Proper 21(B): When You Can’t Pray

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By: The Rev. Ryan Young

It is no small coincidence that I should have chosen this passage for Proper 21 some time ago. I chose to write on this passage as a lover of contemplative prayer practices–particularly centering prayer–and I intended to write on silent prayer as a critical practice of listening for God. Due to unforeseen and unwelcome life situations, it has become something else. I have had many occasions for prayer and many experiences struggling with prayer over the past month. This essay is, with many apologies to Modern Metanoia’s editor, quite past the deadline we had agreed upon for its completion.

A few weeks ago, my family received distressing news about my wife’s pregnancy. We were advised to make an appointment with a specialist for further tests and care. The specialist was unable to see us for a week, so we spent the entirety of that week consumed by anxiety, which we tried to hide from our 3 and a half year old daughter. We didn’t want to tell her anything until we knew what was happening, but the stress of acting normal only further frayed our nerves.

Once we were able to see the specialist, we received an opinion that the worst possibilities, to which we naturally gravitated, were unlikely and that the concern was, thankfully, minor. That relief was short-lived. Only three days later we received news that our daughter was exposed to covid by a child in her class. Her asthma and stint in the ICU with respiratory problems as an infant have made us fearful of what complications a novel respiratory virus might cause her. A few days later her covid test came back positive, and we were once again in the depths of anxiety and uncertainty. 

Amid all of this, I found it extremely hard to pray. I don’t have words of my own to encompass my feelings of helplessness. Praying the historic prayers of the church feels disingenuous. I cannot quiet myself enough to settle into centering prayer; thoughts and fears for my children are the only things that occupy my mind. 

“Are any among you suffering? They should pray.” Great. Except that I just couldn’t get there. Choosing a scripture that centers around prayer was beginning to feel like a really bad idea. The bright spot in all of this is that so many others have reached out to check on my family to see if we needed anything, to share words of compassion, and to ensure us that we were being prayed for.

“Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them…” 

I began to notice that only one out of the eight verses in this scripture are actually a prescription for individual prayer. The majority of these verses speak about the importance of praying for one another. The author of James recognizes that we cannot escape the threads of common humanity and interdependence. They spend very little time advising individuals to pray because we do not exist as individuals and never have. For individuals, there are times where prayer is all but impossible, but the prayers and faithfulness of others are always available. Because we are one Body, we can rely on others to pray for us when we cannot pray ourselves. We can rely on others to sing songs of praise when we would rather weep. We can rely on others to believe for us when faith seems too big a task.

“The prayer of faith will make the sick whole, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you maybe made whole.” (My adapted translation from the NRSV. Both the word translated as “save,” sōzō, and the word translated as “be healed,” iaomai, also connote wholeness. Both can faithfully be translated, “to make whole.”)

Prayer does its work on the one who prays and the one prayed for. Prayer for others can bring them to wholeness. It also seems that prayer for others is what your wholeness rests upon–”so that you may be healed.” It is balm for the soul of those who cannot pray and brings forth the compassion of Christ in those who can. Elijah’s fervent prayer held back and then brought forth rain, which he had no ability to control. Home much more might our prayers elicit compassion, healing, and forgiveness, which we have the ability to both offer and receive?

The Rev. Ryan Young serves as the Pastor of Care and Spiritual Development at Northbrook United Methodist Church in Roswell, Georgia. He is passionate about guiding the church in building more just and equitable communities and serves on the boards of the North Georgia United Methodist Church Housing and Homeless Council and Action Ministries/Hope Atlanta. He currently lives in Woodstock, Georgia with his wife, Rachael, daughter, Iris, and dog, Zoey.

Proper 18(B): The Weight of Mercy

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By: The Rev. Andrew Chappell

One of the most haunting verses in all of scripture comes in the middle of James’s second chapter. James is in the midst of a major teaching moment regarding favoritism. He begins the chapter with an ardent declaration, “Anyone who acts in a manner of favoritism has no real share in the faith of Jesus Christ.” He then gives a cutting example.

A leader of a church gathering gives a good seat to the rich person, but to the poor, he allows him or her to sit on the floor or stand in the back. The leader has become an evil judge and has in turn dishonored the very heirs of the kingdom, the poor. A few verses later, James cuts to the chase, “So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment” (2:12-13, NRSV).

The mandate is clear. We are not simply to be faithful people. We should be active people. We should not simply intend mercy. We should implement mercy. For God’s economy and politics are not aligned with those of humanity. Money is not king. Class is not of the highest value. Favoritism is out. Mercy is in.

And what happens to those who seem merciful but do not perpetuate mercy? What happens to those who empathize but do not actuate grace? James is pretty clear when he says, “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (2:17, NRSV). Intention without initiative is empty. Anyone who does not show mercy will not be shown mercy.

James’s harshness to those who do not act mercifully reminds the reader of Jesus’ words, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matthew 7:21, NRSV). Another echo occurs in Matthew’s passage concerning the Judgment of the Nations. Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40, NRSV). For James and for Jesus in the above passages, action is a must. Active mercy and grace are necessary in accomplishing the mission of the kingdom of heaven on earth.

Being active in grace is also necessary if you wish to be shown the same. Call it Christian karma. But the above aren’t the only verses in Matthew where sharing mercy has a direct effect upon the mercy shown to me:

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy” (Matthew 5:7, NRSV).

“For if you forgive others their trespasses your Heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14-15, NRSV).

“And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart” (Matthew 18:34-35, NRSV).

All of this talk of showing mercy and its direct correlation with the mercy shown me by God is overwhelming and haunting. This Christian karma is overwhelming because there are so many areas of life that require me to show mercy and mercy is rarely easy. But I am haunted when I briefly glance at my past, only to see the amount of mercy that I have not actively demonstrated.

The haunting quickly dissipates when I think of Kathleen Norris’s understanding of grace. In her Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, Norris says, “Peter denied Jesus, and Saul persecuted the early Christians, but God could see the apostles they would become…We praise God not to celebrate our own faith but to give thanks for the faith God has in us” (151).

Norris reminds me, when I feel the weight of James and Jesus and their commands of mercy and consequences concerning the lack thereof, that the greatest mercy is always found in God. God is the greatest initiator of active grace. Every once in a while, it is good for us to reflect on the weight of mercy. But it doesn’t need to scare us. May we always feel empowered by our God who is actively and continuously granting grace to us because he believes in us, and he encourages us to share that same mercy again and again and again.

The Rev. Andrew Chappell serves as the Associate Pastor of Newnan First United Methodist Church in Newnan, Georgia. Andrew has an M. Div from Candler School of Theology and has been in ministry for over 10 years. He is engaged to Adair, enjoys Star Wars, and hopes to one day take his mandolin-playing skills up to the next level.