Prayer is a subversive public act

When I compare popular notions of prayer today with the original purpose and description of prayer in the Christian tradition, I see a great divide. Popular understandings of prayer suggest it is private, that it is done as a means to cure a disease, and that its public face is often divisive.

Let me clarify some of the basic biblical understandings of prayer. I base my commentary on the letter of James (5:13-16) in the Bible, since it is one of the texts which will be read in many mainline churches this Sunday.

I find that the biblical witness debunks prayer as a private act, prayer for the sole purpose of curing medical diseases, and prayer as a divisive tool in a multiple-voice culture. Practiced as fundamentally a public act whose unifying purpose is wholeness and restored relationships, prayer as such counters popular notions and is therefore a subversive practice.

First, prayer is fundamentally public. Time in prayer is not “my time”. Prayer is not exercised in some other-worldly state that separates one from social reality and relationships. Prayer is not, according to some spiritual mythology, done in some sequestered, secluded and isolationist context. Prayer is not withdrawal from reality in order to satisfy some escapist, narcissistic compulsions so evident in the pathology of our contemporary culture.

In James’ commentary, vivid images of prayer involving the “laying on of hands” and the “anointing of oil” makes  prayer a visceral act that invades the space of individuals, one to another. Prayer is inherently relational. It gets down and dirty in the bodily reality of our lives, one with another. It is about touch. Prayer is “our time”, and for the sake of the “other”.

Another scripture that will be read alongside James this Sunday is from the Gospel of Mark (9:38-39). Powerful, effective deeds are done “in the name of Jesus”. When we call on the name of the Lord, we are entering a power and reality that is beyond us. Everything we do as Christians is for and about the “other”. Prayer leads us beyond exclusive concern about our own individual lives; it draws us out of ourselves and into the needs and realities facing other people.

We can pray by ourselves, to be sure. But the power of prayer, which is clearly evident in the casting out of demons from the Gospel, is seen most clearly when it is communally, not privately, done, when it is done in the name of Another besides ourselves, when it is done together.

Which leads to the second aspect of prayer, addressing our understanding of healing. And here we have to be honest about our modern approach to illness and its cure. I don’t, for a moment, doubt God’s ability to cure our diseases, especially when offered in a prayer of faith. God is able in God’s freedom to cure anyone. And we’ve all heard, I suspect, of such miraculous healings. Certainly, the Scriptures reveal such astounding events.

And yet, the biblical witness shies away from making this God’s central way of healing. For one thing, after many of such cures that Jesus performs he often instructs those whom he cures to be silent and not tell anyone. And, while affirming that the “weary will be restored” (James 5:15), the kind of healing God is about does not emerge from a modern, Western, understanding of illness and healing. The kind of healing James is talking about is substantially more than merely prescribing antibiotics or applying scientific medical knowledge to a ‘problem’.

The restoration of which James speaks assumes a relationship between sin and sickness. It is a redemption that only God can accomplish incorporating all that we are. This holistic approach to healing involves our social illnesses as much as our internal chemical imbalances; it has as much to do with our spiritual and psychological health as it has our physiological and corporeal brokenness.

In the Mediterranean culture out of which Jesus and the biblical witness came, healing of broken and ailing bodies is not so much about fighting invading microbes, but of restoring community and social relationships so that people could live the good life intended by God. (John Pilch, “Healing in the New Testament”, Fortress Press, 2000).

This means that should one seek healing today, especially within the church, the way of healing must include awareness of and action toward restoring broken relationships — the relationship between the individual and her/himself, the relationship between the individual and others, the relationship between the individual and the earth, and the relationship between the individual and God — to name but a few of some basic relationships.

When appreciated in the context of the whole web of life on earth, prayer is a powerful and effective force in realizing the healing of our lives, diverse as we are. Prayer is mindful action toward bringing together that which has been divided.

Therefore, prayer functions as a unifying force. Often in our society prayer is used as a weapon to take a stand over against other Christians, a secular culture, or another religion. The fights over public school prayers, for example, give prayer a bad name. For one thing, it betrays a misunderstanding of the diverse yet unifying truth about our connection with God and others.

Prayer is not divisive, though it is diverse in form. There are various, legitimate forms of prayer: We offer verbal petitions in our devotions, in liturgical orders of worship, the Eucharist — these are some traditional forms. But meditation, walking prayers, art, music and even social action can also be a prayer. Any activity, for that matter, entered mindful of God’s abiding presence (i.e. done “in the name of Jesus”) are also forms of prayer often overlooked and undervalued.

The Book of James begins with an address to those who are “dispersed” (1:1). James continues his letter to address the divisive consequences of an “unbridled tongue” (3:6ff) and considers the reasons for the “conflicts and disputes” among the people (4). James’ letter is about divisiveness, disconnection and the splintering of our lives.

It is very suiting, and I believe not without purpose and inspired intention, that James ends his letter in chapter 5 with an appeal to prayer. And not only because prayer is the one activity among diverse Christians that we share. But in recognizing the diversity of form prayer takes, we can affirm the unity we share in Christ Jesus, in our prayerful living.

Thus, a book that begins with division ends with blessings promised those who restore another “wandering” sinner within the community of faith (5:20). Some remark that this is a rather abrupt ending to the letter. But with good purpose.

Because the abrupt ending can remind us that though the world today is still full of sin and death and those who wander, Christians, through prayer, continue “to engage the world in hope for a time when what has splintered can be reunited.” (p.114, “Feasting on the Word” Year B Volume 4)

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