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The Power(lessness) of Prayer

The book of James has always been a fascination to me. It is imminently practical, but yet it feels in some ways unreachable because of its intensity and high expectation. Whatever else James is, it is powerful. And so today, and potentially later on this fall, we will be looking to James to speak to us about the practical realities of faith. Today, the lesson from Professor James is on prayer.

The first practical lesson from James is exemplified by a device you see more and more often today: a Fitbit.  This, and devices like it, monitor your physical well-being. Your heart rate, the number of calories you burn, the number of steps you take during a day. And to get this information, the idea is that you are supposed to wear it all the time. When you are awake, when you are asleep, when you are eating, when you are exercising, when you are watching TV. It is ever-present. Always on. Always monitoring. Always working. Of course, the reason for wearing one of these is to help you contextualize your physical life – are you getting enough exercise, are your resting enough, is your sleep deep enough? It helps to provide a baseline and a foundation to your physical activity.

James suggests in the first verses of this passages that we need to wear a prayer Fitbit. He says it this way. Are you struggling? Then pray. Are you happy? Then pray. Are you sick. Then pray. Whatever is happening in our life, he suggests that we need to bring it to God in prayer. Like a spiritual Fitbit, prayer is meant to contextualize our spiritual life. To give us a spiritual foundation and baseline. Are you bringing your hopes and joys to God? Are you resting in God’s grace? Are you asking God to walk with you through your valley of the shadow of death? James’ point is that our prayer life is to always be on…always monitoring…always working.

Barbara Brown Taylor calls this the practice of Being Present to God. In her book An Altar in the World, she talks about the power of praying our way through life.

When I look up from feeding the outside gods to see the full moon coming up through the bare trees like the wide iris of God’s own eye – when I feel the beam of it enter my busy heart straight through the zipper of my fleece jacket and fill me full of light – I am in prayer. When I spend all afternoon chopping onions, stewing tomatoes, and setting the dining room table with every piece of silver I own for a supper of soup and bread with friends, I am in prayer. When I am so sick that I cannot do anything but lie in bed with a jar of Vick’s Vaporub and a blister pack of cold pills lost somewhere in the sheets, with all the time in the world to remember whom I love and why, I am in prayer.

The passage is a contemporary manifestation of James’ words. Are you struggling? Bring your struggles to God in prayer. Are you happy? Then tell God about it – sing a psalm or whistle a hymn. Are you sick? Pray and bring in the people who you know care about you to pray over you.

James wants us to put on prayer like we would a Fitbit. Make it a part of your day and our life. A concrete, practical, constant part of who you are. That doesn’t meant that you will do it perfectly. Sometimes, our Fitbits record a whole bunch more Netflix than miles ran. But our Fitbit reminds us that even if the last day’s steps was in the dozens and not the thousands, then there is another day and another chance. In the same way, James reminds us that it is never too late to pray. To bring our moment of joy or pain before the Lord and share it in faith that Someone is listening.

If James’ first point is our concrete action of prayer, his second point is that that action has concrete results. According to James, prayer works. Prayer makes a difference. He talks about the power that prayer has to heal those who are sick: “the prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.”

I don’t know about you, but a part of me gets skeptical when I hear phrases like this. I have been in too many hospital rooms with too many righteous people whose prayers did not have the desired result. Whose prayers were not powerful enough. Not effective enough.

Yet, I have also been in hospital rooms where the doctors just shake their heads because they had given up. But the family didn’t. The praying aunt didn’t give up. The desperate parents didn’t give up. And when it looked like there was no hope left, and all that was left were the prayers, the patient pulled through. She woke back up. The cancer was gone. And all they could say was “the prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.”

Now, the cynical among us will suggest that it is all just a crap shoot. That the prayer itself is irrelevant. Some pray and are healed. Some pray and are not. Flip the coin.

Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen is not one such cynic. She is a medical doctor who has written about the power to heal. She says that prayer is a movement from mastery to mystery. It is acknowledging that we are not in complete control and while we do what we can, there are significant pieces of the healing act that will always be out of our control.

It’s kind of like a battery. Take the battery out of the flashlight and it gets dark pretty quickly. Dr. Remen understands that there is wisdom to understanding that much of her ability to heal comes from beyond her own power. So she moves from mastery to mystery, often shaking her head when healing happens in ways that she could hardly predict.

