It seemed a luxurious, even a wasteful, image that my friend painted that day. But I have become convinced that he was right. I am sure that the reason many of us find it hard to pray – to spend time alone with God – is that we find it hard to be alone with ourselves. Activity and busyness enter every area of our lives; we cannot simply be still.

Modern gadgets feed our addiction. The other day I sat next to a friend at a Christian conference and watched as he emailed, Googled, Facebooked, WhatsApped and I don’t know what else as the speaker expounded the book of Isaiah. Of course, to most eyes he appeared to be using his smartphone to follow the text on his Bible app, typing helpful reflections in his notes, or tweeting particularly brilliant points on the sermon.

Activity and a sense of needing to get things done can even enter our devotional time. The other day I heard a theologian urge us to “spend at least 30 minutes a day in prayer”. Is he right? Well, of course, it’s good to have the discipline of a certain time in prayer, but perhaps not if it simply feeds our inner frenzy to find peace by doing, to find spirituality by achieving, to find acceptance from God by performing. And it’s not just in the area of prayer. I have personally found the Bible-in-a-year resources helpful, and yet as I look back on some mornings when I was practically speedreading in an effort to retrieve a lost day (or on one occasion, a whole month!), I can’t help wondering if this is how life is meant to be and who I am trying to impress.

When my friend urged me all those years ago to “kick the leaves” there were no mobile phones, yet I found it hard to take his advice even then. But where can I find stillness now? There is nowhere I cannot be reached. If I cry out along with the psalmist, “hide me in the shadow of your wings” (Psalm 17:8), even as those wings close in around me, I might hear a ping that whispers, “Rob, you’ve got mail. It could be really important and unless you take a quick peek, how will you know?”

Someone who has spent a lifetime in Bible teaching told me he believed that many preachers speak most passionately about those things that they themselves struggle with. Ah! Now my secret is out. Despite my friend’s injunction all those years ago, I confess that I still find it hard to just kick the leaves, and even in my devotions I find it so tempting to prove to God that I am worth loving.

The other day, my 3-year-old grandson brought me a drawing he had done of a cow. It resembled a bus with no wheels. I heard myself say, “Wow! That’s brilliant!” And as I spoke, a moment of joy flooded my soul as I felt that maybe my father, God, does the same with me. Could it be that when I only manage to read a few verses of the Bible and spend just a couple of minutes in prayer, he looks at me and whispers, “Brilliant!”? Could it really be true that at least with him there is nothing to prove? Now, wouldn’t that be something?