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September 30, 2012 | 9:30 and 11:00 a.m.

Risky Business

John H. Boyle
Parish Associate, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 51:1−12
Mark 11:12–25
James 5:13–20


On the day that prayer becomes for you more than a pious ritual, on that day you’ll have to risk loving in a world that wounds love, being unselfish in a world that takes advantage of unselfishness, saving in a world that crucifies saviors. Make no mistake about it: that’s what you’ll have to risk when you pray. Because, you see, God may answer your prayer and make you more like Jesus.

Paul Scherer

Long before the advent of the technological wizardry that ushered in the digital age with its vast array of electronic and other devices designed to expand, enhance, and enrich communication among us and connect us with just about everyone in the whole wide world—long before any of all that, there was something called a phonograph record. Some of the older dinosaurs among us will remember them. They were large, and later smaller, vinyl platters upon which music and the human voice could be recorded and listened to later. An occupier of that bygone era once observed that choosing a marriage partner was a bit like buying a phonograph record. You buy it for what’s on one side and have to take what’s on the other. Of course, it is what is on the other side that can be the source of the almost inevitable disillusionment that often can occur. Marriage or any other potentially long-term significant relationship can be risky business, and there are few, if any, guarantees.

“Be careful what you pray for” (or wish for, as the case may be) is a phrase heard and used—often with a sense of wry humor—on occasions when what we want, or think we want, to have happen does, but with unexpected and unintended consequences. Getting the promotion you prayed for, only to discover that it involves far more, and not necessarily altogether pleasant, work than you bargained for. Or meeting the one you prayerfully longed for and then over time finding out he or she was not who you thought they were. Or like the woman Henry Ward Beecher told of years ago, who prayed for patience, and God or someone sent her a lousy cook. Sometimes it works the other way, and you end up with someone or something that exceeds your wildest imaginings of blessing and benefit. But there are no guarantees.

It’s a risky business, this business of praying. When entered into with no fingers crossed, we risk seeing ourselves as we really are, our blessedness and our brokenness. We risk our pride and the illusion of self-sufficiency we so prize in our society. We risk the self-pitying sense that nobody knows the trouble we see and that we are ultimately alone in the world. We risk, as Paul Scherer reminds us in the quotation on this morning’s worship bulletin, that we might just become more like Christ, and we know where that led. We risk realizing, as our Lord did in Gethsemane, that we can’t always get our way and that it is God’s will and not our own that is finally done in life. We risk our innocence under God’s judgment that holds us accountable. And we risk giving up our need to be our own saviors when our guilt gets the better of us and we engage in a lifelong effort to atone for our sins, real and imaginary, by engaging in self-flagellating and self-defeating behaviors.

In other words, we risk being saved by God’s free and forgiving grace, no more tellingly expressed than in the words of a prayer by philosopher/theologian, Søren Kierkegaard, that for me sums up the message of the gospel:

Father in heaven! Hold not our sins up against us but hold us up against our sins, so that the thought of this when it wakens in our soul, and each time it wakens, should not remind us of what we have committed, but of what thou didst forgive, not of how we went astray but of how thou didst save us!

It’s a risky business, this business of prayer.

President Obama recently referenced Abraham Lincoln’s comment that during the worst days of the Civil War—and there were many—he was driven to his knees because there was no place else to go. Most of us are driven to prayer. We go to prayer on a pro forma habituated basis when the tradition of the moment kicks in or a worship leader or preacher says, “Let us pray.”

I was driven to prayer at the edge of a minefield in Nazi-occupied France on a winter’s day in 1944. My company commander had ordered me to take five men and find a way through that minefield, which lay between us and our next military objective. Terrified by the awareness that any or all of us could get wounded or killed by one misstep, and with the words of the hymn “Lead Kindly Light”—about “Keep thou my feet. I do not ask to see the distant scene. One step enough for me”—rattling around in my head, I prayed my and our way across that minefield, one step at a time. We made it intact, not because of my praying, but by the grace of God, as I later came to realize. There was no necessary causal connection between my praying and the outcome of that horrifying experience. The connection was not causal but coincidental, if you rule God out. Providential, if you believe God was involved, albeit with the puzzling question, “Why me?” when some other bloke, just as or even more devout a person of prayer, got blown to bits.

There is power in prayer, but it has nothing to do with our ability to get God to do tricks for us or to pull the rabbit out of the hat. It has to do with being up front with God about ourselves, our sins and fears and anger and disappointments and hopes. It has to do not just with getting things or with getting things done. It has to do with candor and confession, with telling the truth and our thanks, with admitting that we live our lives not in ultimate and total control of them but in commitment of them in the service of the one who taught his disciples and us to pray, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Thy will. Not mine.

During my many years in ministry I have attended a number of prayer breakfasts and National Day of Prayer events. On such occasions prayers were offered that included a tip-of-the-hat thanks to God for “many blessings,” the extolling of the virtues and accomplishments of our nation, requests for guidance for our leaders, the remembrance of those who had died in national disasters of one sort or another and of those who had given their lives in the service of their country, and other assorted petitions for God’s aid and intervention. Rarely (there have been a few exceptions) have the prayers included the confession of sin, the confession as individuals and as a nation of our complicity in the arrogance and hubris that often accompanies the notion of our presumed exceptionalism in God’s eyes as a nation; in the greed, bigotry, hatred, prejudice, and discrimination, and in the violence, including the violence of ill-conceived wars, that continues to characterize many areas of our society; in the moral corruption rampant in many parts of the public and private sectors of our life together; and in the way that narcissistic self-absorption that has little, if any regard, for the consequences of behavior or for the welfare of others has infused the cultural climate of our land.

