To help us prepare for our Week of Prayer and Fasting here is a series of five sermons on Discovering Prayer.
1. Learning to Ask
Our son David plays the saxophone. He’s had lessons for quite a few years now and he plays the saxophone very well- well enough that we have had to upgrade his sax to a better model. So every evening he comes home and plays – the guitar. My guitar, actually. For hours. And he is getting quite good on the guitar too. But it’s the saxophone we are paying for all the lessons for and its the saxophone he is preparing to take his Grade 8 exam on. So we would quite like him to practice the saxophone sometimes.
Because learning to play the saxophone is like learning to play the piano (which I was doing at his age) , or learning to ride a bicycle, or learning to drive a car as our daughters have had to do. We don’t learn any of these things by reading books or talking to other people or even watching other people (although the books and the advice can be helpful). The only way we learn to play a musical instrument is by practice. You just have to practice! Just as we learn to ride by sitting on a bike and pedalling and steering and getting back on when we fall off. We learn to play a musical instrument by practice. Scales, pieces, arpeggios, pieces, broken chords, pieces, hands separately, hands together, practice, practice, practice!
And learning to pray is just the same. The only way to learn to pray is by praying. Sometimes the reason we don’t pray is that we feel we are not good at praying. We feel we need more teaching before we can pray properly. But that is a mistake! The way to learn to pray is by praying. We may neglect prayer and hide away from God because we feel we are no good at praying. The answer is to pray more, not less.
We may feel that we are failures because we pray so little. We mustn’t be discouraged. We need to learn “the prayer of beginning again”, getting back on and trying again, and again, and again, rather than giving up and just not praying. Richard Foster gives very wise advice. “For now, do not worry about `proper’ praying, just talk to God. By praying we learn to pray.”
One day Jesus’s disciples asked him, “Lord teach us to pray.” Listen to what Jesus replied.
Matthew 7:7 “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.
9 “Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? 11 If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!”
What did Jesus teach his disciples about prayer? Simply this. Ask. Seek. Knock. Richard Foster calls this “simple prayer”, just asking God to meet our needs. “Ordinary people bringing ordinary concerns to a compassionate Father.” Coming “just as we are” to God, with openness and honesty and no pretence. Making your requests to God, asking, seeking, knocking.
As Spurgeon once said, “Whether we like it or not, asking is the rule of the Kingdom.”
Sometimes we stop praying those simple “asking” prayers because we are afraid that our prayers are “too selfish”. Foster reminds us, “We never outgrow that kind of asking prayer because we never outgrow the needs that give rise to it.” “The only way we move beyond `self-centred prayer’ (if indeed we ever do) is by going through it, not by making a detour round it.” So our prayers must begin with where we are. “The only place God can bless us is where we are, because that is the only place we are!”
We must begin by learning to ask God and seek God and rely on God in the ordinary events of everyday life, with our families and jobs and neighbours and friends. What Richard Foster calls, “PRAYING THE ORDINARY”
Praying the ordinary means discovering that God in involved in EVERY aspect of our daily lives and learning to trust God in EVERY area of our lives. We need to rediscover the truth that we are Christians WHEREVER we are. WHEREVER we are is Holy Ground!
Of course we should pray about our Christian activities. We should pray for our church. And its services. And our minister. Of course we should pray about witnessing to friends who are not yet saved. Of course we should be praying for the gospel to spread around the world. There is that challenging question, “If you were to die tonight, would your prayers be missed on the mission field?” We should pray MORE for our Christian lives.
But we also need to learn to see every place as Holy Ground. We can do this by “praying the ordinary”. By turning ordinary experiences of life into prayer; by seeing God in the ordinary experiences of life; by praying throughout the ordinary experiences of life.
Richard Foster puts it this way. “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. If we can’t find God in the routines of home and shop and family and work and rest and play then we will never find God at all.”
Some people see their jobs as a hindrance to prayer. In fact our jobs are 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.
“The work of our hands and of our minds is acted-out prayer, a love-offering to the living God.” In the film, Chariots of Fire, the Olympic runner Eric Liddell said, “When I run, I feel His pleasure.” All good work is pleasing to our Heavenly Father, even jobs that seem boring, unimportant and mundane and meaningless or unpleasant. In these days of superstardom in the celebrity jungle and 15 minutes of fame in the Big Brother House, the Bible shows us again and again that “God values the ordinary”. Whatever the task, we can choose to do it in God’s strength and for God’s glory. Ignatius of Loyola said, “Everything that one turns in the direction of God is a prayer.”
So we can pray the ordinary when we see and meet God in the everyday experiences of life. In times of waiting, in queues in the supermarket and the bank, waiting for the telephone to ring. Especially in traffic, driving or as a passenger, we can offer our waiting to God. Just keep your eyes open as you pray! “In the everyday and the commonplace we can learn patience, acceptance and contentment.”
As we learn to pray through the ordinary experiences of life, TV news and newspapers will prompt us to pray there and then for world leaders and current events. We silently pray for the people we meet in shops and corridors and school gates. And we pray in our home life. Our homes are just as holy as our church. All places are sacred places! We just need to learn to pray the ordinary. This will bring us to a conversion of the heart, a Copernican revolution. Copernicus realised that the sun doesn’t go round the earth but rather the earth goes around the sun. So in our spiritual lives, “We need to pass from thinking of God as part of our life to the realisation that we are part of His life.”
