SCRIPTURE – James 5:13-16
Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise. Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.
Body Building: Rough Knees
March 21, 2010
Today we conclude our sermon series on Body Building. During this series, James has helped us shape ourselves into the kind of people God has called us to be. He’s helped us develop big ears for listening, pierced tongues that speak love, broken hearts that show compassion and dirty hands that do God’s work. And today James encourages us to have rough knees that are developed when we posture ourselves in prayer.
It seems quite appropriate to talk about prayer in the midst of the NCAA basketball tournament, because faith plays a big role in our favorite sports. Players pray when they score a touchdown or point to the sky when they hit a homerun, and let’s not forget the sport of football features the most holy and reverent of plays: the Hail Mary. In this year’s tournament, I’m sure God was disappointed in the performance of Notre Dame and celebrating the run of St. Mary’s.
I think it’s ironic that an announcer will describe a last-second desperation shot by saying, “He throws up a prayer!” because that’s often how real prayer is viewed. Prayer is seen only as a last resort, the last-ditch effort when everything else has failed. It should be the fourth lifeline on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” “I’m not sure of the answer, Regis; I think I’ll use my last lifeline.” And Regis looks into the camera and says, “Let us pray.”
Alexander Campbell, one of the founders of our denomination, said that, “Prayer is the Christian’s breath. Without it, the Christian cannot live or be happy a single day.” Likewise, Henri Nouwen calls prayer “the breath of Christian existence.” That’s appropriate for us, because so many of our lives are breathless, spent running around, chasing this and that, with little time to pause, reflect, and genuflect. A busy, breathless life leaves little room for the breath of Christian existence.
But prayer is also a mysterious and elusive part of being a Christian. So many questions surround what should be such a simple activity: When I do pray? How do I pray? What do I say? What if I do it wrong? How do I know God hears? Many people don’t enter further into prayer because they think there’s one right way to pray and they don’t know what it is.
For us to begin answering these questions, we have to gain an understanding of what prayer is and what prayer isn’t. First, prayer isn’t a divine wish list, as if God is some kind of holy concierge who must respond to our every whim. A woman in a hurry was looking for a parking space at a crowded mall. As she searched row after row, it began to pour down rain. So she prayed, “Lord, please give me a parking space close to the front door so I don’t get soaked.”
The words hadn’t even left her mouth when she saw the backup lights of car in the very front spot, right next to the door. As she pulled into the space, she looked up and said, “Never mind, God, something just opened up.” When we view prayer as a tool for changing reality to fit our selfish desires, we risk distorting our faith and our understanding of how God works.
This area gets a little grayer when we’re talking about praying for the health and well-being of ourselves and others. James tells us that “the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well,” which implies that when a person doesn’t get better after prayer, either something is wrong with the person doing the praying or God isn’t really who James says God is. And that’s not what we want. We want a God who does what we ask, for ourselves and for others. We want a God like the one I saw in a cartoon recently. The caption says, “What it would be like if God didn’t work in mysterious ways.” The picture shows a man on his knees in prayer, and a voice coming down from Heaven that says, “I’ll make a few calls.” That’s the kind of God we want, One who can make a few calls and make everything all right for us and those we love.
But notice James doesn’t say these prayers will cure the sick person. James says it will make them well, and there are a lot of ways to be made well other than physically. Our faith can be made well, our relationships can be made well, our souls can be made well. The gift of prayer isn’t meant to be used to make “or else” demands on God.
Instead, prayer is a means to facilitate our relationship with God. Think about any relationship you have that is important to you. How does that relationship stay vibrant, stay current, stay relevant? Through communication. It takes the exchange of information and feelings between two people for a relationship to grow. We are called to be in relationship with God, and the primary way that relationship starts and develops is through communication. That’s why the most effective metaphor for prayer is a conversation. Prayer is simply a conversation between you and God. Dallas Willard said, “Prayer is talking with God about what we are doing together.” Prayer allows us to be active and responsive and in constant communication with God, to both speak directly to God and to listen with our big ears for God’s word to us.
