Pray continually, Paul commands in 1 Thessalonians 5:17. Pray without ceasing. Pray all the time.
Be constant in prayer. (he says in Romans 12:12.) Keep on praying.
Pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. (Ephesians 6:18 commands us.) Pray hard and long.
Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. (says Colossians 4:2) Pray diligently.
But what does all this mean? How can we really “pray without ceasing”? Last week we thought about the wonderful promise Jesus made which we find right at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Jesus is with us always, at all times and in all places. One way we can acknowledge the presence of God in every moment of our lives is by learning to pray without ceasing.
As we begin the year with a Week of Prayer and Fasting, I want to introduce you this morning to five brilliant practical suggestions to help us on the way to praying without ceasing.
1 Praying using set prayers
Most of us need to rediscover the great value of praying using set prayers. We belong to a spiritual tradition which values extemporary prayer. We value the freedom we have to come to God just as we are and pray whenever we want using whatever words come to mind at the time. Such prayer is like a conversation we could have with a loving parent or a dear friend, a conversation with God. It is spontaneous and free.
But remember, the vast majority of Christians through the centuries, and the Jews before them, did not generally pray the way we do. Many still today do not. Other traditions very happily use set prayers – prayers written by other people, prayers often passed down through generations. They often use the prayers found in Scripture in the Psalms, or the Lord’s Prayer.
Most Christians are very happy to use hymns and songs and choruses which other people have written. We don’t feel we need to make up a brand new song every time we praise and worship God. The precise advantage of using words somebody else has written is that we can devote ourselves to thinking about the meaning of what we are singing, instead of having to use most of our concentration on thinking of the right things to say.
And the same can be true of our prayers. Sometimes using words which another believer has written can help us to express our deepest feelings better than we are able to do ourselves. It is good sometimes to be able to focus purely on God instead of having to search for the best words. It is a good thing to add our voices sometimes to the voices of countless saints in many places over many generations by using the very same prayers they used. And praying the same words as other believers have also prayed helps deliver us from that temptation of individualism which is gripping this generation. It does our soul good to admit sometimes that there are other Christians who have expressed themselves in prayer better than we ever can. So we humble ourselves and borrow their words to make their prayer our own.
If we were going to meet the Queen or the Prime Minister, or any important person, we would give some thought in advance to what we would say. We might well follow conventional forms of greeting and address, rather than just make it all up on the spot. How much more should we prepare ourselves to meet with Almighty God, and use words which acknowledge the glory and majesty of God. Set prayers can deliver us from a dangerous over-familiarity with the all-powerful all-knowing omnipresent Creator and Ruler of the Universe.
All Christians can benefit from liturgy and sacrament and written prayers as well as intimacy and informality and spontaneous prayers. So as a first step to praying without ceasing, begin to explore the Psalms. Use an Anglican prayer book, or one of the many books of prayers you can find in Christian bookshops online. In recent years many people have found prayers in the Celtic Tradition and from the Northumbria Community very helpful. Then, when you don’t much feel like praying, or you don’t know what to pray, use prayers written by another person, quite probably somebody who knew more about prayer than any of us ever will. Take their prayer and make it your own personal prayer. The little guide for this Week of Prayer and Fasting includes a set prayer for each day, and I have made other booklets of set prayers available too. Try using set prayers this week.
2 – Practising the Presence of God.
This idea is especially associated with a 17th century monk Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection. I have circulated the short book with that title attributed to him and you could begin by reading it this week. By Practising the Presence of God, Brother Lawrence means what Richard Foster in his book on prayer called “praying the ordinary”. Simply acknowledging that God is involved in EVERY aspect of our daily lives. Remembering the truth that WHEREVER we are is Holy Ground! We need to learn to see God in the ordinary experiences of life and to turn the ordinary experiences of life into prayer.
We need to recognise the sanctity of the ordinary. In His great acts of creation and incarnation, God has intertwined the spiritual and the material, wedded the sacred and the secular, sanctified the common and the ordinary. We shouldn’t look to find God in the spectacular and the heroic but in the daily and the ordinary. So our jobs are not a hindrance to prayer but an opportunity for prayer. We can sometimes pray while we work. We should always pray about our work and for our work. But we can also pray through our work. Our work can become prayer – prayer in action. We can present our work to God as a prayer offering to Him.
Colossians 3: 17 And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
1 Corinthians 10:31 So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.
Whatever the task, we can choose to do it in God’s strength and for God’s glory. All work is holy work. Our homes are just as holy as our church. All places are sacred places! We just need to learn to pray the ordinary.