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Phil 4:6-7
Paul is not saying, “Whatever your problems, one quick prayer and everything will be alright.” It is an invitation to continuous prayer, to pray without ceasing, praying about anything and everything. Paul is saying “keep on presenting your requests to God”. And as you keep on bringing every aspect of your life to God in prayer, God will keep on meeting your needs and so you will continue to experience that peace which passes all understanding, which only God can give.
I learned something very important about prayer from the six weeks I spent on Sabbatical in Uganda. Christians in Uganda PRAY before every meal, before every drink, before every journey, after every journey, before they say goodbye, every time when somebody is hurt or sick – not just when it’s something major! For all their problems with water supply and health and transport and survival hand to mouth from day to day, the Christians in Uganda know much more of the peace God gives than most English Christians. Even though many of them suffered terribly at the hands of Idi Amin’s regime, these Christians experience God’s peace. Ugandan Christians consciously depend on God for their daily bread and for all their day-to-day needs much more than we think we need to. They know much more than we do about “praying the ordinary.”
So how can we move on in our prayer lives? This is where Richard Foster points us to the great value of
“COVENANT PRAYER” – committing ourselves to the duty of prayer
We must make time to pray! Prayer is nothing more than an ongoing growing love relationship with God. But all good relationships demand time and effort. As we need to commit ourselves to another person for any relationship to grow, so we need to commit ourselves to developing and deepening our relationship with God.
A.W.Tozer:- “Probably the most widespread and persistent problem to be found among Christians is the problem of retarded spiritual progress. The main cause is most likely to be this: failure to give time to the cultivation of the knowledge of God.
The Christian is strong or weak depending upon how closely he has cultivated the knowledge of God. Progress in the Christian life is exactly equal to the growing knowledge we gain of God in personal experience. And such experience requires a whole life devoted to it and plenty of time spent at the holy task of cultivating God. God can be known satisfactorily only as we devote time to Him.
There is no short cut to sanctity. A thousand distractions would woo us away from thoughts of God, but if we are wise we will sternly put them from us and make room for the King and take time to entertain Him. To neglect communion with God is to hurt ourselves where we cannot afford it. God will respond to our efforts to know Him. It is altogether a matter of how much determination we bring to the holy task.”
A.W.Tozer in The Root of the Righteous
We like to be busy and active. Sometimes we hide from God in busyness and activity. We surround ourselves with noise. What we need is silence and space to meet with God. It’s all about how we use our time. The more important an activity is to us, the more time we will give to it. If we want to get to know God better, we need to make time to pray!
So Richard Foster points us to prayer as an expression of our covenant obedience to God. We may be afraid of commitment and “acts of duty”. Responsibility sounds confining. We fear we may lose spontaneity and joy. We fear we may fail to keep our promises. But God expects and demands and deserves our commitment. Like the discipline of practising the piano or learning to ride a bike! We will never learn to do these things well if we do not commit ourselves to practising even when we don’t feel like it! When we fall off we just get up, get back on and try again. Falling off doesn’t hurt as much as staying on the floor.
If we mean business with God, we need solemn vows of commitment to prayer! Being a living sacrifice will include praying when we don’t feel like praying! God Himself invites us to discover the riches of prayer.
“Taste and see that the Lord is good!” Psa 34:8
But we need detailed resolves! Resolutions to find the best time for prayer, the best place for prayer and the best heart preparation for prayer. See whether God might be leading you make any changes in your patterns of personal prayer.
We need a Covenant of time – constancy, a regular experience of prayer even if it interrupts what we think of as important work. Fixed times of prayer taking priority over everything else reminds us that God is more important than anything else. That could be a commitment to a regular time each day. In this modern busy world some people find it more helpful to commit themselves to a WEEKLY time of prayer and devotional reading. Either way, we need discipline to MAKE a regular fixed time for personal prayer.
Then we need a Covenant of place – stability. Finding a place which really is “Holy Ground” for you. A room, a chair, the garden, some convenient quiet location where you find it easy to pray with the minimum of distraction and disturbance. If this all sounds too restricting, too legalistic, think about these wise words 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.” Then we can benefit from a Covenant of heart preparation. A PATTERN of steps we can take which bring a holy expectancy when we come to prayer. Rituals for preparation, like adopting a helpful posture – sitting, kneeling, standing. Using a Christian book, or a prayer book, or a psalm to prepare for prayer. Many Christians of all denominations find it very helpful to light a candle to turn your living room into your sanctuary. Time; place; heart preparation.
Our times of prayer are a vital expression of our relationship with God. So often so many Christians approach times of prayer with the same level of enthusiasm as we would being summoned to the boss’s office or a visit to the dentist. What a contrast with happy children who are usually delighted to be ably to spend time and have a long chat with loving parents. Richard Foster writes about trysting prayer. A tryst is an old word meaning a prearranged meeting of lovers – a special date with God. Our times of prayer can be like that! “We are glad to waste time with God for we are pleased with the company.”
Lord teach US to pray! Simple prayer. Ask, seek, knock. Asking is the rule of the Kingdom. Praying the Ordinary. Wherever we are is Holy Ground. And times of Prayer as our covenant commitment to God. Time, place, heart preparation. “For now, do not worry about `proper’ praying. Just pray!
2. Praying “Just as I am”
A seventeenth- century Roman Catholic Frenchman named Francois Fenelon wrote these words about prayer.
