The Jesus Prayer

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Years ago when my wife and I still lived in Grand Rapids, we were members of a pretty well known mega church. As someone healing from church trauma, it was perfect. I could walk in, see new people every week, and blend into the background without anyone knowing my name. While we were there, we saw the church transition from one lead pastor/way of teaching to another, and ultimately left over disagreements with how the latter handled a few things. And our disappointment in the eldership was something that couldn’t be reconciled at the time. I’m sure most of us have experienced this at our places of worship at one time or another. I bring that up because one of the last teachings I remember this pastor gave was about the Jesus Prayer.

There have been many variations of this prayer over the years, but the one that was introduced to me was, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” I was a bit shocked to find out that the most commonly accepted version of the prayer is as follows:

It is believed that this prayer originated with the desert mothers and fathers in Egypt between 300-400 CE. When that pastor was talking about it, something really resonated with me. While I did not grow up from an early age in the church, I did cut my teeth as a late teen in the evangelical circuit. What I learned from this (with a dash of a Pentecostal Bible study I somehow ended up in), was that prayer could be anything, at any length, with every word one could think of. Prayer is something I have mostly been uncomfortable with, at least, outward prayer. It has always felt weird, and I doubt there will be a day when it does not. When I was still a pastor we would rotate who was teaching on Sundays, and another pastor would lead worship. Inevitably I would have a Sunday where I was leading worship and had to pray for the community, so I always invited everyone to a few moments of silent prayer.

So when I was introduced to the Jesus prayer, it just clicked. It made sense. It felt like it was in line with the Matthew line where Jesus is like, don’t say a lot of words, God already knows what you’re going to talk with God about. I had also just finished a book on the desert mothers and fathers and was really getting into learning about cloister life where monks would repeat a verse over and over while they do their chores. At that time I was practicing the habit with a verse from one of the Psalms, but this really wrinkled my brain. Suddenly I didn’t have to think about whether or not I was getting the verse right and I could meditate on the work and other thoughts.

Over time however, it started to lose its resonance.

Something I am not afraid to tell people is, I have no idea what I am doing. One of my best friends once told me how he thought I didn’t give a shit about anything and gave me a few examples, which to a point he was right. I didn’t care about what other people thought, or how some things went. I told him, the truth was, I did. I cared very much, but I cared about it just less than I cared about most other things. The thing was, I knew I had no idea what I was doing most of the time, especially in those situations that he brought up as examples. But, the not knowing and leaning into that really made me lose some of the fear I’ve had most of my life around the unknown. It was that conversation that lead to me thinking about this prayer and its lack of resonance.

One thing I have struggled with is the weird relationship that Jesus has with God, and the Spirit. (I could spend a lot of time talking about how the trinity is some backdoor polytheism in practice, while we are trying to get to the heart of a good idea.) What I can get is that Jesus is how God would live if God were human. There is of course the Son of Man and Son of God verbiage in the New Testament, so there is that. But how could I use this prayer which had become (and still is) a great impact on my life in a way that was meaningful and true to the theology I was wrestling with? If you have heard an episode of Evangebros, the podcast I used to co-host with my mentor Don, what I am about to say will sound familiar. I aligned my believe and my behave.

A key part of discipleship is aligning what you believe with how you act. This is not something I have always been great about, but this was such low hanging fruit that it seemed almost impossible to screw up. This was winter of 2018, I had been unemployed for a few months and was at my wits end. So I restarted a writing project that eventually became my book, and with each chapter I caught myself repeating the following:

We are all struggling to make it through the day, that does not mean that we cannot be upfront about the shit we have to deal with. This has become mine, and I hope it can help you.

Grace and peace y’all.

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