The goal of spending a year with Jesus is to learn how to pray. Our prayers do not start with us. They start with Jesus. Before we ever open our mouths in prayer, Jesus is praying for us. Despite much talk to the contrary, there are no secrets to living the Christian life. No prerequisite attitudes. No conditions more or less favorable to pursing the Way. Anyone can do this, from any place, starting at any time. But it is only possible through prayer. We can only pray our lives into the way of following Jesus.
Prayer provides the primary language for everything that takes place in the way of Jesus. If we go to a shopping mall in North America, we speak English to get what we want. If we go to a restaurant in France, we speak French to order our meal. If we travel to Greece, we speak Greek to find our way to the Acropolis. And when we become personally involved with Jesus, we pray.
We pray because it is the only language we have for speaking to the God revealed in Jesus
. It is also the only language we have for listening to the commands and blessings and guidance that God provides in Jesus. God is nothing if not personal. Both God and we humans are most personal, most characteristically our unique selves, in our use of language. The language between God and us is called prayer.
What I want to insist on is that prayer is not something added on to the Christian life (or any life, for that matter). We cannot specialize in prayer any more than we can specialize in life. We cannot abstract prayer from our living, or isolate instances of prayer and study them under laboratory conditions. It is the language in which our lives are lived out, nurtured, developed, revealed, and informed. The language in which we believe, love, explore, seek, and find. There are no shortcuts or detours: Prayer is the cradle language among all those who are “born anew” and grow up to follow Jesus.
Prayer is a way of living. It is not a subject to be studied. It is not a technique to be learned.
It is a life lived in response to God.
We do not learn about prayer, we learn to pray; and the prayer, as it turns out, is never just prayer, but involves every dimension of our lives—eating, drinking, loving, working, walking, reading, and singing. The way we follow Jesus must be internalized and embodied. That is what prayer does, gets Jesus inside us, gets his Spirit into our muscles and reflexes. There is no other way.
Judas followed Jesus with his feet all over Palestine, but it never got inside him. Peter listened with his ears to everything Jesus said and spoke with his mouth the deepest truth about Jesus (“You’re the Christ”), but when he cut off the ear of Malchus in Gethsemane, we know that he hadn’t learned that way of life from Jesus (see Matthew 16:16; John 18:10).
But because in our secularized society prayer is often associated with what people of “spiritual” interests pursue or with formal acts conducted by professional leaders, it is necessary from time to time to call attention to the fact that prayer is the street language that we use with Jesus as he walks the streets with us. We can’t put off prayer until we “get good at it.” It is the only language available to us as we bring our unique and particular selves, “just as we are without one plea,” into daily, hourly conversation with God, who comes “just as he is” in Jesus.1
Following Jesus necessarily means getting his words and ways into our everyday lives.
It is not enough simply to recognize and approve his ways and get started in the right direction. Everything about Jesus is there to be embraced by our imaginations and assimilated into our habits—believed and lived. This takes place only as we pray while reading the story of Jesus, pray what we see Jesus doing, pray what we hear Jesus saying, pray the questions we have, pray the commands and promises and invitations that come to us in this story, pray the difficulties we encounter on the way.
Jesus’ praying was never something apart from his living. We cannot isolate his praying from his living. His whole life is the context for understanding and then participating in his praying. It is the same with us: Our entire lives provide circumstances and stuff for our prayers.
Jesus’ life cannot be imposed from without. It cannot be copied. It must be shaped from within. This shaping takes place in prayer. The practice of prayer is the primary way by which the life of Jesus comes to permeate our entire lives so that we walk spontaneously and speak rhythmically in the fluidity and fluency of holiness. Left to ourselves we are fragmented and distracted people, jerky and spasmodic. Sin does that to us. The more object-like, the more thing-like, the more impersonal we become, the more disengaged we are from our God-created humanity and from the God-created world around us.
Prayer, as the Spirit prays within us, recovers our original place in creation so that we can live robustly in the world.
Prayer in conversation with Jesus involves us firsthand in the grand reconciliation going on in Christ, setting us free for relational intimacies with family and friends, the heavens above us, and the earth under our feet (see Colossians 1:15-23). When we embrace the companionship of the praying Jesus, “Everything becomes a You and nothing remains an It.”2
We pray with Jesus; Jesus prays with us. Day-by-day, week-by-week, month-by-month, Jesus—God with us—is prayed into the details of our lives, and God’s salvation is formed in us.
In order to provide this text for your prayers and Jesus’ prayers—a true conversation—I have taken the stories and words of Jesus from the gospels of Saint Matthew and Saint John and spread them across a 365-day sequence of reading, reflection, and prayer. I interrupt Matthew two chapters from the end in order to let John provide the ending, and a most magnificent ending it is. My intent is that your reading of Jesus turns into praying with Jesus, keeping his delightful company as lover and friend.