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When in Doubt, Pray!

I want to show you a really unusual tree. It’s located in a residential neighborhood of Portland, Oregon. And it is known as the wishing tree. Nicole Helprin owns the property, and before leaving on a trip several years ago, she got the idea of writing out a few wishes and hanging them from the tree.

When she returned, her tree was covered in wishes. Some are humorous, but most are sincere and moving. “I wish for everlasting love,” “I wish for everyone to have what they need,” “I wish my dad was nice,” “I wish to find my purpose and love for life again.”

That was back in 2013. The branches have been filled ever since. They still are today, as people of all ages scribble out their desires, and hang them in the hope that somehow, someone, or some force, will fulfill them, will answer them.

What a telling example of our innate bent toward prayer. Of course, many who write those wishes wouldn’t call them prayers, but we can recognize these are the honest, outward expression of what’s rumbling around inside of so many. We touched on prayer last week from James chapter one. This week we return to prayer as James concludes his letter. Writing to people who were feeling stressed, James begins and ends his counsel with prayer—in chapter 5 speaking of when to pray, addressing questions we have about unanswered prayer, and what to do when you don’t feel like you’re very good at praying—which is likely most of us!

So what I want to do this week is demystify prayer; take the fruit down from the top branches, to ground level, where we can enjoy it! Before you open a Bible app or Bible to James chapter 5 in the New Testament, let’s take a moment to pray about our praying.

Let’s talk with God right now.

Our Father in heaven, thank you for guiding James and the other New Testament writers to pen your counsel on how we can live the abundant life Jesus came to bring. We ask you to open our hearts and minds now to prayer. We ask you to demystify it for us, and bring greater freedom to each one listening. We thank you that You are listening as we pray even now. And we look forward to how you will pour out the answer to these requests. Amen!

James chapter 5, beginning in verse 13, James concludes this letter written to people who were feeling stressed, first by counseling us on…
• When to pray: anytime, anywhere, about anything.
He writes…
“Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.”
James 5:13-16

James asks, are you hurting? Pray.
Are you feeling great, cheerful? Sing your prayers, sing an upbeat praise and worship song.
Are you sick? Call the church leaders together to pray for you and anoint you with olive oil as a sign of the Holy Spirit’s presence with you and God’s power for you. He says the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well—future tense. “The Lord shall raise them up,” future tense again.

But pray. Pray your way through the day. anytime, anywhere, in any situation. Pray about it! Bring your experiences before God, who sees you, knows you, and cares for you.
Pray when you’re up.
Pray when you’re down.
Pray when you’re flat on your back.
Pray when you’re having a panic attack.
Pray when you’re at work.
Pray while you’re scrubbing dishes and folding laundry.
Pray when you’re driving—eyes open!
Pray when your feet hit the floor first thing in the morning.
Pray in the shower.
Pray when you can’t sleep.
Pray your way through the day. whatever the day brings, pray your way through the day.

A reminder in case you need to hear it, God loves you! So he loves to hear from you. He’s not too busy for you. He’s got time for you. You matter to him. You’re his kid, a king’s kid. All the wisdom, compassion, courage, and strength you need, God is ready and willing to give you a day at a time, a conflict at a time, a fear at a time, on and on. Pray your way through the day. You can pray anytime, anywhere, about anything. Nothing is off limits.

Some of you are thinking, “But I don’t know what to pray. I don’t feel like I know how to pray. Others pray much better than I do.” Okay, but you don’t have to stay there. You can grow into learning to talk with God. And the best place to start…is the Bible’s Psalms.

Every kind of experience, there’s a prayer about it in the Psalms: happiness, love, backstabbing, betrayal, loneliness, fear, rage, confusion, emptiness, cries for justice, prayers for God to judge evildoers, marvel at the beauty of nature, happy-feet-dancing joy, it’s all in there—words to voice your feelings, your experience. Everything we experience, there’s a prayer about it in the Psalms. The Psalms were originally songs, sung prayers.

But you need to know you’re also going to find some things in those prayers that are way out of the comfort zone, because we’re not dealing with the kinds of violence the original audience was—when ancient Israel was under military attack, when they were prisoners of war hauled off to what is now Iraq.

There’s a cultural and religious chasm in a lot of the language used in the Psalms. So not all of them will click with you. But…you’ll see enough common ground in the Psalms to make a bunch of them your own, adapting their ancient words to your experiences.

