What is prayer?
As a child, I thought that prayer was something you did before bed each night and on Sunday mornings at church and while sometimes we “said grace” before meals, I don’t know that I really understood that as prayer. They were nice songs or poems, but I don’t think I ever thought of those brief moments before we ate as a real communication with God. Real prayer, I thought, had to be in your bedroom at night or at church in the morning. Everything else was just talk.
As an adult, I still wrestle with what constitutes “real prayer.”
If I am driving to work and ask God to grant me the serenity to deal with traffic and to help me to remember that the other drivers are also God’s children, is that real prayer, or is it too mundane, too self-centered perhaps, to count as real prayer?
If I go for a walk, and take the time to revel in the beauty of nature and the wonders of the world around me, is that real prayer? After all, I’m not making a formal petition to God or even formulating words, but instead just really taking the time to experience the glory of creation. So does that count?
If I sing along to a favorite song, even if it’s a secular song, and it fills my heart with joy, is my singing a psalm-to God, or just noise?
I would argue that all of these are indeed moments of prayer. I believe that prayer occurs anytime we are reminded of the wholly-loving presence of God in our lives. And I believe that private, individual practice of prayer is essential to spiritual growth and deepening our relationships with God, but James draws our attention to a specific kind of prayer.
The author instructs us to confess our sins one to another and pray for one another. / Like the preceding advice from James, these are instructions regarding community life. The prayer of the righteous that James speaks of that is powerful and effective is prayer that happens with and for those that are a part of our community of faith.
For me, this was a bit of a revelation – this idea that perhaps the most powerful, the most important forms of prayer are those that revolve around the communities that we are a part of.
It is tempting in the United States, a country whose ethos is wrapped up in ideals of individuality and self-sufficiency, to imagine that personal empowerment means being able to do everything ourselves, on our own, without support from communities or, heaven forbid, governments.
But this ideal of the self-made American is a myth and as with all mythologies, the lived experiences of people are very different than those of the mythical hero. And if we examine the realities of those we hold up as self-motivated, self-sufficient, and self-made, we will see that in fact their accomplishments relied on either the support of families and communities, or the exploitation of others, or both.
The realities of our experiences reveal that we need others around us. We need support. We need company. We need those who can hold us accountable to our own ideals. This support comes from our families and our communities. Families defined not by genders or limited by the government, but families defined by love and the everyday actions of mutual support and caring. And these families come together in larger communities that may revolve around geography, shared identities, shared ideals or shared faith. And only in these communities can we find the power and support to do the work of mercy and justice that we are called to do by the gospels of our faith.
So these prayers that James speaks of, are of a specific type, They are the prayers that sustain and stenghten our identity as a group of peace makers and justice seekers.
James gives us instructions that will enable us not only to care for one another, but empower one another.
“The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective,” reads the text. Our prayers with and for our communities are a source of power that fuels the work of the gospel.
But as either Voltaire or Spiderman creator Stan Lee said, “With great power comes great responsibility.” See, when I was a teenager I left a church that was not using the power of their prayers effectively. There were many people there that I loved and that loved me, and I knew that God loved me, but I never heard the words that I needed to hear, that from their love would come action. I needed to know that even after coming out that I would be protected and cared for, that my community would stand up and fight with me when the fight came.
There were instead, Sundays when the pulpit was given over to those who liked to quote certain divisive passages from the apostle Paul’s letters and there were homophobic comments from Sunday School classmates that went unanswered.
So, while James’ assertion that prayer in community can be powerful rings true for me, I know that this power must be recognized and put to work for the good of all people. The power of prayer should not fail those that need it most.
It took many years and some pretty dark days before I came to understand that a spiritual community was part of what was missing in my life. Through those times, it was God’s love that sustained me, but I needed to see that love embodied in a community.
I needed support. I needed to be held accountable. And I needed to learn how to be in relationship with others who had similar experiences of and convictions about what it means to live a life full of meaning and reverence.
The letter from James ends with the writer commending those who bring back to the community one who has wandered away, saying that such an action will “Save the sinners soul, and cover a multitude of sins.”
I don’t know about you, but I get a little bit uncomfortable when I hear a phrase like, “Save the sinners soul.” It echoes too much the kinds of theology that focus entirely on sin and salvation and forget love and charity.
That being said, I do believe that there are real dangers to our souls, and that we are most vulnerable to those dangers when we have wandered away, literally or figuratively, from our community support systems.
In my experience, as we lose touch with those that keep us grounded, those that hold us accountable and those that express the love of God in our lives, we are less likely to recognize when our behavior shifts from that which is loving, gentle and transformative, to that which Rev. Doug outlined for us last week - the covetous, self-centered search for pleasures that come at the expense of others and ultimately our selves.
This kind of avarice leaves us progressively less able to experience God’s love for us. And though people who have gone down this road have to make their own decision to change their lives, they will need the help and support of a community to assist them in creating that change and making it stick.
It is through our prayers with and for each other that we call one another back to the path, that we hear the reminders of who and what we are called to be in the world.
If you look on the back of your bulletin, you’ll see that above me and above Terrance and above Doug, is listed “All the People,” as the ministers of this church. I don’t know who started that tradition here, but it was one of the things that really stood out to me on my first visit to UBC. And the way that I have witnessed you all continually creating community with one another, I know that it’s not just a theological nicety or a feel good ploy. It is the way that this congregation strives to live.
Each week, we gather together to lift our voices together in praise, to hear each others’ joys and concerns, and to listen as voices among us motivate and move us to do the works of mercy and justice that help those inside and outside of our doors feel God’s presence in the world. And each week I am touched by the ways in which we hold one another up and draw each other closer to God. But in order to live into the responsibility of the power of our prayers, we must continue to honestly answer the questions of, “Who isn’t here?” “Who aren’t we speaking to?” and “Who am I called to minister to today?”