What are you really looking for? Another look at prayer.

At the very beginning of John`s Gospel we hear how John the Baptist encourages two of his followers to leave him and go after Jesus. Jesus sees them coming towards him and he asks “What are you looking for?” They`re a bit tongue-tied and they reply, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” Jesus says “Come and see”. At the Resurrection we hear of Mary weeping in the garden by the empty tomb. Jesus, the one she mistakes for the gardener asks her: “Woman, why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?” And in Mark`s Gospel we hear of a roadside beggar called Bartimaeus, who frantically manages to gain Jesus attention and Jesus asks him “What do you want me to do for you?” Three questions “What are you looking for?” “Who are you looking for?” “What do you want me to do for you?” Three examples of people coming into Jesus` presence and HE wants to know what they desire.

And the great teachers of prayer tell us that the same is true for us. In praying firstly, it helps to be deliberate about consciously coming into his presence –and there are ways of doing that- but secondly, once there it helps to be aware of the desires of our hearts. Jesus wants to know “What are you looking for?” “Who are you looking for?” “What do you want me to do for you?”

Now some people find this idea quite difficult. Like those disciples of John they become a bit tongue tied and change the subject. Some people say, “I don`t really know what I want” and others find this a bit `alien` because it doesn’t seem appropriate or even seemly. For some people `Desire` has associations with perhaps strong emotions or passions and we find it difficult to link them with praying. And others think that in any case praying is all about God`s will so what I want can`t have anything do to do with it….. can it?

Well, I remember one of my oldest friends saying something that`s always stayed with me. He`s always been a lot wiser than me and referring to something I was wrestling with he said “There may be more of God in what David wants than David realises” and being a bear of little brain it`s taken me years to see something of what he was getting at. Firstly, it might be fair to say that actually the desire, the longing or the sense of discontent we feel is actually implanted by God. It might be that we`re very much in tune with him but we don`t grasp this because we`ve grown up with a rather brittle understanding of the `will` of God (which we think can only ever mean something restrictive or arduous) and so again, we automatically look the other way. But secondly it may also be related to the way Jesus says: “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also”. (Matthew 6.21) In other words, when we bring our desires to God we know we`re not `informing` him of anything- but at least we`re being honest. And it`s this I want to explore this morning.

You see by `naming` the things we desire, we`re coming clean about the things we value and what really matters to us. It`s here as I say that we`re `honest to God` and most truly ourselves and this is a vital component in prayer. Part of the problem of course is that all this talk of desire leaves many of us concerned that we`re probably just being indulgent or selfish. I mean, if we know ourselves at all the instinct to pursue self-interest or comfort is always very strong isn`t it?

But even so, the Christian tradition of prayer invites us to persevere with this because no matter how shallow, warped or lacking in proper perspective our desires may be we`re encouraged to work with the instinct that there`s something more going on. In fact, if we listen closely to ourselves and what matters to us, there are often different `layers` of desire. Let me give you an example. The writer Margaret Silf talks about meeting a friend on a train. They began with pleasantries and a bit of banter; “So you`re still here? Not left the country? Not won the Lottery yet?”

Now it was a Monday morning when they met and her friend picked up that last remark and said that actually she was a bit low because she`d just missed out on winning £200,000 on the Lottery- and ended up with a fiver. And the conversation changed when Margaret asked her “What would you have done with all that money if you`d won?”. Her friend started by musing on the dream of a new house in Birmingham- with a nice garden. And then she added, “You see I`d actually like to take my mum back there to her roots. … to a nice home, where she grew up… and where she really wants to be”.

You see this is how the question “What do you desire?” can be answered on so many levels. “I want to win a lot of money, becomes I want a big house, … but underneath it`s all about `I want to make my mum happy before she dies`. So what can be thought of as a materialist whim can actually be the tip of an iceberg. In this case something quite heart warming.

One of the reasons we perhaps shy away from all of this is that again, not all our desires are especially honourable. Maybe we do covet our neighbours ox, ass or BMW. May be we do wish the boss would fall under a bus! We don`t like to face up to the challenging stuff but we forget these are just feelings- they`re not right or wrong… it`s what we do with them that matters. The point is that when we give ourselves the time and space to become aware of these desires then something like for instance, that desire to possess that fancy car or whatever might tell us a great deal about what we really put our trust in- and we can pray with that.

And actually, our willingness or otherwise to bring these desires out in prayer will certainly say a lot about how we perceive our God; and how we think he`ll respond to our `coming clean` like this. You see, reflecting on our desires is a way of tapping into a curious energy- not just for action (as we resolve to do something for that person we care for) but for growth in faith as we allow his Spirit to work on us and unfold these layers of desire ……… until we see that in the end it`s not a `what` that we`re looking for but a `whom`- God himself.

I began by pointing out three questions that Jesus asked some people who had come into his presence. I wonder how you would answer the Jesus who says to you: “What are you looking for?” “Who are you looking for?” “What do you want me to do for you?” I`m suggesting that as we begin our prayer and as we come into Christ`s presence we learn this habit of naming what we desire. As the teachers put it: `What is the grace that I seek?` It could begin with that burden you`re carrying; the question or concern you`re living with just now. It might be some hope or fear that`s weighing you down. But it could equally be your response to something you`ve just read in your prayer time. What I mean is that this is how phrases in scripture often have a way of linking up with something that`s going on inside us that we hadn`t realised was there.

So for instance, you might like to go back to that blind beggar, Bartimaeus. (Mark Chapter 10) Remember, Jesus asks him about his desire: He says, “What do you want me to do for you?” Bartimaeus replies, “Sir, I want to see again”. Why not imagine what it`s like – no better still, go and do it- go and sit quietly with that expression of desire and to make it your own. Can you find yourself saying “Jesus, I didn`t know where I`m going anymore … I want to see again”? This can be powerful and transforming stuff. I`m afraid you have to put the time in; you have to learn to be still and to listen. But this is the Prayer Adventure and because God is good- when we turn up with this kind of honesty he doesn`t disappoint.

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