Prayer is very much a part of my life. I think if being a pastor had a “traditional” job description, prayer would be one of the expectations. Often, as the pastor, I get called on to pray at all occasions. This isn’t just at church functions either. As the only pastor in my family, I get called on to pray at meals a lot. Now, my immediate and extended family isn’t the “pray at every meal” kind of family. We’re a “pray only at special occasions and holiday meals” kind of family. One Thanksgiving while we were still in seminary, we decided to not make the trip home for the holiday. The phone rang in the early afternoon, and it was my mom. I thought we were going to play “pass the phone” so that I could talk with my family members as they prepared for their gastronomical adventures. But instead, mom hesitated a bit and then said “well, we were wondering if we could put you on speakerphone and you could pray for our meal.” And instead of being gracious and saying “yes”, my first response was “everyone there knows how to pray, someone else do it!” And then one of my other relatives piped up “yeah, but you’re the professional!” If there’s anything I’m not a professional of, it’s prayer.
But, much like many people, maybe even many of you, I tend to only pray in times of crisis. I always say or think that I need to pray more often. So, I think “I’m going to change my ways”, I get settled into bed and usually get out “Hi there, God” before the snoring starts. The other thing about my praying habits is that I am really good at praying for other people (or so I think) but I’m really bad at praying for myself. I feel selfish doing it. I start to think about praying for myself and then I think of all the other problems in the world. I mean, I’ve got it pretty good. I’ve got a closet full of clothes, a fridge full of food, a roof over my head, a great job, and a pretty healthy family. What right do I have asking God for anything? But the thing is, none of us is worthy of God’s love and grace, and yet we receive it anyway. Maybe this is just me, but really, I struggle to pray for myself. I even get uncomfortable at times when people ask to pray for me.
Today’s reading from James mentions prayer or praise 8 times. That’s an average of 1 time per verse. And the first sentence alone is a good affirmation to pray. “Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise.” Notice that there is no talk of worthiness when praying. There is also no mention of a pastor or qualified person praying. Now, the second verse does mention elders; but at the time James was written an elder may not have meant the same thing we’ve come to understanding it to mean now. But, even if it did, notice that it says elderS, meaning more than one person. More than one person is so-called “qualified” to pray. So, let me say this loud and clear right now: all of you are more than qualified to pray for anything, anyone, and at any time. You don’t need a pastor to do it. Anyone can pray.
I think sometimes we don’t pray because we don’t know what to say or the right words to use. I’ve said this before, but you should talk to God as if you’re talking to your best friend. But, what if that’s not enough. What if we just can’t do it? What if your nerves get the best of you and you can’t even begin to utter a single word of a prayer? There’s a couple of things I know for sure: first and foremost, God knows what we desire and what we need. And God will provide, in God’s time. Second, there’s actually a couple of places in the service where we lift up our prayers that are on our heart without having to say much. When we pray for the church, the world, and all of God’s creation, we usually end those prayers with “into your hands, gracious God, we commend all for whom we pray, trusting in your mercy” and this, my friends, means us too. Then, when we celebrate communion, we start by saying “the Lord be with you” and then “lift up your hearts.”
When we lift up our hearts, we lift up the concerns, joys, petitions, and thanksgivings of our hearts. We lift up all we are to God, in praise of God and in thanksgiving for God’s mercy. So, even when we can’t find the words, our response to these weekly liturgy is a prayer in itself. The community surrounding James and his writings obviously believed heavily in prayer. Pray when someone is suffering. Pray a word of praise when people are cheerful. Pray when people are sick. Pray for one another so that we may all be healed. Prayer is so powerful because it is so intimate. When you allow someone to pray for you, you are admitting that you aren’t perfect and that you do need help. Perhaps that’s why I’m so uncomfortable with it. I don’t like admitting either one of those things.
But, something so powerful happens in prayer. Our hearts soften. Our ears become opened so that we may more clearly hear the word of God. Our eyes start looking for places in our own world and the world around us where God is at work. Our souls are opened for opportunities. When we pray, we once again become grounded in Christ and the cross. More than increasing our members, more than increasing our budget, more than increasing the number of young people that call this place home, there’s nothing more I would love than to become known as the church that prays. Because when we commit to pray for one another, for the world, and yes, even for our enemies, our single act of prayer speaks very loudly about the God that we worship. When we commit to pray for one another, we admit that we are very much imperfect people that believe in a really perfect God. When we pray, the statement that we make is “I am willing to be loved and I am willing to love other people following the example of Jesus.” So, what do we have to lose. Let’s become a church that prays.
I am going to pass around a basket with some slips of paper in them along with some pens. If you desire to be prayed for just this week put your full name on a piece of paper and stick it in the basket. Then, I’ll pass the basket around again. If you put your name in the first time, pull another piece of paper out the second time. This is the name of the person you are going to pray for this week. Keep the paper in your pocket, your wallet, your purse, your dashboard, wherever you might keep it so that you remember to pray for this person. Could it be someone you love dearly and are close friends with? Of course! But, could it also be someone with whom you have a disagreement and haven’t spoken to for months? Yep.
From now on, I’ll keep the basket in the narthex. When you come in, put your name in as a signal that you want prayed for. Then, as you leave, take a name. It may take us a few weeks to get into the rhythm; but I have no doubt that this will become second nature. Prayer changes people. Prayer can change an entire church. Hang on, friends. The Holy Spirit is blowing!