Christ Centered Resources

Is Prayer Any Use?

Rev. Ed Searcy

James 5:13-20
University Hill United Church : Sun, September 28, 1997
dear God ... what was I thinking? If you use a question as a sermon title you are making a silent contract with the congregation to answer it. And how else is a Christian preacher going to answer a question like “Is Prayer Any Use?” But with a resounding ‘yes’. Start piling up the illustrations right about now to prove the self-evident truth (at least among Christians, surely) that prayer is not only important ... it is useful. Utility. That is the measuring stick in our Age. How useful is something? It is a society where the ritual greeting of a stranger is: “So tell me, what do you do?”. It is an only slightly veiled version of the question: “How useful are you?” That is what I was thinking when I decided to ponder the question: “Is prayer any use?” this morning. And, as much as I know that the answer must be yes, I wonder about how useful prayer is and for what. In this, I am surely more a child of the scientific age than a child of Christian tradition. Ours is a world where the first response to suffering is not prayer, as James advises, but pharmaceuticals ... therapy. We have discovered the powerful curative possibilities that science can unlock. And we have found prayer to be, at best, unpredictable ... at worst, a fanciful hoax passed on by a pre-modern world. Travel to the Muslim world and you will see them praying there on the tarmac at the airport ... all of the baggage crew on their knees while you stand and wait. But here, in the ‘Christian’ West, see what happens if two of you stop to say grace over your big mac at MacDonald’s. You can almost hear the silent question being asked: “Is that prayer any use?” It is asked in the halls of science, too. Befuddled by the complexities of cancer modern medicine has begun to ponder the power of prayer. Some call it “visualization” ... and teach patients to visualize themselves getting better. Others set up experiments in which they compare the results of those who pray and are prayed for with those who make no use of prayer. ‘Is prayer any use?’ the research community wonders. It is no longer a foregone conclusion that the answer will be a chuckling “You’ve got to be kidding”. Too much research suggests that there is power in prayer. We know, of course, that humans long for powerful prayer ... for meaningful contact with the forces beyond the range of our senses. To the great surprise of his university peers at Oxford JRR Tolkien turns his lifelong study of Norse mythology into an enormous best-seller. Tolkien writes for his own children about a world in which small human-like creatures engage in cosmic struggles with the aid of unseen, yet nonetheless, real powers. Half a century later, ‘The Lord of the Rings’ sits in every bookstore in the land. in the section called ‘fantasy’. Equalling it in popularity in the video stores is a twenty year old trilogy in which an ordinary boy engages in a cosmic struggle with the aid of an unseen, but nonetheless, very real ‘Force’. “Feel the Force”, coaches his mentor like some cosmic spiritual director. Ours is an Age when such forces have been debunked by the scientific world as ‘fantasy’ ... ‘science fiction’. Yet we and our children are still drawn to these powerful stories of good and evil, of pilgrimage and of courage and of drawing upon an unseen power within the Universe. What, then, are we to make of the earliest Christians? “Are any among you sick?”, asks James, “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.” What is it about this picture that bothers us? There is the embarrassment of such odd, pre-scientific behaviour in a thoroughly modern world. True. There is the lingering Protestant suspicion of anything that smacks of Catholicism ... though we would rather not admit to it. Most of all, there are the Elmer Gantry’s of the world ... the charlatans whose snake-oil ministry has stolen too many widow’s mites in the name of the Lord. So, in spite of the early church’s experience of the healing power of prayer we stick to our own brand of prayer. Which is to say that we talk. When we think of prayer for the most part most of us think of talking to God. That’s how we were taught from the time we were little: “Don’t forget to say your prayers” Our prayers become a litany of requests ... and we ponder God’s apparent disinterest. “Why doesn’t God answer my prayer? we wonder. To which an acquaintance responds... “Remember, there are three possible answers to a prayer: yes ... no ... and maybe.” In a society that fears silence, that covers it over in an elevator or in a waiting room or on a phone line with endless, meaningless music ... It comes as no surprise that we fill up our prayers with noise. At the same time our prayers are often empty. We seem to be asking and yet are afraid to ask ... to really ask ... for healing. Maybe it is because we are too polite ... because we feel undeserving. James is pretty clear: “The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.” Dare we consider ourselves among the righteous? Surely not if by ‘the righteous’ we mean ‘the morally pure’. But, of course, the righteous are not the pure ... the sinless. No. The righteous are those in a living and right relationship with God. Paul has made it abundantly clear that all - even the righteous - are sinners. The righteous are sinners who have discovered the amazing grace of God. This discovery of God’s forgiveness has enabled them to re-enter a living relationship with God. Here is the reason that James speaks of the confession of sin and of prayer for one another in the same breath ... it is because they are both essential for our healing. Maybe this, in the end, is the reason that we shy away from prayer. It means baring our soul before God and one another. It means entering into a relationship of deep and real trust in God. It means daring to ask ... and even more daringly to honestly listen for and be ready to feel the prayer of God in response. Is prayer any use? I suppose it depends who you ask ... and when. To those whose prayers seem to rise up in futility ... like puffs of smoke that disperse into the haze prayer may seem a cruel joke. To those whose prayers seem to strike the heart of God ... like love letters that call forth a responding love prayer must seem the ultimate healing ‘force’. To Jesus, who prays that the cup of suffering might pass, prayer is meant to be useful, yes, but not to the earthbound one. “Yet not my will, but thine be done” Jesus prays. Discarded on a cross the people think his prayers are of no use. God sees something else at work ... it is God’s own prayer for the healing of the earth answered by the actions of a Sacrificial Servant. Listening to the experience of the church in every age we can only affirm the utility of prayer. We do so when we open ourselves to be used by God in ways we have never imagined. This is the heart of prayer ... not that through it we seek to use God but that in prayer we expect that God will use us. Next Sunday evening in this Chapel we will spend an hour in prayer as they do in the French village of Tauze. There will be few words spoken. There will be periods of nothing but silence. There will be candles on the floor. And there will be prayers ... sung prayers. Repetitive and simple prayers in Latin and in English. Singing together, it is as if we can hear the prayers of the world rising up to heaven ... and then the solo voice of an instrument or a singer offers up the prayer of some lone soul, of some aching people or of some church gathered as we are, here. Then, if you listen between the lines and in the spaces of our silence, the prayer of God comes ... in a scripture read, in a vision of a way ahead, and in divine forgiveness freely offered. Watching from outside the world wonders if our prayers are of any use. Sitting in here we have come to trust our prayer to God’s use. Which leaves just three words to be said: let us pray ...