“Tell God all that is in your heart, as one unloads one’s heart, its pleasures and its pains, to a dear friend. Tell Him your troubles, that He may comfort you; tell Him your joys, that He may sober them; tell Him your longings, that He may purify them; tell Him your dislikes, that He may help you to conquer them, talk to Him of your temptations, that He may shield you from them; show Him the wounds of your heart, that He may heal them; lay bare your indifference to good, your depraved tastes for evil, your instability. Tell Him how self-love makes you unjust to others, how vanity tempts you to be insincere, how pride disguises you to yourself and to others.
If you thus pour out all your weaknesses, needs, troubles, there will be no lack of what to say. You will never exhaust the subject… People who have no secrets from each other never want for subjects of conversation. They do not weigh their words, for there is nothing to be held back, neither do they seek for something to say. They talk out of the abundance of the heart, without consideration they say just what they think. Blessed are they who attain to such familiar, unreserved conversation with God.”
So what can WE do to experience such “familiar, unreserved conversation with God”? We thought last week about “simple prayer”, asking God to meet our needs. “Ordinary people bringing ordinary concerns to a compassionate Father.” Consciously relying on God for all of our everyday needs. We thought about “praying the ordinary”, turning the ordinary experiences of life into prayer; seeing God in the ordinary experiences of life; praying throughout the ordinary experiences of life, learning to see every place as Holy Ground.
And we thought about prayer as a duty, our covenant obligation to God to make detailed resolutions to find the best time for prayer, the best place for prayer and the best heart preparation for prayer. Fixed times of prayer taking priority over everything else to remind us that God is more important than anything else. Place, finding a place which really is “Holy Ground” for you where you find it easy to pray with the minimum of distraction and disturbance. And heart preparation, a PATTERN of steps we take which bring a holy expectancy in prayer – posture, a Christian book, or a prayer book, or a psalm, maybe even lighting a candle to turn your living room into your sanctuary.
As John Dalrymple said “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.”
I hope that you have been trying to apply some of these ideas to your own praying in the past week. Practice makes perfect. The only way to learn to pray is by praying. As Richard Foster says, “Don’t worry about `proper’ praying, just talk to God. We learn to pray by praying.”
But where can we go beyond simple prayer? We should never stop asking and seeking and knocking, but what’s the next step in prayer. How do we move on to what Francois Fenelon calls “familiar, unreserved conversation with God?” The secret here is OPENNESS – we must learn to be open with God, to come to God “just as we are”.
Nobody knows us as we really are. Not our parents or our spouse or our children or our closest friends. Nobody else knows what any of us are really like, and what we truly think deep down. We are afraid that anybody who did know us as we really are would reject us. Or that they could use their knowledge of us to hurt us. So in front of anybody else all of us wear masks all the time. We say the things we think other people will want to hear. We don’t do or say things which might upset them. We all put on a front, to stop other people from seeing “the real me”. And for most of the time this pretence is completely subconscious – we don’t even realise the ways we’re holding ourselves back from other people.
All relationships demand honesty. The closer and deeper the relationship, the more honest we should be with the other person. And this is supremely true of our relationship with God. Prayer demands honesty. So we need to learn to come before God in prayer “just as we are”. To come to God “to lay before Him what is in us, not what ought to be in us.” “Just as we are” with openness and honesty and no pretence. We have to learn “not to pretend to be more holy, more pure, or more saintly than we actually are. Not to try to conceal our conflicting and contradictory motives from God – or ourselves. And in this posture of openness we can then pour out our heart to the God who is greater than our heart and knows all things.”
God knows us inside out. He knows what we are really like, and loves us just the same. So we don’t need to be afraid with God. But we can’t assume that openness and honesty will happen naturally or automatically. We need to take definite steps to open our life to God – definite steps to share our deepest feelings with God in prayer. So this morning we are going to think about the importance of prayers of self-examination and prayers of confession. Richard Foster talks about “THE PRAYER OF EXAMEN” but I think a better label is prayers of self-examination. Prayers that help us to know ourselves as we are – the priceless grace of self-knowledge. “To offer ourselves to God as living sacrifices we must offer ourselves as we really are, not as we would wish to be. As Richard Foster says, “We need to give to God not just our strengths but also our weaknesses, not just our giftedness but also our brokenness. “Our duplicity, our lust, our sloth, all laid on the altar of sacrifice.” “When in honesty we accept the evil that is in us as part of the truth about ourselves, and offer that truth up to God, we are in a mysterious way nourished.” “Through faith, self knowledge leads us to a self-acceptance and a self love that draw their life from God’s acceptance and love. So our soul falls towards its proper centre which is God.”
There are two aspects of prayer which are helpful in this process of self-examination. Both are equally important and both deserve equal time. But Christians tend to extremes, and depending on our personalities each of us tend to give most of our attention to one of these kinds of prayer and neglect the other.
|The first aspect of prayers of self-examination is what classic spirituality called an examination of CONSCIOUSNESS – the remembrance of love – taking time to look back on the day and see how God has been present to us throughout the day, and how we have responded to Him. “Discerning the footprints of the Holy” on our daily lives
When upon life’s billows you are tempest tossed,
Count your blessings, name them one by one,
And when we recognise God’s touch on our lives we will be overwhelmed with thanksgiving.