So let’s get practical, bring the fruit down to ground level. James encourages us to pray your way through the day. Pray anytime, anywhere, about anything. What to pray, then? Here are two practical helps:

  • Google the phrase “Psalms about….” Then add what you’re feeling or facing: Psalms about loneliness, Psalms about happiness, Psalms about fear, Psalms about justice, etc.
  • And the second practical help is to read the Psalms in The Message paraphrase.

And before anyone gets nervous over a paraphrase, it’s helpful to learn where The Message paraphrase came from. Eugene Peterson served as pastor of the same congregation for 29 years. Throughout those decades, he got to walk alongside his parishioners as they went through the full range of what life can throw at you. He often counseled what I’m urging today, that you let the Psalms give voice to your experiences.

But—as I mentioned a moment ago, he had parishioners come back saying some of the Psalms sound really strange. They come from long ago and far away, and include some images that make us blanche.

So here’s what that pastor did. He went back to the original Hebrew the Psalms were written in, and reworked them with two purposes: make them as clear as possible, and make them hit emotionally with the same impact they did for the original readers. Just yesterday someone told me how they use The Message paraphrased Psalms because of this. You can understand them, and they’re vivid, not boring. Here’s an example, Psalm 1 paraphrased for today:

How well God must like you—
    you don’t hang out at Sin Saloon,
    you don’t slink along Dead-End Road,
 you don’t go to Smart-Mouth College.

Instead you thrill to God’s Word,
    you chew on Scripture day and night.
You’re a tree replanted in Eden,
    bearing fresh fruit every month,
Never dropping a leaf,
 always in blossom.

You’re not at all like the wicked,
    who are mere windblown dust—
Without defense in court,
    unfit company for innocent people. God charts the road you take.
 The road they take is Skid Row.

Ever hear a prayer like that? There’s 149 more like it in The Message paraphrase of the Psalms! So head over to Biblegateway.com, use the pulldown menu to find The Message, and hit the Psalms. I guarantee you’re going to find voice to your feelings. It’s a great tool to pray your way through the day!

Alright, let’s change gears and go after a tough question. What about unanswered prayer? James writes of prayer for the sick healing them. We do this at yChurch, because it’s so clearly laid out here as the normal Christian response to sickness: ask the elders to anoint you and pray for you. If you’re engaged in ongoing sin, confess that, and healing will come.

But often, the sick person is not healed. Yet James seems so certain. So how do we make sense of that? A few observations: one is that Jesus, facing crucifixion, prayed, asking God the Father to take that away from him. Yet even as he asked, he also yielded, “Yet not my will, but yours be done.” Jesus’ prayer wasn’t answered, so that our prayer to be saved from sin could be answered. So there’s one honest observation about unanswered prayer: we ask, also trusting that God has the 10,000 foot view on the best way to answer our prayers.

We know for sure that miraculous healings were part of the early church’s experience. Jesus healed the sick. He sent the apostles to heal the sick. We have trusted sources from the first few centuries of the church of continued healings. Let me tell you three powerful examples showing that God answers prayer.

Here’s the first: Augustine was a Christian leader in North Africa, born in 354 AD and died in 430 AD. During his pastoral ministry, he got to know a woman named Innocentia. A devout woman and highly regarded, she tragically discovered that she had breast cancer. A physician told her the disease was incurable. She could opt for amputation—a mastectomy—and possibly prolong her life a little, or she could follow the advice of the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, and do nothing. Either way, death would not be far off.

Augustine writes: Dismayed by this diagnosis, “She turned for help to God alone, in prayer.” In a dream, Innocentia was told to wait at the baptistry for the first woman who came out after being baptized, and to ask this woman to make the sign of the cross over the cancerous breast.

Innocentia did as she was told, and she was completely cured. That comes from respected church history professor Bruce Shelley at Denver Seminary. Bruce Shelley, “Miracles Ended Long Ago—Or Did They?” Christian History (Summer 2000)

My Western worldview mind hears that and wants to instantly dismiss it as made-up. But ask your Christian friends from Africa and Latin America about miraculous healings. No question. When I was in Africa, I asked the veteran international workers I was with about this, why we see less supernatural healings in the West. Herb volunteered his opinion that most often, the Lord brings signs and wonders when the good news of Jesus is just breaking into a region or people group who until then have been unaware or resistant against the church.

