James 5.13-20

"The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective."

In our extract this morning from the New Testament book of James, the author, James, is encouraging us to a life of prayer and praise - not just treating them as things we might do in Church, but things that characterise our whole way of life. He seems to be encouraging us to live a life of constant chatting to God and listening to him.

Now, in this particular extract from James' letter it all seems terribly straightforward. If you take it at face value (and out of context) it looks as though he's saying something like this: if you're ill, don't bother with the doctors - just get your church leaders to pray for you and anoint you with oil and you'll get well. And if you've done anything wrong, just confess your sins to a Christian and you'll get off scot-free. And if you don't like the weather, (very topical, this one!) just tell God what you'd prefer and he'll change it for you. (The majority of prayer requests I receive are actually weather-related which always makes my heart sink).

Well, the trouble is that life isn't that simple - something that James himself acknowledges if you read the whole of his book. Even though some miracles do happen, quite a lot of prayers appear to go unanswered. A lot of the time the life of faith is quite tough. Prayer is not an easy thing to do (even for those of us who do a lot of it) and certainly doesn't always produce the straightforward results we expect.

There is an old joke (my apologies to those who have heard it before) of an atheist who is walking through a forest and suddenly he comes across and enormous, ferocious and very hungry-looking grizzly bear. The bear roars and lunges towards him and he cries out "Oh my God." Suddenly everything freezes and a voice comes out of heaven saying "do you really call upon now, after all these years of denying my existence?" "Well," says the man, "I suppose it would be hypocritical of me to become a Christian in these circumstances, but could I perhaps ask you to make the bear a Christian?" And to his astonishment the bear stops in mid-pounce, kneels down reverently and the man hears him begin a prayer..."for what I am about to receive, may the Lord make me truly thankful...:

Anyone who has tried praying will know that the answers we get are not always what we expected. So what is prayer, and how, in one sermon, can I help us all to pray a little more easily?

Well, prayer, at its simplest is us and God - the interaction between ourselves and our creator. It can take many forms, but the heart of prayer is a time of genuine connection between ourselves and God.

Real prayer should be a moment of illumination, when we see the reality of our lives and recognise God's presence within it. And what prayer does is to open up the possibility for God to act in our lives. You see, the God Christians believe in, the God revealed in the bible, is a God who is all-powerful and yet not remotely tyrannical. He operates only with our consent. If we have not experienced God, perhaps it's because we haven't given him that consent. Prayer is the consent for God to act in our life.

Congregations who don't pray are limited to their own resources. A congregation that does pray opens itself up to God's resources. Congregations who don't listen to God are limited by their own horizons. A congregation that does pray begins to see God's horizon. And the same is true of individuals too. Prayer opens up God's activity in our lives and opens up a whole new dimension to life.

But why do we find prayer so difficult? I think there are two main reasons: firstly, we are too inward-looking and secondly we struggle to be real. And actually, those two reasons are really one.

One of the most common approaches to prayer is to treat it like a letter to Santa - a series of requests for him to fulfil; or to treat God as a genie in a lamp, granting us three wishes. Usually (not always, but usually) when people complain of unanswered prayer, they have a specific situation in mind - when they asked God for something and didn't get it. Now, that immediately sounds inward looking and sometimes, on reflection, we can see that what we were asking for was perhaps rather selfish, so perhaps we didn't deserve to have our wish granted. But sometimes, our prayer is clearly is not selfish - such as when we ask for someone else to be healed or saved. So how can that be inward-looking?

Well, the problem, I think, is not in asking God for things (he actively encourages us to tell him what we want), but the problem lies in treating prayer as a spasmodic request or wish. You see, God operates not only by consent, but also from within the context of a life-long relationship - that's the only way in which he deals with humanity and therefore the only way we can understand him. If we only plug in and out of that relationship it's like having a marriage where one party is constantly faithful and the other only appears every few years to get some washing done - it just becomes a collision of two very different worlds. God speaks to us through a life-long story of our entire existence. We cannot understand his ways or his answers to our prayers if we only come to him with occasional requests.

In fact, some people even ration their prayers and pray only when they really want something. I recall once being told by someone (not in these parishes) that their husband was ill. When I offered to pray for him, she said in a rather panicky voice, "oh no, he's not that bad." I got the impression that she was saving up her prayers and demanding as little as possible of God so that when it was "that bad", she could play all her prayer cards at once.