The second aspect of prayer which can help us is an examination of CONSCIENCE – the scrutiny of love – discovering areas of our lives that need cleansing, purifying and healing and prompting us to confession. God searching our hearts within us – the purifying fire – a joint search so we can’t excuse our sins, but at the same time God will also assure us of His forgiveness.
Some of us dwell on God’s blessings. Others of us are preoccupied with our own sinfulness. Thanksgiving and confession – we need them BOTH! If you tend to spend all your time on one and neglect the other, try praying differently this week! Each of us could benefit from spending a little time this week in prayerful self-examination.
Psalm 139:1 ¶ O LORD, you have searched me and you know me. 2 You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. 3 You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. 4 Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O LORD. …. Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. (Psalm 139:1-4, 23-24)
In the process of self-examination, set prayers of confession can be very helpful. They confront each one of us with the truth that I, like everybody else, am a miserable sinner! We all have our own “blind spots”. Things about us which everybody else can see but we ourselves are oblivious to. Set prayers of confession remind us of the kinds of sins people can fall into, so that the Holy Spirit can challenge our hearts just like that time when the prophet Nathan challenged King David over his crimes of adultery and murder: “you are the man.” True repentance begins when we genuinely `acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness’. And as a result we receive forgiveness of sins and assurance of pardon – your sins really are forgiven you, for Jesus’s sake. This will bring us to an ever increasing appreciation and fuller assurance of God’s grace and forgiveness and to a growing holiness and a deeper relationship with God.
So we confess our sins. “Before a loving and gracious Father we declare our sins without excuse or abridgement. Unbelief and disunity, arrogance and self-sufficiency, offences too personal to name and too many to mention.”
If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:8-9)
Hymn 488 Augustus Toplady’s hymn Rock of ages, cleft for me
Nothing in my hand I bring, Simply to Thy cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress; Helpless, look to Thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly: Wash me, Saviour, or I die.
And these prayers of confession will sometimes bring us to what Richard Foster calls “THE PRAYER OF TEARS.” The godly sorry of a broken and contrite heart. When we truly recognise our own sinfulness we will weep and mourn. Not only metaphorically, but sometimes literally. The prayer of tears. Because prayer should always touch our hearts and not just our minds. We must not only “acknowledge” but also “bewail” our manifold sins and wickedness. As Foster says, “unless the emotive centre of our lives is touched, it is as if a fuse remains unlit.”
True prayer is emotional as well as rational. Time and again in the Bible men and women of faith wept in God’s presence. “Tears are God’s way of helping us to descend with the mind into the heart, and there bow in perpetual adoration and worship.”
Psalm 32:1 Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered.
2 Blessed is the man whose sin the LORD does not count against him and in whose spirit is no deceit. 3 When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long 4 For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer.
5 Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD”- and you forgave the guilt of my sin.
So here are steps in prayer we can all take towards familiar, unreserved conversation with God. We all need to learn to come to God “just as I am.” “To lay before Him what is in us, not what ought to be in us.” 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, discerning the footsteps of the Holy in our lives, and prayers of confession which cleanse our conscience and bring us closer to God. And sometimes we need to discover the prayer of tears – deep godly sorrow which leads to repentance.
Lord, teach us to pray!
JUST AS I AM, without one plea But that Thy blood was shed for me, And that Thou bid’st me come to Thee, O Lamb of God, I come.
Just as I am, and waiting not To rid my soul of one dark blot, To Thee, whose blood can cleanse each spot, O Lamb of God, I come.
Just as I am, though tossed about With many a conflict, many a doubt, Fightings and fears within, without, O Lamb of God, I come.
Just as I am, poor, wretched, blind; Sight, riches, healing of the mind, Yea, all I need in Thee to find, O Lamb of God, I come.
Just as I am, Thou wilt receive, Wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve, Because Thy promise I believe, O Lamb of God, I come.
Just as I am, Thy love unknown Has broken every barrier down; Now to be Thine, yea, Thine alone, O Lamb of God, I come.
3. Prayer changes things and prayer changes us
Prayer changes things. But prayer also changes us. And the more we learn about prayer the more we will realise how important it is that prayer changes us.
In learning to pray we began by thinking about simple prayer, asking, seeking, knocking, ordinary people bringing our everyday needs to our loving heavenly Father. “Asking is the rule of the Kingdom.” But any parent longs for the day when his children will see him not merely as a Provider but also as a Teacher and as a Friend. So God longs to the time when our relationship with him will involve more than just a shopping list of things we want God to do for us.
We need a Copernican revolution of the heart. Copernicus realised that the sun does not God around the earth but the earth goes round the sun. In the same way we need to move on from thinking that God is a part of our lives to realising that we are part of God’s life. God is at the centre, not me.
And prayer is at the heart of this revolution in our thinking. Prayer changes us. It was the founder of the Baptist Missionary Society William Carey who wrote that “Secret, fervent, believing prayer is the root of all personal Godliness.”
As our relationship with God deepens, as we come to know God better, just like in any other relationship we will want to do more of the things which please God and less of the things which offend Him. We will want to become more like Jesus. And in order to become more like Jesus, we need to learn about this secret fervent believing prayer which changes us –transforming prayer.
This will begin with what Richard Foster calls prayers of relinquishment – prayers of letting go. These are prayer which change us because we invite Almighty God to do whatever HE chooses in our lives.
