Back to Basics with James: Prayer from Beginning to End
This is our last week in James' letter. For the past month James has been guiding us, nurturing us, instructing us in the foundations of a Christian life--what he calls a "wise" life: our whole life in response to and shaped by God's goodness and grace in the world; our lives immersed and overflowing with the stuff of heaven: purity and peace, gentleness and mercy, self-giving and passionate love. God has acted in the world. In Jesus, God has changed the course of history. Heaven has broken in, startling as a thief in the night, to reclaim what is God's (us and all things). And James is convinced that who we are is meant to be a sign of that world-reclaiming, world-healing, world-renewing work. He takes God and us seriously enough to believe that what God is up to can actually come to life in us and among us.
It's a marvellous thing James believes: that our lives are sufficient to show off God's dream for the world. And it's why the whole thing finishes with prayer. This God-infused, Spirit-alive, Jesus-following life, is bound up with prayer. By finishing here, it's like he's driving home the point that all the practical instruction in the world, all the willingness to do the things that Jesus says, is pointless if we're not intimately connected with the God who can do more in us and through us than we could ever ask or imagine.
In every generation, prayer has been at the heart of faithful living. It's not an option for when we're feeling kind of moved. It's not a special language reserved for Sunday morning. It's not a last-ditch effort to try and make something of a situation gone sideways. Of course there are moments when we feel especially connected to God, and when we arrive here each week we engage in peculiar patterns, and some of the most intense prayers in all of Scripture are the desperate cries of folks who've hit rock-bottom. But James wants prayer to be our first posture, our primary language--not something for special occasions.
Listen to how these final words begin: "Any of you suffering? Pray! Any of you happy? Sing your prayers!" Whatever is happening, good, bad, and everything in between: pray. I think this is at least as much invitation as instruction. It's invitation to know that at no point, no matter what's going on, do we have to be separated from God.
Maybe it goes without saying, but this is particularly important when we're suffering. James knows as well as we do that suffering of any kind, spiritual or physical, can lead to isolation. It can leave us feeling utterly alone. And loneliness is a close friend of hopelessness. To pray when we're suffering--even to cry out as at what seems to be God's absence--is not to try to put a rosy light on what is otherwise darkness; it's to insist that what St. Paul says is true: that there's nothing in heaven, earth, or hell, that will separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. To pray in the midst of suffering, even meagrely, even "why?" or "how long?" is to claim the wild hope that we have: that brokenness and death won't have the last word on us or this world, but love and life will. It's to come into the company of the One who cries out My God, my God, why have your forsaken me? And when we do that we also find ourselves in the presence of the One whom not even death can hold back from us. To pray in the midst of suffering is to grab hold of the hem of the robe of the God who raises the dead. And it's to know that that God has come close enough for us to reach, even from the depths.
On the other hand, it's instructive that James has to tell us to praise when things are going well. Perhaps it's just as natural to forget that God is near, that our lives are bound up with so much more than our immediate circumstances, when it feels like we've got life under control. James wants to make sure that the good stuff in our lives doesn't become a distraction from God. We give that stuff up to God, too. We offer it in gratitude. When we sing songs of praise for what is good in us and among us we keep our eyes fixed on the Giver, not obsessed with the gift. Because when we focus on the gifts, material or otherwise, our vision gets awfully narrow. We start worrying that there won't be enough of one thing or another and so we get stingy. We start comparing what we have to what others have. But when we place what's good, all our gladness in God's presence, we remember that it's not just for us--we're blessed to bless; we're made to reflect God's generosity and goodness, to share in God's joy and lavishness, to join in God's faithfulness to our neighbors, to participate in God's delight for this broken and beloved world.
If we'll learn (and this is learned) to pray and praise in all circumstances, to let attention to God, become our default not our emergency plan, or an occasional nod towards heaven, then I think the rest of this passage starts to make more sense. Truthfully, it can be a struggle to hear James well in this stretch--especially if, like me, you've prayed for something that didn't happen, a healing that didn't come, a situation that didn't resolve like you'd wanted. If we don't first hear the invitation to become a people immersed in prayer--women and men eager to be in cahoots with the God who raises the dead, the One whose very breath enlivens all things, whose desire is to wipe away every tear, to heal the nations, to make heaven and earth new and one--then the next instructions can make prayer seem more like a magical insurance policy that kicks in when our substantial faith deductable has been paid up. This is not that, I don't believe.
