“PRAYING WITHOUT CEASING”

I THESSALONIANS 5:12-22

MARCH 25, 2012

 

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           If she has the time, my wife, Trudy, seldom passes by a jewelry store.  She seldom buys anything, but she looks and admires and dreams of something sparkly in her future.  If I want to give her a no-miss gift, jewelry is a no brainer.  Given her appreciation of jewelry, she will love the verses we’re about to read this morning.  The biblical commentator William Barclay had this to say about our verses from Thessalonians ...     

 

            Paul comes to the end of his first letter to the Thessalonians with a chain of  jewels of good advice.  He sets them out in the most summary way; but every one of them is such that every Christian and every church member should ponder it.

 

            So let’s follow my wife, Trudy, into Paul’s jewelry store this morning.  Listen to his words beginning in verse 22 ...

 

            But we appeal to you brothers and sisters, to respect those who labor among you, and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you; esteem them very highly in love because of their work.

 

            As much as I would like us to handle this piece of jewelry this morning, we will move on to other jewels in Paul’s jewelry shop.

 

            Be at peace among yourselves.  And we urge you, beloved, to admonish idlers, encourage the faint hearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.  See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seeks to do good to one another and to all.  Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.  Do not quench the Spirit.  Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every evil.

 

            Someday we might return to this jewelry store, and do an entire series on location from the store, but for today we’ll focus our attention on just one piece of jewelry.  It’s Paul’s directive to “pray without ceasing.” 

            Let me be honest.  Initially, upon hearing this directive, I thought about an episode from the Peanuts cartoon strip.  Lucy, Linus and Charlie Brown are walking to school and Lucy says, “This is ‘Show and Tell’ day at school isn’t it?  Rats!  I forgot to bring anything.”

            Then Lucy to Linus and asks, “Did you remember that this was ‘Show and Tell’ day, Linus.”

            “Yes,” says Linus.  “I have a couple of things here I want to show the class.”

            Then he pulls them out the folder he’s carrying.  He says, “These are copies I’ve been making of some of the Dead Sea Scrolls ... See?  This is a duplicate of a scroll of Isaiah chapters 38 to 40 ... It was made from seventeen pieces of sheepskin and was found in a cave by a shepherd ... Here I’ve made a copy of the earliest known fragment ever found .... it’s a portion of I Samuel 23:9-16 ... I’ll try to explain to the class how these manuscripts have influenced modern scholars.”

            Lucy says, “Very interesting,” and Linus says, “I thought it might be.”

            Lucy then turns to Charlie Brown.  “Are you bringing something for ‘Show and Tell,’ Charlie Brown? 

            The strip ends with Charlie Brown saying, “Well, I had a little red fire engine here, but I think maybe I’ll just forget it.”

             Reading what Paul writes here about praying without ceasing, I feel little like Charlie Brown - inadequate, out of my league.  I think to myself, “You can’t be serious, Paul.  You may be able to pull this off, being a saint and all, but what about the rest of us, the more normal, run-of-mill Christians?  How can we possibly do this?  We have jobs and families and DirecTV?  How do we pull this off?”

            That was my initial response when I handled this piece of jewelry.  Then I began to think more about this jewel of good advice, the less inadequate I felt.  In fact, upon reflection I came to a couple of conclusions.  First, Paul really believed this was possible for every follower of Christ, not just a precious few.  After all, he wrote this to the entire church in Thessalonica and not just a few people in the church.  Furthermore, this was not the only time Paul offered this particular jewel of good advice.  He said something similar in Ephesians.  He said to them, “Pray in the Spirit at all times ...”  He, also, encouraged the Romans to be “constant in prayer.”  So taking these three similar directives together we see Paul encouraging Christians everywhere, not just in Thessalonica, but also in Ephesus and Rome to pray without ceasing or to pray at all times, or to be constant in prayer.

            So Paul believed this practice to be possible for every follower of Christ, not just “super saints.”  The second conclusion I came to as I reflected on this piece of spiritual jewelry was this:  Paul did not believe we had to withdraw from every day life in order to pray without ceasing.

            How did I come to his conclusion?  I came to it by observing Paul’s every day life.  Paul was a man of the world.  He traveled extensively.  He preached before heads of state.  He continued his tent-making business throughout his ministry to help make ends meet.  Paul, like us, was up to his eyeballs in the affairs of the world, and yet he was able to pray at all times, and he advises us to do the same. 

