The story of Jesus walking on the water is one that most of us have heard. It’s one of a handful of Jesus’ miracles that doesn’t heal or help a particular person but instead reveals Jesus’ divine nature. When we read of a miracle like this, we are left with the same reaction as the disciples in Matthew 14:33, who “worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly, you are the Son of God.”
As we talked about on Sunday, how this miracle came to happen is almost as remarkable as the miracle itself. This miracle became a necessity for Jesus because he sent his disciples on ahead of him and he withdrew from the crowds that pressed around him and he went up on the mountainside to pray. Either we must believe that Jesus orchestrated these circumstances simply so that he had the opportunity to flex his power before the disciples, or we must believe that this time alone to pray was so vital to Jesus’ mission that he was willing to bend the laws of nature to make it happen.
And that leads us to a question: how vital is it that we experience time alone with God to pray and read his word? For all the significance we say this time has for us, when we look at our habits we see a different story. Practically speaking, most of us think of time alone with God as accessory to our days, a luxury that can be afforded when other commitments allow.
On Sunday, we sang the words, “You are my daily bread” and “You are the air I breathe.” Echoing the language of the Psalms, we sang of the necessity of drawing near to God. We wouldn’t forget to breathe; we wouldn’t forget to eat. Why do we find ourselves neglecting the very thing we have confessed as crucial to our day-to-day existence?
I would suggest a couple of reasons, and we can think of them in terms of daily bread and air we breathe.
We live in a culture saturated with messages about food. In fact, The Atlantic declares that restaurants are “the most promising sector of the U.S. labor market.” Advertisements for food and restaurant signs are before our eyes almost everywhere we go. We have full pantries, full fridges, and that means we usually keep our stomachs full, too. We don’t live in a culture that surrounds us with reminders to pray. Our world doesn’t hold up the virtues of solitude and contemplation; all too often they are equated with the vices of laziness or unproductivity. If we are to cultivate a life with space to be alone for God, we must build into our daily lives messages and nudges toward this basic need.
Second, breathing is automatic—it’s an involuntary action in which our brain marshals the energy of muscles and organs to take care of our need. We don’t have to think about it, or, more precisely, we don’t have to think about thinking about it. It’s happening at a level below our conscious impulses. If we want to live a life of prayer, we have shouldn’t be afraid to think of it as an exercise in habituation. Too often, I have neglected to pray because I didn’t feel I had the time or environment to really concentrate or say the right words or be fully present. I’ve learned to resist that feeling—even turning to God for just a moment, even in the midst of the busyness of my day is training my heart to recognize my dependence on him in every area of my life.
This also means we shouldn’t be afraid of reciting prayers or feeling that the practice is too ‘rote’ to be spiritual. As Greg Goebel of AnglicanPastor.com recently said, “when written prayers become rote, you’re halfway there. Keep going.” The Eastern Orthodox (and many Christians) have practiced repeating “The Jesus Prayer” or other short ‘breath’ prayers many times to knit the words onto their souls. This sort of prayer isn’t about achieving or earning—it’s about drawing our often-unwilling hearts into the presence of God.
Jesus bent the laws of nature to be alone before his Father—let’s bend our stubborn hearts toward God as well.