Instead, when we cultivate intimacy and trust with God, through prayer and praise, we also begin to develop intimacy and a kind of holy vulnerability with each other. What James says next makes it clear that we are not individuals praying in isolation, we're made to be members of a community of hope, daughters and sons of the household of God's love. The Christian life is not a solo venture. And so when we're sick, James tells us to call our community around us. Illness can be utterly isolating--lots of people don't want to be around sick people; often we don't want others to see our weakness. And it can be guilt inducing--we find all kinds of ways, according to worldly wisdom, to subtly assign blame for sickness. The Church is denied these easy outs. We're actually not allowed to turn a blind eye or cast callous judgment. We are called to walk in the way of the One who touched lepers and denied the guilt of the sick, the one who got close enough that the hem of his robe could be grabbed.
Let's take a moment and imagine the scene that James sets up. It's a beautiful challenge. The sick person, instead of keeping his illness hidden calls his team to the bedside. And they show up. And they lay hands, touching his body in spite of sickness, reminding us that bodies matter, that our faith is not all words, but Word made flesh. And then they anoint the sick one. It's not just soothing oil, it's a royal anointing! It's both a blessing and a promise. It's a declaration that even in illness, even as bodies fail, the sick person is a beloved son or daughter of God, a prince or princess of heaven's kingdom. The presence, the touch, the anointing is an embodied prayer that puts both the sick and the healthy in the presence of the One who refuses to let frailty and death have the last word on us. Another way to translate "the prayer of faith will save the sick" is "the prayer of faith will restore the weary," which is something altogether different than simply providing medicine or guaranteeing a miracle.
When we allow people to share in our pain, we're in the presence of the One who knew suffering. When we show up at the side of someone who is suffering, physically or otherwise, we are mirroring the way that God is, living up to our high calling as the image of God in the world. The restorative power of that presence cannot be quantified. Modern science confirms that community is extraordinarily important to healing.
To focus on the acts and presence is not to deny the reality of miracles. I know people who have experienced healing that could not be rationally explained. I don't have a problem with the idea that prayer actually heals. I continue to trust that it does. I just think that there's more to this than a straightforward relationship between faithful prayer and physical healing. I'm quite grateful that James doesn't try to explain the logistics of miracles, or exactly how prayer works. He just gives voice to what generation after generation experiences, which is that prayer changes circumstances, sometimes in ways we couldn't have imagined. The point is not to explain prayer, or understand it intellectually, but to do it. That's where the real wisdom comes. James is not afraid of the mystery that takes shape when we bring ourselves, in all of our weariness and wonder, in to the presence of the God who is faithful beyond the end, who doesn't cut and run when things get difficult and worse, but leads us through the darkness and into light; the God who leads us to sing songs of hope, even in the depths.
Aside: I need to confess that I don't understand something, which is why our translation keeps forgiveness of sins so directly linked with physical healing--implying that illness and sin are always linked (vs 15). In the Greek that James wrote in, there wasn't any punctuation, which means that what we see in our Scriptures is the editorial choices of scribes and translators. I have no idea why there is a semicolon and not a period between "the Lord will raise them up" and "and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven." Perhaps there's an assumption about a pre-scientific understanding that physical illness had to do with spiritual weakness. I suppose that can be sometimes true, but it's obviously not always true, and it's certainly a dangerous thing to assume.
I think that these are two different things, sickness and sin, both of which can cause destructive isolation and guilt, if not dealt with in the presence of God and community. And it makes more sense to me to move from one to the other. Eugene Peterson, in his rendering of The Message does that. Because then we have James reminding us that prayer changes our physical circumstances, both for the sick and the healthy; and, maybe more importantly, it changes our spiritual circumstances, too. Understood this way, James is not saying that the sick are sinful; he's happily reminding us that we all are! When he says, Therefore, confess your sins to one another, he's insisting that regardless of our physical health, we've got spiritual work to do. He's underlining the truth that God loves us just as we are and too much to leave us that way. This side of heaven, we're still short of the glory of God.
