Scripture Used: James 5:13-20
When I was young, my mother would take me to bed, tuck me in, and remind me to say my prayers. They would go something like this: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. And if I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.”
I would follow that with a list of those on my mind: my parents, my brother, my dog, grandparents, friends. I would go on until I had exhausted my young memory, then close with Amen.
As an adult, my prayers are different, as I’m sure so are yours. One of the most common questions I hear from people is wanting to know how to pray. I usually recommend simply talking and pushing past the awkwardness and frustration of not getting an audible response. It’s easy to understand why prayer is frustrating for so many people – it is for me sometimes – but prayer is so important.
In today’s reading from James, who is Jesus’ brother and head of the church in Jerusalem, it talks about the importance of prayer in our lives. He notes of instances in Scripture when prayer has healed the sick and brought drought and rain. He lovingly explains how important it is that they put prayer in a place of importance and reminds them of the various forms of prayer: petition – to ask for something; repentance – to apologize and dedicate to new life; intercession – to have others pray on our behalf.
I believe that prayer is very important in the life of the church, as well. We need prayer, because prayer helps us connect with God, and we absolutely need God in our life both as individuals and as a community. How we live out both of these makes a big impact on how we conduct ourselves as people of faith.
This week, I had the privilege of joining clergy from Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, and North Carolina at an event put on by some of the bishops in our jurisdiction. The focus for this conference was on how to be creative in ministry. Churches often use the same handful of ideas when trying something new. One thing that really stuck out during the conference was a presenter that puts on an art festival in downtown Orlando where thousands of people attend a mostly free event with performances in music, visual art, and dance. When asked how it became so successful, the presenter said something that I have heard here: “Meet people where they are.”
It’s a simple idea – people want to be engaged from a personal place. It’s one of the most basic human needs to be known. We live in an increasingly disconnected reality, that even here in rural America where folks still hold on to the ideal that we should know our neighbors and want to be away from the busy anonymity of city life. However, most of the time I hear the opposite is true even here in a town of less than 2000. We long to be known, but we also hesitate to get to know others.
So especially in church, we want to be known and we want to hear from God not in the faraway realities of national and international issues but in our very lives and homes. Not that those other things don’t matter – it’s just they don’t seem to affect us all that much. We pray for and care about victims of violence and disaster and circumstance, and we also hope that God cares about us in our busy, hectic lives with concerns over whether our kids will grow up healthy and happy, that our diseases and sicknesses will be healed, that our jobs will be secure, that our stresses and crises will go away. We pray, because we too want to be met where we are.
It is because of these basic desires that I believe prayer matters. Prayer matters to God, prayer matters to us, and prayer matters to the world.
Prayer matters to God, because God cares about us and wants to know us. The narrative of the Scriptures points to God caring about people from the earliest ancestors of Israel to the church of today. God wants to be a part of our lives and wants us to be a part of his life in the redemption of the world. That is why God sent Jesus, then the Holy Spirit, so that we aren’t alone. We understand the Trinity as divine relationship of three persons in one being. God cares about relationship, because God is relationship.
Last night, I was asked to offer worship music for the Austin Peay Wesley group on a retreat at Cedar Crest. My friend Katie, the Cookie Lady, pastors the Wesley and told her personal testimony to the group. All along the way of her story, she talked about God wanting the best for her life. I believe that is what James is pointing to when he talks of prayer. Prayer isn’t God’s attempt to form us into some kind of good person so that we fit the requirements of heaven. We are to pray so that we keep a solid connection with God, who deeply loves us. After worship ended, one of the students asked if I could talk with her. She told me that she felt her faith was spiraling, and it was evident in her story that what she was missing in her life was the knowledge of unconditional love. She missed her connection with God and had little connection with other people.
There are so many people in the world who are told that no one loves them or are made to feel that way. It reminded me how powerful God’s indwelling in my own life has been, and how sad it is when we take that for granted as others feel no such comfort. Which leads me to believe that prayer not only matters to God, it also matters to us.
I read a blog recently about a young person who attended a church that was trying to set up a prayer and anointing ministry after reading this passage from James. Following the model in Scripture, the church set up teams of people who would go out once a month to shut-ins, members in the hospital, and even people they knew who didn’t attend their church to offer words of hope and to anoint those who were interested in it as a sign of God’s healing.
On their first visit, they came to a gentleman who suffered from late-stage bone cancer. The young man internally struggled to anoint this person, knowing full well that it would take a miracle to reverse the already visible effects of the disease. He remembered his pastor’s words: “Prayer is enough. You are enough.” The memory of her gentle tone calmed his nerves as he offered a prayer for the older man, placing the sign of the cross on his forehead. A few weeks later, the older man passed away, and the younger wondered aloud why they even went. The group came together, acknowledged the pain, and saw that their offering gave this man peace in knowing that he was not alone – God and the church remembered him. They met him where he was, and he was encouraged by it. Not all healing works in the way we expect. Sometimes, the heart and the spirit need God’s touch most.
It is with this story I ask us where we need prayer. In recent weeks, I have considered having a prayer service, as our world and our community has witnessed a lot of hurt lately. This week, survivors of sexual assault have relived their experiences over and over as the nominations hearing over a Court justice feel inescapable. Those who suffered Hurricane Florence weeks ago still live with the damage even as we turn our attentions elsewhere. Yesterday, a tsunami on the other side of the world killed hundreds in Indonesia. People in communities all around the country still live in fear if an interaction gone wrong – whether with law enforcement or other civilians – will be their last. As we are bombarded with all these stories, it is easy to get angry that it would be brought up one more time, but anger and ignoring the world around us solves nothing.
So, as I continue to contemplate the church’s role in our shared life, I wonder aloud what it would look like to host a prayer service that was open to those outside our church? What would it look like to ask for God’s healing not behind the closed doors of this sanctuary, where few outsiders if any would come in, and instead take it out there where our concerns of life and relationships and job anxiety can mix with the concerns of those who wonder if drug addiction will take a spouse or child, with those who not only live with the memory of survival of assault years ago but possibly even earlier that day? What would a prayer service look like that honestly asked God to build up this church with the people who desperately need Jesus and need a place to belong? Could we be that church? Could we have that service?
What would it look like if we held Communion and anointing at that service? How powerful would our witness be if we were the first church to have a public declaration that God loves everybody and will meet all those people where they are through the people of Charlotte-Fagan? Would you do that? Would you pray that God will help you with your pain, your anxiety, your troubles, and reach deep into the empathy of what it feels like to need relationship and belonging? To be met where you are?
I will leave you with this: in Tampa, Florida, where I was this week, the flagship church of the city is Hyde Park United Methodist Church. Hyde Park opened decades ago in the neighborhood of the city with the same name. The church maintained a size relative to the neighborhood for most of its existence. At a certain point, the members of the church shifted their prayers from what they hoped for and started asking what God wanted. The church began growing rapidly as their plans and their worship became more involved with their community. In 1998, they began construction on the largest building project in their congregation’s history. According to then-pastor James Harnish, the building superintendent overseeing the project consistently said, “There’s something really happening here.” A few years ago, the congregation bought the recently closed Tampa First UMC – the original flagship of the city – and remodeled it so that it could serve the community as a gathering space and workshop. The Portico in which we met was originally Tampa First’s sanctuary.
Because of prayer, a church experienced new growth, a greater reach and witness for God’s kingdom in their community, and even practiced resurrection of another community so that downtown Tampa would not forget God’s presence among the people I challenge you, church: are we willing to be the kind of praying people God calls for something great?