“I don’t know how to pray!”

James 5:13-18     9.26.21

            How many times have I been in a group of people or talking with an individual and heard the lament, “I just don’t know how to pray!”?  Many times.  For a variety of reasons, some of us feel like we are ill equipped to speak to God—maybe we feel unworthy, maybe we are not sure what words to use, maybe we are not accustomed to praying on our own.  We can pray in church when someone else is leading the prayer, but at home, in the quiet of our kitchen, bedroom, living room or back porch—we are just not too sure of ourselves.

            When we get stuck like this, could it be that we have too narrow of a definition of prayer in our minds?  Could it be that we assume prayer must always include words, and even some particular order of words, to be “right”? I want to encourage you to see that prayer is neither right nor wrong.  It is the interface between us and God who is Three in One, One in Three.  It can happen in different ways, through different postures, through different media, in different environments, with or without the “right” words.

One of my favorite movies is Sister Act, which gives an example of how a declining old Catholic church can be converted into a thriving congregation which serves its community.  God’s transformation of this congregation is greatly helped by the very unorthodox ways of “Sister Mary Clarence”, who is played by Whoopi Goldberg.  She is being housed in the Roman Catholic convent connected to the church as a part of a witness protection program.  At a meal with the other sisters, she offers what might be her first public prayer.  She prays: “Bless us, oh Lord, and these thy gifts … and, yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of no food, I shall fear no hunger. We want you to give us this day our daily bread … and to the republic for which it stands … by the power vested in me, I now pronounce us, ready to eat. Amen.”

If you recognize some of the phrases she has adapted and strung together, it can bring a smile to your face at the unusual combination of phrases.  Yet the words carry meaning for her and very definitely express thanks to God as the provider of food.  Prayer does not have to follow any regimented pattern.  It is an expression from deep inside of us—an expression to the God who made us, who loves us always.  That expression can be with or without words.  Sometimes a prayer is an action, like putting your offering in the box or giving a hug to someone who needs it or being anointed with oil. Sometimes prayer is music or art or dance.  Sometimes prayer is the wind on your face on a cool day or the sound of the waves on the beach. Sometimes sheer silence is a prayer.  Perhaps you remember Elijah the Old Testament prophet who was listening and waiting for God on the mountain and finally heard God’s communication with him in the silence, not in the fierceness of the wind or the fire. 

At the end of his discourse, James includes instructions on prayer. I say discourse, or wisdom writing, because this book of the Bible seems less like a letter than the other letters of the New Testament.  Some scholars think that the greeting at the beginning was a later addition. There is no closing benediction or “signing” of the letter as would have been the custom then, and which still is the letter writing or email custom of today. This writer, perhaps the brother of Jesus, or perhaps an unknown believer, defines faith as needing some external action—the famous line from this book is “faith without works is dead”. For James, prayer is one of those actions that illustrate faith.  He has a very helpful list of the situations in life which call for prayer.  His list goes like this:  you pray when you are suffering, you pray when things are going well, you pray when you are sick, you pray when you need forgiveness, and don’t forget to pray when your friend or your loved one needs any of these things. You might take a moment during worship today to jot down in the prayer box, the kind of prayers which are your go-to and the kind that you use less often.  OR put in your prayer for this morning.  James, like Jesus and their contemporaries, made a definite connection between physical illness and sin.  The belief was that illness and disease must be related to something the sick person had done or not done, some sin he or she had committed.  Perhaps you remember that Job and his friends made that theological assumption as well—the friends kept saying things like, “Job, just confess your sin against God and you will be healed—your lamentable situation just has to be because you have erred.”  Jesus clearly links the need for forgiveness with healing when he says to someone he has just healed: “your sins are forgiven” or “your faith has made you well”. 

We would agree today that confessing sin, both to God and to the person who has been wronged, brings at least the possibility of healing, whether it is a relationship, or a heart, or a community, or all three.  But today we understand physical or mental illness not as a result of some sin committed on the part of the individual, but as a result of heredity, lifestyle, access to medical care, toxins or harmful germs in the environment, or a trauma or accident of some kind.  Whether we see illness in direct relation to sin or not, James is clear that asking the elders to come and pray for physical or mental healing is in order.  It is probably one of the most repeated kind of prayer in our prayer arsenal—praying for those who are sick or grieving or in prison— basically, praying for those who need any kind of healing.

For James, prayer surrounds the life we lead. It is appropriate at all times and seasons.  Sometimes it is private and sometimes it is communal.  When a member of the community is ill, the family should call the elders of the church to come, using their gifts of care and prayer.  And it can be more than the elders.  It can be friends near and far, it can be the pastoral care team or the person you have just met at church.  Any one of us can offer prayer for another.  When we reach out to someone who is suffering, or to the family of that suffering one, the prayer becomes communal, the sufferer does not have to feel like she is carrying the pain on her own.  If you can’t pray in person, you can pray on the phone, or send your prayer through an email or a text. 

Being prayed for makes a difference.  Sometimes we think that prayer does not change anything.  But those on the receiving end of prayers will disagree.  It feels comforting to know that there are others who are praying for you and your loved one. Prayers know no geographical bounds.  My high school friend Hilary is married to Joel. For years they have lived in Arizona.  In the past 6 weeks they have sold their home of many years, downsized, and moved into a senior living independent apartment in another city, closer to their son.  They are in a new community, without a lot of their comfortable furniture and home furnishings, and just went through the anxiety producing, stressful time of selling, buying, packing and unpacking.  Joel has always had some anxiety issues, but this whole experience tipped him over into a severe mental breakdown.  He needed to be hospitalized for a time so that his illness could be treated and he could learn how to manage it.  Hilary reached out and asked for prayer.  She got it.  She told us this week that Joel is at home, their new home, and is doing very, very well.  She felt the power of prayer coming from everywhere, boosting her up, encouraging her, strengthening her through this difficult season in their lives.  She said: “It is one thing to talk about praying and the efficacy of prayer, but it is something else entirely to experience the efficacy of prayer first hand.”

 If you are looking for an easy way to remember the essential types of prayer, you might appreciate the way Anne Lamott has categorized prayer into three categories: Help! Thanks! Wow! Her book simply uses those words as the title: Help! Thanks! Wow!  She puts them in this order because she recognizes that our go-to conversation with God focuses on what we need help with, then it may move to being grateful, and finally to being stunned at what we see around us—either by something exciting or breathtaking, or by something overwhelmingly sad or destructive. You know these kinds of prayers well – they go like this:

  • help me, help my brother, help the world. 
  • Thanks for food, thanks for the beauty I see, thanks for the family I love. 
  • Wow! the baby arrived safely into this world, Wow! you brought me through a tough period in my life.

Presbyterians would also have to add in the Sorry! kinds of prayers as one of the essentials—the prayers that are seeking forgiveness, looking in the mirror, recognizing our sins against God and against others.  Different days, different hours, different minutes can elicit any one (or more) of these kinds of prayer.  The key is to express what is deep inside you to God. With words, with silence, with others, by yourself, outdoors, in the prayer closet, with writing or drawing, with listening or singing.  Help! Thanks! Wow! Sorry!   Amen.

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