Sin--failure to love God and our neighbor as we're made to--is isolating and guilt inducing. As we come to know God, we recognize more clearly the ways that we don't live in appropriate response to who God is and what God has done; nor do we love our neighbors like Jesus does. That can make us totally anxious. It can have us hiding from each other and trying to hide from God. Shame is the first result of sin, according to the Genesis story. But if Christ is the destroyer of sin, the conqueror of our brokenness, the source of our hope and our unity, then the Church has to have a different response to the reality of sin and brokenness, than condemnation and guilt and secrecy.
But we're not always very good at the kind of openness that James prescribes. If our worship elder, instead of leading us in a prayer of confession, asked us to turn to our neighbors and confess our sins, I'm guessing that would be a touch awkward. That's just not how we do things. And there are good reasons we don't do confession so haphazardly. But it actually shouldn't be awkward to admit to a fellow sister or brother in Christ that you struggle with envy, or lust, or pride, or whatever. Because here's the thing about confession: it helps us know that we're not alone. If you've ever been part of a group confession, what you learn pretty quickly is that everyone else is a mess of conflicted desires and motives, too. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 20th century saint and martyr, says this: "A man who confesses his sins in the presence of a brother knows that he is no longer alone with himself; he experiences the presence of God in the reality of the other person." (Life Together) St. Peter describes sin as a prowling lion looking for someone to devour. And the lion's strategy is to isolate us from the herd where we are most vulnerable to attack.
But confession and forgiveness draws us back in to a kind of protective intimacy. Confession and forgiveness pulls us deep into God's story of redemption and grace, God's story of renewal, God's pattern of healing and restoring. That's also, I think, the importance of the allusion to the prophet Elijah. I would quibble a bit with James that Elijah was just like us, but maybe that's my problem. Maybe it's not that James takes us too seriously, but me who doesn't take us seriously enough. Still, I don't think this is about comparing ourselves to a wonder-working prophet. The point is that we don't pray in historical isolation, any more than in physical or spiritual isolation; we pray in the company of the saints, the great cloud of witnesses who have responded to God's call.
Elijah reminds us that we shouldn't pray apart from Scripture. That's not to say that we can only pray with our Bibles open. But part of prayer is learning to hear God well, allowing who and how God is to shape our lives--even in ways that are contrary to our expectations, or the trinity of my wants, needs, and feelings. Scripture is where we come to know our unexpected God most clearly. There's an awful lot about God that we can't intuit from the world around us, or the stuff within us. When James tells us to consider Elijah he reminds us again that our lives, our words and actions, our work and rest, our bodies and souls, are bound up with the surprising and saving work of God in the world, from beginning to end--Genesis to Revelation.
And then James ends abruptly. There's no flourish. There are no personal greetings. There's just this instruction to gather in those who have wandered from the truth. What that looks and sounds like is going to be different in every situation, which accounts for the vagueness. But what is beautiful is that although the letter begins with a greeting to a people who are dispersed, it ends with this vision of unity and gathering. The Church isn't a place that shuts out the wanderers or even the reprobates. The church is meant to help cast the dragnet of God's grace that first caught us, to draw people in, to be good, reconciling news for a world divided and broken.
I suppose it's possible that we're just missing a piece of parchment, that there's some more formal ending buried in a cave somewhere. But I think that's more boring that the possibility that maybe James ends his letter like this, because he knows it's not really over. The suddenness makes us feel like there must be more, which is absolutely true. I think is a reminder that the work isn't done, that growing in grace and wisdom is an ongoing adventure, sustained by prayer, shaped by grace, full of love. What if the sudden ending of James' letter is a reminder that right now, right here we are part of God's work; that we are part of the "more to the story" that we long for; that we are in the presence and power of the One who will make all things new, even us?