No Better Hands to Be In

James’ letter concludes differently from most First Century letters. Paul’s letters all end with greetings to friends of Paul and plans for future visits. James ends with final words of wisdom for the community.

Is any one of you in trouble? Pray to God. Is anyone happy? Sing songs of praise to God. Is any one of you sick? Call the community together to pray to God. Is any one of you wandering from God? Someone in the community should bring him back to God.

In all circumstances of life – suffering, joy, sickness, wandering – place yours lives in God’s hands and you will be saved. The Greek word for “saved” is “sozo”, and it is sometimes translated as healed or cured, but it is the same word that is used when a person is saved or restored, when salvation is ensured. To be saved is to receive not only physical wellness, but spiritual wholeness. When we pray, we acknowledge that our lives are in God’s hands, and God will save us; God will make us whole.

Rev. Dr. Maxie Dunham, in his Workbook of Intercessory Prayer admits that we don’t know how prayer works. He tells about being in Lucerne, Switzerland. He had been away from home for two weeks and would be gone another two. He knew no one in Lucerne. He was scheduled to attend two conferences in Europe, but they were divided by 10 days. Rather than returning home, he was staying in Lucerne to write. But he was lonely. Now, these were the days of expensive long-distance calls, before cell phones. And Dr. Dunham did an extravagant thing. He called home. His son, Kevin, answered the phone.

“Daddy! Where are you?”
“Lucerne, Switzerland”
“You sound as though you are across the street.”

Five thousand miles apart, an ocean between, yet he talked with his wife and three children personally, intimately, joyfully, as though they were across the street. Dr. Dunham says, even though he could tell you a little about sound waves and wires, he can’t really explain or comprehend how it works. Yet, he had no hesitation in picking up the phone and dialing his family. “I knew I could talk to my family across those thousands of miles of ocean and land. So I did.”

That is how we pray. We don’t understand the details of how it works, but we know that it works. Scientists have been testing the power of prayer over the last thirty years, but creating a true scientific study to test the power of prayer is incredibly complicated, because we don’t know how it works… how do you eliminate variables and create double blind studies with prayer? What is not complicated is affirming that prayer reduces “stress, lower[s] blood pressure, and brings a sense of [peace] that can enable the body to naturally fight off diseases (Butler/DeVega).” And it is not complicated to affirm that the community gathering around a person in need strengthens them.

James says “Is any one of your sick?” He should call the elders of the church to pray over him. If you are sick, you need community. They should anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. The early church continued the tradition of anointing with oil from their Jewish roots. The healing isn’t from the oil, though, it is from God. “The prayer offered in faith,” says James, “will make the sick person sozo – physically well and spiritually whole.”

James then inserts a discussion of sin. Now, some scholars read this as James including sin as a type of sickness, but I don’t think that is what James is saying. And over the centuries, this passage has been twisted to suggest that sickness is caused by sin, or that the person who is sick somehow deserves their illness, but that is not what James says. James says, “the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person sozo – physically well, spiritually whole – the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned he will be forgiven.” When the community prays for a person who is sick, God lifts that person to God’s presence, and the sins of that person are forgiven so that there is nothing separating him from God. “Therefore,” James continues, “confess your sins to each other and pray for each other.” Confess your sins to each other so that there is nothing that comes between you, so that you are united as a community.

I knew prayer and community were important, but I didn’t know what it felt like to be lifted in prayer until my battle with cancer. I could literally feel that I was being lifted in prayer. I didn’t know whether or not I would be healed, but I knew I was surrounded by community and securely in God’s hands, and that there’s no better place to be. “The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective,” says James.

One woman admitted, though, that when someone asks her to pray she can’t imagine saying no, so she always says she will, but then she has no idea what to do. I’m guessing that she is not alone. Prayer can be as simple as thinking every time you think of a person, “God be with him,” “God be near to her.” Depending on the situation, you might ask for healing or courage, patience or strength, hope or reconciliation.

Kristen Ingram Johnson is an Episcopal preacher who writes about prayer and spirituality, and I think these words of hers are wise and helpful. She writes, “Sometimes prayer needs words, but not so many, and not so many times repeated.” You don’t have to know the right words to pray. Think of the person, and express your longing to God.

One person describes [his] prayer time this way, “I set aside time every morning to pray. I use both words and images. I hold my hands cupped in front of [me], imagining that I am holding the problems and concerns as well as the possibility of wholeness and healing for each person. After a time of silent prayer I lift my hands slowly upward, then open them to indicate my desire to turn this situation over to God. I pray this way for each person. I have discovered that I do not need to know the details of their concerns to pray from others and grow closer to them in my heart.” (Vennard, 114)

What about you? How do you pray? Every week, in your bulletin is a prayer list. But did you know that there is a list with more detail in the church office? It is printed each Monday and placed under the white board that lists the most recent prayer requests. They are there for you to pick up and to pray for each person on the list. And as you pray, be alert to nudges to follow up with cards and calls, texts and thoughtful little gifts; they are so important too, to let them know they are not alone.

The prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well – whether physical or spiritual – for the Lord will raise him or her up. The people that we pray for as a community will know they are surrounded by community and are securely in God’s hands, and there is no better place to be. Amen.