            So, if Paul claims that praying at all times can be done in everyday life, by garden variety Christians like you and me, and not just super saints, what does a life of praying without ceasing entail?  What does it look like?  I think the best description comes from Brother Lawrence.  Are you familiar with Brother Lawrence?  He was a lay brother in a Carmelite monastery in France in the 17th century and his main job was to wash dishes in the monastery, and he described praying at all times as “practicing the presence of God.”  I love that description ... “practicing the presence of God.”  For Brother Lawrence, praying without ceasing or praying at all times, meant being aware of God’s presence with him throughout the day, whatever the circumstance.  Here’s one of my favorite Brother Lawrence quotes,

 

            The time of business does not differ with me from the time of prayer; and in the noise and clatter 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 on my knees.

 

            OK, thus far in our Lenten Sermon series on prayer we have worked establishing a rhythm of prayer.  We have worked on finding a place of prayer.  We have also began practicing listening prayer.  Today, let’s turn our attention to learning how to practice the presence of God, praying at all times, praying without ceasing, throughout the day.  As we did last Sunday, I’ll offer some methods or techniques for doing this.

            Method One:  choose an object that will call your attention to God.  I think of an elder in our congregation in Oregon.  His name was Jack Anderson and shortly after arriving in Oregon, Jack told me about a Lay Renewal Weekend he attended that had a huge impact on his spiritual life.  He then showed me a little cross, about the size of a quarter, that was given to the participants in the renewal weekend.  He kept that cross in his pocket as a constant reminder of Christ’s presence with him.  Whenever he reached in his pocket for change, there was the cross, and he would thank God for his presence in his life at that very moment.  He then gave me a similar cross so that I would be reminded of Christ’s presence with me at all times.  He practiced the presence of God.

            I drive a Volvo.  So does Trudy.  And whenever I drive around town and see another Volvo, it draws my attention back to God.  Whenever I see another Volvo I say, “Dick, God loves you and is with you.  Then I proceed to tell God I love him and bring any concerns I have to him at that moment.  By the way, it’s amazing how many Volvo’s I see on the road driving around town, and how all those Volvo’s help me to practice the presence of God while driving around town.

            Another technique is making the most of idle moments, like waiting in lines or riding an elevator.  Try it.  I bet you’ll grow to like it.  I have had great fun over the years praying for people with whom I’m standing in line at the grocery store.  I say to God, “Lord, I don’t know these people, but you do.  You know the ache, the concerns in their lives.  Do what is necessary to draw them closer to you.”  Considering all the people with whom we wait in lines or ride in elevators, just think how many people touch for Christ as we pray.  Most of us are too timid to talk to these people about Christ, but we can all talk to Christ about these people. 

            Also, remember these idle times do not always need to be spent in talking to God.  Idle time provides a great opportunity for listening prayer as well.  Next time you are in line or a waiting room or on an elevator, try saying to God, “Tell me something about yourself or about myself or about the people around me right now.  I want to commit this time to listening to you speak to me.” 

            Taking the total of our idle moments, I bet they add up to fifteen or thirty minutes a day.  Giving those idle moments to God in prayer can help transform our lives into a continuous stream of joy and love and power.

            Method number three: even though prayer is serious business make it fun. 

            Frank Laubach a missionary, whose passion was teaching people to read, spoke of what he called his “Game with Minutes.”  His idea was to take a given hour each day and see how many minutes during that hour he could be conscious of God’s presence.  Then each day he recorded how he fared.  At the top of each entry in his daily prayer journal was a notation.  One day he wrote, “Conscious 50%,” another day he wrote, “Conscious 25%,” and still another day he noted, “Conscious 80%.”  That was his way of recording the percentage of the hour that he felt he actually conscious of God’s presence with him. 

            What I appreciate about Laubach’s process is what he called it:  “Game with Minutes.”  It was his game, it was not a chore with minutes.  I find that delightful.  God is no killer of happiness.  God delights in whatever time we can give to him.  Brother Lawrence put it this way.  He said, “God requires no great matter of us.  The least little remembrance of him will always be acceptable to him.”

            Let’s not be harder on ourselves than God.  Maybe you recall the first question posed in the Westminster Shorter Catechism.  The first question asks, “What is the chief end of man?”  The answer:  “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy God forever.”  Let’s enjoy God by making practicing God’s presence fun.  And you know what?  In time it will become the most joyful thing we do!