Our first dilemma with James comes with this idea that perhaps a prayer of a more faithful person will be more effective in moving God than someone else, presumably a “less” faithful Christian. Our experiences and our understanding of God cry out that this is not so. We know that our words and thoughts are important to God and we feel like surely our God would not pick favorites … but still sometimes we wonder if maybe someone else’s prayer might be better than our own. As James concludes his book, he encourages and requires prayer of every Christian in almost every situation as a way back into the wisdom of God.
I have a small confession to make; I have never liked praying in front of others (I know, I know, this is not what the soon-to-be-installed pastor of a church is supposed to say). I have suffered from what almost all of us do when asked to pray in front of people … fear of failure. What if I say a terrible prayer? What if I say something wrong? Surely someone else can say a prayer more expressively. This fear of ours is an acknowledgement that there is something sacred in talking with God on behalf of others. It is one thing to personally pray to God and have a relationship with God. Being asked to pray in front of people however seems more formal, less personal and it makes us … edgy.
This edginess is something I had to get used to as one of the chaplains for Baptist Hospital East in Louisville. We took turns carrying a pager, and when it went off you knew that there was either a crisis of some sort or an imminent death. I distinctly remember when I walked into my first experience of answering the beeper … I prayed the whole way there, asking for the ‘right’ words to say as I put one foot in front of the other. Once I got there, I was asked by a family of 6 siblings to pray for them as their mother died in front of us. There is no real way to describe this kind of situation, but it was in its own way holy. I cannot tell you what words I said as I prayed. In fact, it’s probably better that I don’t remember them specifically. What I said was not nearly as important as the function and purpose of that prayer – to remind the family that God is with them (and their mother), God cares, and God will always care.
The point of praying is not to be eloquent and flowery. It’s not about saying the “right” words. Prayer is about intentionally experiencing God’s presence and attempting to attune oneself with God. The family that I prayed with merely needed someone to be their voice and to help them bring themselves (their lives and their emotions) honestly and sincerely to God. In fact, if there were prerequisites for how to pray correctly, it would begin with honesty. This is why we always have a prayer of confession at the beginning of our services. We believe that is important for us as a community to be candid with God about our faith walk. We confess as a body to our shortcomings and we commit to working as a body of Christ to live more fully as Christ in the world.
This brings me to another focus of James, that of community life. He charges us to mutual accountability. James says confess to another … this is something that we Protestants shy away from. Some churches leave a respectful silence in which each individual can bring their private confessions to God, but we don’t emphasize telling another human of our sins. Why is it so important to James that we confess to one another? I’ve spoken to some of my Catholic friends on how confessing their sins to a priest affects them and one of them said that having to lay out what you’ve done wrong to a physical person makes you think a lot harder about what you do. This is probably why dieting support groups (really any support group) are so effective and popular; having a friend hold you to your promise or commitment makes it easier to hold yourself accountable.
The mutual accountability that James calls the Christian community means allowing others to help you in your vulnerability. It means accepting that you are not perfect and are not the ‘model Christian.’ Mutual accountability builds on the strength of community because as we share our vulnerable points, we can then also share our communal strengths. We can encourage one another, we can check in with each other. We are concerned, not just about our own personal salvation, but also the quality of our fellow Christians’ walk with Christ.
This, I think, is something this church does well. I’ve had the pleasure of sitting in on the Via de Cristo group that meets each week. Right now, they are going through a study on encouragement which fits with the purpose of that group – to support one another in (quite literally) the way of Christ. Beyond this small group, you care for each other. I cannot count how many people asked me how Carol Hoeflich was doing last week after her fall, and when I visited Martha Bowers last week, she was eager to hear how everyone in the church was doing. This is a community that actively cares for and encourages one another, in whatever way possible. Meals are taken to those who have recently had surgery or going through a difficult time; groceries to stock a brand new kitchen are given to the newcomer to the congregation; high fives are shared when a congregation member earns a medal for their achievements. This is a community that is full of caring and encouragement.
Usually there’s one part of a text or sermon that gets stuck in my head, and quite literally plays over and over like a broken record until I can figure it out and make sense of it. This week, it is this conviction that prayer and confession are central to the worshipping community. But how do we practically live out this need for confession? How are we to hold each other accountable?
This is not an easy question, and I ask it almost rhetorically to see if anyone else has ideas on this. It is not easy to be so vulnerable to one another that we literally confess all our sins to each other. In fact, it may not be wise or healthy to do so. Yet, there must be ways that we can re-commit to our faith each week and promise to walk with each other on the way.
1) One possible solution is to find a prayer partner – someone you trust that you commit to meeting with on a regular basis. You can share goals and admit some weaknesses that you want to work on. And you pray for each other, actively.
2) I’d also like to challenge the members of this church to pray every day for the church. Maybe it’s a short thought or two while you brush your teeth, or a few quiet moments before you go to bed. But if all of us pray for this church, how much more in tune will we be with God, with one another, and with God’s vision for this church?
Lastly, I would like to point out that we can confess our sins before God, because we know that we are already forgiven and this gives us the strength and motivation to work harder. It is not a ‘get out of jail free’ card, letting us off the hook and not requiring any further action. Instead, it is a weekly reminder of the grace we receive from God. It also reminds us of the grace that we are called to extend to one another, forgiving each other for wrong-doings & offences or just perceived wrong-doings and offences. The body of Christ is called to be as gracious to one another as Christ was gracious to us. This is a call to non-judgment, open-armed, generous and encouraging love that is genuine in our hope for each other. May we all feel the depth of this gift of grace so deeply that we know how important it is to share with others.
Let us pray, Gracious God, we confess to you every week, help us to mean what we say. Teach us how to live out our intentions to glorify you, and support in us our attempts to be accountable to one another in this your community. In Christ’s name. Amen.