So Herb personally knew people who had been miraculously healed just as James describes. Here’s a second true story, this one from 2007. That winter Linda, a close friend of Ace Collins suffered a double brain aneurysm. For weeks she lingered on life support, successively becoming weaker. As her condition deteriorated, her children were called in to say their goodbyes, and her church prepared for a funeral. But to everyone’s surprise, Linda woke up. She came out of her coma. As she came to, she looked over at her husband and asked, “Where is everybody else?”

Shaking his head, he explained, “They allow only one of us at a time in the ICU. There is no one else here.”

Linda argued, “No, I heard them. They were all speaking at the same time, and there were hundreds of them, too. Some of them I knew; others I didn’t. But they were all around me. They were here!”

Linda’s husband assured her that all those people had never been in the room. He thought she must have been hallucinating.

But here’s what they realized: hundreds of people had been praying for Linda’s healing. Over those weeks, prayers for Linda were reaching God’s ears every day. And in an amazing act of miraculous kindness, God not only healed her, he enabled her to hear the prayers offered on her behalf!
Ace Collins, Sticks and Stones (Zondervan, 2009), pp. 207-208

If Augustine’s account of his parishioner being miraculously healed of breast cancer hasn’t convinced you that God answers prayer; if Herb Nielsen’s observations of miracles in Africa hasn’t convinced you that God answers prayer; if Linda’s account hasn’t convinced you that God answers prayer…there is, right now, a worldwide answer to prayer taking place, in answer to the prayers of Christians for the past 500 years. You can verify what I’m about to tell you from several credible sources.

The single most amazing answer to prayer taking place right now is that over the past 50 years, more Muslims have come to faith in Jesus than in the past 1,500 years combined. Over the past 50 years, more Muslims have come to faith in Jesus Christ than in the past 1,500 years combined. Fact. Verified by the Crescent Project, Moody Bible Institute, George Otis, Jr., and more.

And the details are where it gets fascinating. Almost always, Muslims who come to faith in Jesus do so because of three things: (1) a Christian like you becomes their friend and you share your faith with them; (2) You give them a New Testament in their heart language, their first language; (3) God gives them either a vision or dream of Jesus. Miraculous!

So we pray for those who are sick! Ask for prayer when you are sick. And if the Lord doesn’t heal, that’s not a sign of lack of faith. For the Christian, ultimate healing always comes with our resurrection. All the people who were anointed and prayed for and healed later died. James died. Lazarus died twice! But for the believer in Jesus, sickness and death are not the end of the story, not at all!

Alright. We’ve talked about when to pray: anytime, anywhere, about anything. Pray your way through the day. We’ve addressed unanswered prayer—that we will keep on praying until the answers come, even when the answer comes after this life.

One more question for today: what can you do about feeling like you’re not very good at praying? Maybe you hear someone else pray and think to yourself, “I could never do that! I guess I’m just no good at praying.” Nonsense! Look at how James demystifies prayer in verses 16-20, writing:

“The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective. Elijah was a human being, even as we are. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops. My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins.”
James 5:16-20

The prayer of a person who’s just trying to live right with God is a power to be reckoned with. Elijah was the best-known of all the prophets in Israel’s history. He was bold. He saw miracles. He was courageous. And, James reminds us, he was…human. Ordinary. Like you. That’s James’ point: you don’t have to be some kind of ‘super saint’ to talk to God and see him answer, powerfully.

And one of the most powerful answers to prayer is the one James ends with: praying for your family member or a friend who has wandered off from following Christ, asking God to bring them back, to restore their faith, and to restore them to fellowship with you. Ordinary you, can become the supernatural means by which God restores someone to faith.

I know, because I was one who wandered off. Confused and angry and hypocrisy in the church, I walked away as a teenager. But two friends, ordinary people my age, loved me and prayed for me, and when I was ready to listen, they talked with me about Jesus, and getting my gaze locked in on him instead of staying away because of flawed people. I thank God for those two friends, Dallas and Kenan. I will forever thank God for them. And I want to be like them for others. I trust you do, too. In your prayers, lift before the Lord who don’t follow him with us. Ask God to break through powerfully and personally. God answers prayer. So pray your way through the day.

When to pray? Anytime, anywhere, about anything. God cares about you, he loves to hear from you, and he answers prayer.
What about unanswered prayer? We keep on praying, trusting that God will do what’s best for us and those we pray for.
And finally, what to do if you don’t feel you’re very good at praying? Just pray! Mighty, miracle-working prophet Elijah was ordinary, just…like…you. He prayed, and God answered. May we do the same. Let’s pray our way through these days.

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God bless you this week, and make you a blessing!