Trent Sheppard and I have never met in person—but, oh, how I’d love to share a meal with his family in Boston, Massachusetts, listen to his stories from around the world (he’s traveled and taught in fifty nations!), and pick his brain about the person of Jesus. Trent has this unusual knack of making the Bible come alive. When you hear him teach or read his writing about Jesus, you get the feeling that you’re somehow actually there… as if you can almost hear the tone of Jesus’ voice in the gospel stories, and see the expression on his face. Husband to Bronwyn, and father to three precious kids, Trent understands, celebrates, and teaches the Incarnation—that is, the down-to-earth, in-your-face, flesh-and-blood humanity of Jesus—like few others. And today, on the farm’s front porch, Trent invites us to encounter “the wonder and welcome” of learning to pray from a place of desire instead of from a place of duty…
I still remember the first time I found my wife praying, the impact it made on me.
Even now, some fifteen years later, I can still see the tears on her face.
It was before we were married, when Bronwyn and I were students at Wheaton College. I was twenty-six years old, immersed in graduate studies, and prone to take myself a bit too seriously.
Bronwyn was nineteen, midway through her second year of undergrad, and, at the time, she wore the most marvelous silver ring in her nose.
We met while I was taking an evening class about the life and times of Jesus. The class was being held in Blanchard Hall, just next door to the campus coffeehouse, aka the Stupe. Bronwyn worked at the Stupe part-time, and during a break in lecture, I strolled over to grab a quick snack before returning to Dr. Elwell’s class.
Bronwyn was serving behind the counter that night, and through a providential chain of events, particularly because she was a math minor at the time, she mistakenly shortchanged me five cents for a Peppermint Patty.
Counting the coins in my hand (I was a miserly grad student, what can I say?), I looked up to point out the discrepancy and it was then, at that moment, that I actually saw Bronwyn for the first time.
Three things hit me all at once.
Her long hair was henna-dyed to a deep violet-red. That silver ring in her nose, beautifully and fiercely feminine, looked like it was meant to be there. And finally, “Bronwyn,” written in cursive on her nametag—it sounded ageless to me.
Bronwyn quickly realized what had happened, laughed a little about shortchanging me, and then kindly handed over that oh-so-important five cents.
I stood in line for just a moment more, staring, and then, without saying a word, made my way back to Blanchard Hall.
But I wasn’t listening to Dr. Elwell’s lecture anymore. And I certainly wasn’t thinking about Jesus.
It took me two more months of return trips to the Stupe and “randomly” running into Bronwyn on campus before I worked up the courage to ask her out on a proper date. Thankfully, she said yes.
A few months into our dating relationship I dropped by the Stupe to see her. One of Bronwyn’s coworkers told me she had left early that day and was probably in the little prayer chapel nearby.
I walked through the chapel doors and found Bronwyn on her knees, praying. She had no idea I was there.
When Bronwyn looked up at last, I could see tears streaming down her face.
But it wasn’t her tears that impacted me so profoundly.
It was the peace in her countenance, a deep well of God-trust in those tear-filled eyes.
I came to understand something very important about Bronwyn in that moment.
Regardless of where our relationship led, at best, I would always be second in her life.
It is virtually impossible to separate Jesus from His prayer life.
Truly, it’s that core to who He is. Each of the gospel writers comments on it:
- “After he had sent the crowds away, Jesus went up the mountain by himself to pray” (Matt. 14:23).
- “Very early—in the middle of the night, actually—Jesus got up and went out, off to a lonely place, and prayed” (Mark 1:35).
- “It happened around that time that Jesus went up into the mountain to pray, and he spent all night in prayer to God” (Luke 6:12).
- “After Jesus had said this, he lifted up his eyes to heaven… ‘Father, I want the ones you’ve given me to be with me where I am’” (John 17:1,25).
When you read about Jesus’ prayer life, the intimate and on-going way in which He interacted with Abba Father, you don’t get the sense Jesus is operating from a place of religious obligation.
This isn’t someone praying because it’s the right thing to do.
No, this is someone praying because He wants to, because praying is an essential part of who He is.
Although each of the descriptions of Jesus’ all-nighters in prayer move me, it’s that curious passage from the gospel of John that really gets me: “Father, I want the ones you’ve given me to be with me where I am.”
Consider that strange request: “to be with me where I am.”
What on earth is Jesus talking about?
Seriously, think about it: the disciples are already there, aren’t they? They’re standing right beside Jesus when He makes this request of the Father.
Apparently, Jesus is getting at something much more profound, something much more mindblowing than mere location when He asks the Father for His disciples “to be with me where I am.”
What the gospel of John seems to be suggesting is that even though Jesus was present with His disciples in this moment, Jesus was somehow—through prayer—present with the Father too.
And that is what He wants His disciples to experience:
fellowship, friendship, and presence of the Father,
the exact sort of thing that Jesus experiences in prayer.
For a long time, to be honest with you, I secretly wished that prayer were not so central to following Jesus, because I didn’t feel very good at it.
Prayer felt forced and obligatory. I would close my eyes tightly, do my very best to concentrate on God (and whatever I happened to be praying about that day), and then I would just think harder.
It was exhausting. It was annoying. It was maddening.
Far too many times, I must confess, I walked away from those moments more confused, frustrated, and upset than I was before.
Prayer became a burden. It was something I should do, not something I wanted to do.
But when I read about Jesus praying, and when I watched Bronwyn praying, it was different. I didn’t see religious obligation at work in Jesus and Bronwyn.
I saw fellowship, friendship, and presence, and that is what I wanted.
Even though I didn’t realize it at the time, I was desperate for it.
I was desperate for the power of relationship to overthrow the tyranny of religion in my life.
I was desperate to pray from a place of desire instead of from a place of duty.
I was desperate to find peace in prayer, to wildly abandon religious obligation and to replace it with innocent, childlike trust:
to know and experience what it means that God is close, that God is near, that God is Abba, Father.
Trent Sheppard’s brand new book, Jesus Journey, invites you to encounter Jesus again—as if for the first time—by experiencing His breathing, heart-beating, body-and-blood, crying-and-laughing humanity. Each chapter begins with a gospel passage, followed by a reflection, and then wraps up with a final “Ponder, Pray, Practice” section. Designed for daily reading and spread out over forty brief chapters, Jesus Journey shines new light on the vibrant humanity of the historical Jesus through an up-close look at Jesus’ relationships with Mary and Joseph, with the God he called Abba, with His closest friends and followers. Come encounter the human who radically transforms our view of God.
Trent helps to pastor an urban house church called Ekklesia, and oversees Alpha’s work with college and university students in New England. He lives in Boston, Massachusetts, with his doula/childbirth-educator wife, Bronwyn, and their three children. Before moving to Massachusetts, Trent lived and worked in the UK for eight years with Youth With A Mission. He is the author of God on Campus, his teaching and travels have taken him to fifty nations.
[ Our humble thanks to Zondervan for their partnership in today’s devotion ]