A few years ago I was at a retreat for pastors where we were
asked to draw a timeline of our spiritual lives, charting the ups and downs of
all the things that we had experienced so far. When I looked at mine I noticed
some significant peaks and valleys—times when I felt that spiritual “high” when
I was at church camp, for example, or when I was being ordained, and times when
the valleys were deep, like dealing with grief or loss. Others in the group
showed similar kinds of timelines and we joked that they kind of looked like
EKGs—something useful for monitoring our spiritual health.
The other thing that this chart reminded me of, however, had
to do with mountain climbing, which is also all about peaks and valleys. I was
really into rock climbing a few years ago and so I read a ton of stuff on high
altitude climbing, like stories about climbing Mount Everest, for example. Jon
Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air, which
was about a tragic 1996 expedition on the highest mountain in the world was
fascinating to me and a real reminder that failure to pay attention to
conditions and make good decisions on ascents and descents can have dire
If you know anything about high altitude climbing, you know
that before any ascent can be made the climbers have to spend a considerable
amount of time at a base camp part-way up the mountain. Base camp is where you
rest, prepare your gear, and begin to get acclimated to the altitude because,
as we know out here in Colorado, you can’t just go from sea level to 14,000
feet without some serious physical issues, like altitude sickness.
Barr Camp on Pike’s Peak was established as a kind of base
camp rest stop for those going up and down the mountain. Flatlanders might
spend a night or two at Barr Camp before attempting to summit the peak.
People who climb Mount Everest at 29,029 feet need to spend
weeks at base camp before they can even think about summiting the world’s
tallest mountain. There, altitude sickness pales in comparison to hypoxia or a
serious deprivation of oxygen that kills a number of unprepared climbers on
Everest each year. Without significant time at base camp, the ups and downs are
just too severe.
It occurred to me that the same thing is true of our own
lives. If our lives over time are a series of ups and downs, sometimes very
steep ascents and descents, then we, too, are subject to a kind of spiritual
hypoxia. We may be unprepared for the sudden highs of success or mountain top
experiences, or the sudden lows of things like a devastating diagnosis of an
illness or the loss of someone we love or unexpected unemployment. Even the
regular pace of our lives these days can leave us breathless trying to figure
out how to manage our work, our relationships, and our faith on a daily basis.
How do we manage all that and how do we catch our breath?
Well, I think it’s about establishing a kind of spiritual base camp in our
lives—a place and space of time where we stop in the midst of the up and down
and breathe deeply of our relationship with God. I want to suggest this morning
that regular prayer is that base camp experience with God that we need in order
to live a balanced life.
When I look at Jesus’ own prayer life, I think it’s
interesting that he often withdrew and went up on a mountain to pray and
commune with God at the most critical times in his life and ministry. Today’s
text reveals that Jesus went out to a mountain and spent the night in prayer
before choosing his disciples and then leading them back down the mountain into
ministry. In Scripture, mountains are often the place where God’s revelation
takes place, and Jesus seems to retreat to the mountains often before a big up
or down in his life. Luke doesn’t tell us that Jesus went to the summit, just
out to the mountain—maybe as a base camp!
Jesus does this at other times as well. John tells us that
after the feeding of the five thousand, a peak experience, Jesus realized that
the crowd was “about to take him by force and make him king.” They wanted to
put him in the rarified air of royalty, but Jesus instead “withdrew again to
the mountain by himself.” He was not dazzled by what climbers call “summit
fever”—the desire to get to the top at all costs. Instead, he knew that his
strength and mission came into clear focus at base camp, where he could commune
with God in prayer.
Later, when Jesus is confronted with the specter of the
cross looming in front of him on Good Friday, he withdraws to the Garden of
Gethesemane, at the base of the Mount of Olives, to pray to God and wrestle
with the choice between his will and the Father’s will. It would have been very
easy for Jesus to have gotten up and walked down the Kidron Valley and escaped safely
into the desert, but the depth of his relationship with the Father, expressed
through the regular connection of prayer, enabled him to face the deepest
spiritual valley we can imagine.
For Jesus, prayer was the foundational practice that
connected him to the Father. He taught his disciples to pray so that they, too,
could have that same relationship with God. He understood prayer to be a
dialogue—not just a list of requests to God (because, after all, God already
knows what you need before you need it), but also listening to God and living
in God’s love. Prayer was then and is now the basic discipline of the Christian
life—our base camp practice, if you will.
John Wesley once wrote that prayer is “the grand means of
drawing near to God.” He
understood the Christian faith at its core as a life lived in relationship with
God through Jesus Christ and the way that relationship is maintained is
primarily through prayer. Throughout Christian history, some of the wisest
spiritual leaders have often called prayer a kind of “spiritual breathing”—as
necessary and as vital to the life of the Spirit as our own breath is to our
physical lives. Without regular prayer, without that regular base camp
acclimatization that adjusts our spiritual breathing, we become hypoxic and our
spiritual lives become wheezy and weak. We might even go so far to say that
lack of prayer is the usual the cause of spiritual death!
We begin this series with the practice of prayer because it
is in many ways the most important and, yet, often the least practiced of the
spiritual disciplines. We know we need to pray, but we don’t often do it unless
we’re starving for breath as we plunge up and down on the timeline of life.
