Prayer was important to Jesus, so it should be important to his disciples. Paul urges the Thessalonians, and through them, us: “Pray Constantly”!
How do you do that?
Isn’t Paul’s injunction both time-consuming and impractical; not something either the 1st Century Thessalonians or 21st century Americans can do easily? How can we pray all the time and still get other things accomplished: like driving to the grocery store, paying the bills, cooking a meal, working productively at our jobs? We’re busy people, and there are a lot of demands on our time. I understand the importance of praying – but constantly?
Paul could have put it another way: “live every moment consciously in the presence of God.” Doing that isn’t easy either – it means keeping God in the foreground of our minds and hearts; allowing His will to guide our thoughts and actions. For Christians it means living intentionally in Christ. “God is not far from any one of us,” Paul assured the Athenians, “for in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:27-28).
But how does this promise help us to pray and live in God’s presence?
The Gift of Prayer
Relax, the pressure’s off: none of us has to exert herculean efforts to abide in prayer. Prayer is God’s gift to us, not our gift to God. We live and move surrounded by the divine life. Jesus has sent the Holy Spirit to live within us – and He who teaches us all things also teaches us to pray. Paul put it this way:
For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered. Now He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He makes intercession for the saints according to the will of God (Romans 8:26-27).
If we want to “pray constantly,” the first thing to do is ask the Spirit to teach us how.
Effort is required though – the effort of intentionality. While the Spirit will teach us to pray, and will pray in us, we have to be willing students. In other words, we have to cooperate with God’s gift to benefit from it. It’s a little like getting a Christmas or birthday present: the box comes to us all wrapped up with colorful paper and ribbon and bows, but if we never tear off the wrapping and open the box, we’ll never enjoy the gift it contains.
If you want to learn to pray (remember, the Spirit will teach you, all you have to do is try), start by looking for the invitations to prayer in daily life.
Morning and Evening Prayer
When I was a child my mom made sure I prayed in the morning when I woke up, and in the evening as I was going to bed. It was a tradition she and her brother and sister had learned from their parents.
If you don’t do it already, why make this one of your practices, too: ritualize it: kneel at your bedside if you can, or, if those knees are getting wobbly, sit on the side of the bed before laying down and simply pray. Use your own words: pray about the events of the day and the people you met; give thanks for your blessings and ask help for your problems; request forgiveness for your failures; and ask for peaceful sleep and blessed dreams.
When you get up in the morning give thanks for a new day with all its promise. Again, do this in your own words. Ask God to bless all whom you will meet during the day; and seek the protection of his Angels in your comings and goings. Pray for your family and friends; ask God to open your eyes to see every person you encounter with His eyes. Ask Him to inspire you to act according to his will every moment. Ask, too, for protection from sin and temptation to sin. Pray for your church, your pastor (he wrote self-servingly), your coworkers or fellow students.
You might find the words of a traditional Jewish morning prayer helpful: “I offer thanks to You, living and eternal King, for You have mercifully restored my soul within me; Your faithfulness is great.” I have that prayer framed and hanging on the wall of my office.
Meals offer us another opportunity to weave prayer into our daily routine. They don’t have to be long, formal, or ostentatious, just heartfelt. If you’re alone, a quiet prayer suffices: the Lord, who hears in secret will reward you. But if you’re with your family what a beautiful way to share prayer with the people you love most. You can take turns leading the prayer, that gets the little ones in the habit of regular prayer, and you are their role model. Even when your out at a restaurant with a group, pray with them, invite your friends or colleagues to pray with you. I have found that most people welcome this kind of invitation, even if they don’t think of themselves as “religious.” Meals should not just be about food for the body – meal prayer makes them food for the soul as well.
Why stop there?
Invitations to Prayer
Every experience of the day, even the most inconsequential, can be seen as an invitation to prayer. When getting coffee at Starbucks, pray for the waiter who serves you. You can’t give money to everyone who stops you on the street asking for help, but you can pray for them – you might even want to pray for them out loud and in their presence. When at work, pray for your coworkers, or the boss, or the task; when at school, pray for the teacher, or for insight and wisdom.
Someone cuts you off while you’re driving? Pray for him (or her)! It sure beats making an obscene gesture. Maybe that driver is rushing to be with a sick child. or maybe he or she is the jerk you take him/her to be – jerks need prayers too, don’t they?
If you’re washing the dishes, thank the Father for the gift of being able to serve your family; and pray for the family, too. When showering or bathing ask to be washed clean and purified from sin. “Wash me,” the psalmist sings, and I shall be whiter than snow” (Ps. 51:7).
The Constant Conversation
We all have an inner conversation going on in our mind, it’s constantly running about the things we’re doing, planning, worrying about, hoping, suspecting. Are we talking to ourselves? Many of us think we are, and allow the unfocused conversation to blather on and on. Here’s one last suggestion: instead of talking to yourself, why not talk with God. The Spirit walks with us and is in us until the end of the ages, Jesus assured his first disciples (and us) (John 17). If the Holy Spirit abides within us, why not talk with HIM? He’s better company than whoever else we might think we’re yakking with.
Hang in there
Finally, as Brother Lawrence, the author of the amazing little book The Practice of the Presence of God, exhorts his readers: “Do not be discouraged by the resistance you will encounter from your human nature; you must go against your human inclinations. Often, in the beginning, you will think that you are wasting time, but you must go on, be determined and persevere in it until death, despite all the difficulties.”