A man once dreamt of leaving his home to go in search of the Golden City, which lay on the other side of a vast forest. His own life was tedious. He had grown tired of his surroundings, responsibilities and relationships, but had heard many tales of the size and beauty of the city of gold. 

So one morning he woke early and, after saying goodbye to his wife and young children, he set out on his journey of discovery. 

He travelled for many hours, slowly making his way through the dense forest that separated his own town from the Golden City. His determination to keep going was constantly fuelled by the inspirational stories he had heard of his intended destination. But eventually, despite his great enthusiasm, he became overwhelmed by exhaustion. So, finding a clearing, he settled down under a large tree to rest. 

Not wanting to awaken disorientated and so lose his direction, he took off his shoes and laid them side by side pointing in the direction he was travelling. Assured that he would now avoid getting lost, he closed his eyes and fell into a deep sleep.

But while the man slept two young boys out playing in the forest entered the clearing and stumbled across him. Seeing him asleep and his shoes lying neatly beside him, they decided to play a trick on him. Silently, they crept closer to the man with the intent of hiding his shoes. But, just as one of the boys picked them up and turned to retreat, the man began to stir. Startled, the boy hurriedly dropped the shoes, which landed facing in the opposite direction, and with his friend, fled. 

Early the following morning the man awoke and, carefully putting on his shoes so that they continued to point in what he thought was the same direction, he set off once more. He walked for the whole day until finally, as dusk fell, he came to the edge of the forest, and there, before his very eyes, at last, was the Golden City. 

As he got closer the man began to feel strangely at home. Things here were exactly as he had imagined. He had a strong feeling of belonging – a sense of coming home. His eyes lit up as he walked past what felt like familiar shops and houses. 

But best of all, eventually he came across a very familiar street where he found a familiar house. He knocked on a familiar door and was greeted by a familiar looking family. He smiled a deep smile because at last he felt at peace. And he thanked God that after his long and difficult journey he had finally reached his destination. 

My soul craves, but for what I don’t know,’ writes Erwin Raphael McManus. 

We crave comfort, success and prestige. We work for more money, greater influence and power. We lust for fame and sexual gratification. “If only I had that job, had a better sex life, had a sex life, was married, was divorced, was taller, shorter, thinner, more muscular, had a faster car, a bigger house – then I would be truly satisfied.” 

It seems that we learn, all too slowly, that we can only find release from this insatiable longing as we recognise that the objects of our desire delude us as well elude us. As the Catholic writer Ronald Rolheiser reminds us, it is vital that we come to accept this reality ‘because it is only then that we will stop demanding that life – our partners, our families, our friends, our jobs, our vocations, and vacations – give us something that they cannot give, namely the finished symphony, clear-cut, pure joy, complete consummation.’ 

Among the many things that Jesus’ first apprentices learned from their rabbi, was how to pray. And, in the most famous prayer that he taught them, Jesus urged his followers to focus their longings toward God and others in a way that would make a real difference in the world today. 

Our Father in heaven, Hallowed be your name,Your kingdom come,Your will be doneOn earth as it is in heaven.Give us today our daily bread.Forgive us our debts,As we also have forgiven our debtors.And lead us not into temptation,But deliver us from the evil one. 

For many of us, this prayer may be so familiar that it is has become almost banal. In reality, however, it is a prayer that expresses deep longing and desire: longing for the ushering in of God’s kingdom on earth; desire that God’s hopes for us will come to fruition, here and now.

When I was young I was told to ‘say’ my prayers. However, over the years, I’ve learnt slowly that prayers are not primarily words that are ‘said’. A real prayer is a yearning, an aching that will not go away. An apprentice’s prayer is an ongoing approach to life that says, for all my inconsistencies and failings, this is my passion, this is my deepest desire. This is why I am here. This is who I am. 

Prayer is more than just asking. It is a longing. We sometimes use words to express the true longings of our heart. But when we pray, in the end, it is better to have a heart without words than to have words without a heart. 

As Paul, one of Christ’s earliest apprentices, puts it in his letter to the church in Ephesus, “pray in the Spirit on all occasions” (Ephesians 6:18) and, writing to the followers of Christ in Thessalonica, he urges them to “pray continually” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). How do you pray continually unless your prayer is, for much of the time, an unspoken aching and longing? 

And if, through our apprenticeship to Christ, we begin to long not for our own material gain, but that God’s name is honoured through our lives and that others are fed, clothed and loved, then our longing becomes fruitful. 

But this kind of longing is painful. It hurts. It is an aching that never leaves us. However, it is out of the very process of this constant yearning that the kingdom of God is slowly built. 

Paul writes about this kind of longing to his friends in the city of Corinth. He acknowledges that longing and sorrow go hand in hand, but he also reminds them that the fruit of this sorrow is something real and tangible: a desire to get things done. 

See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness…what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done (2 Corinthians 7:11). 

The key to apprenticeship is not so much to ask God to bless our desires, but rather to align our longings with the desires of God; it is that ‘readiness to see justice done’ that Paul wrote about, and the energy to put those words into action. The greatest fulfilment in life, it turns out, is really all about discovering what God is up to and then simply joining in. 

Now that’s a pathway worth seeking! 

Steve Chalke is the founding director of Oasis Global and Faithworks. This year-long ‘The Apprentice’ series links into this year’s Spring Harvest 2009 theme ‘Apprentice: walking the way of Christ’.