Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. Simon and his companions went to look for him, and when they found him, they exclaimed: “Everyone is looking for you!” (Mark 1.35-37)
Awakening to Holiness
For a number of years I attended the Edwin Hawkins Music & Arts Seminar, a weeklong convention of the nation’s finest gospel singers, songwriters, and musicians. Although my meager musical abilities could never compare to their genius, they welcomed me with open arms, and I was grateful for the chance to soak up everything the experience offered. Now there are a couple of things you should know about gospel artists before I get to the nub of my story. They are, by nature, an extremely friendly, high-spirited bunch that honors the sacredness of their calling by not taking themselves too seriously. If you weren’t clued into who they are, you’d never guess the people laughing and joking together wrote and recorded countless songs that changed millions of lives. The second thing to know is gospel musicians are late-night folks. Next to making music, they love nothing more than hanging out into the wee hours, swapping stories. Having been to similar events, I expected long nights of table-hopping in jammed coffee shops, oversleeping the next day, and dragging into afternoon workshops and rehearsals. But the usual M.O. didn’t fly at the Seminar. On my first night, I was surprised that everyone made hasty business of the post-concert “afterglow” and scooted off to bed. When I asked what the rush was, they said, “You don’t want to miss Walter. If you’re late, you won’t get a seat.”
“Walter” was Edwin’s brother and pastor, Rev. Walter Hawkins, the most prolific songwriter—and by far the most progressive Bible teacher—in the gospel sphere. At the top of each morning, he hosted “To Start the Day,” a brief session during which he gave seminar attendees a portion of Scripture, a few comments on the text, and led them into a time of prayer. It was simple, pure, and inspiring. It set the tone for everything that followed—and set the Seminar apart from others like it by awakening us to the holiness of what we would accomplish as the day progressed. “To Start the Day” subsumed the musical aspect of the event with a higher purpose. Classes, rehearsals, and performances became the day’s tasks. Its mission, however, was seeing them as windows for holiness, open and alert to God’s voice and Spirit—invitations to obey rather than do, to create rather than complete. Beginning each day with a few moments to settle our minds with a guiding thought and prayer made all the difference, such a difference “To Start the Day” was not to be missed.
Habits and Disciplines
It’s remarkable how so many will rally for Church-prescribed undertakings like Lent or training for sacramental milestones, while paying little heed to habits and disciplines that Jesus practiced in daily life. In Mark’s opening chapter, which reads like a breathless dispatch filed under deadline pressure, our first glimpse of Jesus’s personal faith regimen occurs in verse 35: “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.” With all that transpires in the preceding 34 verses—Jesus’s baptism, wilderness temptation, declaration that the Good News is near, calling the disciples, and numerous healings and exorcisms—Mark gives the impression that everything happens so swiftly Jesus hardly has a moment to breathe, let alone ponder what He should do next or take time to pray about it. And what follows seems to back this up.
After waking to discover Jesus is gone, Simon Peter and his buddies scout Him out. “Everyone’s looking for You!” they say. Jesus knows who “everyone” is. The night before, after an exhausting day of preaching and healing Peter’s mother-in-law, Jesus is met by townspeople—“the whole town,” Mark says—crowding his door with sick and disturbed people they want Him to cure. Apparently those He wasn’t able to reach have returned. Had He not got up early to pray, He’d have been obliged to help them. Yet starting His day with prayer not only releases Him from being inundated with demands, it gives Jesus directional clarity. He replies, “Let’s go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.” (v38) And this is the first time Mark shows us Jesus taking charge of His ministry. Before this, He avails Himself to opportunities to preach and work miracles. Is it a coincidence that we see Jesus begin His day with prayer and then turn from doing what’s expected so He can obey God's higher purpose? While Mark doesn’t call out the connection, it’s there. Otherwise, why even mention Jesus’s morning prayer? If it didn’t influence His decision and reorient His thoughts on His mission rather than His tasks, why not skip the episode entirely and simply report Jesus and the disciples moved on? “That is why I have come,” Jesus says.
At This Hour, In This Place, With These Gifts
To start the day with prayer is to reorient our thoughts from what’s expected of us to consider why we’ve come to this day. The same sense of consecration, gravity, and duty that brings us to Lent’s desert, sacramental moments, and high holy days should greet us with every sunrise. Just as we’re able to set aside the previous day’s chaos and sequester our thoughts from mundane tasks on these “special” occasions, can we not also discipline ourselves to begin each day spending a few moments alone with God? It’s then we can focus on the purpose God has for us today—to contemplate why we are present at this hour, in this place, with the unique gifts God places in us. Rising to pray before we’re inundated with demands awakens us to holiness. It sets the tone for all that follows, enabling us to obey rather than do, create rather than complete. It provides clarity that guides us to people and places that need us. It reminds us why we’ve come to this day. If Jesus found disciplined, habitual morning prayer necessary, can we possibly question its importance and value?
Morning prayer turns our thoughts to why we’re present at this hour, in this place, with the unique gifts God places in us.
Postscript: “What Shall I Do?”
And when we rise to pray, what do we say? The late Walter Hawkins gave the world a masterpiece that, if spoken, would constitute the perfect prayer to start the day. Here is his wife, Tramaine, singing “What Shall I Do?”