To Pray Without Ceasing

Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing. But we appeal to you, brothers and sisters, to respect those who labor among you, and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you; esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the faint hearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all.
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good;

- 1 Thessalonians 5:12-21

You know, one of the problems of being Protestants in American is that often we act like Christianity started in America, and that the only true Christian faith is an American Protestant faith. The tragedy of thinking this way is that we often miss amazing movements of faith that take place in other Christian sects, movements that can draw us closer to God if we’re willing to pay attention and to follow.

One such movement took place in Russia around 1888. Out of nowhere a book was published by an anonymous author, and this little book revolutionized the way people thought about prayer. The book was titled The Way of a Pilgrim. It is the autobiography of an Eastern Orthodox pilgrim on a circuitous route to the Holy Lands. No one knows who wrote it, or even if it was a true autobiography or simply a profound work of fiction. What was powerful about the book was that its made our little passage for this morning come alive for millions of Christians by teaching them a way to pray without ceasing.

After the book was published it spread throughout Russia, and then throughout Europe, eventually making it’s way to America. Along the way it has influenced millions of Christians.

The book begins with the pilgrim telling of how he once had a wife and child who died during a smallpox outbreak, or something like that. In despair he wandered, not knowing where to turn. So he sought out a staret, which, in the Orthodox tradition, is the title given to a great spiritual master and guide. The staret teaches the pilgrim the secret of praying without ceasing. He teaches him to practice a form of prayer called hesychastic prayer, which is a Greek word meaning “Jesus Christ.” The prayer is based on breathing. As the person breathes in, he prays in his mind, “Lord Jesus Christ.” As he breathes out he prays, “Have mercy on me.” It’s a constant cycle of prayer, breathing in, “Lord Jesus Christ;” breathing out, “have mercy on me.” Breathing in, “Lord Jesus Christ;” breathing out, “have mercy on me.

The staret tells him to practice this prayer several hundred times a day. Then he increases the number of times he prays it. The pilgrim begins to journey around Russia, hoping to eventually reach Jerusalem, increasing his prayer as he walks: 1000 times a day, 3000 times a day, 6000 times a day, 12,000 times a day. As he increases his prayer, he finds that he is slowly becoming transformed. He becomes more patient, wiser, more understanding of life, and more courageous in simply following wherever God leads. The prayer centers him, allowing him to overcome anything in life. As his prayer moves from his mind to his heart, his focus becomes more and more simply on pleasing God. Toward the end he says that the prayer moves from his conscious mind to his heart as his heart prays it no matter what he is doing—talking, working, or eating. The book is remarkable in its simplicity, but also in teaching a form of prayer that is so simple, and so powerful.

As a way of introducing you to this prayer, I want to give you an opportunity to practice it. I want you to stop right now and try it. We’re going to change the prayer a bit. As you breathe in, pray in your mind, “Bless the Lord,” and as you breathe out, “O, my soul.” Try it for two minutes of silence. Your mind will wander a bit, but don’t worry about that. Just stay with your breathing, and see what effect it has on you.

Bless the Lord,
O my soul.

What did you experience? This way of praying is very much centered in the guidance of Psalm 46, where we hear, “Be still and know that I am God.” It’s meant to center and still us.

A hundred years before The Way of a Pilgrim was published, another little known book was published that also revolutionized Christian faith. The book was a compilation of writings about an unknown French monk named Brother Lawrence. After he died, his eulogy was shared with others, and copies spread around Europe among Roman Catholics and even Protestants. Then reflections on the life of Brother Lawrence were shared. Finally, letters that he had written to others were spread about Europe. Eventually all were compiled in a book that has influenced generations of Christians for centuries. The book is titled, The Practice of the Presence of God. The book describes another approach to praying without ceasing.

Brother Lawrence was a latecomer to monastic life. He joined the monastery at age 41 or so. He was not considered a great man of prayer. In fact, he often wrote about how poor he was at staying awake during worship, and at keeping regular times for prayer. So he created a different way of praying. He kept a conversation with God going on throughout his day. His job in the monastery was to keep the kitchen clean. So as he swept he talked with God, both sharing his heart and listening to God’s soft, still voice. As he washed dishes he talked with God. When doing errands for the monastery, he spoke with and listened to God. He worked at becoming fully aware of God throughout his day, looking for God’s presence everywhere. He also prayed without ceasing

So, how do you pray? Do you pray? I don’t know about you, but I find prayer to be both the most important, and the most difficult, part of the Christian life. It’s hard to find the time to pray. It’s hard to know what the right way to pray is. It’s hard to tell if God is listening because silence always accompanies prayer. We pray, but we don’t always get tangible evidence that God has listened or is responding.

Another problem with prayer is that if we’re actually going to become people of prayer, we have to begin to care about what God wants, but that’s not always our focus in prayer. Think about how most of us pray. When are we most likely to go to God in prayer? Isn’t it when we need something? Usually our prayers are filled with requests for God to do this or that. We aren’t usually focused on what God wants. Really, what happens is that we treat prayer much like Aladdin’s lamp, hoping that we can find the secret to rub God just the right way. We focus on holding our hands just the right way, trying to use just the right words, sitting in the right position, praying in the right place. We have a hard time just praying and trusting that God’s listened.

To really pray in the depths of our souls we have to care about what God wants. How much do we really want to know what God wants? When I came to Calvin Church that was my central question: How much do we care about what God wants? I learned to care about that question when I was an associate pastor prior to coming to Calvin. Specifically, I learned it while helping to lead a retreat for our session. I did an exercise in which we looked at Moses’ life and how he desperately did not want to lead the Israelites. He asked God to send another. He asked God why he was chosen. God told Moses to serve anyway. The question I asked the elders was what Moses’ life tells us about what we are to seek as elders. We talked about how we were to make decisions based on what God wants, not on what we want.

During the discussions one of the elders said, “I don’t like this at all. I don’t like asking what God wants. I know what I want, and I like voting based on what I want.” I was taken by surprise a bit, but then I asked, “Are you saying that we shouldn’t seek what God wants?” He said, “Oh no! We should always seek what God wants. I’m just telling you that I don’t like it.” That stuck with me. Coming here I was determined that we would be a church that prays as a session, as leaders, and as a congregation, seeking what God wanted rather than what we wanted. That needed to be our focus: “God, what do you want? God, how do you want me to be?”

Seeking what God wants is the calling of our passage. It’s not only to pray, but to pray without ceasing. We’re called to talk with God constantly. We’re called to listen for God constantly, and to let God lead us constantly, even to where we don’t want to follow.

Do you have any idea why God wants us to pray without ceasing? It’s simple: God wants a union of mind, heart, and soul with you and me. God wants a relationship with us, but God wants more. God wants to penetrate our hearts, minds, and souls. God wants to be part of everything we are. God wants to share a life with us. The question, in the end, is whether we are willing to share our lives with God?