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.
My son Anderson, a kindergartener, loves telling jokes, and he also likes to ask questions about God. “Can I tell God anything?” he asked. “Yes, you can,” I replied. “Can I tell him jokes?” “Sure.” “Good,” he answered, “because I love telling God jokes. I can imagine how refreshing it must be for God to hear jokes from Anderson. They sure keep me going day to day. God hears our heartfelt prayers. God wants us to pray. That means our Creator, the One who called the universe into being, cares about what we have to say. That is good news! It’s time for good news like that in your life. It is time that you are reminded that God cares about you, God loves you, and God wants to hear your prayers.
When we pray we step outside of ourselves in a very mysterious, spiritual way. Since we reach out beyond ourselves, we unlock a potential for dialog. We open ourselves to change at a very deep level, because we are addressing our Creator. We are affirming that God is a part of our lives. We step back into a very humble reverence that calls for God to hear our petition. When we pray we have an opportunity to experience the majesty of God. We draw ourselves into a relationship that is more important than any other. In all of the errors of our lives, we pause to reboot our system. In all of the noise of our lives, we pause to listen quietly and tune ourselves to God’s way.
The Austin Symphony has a website that explains some of the basics for people who are new to the symphony. One of the questions is “Why do all the musicians tune to the oboe?” The answer given is, “The penetrating tone of the oboe is easy for all players to hear. And its ability to sustain pitch is very secure. The oboe plays the note “A,” and all the players make sure their “A” is exactly on the same pitch as the oboe’s “A”. This ensures that they all are in agreement about the tuning before the concert begins.” When we pray, we tune ourselves to the one secure, stable note that all can hear. When we are off kilter and nothing seems right in our world, prayer can be a re-set. It can re-focus the core of ourselves upon the core of the universe, God.
There has been a lot of research into prayer and its effects. People have studied plants being prayed over, and in double blind studies, patients are prayed over. This research shows us that something is happening when we pray. No one is exactly sure what happens, but it is clear, something is happening. The disciples were very interested in prayer. They watched Jesus take time out to pray. They finally asked him to teach them how to pray. So he taught them the Lord’s Prayer. It begins with the exaltation of God, then for provision, for humble forgiveness, to be forgiven, and to forgive, and a prayer for morality and purity in life, for protection against temptation, and then finally an acknowledgement that the future belongs to God. Of course there are as many different ways to pray as there are types of people. Each person finds a style of prayer that helps connect them to God. The prayer Jesus taught the disciples contained the best elements a prayer could offer.
The good news is God wants us to pray! Professor Peter Kreeft affirmed this in a lecture he gave in a New York City Socrates in the City lecture entitled “Making Sense Out of Suffering”. He had been addressing the fact that God found displeasure with Job’s three friends but not with Job. He attributed this to Job’s conversations with God. Job’s friends spoke to Job and to each other, but they never spoke to God. Professor Kreeft likened this to being in a classroom and hearing some students complain about him. He said, “Suppose I was teaching a class, and two of my students interrupted my lecture by breaking out into loud, animated conversation about the professor: “Do you think Professor Kreeft is crazy?” “No,” “Yes, he is,” “No, he isn’t.” “Wait a minute,” I would say, “Hello, I’m here.” I wouldn’t be offended that they thought I was crazy. That is quite reasonable, but not that you would talk in front of me without realizing that I’m here. That’s what they were doing to God all the time. God this, God that. But God wants us to talk to him. Talking – that’s what Job did. That’s what God wants. I think that is very profound.”
When we pray to God we clean out a portion of ourselves to make room for prayer. The theologian from New Mexico, Richard Rohr, calls this spiritual quality a “Holy Spaciousness.” In all of the busy-ness, distraction, and noise of our lives, when we pray we must clean out some of that clutter in order to make room for God. I like that idea. We all need to create some holy spaciousness in our lives.
James begins his Scripture by saying if anyone is suffering, they should pray, and follows that by stating if anyone is cheerful, they should sing. The early church was very diverse in places, including both Jew and Gentile. Singing is a way to produce harmony within diversity. When we let ourselves sing praise to God within the boundaries of the music, the notes, the rhythm, the parts, the time, we subject ourselves to a communal spirit of prayer. Augustine has been credited with the saying, “He who sings prays twice.” Martin Luther saw music as a way for Christians to express their faith in praise and worship and as a way to teach doctrine. Paul wrote in his letter to the Ephesians, “that we are filled with the spirit as we sing songs and hymns and spiritual songs, making melody to the Lord with our hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
There is something about singing praise to God that can unify worshippers like nothing else. Today as the choir sang, “Let’s Go Down to the River to Pray,” I could feel a joyous Spirit moving among the congregation. When people are singing or hearing music for God, unity is created, a spiritual door is opened. My brother told me about an experience he had being a Navy Chaplain. There was a South Korean delegation helping with a project. Neither side in the project could speak the other’s language. The Koreans could not speak English and vice versa. They had a translator but still things were very difficult. When they worshipped together, they had Presbyterian hymnals, and the Korean words to the hymn were right alongside the English ones. “Now I know why they did that in this Presbyterian hymnal- they did it for us!” He said that after worshipping together, it was so much smoother between them. The project took off with an efficiency they had not experienced before.
