Why You Should Pray When It Gets Tough

My homiletics professors in seminary exhorted us as future ministers that when we prepare to preach on Sunday morning we craft our sermons with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.  They said our people, the ones who have come to worship with us, will be impacted by the week’s news, by the cultural shifts or the natural disasters, or by the more local stories less widely broadcast but no less significant to the lives of a community.  And, we were reminded, the news of the day will impact parishioners differently, so keep them all in view when you write.

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My mentor said that after he had been at his parish for a few years he could imagine how people in his congregation might respond to his sermons and held them together as a jury box of sorts when he wrote because in most congregations—this one included—we have people present from a variety of personal backgrounds and experiences. We have people of many different stripes at St. Mark’s. We have parishioners from different theological perspectives and who vote across the political spectrum.  We have those who grew up in working class homes and those whose families lived in wealthy neighborhoods.  Each one shaped by their own experiences and who cannot be easily segmented into separate boxes although we are often polled in order to see how we can be easily categorized.

I can assure you that crafting a sermon when you have had a week like the one we’ve just experienced is perilous at best. If I say nothing, I’m tone deaf to what is going on among us and will turn some people off.  If I say too much, I’ll be told church is no place for politics and will turn some people off.  Yet I know even deeper in my bones that my professors were right.  My job when enter this pulpit each week is to proclaim how the Word of God can enlighten us and correct us.  How it can be a healing balm and a revealing light.  How the very love of God shown throughout the stories we share and pass down impact us even today. That the events in our lives are of great importance to the Almighty.

“Is any among you suffering,” James the author of our epistle and traditionally believed to be the younger brother of Jesus asks us.  And the answer I know too well from this week’s news would be that many among us would fall into that camp.  Not because of whether there’s a D or an R attached to our voting record, but due to the prevalence of painful memories that have been recalled by the stories shared this week in our news.  Studies tell us that 1 in 3 women and 1 in 6 men have themselves had similar experiences.  I didn’t realize the truthfulness of this for a long time, and then a family member confided in me their account from childhood long after the incident had passed. Without determining whether the nominee in question did these things or not—which is thankfully not my job this morning—I do know that speaking the truth of our experiences long held in secret can shake us to our cores and force us to relive painful events.  “Is any among you suffering,” writes James, “That one should pray.”

James continues, “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.”

Prayer.  James is reminding us that as we encounter various kinds of experiences—from suffering to being cheerful to needing to find restoration—prayer is the key. Connecting with God to help us find healing.  Asking God to give us courage to face past demons.  Drawing close to the unconditional love and mercy of God who desires that none of us here on this planet encounter pain.  God longs for each of us to find redemption in the areas of our lives, to make amends when we’ve hurt others, to find wholeness when we’ve been wronged.  

It is Anne Lamott who succinctly writes about the three essential prayers in life.  These prayers she suggests are “Help, Thanks, and Wow.”  She writes, ‘I do not know much about God and prayer, but I have come to believe, over the past twenty-five years, that there’s something to be said about keeping prayer simple. Help. Thanks. Wow. You may in fact be wondering what I even mean when I use the word ‘prayer.’ It’s certainly not what TV Christians mean. It’s not for display purposes, like plastic sushi or neon.  It is communication from the heart to that which surpasses understanding. Let’s say it is communication from one’s hear to God.”  

She continues, “Prayer is us—humans merely being, as e.e. cummings put it—reaching out to something having to do with the eternal, with vitality, intelligence, kindness, even when we are at our most utterly doomed and skeptical. God can handle honesty, and prayer begins an honest conversation…. Prayer is our sometimes real selves trying to communicate with the Real, with Truth, with the Light. It us reaching out to be heard, hoping to be found by a light and warmth in the world, instead of darkness and cold.” 

We feel that darkness and cold when we find ourselves alone.  When we think in our vulnerability that others do not care or cannot understand.  When we mess up and push others—and God—away.  When we refuse to see those in our lives as human beings because they disagree with us.  When we do not allow empathy to move us when others are in pain.

Pray, James says.  Call the elders and be anointed with oil.  Find connection with God in the simplicity of those little prayers.  “Lord, please help me, I feel alone. Things that have been done to me in the past wash over me like a torrent.  Do not leave me to face this alone.”  Or “Lord, help, things I have done in the past leave me utterly ashamed. Please forgive me that I might find peace, and help me to pursue reconciliation with others.” Perhaps that prayer is “Lord, thank you, for your tender care in my life. I am choosing to see the blessings that you bring my way.” Or “Lord, wow. This world teems with life and love. While at times I feel as if the floods are rising, I cannot help but notice the beauty of this world when I take time to notice it. I am awestruck by your goodness.”

What I read in James is this: we do not need to go it alone in this life.  God cares deeply when we experience hurt or fear or paralysis or uncertainty or doubt.  God wants us to flourish.  To grow.  To find the light and turn to it.  To encounter wholeness.

I do not know where you are this week, or in what ways the news of the day or the unknown moments you’ve experienced in your own life have impacted you, but I do know this: the best way to respond is making an effort to speak with God honestly. To take a moment and say exactly what you are thinking.  God will not push you away.  God will not leave you to fend for yourself.  Even if you say you do not know how to pray or if you’re not sure you believe in God, being honest before God allows God to work.

Because I am convinced that God cares for us.  God sees our pain, our suffering, our confusion and God wants to help us and get us back on the road to life.  Even in the midst of opening up past wounds or facing old shame, God only desires for us to find and experience wholeness.

Some Sundays it seems that things are just serendipitous, but I think it’s really the movement of the Spirit.  This week, as we walk about prayer, is the Sunday we normally offer healing prayers to any and all in this congregation. If you’d like prayers with the laying on of hands so that you might  begin to find wholeness in your life, I invite you to pray with Michael and Mary after receiving communion.  Whether you want to voice your concerns to them or not, you can come to them for prayer.  They will pray with you as elders in this church to share in this time of your life with you, reminding you that you are not alone.

The one we worship and follow is Emmanuel, God with Us, and that one came to bring us fullness of life.  May we find that life as we draw closer to the deep love God has for each one of us through the powerful act of prayer.  Amen.