The writer of the Letter of James is obsessed with the power of words – the power of words to do harm in the world, AND the power of words to do good in the world – the power of words to tear down, and the power of words to build up. And they go into detail:
They list all the ways that words can hurt –
· we can use words to slander each other, to cut someone down;
· we can use words to lie, to say false things, to cover up hard truths that require our action;
· we can use words to oppress;
· and even if we get the content of our words right, the writer of James says that even our good words are completely meaningless, unless and until we live them out. And so we hear, “Be doers of the Word.”
And then, just as the writer of James describes all the ways that words can do harm in the world, they also point out the ways that words can do good in the world:
· We can tell the truth.
· Our words can bring healing, and freedom, and praise. The kind word. The helping word. The encouraging word. The word that helps us claw our way out of the depths of despair.
· And most importantly, our words can do good in the world when they are helping, healing, saving words, that we then live out. The writer of James says, “Don’t merely listen to the Word; do what it says... The faith that God accepts is this: to look after the orphan and the widow in their distress.” Our best and most faithful words can do good in the world, but only when we live them out.
The writer of James lists all the ways that our words can do harm, and then all the ways that our words can do good. And then as they are listing all the ways that our words can do good, they write, more than anything, more than anything do this: Pray. Pray.
Is anyone among you suffering? Pray.
Is anyone among you cheerful? Pray – sing songs of praise.
Is anyone among you sick? Pray. Call together the elders in the church; the whole community. Pray.
The prayer of faith – the prayer of trust – will save the sick.
Have you sinned? Confess to each other. Pray so that you may be forgiven and healed.
And then, depending on how you translate the Greek:
The prayer of the righteous woman availeth much.
The prayer of the righteous man is powerful and effective.
The prayer of faith works with great power.
When we pray, we have the power to say words that help create good in the world.
But we have to pause there, and ask this – because maybe you’re wondering – what exactly are we doing when we pray? It’s all well and good to say, “Pray and your prayer will availeth much.” But how does that work – what are we doing when we pray? Because we know that prayer isn’t magic. We know that we just don’t pray for something and it happens. And we know that from hard experience. Years ago, when my grandfather had a stroke, I prayed – we prayed for a full recovery – and that specific thing didn’t happen. It’s not that simple.
And let’s also say that we very well may have a range of opinions about what happens when we pray. When we pray a specific concern for a specific person and we ask for specific help – we pray and lean into a view of a God that listens and actively and specifically intervenes.
AND, I’ve also heard folks offer prayer by saying something like “I’m holding you in the light.” And that’s lovely too – this kind of open and generous and spacious sense that prayer is joining together around someone or some concern and bringing to the prayer all of God’s light and love.
If our words of prayer can do good in the world, and if we want to do good in the world – God’s loving saving good in the world – it is right and good to ask, “What are we doing when we pray?”
But what if we stepped back half a step and also asked this:
“What is God doing when we pray?”
Earlier, I mentioned that years ago my Grandfather Newlon had a stroke. He was a vital, active, lively 88-year old – and the stroke took his speech, and a good bit of his ability to live independently. In the days that followed the stroke, we prayed and we prayed – fervent prayers – that he’d have a full recovery. And that didn’t happen. He did recover some. He re-learned how to walk, and how to get around, and how to do things for himself. He never re-learned how to talk – but as a family we learned new ways to be present with each other – to communicate in ways that transcend words. As a family, we spent time together in hospital waiting rooms – my cousins realized together that we were grown-up members of the family now, and we lived into that, along with our mothers, our Grandpa’s daughters. And we had another 8 years of life with Grandpa New.
As most of you know, I represented Rev. Dr. Janie Spahr when she was brought up on charges for celebrating the marriages of same-gender couples. Janie has always proclaimed that God’s love is for everyone, and she said YES – in the name of Jesus – when same-gender couples asked her to celebrate their marriages -- when the church was still saying NO. And the Presbyterian church prosecuted her, and I was one of her lawyers. And I prayed every day, every time we came before church judges, I prayed that we would prevail – that we would win. And we didn’t. It’s hard to remember this now, but again and again we lost, again and again the church said NO, to Janie, to the couples she married, to the community that she gathered. And there we all were – with the church’s “no” – even though we were praying for yes. Now we know NOW that the church eventually changed its mind – eventually said “yes.” But only after loss, upon loss, upon loss – only after suffering broad and wide and deep. I believe that God was at work in all that, in all those prayers, but that’s not how I prayed it, how we prayed it.