For our prayers to be powerful and effective, there are several things we can seek to understand. First, we can pray anytime and anywhere. There’s no formula for how long to pray, what words to say, where to pray, whether your eyes are open or closed, or even what position to be in. We can pray while we’re on our knees, but we can also pray while in our car, while waiting in the dentist’s office, while taking a bath. Some people prefer silence, others like having music in the background. Some pray out loud, others in their head. There’s no right or wrong way. We have to be careful not to get so caught up in the “how” of prayer that we miss the “why” of prayer.
I think one of the biggest obstacles to praying is that we’re afraid we’re going to say the wrong thing. What if we mess it up? We’re like Ben Stiller’s character in “Meet the Parents.” Stiller is meeting his fiancee’s parents for the first time, and before dinner starts, the father, played by Robert Deniro, asks Stiller if he would say the blessing. This was not a polite invitation. This was an inquisition. Stiller reluctantly agrees, and says, “Oh, dear God, thank you, you are such a good God to us. A kind and gentle and accommodating God, and we thank You oh sweet, sweet Lord of hosts for the smörgåsbord You have so aptly laid at our table this day, and each day, by day, day by day, by day oh dear Lord three things we pray to love Thee more dearly, to see Thee more clearly, to follow Thee more nearly, day, by day, by day. Amen.”
OK, so that may not make be crocheted on any blankets, but it was a prayer. You may not think it was particularly eloquent or spiritual, but as soon as we start applying those kinds of categories to prayers I think we miss the point. The quality of prayers cannot be judged by length or vocabulary or rhyme scheme. I believe some of the most powerful prayers are the simplest. Writer Anne Lamott says, “The two best prayers I know are ‘Help me help me help me’ and ‘Thank you thank you thank you.’”
Of course, even the most well-spoken person in the world doesn’t have the vocabulary to truly capture the essence of prayer. As humans, we’re simply too limited in our ability to pray. If we place high expectations on our prayers, we’ll always fall short. God knows we are limited in our prayers, and has given us someone to stand in the gap between what we pray and what God hears. Paul tells us in Romans that, “The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.” The Holy Spirit is our messenger, taking our bumbled, clunky, grammatically-incorrect prayers and delivering them to God’s ear.
Thanks to the Spirit, there’s no such thing as a not-good-enough prayer. “Help me” and “thank you” become the most eloquent of prayers. Through the Spirit, the naming of someone’s name becomes a prayer, like we do each Sunday morning. There are a lot of people on our prayer list, many of whom we don’t know. How can we pray for them if we don’t know what they need? Because God does. We name the name, and the Spirit fills in the blanks. Max Lucado says that “the power of prayer is not in the one praying but in the One who hears the prayer.”
That’s why the words of our prayers are not as important as the attitude in which we say them. Prayers can be angry, questioning, bitter, joyful, resentful, bargaining, or full of gratitude. Regardless of the emotion, the focus is always beyond ourselves. To pray signifies a shift in orientation from self to God. To pray is to say, “I need someone else in my life, because I can’t do it alone.” To pray is to nurture a relationship with the greatest Friend anyone can have.
For that nurturing to be effective and take root in our hearts, we must go to our knees daily in prayer. During the course of our day, we have the opportunity to turn the focus from ourselves and our lives to God, to put God at the center of what we say and do. This can be a simple pause in the midst of the day to give a word of thanks. James says to pray when we’re in trouble, when we’re happy, when we’re sick. It doesn’t matter the situation, there’s always a reason to pray. To give thanks for making it home safely. To ask God to comfort a loved one who is sick. To lift up people in other countries. To praise God for our families. Or, simply to say thank you for God’s continuing presence.
Enhancing our prayer life doesn’t require us to be better prayers, only more faithful in our praying. To have rough knees, we simply should see each day as an opportunity to tell God something we want God to know, and to listen for what God wants us to know. Through those daily exchanges, a relationship is nurtured that will bless our lives in unexpected ways. If we aren’t praying, we’re missing the opportunity to commune with God. If you’re not sure where to start, why not start with “Help me” or “Thank you?” The Spirit will take it from there.
Big ears, pierced tongues, dirty hands, broken hearts, and rough knees. Our Body Building regimen is now complete. From where I stand, I have to say that you look positively divine. Now, go show the world.