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Posts Tagged ‘prayer’

I’m a preacher. I have the privilege of being in holy spaces more often than most people. I have lots of chances to love on people in times of need. But no matter how many times I’m apart of these things, their power never ceases to catch me off guard.

Even though I’m getting used to being caught off guard, I was even more surprised yesterday. Because yesterday, I wasn’t the one doing the praying. I was one of at least four “Reverends” in the room, and my father-in-law and I were pastors getting “pastored”. Sometimes, I think, I forget just how much I’m doing when I stand by someone’s bed and offer a prayer. As a hospital room full of folks who love my mother-in-law gathered around her bed and prayed over her before surgery, I felt the energy in the room change. There was a feeling of power and well-being that was so incredibly pervasive that it still gives me goose bumps. No doubt it was a holy space.

I was surprised by another holy space I found. For an introvert, the idea of a waiting room full of people is not always a welcome thought. I knew that there were nearly twenty people that came just for my mother-in-law, which was amazing in itself. But instead of feeling tired after talking to so many people like I usually do, I think I felt blessed. Not only blessed by all those folks there to support someone I know and love, but blessed also by all those people that I didn’t know. This was a huge surgical waiting area, and it was positively full of families like ours–waiting to hear a word of hope. We had a huge group, but there were several equally large groups. There was laughing and praying and working and coffee drinking, but what I didn’t see was anyone who had the typically anxious looks that come with being in a waiting area. It would be hard to believe that no one in that room was worried. Yet, I think, somehow being in that room with all those people who trusted that their loved one was in God’s hands, changed the energy of all in the room.

As I’ve been teaching Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline, I’ve been trying some of his suggestions. On the subject of prayer, he suggests that one way to “pray without ceasing” is by praying flash prayers over all whom we encounter. The idea is that you “flash” a prayer at them, without even worrying about knowing what to pray for. I did that in the waiting room yesterday, not only for the people in our group, but for everyone else too. I prayed in the same way for the doctors and nurses that I passed, and for the lady in the cafeteria. The strangest thing happened. I kind of felt like Bruce Almighty when he suddenly hears everyone’s prayers. It was like I had a connection to them, and for the briefest of seconds I looked through a window into their lives.

Sue came through the surgery just fine, and the news seems to be good: from what the doctors know right now, it doesn’t look like the cancer has spread. When we were all in the room after the surgeon came to talk, a family friend leaned over to me and said “We’ve all been praying for this. Why in the world are we surprised that it worked?” I told my husband about that on the way home and he said that we were surprised because sometimes our prayers aren’t answered in the ways that we prayed for them to be. But I think the friend was right–perhaps a better idea would be to be surprised that it didn’t “work”. Perhaps we should enter into prayer with the expectation that God will move, as if that’s the rule.

When we told her the good news, Sue cried and kept saying “Thank you, Jesus!” Yeah, no doubt. Thank you that the cancer hasn’t spread. Thank you that so many who love Sue could be there. And Thank You that You hear prayers, even if we can’t quite be bold enough to pray with the certainty that you will move.

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“I’ll Pray for You”
James 5:1-13
Ordinary 26B– September 27, 2009

I always wondered if she was a miracle . It’s not that she was super-woman, or even that she was a super-human. She was an ordinary lady in my dad’s church– whom we called “Mike”. And as far as I could tell, her gift was prayer.

That sounds like I’m making a mountain out of a molehill– like I’m exalting something so ordinary, when the truth is that we should all have the gift of prayer.

But her gift showed up in really remarkable ways. Every time my dad would have a tough day, somehow a card or letter or phone call showed up– usually a card or letter, because “Mike” hated to be a bother. But what was so amazing is that the card wouldn’t show up in the mail two or three days after dad had had a rough day, and had a chance to tell “Mike” about it. No, it always showed up the exact same day– which means she had to mail it two or three days before. And it always said something that exactly fit with whatever the problem was.

It was amazing really. Once would be a coincidence. Twice would be crazy. But the number of times that this happened leads me to think that maybe it was something else all together: Divine.

I think that “Mike” was a person who exemplified the verse that says “Pray without ceasing.” I think she might have been in such close communion with God that God gently nudged her to put a card with exactly the right message in her mail box on exactly the right day.

And I think that’s what James’ call to prayer is– I don’t think he’s asking us to toss up a prayer every now and then when someone is in trouble. I think he’s asking us to live a life of prayer

I wonder if there’s a difference between prayers and prayer?

My best guess is that prayers are the things we toss up when we need something– when someone is really sick, or there’s this problem that we just don’t know what to do about.

