Rev. Teri Peterson|
The Power of Prayer
Exodus 33.7-11a, James 5.13-18
24 June 2012, People’s Choice 4
Moses took the tent and pitched it outside the camp, far away from the camp. He called it the meeting tent. Everyone who wanted advice from the Lord would go out to the meeting tent outside the camp. Whenever Moses went out to the tent, all the people would rise and stand at the entrance to their tents and watch Moses until he had gone into the tent. When Moses entered the tent, the column of cloud would come down and stand at the tent’s entrance while the Lord talked with Moses. When all the people saw the column of cloud standing at the tent’s entrance, they would all rise and then bow down at the entrances to their tents. In this way the Lord used to speak to Moses face-to-face, like two friends talking to each other.
If any of you are suffering, they should pray. If any of you are happy, they should sing. If any of you are sick, they should call for the elders of the church, and the elders should pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. Prayer that comes from faith will heal the sick, for the Lord will restore them to health. And if they have sinned, they will be forgiven. For this reason, confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous person is powerful in what it can achieve. Elijah was a person just like us. When he earnestly prayed that it wouldn’t rain, no rain fell for three and a half years. He prayed again, God sent rain, and the earth produced its fruit.
Several years ago I was at the airport with a friend, and we were both flying standby on family passes. There is a dress code to be able to use those passes, and we were both well within it, but the woman checking us in at the desk insisted that my friend’s sweater was not up to the code. After several minutes of arguing, my friend said in an angry voice to the woman behind the counter, “I’ll pray for you.” Later, she said, “It was the only appropriate thing I could think of to say!”
Another trip, I was flying by myself and found myself seated next to one of those people who likes to chat during the flight. When he found out that I was a pastor, he immediately began explaining all the reasons women are not allowed to be pastors. At the end of his very long (and progressively louder) explanation, he said, “I’ll pray for you.” Which only reminded me of the Presbytery meeting where a pastor had stood in front of us and, during the prayers at opening worship, prayed that all of us attending the meeting might finally become Christians.
These memories make me both gasp and giggle, and rightfully so—I don’t think this is quite what anyone in Scripture means by praying for others!
But then what do we mean when we talk about praying—for others, for ourselves, for the world? In my experience, lots of us are uncomfortable with this. If we promise to pray for someone, does that mean that we’ll kneel beside our bed and say “God, please heal Betty”? And if we do that, what do we mean by healing? How do we know if our prayers work? What if Betty doesn’t get better—does that mean that we didn’t pray hard enough? That we aren’t faithful or righteous enough? That more people needed to be praying? After all, James says that the prayer of the righteous and faithful is effective in restoring people to health. We’ve all heard stories of miracles that come through prayer...and we’ve also all had experiences where it didn’t seem to work, no matter how fervently we prayed.
So, first the bad news: Prayer is not magic. It’s not as if you can say the right words and poof! everything is better! Prayer does not turn us into Harry Potter, and no matter how much we study, looking for the right words or the right way to hold our hands, just the right inflection as we say “reparo” ...prayer will never work like magic. And if praying doesn’t result in what we want, if we can’t stop and start rain the way Elijah apparently did, that doesn’t mean that our faith is not strong enough or that we wasted our time.
Next the good news: prayer may not be magic, but it is powerful. It takes time and effort, like any other relationship does. It takes both talking and listening, because communication is a two-way street. It takes showing up and expecting God to do the same. It takes calling on others when you need help, and being there when others are in need. It takes compassion and commitment. But the results—well, ask Moses. He sat down and talked with God like a friend, and that friendship sustained him through many years in the desert.
I don’t know if you noticed it in that Exodus reading—I didn’t, at first. In the very beginning, it says that Moses set up the tent of meeting, and when anyone wanted advice from God, they would go there. I wonder how often we think about prayer as asking for advice from God...or are we more often giving advice to God? Asking for advice assumes that we are willing to admit we don’t have the answer, and that we’re willing to put aside our desires long enough to listen rather than talk.
And then James, who tells us not only to have one-on-one conversation with God, but to call each other—the elders of the church, even!—and to pray with one another. To talk about where we are having difficulty, to confess our failings, to admit our brokenness, out loud to each other, and to pray together. In other words, we are to be vulnerable together, not only in private. That probably makes the top-five list for least popular advice ever uttered from a pulpit, but there is power in vulnerability. Isn’t that what true friendship is—the ability to share our lives, even the dark and failed parts, with another person, and to allow them to love and challenge us? Perhaps the key to prayer is not that we get the right words or even the right frame of mind, but that we open ourselves to be loved and to love, to share and to receive, to listen and to speak, to be real with both God and one another, to speak face to face like a friend and to know the spirit of God in each of those encounters, whether we are together or alone. We may find that while we don’t always get the specific outcome we ask for, we’ll nonetheless be a part of God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven.
But Jesus himself tells us to ask and seek and knock, and it will be given to us. And in the same breath he says “but seek first the kingdom of God...” In other words, seek first to be connected to the Spirit who is around and among and within us. Seek first to know God and God’s righteousness. Seek first to hear the music of God’s heart and to join in the song. Seek first the friendship that gives us a place to set our burdens down, knowing that they can be capably carried. Seek first to live in constant relationship with the One who knows you better than you know yourself.
The “how” question remains, of course. We are not the first to ask it, either—in his letter to the Romans Paul reassures us that while we do not know how to pray, the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. How do we pursue a friendship with God, and a friendship with the divine image in others? Well, you’re in luck because I just wrote a book about that! (ha!) There are many ways to deepen your spiritual life, to connect to what God is doing in you and in the world, but they all start at the same place: desire. Do you want to know God more? Do you want your eyes opened to what God is doing in the world? Do you want to be more deeply connected to the holy in the everyday?
If you do, you can find a sheet at the back of the sanctuary with a few ideas for helping you connect your spirit to God’s spirit—besides the people who proofread the book, you are the first to see these! Remember that different practices work for different people, and that they take time to develop, so you may have to try each one for a while—maybe pick one for a week, and if after 7 days it’s not for you, try something else. If you forget the paper, or leave it at lunch, you can also check out the church blog this week for new ideas each day.
We all still want to bring before God those people who are sick, the world is in turmoil, people in need. James, the same guy who just a few chapters earlier reminds us that “faith without works is dead,” also wants us to visit and pray by being with people too. One way we can pray for others without constantly offering God our advice is to try the Quaker practice of holding someone in the light. Imagine the light of God. Once the light is strong and warm, hold the person or situation you want to pray for in the center of that light. Let the light surround and infuse them. Give up trying to be the light yourself, and instead allow yourself to be a conduit. In this type of prayer, we don’t ask for anything, we simply hold the person or situation in God’s powerful presence, and trust that will be enough, that the healing love of God’s light is strong enough to do what we cannot even imagine.
And that’s what prayer really is, at its heart—being in God’s presence, with all our needs and the needs of the world, with our friends and our enemies, seeking first the kingdom of God, and trusting enough to let the light shine through.
May it be so. Amen.