I know that my own life reflects this. When I have been
diligent in regular prayer, I am much better able to put the highs and lows in
perspective, knowing that God is with me regardless. I have seen others who are
regular in their prayer life who have weathered horrific circumstances with
great faith. At the same time, however, there have been long periods in my life
when I haven’t been praying because I’m too busy riding the ups and downs like
a rollercoaster. When that base camp discipline goes away, I feel more and more
out of control.
So, how do we maintain a regular base camp discipline of
prayer? I want to give you a couple of suggestions this morning that have been
helpful to me and, hopefully, will give you some ideas for establishing or
energizing your own daily life of prayer.
The first suggestion I have is to find a way that works for you. When I was a kid I was taught a
somewhat rigid way of praying, using a formula and a particular posture. Head
bowed, eyes closed, hands folded.
I used to feel really guilty that my mind would wander when I closed my
eyes or that I’d get sleepy. I figured this was a sign of spiritual inadequacy,
so I tried to avoid it so I wouldn’t feel guilty!
But over the years I’ve learned that there are as many ways
to prayer as there are people. Each of us is wired differently. I am a reader
and writer, for example, so for me I know that prayers are most effective when
I can read them or write them. The psalms, for example, were the prayer book of
ancient Israel, and I read at least one every day. The psalms reveal people who
were praying at the highest highs and lowest lows of their lives, and the more
I read them and pray them, the more those words become part of me and express
my deepest feelings to God. I found that monastic spirituality is all about
praying the psalms, which fascinated me and gave me a whole new perspective on
prayer. I don’t have to come up with the words, some one already has.
In addition to reading the psalms and a Scripture for the
day (which we’ll turn to next week), I also read a devotional book. Right now
I’m using A Wesleyan Spiritual Reader,
which has daily readings of quotes from John Wesley on the topic of the week
(this week is the sovereignty of God, for example). I tend to switch them
around a lot. I’ve put some examples out in the Great Room to look over as
examples of the kinds of things you might consider using in your own base camp
When I want to use my own words, however, that’s when I turn
to my journal. This is a discipline that I have engaged in off and on over the
years, but these days I’m finding it absolutely vital. When I write my prayers
and express to God my ups and downs, I find myself drawing closer to him. When
I write out what’s going on in my life I get the sense that God is right there
with me. When I start the day with a renewed awareness of God, I find it much
easier to “pray without ceasing” as Paul encourages us.
I have my base camp time in the morning after the kids have
gone to school. We have started a discipline, however, of praying together as a
family before they leave, using prayers in this book Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals. The closing prayer
is one we always say together in unison: “May the peace of the Lord Christ go
with you, wherever he may send you. May he guide you through the wilderness,
protect you through the storm. May he bring you home rejoicing at the wonders
he has shown you. May he bring you home rejoicing, once again into our doors.”
We all have it memorized now and use it as our benediction before starting the
There are lots of ways you can pray. Some will like the
discipline of silence and meditation, others will gravitate toward other means.
We want to offer you a variety of resources that can help you get started,
including our online daily devotional that Joe is putting together. Whatever
you do, I want to invite you to make it a habit to build some base camp time with
God into your day. What will you do this week to invest in your relationship with God?
The second suggestion I have for you today is to recognize
that prayer not only focuses us inward
with God but also outward toward others whom God loves.. As we cultivate
our relationship with God, God will reveal to us those around us who are in
need–not only of our prayers but our love, support, and compassion. Like we
said last week, the primary fruit of Christian faith is agape love:
unconditional, sacrificial love for God and for others, even those with whom we
Every week here in worship we gather prayer requests from
the congregation for people who are dealing with illness and grief, and rightly
so. The book of James tells us that “the prayer of faith will save the sick,
and the Lord will raise them up…the prayer of the righteous is powerful and
effective” (5:15-16). We pray over all those concerns and invite you to do so
I want to also add that we pray especially for those with
whom we are struggling. Think of those who may be your enemies, those who rub
you the wrong way, those who you would rather avoid. It’s virtually impossible
to continue to hate someone you are praying for! We are called not only to pray
for those we love, but those who are hard to love. The more we do so, the more
we begin to change our perspective. This week we saw how powerful hatred can be
as destruction took place at embassies around the world. What would happen if
instead of advocating for retaliation, we instead chose pray for those who do
these things. That’s a different perspective.
Indeed, that’s what prayer does. When we enter that base
camp with God, God changes our perspective. The closer we draw to him the more
we begin to see the world and our neighbors as he does. We begin to understand
that we are not the product of our highest highs and lowest lows, but rather
God’s beloved children with whom he will walk no matter the ups and downs of
circumstance. May we not be hypoxic Christians but rather faithful disciples
who breathe deep of God’s love every day!
You know I find it fascinating that the base camp on Mount
Everest is surrounded by Buddhist prayer flags. I obviously don’t see faith the
way that Buddhists do, but this says something about our human need to
pray—whether it is with a flag, or a book, or whatever. We know we cannot
manage the up and down of life without it. Jesus knew this and wants to show us
how we can be at prayer with God—not as an offering to some abstract deity, but
as a deep and abiding personal relationship.