Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:4-5)
Abiding in Christ. Remaining united to Him. The heart of this new life and this relationship we have with Jesus Christ is prayer. So over recent weeks we have been praying, “Lord teach US to pray!” We began by thinking about Simple prayer. Asking, seeking, knocking, because asking is the rule of the Kingdom. Praying through the Ordinary things of life, because wherever we are is Holy Ground. Next we learned about praying “just as I am”. Steps in prayer we can all take towards “familiar, unreserved conversation with God.” To offer ourselves to God as living sacrifices as we really are, not as we would wish to be. For this we can all benefit from prayers of self-examination and prayers of confession. In the third week we thought about Praying for transformation. Prayer changes things – but prayer also changes us. Prayers of relinquishment and prayers of surrender – “not my will but your will be done.” And we thought about formation prayers – prayers God can use to make us more like Jesus. Last week we talked about Adoring prayer. Prayers of Thanksgiving for all the blessings God pours upon us. Prayers of Praise for Who God is in Himself. We thought what it means to offer God a sacrifice of praise, praising God when it costs us to do so.
Simple prayer. Self examination. Confession. Transformation. Relinquishment. Surrender. Formation. Adoration. Thanksgiving. Praise. These are just some of the things we have been learning about prayer. And I hope you have been putting the theory into practice. “Do not worry about `proper’ praying, just talk to God. We learn to pray by praying!”
This week we are going deeper into prayer. “Pray without ceasing” Paul commands in 1 Thess 5:17. Be constant in prayer. (Romans 12:12.) Pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. (Eph 6:18.) Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. (Col 4:2) But what does all this mean? How can we really “pray without ceasing”?
The first and most important thing to say is something we have said more than once already. It is that quote 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.”
But then today I want to introduce you to four brilliant practical suggestions to help us on the way to praying without ceasing.
The first suggestion is this. 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 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. Most make much more use than we do of the prayer Jesus taught his disciples to pray, which we call the Lord’s Prayer but is really a pattern for our prayers as disciples.
Set prayers have their dangers. They can become “vain repetitions” where we don’t think about what we are saying. But that same objection can apply to the songs we sing. 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. Here again, set prayers can deliver us from a dangerous over-familiarity with the all-powerful all-knowing omnipresent Creator and Ruler of the Universe.
Our spiritual traditions as Baptists, evangelicals and charismatics undervalue set prayers and liturgy. If we want to learn more about prayer that it shouldn’t be a question of either spontaneous prayers or set prayers. It should be both and. If we want to learn more about prayer we should never look down condescendingly on the rites and rituals and liturgies and set prayers of other traditions. All Christians can benefit from liturgy and sacrament and written prayers AND intimacy and informality and spontaneous prayers.
So as a first step to praying without ceasing, begin to explore the Psalms. Buy an Anglican prayer book, or one of the many books of prayers from Christian book shops. In recent years many people have found prayers in the Celtic Tradition and from the Northumbria Community very helpful. Then, next time you don’t 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.
Suggestion One for praying without ceasing – use set prayers sometimes.
Suggestion two – Practising the Presence of God. This idea is especially associated with a 17th century monk Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection.
In a way Brother Lawrence was just talking about what we considered right at the beginning and called “praying the ordinary”. We said then that praying the ordinary means discovering that God is involved in EVERY aspect of our daily lives. It means learning to trust God in EVERY area of our lives, remembering the truth that we are Christians WHEREVER we are. WHEREVER we are is Holy Ground! We need to learn to turn the ordinary experiences of life into prayer; to see God in the ordinary experiences of life; to pray throughout the ordinary experiences of life.
We need to recognise the sanctity of the ordinary, the holiness of created things. 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.
1Corinthians 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.
Brother Lawrence wrote about “Practising the Presence of God.” By this he meant making every part of our everyday lives a subject for prayer. And more than that, he meant engaging in continuous conversation with God in prayer, whatever we are doing. Here are some of Brother Lawrence’s inspiring words. They are printed on today’s take-away sheet in case you wish to think through them when you get home.
“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. Courage! We have but a short time to live.
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. They hope to attain it by I know not how many different practices. They take much trouble to abide in His presence by varied means. 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.”
Brother Lawrence – Practising the Presence of God. This is our second suggestion for praying without ceasing.
The third suggestion is as simple and brief as it is dramatically effective. It is to use what Richard Foster calls “breath prayers.” By this he means a specific short prayer 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 used this prayer many times each day during my Sabbatical time in Uganda. 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, starting today!
To finish I want to share you with one more very simple and practical suggestion which helped me enormously when I adopted it many years ago, back in my student days.
One of the things most of us do almost unconsciously throughout the day is look at our watch. How much longer is this sermon going to be? How long is it until lunch? For several years I had fixed to the face of my watch two little strips of plaster, in the shape of a cross. So every time I looked at the time I saw that reminder – “I am a Christian” “God is with me”. And that simple symbol would often prompt me to prayer. Perhaps a cross on your watch, or by your clock, might help you to learn more about “prayer without ceasing”. Or maybe in these days of digital watches and smartphones 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.
Abiding in Christ. Set prayers. Practising the Presence of God. Breath prayers. Pray without ceasing. “Do not worry about `proper’ praying, just talk to God. We learn to pray by praying!”