Her words are an echo of James’s. He sees a direct correlation between the words of a praying believer and the healing that takes place in our lives. The theological conception here is sovereignty. James trusts that it is God who ultimately brings healing, and our work of healing is a manifestation of God’s work.

One thing that James does not say here is that we have to choose between medicine and prayer. Between science and faith. In fact, read carefully what he is suggesting. James suggests that when someone is sick, that they should use prayer and healing oil. For us, it might sound a bit like a witch doctor remedy, but that was cutting edge medicine for the day. James was suggesting that healing is a result of the medicine and prayer, in conjunction with one another. James would have no time for someone who rejects modern medicine in favor of spiritual-only remedies. In fact, he would have no conception of the distinction. For James, a spiritual remedy was a medical remedy. Both are a part of God’s ultimate act of healing.

And so, similarly, James would invite us to move from mastery to mystery. He would not suggest that we throw away one mastery for another – so many Christians toss out medical science for a transactional view of prayer that is just as controlling and simplistic as the most atheistic doctor. Instead, I believe that he would invite us to see prayer as a way of connecting to the sovereignty of God. Embracing the mystery that is beyond our understanding. And celebrating the goodness of a God who heals. We recognize the battery behind the flashlight, the power behind the healing. James helps us see that even in the power of prayer, there is a powerlessness in realizing that it is God who is sovereign. We connect to a power beyond our own and recognize that it is not our power but God’s that creates healing. Yet, we do our part to use our gifts, to say our prayers, and to participate in that healing with God.

A third dynamic of prayer in James is the fact that it is imminently communal. According to James, the community that prays together stays together.

If we are to acknowledge that prayer must be done in full awareness of the sovereignty of God, then the next step is not for us to start creating a hierarchy of righteousness. We are all subject to God’s authority and God’s sovereignty. So, as egalitarian partners in this community under God’s sovereignty, prayer becomes less about healthy people praying for unhealthy people, and more about an unhealthy community praying together to be healed.

Just like Martin Luther King’s famous phrase about the “inescapable network of mutuality”, James tells us that we are all in this together.

Your sin is connected to my sin.
Your brokenness is connected to my brokenness.
Your healing is connected to my healing.

We share one another’s sinfulness and we all share the responsibility to pray together to bring healing to one another. By the way, that’s why we do our time of confession in the way that we do. We offer our confession in two parts. The first is a corporate, or communal, confession recognizing that while we are all different, we share in the communal sin that connects us all. According to James, there is something significantly powerful in that process of prayer and confession. When one person prays for another, the life of the one prayed for and the one doing the praying are both transformed. He doesn’t just say, “pray for the sick people” in a hierarchical way. But he instead says “pray for each other and confess your sins to each other so that you may be healed.”

To actually do this would terrify us. It terrifies some of us when I tell you “turn to your neighbor and share…” Even if it is something as benign as your favorite color. What if we actually did what James tells us to and we confess our sins to one another so that we may be healed? How would you respond if I asked you to turn to your neighbor and share some of the ways that you sinned before God this past week?

He even lifts up the great hero of the faith Elijah. According to the hierarchical prayer rules of the world, this is someone whose prayers must be better than the rest of us, more effective, closer to God. But according to James, “he was a human being like us!” Each of us – and more importantly all of us – have the power to come before our sovereign Lord in prayer and participate in the work of healing.
But according to James, this is what sets us apart from the world. In the same way, in our relationships and small groups and community within the church, that is what we are called to do. To pray for each other. To confess our sins before each other. And so, when we pray for each other and confess our sins to each other so that we share in the healing of the community, the end result is that we see the world less in a hierarchical sense, less in a self-righteous sense, and more in an egalitarian way, all under the sovereignty of God.

What would happen if we opened up our church directory and began to pray? Who would we see? Who would we pray for? Perhaps we might see a picture and ask, “what gift might I be able to give this person.” Or maybe “what gift might I receive from them?” The world tells us to do what we do out of a spirit of hierarchy and competition. James tells us to pray in a spirit of solidarity and community. I challenge you to go find your church directory and use it this week. Use it to guide your prayer life. See what happens next week when you see some of the people that you have prayed for. And see what God does to and through you.

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