When we pray, I think that we do our best. We pray what we know at the time, what we see, what we experience – what we can muster, the words we can form, inadequate as they may be. We pray what we know; we pray what we can. And I think there is also always a part of prayer that is mystery – we pray into what we don’t know.
Padraig Ó Touma – an Irish poet -- says it like this:
“Prayer is rhythm. Prayer is comfort. Prayer is disappointment. Prayer is words and shape and art, arounddesperation and delight and disappointment and desire....
No prayer is perfect. There is no system of prayer that is the best. There is only the person praying, the person kneeling, the person walking with beads between their fingers, the person cursing God, or gloom, or fate, or whatever it is that seems to be not listening...
To pray is to imagine. And in imagining, we may imagine that we are imagined by something Bigger....
Prayer can be a rhythm that helps us make sense in times of senselessness, not offering solutions, but speaking to and from the mystery of humanity.”
We pray what we know, and what we don’t know – and God does something with all that.
Another writer says it like this: Prayer is the place where God “uniquely binds divine and human activity together.” Where our will can align with God’s will. Where God’s word becomes embodied in us.
What is God doing as we pray? Here’s what I think: In prayer, God is inviting us to draw near – inviting us into conversation – inviting us into deeper relationship – inviting us into life. In prayer, God is meeting us where we are – in the fullness of the present moment – in the pain or the joy or the loneliness or the celebration – in all that we know and are experiencing – with all of God’s love for us – AND God is sitting with us in the mystery of all that we don’t know. In prayer, God is at work – transforming us – transforming us into living, embodied Words to bless the world God loves.
So, then, what are we doing when we pray? We are saying YES. Yes to the conversation. Yes to God’s presence. Yes to God’s love. We bring what we know – about our lives, and about God – and we bring what we don’t know – we pray – talking, and listening – and then we live life – and then we show up again. And each time we show up, we may see a little more, or maybe not quite yet.
So how do we do that? Pastors get that question a lot – and it’s among the best questions – how do we pray? And we usually answer with, “There’s no right way to pray, there are an infinite number of ways to pray” – and all that is true. If there are 57 people in on this call, there are at least 57 ways of praying.
But I’m going to go ahead and answer the question, because I think we need to consider how we will pray as we move into and through these difficult time. I’m going to give us 7 suggestions – 7 practical tips that you can use, if you want, or not – but 7 suggestions that you can and put in to practice today, and carry with you into these days of shelter and apprehension. I think of these as 7 suggestions for what I call Both/And Praying– praying with what we know, and leaning into what we don’t know, so that we might find God there:
Some Approaches to "Both/And Expansive Praying" --
1. Pray for a specific concern; tell God what you need/want,
AND, pray with openness for all the ways that God might be at work, helping, healing, loving, comforting, saving us from everything that does us harm. [“God, bring a complete recovery from stroke for my Grandfather, AND, be with him and us in all the ways that you can, with your healing, loving presence.” It honors the specific longing of our heart, AND, it opens us up to all the ways that God might be answering prayer.]
2. Pray for a specific person or people,
AND, pray for everyone, everywhere who might be going through something like this. [This opens up our circle of concern, so that we might glimpse the broad expanse of God’s circle of concern.]
3. Pray for what you can imagine that GOD might do to help,
AND, pray for what you imagine that YOU can do to help. [This is a big one. Pray for an end to racism, AND, show me what I might do to help, show me how I am complicit, show me what I can do to help dismantle systems of racism and White Supremacy.]
4. Pray what you know,
AND, pray into the mystery of all that we don’t know.
5. Pray with words, talking,
AND, pray in silence, listening.
6. Pray on your own,
AND, pray in community. [There’s a part of prayer that is deeply personal. And, there’s part that is broadly communal. Others might see things we don’t; others might have a way of helping.]
7. Pray in bad times,
AND, pray in good times,
AND, pray all the time. [Prayer is something that happens over time. We’re talking here about a sustained practice of prayer – a practice that sustains us and the whole world over time. In bad times. In good times. All the time.]
When we pray, God is near -- inviting us, and welcoming us.
Prayer is saying YES to the conversation as a way of life, and as a way to life.
It is like our Lenten theme says – "In the Desert," prayer is "a Healing Spring."
© 2020 Scott Clark
Padraig O Tuama. Daily Prayer with the Corrymeela Community (Kindle Locations 104-105). Canterbury Press Norwich. Kindle Edition.