A sermon delivered by Joel Snider, First Baptist Church, Rome, Ga., on September 26, 2010.
1 Thessalonians 5:12-22
Father, we confess that our eyes do not readily see the spiritual side of life. We confess that our ears are not always listening for an eternal word. We confess even more our fear that we might have missed you as you have shown yourself to us each day. O God, we seem to look in the wrong places. We are confident that you have probably given us evidence of your work in our lives but we just don’t seem to notice. Every bush may have been a flame with your holy fire but we have no time to turn aside. Our wandering feet seem unable to distinguish holy ground for we cover so much ground so quickly. Heaven and earth may declare your glory but our eyes see only the tasks on our list before us. Our prayer today is for eyes that really see. We pray for eyes that not only simply see the beauty of nature that surrounds our busy lives but for eyes that see Christ in the faces of those around us. We pray for hearts not tender for sentimental moments but hearts that recognize moments that you have indeed given us as opportunities to learn of your love through obedience. May we not turn from a moment because it makes us uncomfortable, but seeing your hand in directing our paths may we be generous, may we be patient, may we bless instead of curse, may we heal instead of hurt. In our obedience, may we hear your voice speak peace to our hearts. May each day of this week be one that takes us over holy ground and may our hearts be set on fire with your presence. In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.
But we can train our minds and hearts to be conscious of God’s presence and to fellowship with Him any time, and all the time. We can make our lives a prayer to Him by practicing His presence. With some passion to know Him combined with His grace and the help of His Spirit, we can pray without ceasing. —ehow.com
As a teenager, there were a couple of things I read in scripture that I thought sounded really B-O-R-I-N-G. One was in the Book of Revelation where I read that the saints in glory sang praises eternally. Now don’t get me wrong. I wish I could sing like that, but at 16, I thought 10 minutes in the shower and 30 minutes of singing with the radio in the car was enough for anybody. But singing for eternity? That sounded to me like I would be worn out and tired of doing any one thing forever, and it sounded boring to me.
The other thing that sounded boring to me was Paul’s suggestion that we pray without ceasing. The only way I could imagine doing that would be either to become a priest or go to a monastery some place. I didn’t see how a person could pray without ceasing and still have time to think about a girlfriend, my friend, Johnny, whose brother got a 912 Porsche from his great aunt, or Auburn football. How can you pray without ceasing and still have time to think about the good and fun things of life? At age 16, I thought those things sounded incredibly boring because I did not really understand what they were saying.
As I have gotten older, I have come to understand better the passage about praying without ceasing. One, it is not a command. It is not like one of the Ten Commandments that we have to do it, but it is an encouragement from Paul to do these things. “Let me give you good advice. Do these things: be at peace among yourselves, encourage the faint hearted, see that none of you repays evil for evil but always seeks to do good. Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. Give thanks in all circumstances.”
When I read that and the other things Paul says, I realize that the things he is telling us to do involve surrounding our minds and our hearts with the good things in life. What is it that is said in Psalms? “As one thinketh in the heart,” we know that the things that we think about that are in our minds and hearts shape us whether we want to admit it or not. What is good for us to surround ourselves with?
There are easy alternatives in our world today to what Paul suggested.
â— Five hours of rap music. Is that good? I know there are a lot of homes where that debate probably takes place sometimes.
â— Five hours of hearing women called things we do not want to say in church. Yet if we are surrounded by that five hours a day, can that be good?
â— Five hours of refusing to repay evil for evil, but five hours of being encouraged to do the unspeakable.
â— Five hours of computer games in which the whole object is to kill, maim, and blow up. That has to be good for the soul, doesn’t it?
â— Five hours of Facebook. Is some of that really the best for us?
â— Five hours of listening to shock jocks and people like Howard Stern or Glenn Beck who fill our lives with stuff that is absolutely not good for us.
What makes for a better life? What makes for a heart that beats like Christ? Is it what Paul encourages us to do or all of these other things that are so easy to get absorbed in and surrounded with? It is like surround sound stereo. You can do all of these things all day long. It is OK, it is not a command, and it is good for me, but still is it really possible to be a person who prays without ceasing and not be in a monastery? Is it really possible to be a person whose life is so full of prayer but still has a life?
When I was 16, I thought that was boring, but even today, there are a lot of us who think, “OK, I get the idea that I want good things in my life and that is better than the bad stuff I surround myself with, but can I really pray without ceasing?”
I think we can if we broaden our understanding of prayer. It is possible if we broaden our understanding so that prayer is more than those moments where we have our eyes closed and either speak with our mouths or speak silently with our hearts. For instance, if we simply recognize that the first step in prayer is broadening our awareness to understand that God is here and around us in the air that we breathe, before us, underneath us, and behind us, God’s presence is there to guide us in prayer whether we notice it or not.