One of my favorite preachers, Barbara Brown Taylor, says this,
Prayer is more than saying set prayers at set times. Prayer is waking up to the presence of God no matter where I am or what I am doing….When I am fully alert to whatever or whoever is right in front of me; when I am electrically aware of the tremendous gift of being alive; when I am able to give myself wholly to the moment I am in, then I am in prayer.”1

The idea of prayer has long fascinated me– and sometimes I feel like it brings up more questions that it answers. And too, it something we toss around so easily, and with so little thought, that I wonder where our prayers are rooted.

I’m quite certain that every person in this room has had someone say, “I’ll pray for you.” And I’m just as certain that we’ve all had the feeling that someone said that to us as a copout. As in– “I have no idea what to say to you or how to make you better, so I’m going to tell you I’ll be praying for you.”

But where does that leave us– and how we feel about prayer?

I’ve always believed that prayer is a gift– the sort of gift that is given fully to some, and not as fully to others. I’ve met some folks that are really great pray-ers. These are the folks for whom I think prayer comes more easily than it does for the rest of us. For me, prayer has always been tough (which is tremendously unfortunate for a preacher). Sometimes, I, like everyone else, feel like I am talking to the ceiling. Sometimes, I feel like I don’t have the words I want (even though I know the Holy Spirit “gets” what I’m trying to say.) And sometimes, to tell the truth, I wonder if it changes anything.

I’m not sure where this comes from, but I think most of us have the feeling that things are “set”. We say we believe that God is active in the world, but I don’t know how we feel about saying that God might just change God’s mind.

And if God isn’t open to having his mind changed, why in the world would we bother pray?

And if God is in the mind changing business, on what does that depend? Does it depend on how hard I pray? Or how many people are praying toward the same end that I am? Does it depend on how faithful and righteous I am, as James suggests?

And while we’re at it, does prayer really play any part in healing? Or has God just decided who to heal and how? I read an article in the Washington Post2 that says the United States has spent approximately 2.2 million dollars in trying to figure out the connection between prayer and healing.

As we would expect, the results are quite varied, and indeed controversial.
This same article mentions a study where a group of Christians were asked to pray for 192 people hospitalized for heart problems. There were 201 not specifically targeted for prayer, and none of the patients knew of the study that was going on. Interestingly, the patients that were prayed for needed fewer drugs and both their time in the hospital and their recovery time was, on average, shorter than those patients that were not prayed for.

But there does seem to be an odd consensus on people who know they are being prayed for verses the ones who don’t know they are being prayed for. Folks who know they are being prayed for seem not only to have a brighter outlook and happier disposition, but they also seem to heal more quickly than patients who don’t know that someone is praying for them.

That particular conclusion makes me believe that there is something really important about being a part of a community. It seems people have both a greater sense of self worth, and a brighter outlook on life if they are somehow connected. To be really a part of the community is to feel valued and loved– and that makes anything more bearable.

But I think there might be something even more special about being a part of a praying community. To be a part of a community that prays is to feel like your concerns are held up by someone else. But to be a part of that same praying community also means that individuals are given the job of coming together to hold someone else up.

When I was in seminary, we often prayed together in small groups. And a favorite type of prayer involved standing in a circle, and everyones thumbs pointing toward the left. Try that– you’ll notice that one of your palms is down, and one is up. Now if your neighbor also does that, you’ll notice that where your palm is down, your neighbor’s palm will be up. And if you match hands with your neighbors, you’ll notice that you have one hand supporting someone else’s and one hand that is being supported by someone. That’s what it’s like to be a part of a praying community.

One of my favorite poems, at least content wise is John Donne’s “No man is an island.” He says, “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.”

I think James would have wholeheartedly agreed with that sentiment. James, I think, would especially like that part about “any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.” But James might step it up a notch– any one’s spiritual mire is everyone in his community’s problem. If one was ailing or struggling, James just might want to know not only what the community were doing to fix it, but what the community had failed to do that landed the person there.

As I read back through the book of James (which I’ve managed not to preach on this lectionary cycle), I realized that James isn’t terribly worried about individuals. To him, we all have tremendous responsibility for each other– James really sees prayer, and even Christian life, as a community effort.

For James, the health of a congregation or community is everyone’s concern. If the church is unhealthy, James wants to know what the whole congregation is doing about it.

