Spiritual Disciplines: Prayer
1 Thessalonians 5:1-28
This is the second in our series of sermons on spiritual disciplines. Last week we talked about the discipline of worship; this wk we’re going to talk about prayer. And the same thing applies: in order to reap the benefit of a practice, you have to do it frequently enough so that the practice becomes a habit – where it’s ingrained in you, and you can do it without trying to remember what goes where and when to do what.
Which brings us to the key passage in Paul’s instructions to the church in Thessalonika:
Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.Personally, I like the turn of phrase in the KJV: Pray without ceasing. In other words, praying is something that you don’t just do now and then, but that you do regularly; beyond regularity, you do constantly. Which just defeats most people: they can barely get their prayers said once a day before they fall asleep, exhausted; unless, of course, they’re afraid or worried, in which case, they become fervent in prayer, battering the gates of heaven with the same, repeated petition. But, of course, you can’t keep that up all the time.
The other problem is that people can’t figure out what to say to fill the time they set aside for prayer, or they can’t put their thoughts into words that they think are the right words. Whatever the cause, many Christians find prayer difficult. And of course, what is found difficult is not done very much, which means that it gets even more difficult as time goes on. So, I want to talk about prayer today, as a spiritual discipline, and esp how to “pray without ceasing.”
Now, you’ll notice that I don’t preach about prayer very much. And there’s a reason for that – and that is, that preaching about prayer is largely . . . ineffective. Let me tell you a story. Years ago, I was going to a Men’s breakfast at another church. It was Lent, when all the UM Men compete to see who can whomp up the best breakfast.
I was seriously burdened. There were some people who were very much on my mind. I needed some prayer. Not that I would have mentioned names, mind you, or even situations that could have been used to identify the persons, but I really needed to ask my brothers in Christ to be praying for me and with me as I dealt with these folks.
Well, we had an amazing breakfast. Baker’s Chapel’s men’s specialty was fried potatoes (you really can’t go wrong feeding men potatoes), and after we said grace, we all tucked in. Afterwards, we went into the sanctuary and sang a song and one of the pastors was introduced who had the message that morning. The message happened to be on prayer. It was a great message, all about the power of prayer and the imp of prayer and the need for prayer. When he was done, I was pumped. I was so ready to pray – and still had those folks on my heart to pray for. After the message, we sang a song, somebody gave a benediction, and . . . we went home.
We went home. Nobody prayed. And I went home as burdened as I came. What this points up is that saying stuff about prayer is not the same as praying about stuff – and that makes all the difference. We need prayer more than we need exhortations to pray. And we need to learn how to pray, which brings up another problem. How do we learn to pray? Can one learn how to pray by lecture or sermon? Not well.
There are things that are best taught by what we call “teaching by telling.” Already organized knowledge is best communicated by lecture, by sermon, by video, by books, by internet. There are other things that are best taught by personal discovery and sharing. As a friend of mine used to say, “growth comes as a reflection upon experience.” So, the church gets people to expand their experiences, talking about stuff and doing stuff that challenges their understanding of the world –and of God. But learning to pray -- either by the lecture method or by discussion group -- simply delays the actual praying, which is what we need to learn how to do.
The fact of the matter is, prayer is a skill – a thing you learn first by imitation, then by supervised practice. In effect, learning to pray is like learning to shoot a layup or roll a bowling ball or make a pie crust or change the oil in your car. And most of us learn to pray by imitating the models that are available to us – which means either reciting set prayers (“Now I lay me down to sleep,” and so on) or listening to people like the preacher on Sunday morning and trying to sound like him.
Which is great, but if you grew up in a time when preachers all tried to pray using Jacobean English, with all the “thou wouldsts” and so forth, that’s hard. Even in modern language, organizing your thoughts so as to lead prayer can be difficult. And when you try to do it in your personal prayer time, it can be frustrating; you just can’t keep it up.
Well, here’s something that I teach all the kids in my confirmation classes: there are at least three different sorts of prayer, and all of them are different skills. Leading Public Prayer is a literary and rhetorical skill, like giving a speech. And the models you’re following may be perfectly adequate for that, but public prayer models may not be particularly helpful when it comes time for your personal devotions. Crtainly, you can’t “pray without ceasing” in that kind of language. And even at that, the kind of “pastoral prayer” which lifts up all the concerns of the group in an organized fashion is not the only sort of public prayer, either. There are many others. The collect is one, a short little prayer that prays for one main thing. The collect is written in a certain format, sort of like a sonnet or a haiku is written in a certain format. To teach them about public prayer, I have my confirmands all write collects at our retreats (and I promise them that as their editor, I’ll make them look good).
