This is a series about spiritual growth. You may wonder why spiritual growth even matters. You may think, I do my job, I treat others fairly, I’m a good person; isn’t that enough? We’ll be arguing: if you’re not interested in growing spiritually you’re actually depriving yourself, you’re placing yourself at a disadvantage.
Spiritual growth empowers you to identify your purpose and to accomplish what God has created you to do. Spiritual growth enables you to become the best version of you, the person you want to be, as well as the person God wants you to be.
That’s why we should be open to and interested in spiritual growth. But… being open to growth is not enough. There’s a second part. And, the second part is the crucial part.
Anyone can be open to growth, to actually grow you’ve got to make a commitment. We grow spiritually by the commitments we make and keep.
We call this series staying power, because staying power is absolutely necessary for spiritual growth in order to overcome the obstacles to growing spiritually. Everything in the world feels more important, more urgent, more real than your spiritual life.
Everything gets in the way…to making any kind of spiritual commitment. Everything will conspire against that commitment. Besides, it takes time. In the same way that you cannot accomplish anything worthwhile quickly, there is no microwaving your spiritual maturity.
This series is also about the steps you need to take to meet those commitments. We’ve identified five commitments that we believe are essential for people to grow as a follower of Christ. They are: Practicing Prayer, Serving in Ministry, Tithing, Engaging in a Small Group and Sharing our Faith.
Over the next few weeks we’re going to be digging down deeper into each of these steps. For some of you it is an introduction to them. For others of you, we hope it will be a reminder and an encouragement to keep your commitment to them. And for others it will be an invitation to recommit to them.
Today, we are looking at a step that is the most widely accepted spiritual practice of all.This one, we can all easily agree on. This practice is a universal one among people of any and every faith found in every time and place. Even people of no faith are known to turn to this practice, at least from time to time.
If you want to grow spiritually and as a follower of Jesus Christ, you want to pray. Prayer is both a conversation and an encounter with God in which we tune our hearts to him. We say practice prayer for two reasons. One, we are acknowledging that it takes practice to pray. Praying, while very simple, is not easy. You know you have to practice if you want to improve in any skill like playing a musical instrument, or playing any sport, you have also to practice prayer.
Just like you first start playing a musical instrument or trying out a new sport, when you start getting serious about prayer, you don’t necessarily experience fruitfulness. You have to keep at it. Also, the more you practice prayer, the more you will want to do it. It becomes easier over time because you begin to actually crave it.
The second reason we say practice prayer is that we don’t just pray in order to put our time in with God. Prayer is often thought of as a very passive thing. When we have exhausted all our human efforts, when we can’t think of anything else to do, then we pray. We even say, “Well, all we can do now is pray.”
The reality is, prayer is the first thing and the best thing to do. You know, much of the Bible is simply the prayer, and the recounting of the prayer life, of the saints and heroes of our faith. They changed the world and the course of human history, and without prayer that wouldn’t have happened, and they wouldn’t be heroes and saints.
They have conversations in which they argue with God, beg his assistance, demand direction, clarification, courage, comfort, sought wisdom and understanding, or peace, and a sense of purpose. The reason the Bible tells us these stories and the reason the saints throughout history share their prayer encounters is because that same kind of relationship with God is available to each of us.
The message is that some very flawed and fallible people, who were just as normal and messed up as we are, were able to talk to God and encountered him in prayer, in a way that was always entirely useful and helpful and sometimes transformative.
They are there to inspire us to make prayer part of our lives. Now, the difficulty of hearing these stories is that often they are the “highlight” reels of people’s prayer experiences. We don’t read interesting stories about prayer that was mundane or dry where nothing great happened.
The stories that stand out are the times when something amazing or transformational happens in prayer.
But those moments can only happen because someone is consistent in prayer. For example, the Bible tells us that Jesus constantly stepped away from his friends and followers for quiet private prayer. But only once does the Bible describe any kind of special effects or fireworks. It’s the story of the Transfiguration. The point is, there is plenty of “ordinary time”in prayer for every epiphany or revelation.
Today we are going to look at the passage we read from Paul’s First letter to the Thessalonians. Paul was responsible for spreading Christianity throughout the world. He went on several trips to start Churches. After a church was up and running he would move on to the next city and repeat the exercise. But in a number of cases, he followed up with “letters”offering on-going instruction and encouragement, and in some cases reprimands, as these communities grew and flourished.
This letter, written to the Church in the Greek city of Thessalonica, begins with some practical steps to take regarding the practice of prayer.
Paul describes the way he has been praying for the Thessalonians. He writes: “We give thanks to God always for all of you, remembering you in our prayers, unceasingly calling to mind your work of faith, labor of love, and endurance in hope.” Paul says that he gives thanks to God, remembering the Thessalonians in his prayer.
Often we don’t pray because we don’t know what to pray or what to say. Part of Paul’s prayer was simply talking about his day. He brought his daily experiences before God. In this case he was remembering the good things going on in the church in Thessalonica, and he was giving thanks about that. That was his simple prayer. One easy way to pray is simply to review your day at the end of the day, or look ahead to the day at the beginning of the day. Thank God for all the things that went well. Acknowledge regret for missteps and mistakes. Pray about what’s on your mind, or in your heart.
Also, the more specific your prayer, the more dynamic it will be, the more real it will be. If you read the stories of the Bible about saints of the Church, they often prayed about their lives with candor, even complaint. You can complain in prayer. Moses complained to God about all the grumbling and complaining of the Israelites.
King David over and over again complained to God that he felt abandoned and alone. St. Theresa of Avila once famously complained during a difficult period: “If this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few of them.”
Anyway, you can say anything you want in prayer. So Paul remembers the Thessalonians in his prayer, thanking God for their good work. Then notice that Paul says he prays before God our Father. He says: “We give thanks to God always for all of you.” When we pray we are praying to our God, our Father. He’s not an abstract force, he’s a Father. Prayer seeks a connection with God our Father and Jesus our Brother, in a personal way. Prayer is a conversation.
Some people are better at prayer because they have a clearer understanding of who God is. Paul reminds the Thessalonians that we have been chosen by God to live in relationship with him. Prayer is a response to a relationship that God has initiated with us.
But to grow in the relationship, we must be open to it, we must respond. That’s the practice part. But, Paul tells us: “For our gospel did not come to you in word alone, but also in the power and in the Holy Spirit.”
Prayer is a response to that relationship, and, like any relationship it goes two ways. We don’t just pray on our own. The Holy Spirit is a helper and guide whenever we decide to try to pray. Thus Paul concludes: Be joyful always, give thanks in all circumstances, and pray continually.
Okay. . . That is what I have to say about prayer. Now, we have a challenge for you this week. This is what we would like for you to do. Practice prayer. If you don’t pray regularly, and don’t really know where to start, we can help you out. On our website, sign up for our daily devotional. It is called Prayer Fully. We’ll automatically send you a daily reading, prayer and brief reflection that you can use to jump-start your own prayer efforts. Even a few minutes a day is a great place to start.
God wants to have a personal relationship with you. He wants you to always be joyful, always be thankful. And it all begins in prayer. “Be joyful always, give thanks in all circumstances, and pray continually.”