When I was a little girl, my mother taught me a prayer to say before bed. It was a prayer I’m sure many of you also learned, it went like this:
“Now I lay be down to sleep, I prayer the Lord my soul to keep, if I should die before I wake I pray the Lord my soul to take.”
It reminded me, that God was watching over me, even when I slept and that God would let no danger come to me, and if it did, God would take care of me. A simple prayer, one a child could understand and feel comforted.
As I grew older my prayers changed. I asked God to help me with schoolwork, to show me what God wanted me to do with my life, and even to find me a nice boyfriend. Every day prayers for every day needs. Not terribly sophisticated, but based on trust that God saw me and cared for me, and was interested in my needs and wants.
I think I always believed in God. Sometimes, I did think that I must have been behind the door when God handed out the map of how to figure out “life” in general.
It seemed to me everyone knew better than I did what they wanted from life. What I wanted to do, as a woman, was closed to me. I knew from the age of 12 that I wanted to be an Episcopal priest but I never thought that would happen.
As time went on and I had young children, I don’t think I spent a lot of time taking with God. I was pretty busy with 3 small children under 5. I do remember that I asked for God’s help when I woke up and thanked God for keeping my children safe.
A time came, however, when God let me down. I felt that God hadn’t kept my children safe. I was so angry with God. I found it hard to pray. I was so isolated that I didn’t have any elders, as the Letter to James says, to pray over me. Then I found the Al Anon Program and started to make friends and have a community that understood what I was dealing with. I still found it hard to pray but I started to recognize that what was happening in my life wasn’t God’s fault, nor my own.
Though, I missed praying, I still couldn’t talk with God. I missed the sense that God was involved with my life. I missed the comfort I found when I prayed and I missed the companionship of Jesus that I had always taken for granted.
I remember telling a friend how I couldn’t pray. I told him, I still believed there was a God, but I just had trouble talking with God in prayer. He told me to pray to his God. Not that he was a God, but that he felt sure that it would be easier for me to use another persons’ sense of God for a while.
So I began to pray to “Jim’s God” My prayer became, “Dear Jim’s God, I believe, please help my unbelief”. Some people call that the “Thomas prayer” after the doubting apostle Thomas. Each morning, I prayed for God to help me through the day and each evening I prayed in thanks for the day. Again, I began to ask God for help with my life. It was slow going for a while but I began to trust that God had not left me, even if I seemed to have left God. I started to find God again, and one day I didn’t need “Jim’s God” any more, I had found my God again.
I had found a gentle Jesus who cared and watched over my children and me. I began to trust that even if my life was still a struggle that I had the strength and help to do what needed to be done. I began to believe that in the goodness of the future. I also found that I could pray not in sadness in “cheer”. I could sing a song of praise. I found the Psalms and they began to lift my spirit.
One day, I met a wonderful man, who loved my children, and me. He would be a comfort and a companion. And miraculously, what I never thought would happen, did happen; I began the process to become a priest. I went to seminary and then at the age of 50, I was ordained at the Cathedral of St. Paul, in Boston, Massachusetts.
On that day, I felt such a cloud of witnesses surround me. I felt all those I had loved were present, and a community that had seen me through the hard times was now celebrating a new beginning with me. God not only was present, but I felt surrounded by God’s love. I understood at a profoundly deep level that I was loved by God and that prayer was a powerful conversation that we could have, not always getting what I thought I wanted but truly getting what I needed.
I believe that James’ community was struggling with prayer. The letter of James was written some where between 60 and 70 C.E., when the persecution of Christians was still a local happening. It was not as widespread and pervasive as it became after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 C.E. I believe the apostle James, understood his communities’ fear that they would suffer persecution and death as was happening in other Christian communities. His letter was meant to comfort and encourage this new Jewish Christian community. It was his desire to remind them that God was only a prayer away. He also reminded them that they were not alone, not isolated but belonged to a community founded on God’s love. Not only did they have God, but they had each other.
When their individual strength failed them, they could call on their corporate strength. When their personal way seemed confusing, they could trust that the community would see them through and would pray unceasingly for God’s guidance.
James reminded them that God was part of the everyday fabric of their life. He reminded them that God had loved them so much that God came among them in the person of Jesus. A person who understood their deep human hungers, fears and needs. A person who suffered as they suffered and a person who had been willing to suffer unto death for love of them.
James Jewish Christian community became, for each, a cloud of witnesses to God’s grace and mercy.
He said to them, “Are any among you suffering?” Then pray!
Are any sick? “Then pray and anoint with oil.”
Prayer will save the sick, whether they are sick in body or spirit. Prayer is the balm that heals all our struggles and pain and prayer invites God and each other to become the instrument of God’s saving grace.
And, he reminded them that prayer was a gift. Prayer was God’s gift and we should remember that God’s salvation is the Good News and joy abounds within us.
Also, he said, “Are you cheerful? Then sing songs of prayer!
Prayer is not only for Petitions, and Intercessions as we pray each Sunday in our Prayers of the People, but prayer is for Thanksgiving. Prayer is when our hearts are so full of God’s love that we cannot contain it and bursts from us in songs and praise of God’s love. Our joy becomes a living prayer! A prayer that becomes a life filled with joy in the saving power of our faith in Jesus Christ.
Prayer is for celebrating all the blessings of life. Prayer is for celebrating a faith that binds us together and each Sunday feeds us in the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Prayer is for when joy abounds! As the Solomon sang, a faith-filled life reminds us that:
“… the winter is past,
the rain is over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth;
the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtledove
is heard in our land…”
Paul proclaims the power of prayer when he says, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing…”
When we live prayerful lives, our lives become a living prayer. As a community of faith gathered together, we witness to the power and love of God.
We affirm that we have been saved by our faith in Jesus Christ and we acknowledge our utter dependence on God for the direction of our life. Pray assures us that our lives are a living prayer and that the desire to pray is a joy to our community and to the choir of witnesses in heaven.
There is a powerful prayer that Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk and mystic wrote, that sustains me and fills me with hope and joy.
Let us pray.
MY LORD GOD, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.