Richard Foster puts it like this. “As we are learning to pray we discover an interesting progression. In the beginning our will struggles with God’s will. We beg we pout. We demand. We expect God to perform like a magician or shower us with blessings like Father Christmas. We major in instant solutions and manipulative prayers.”
But then as we grow in prayer we discover that prayer is not about getting God to do our will. Prayer is about coming to the point where we do God’s will. Not God doing what we want but us doing what God wants. The point which Mary reached when she said to the angel, “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.”
It is that point in prayer which even the Lord Jesus Christ had to wrestle to reach in Gethsemane as we read in Matthew 26.
36 Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” 37 He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. 38 Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”
39 Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”
40 Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Could you men not keep watch with me for one hour?” he asked Peter. 41 “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak.”
42 He went away a second time and prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.”
43 When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. 44 So he left them and went away once more and prayed the third time, saying the same thing.
Did you notice there that the answer of God the Father to the first prayer Jesus asked was NO.
“If you are willing, take this cup from me.” NO.
“If it be possible, take this cup from me.” NO.
In the end the only way left open for Jesus was to do the Father’s will.
“Not my will but your will be done.” The prayer of relinquishment. Laying down our own human will to do God’s will. Gethsemane shows us a better way to live. The way of helplessness. The way of abandonment. The way of relinquishment. Not my way but God’s way. “My will” in submission to God’s will.
The struggle Jesus experienced in Gethsemane was genuine. Saying “no” to what we want and “yes” to what God wants will often be a battle. As we will see in our evening service in a few weeks time, Abraham struggled with God over Isaac. It took Moses 40 years learning as a shepherd in the desert before he was ready to do God’s work in God’s way. Think of the lives of King David or of the Apostle Paul. Every Christian will have areas of our lives where we struggle with God in prayer: over the job we will do, the person we may marry, where we will live, the church we belong to. And for each one of us there will be parts of our lives God wants to change: our besetting sins. There will be many areas where we each need to come to the point of sating to God, “Not my will but your will be done.” Handing control of our lives open to God in prayers of surrender – prayers of relinquishment.
Andrew Murray was a South African pastor at the heart of the revival there in 1860. One of his most famous books is called “Absolute surrender.” Andrew Murray wrote this.
“The Spirit teaches me to yield my will entirely to the will of the Father. He opens my ear to wait in great gentleness and teachableness of soul for what the Father has day to day to speak and to teach. He reveals to me ho union with God’s will is union with God Himself. How entire surrender to God’s will is the Father’s claim, the Son’s example, and true blessedness of soul.”
Handing our lives over to God in prayer in this way is a vital part of spiritual growth and a deepening relationship with God. When God brings a particular activity or a specific aspect of our lives to our attention, it won’t always be easy to say “no” to self and “yes” to God. Of course, prayers of relinquishment are not only the final prayer of surrender, but also the whole process of days or weeks or months of wrestling with God in prayer until we finally come to the point of being will to say “yes”.
The apostle Paul describes this process of self-surrender in words we know well in Romans 12:1-2.
Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. 2 Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
Here is the challenge to sacrifice what we want to do, and instead to do what God wants us to do – God’s good, pleasing and perfect will.
Sometimes God will ask us to hand some area of our life over to Him, only to give it straight back to us again. The point there is that we all need to learn that God is the boss. Jesus Christ is Lord. When He commands, we must obey. We need to nail our will to the cross so that God’s will is done.
On the other hand, sometimes when we hand an area of our lives over to God He takes it away and never gives it back to us. In those situations the prayer of relinquishment is absolutely vital. Richard Foster puts it this way.
Sometimes “we hold on so tightly to the good we know that we cannot receive the greater good we do not know.” That is so important that I am going to say it again. Sometimes “we hold on so tightly to the good we know that we cannot receive the greater good we do not know.” “God has to help us to let go of our tiny vision in order to release the greater good He has in store for us.”
God may ultimately give back to us what we have handed to Him, or He may take it away from us forever. Either way, the important thing is that we come to the point of saying “not my will but your will be done.” What matters is that our own will is crucified so that God’s will is done in our lives – that we come to the point of being able to say with Paul in Galatians 2:20
I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.
With crucifixion comes resurrection. God is not destroying our will. But He is transforming it so that we freely will what God Himself wills.
Last week we thought about the value of prayers of confession: acknowledging and bewailing our manifold sins and wickedness. Confession is the first step in opening our lives to God’s transforming power. God can only begin to change us to be more like Christ when we honestly acknowledge that we need to be changed. Then the second step is prayers of relinquishment as we hand our lives over to God and actually ask God to set us free from what A.W.Tozer so memorably calls “the fine threads of the self life, the hyphenated sins of the human spirit … the self sins: self-sufficiency, self-pity, self-absorption,… self-deception, self-exaltation, self-indulgence.” Letting God have HIS way in our lives will finally bring us freedom from the everlasting burden of having to get our own way.
Only God Himself can tell us what are the areas of our lives which we are holding on to, where He wants us to hand control over to Him. But there are particular prayers of relinquishment which you may find helpful.
Philippians 2:5-8 reminds us of Christ’s attitude, and we can use that passage as a starting point for meditation and as a “prayer of self-emptying.”
5 Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: 6 Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, 7 but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death— even death on a cross!