By “Practising the Presence of God” Brother Lawrence meant making every part of our everyday lives a subject for prayer and engaging in continuous conversation with God in prayer, whatever we are doing. Here are some of Brother Lawrence’s inspiring words, to inspire you to read the book
“We should strive for `a habitual sense of God’s presence’ – `to be always with God.’ To be with God, there is no need to be in church. We make a chapel of our heart, to which we can from time to time withdraw to have gentle, humble, loving communion with Him. Everyone is able to have these familiar conversations with God. Some more, some less – He knows our capabilities. Let us make a start. Perhaps He only waits for us to make one whole-hearted resolve.
Think often on God, by day, by night, in your business, and even in your diversions. He is always near you and with you; leave him not alone. You would think it rude to leave a friend alone who came to visit you; why, then, must God be neglected?
Our biggest mistake is to think that a time of prayer is different from any other time. It is all one. The time of business does not differ from the time of prayer; and in the noise and clutter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God in as great tranquility as if I were upon my knees.
We can do little things for God: I turn the cake that is frying on the pan, for love of him; and that done, if there is nothing else to call me, I prostrate myself in worship before him who has given me grace to work; afterwards I rise happier than a king. When I can do nothing else, it is enough to have picked up a straw for the love of God. People look for ways of learning how to love God. … Is it not a shorter and more direct way to do everything for the love of God, to make use of all the tasks one’s lot in life demands to show him that love, and to maintain his presence within by the communion of our heart with his? There is nothing complicated about it. One has only to turn to it honestly and simply.
The depths of our spirituality does not depend upon changing the things we do, but in doing for God what we ordinarily do for ourselves.
A little lifting of the heart suffices; a little remembrance of God, one act of inward worship, are prayers which however short are acceptable to God.
You need not cry very loud. He is nearer to us than we think.”
Be encouraged by these words of Brother Lawrence and try Practising the Presence of God this week.
3 Use “Breath Prayers”
“Breath prayers” are short simple prayers which we can say in a single breath. Whenever we want to bring God to mind during the day and acknowledge His presence with us, we breathe this prayer. Whenever we want to dedicate a particular activity to God, we breathe this prayer. Whenever we want to ask for God’s grace and help and draw God into a particular situation, we breathe this prayer. It is a form of prayer which helps bring God into every part of our lives as we use it many many times through the day.
One breath prayer has been used by Christians for centuries. “Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” I discovered this pattern of prayer almost 20 years ago during my Sabbatical time in Uganda and used it many times each day. First thing in the morning. Last thing at night. When you move from one activity to another. As you go to greet someone. “Jesus, Son of God, Have mercy on me, a sinner.”
There are many other excellent breath prayers. You might like the first line of the prayer of St. Francis, “Lord, Make me a channel of your peace.” You might like to use “Abba Father, let me yours and yours alone.” Or God might lead you to a different “breath prayer” that is personal to you. Learn to pray without ceasing by using a breath prayer. I strongly recommend you to try it this week!
4. Read books on prayer.
It should be obvious that one way of learning how to pray better is to read about other believers’ experiences of prayer. I have shared links to a number of excellent books about prayer and all I want to do this morning is encourage you to choose one of them and make time this week to read it!
5. Set times for prayer.
I have often quoted from John Dalrymple.
“The truth is that we only learn to pray all the time everywhere after we have resolutely set about praying some of the time somewhere.”
If we want to go deeper into prayer and learn what it means to “pray without ceasing”, we must begin by making our regular times of prayer a priority. Setting apart time and space for solitude and silence. Working hard at meeting with God day by day and even hour by hour. A holy life is a succession of holy moments. We have to work very hard at our holy moments! I repeat, “we only learn to pray all the time everywhere after we have resolutely set about praying some of the time somewhere.”
With our digital watches and smartphones we can set ourselves alarms to remind ourselves of anything we want to. Not just to tell us it is time to wake up but time for lunch, or time for a meeting, or time to load the dishwasher. For this week you might like to set yourself one or two alarms at particular times of day. And when the alarm sounds, take that as a call to prayer. The alarm will remind you that God and your relationship with God are more important than anything else you are doing at that time.
Use set prayers. Practise the Presence of God. Use Breath Prayers. Read books on prayer. Set yourself times to pray. Try some of these this week. Let’s set out this week to learn more how to pray without ceasing.