In First Thessalonians, Paul admonishes us to “pray without ceasing.”
I have my own set of problems with some of Paul’s assertions, often on a deeply spiritual level.
This one, however, just annoyed me for a long time. I thought, “Oh, come on, Paul, nobody prays without ceasing, not even you.”
Granted, there are times when non-stop prayer takes over. Say, for instance, when you’re waiting for the report after a loved-one’s surgery. Or when you receive a call that your child has been in a car crash and you are on your way to the scene.
But “without ceasing?” Really?
The Presbyterian Church’s “Brief Statement of Faith” gives no relief. It includes this passage:
“In a broken and fearful world the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing, to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior, to unmask idolatries in church and culture, to hear the voices of peoples long silenced, and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.”
I just couldn’t see how “without ceasing” could be seen as a reality.
Somewhere along the way, however, I began to open myself to the concept. Could I, somehow, be in a non-stop conversation with God? Am I praying without thinking of praying?
I carry four lucky pieces in my pocket – a medallion with the image of a linotype machine (the great invention for newspapers during the hot-type era), two pennies and one mystery coin. (I like to think it’s for mass transit in a European city, but I expect it’s probably for the car wash at the Aw Shucks store near where we used to live.)
When I put the four pieces in my pocket, when I rub them together for luck, might that be a prayer?
When I cheer for a basketball team? When I drop our pledge in the collection plate? When I buy a lottery ticket? When I accept the sacraments? When I contemplate the outcome of a political race? When say the words, “Our Father, who art in heaven…?”
I think all human longing can be said to be prayer. Some of it is silly and trivial. Some of it is mean, even hateful. Some of it is loving and kind – a profound product of the best we humans have to offer God and each other.
To understand all of that as prayer, I have to believe two things: that God’s definition is as wide open as mine, and that an awful lot of prayers will not be answered in the way I wish (see lottery reference above).
If I believe those two things, I can pray informally, randomly, accidentally – maybe even without ceasing. And when I do, my God listens. My God laughs at and with me, is disappointed in me, ignores me at times as an exasperated parent might and clearly turns me down at other times. And sometimes my God holds me close – celebrating, reveling, grieving, comforting, sharing.