In the same way we can meditate on Jesus in Gethsemane in Matthew 26 or Luke 22 and use his prayer as our own prayer of surrender. “Not my will but your will be done.”
There is a simple prayer of self-abandonment which some people find very helpful:
“Father I abandon myself into your hands: do with me what you will.”
There is a longer prayer of relinquishment in the booklet of prayers which begins,
“Lord I am willing to be made willing. I am desirous that Thy will shall be done in me, and through me, as thoroughly as it is done in heaven. Come and take me and break me and remake me.”
In the booklet there is also a very helpful meditation written by the French priest Michele Quoist entitled, “Help me to say ‘Yes’”. You may like to use the prayers in the booklet in your own prayers this week.
In all we are learning about prayer, the theory is only an introduction to the practice. We learn to pray by praying. So I invite us all to make some time this week to come before God in meditation and in prayers of relinquishment and surrender.
But after prayers of confession and of relinquishment there is another kind of prayer which is very valuable in the process of God changing us. We can call this “formation prayer” or “transformation prayer” – prayer which forms the character of Christ in us and transforms us into His likeness. This is an vital aspect of what all prayer should be about, “to bring us into such a life of communion with the Father that, by the power of the Spirit we are increasingly conformed to the image of the Son.”
We started the year and introduced this sermon series with a simple example of a formation prayer.
Day by day, dear Lord I pray:
To see you more clearly; Love you more dearly; Follow you more nearly Day by Day
Another familiar example would be the prayer called the Prayer of of Saint Francis. I have included this in the Booklet of Prayers. For a number of years when I first became a Christian I prayed this prayer every evening just before going to sleep.
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, let me bring hope; where there is darkness, let me bring light; and where there is sadness, let me bring joy.
O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Of course prayer is not the only thing we can do to develop our Christian character. Worship, meditation and fasting have their place, as also do faith and love and obedience and humble service. But we should not neglect the importance of prayer: prayers of relinquishment and prayers of formation. And one thing these kinds of prayer need is time. Time given to drawing close to God in prayer. We learn to pray by praying – and that takes time. And also solitude and silence. Separating ourselves from noise and people so that we can really meet with God.
And then when it comes to prayer which changes us, we can learn a lot from the classical mystical traditions of Christian spirituality. You may have heard of the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola: a pattern of meditations each day over four weeks. The first week focuses on our own sins and our need to be bathed in God’s love. The second week looks at the life of Christ as we ask to be transformed into the image of Christ. The third week focuses on Christ’s passion as we seek to die to our sins and the fourth week looks at Christ’s resurrection as we see God’s grace to choose God’s will. The Spiritual exercises of Ignatius of Loyola.
Another tradition is the 12 steps of St Benedict: 12 meditations on the subjects of a constant reverence for God, rejecting our own will and doing God’s will, confession, cultivating silence, avoiding frivolous talk, using plain simple speech, enduring with patience the afflictions we face and being content in all things. The 12 steps of St Benedict.
I can also offer you a modern equivalent of these classic routes to discipleship and holiness: a five week guided course in discipleship called “Fan the Flame” Week 1 looks at “Knowing God better”. Week 2 covers “Becoming like Jesus.” Week 3 explores “Living in Christ’s Body”. Week 4 is the challenge of “Becoming a Servant” and Week 5 looks at what it means to “Be filled with the Spirit”. Each week has notes for five studies with Bible readings and a few pages to read and pray about – the topics for all the studies are listed on the flier. It is called a guided course because after each week of personal study and reflection the disciple meets one-to-one with a guide to discuss and pray about what they have been learning.
I wrote “Fan the Flame” three years ago and since then something over fifty folk in Brentwood Baptist Church have gone through the course and a number of other churches have used it as well. People have told me they have found it very helpful. If you think you would like to work through Fan the Flame between now and Easter with me as your guide please take a flier and have a word with me.
Prayer changes things and prayer changes us. Prayers of confession, prayers of relinquishment and prayers of formation – transforming prayer. Prayers God can use to make us more like Jesus. But we need to be doers of the word – not hearers only. We learn to pray by praying.
4. Adoring Prayer
It was almost exactly 30 years ago in the Whitsun Holiday of 1973 that God first revealed just how great He is to me. I was away on the school camp in Borrowdale. I had got up in the middle of the night. It was very dark – I don’t remember seeing any moon. All I could hear was Stonethwaite Beck bubbling alongside the camp and the occasional sounds of insects and birds. The hills each side cut the valley off from any other civilisation. And I remember looking up and seeing the night sky. Full of stars. There were no clouds. And we were so far away from any cities that there was no reflection of streetlights. The sky was darker and the stars were brighter than I had ever seen them before.
This was just a couple of weeks before I became a Christian. But I was still overwhelmed by the beauty of Creation and for the first time in my life I found myself praising the God I didn’t yet really believe in. God brought me to a place where I could be humbled by His greatness and His glory. For maybe half an hour I stood there lost for words at how great God must be to have created all those stars and galaxies, so many and so far away and so beautiful! That was my first experience of our subject for this morning, Adoring Prayer.
God often uses His creation to bring us to that place of adoration.
Psalm 8 1 O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens.2 From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise … 3 When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, 4 what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?9 O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!
Whatever brings us to that point, true heartfelt adoration is always pleasing to God. Remember Mary’s scandalous intimate worship, washing Jesus’s feet with her tears and drying them with her hair, and the lavish extravagance of anointing his head with precious perfume. Going totally “over the top” in her love for her Lord. And that was pleasing to God!
