13 Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. 14 Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. 16 Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous, is powerful and effective. 17 Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. 18 Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest.
19 My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, 20 you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.
After spending over five chapters enjoining us to do the right thing, James concludes his book with some practical advice about how we can sustain such practices. This ancient wisdom comes at a propitious time. Before Covid, our routines allowed us to advance our relationships with one another bit by bit—almost without having to think about it. Now, however, those routines have been disrupted in both our private and church lives. Paradoxically, such deprivation can bring clarity and help us identify what is important. We need each other and we need our God. We could have said that last year but now we have to be more intentional and accountable if our need for connection is to be met.
James says we need to pray. He reminds us prayer can save the sick, provide forgiveness, heal our sinfulness. He declares: “Prayer is powerful and effective”. It is a tool we need to engage more fully in our corporate life. But what does that mean in our life? The discussion of prayer is fraught with difficulty. Does the power of prayer extend into the physical world? Did Elijah’s prayer stop the rain for three years? Did his prayer restore the rain? It is certainly a familiar biblical theme. Prophets are frequently doing the impossible to demonstrate the power of Jahweh. Prayer is often seen as a way to invoke the sovereignty and omnipotence of God.
Similarly, we are taught that ‘with God, all things are possible’ and ‘ask and you shall receive.’ Does prayer ‘channel’ God’s power if we have sufficient faith? What does that mean when you have cancer or someone you love dies of cancer? Was there something wrong with our prayer? Did we lack faith? No matter how many times we repeat the words: ‘thy will be done’, it is hard not to feel abandoned in the face of suffering. It is all too human to measure the power of prayer by the outcomes we desire. We can hardly help using the positive answers to prayer as ‘proof of God’—and then have to be an intellectual gymnast to explain unanswered prayer.
Neal has a story in which a woman was driving in the middle of a thunderstorm when her windshield wipers stopped working. She prayed that they would start working. When they began to work, she felt her faith and trust was validated. Catherine had a terrible migraine. One of her students offered to pray for her. Though uncomfortable and embarrassed, Catherine allowed it. Her migraine resolved and she has not had one since. Though she herself had doubts, Catherine realized this woman absolutely believed that her prayer could cure her. We went sideways coming up with possibilities—ranging from perception is reality, mind/body connections and serendipitous electrical connections. None of us wanted to connect our faith to a Santa Claus God who eased our lives but we didn’t want to rule out the possibility that he could. A lot happens in this world we cannot explain. And in real life that uncertainty is hard to live with.
Is it too trivial to pray for windshield wipers but more acceptable to pray for physical healing when you are in pain. Are there selfish or self centered desires that we really should not be bringing before God. What about our disbelief and distrust? It is at least counter intuitive, if not downright dangerous to tell an omnipotent God you doubt her existence and distrust his care for you.
These are muddy waters and wading in them has helped me to distill what I believe about prayer. Here are some personal reflections. It is where I am, this day, on my faith journey.
1. I believe prayer gives us a way to enter the presence of God and a way to experience God’s presence in our lives. Prayer, like any conversation, builds relationships. Prayer allows us to experience God—which is a whole lot different than talking about or seeking to understand God.
2. I do not believe the outcomes in life—my health, my good fortune, the welfare of those I love nor the cruel inequities of the world, the death of innocents, debilitating disease or unbearable losses are indicators of God’s favor or disfavor. I do believe that God is with me and prayer allows me to have that confidence.
3. I believe prayer is transformative. I believe that there are possibilities well beyond my control and imagination when I am in relationship with God. The how and the what are above my pay grade.
4. I know that when I am in prayer, I am loved and I am not in charge.
5. I also know that I am resistant to prayer. It is much easier for me to pray for someone else than it is for me to ask for prayer.
6. My prayer life is usually not like it is portrayed in the movies, much less in the church. I am just as likely as anyone to feel my conversations with God are monologues into empty space. Though I have difficulty describing the experience, God often speaks to me in unexpected ways—in non linear connections, in conversations, in quiet reflections, in twilight sleep.
7. Often I have trouble finding my heart. I realize I have trouble directly asking for what I want and need. There are dozens of reasons for this but all of them interfere with my relationships with God and other people. At such times, I need a space to be lost. If I can be patient, God will find me.
In the last six months Covid has deprived us of many the ways we have been nurtured. Our personal lives and our church lives have been disrupted. We did not really know how dependent we have been on our daily routines. Individually and collectively we are stressed and are having to adapt. We talk about God’s love. We talk about loving self and neighbor but we rarely talk about how we might invite God’s presence. Now, perhaps more than ever, we need to be proactive in our prayer lives. Time and conversation are required to feel safe in any relationship. That is no less true in our relationship with God. There are, of course, many kinds of prayer. This is just one. It is a guide I wrote a few years ago as a way to think about praying together and building community. It is learnable and I encourage you to try it.
Take a moment. Center yourself.
Notice what occupies your mind.
Examine your heart.
Present yourself as honestly as you can
Try not to decide what is important enough to pray about.
Try not to worry about being articulate— much less complete.
Your job is to be ‘I AM’ and to risk trusting your ‘I Am’ with another. (This is an unfolding process and is often awkward and difficult. Do not be deterred)
Your job is to be present, not additive. That is God’s job.
He is the potter; we are the clay.
No comments, No opinion, No assurances, No advice
You may only ask a clarifying question—-‘What do you mean by….?’
‘Can you tell me a little more about….?’
1. Address God
2. Present the name and the concerns of your partner
3. Present what it is like to have these concerns.
4. Ask God’s presence and care
5. Leave the rest to God. Let it be so. Amen
This prayer practice is an opportunity to be wholly received. For James the ‘prayer of faith’ is prayer that is offered in the faith that God will be present—in every circumstance of life. Jesus promised that nothing can separate us from the love of God. Prayer gives us a way to experience such grace. We need disciplines, reminders and each other to focus upon God’s presence and care. It is the antidote to what divides and isolates. It is the way to drink God’s living water. Drink deeply.
Teach us to pray. Help us receive the care we would offer. Let it be so.