What’s Prayer Got To Do With It?
You know, there are a lot of dead souls out there, wandering through life living with obsessions and fears and grudges and resentments and depression. They do not know how to feel joy, but boy, they are good at keeping a grudge going. Ask them if they are nice friendly people, they would probably agree they were, but if you let them talk, you may find they are fixated with the horrible person who stabbed them in the back or who is a terrible neighbor or just rubs them the wrong way.
They are in the habit of criticising their neighbors, usually behind the neighbors’ backs, and it is not nice to hear them go after someone. And yet it is so easy to do. Just ask me about the last time we replaced the fence between our house and the neighbor’s house, and how we ended up solving our dispute about what kind of paint to use. I’m no saint, and I can still foam at the mouth at the thought of the ‘latex vs oil’ debate that never did get resolved.
So when I hear the disciples grousing about the guy down the road from them who is casting out demons in Jesus’ name, something that earlier in the chapter, they were not able to do, I can really relate. Especially in a town with lots of different churches. It’s so tempting to think that we do church better than ‘them’ whoever ‘them’ might happen to be. But annoyingly, Jesus doesn’t join their side in the resentment match. “We’re better than he is,” doesn’t cut any dice with Jesus. And he launches into a long lecture to remind them to keep their minds on the business at hand. Don’t forget that you are to be salty, and undistracted from what is important, helping children not to stumble, helping community come together to make a difference in the world. Be flavorful, zesty, tasty, seasoning for life. Be the sparkle that makes others around us go, “Wow, I want some of that.”
That’s a big tall order. How do we be zesty when we’re living the average life with the average challenges from family, neighbors, acquaintances and church community? How do we be sparkling when we’re in the presence of that annoying so and so who goes out of his or her way to be deliberately annoying and vexatious?
That’s where I think the James reading is important. What are we to be doing? Calling on Jesus name. Reminding ourselves to pray. Prayer? Yikes! I don’t know about you, but prayer is one of those things we don’t talk about, right up there with talking about sex, our bank accounts, politics and what kind of computer or phone is best. Dangerous stuff.
And prayer is so nebulous. It has a huge ‘ick’ factor for many people, who think about prayer as something a ‘holy roller’ kind of guru does. I must admit that I never gave prayer much thought when I was growing up. Wasn’t that something that kids were supposed to do on their knees in their nightshirts right before bed? What if the floor was cold? What if my knees were bony? So pretty much as soon as I was old enough to get an understanding that there was something called prayer, I was rejecting it as hard work. Then there were the gurus that apparently could sit cross-legged in the lotus position chanting ‘om’ for hours at a time. Boring! Why do that when there was so much more interesting stuff in the world like root beer floats or ice cream sundaes or even boys?
Then there were the embarrassing people who went on and on about how their prayers fixed their lives and made all their dreams come true. The people who put ads in the paper, like one I remember reading in the 1980’s, “Thank you God for my Mercedes”, or the athletes who thanked God for their Grey Cup touchdown, and so on. Really? God gave you a Mercedes? Why?
Couldn’t God give the people on Boyle Street a ham sandwich then? Wouldn’t 5 thousand ham sandwiches do more good? So praying for stuff seemed pretty silly or selfish or some combination of that. And it doesn’t help that James makes it sound like all our problems will be solved if we pray. Jesus prayed that he might not be crucified, and look at how that turned out.
So how do we look at prayer with modern eyes? The neuroscientists are doing some interesting work on the power of our thoughts to impact our brain chemistry. They report “The practise of Gratitude produces the same brain chemical as the antidepressant Wellbutrin, dopamine as well as doing what Prozac does, it boosts the neurotransmitter serotonin. It’s not finding gratitude that matters most; it’s remembering to look in the first place. One study found that it actually affected neuron density in both the ventromedial and lateral prefrontal cortex.”
They have also found that labelling our negative emotions can lessen their impact. When participants in a study were asked to name their emotion, the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex activated and reduced the emotional amygdala reactivity. In other words, consciously recognizing the emotions reduced their impact. “Dear God, I am so angry at such and such” may actually calm us down.
Even the decision to turn something over to God can help our stress levels. One of the most powerful prayers we can make is to say, “Oh God, this problem is too big for me.” But James wants us not to pray just for the sake of ourselves but for our own community. He wrote, “Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.” And the you he used in Greek was plural. Pray for each other so that your congregation, your fellowship, your community, your town will be healed.
What would Athabasca really look like if we all prayed for every single person in it? A wonderful place where every flavorful, salty person would be at peace with everyone else in one wonderful circle of love and fellowship. Let us work and pray for that day to come. Amen.