But adoration is nothing to do with buttering God up so that we get what we ask for when we get on to the asking kinds of prayers! Adoration is expressing our love for God, our appreciation for all He is and all He means to us, and that is vital! Adoration focuses our lives on God, expresses our relationship with God and deepens that relationship.
“You awaken us to delight in your praise; for you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” Saint Augustine of Hippo (354–430)
Adoring prayer has three aspects. The first is thanksgiving. The second is praise. The third is what Richard Foster calls “The Prayer of Rest” and we will come to that in a while. We must begin with thanksgiving and praise. What’s the difference between them?
“In thanksgiving we give glory to God for what He has done for us; in praise we give glory to God for who He is in Himself.” “When I give thanks my thoughts still circle around myself to some extent. But in praise my soul ascends to self-forgetting adoration, seeing and praising only the majesty and power of God, His grace and redemption.”
Psalm 100:4 Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name
Give thanks in all circumstances (1Thess 5:18) We have so much to thank God for!
Give thanks for God’s blessings given to everyone
Thank God for the BIRTH of Jesus; for the TEACHING of Jesus; for the MIRACLES of Jesus; for Jesus’s SUFFERING and TRIALS; for Jesus’s DEATH on the CROSS; for Jesus’s glorious RESURRECTION ; for the gift of the HOLY SPIRIT;
Give thanks for God’s blessings to ME individually
Psalm 103 1 Praise the Lord, O my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name. 2 Praise the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits – 3 who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases, 4 who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion, 5 who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.
Thank God for food and drink and family and friends. for answered prayers. for the hope of heaven. for the Bible and the fellowship of the church. for His peace and protection. for the wonderful joy He gives us. for His guidance and strengthening.
William Law, in his Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life writes,
“Would you know who is the greatest saint in the world? It is not he who prays most or fasts most; it is not he who gives most alms, or is most eminent for temperance, chastity, or justice, but it is he who is always thankful to God, who wills everything that God wills, who receives everything as an instance of God’s goodness, and has a heart always ready to praise God for it.”
- K. Chesterton (1874–1936) “When it comes to life, the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude.”
There’s one thing every parent learns very early on. You don’t need to teach children how to ask for things. But you do need to teach them to say thank you. We are not always good at remembering to thank God. Think about the story of Jesus and the 10 lepers. 10 were healed. But only one came back to Jesus to say thank you! We need to WORK at prayers of thanksgiving!
Then we should PRAISE GOD
Great is the Lord and most worthy of praise! (Psalm 48:1)
1 Chronicles 23:5 David: Four thousand (Levites) are to be gatekeepers and four thousand are to praise the LORD with the musical instruments I have provided for that purpose.”
The Westminster Catechism declares that ,`The chief end of man (the most important destiny of human beings) is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.’
Revelation 5:13 Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing:“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honour and glory and power, for ever and ever!” 14 The four living creatures said, “Amen”, and the elders fell down and worshipped.
Since we are going to spend eternity praising God we may as well start practising now!
CS Lewis: “God (deserves) to be praised! Admiration is the correct, adequate, appropriate response. If we do not admire we will be stupid, insensible and great losers, we shall have missed something.”
We give God our praise for who He is
Psalms 145:1 I will exalt you, my God the King; I will praise your name for ever and ever. 2 Every day I will praise you and extol your name for ever and ever. 3 Great is the LORD and most worthy of praise; his greatness no-one can fathom.
Praise God our CREATOR Praise God our LIBERATOR Praise God our LORD Praise God our REDEEMER Praise God the JUDGE OF ALL Praise God our FATHER Praise GOD our FRIEND
We give God our praise for all he Has done for us
Psalms 117:1 Praise the LORD, all you nations; extol him, all you peoples. 2 For great is his love towards us, and the faithfulness of the LORD endures for ever. Praise the LORD.
Praise God for His LOVE; for His FAITHFULNESS; for His ALMIGHTY POWER; for His COMPLETE KNOWLEDGE; for His HOLINESS; for His GRACE and FORGIVENESS; for His PRESENCE everywhere;
Praise isnt an optional extra for Christians! But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light 1 Peter 2:9
C.S.Lewis also identified a variety of things which keep us from true adoration.
1) Greed – instead of savouring what God reveals to us we demand more. We are in such a hurry to move on to the next blessing we fail to appreciate this one.
2) Inattention – we fail to see God’s greatness and glory – due to our busyness and noise.
3) The wrong kind of attention – analysis instead of doxology. Instead of responding to God with love and adoration in our hearts, our minds get in the way. Sometimes we don’t see God because we are looking for the wrong things. “We ignore the Smell of Deity”. When we see distractions, we often fail to recognise God’s messengers.
Richard Foster points us to several Stepping Stones to adoration.
Paying attention to things – birds, squirrels, butterflies. The coolness of a brook the taste of our food. Don’t analyse, don’t look for profound revelations. Just enjoy the experience. Experience the sensations, don’t scrutinise them! Allow the Wonders of Creation to reveal the creator to you. At certain times of year I will often find myself stopping in the middle of a journey or even taking a detour just to get a good view of the beauty of a sunset.
Psalm 19 1 The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.2 Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge.3 There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. 4 Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.