That’s tough for us individually minded folks. We want to worry about our privacy– next time I’m home sick in my pajamas, I sure don’t want the entire session showing up to pray for me. I’d just as soon suffer quietly without anyone knowing, thankyouverymuch. I think in some way, we’re all like that. We’d like to know when someone else is sick or suffering so that we can pray for them– but when it comes to illness or distress in our own families, we don’t want to be a bother. I’ve noticed that the very ones who are so great about making sure that I get whatever news is on the prayer chain, are the same ones who are very quiet when they are sick “Maybe”, we think to ourselves, “this is not that important.” We feel selfish in asking for prayers for ourselves, or for those we love.

But I think James would chastise all of us. Prayer is the most powerful tool we have in our arsenal against acute cases of the human condition. James would say to us, “How could you not allow your community to pray for you? You would deny them that opportunity to do their Christian duty?”

See, this is why I haven’t preached James until now. He doesn’t mind stepping all over folks feelings. He’s been stepping on my toes all week, especially as I was lying sick in bed, and thinking it’d be better if no one knew.

But James has been stepping on my toes in another way too. James seems to relate sickness to sin.

I’ve had to look in lots of commentaries about this one– and one conclusion seems to be as I thought, that this is a pre-scientific answer to “why bad things happen to good people.”

They didn’t have any “science” as we would consider it. No x-rays, or mri’s or ctscans– a doctor’s knowledge was quite limited. What else could they blame it on? I mean, they didn’t even know about germs or anti-bacterial hand sanitizer, for pete’s sake!

But, some commentaries took an entirely different approach, and I’ve been wrestling with this all week.

While we may not like to think about it, to an extent, there is a link between wrongdoing and illhealth. And in saying this, I really don’t think one necessarily causes the other–I really do believe in things like germs and bacteria.

But I to think the two have some commonalities.

To an extent, both wrongdoing and illhealth make us extraordinarily vulnerable. When you have wronged someone, how much guilt do you carry around? How much do you dread seeing them again. And even if you’re on the receiving end of wrong doing, how easy is it for you to want to slip into “revenge mode”? Neither the wrong-doer, nor the recipient fare especially well.

To be sick also has the same result. You’re no longer your usual “strong” self– if you’ve really had the wind knocked out of you, you almost need someone in your corner, whether they bring food or run out to get you cough drops, or whatever. In sickness, we realize that we can’t do it all ourselves, and there’s a certain amount of vulnerability in that.

Both, in their own ways, cause separation from the community– sickness causes physical separation from your community. All we hear about these days is the Swine Flu, and how people who even THINK they may have it should stay far away from other people. But too, wrong doing causes separation– any time we fail to treat someone with anything other than the love of Christ, we put a division between them and us, and that not only affects our relationship with that person, but it affects the whole community.

And so what are we to do?

The best answer for James is that we pray. And that’s not nearly the copout that it’s grown to sound like. For James, prayer is real work.

I’ve been reading the Celebration of Discipline chapter on Prayer in preparation for our upcoming study this week. The author says, “Real prayer is life creating and life changing. ‘Prayer–secret, fervent, believing prayer–lies at the root of all personal godliness.”3

To be in prayer, changes the vulnerability. No longer are we vulnerable are we vulnerable because of our condition– we are vulnerable to God’s word and work breaking open in us.

I had a friend in Seminary, who when he would find anyone cutting up and being silly– which I might add, he was usually a part of, would laugh and cut up, and then roll his eyes at the ceiling, finally saying, “I’m gonna pray for you. Heal her, Jesus!” Only he didn’t say it in the serious way we usually think of it– for us, it was a joke. It was the same as saying “Bless your Heart.” or “God love you– somebody has to!” or “You ain’t right. You just ain’t right.”

We’d always say in a way that jokingly said, “I’m gonna pray for you– cause Jesus is the only one who can do anything with you.”

While it still makes me smile, I’ve come to realize our joke was positively serious.

“I’m gonna pray for you. Heal her, Jesus…”

Funny– but the only thing that makes a bit of difference. Prayer changes things, and without a doubt it changes us. When we pray, we are opening ourselves to God’s presence in us and in our community. If we really believe that God is alive and active in the world, then we must also believe that through prayer, we are working with God to determine the future.

And that’s no laughing matter.

Amen.

Charge– A beloved hymn says, “there is a balm in gilead to make the wounded whole, there is a balm in Gilead to heal the sinsick soul.” Perhaps the writer was really talking about prayer.

May it be so.

As you go out into the world, may the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you. May the Lord lift his countenance to you, and give you peace. Now and forever more. Amen.

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Praying “Alright”

One of DH’s favorite songs is Darius Rucker’s “Alright”. He and his beautiful voice will just belt it out, and anybody who heard him who know for sure that it’s a song of his soul. And while his lifestyle has changed considerably during the last year, I think this song really does make good sense to him.