But God doesn't interact with us in a spasmodic way. He interacts with us in the context of life-long relationship. And in my experience, those who persist in prayer and make it a way of life, find that their prayers are answered routinely, whereas those who pray infrequently are the most likely to believe that their prayers have not been answered. But, God operates within the long story of our lives, and if we are only attentive to him in the spasmodic moments when we make demands of him, we won't understand what he is trying to tell us.

You see, even when we are praying for others, it is still possible to approach God from an inward-looking perspective - coming to him only when we need him, commanding him to act in the way we choose, rather than seeking his interaction with our lives (and the life of the person for whom we pray).

Again, I find it an almost invariable rule that those who pray most often believe that they are transformed by their prayers. One of the main functions of prayer is not to get God to do what we want, but to allow God to change us. If you read the Gospels, you will find that when people asked Jesus for something, he usually gave them an answer that was very different from what they thought they were asking of him - an answer that went beyond just doing what they wanted of him and got to the heart of their problem. Jesus's answers almost always said something that changed their perspective, made them look at the world or themselves in a different way, challenging them about their attitudes or what they were doing, what they weren't doing. Those people rarely got the answer they were expecting, but they were changed by Jesus' response - and healed, and fed and loved.

The trouble with treating God only as a genie in a bottle granting wishes is that it treats us as the master and him as the servant, whereas in fact He is the master and we are the servants. True prayer, prayer that makes the connection with God is the prayer that recognises God's authority and allows him to challenge us and change our perspective.

We hear God's answer to our prayers when we are focussed not on ourselves and our desires, but upon him and his desires.

And this brings me to the other common mistake in prayer - the failure to be real. All of us have a ready-made image of God in our minds and none of us is convinced by the image we have of him. So if our image of God is of a divine Santa Claus giving out gifts if we write him a letter, we might try him out with a request. But we long ago stopped believing in Santa Claus, so we're not really convinced we believe in God and then when the gift we ask him for doesn't materialise, that proves the point.

I put that rather simplistically, but actually all of us do something like that when we pray to God. We have an image of the God we're praying to and an expectation of how he should respond. That image of God is usually a composite of many things- stories we've heard, people we've known, pictures we've seen, feelings we've experienced: they all jumble up in our heads to make up an image of God in our mind, and it is to that image that we then pray.

But that god is not real. There may be elements of reality about it, but it is an image we have invented, a mere idol in fact - one we hardly believe in ourselves, because deep down, we know we've invented it. And so our prayers to that god are not real either.

In order for prayer to be genuine, we must come before the real God and that means praying not to the God we imagine, but to the God who really is out there. It means praying not in order to have our made-up image of God confirmed, but rather asking God to reveal to us who he really is. Then we can begin to find answers to our prayers and someone we can believe in.

And the counterpart to this is that we must also bring the real us before the real God. So often we pray from a position of unreality. We know that life is tough and that Christians suffer (if Jesus and his disciples suffered and if he told us that we would suffer, we know that Christians will suffer), so why does suffering shake our faith? Because we've somehow constructed a myth that Christians shouldn't suffer - but that's not real. We know that the Christian life is a struggle - prayer is difficult, temptation is tempting, praise is something we prefer to receive than to give, generosity is something other people should do more of, caring for the suffering of others unsettles our illusion of happiness. And yet because we find it difficult, we're put off praying - the very thing that is designed to help us in our difficulty.

So prayer that is genuine, prayer that genuinely connects us with our creator, must start from a position of reality. So, let me finish with a few practical hints:

  • Don't worry too much about whether you feel close to God or not. God is always close to us and whether we feel his presence or not makes no difference to whether our prayer is heard.

  • Keep listening and watching for what God is doing - sometimes it takes a while for us to understand his answers;

  • Beware of praying only to get what you want - you'll miss so much of what God is giving you and doing with you;

  • Beware of sporadic and isolated prayers - you'll miss out so many vital chapters in the book of your life. Pray as often as you can.

  • And finally, simple honesty is best. Tell God what's really going on and invite God to act in his own way (and, incidentally, short prayers are often the most powerful) -

    "God, you know I find you difficult to believe in. Show me who you are."

    "God, here are the desires of my heart. Give me what I truly need."

    "God, I don't feel like praying at them moment. Can you help me?"

    "God, have mercy on my friend."

    "Lord, where were you when I needed you? Am I missing something?"

    "Lord, I find marriage difficult. Help me to love my wife."

    "Lord, you know me better than I know myself. Show me who I really am and who you would have me be."

    Pray honestly, pray continually and you will meet God, and you will find needs met and your lives transformed by the presence of God.

    "The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective." Amen.

Preached: St Cuthbert, Cliburn (joint Eucharist), 30 September 2012