Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. 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. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. 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. Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six month it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest.
It was a typical Sunday morning with the typical Sunday crowd. We read, we sang, we listened, we gave, we received.
I announced the final hymn and we all started singing.
Over the horizon of my hymnal I took a glance at God’s church. I saw the woman who had recently confessed to me that she was about to divorce her husband, who was standing and singing right next to her. There was the teenage girl who was accepted to every college she applied for and was currently experiencing the paralysis of analysis as she had to make a decision about which one to attend. And I saw one of the ushers dart out the back door for a cigarette, a habit he shared that he was trying desperately to drop.
But before we had a chance to make it to the second verse, Don keeled over in his pew with a loud thud.
There was a panicked moment as everyone turned toward the pew in question. I ran from the altar, and gathered around the man with a few others. We, thankfully, had a few nurses in attendance that morning and they went quick to work – one of them checked his pulse, another stretched him out to help open his airway, and other was on the phone with the rescue squad.
I leaned close and asked if there was anything I could do, and one of the nurses shot me a quick glance and declared, a little louder than I would’ve liked, “You could start praying preacher.”
And so I did.
Right then and there I closed my eyes and feel to my knees and I started praying. Soon I felt fingers wrapping around my own on both sides, and when I opened my eyes at the end of the prayer, the rest of the church had joined in a large circle and all of us were praying together for Don.
The rescue squad arrived with my amen, and they took Don to the hospital.
And then we did the only thing we could, we finished the hymn.
An hour or so later I drove to the hospital to check on him and when I walked into his room he, miraculously, treated me with a big toothy smile and he said, “I learned my lesson preacher, no more skipping breakfast before church.”
For as long as I can remember, I have been my family’s designated pray-er. Whenever we get together, and the timing is appropriate, all eyes will shift in my general direction and I am expected to lift something up to Someone, namely God.
Going into the ministry only made it worse.
But, let me confess, I’ve never found prayer to be an “easy thing.” I’m not even fully sure how I learned to do it other than picking up the language while spending so much time in and around church. Over the years I have come to find the prayers of the church, that is those written on behalf of the body of Christ, to be absolutely necessary to the fiber of my being. I find great solace in offering words to God that have been offered by so many so many times before. And yet, to stand in this place week after week leading us in prayers is just as bewildering as praying in this room day after day when none of you are here.
What I’m trying to say is this: Prayer is at the heart of what it means to follow Christ and yet we so rarely talk and think about what prayer actually is.
James, the brother of the Lord, writes of prayer almost as if a foregone conclusion. If you’re suffering you should pray. If you’re cheerful, you should pray. If anyone is sick, they should ask for prayers. It’s as if the community called church to which James writes knows nothing except a life of prayer.
And yet, for many of us, myself included at times, we view prayer as a last resort.
When push comes to shove, we are far more inclined to take matters into our own hands, than we are to lay them before the throne of God. If we are the masters of our own destiny, who wants to bring God into the situation and run the risk of messing everything up?
And yet, prayer is about more than just offering up a laundry list to God.
Prayer is the expression of a relationship, it is (to use a seminary word) a dialectic. It is the back and forth between Creator and creature. Prayer is where Christianity becomes practical. Prayer is something we do. It is, oddly enough, who we are. We, the church, are God’s prayer for the world. Prayer is what separates us from any other communal organization.
But perhaps that’s getting a little too heady.
On a fundamental level, there are three types of prayers that can be summarized with three words: Help, Thanks, and Wow.
Prayer happens when we cry out for aid when there seems to be no aid around at all, it is the plea for help when we can no longer help ourselves.
Prayer also happens when we are able to take a look around and realize how amazingly blessed we are, it is the communication of gratitude toward the One through whom all blessing flow.
And prayer also happens in those remarkable moment of awe. The Wow prayer is more than thanks. It is more like, “I can’t believe what God was able to do considering the circumstances.”
Sometimes prayers are made possible through a lot of work and reflection. And sometimes they billow forth without us even really thinking about what it is we are doing when we are praying.
Karl Barth believed that to be a Christian and to pray were one and the same thing. Prayer is as necessary to a Christian as it is for a human being to breathe.
Faithful prayers are those that offer us up to possibility because prayer is the ultimate recognition that we are not in charge. Prayer deconstructs all of our preconceived notions about what is, and isn’t possible.
And, frustratingly, prayer teaches us what it means to be patient. Nobody likes being patient but life isn’t possible without it. Our world is based on speed but prayer is based on patience. Prayer is the reminder that God’s time is not our time, that God is God and we are not.
Put another way: Prayer is not about getting what we want, but what God wants.
I spent a lot of time this week asking people from the church and the community about answered prayers. And, wonderfully, every single person had an answer. I heard of job searches, and relationships, and children, and parents, and homes, and healings. On and on.
To me, this church is an answer to prayer…
The Good News of prayer is that God listens, God answers. Sometimes it occurs in ways we cannot know for a long long time. Sometimes God doesn’t answer our prayers, at least not the way we want. But this community is constituted by our prayers. Prayers is the fuel that makes the church the church.
But why continue talking about prayer when we can do it instead?
In just a few moments we are going to pray for one another. I know this won’t be easy, or comfortable, for a lot of us, but the church that prays together is, indeed, God’s church for the world. So we’re going to do it.
As you are able, I encourage you to find someone else in the church, you don’t have to wander too far, but find someone that is not part of your normal church orbit. And, if we have an odd number, whoever is left will have to pray with me, so that should encourage you to pair off speedily.
Once you find a prayer partner, I would like each person to have an opportunity to share something they need prayers for. There are absolutely other people in other places experiencing other things who need our prayers, but for the moment I would like us to be more personal. It doesn’t have to be an ultimate confessional moment, maybe the thing you need is more patience with your job or children, or maybe you feel confused about a decision and you could use some discernment.
Whatever the thing it, I want you to share it, and the person who hears it will pray about it. The prayer can be as simple as, “Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.” Or it can be filled with other words.
The point is, I want every person here to pray and to be prayed for today.
I know this is uncomfortable, but sometimes the most faithful things we do as disciples are born out of discomfort. So, let us pray…