James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50

Reading the list of things for which to pray and lay on hands, here’s the thing I’ve never quite understood: how and why can God give all this work over to humanity? How can healing, salvation, even rainfall depend on us fallible, problematic people? How can the work of God be given so freely to the creation?

I struggle with this question especially when it’s time to pray: what does my praying do, and why do I continue doing it? I’ve known some great orators of prayer, I’ve seen the laying-on of hands, and I’ve even witnessed fervent pleas to take on the suffering and pain of another person. I’ve even heard about real inexplicable miracles – and who am I to disbelieve them? But I can never quite put into words what I think happens when I pray, even as I know I’m deeply compelled to pray.

I think some of our fundamental beliefs are often reflected in the kinds of prayers we tend to offer. There are prayers for God to change material reality; there are prayers that ask to change our hearts or those of other people; there are prayers to help us accept what appears to be fate. The kinds of prayers we use can point to our unspoken ideas about who and what controls the world.

For instance, James gives us instructions and exhortations to prayer as if God can actually make the world better, and as if God is waiting  for us to pray before she’ll do it. Some traditions insist that use of the healing prayer described here amounts to evidence of “really good” faith (see the comparison with Elijah) – if that’s the case, what kind of Christian am I? Whatever this particular kind of prayer means practically, it ties in with James’ overall insistence that there’s a deep connection between what we believe and what we do.

I have to admit, the theology of prayer suggested in James challenges me. I know about myself that I tend to pray for guidance, hope, and understanding; I call on God to adjust my internal psychic states, not to make material changes in the world. Granted, I’ll generally pray for healing – especially if I’m beside your bed in the hospital – but even that is always in the sense of trusting God for a healing that must already be in progress. My core theology, based on the evidence of my prayers, is that God does what God does, the results may not be as we hope, and it’s better to face reality than to attempt to change it.

What I mean to confess is that I pray like a modern scientific naturalist – not quite like an atheist, but maybe like a religious humanist. I don’t seem to assume that my prayers will do anything directly; that feels like magical thinking. I don’t tend to pray as if God can really be changed by my ideas and requests; after all, I grew up knowing that God was the omnipotent and unmoved Platonic ideal (watch Terence Fretheim critique this theological idea). My prayer life looks more like an exercise I practice on and for myself, while God just does whatever God was going to do anyway.

I call this a “confession”  because James suggests something more dynamic and interesting about God, as does most of the Bible. This text insists that God hears, responds, and even changes course based on our prayer and activity – just one among many seeming heresies throughout the Bible. James presumably understands that there’s more to the story, or at least that God’s plans may be different from what we wanted. Still, this idea puts a great burden of power in our hands, as if our failure to pray could jeopardize God’s plans for us. Is it really this extreme?

The Gospel story doesn’t help. Jesus responds to the unauthorized use of his name with something to the effect of “don’t bother him if he doesn’t bother you.” What bothers me is, what was the other guy doing with Jesus’ divine healing power in the first place? Jesus grants us the freedom to use the power we have for God’s praise, even to participate in God’s own activity, and all without approval from the session!

As if that weren’t enough, Jesus submits his own self to human freedom. The basic Christian story is about a God who gives up control by becoming human (while still being God). Jesus’ goal is to invite us and all we are to participate in God’s world-changing activity, not just to stand on the side and watch.

There’s a deep mystery to this: for all that this particular heresy is true, it’s also not. God invites us into great involvement in the divine activity, he puts amazing trust in us, but he doesn’t simply wait for us to act. God is always far bigger than we are and can do what God does without our say-so. At the same time, God is always deeply involved in our lives right now.

That’s my challenging thought about prayer this week: I don’t know anything about prayer. It’s an attention to God’s presence, an awareness of the mystery that is beyond our understanding, a sincere effort to share in what God is doing. We may only play a small part in God’s big activity, but God invites us to be involved with our whole selves.

And that’s how I come back to salt, as much as the metaphor seems out of place in Mark. Salt is a culinary problem in the same way prayer is a theological problem. There’s nothing much to it, and it doesn’t change much about food, but the little changes it makes are very important. Enough salt will preserve food (like pickles), which is what made it so important in Jesus’ day. A little salt draws out sweetness or reduces bitterness without apparently changing much at all. It’s hard to explain just what it does and how, but we know it’s essential.

So here’s your invitation for the week: choose one small prayer – it could be spoken, thought, read, or enacted – that lives out at the far edge of your idea of God. Maybe it’s almost too mystical, too magical, or too hands-on. Pray or do that prayer this week, say at 11:15 every morning, and see what happens in your world or within you. If you’re comfortable, you might let me know what you notice. And in all we do, may God celebrate with us.