Pray for One Another
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational UCC
30 September 2012
[Read "The Story" from Frog and Toad are Friends by Arnold Lobel]
Frog and Toad are friends. Friends who care deeply for one another, even if they aren't always certain how to provide that care.
At the close of the Book of James, the author turns his attention to just this topic -- how we care for one another. And to find the answer to that question, we don't need to pace the porch, stand on our heads, or even beat them against the wall. According to James, the primary way we care for one another is prayer.
The letter of James has three principle concerns, according to commentator Mark Douglas – "taking care in how we speak, giving care to those in distress, and being careful about what we let into our lives." And all three of these come together in what James says about prayer.
"No one can tame the tongue," James wrote earlier in the letter. "A restless evil, full of deadly poison." Throughout the letter he cautions us against boasting, gossip, envy, and oath-taking. All of those ways that we harm one another by the things we say.
But, as I said a few weeks ago, James isn't simply worried with our imprudent and hurtful words. He is concerned with how our words create meaning and their impact upon the entire creation. James compels us to wonder if all of our language shapes reality in a Godly or an ungodly direction? Ask yourself these sorts of questions: Does our language include or exclude? Does it welcome or divide? Does it heal or harm? Does it create community or rupture relationships? What kind of world are we creating by the words we use?
In the summer of 1894 when he was twenty and had just come through a period of deep depression, G. K. Chesterton wrote:
You say grace before meals.
But I say grace before the play and the opera,
And grace before the concert and the pantomime,
And grace before I open a book,
And grace before sketching, painting,
Swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing;
And grace before I dip the pen in the ink.
We learn from James that prayer is not simply saying grace before a meal or praying before we go to sleep at night. Prayer is not limited to those times we bow our heads, close our eyes, and hold our hands like this. Prayer is an attitude that permeates our life. All our words should be said with a prayerful attitude. Mark Douglas writes, "Wise speech simply is prayer. . . . The wise speak always as if before and to God."
What if all our words were words of grace, said as if to God? That is the kind of prayer James advocates.
For James prayer is not a private matter. It permeates our whole lives. It is one way that we give care to those who are in distress.
James encourages the elders of the church to come and to pray over the sick and to anoint them with oil. Oil is not medicinal, but is a sign of God's blessing. In a way, it is a visible act of prayer. Despite your weakness and vulnerability, you are a blessed and loved child of God, a full and rightful member of the people of God.
On Wednesday nights our spirituality group meets to learn about various spiritual practices. Currently we are reading a book on Tibetan Buddhism, which is generating interesting and lively conversation. But discussion is not all we do when we gather. We open each session with lectio divina, which is a practice of prayerful reflection on scripture. It's not bible study; we listen for how the scripture speaks to us and to the circumstances of our lives. I usually say, "How does this relate to what's happening to you this week?"
And we close our sessions by sharing prayer requests and celebrations with each other and then praying for one another. When this group began, many were uncomfortable with this part. They were not used to praying publicly for the person sitting beside them. They were not used to making themselves vulnerable in this way. But what has happened over the life of the group is that now we open up and share so freely that we often run out of time. Because of prayer, we have built very close relationships among this group. During the summer, when we took a few months off, we all spoke about how much we missed the time with one another and were eager for the group to begin again in the fall.
When we make ourselves vulnerable, we invite others to do the same. That openness can be a healing, transforming thing. James encourages the sick person to invite the elders of the church over. In James' imagination, those who arrive will confess their sins, giving evidence of their own vulnerabilities, and together everyone will find forgiveness and healing.
Prayer strengthens our relationships, and it builds community. It is an act of solidarity with one another. Even in worship, during the pastoral prayer, when we mention the sick, those who have died, children who have been born, couples who have gotten married, and the events of the wider world, we are strengthening our bonds with one another. We are expressing our solidarity with one another.
James is right, prayer is not a private matter; it is one way we give care to those in distress.
In his commentary Mark Douglas offered the following tantalizing idea,
Lives lived in the prayerful awareness of God's activity in the world may be as important to our physical well-being as advances in modern medicine and environmental science.
Can prayer really affect our health and well-being? Can prayer cure the sick?
The third central concern of the letter of James is being careful about what we let into our lives. For James, prayer does treat the toxicities of life. Prayer can bring healing.
Now, lest you dismiss this idea as supernatural quackery, listen to the wisdom that Mark Douglas draws from James' words. Douglas reminds us that our moral choices do, in fact, affect our health. For instance, many health disparities are based upon race. Often the poor and especially the poor of various racial minorities, live in some of the most polluted and unhealthy regions of the country. They often do not have access to good nutrition, high quality health care, or preventive treatments. The social, political, and economic decisions we make do affect the environment and the health of others.
For the church, then, our ethics cannot be separated from our healing practice. The healing ministry of the church must be concerned with racial justice. It must be concerned with environmental decisions. It must be concerned with access to health care. With nutrition. Housing. Education. Etc., etc.
And what we learn from James is that all of this is connected to prayer, because prayer is about our entire way of life.
Now, James very closely ties together illness and sin. I hope that he does not believe that there is a direct correlation between the two. Jesus himself rebuked such notions, that sickness is a sign of sin. Jesus' ministry actively attacked the purity code that excluded and isolated those with physical and mental illnesses and disabilities. Instead, Jesus, quite radically, invited them to share the table and to participate fully in the community of God. As followers of Jesus, we must reject any teaching that would exclude anyone from the fellowship of God, especially any exclusion based upon physical or mental difference.
But is there any connection between healing and forgiveness? Barbara Brown Taylor, Episcopal priest, writes, "While illness is no sin, plenty of sick people carry guilt about their sickness. . . Anyone who thinks there is no shame to illness has not been paying attention." Sick people do often feel guilt, shame, or embarrassment. They wonder what they could have done differently. Or maybe they procrastinated before seeing a physician. Or maybe they don't want people to see them while they are weak and, so, they drop out of their normal routines. Part of the ministry and care of the church is to counter those feelings and assist people in casting those feelings aside.
Today we held a breakfast to raise some funds for Cross Over Prison Ministry. This is one of the great ministries that has been birthed partially out of this congregation. It assists prisoners in making the transition back into normal life and has been overwhelmingly successful in achieving its goals. We are very proud of it.
Cross Over is just the kind of ministry we have been talking about today. We join in solidarity with the vulnerable and work towards forgiveness and healing. Through caring, loving words, we speak new worlds into being for those we serve. To be involved in this ministry is to let the attitude of prayer permeate your life.
Cross Over is currently in need of more volunteers who will help out with the Monday night ministry to prisoners. A committed handful of our church members have volunteered for many years and need some fresh new people. I hope that you will earnestly pray about whether God is calling you to respond.
How do we care for one another? We don't need to pace the porch, stand on our heads, or even beat them against the wall. We need to pray.
But to pray for one another is so much more than a few soft-spoken words before we go to sleep. It is the power of God's righteousness permeating our lives all day and every day – in the way we speak to one another, in the way we care for those in distress, and in how we heal the toxic things in our world.
Our care begins in the simple acts we perform for one another. Gathering with a sick church member and speaking words of compassion. Singing songs of praise together in worship. Or, as Toad helped Frog -- by putting him to bed, by giving him tea, and, most importantly, by simply being his dear friend.