Individuals and nations with little or no conscience—hence little or no sense of guilt—have little or no need to confess anything save their own self-adulation and adoration. Such a harsh indictment may be hard to swallow, perhaps even unfair, but nevertheless may help to point up how often prayer can be used to foster self-delusion and primarily for self-serving purposes.

Prophetic or truth-telling prayer will always be marked with words akin to those of the prophet Isaiah: “I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips.” Only then can the way be cleared to petition for our needs and desires.

Is it any wonder then that James, in his prayer package in these sentences at the end of his homily, links confession of sin—to one another, mind you, not just to God—with prayer for one another, “so that you may be healed”? For it is out of the mindset of this authentic confession of who we are and of who we are not that the needs and desires for which we pray will more nearly conform to the ethical mandate of God’s truth, justice, and love. Otherwise our prayers run the risk of becoming no more than pious platitudes, full of sham and blather, signifying nothing more than our own spiritual bankruptcy.

The Bible makes some pretty preposterous claims, none more so than those of both Jesus and James, whom some say may have been the brother of Jesus. Did Jesus really mean it, literally mean it, that prayer could enable one to move a mountain and throw it into the sea and that no matter what we ask for in prayer, all we have to do is believe that we already have it and it will be so? Really? What kind of magic is that? And what about James? Does he literally mean it when he says that all we have to do when a person is sick is to pray for him or her and they will be healed? Yes, the prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. But it is not necessarily the case that Elijah’s prayers about rain brought to pass the results that James refers to. The results could have happened irrespective of Elijah’s praying.

Of course, in either case, this is the language of hyperbole used to make the point that the seemingly impossible is not too difficult for God and for those who trust God. It is no guarantee that a particular request made in prayer will be granted, no matter how strong a person’s faith might be at the time. The emphasis here is on the power of God, not the power of prayer, nor the power of faith, for that matter. Faith has less to do with whether a particular petition is granted than it has to do with trusting that even when it is not, God is still with us, and underneath are the everlasting arms.

Be careful what you pray for. And be careful what you believe about prayer and about what you pray for.

When I peel back the particulars contained in these closing sentences of James’s homily, I sense that what James is essentially referring to is intimacy, especially as it is experienced and expressed by the communal character of the Christian life and the church. Not that all intimacy is necessarily benign with blessing. Hand-to-hand combat is a very intimate form of interpersonal interaction, but it is also a potentially lethal one.

Years ago a woman in her final year of seminary and on a course leading to ordination in her church asked to talk with me about her concerns about the Lord’s Prayer. She realized that she couldn’t think or utter its words in her private devotions and feared she would not be able to lead a congregation in praying it. During my third conversation with her, when I sensed that we may have established enough of a trusted relationship to warrant my doing so, I asked her what she associated with prayer. She thought for a moment and said that her principal associations were with dependency and vulnerableness.

She began to weep as haltingly and painfully she told of how her father had sexually molested her when she was seven years old. From that time on she could never utter the words, “Our Father, who art in heaven.” It took awhile, but over time she was finally able to disentangle her view of and feelings toward her heavenly Father and her earthly father. Some forms of intimacy can be and are dangerous.

James is talking here of the intimacy of mutuality, where a sick person is a stand-in, if you will, for all who are weak and vulnerable in society, not only because of physical illness but also as a result of the social and economic ills that diminish and impoverish people, and who are so often left to fend for themselves. It’s about people in need asking for help and people who can help providing it. It is not about magic in prayer but about mutuality in praying for one another that contributes to a climate in which the healing Spirit of God can bring solidarity and wholeness to all involved.

But James also hints at another kind of intimacy, an incredible and uncanny personal intimacy with a historical person, Jesus of Nazareth, who by faith we believe embodied both the judgment of God’s truth and love and the compassionate forgiving grace of God. It is the intimacy of a remarkable friendship with the one whose presence we experience assures us that, no matter what, we cannot drift beyond God’s love and care. It is a friendship about which our efforts to describe it in words may run the risk of being seen by others as our being out of our minds.

A community pastor whom I was supervising in a program of clinical pastoral education in one of the hospitals of the Texas Medical Center in Houston a number of years ago reported to me that the hospital patient from whose bedside he had just come was showing signs of emotional illness, including auditory and visual hallucinations. Her name was Amelia, and she had told the pastor that just before she went to sleep at night, Jesus appeared at the foot of her bed and they talked to each other about the happenings of the day. Then Amelia would ask the Lord to bless her and watch over her through the night.

Later on, when the pastor and I visited Amelia together, I asked her if Jesus really appeared at the foot of her bed. “Oh, no,” she said, “but it is as if he’s there. You know, like the old hymn.” “What old hymn, Amelia?” I asked. “Oh, you know, the one that goes . . .”—and then in a soft, lovely voice, she began to sing,

What a friend we have in Jesus,
all our sins and griefs to bear.
What a privilege to carry
everything to God in prayer.

You see, Amelia was not crazy. She was just in love with her dear friend.

What a friend we have.

What a privilege we have.

And so it is. Amen.