Garrison Keillor, the radio comedian, said that we like music because we remember the first lullabies that our mothers sang to us. I believe it goes back even farther than that. I believe that before we were even out of our mother’s wombs, the angels were singing songs of love, and singing that we should have courage and not be afraid of the world we were about to be born into.
James wrote that if we are suffering, we should pray, cheerful, we should sing, and if we are sick, we should have the elders pray and anoint us with oil. We have a very healthy prayer ministry here at the church. There is a list of people who have made prayer requests. Sometimes family members or friends of members are on the list. Our prayer circle prays for them. Have you ever prayed for a family member and had that person not be healed? I remember praying that my father would be healed from cancer. When he passed away, I recall a close family friend teaching me about prayer and what it really is all about. Was it because I didn’t pray hard enough? Or didn’t have enough faith? No. When you pray, if you do not get the answer you requested, it is not because you didn’t have enough faith. That would be having faith in yourself, or in your prayers. Nowhere in the Bible does it say for us to have faith in ourselves or in our prayers. Everywhere in the Bible it says, have faith in God. And we must keep the faith regardless of what the answer is, because prayer is less about getting the right answer and more about the relationship that it brings.
Somehow in prayer we gain a bigger perspective upon life, and death, when we listen for God, and reach out to God with the deepest thoughts of our hearts, and we are able to keep faith in God regardless of what the answer is. James states that healing will occur, and it most certainly does. Some kind of healing is happening when we pray. It may not be manifest in the way we expect, but God’s power is always at work.
When James mentions how Elijah was a person just like us, and that he prayed for rain and it didn’t rain, then he prayed for rain and it did, it reminded me of the aunt who made a surprise visit on a family that was preparing to leave for a picnic. The mother and father were aside discussing if she could attend the picnic with them. Finally they invited her, but she answered smugly, “It’s too late. I’ve already prayed for rain.” Of course we are too sophisticated to believe that we can control natural processes through prayer. But we still find ourselves praying that it won’t rain on the wedding day, or praying for the game not to be rained out. I heard a report on National Public Radio that spoke of research regarding the smallest level of particles, the quantum level, as revealing a mysterious connection, a relationship even, between particles that are separated. Things are more inter-related than we may have imagined. Who knows exactly what that quantum research may one day reveal on the much larger levels of life? Maybe God differentiates automatically between prayers we “really mean” from the casual “Oh, God, thank you for that parking place!” I don’t know how all of that goes. But I do know that Psalm 55 states, “Evening, morning, and noon I cry out in distress, and God hears my voice.” God is not a vending machine where we put in a prayer and out comes whatever we desired, or an errand boy that responds to our whim. God is still the Almighty God, and will never be manipulated, tricked, or used. God knows the true prayers of our hearts and hears them. That is such wonderful news.
Another point in the Scripture today draws a connection between sin and prayer. How are they related? James says, “The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much.” I believe that our prayers are more meaningful, more real, more genuine, when we are truly able to pray with an open heart. If we have a lot of baggage that we are carrying around, it is much more difficult to feel free to pray. When Pastor Norman Vincent Peale was a boy, he found a big, black cigar, and went into an alley to smoke. He did not like the way that it tasted, but he felt so grown up. Then suddenly his father came out into the alley. Norman quickly put the cigar behind his back saw a billboard advertising a circus and began pointing at it, saying, “Let’s go to that circus! We really should go when it comes to town!” Imagine this scene. A father sees his son point upward at the billboard, surrounded by the aroma of a cigar, with big wisps of smoke rising behind his son’s head. His father said something that stuck with Peale for the rest of his life: “Son, never make a petition while at the same time trying to hide a smoldering disobedience.”
Psalm 66:18 states, “If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened. But truly God has listened; he has given heed to the words of my prayer.” That is really good news. No matter what you are going through in life, God will hear your prayer. Allow God to cleanse your heart, then pray. God wants to hear your prayer. Trust in that fact. God is waiting for you to pray. And that is really good news. God cares for you and loves you, and is ready to hear you. It’s time for that good news in your life. Take time to pray to the Lord. Pray!