St. Francis de Sales was a spiritual writer in the 16th or 17th Century, and he has a wonderful illustration. He says to imagine a blind person is traveling along in a group of people and is suddenly made aware that a great prince is in the company. Nothing has changed. The prince has been there all along, but all of a sudden the blind person is made aware of this. What is the first thing you do when you realize that someone is there that you were not aware of ? St. Francis de Sales says that the person will begin to talk more appropriately in the way the prince would want to hear. The person will act better, have better manners, and be more discreet. All of a sudden, when we become aware that there is some higher presence with us, we begin to act a little differently. Don’t we need to remember that God’s presence is around us all the time?
When I was an older teenager, I remember shopping for a car with friends. The person buying the car happened to be a minister. After we test-drove the Toyota, the salesman said, “Can we fix you up today? Do you want to take it home? Do you need financing?”
My friend said, “Well, I’m a minister.”
And the salesman went, “Oops. I sure hope I did not say anything I was not supposed to say.”
My friend said, “I’m not the one you have to be concerned about.” The implication was that God is there all the time.
What if we recognized that the first part of prayer is being aware that God is here wherever here may be. When we recognize God’s presence in an encounter in life—in a grocery store, driving down the highway, at work, at school—the awareness of God is indeed, in and of itself, a prayer. Our minds and hearts have begun to turn toward God and we are including God in what we are doing in life. A life that is already open, willing, and listening is already praying.
Once we have opened ourselves to God, I have had people tell me a number of things they do to remember to pray for certain things and I want to share some of these with you. One of the most obvious is food. People who bless their food at all times everywhere are not trying to be holier than thou at a restaurant, but it is a way of stopping to reflect and recognize that we truly believe that all goodness comes from God’s hands. The food that is set before me is a reminder of how much God has blessed me. It is not a sense that if I forget to say a blessing that I will get sick if I eat the food or will choke on it, but it is a positive way to remember that God gives these gifts. Every time we offer a blessing we remember that.
I know someone who prays every time they hear a siren. When they hear a siren, they think there is somebody somewhere who is either in trouble or someone who has had something go wrong. When they hear a siren, they stop and pray for whatever that siren might be.
Someone told me that when they are at a traffic light, they look around and if they see a bird on a wire, they stop and use that opportunity to remember that as that bird is looking over the intersection, God looks over them.
In this age of obsessive hand washing, another person told me a routine that he started when washing his hands. When he started the routine of hand washing, it was a way of thinking, I am washing my hands. I have been washed of my sins. But now it has become a way of stopping and reflecting about what his heart needs. Forgiveness, yes, but maybe also courage and compassion today. What works for one person might even seem silly to somebody else. These illustrations remind us that every day, all day, there are those moments that if our hearts are open to God and if we truly and genuinely believe that God is with us in this life, we can use some trigger to offer that moment to God.
Of course, when we have said “Amen,” the prayer is not really over. Unless we see prayer as something like a great Christmas list to God in which we are strictly asking God to do things for us, we recognize that if our lives are really open to God, and if we are open to the transformation and change that God wants to work in us, then when we have said, “Amen,” life becomes an opportunity to practice what we have prayed and to continue our prayers in some tangible way.
The great Methodist missionary, E. Stanley Jones, said it is an opportunity to practice obedience about the things that we have prayed for. If we have prayed that God would do something about hunger in the world, it is an opportunity to do something about hunger in the world. If we have prayed for God to give us patience, instead of going home at night and expecting that God is going to give us a spiritual IV so that we will wake up more patient tomorrow, we need to recognize that there are moments in each day where we could allow God to give us patience if we would practice patience.
If we have prayed for forgiveness, there will be a chance during the day to work at it. Once we have said, “Amen,” there is a whole life to live in obedience in the direction of the things that we have prayed for. Instead of thinking, “I am going to leave it to God and let God do the heavy lifting. I will go home and wait for God to work all these things out,” I should live my life as a prayer so that whatever it is that I have voiced to God, my life is joined with that to see that prayer fulfilled.
If we just read the words of Paul, “Pray without ceasing,” that might seem a little out of touch with the lives we lead. We are busy. But if we see Paul’s encouragement to us to include God in all things, we recognize that there is not any moment in life where we could not be aware of God, where there is not something about which we could pray for or in which our life could not be an opportunity to practice obedience about the very things we have asked God to accomplish.
At the end of the day, that has been a full day of prayer, hasn’t it? That seems to me like it is a life of prayer without ceasing. If, in my life, I use moments of things that happen every day as triggers, I could pray much more often.
Do you ever come to end of the day or come face to face with a circumstance and think, “I should have really prayed about that”? Every day offers opportunities where we could pray. We can have a lifetime of obedience of praying for what we want to see happen in life and in the world. These are the things that we need to be about—practicing the obedience of the things that we have prayed for.
Pray without ceasing and there still will not be sufficient time to pray enough.
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.