did. Turning my smart phone off and getting into a setting away from work (I love prayer walking) help me enjoy the undistracted intimacy in prayer that we are discussing.
What time works best for you to get this kind of prayer?
3. He Didn't Tell Anyone
Prayer is meant for an audience of one, and it is not something that is to be shouted about or used to impress others.
When Jesus taught on prayer during the Sermon on the Mount, his first instruction was to go into your room and pray in secret to the Father who will hear you. This was in contrast to the hypocrisy of the Pharisees who treated prayer as a spectator sport and deliberately positioned themselves in front of an audience when they prayed.
Jesus practiced what he preached, and in these verses in Mark's gospel he put himself in a place of quiet privacy, and his prayer was not there to show off (or even to instruct or model things for others), but simply to connect with the Father.
The snare of looking for the approval of others in prayer is just as real as ever. It is dead easy to slip in a quick Instagram post with your highlighted Bible (and the obligatory coffee cup) with the hashtag #quiettime, just as it is easy to slip into a special prayer voice when we do pray publicly, or to imply to our friends that are prayer life is going better than it truly is.
When Jesus prayed, it wasn't scoring holy points with anybody else, but simply enjoying connection with his Father in heaven.
4. He Let It Refocus Him For the Mission
It is often said that the biggest enemy of the best is the good. The things that are most likely to throw us off mission are not terrible ideas (or we would just dismiss them out of hand) but very good ideas that are just not quite what we are called to. When God has spoken to us about a specific task (which is probably the case for most church planters), it is possible to spend so much of our energy on other good and worthwhile things that we have nothing left to pursue the 'bullseye' that we are shooting for.
Jesus had been ministering in Capernaum and things had been going well. Crowds were flocking to him and hearing his teaching. The sick were being healed. Evil Spirits were being cast out. People were even travelling in from nearby towns. There was a good argument to be made for staying put, making the most of the success they were seeing and establishing a regional ministry base (in fact, this is exactly the argument that Simon Peter made to Jesus).
And yet, that wasn't Jesus' mission. Jesus was bringing the good news of the kingdom to the villages of Israel before turning his face to Jerusalem and laying down his life as a ransom for many. He had a limited amount of time to minister and his focus was reaching all the villages of Israel. Though staying put and doing more in Capernaum looked appealing, it was a distraction from the mission.
As Jesus stepped back from the day to day activities of ministry and got quality time in the presence of the Father, it clarified his focus and allowed him to make his next decision with confidence and purpose (there seems to be similar prayer times before many of the key moments in his ministry). It is the same for us. The temptation is to get caught on the treadmill of more and more ministry activities, but one of the reasons why prayer is so crucial is that it brings us back to the place of connecting with God's heart, hearing his voice and having our attention focussed back on the thing that he has called us to do in the first place.
Everything starts in the quiet place, but it doesn't stop there. We need to come back there again and again and again.