Then we can relive the encounters we have had with God in the past. Remember them. Reflect on them. Use them as a way to enter into God’s presence afresh.
And we must practise gratitude. Work hard at being grateful! Grateful for all the little things in life as well as for the big things! Finally, magnify God. Tell God how great he is. Shout to the world how great God is! Music can help. So can celebration. Sing and celebrate God’s greatness! Psalm 95:-
1 Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord; let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation.2 Let us come before him with thanksgiving and extol him with music and song.
There are times in life WHEN WE FIND PRAISE DIFFICULT
Empty words, pious sentences and songs aren’t praise. God doesn’t want to hear words we don’t mean!
“Make us to be what we profess to be; let prayer be prayer and praise be heartfelt praise;”
There are times when praise is VERY difficult – when life is hard, when we are angry with God, when God seems far away. At such times saying or singing `I love you Lord’ would be a hypocritical lie. We can’t even say `thank you Lord’ and mean it because we aren’t in the least grateful to God. We are resentful, bitter, or hurting.
In those time we should remember that ADORATION and THANKSGIVING are subjective – they express of our feelings. But PRAISE – declaring how great God is and what wonderful things He’s done, is OBJECTIVE – it’s all about facts!!
We may not feel like offering God our thanks – we may not feel any trace of adoration – but we CAN and SHOULD offer God our praise, acknowledging the FACTS of who God is and what He has done for us. This duty of praise is our SACRIFICE of praise.
Hebrews 13:15 Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that confess his name.
Joni Eareckson Tada: “A sacrifice of praise will always cost you something. It will be a difficult thing to do. It requires trading in our pride, our anger, and most valued of all, our human logic. We will be compelled to voice our words of praise firmly and precisely, even as our logic screams that God has no idea what he’s doing. Most of the verses written about praise in God’s Word were penned by men and women who faced crushing heartaches, injustice, treachery, slander, and scores of other intolerable situations.”
So you don’t have to START with prayers of adoration you don’t mean. Start in praise with FACTS about who God is and what He has done for us. A sacrifice of praise leads us on to true thanksgiving, and that opens us to adoration and intimacy with God again.
Adoration, Thanksgiving, Praise. And these can sometimes lead us on to a place which Richard Foster calls the Prayer of Rest. A place where we can simply be still in God’s presence. Where our adoration and devotion needs no words of thanksgiving or praise. A place where we can rest in God’s love and soak in his peace. Where the only work we are required to do is to give our most intense attention to His still small voice of calm within us. Listen to Jesus’s invitation:
Matt 11:28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
After working at creating the world in six days, on the seventh day God rested. And God invites us to rest. To enter into His rest. To receive His peace, even while we are praying.
You will keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is fixed on You, because he trusts in You. (Isaiah 26:3)
You may ask what can we possibly do to experience this peace and enter into this rest God promises? The answer is very simple: we need solitude and silence.
Mark 1:35 Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.
If Jesus needed to search out solitude for prayer in the midst of the busyness of life, how much more do we need to do so. Through the ages there have been monks and mystics who have retreated into deserts in order to meet with God. We need solitude.
And in that solitude we can practice silence. Be still and know that I am God. (Psalm 46:10) Not just shutting out all the noises which so easily distract us. But stilling ourselves, becoming quiet and still and motionless, letting go of all the thoughts and pressures and worries which so easily take our minds away from God.
Francois Fenelon wrote, “We must silence every creature, we must silence ourselves, to hear in the deep hush of the whole soul the ineffable voice of God. We must bend the ear, because it is a gentle and delicate voice, only heard by those who no longer hear anything else.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote
“Silence is the simple stillness of the individual under the Word of God …. But everybody knows that this is something that needs to be practised and learned, in these days when talkativeness prevails.”
“Real silence, real stillness, really holding one’s tongue comes only as the sober consequence of spiritual stillness ….” “The silence of the Christian is listening silence, humble stillness.”
So pay attention to this wonderful Creation and it will reveal the Creator to you. Remember and relive times you have met with God in the past. Practise gratitude. Magnify God. Bring Him your sacrifice of praise. Make some time this week for Adoring prayer. Make space for solitude and silence. Thank God for all He has done for you. Praise God for who He is. Because He’s worth it! And you too can enter into the Prayer of Rest.
5. Pray without ceasing
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. But we saw from the start that times of Prayer are part of our covenant commitment to God.
We have considered praying “just as I am”. Steps in prayer we can all take towards “familiar, unreserved conversation with God.” We have thought about Praying for transformation. Prayer changes things – but prayer also changes us. Prayers of relinquishment and prayers of surrender and formation prayers. And we talked about prayers of Adoration and Thanksgiving and Praise for Who God is in Himself. “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 Thessalonians 5:17. Be constant in prayer. (Romans 12:12.) Pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. (Ephesians 6:18.) Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. (Colossians 4:2) But what does all this mean? How can we really “pray without ceasing”?
“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.
“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.”
These ideas come from Brother Lawrence, Practising the Presence of God.
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!”
As we are learning to pray, be encouraged by this prayer from Sir Francis Drake
O Lord God, when thou givest to thy servants to endeavour any great matter,
grant us also to know that it is not the beginning, but the continuing of the same unto the end, until it be thoroughly finished, which yieldeth the true glory: through him who for the finishing of thy work laid down his life, our Redeemer, Jesus Christ. Amen.