By Ross Engel –
I came across this piece of art. It was painted in 1872 by a Russian artist by the name of Ivan Kramskoi and aptly titled, “Christ in the Desert” or “Christ in the Wilderness.”
I’ve been drawn to this depiction of our Lord for the past month or two. I even set it as the background on the computer in my study at the church. Originally I was drawn to it because I liked how it captures the solitude of Christ’s earthly life and ministry. Faithfulness to the truth often results in some degree of loneliness. It certainly happened for our Lord. It seems lonely also for those who are called into ministry, and at times, for all faithful Christians.
We read in Scripture that Jesus often went off by Himself to pray. He would go away from the crowds, away from the disciples and their questions, and away from all the noise. Our Lord would preach a sermon or perform a miracle and then go off by Himself to pray. Perhaps He went off exhausted from the tasks He had accomplished. Perhaps He went to prepare for the tasks that still were before Him. Maybe He went off to recharge, but we certainly know that He spent that time in prayer.
Kramskoi attempts to capture this solitude of our Lord in this work of art and I find myself drawn to the expression on our Lord’s face. I’ve heard it said that when you look at a work of art, you often see things of yourself in each piece. I’m curious if you see what I see. What I see is a tired looking Jesus. He looks sad. He looks isolated. He looks contemplative, and His shoulders seem as though they are carrying the weight of the world.
And yet (admitting that I may be seeing some of those things for personal reasons of my own), I recently noticed that despite the distant and sad expression and the apparent loneliness or the weighted shoulders, Jesus has His hands grasped firmly in prayer. Whether tired, sad, feeling alone, or lost deep in thought, it is plain to see that our Lord is engaged in passionate prayer. His knuckles may not be white from the pressure, but the tensed muscles of His wrists and arms suggest that His hands are firmly grasped together as He comes to God in prayer.
This depiction of Jesus in solitary, contemplative, and even passionate prayer, seems to stand in stark contrast to the fervor of everyday Christian living or even the day-to-day duties of my vocation as a pastor.
Christian living, and certainly the pastoral ministry, can be a lonely place even though one seems to be constantly surrounded by people. Yet in the midst of this loneliness, Christians and pastors are busy with so many different tasks. Between work duties, family responsibilities, growing and changing expectations from congregations or spouse, there always seems to be more than enough things to keep a person “busy.”(I’m with Eugene Peterson in thinking that we should cringe at the term “busy Pastor” as much as we would cringe at the term “adulterous spouse” or “fraudulent banker”, but that may be a topic for another day).
Yet despite how “busy” we all are, many churches have prayer chains, congregations have weekly prayer lists, and all of us have at some point said something like, “I’ll pray for you.” Busy as we may be, at least we’re presented with the importance of prayer. Yet I wonder how often everything else in our life manages to push aside the simple task of bringing before the Lord our requests, our thanksgivings, our burdens and our joys. How often does the promise “I’ll pray for you” turn into, “Oh, I forgot to pray for you.”
Just the other day I told a friend that I would pray for his family and some of the things they were going through (and full disclosure, I did actually pray for them). I’m not sure why, but as an after-thought to the promise I added these words, “After all, it’s the least I can do.” Thankfully this faithful friend stopped me in my tracks and made me rethink that seemingly harmless phrase:
“But Pastor, it’s not the least you can do! It is the greatest and best thing you can do!”
Have I let the cries of everyone and everything else around me distract me away from one of the greatest gifts our Lord has given to us? Have I let all the other tasks of ministry (some of them probably not all that important in the big picture), as well as all the other duties of life and the perceived obligations of my vocation as pastor get in the way of prayer, the greatest and best thing I can do as a pastor and Christian? Are all the other daily duties getting in the way of me taking the time to pray, taking the time to trust that God does indeed hear and answer prayers?
Maybe I’m not alone in letting the other things of life elbow out a fervent and trusting life or prayer (or even just solitary prayer time). Maybe I’m not alone in shamefully letting other things in this life take precedence over prayer and the gift of approaching our dear Father in Heaven with all our needs of body and soul and the needs of our neighbors too?
Prayer is one of the greatest things we can do in this life and yet, so easily it is relegated to the background of daily living. It becomes merely an afterthought to our human attempts of springing to action or reacting to the events of our lives. How often do we just stop and pray? I know it has been a while since I stepped away from my study and spent a few hours down on my knees at the altar praying through my entire church directory. If my prayers have faltered, perhaps yours have too, thankfully this is something that can be repented of, forgiven of, and corrected too!
During Jesus’ own life and ministry, He regularly stepped away from all the other things of the world. Going up by Himself on the mountain to pray, He would leave behind the never-ending cries for help, the pleas for mercy, and the multitude of other tasks that were laid out before Him. In the midst of it all, He would step away from these distractions of life and would approach our dear heavenly Father in prayer.
Prayer truly is a blessed gift from our heavenly Father, not an after-thought, not something that I’ll “get to later” because “it’s the least I can do.” I know I certainly can benefit from stepping away from the clamor, seeking the solitude, and taking more things to God in fervent and focused prayer.
To borrow another piece of classic art, I think it would be good for me to lash myself to the mast like Homer’s Odysseus, a bit more often than I do.
It is time to shut out the siren songs around me and all the other distractions that surround my vocation and life. Instead I should focus in on praying for the people that God has entrusted to my care, praying for the growing family that God has blessed me with, and praying for the multitude of other things in this world and life that need the prayers of God’s faithful people.
In my distress I called upon the Lord,
And cried to my God for help;
He heard my voice out of His temple,
And my cry for help before Him came into His ears. – Psalm 18:6