If I had to guess, I would have always said that I’m the less materialistic one of us– that my happiness does not depend on “stuff.” When we had money, he really enjoyed going out to really nice dinners and dressing nicely. Me– I was happy with a picnic in the park, looking like a ruffian in my jeans and sweatshirt. But what I’ve learned about myself during this time is that “stuff” matters much more to me than I would’ve thought possible. Not in the way that I need a new purse or CD to feel complete, but more in the way that I miss being able to grab a snowcone if I want one, or buy a can of hair product without really having to search my conscience to see if its something I can’t live without.

On the upside, I’m really learning to appreciate the smaller, simpler things. When I had money, I spent a lot of my time doing errands… but now when I actually have a few minutes, I don’t feel the pressure to run out and do those errands. I guess, in that way, lack of money is a little freeing. But still, I am bothered much more than I’d like to be. The last few days, I’ve taken to using “Alright” as a prayer. I’m asking that God give me a sense of just how blessed I am, and give me a true, deep, joy in the things of my life. Here are the word’s to “Alright”

Don’t need no five star reservations
I’ve got spaghetti and a cheap bottle of wine
Don’t need no concert in the city
I’ve got a stereo and the best of Patsy Cline
Ain’t got no caviar no Dom Perignon
But as far as I can see, I’ve got everything I want

Cause I’ve got a roof over my head,
the woman I love laying in my bed
And it’s alright, alright
I’ve got shoes under my feet
Forever in her eyes staring back at me
And it’s alright, alright
And I’ve got all I need
And it’s alright by me

Maybe later on we’ll walk down to the river
Lay on a blanket and stare up at the moon
It may not be no French Riviera
But it’s all the same to me as long as I’ve got you

It may be a simple life, but that’s okay
If you ask me baby, I think I’ve got it made

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One of the very cool things about being a pastor is that I get asked to participate in all sorts of things, from ground breakings to Presbyterian women’s gatherings. This morning I had the opportunity to participate in a “prayer walk” for the schools and the school year that officially begins tomorrow. Some folks in the community organized this, and I was really kind of excited to see such initiative.

I was asked to pray at one of the schools on the walk, which is not, I guess, anything extraordinary. I prayed for the school, that it might be a safe space for all–a safe space in which to grow and learn and laugh, and even a safe space for the middle schoolers to figure out who they are. I prayed that as they were seeking an identity, that they would find an identity as a beloved child, no matter their home or economic or any other situation. I prayed for the staff and leaders, that they might be filled with passion for the tasks they have been charged with. And then I prayed something that caught me off guard– I prayed that those who gathered and learned and worked in the schools might come to know Christ.

God has been so fully taken out of the schools that I felt really funny praying that. I was just waiting for someone to say “Hey! You can’t say that here!” But I did, and it felt strangely right. While I believe in the separation of church and state, sometimes I think, we’ve gotten too separated. I guess I couldn’t have said that if it had been a school sanctioned event. But it wasn’t, and I did.

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Ok, I’ve done it. I put it out there. I asked my church to spend a few minutes each day during the entire month of June praying for the work of the Holy Spirit, both in our church and in the church all over the world. One of the things I’ve been convinced of lately is that the church really has a unique answer for the world. (Though I don’t think we “do” church because of what we can get out of it, I do think the world is hungering to believe in something bigger than themselves. As much as we talk about being D-I-Y’ers, I think our greatest fear might be that we are all alone in the world.) I’m surprised at myself, but I’ve personally been praying for the Holy Spirit to move is crazy, miraculous ways for a long time. And suddenly, I think, as a result of all this praying, I’ve discovered a ministry passion for seeing a great, widespread, reawakening in the church universal. Dare I say it, but even a revival? (I’m pretty sure this word carries some scary baggage, especially in the south, but I think it’s the exact word I want. The root is similar in many languages, and it has the same basis as “life”. Thus if you are re-viving, you are bringing life again. I think that’s exactly the right word choice for what I hope happens in the church.)

As I’ve talked with several colleagues, I’ve realized what a dangerous thing it can be to pray…and not only that, but to pray for the work of the Holy Spirit. If prayer really makes any sort of difference, then something might actually start. Praying for the Holy Spirit– well, it might ask me to preach the dangerous texts. It might ask the church to change some long held traditions. And if the Holy Spirit really got loose– well it might just bring folks who aren’t like us into the church.

Even still, I pray for the Holy Spirit, not only in the church where I pastor, but all over the world. Wake us up, shake us up. Veni Sancte Spiritus– come, Holy Spirit!

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