So public prayer is one kind of skill, but Private Prayer is another. I always ask my confirmands where and when they do most of their praying. The most common answer is, “in bed,” and that's okay. I told one class years ago that I do most of my praying while driving my car, whereupon this one girl looked shocked and said, “You mean you drive with your eyes closed?"
Uh, no. But then, you don’t have to pray with your eyes closed. That’s just a technique to filter out distractions. But if you’re talking about all the stuff you’re seeing with God, then praying with your eyes open is perfectly appropriate; for that matter, if I can talk with you while I’m driving and still keep my eyes on the road, I ought to be able to talk with God while I’m driving and not crash!
Now, I need to remind you, you can use written prayers in your personal prayer life -- as when we use The Upper Room or some other devotional aid in our prayer time -- but to truly “pray without ceasing,” you’ll need to acquire greater personal facility in expressing yourself toward God; or that matter, learning to be quiet and listen for what God is saying to you is quite another thing that you also need to master. And where do you learn that? What models are available to you?
Well, if prayer is a skill to be mastered, then the question becomes, Where are the coaches who can give you models to imitate and also help you analyze your performance so that you improve in it? Who does that for us? Whom does the Church offer to us to do that? Such people seem to be thin on the ground around here!
In the 16th Century, there was a monk in a certain monastery, who was known to be expert in prayer, and many of the young novices in that monastery wanted him to be their spiritual director. This puzzled the senior monks, since this spiritual master was not a priest or someone with special training. In fact, he was one of the monastery's cooks; he described himself as "lord of pots and pans and things." His name was Nicholas Herrman, a.k.a. Brother Lawrence, and he wrote a book called The Practice of the Presence of God. That's how he described his prayer life. He lived his entire live in the presence of God and shared every moment with Christ. There was simply never a time, therefore, when he was not praying. And he was happy to share his experience with those who wanted the kind of relationship with Christ that he had. It was his students whom he taught how to pray who finally moved him to write his little book, which is still a devotional classic.
And beyond private prayer, where do you learn to do Group Prayer? ‘Cause that’s yet another kind of skill. Once upon a time, the Methodist class meeting was the engine of spiritual growth in our movement, and in that setting, people learned how to pray> They found models there to imitate for public prayer, they found spiritual directors (that is, coaches) who could help them with their personal prayer, and they practiced prayer together in the group. Now, in most group settings, people default to the only group model they know, which is public prayer, and we go around the circle, with everyone saying the kind of prayer that one person would pray on behalf of the whole group, like in worship. There are other models, which can add power to your group’s experience, assuming that you have a group.
Sad to say, most of us don’t have a place to belong and grow as disciples. We understand that we need to belong and partic in the big group (the Sunday morning congregation). And we understand that we need to be keeping up our personal relationship with Christ (not that we know where to find much help on that, but still). But most Christians have no place to experience the “little church within the big church” – that small circle of friends who are serious about following Jesus together, who bear one another’s burdens, and who help each other on to perfection. Which means we’re missing out on one of the essential relationships which power the Christian experience: Me and Jesus; All of us together and Jesus; My intimate friend or friends and me with Jesus.
Most of us are trying to balance on a two-legged stool, and so we fall down – a lot. And I realize that preaching about prayer as a spiritual discipline doesn’t correct this problem or fill this need that we have. I don’t intend for it to do so; if I were to teach you how to pray, that would take some considerable time together. Even Jesus only tried that with a dozen other people. But what I want to challenge us all with on this morning is to look at our congregation and ask where and how do we teach people how to pray? And are we willing to be responsible for this?
Where are the spiritual directors, the spiritual coaches, who can assist others in learning how to pray? Where are the groups that we should have to gather people together to help each other on to perfection? Do what groups we do have – our Sunday School classes, our Men’s and Women’s groups, our Emmaus Reunion group, our youth, our Scouts – do they help with this, or just get busy with program? Have we, in fact, got everything backward in how we organize ourselves to do the work of God? For a church wwithout prayer is like an car without gas: it can’t run very far, or very long. It sure won’t get you anywhere.
And I would suggest to you that the most critical need of the Church today – our congregation included – is to recover the power of prayer, which is something more than just holding prayer meetings. It means becoming a congregation of people who “rejoice always, pray continually, and give thanks in all circumstances.” It means equipping our members to do that in their personal lives. It means forming small groups and fostering relationships where those who are seeking direction can find it and hold each other accountable for their journey. It means, not just writing magnificent liturgies for Sunday morning, but connecting people with God, who will then come bursting with energy to pour into the worship of God on Sunday morning – and in the joy of that encounter, find yet more power to fuel their journey with Christ through the week to come.
Once upon a time, Methodists knew how to do this. If we want to know God better and experience his power – in our psnl lives and in our life together – then we need to learn how to do it again. And may it be so. Amen.