Yesterday, I got to do my first-ever “pulpit swap.”
Thanks to my colleagues, and fellow clergy, I was able to trade places for a day with Pastor Jon Fogel, a child of our church and now the lead pastor at Hope Covenant Church in Orland Park, Illinois. He came to preach at Winnetka, and I went to Hope to share a word with the congregation there.
It was a gift to be with them, and I also missed being with all of you. So today, in lieu of a reflection, I share with you part of the message I preached at Hope yesterday. It’s about prayer, something I think we all struggle with at times, and yet that our scriptures make clear is an important part of our discipleship.
I needed to hear this word as much as I needed to share it, and my hope is it may speak to you as well.
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 months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest.
My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.
So often when we talk or think about prayer, the focus is on whether it works – meaning, usually, whether it gets God to do what we want.
And it seems clear enough that sometimes God will answer in the way that we hope, and sometimes not. But what I find much more interesting is a different question: what happens to us when we pray?
One of those happenings is brought up in our passage: when we pray, we turn from focusing just on our circumstances – or those of someone else – to focusing on God.
That’s why, I think, the writer begins with those who are “cheerful” – certainly, when we think about prayer mainly as a means to solve our problems, the people who least “need” to be praying. They aren’t in trouble, so there’s no need to go to God to fix it – and yet the author of James makes it clear that they, still, should pray.
The troubled should pray, the sick should get the elders to pray, those confessing to each other should pray for one another, and those concerned about someone gone astray should pray – but the cheerful should too.
They should all, no matter the season or the circumstance “look to God in prayer.”
They should look to practice seeing beyond their own circumstances, but also perhaps because the key is in the looking; in the gaze; in where we put our attention.
When Barbara Brown Taylor writes about prayer, she calls it a spiritual practice: “the practice of being present to God.”
Note that her words imply God is already present to us – what happens in prayer is us deciding whether to return that presence, that attentiveness, that responsiveness.
“Prayer,” Barbara writes in An Altar in the World, “is waking up to the presence of God no matter where I am or what I am doing. When I am fully alert to whatever or whoever is right in front of me; when I am electrically aware of the tremendous gift of being alive; when I am able to give myself wholly to the moment I am in, then I am in prayer.”
Considered this way, perhaps prayer is about looking to God and orienting ourselves accordingly: recalling who and whose we are; accepting how little we control, and entrusting ourselves to the one who is truly in control.
Looking at God like this reminds us to look at others differently, too. Maybe that’s why the writer of James encourages his readers to pray for each other, to pray for the sick, to pray for the sinner wandering from God – because it changes us. It changes our posture towards one another, when we pray for each other. We are no longer adversaries with one another, judges or critics, but advocates and partners – those seeking each other’s good, and healing, and wholeness.
Prayer changes us.
I don’t know about you, but these words seem especially important to me right now.
In the place where we are in the world, in our country, in the pandemic, it’s so easy to be angry with each other. To store up our hurts and nurse our grudges, and to move further and further apart. I know I’ve been feeling that in myself lately, and it troubles me even as I feel somewhat powerless on my own to resist it.
At the same time, I can spend a lot of energy trying to remake the world around me in a way that makes sense; trying to control situations and fix problems even when they’re obviously beyond my grasp.
But this passage from James, this simple set of exhortations reminding us all to pray – whatever the circumstance – reminds me that prayer is about so much more than trying to get God to give me what I want.
Prayer is about my needs, yes, but just as much about the needs of others. About my community. About lifting others up, and about looking to God. God, who is already present and active even in the midst of our troubles.
Prayer shapes me – shapes all of us – as it reminds us our place in the world and even in our troubles. It points us toward God, and puts us mindfully back in the posture of those who receive and follow, not those who determine the way.
And yet, despite all that, prayer is still mysterious.
I can’t tell you how it works, or why, or when. Or what “working” even means. I can’t explain why Elijah’s prayers seemed to stop rain for three and a half years, and why mine can’t help my neighbors sell a condo.
I doubt the writer of James can either.
But what he is confident of, what I am willing to trust and follow him on, is that prayer connects us to a God who can heal the sick, raise the dead, and transform our hearts – and so it’s worth doing. In every season, and every circumstance.
All thanks to be to God.