Chaplain Mel Baars
September has been a never-ending month. As one person said to me the other day, it feels as if the month of September has been longer than the whole rest of the deployment. I have to agree. There is a laundry list of contributing factors to our general frustration and misery. Many of us have been here for a long time. We have reached the limits of our patience and have found ourselves wondering how we are going to make it to end of this journey, even when the end is in sight. For those of us who have only been here for a few weeks, we may be fresh and ready to tackle this mission, but still, there are family issues and worries over home. All of these burdens, and more, become heavier and heavier.
I really didn’t want to preach on James again, mostly because James can get a little “preachy” multiple weeks in a row. He always seems to have the right answers and doesn’t waste any time pandering to our excuses. His confidence in delivery is almost too much to swallow, as if being faithful is easy. There is a part of me that doesn’t want to dwell on what James has to say because in my heart I know he usually makes good points, even if they are points I would rather ignore. This week he tells us, no matter what our circumstances are, we should be praying, a particular point that I have lost sight of over these past few weeks.
“Are any among you suffering?” James asks. “They should pray.” Suffering may be too dramatic of an adjective to describe the events of this past month, at least for me. No one has died which was the litmus test I put in place upon deploying here. But there have been quite a few hard days, quite a few disparaging situations. We are continually warned about threat streams against our base, not to mention the other attacks that we hear about happening all around theater. The news of riots around the world over the Innocence of Muslims video which led to the deaths of quite a few people has been deeply discouraging. Marriages between our service members are being patched together with string and scotch tape, and the deployment orders are still being cut. Suicide has been worse this year than ever before, at least in the Army family. Our children are dealing with their own challenges and difficulties without us there with them to help. I could go on and on and on.
We wonder how in the world we are going to hold it all together. How will we find pathways toward peace in the midst of the fighting and misunderstandings? How will we keep our loved ones safe and healthy? How will we pay the bills and, at the same time, prepare for all the possible misfortunes that are lurking? This month it is cancer from the burn pit, next month I am sure it will be something else. It’s tiring just thinking about it all.
If any of you are suffering or struggling, you should be praying James reminds us. It is as simple as that. Just pray. I am sure that there are a few people here who live by this mantra. I wish I could say that I am among you, but the truth is, more often than not, I forget my prayers. Before you start walking out in protest that your chaplain doesn’t pray, please hear me out. It’s not that I never pray, or don’t believe in the power of prayer. Of course I do. We happen to be praying quite a few times together during this morning’s worship service. But I think that James is talking about something a little different. I think he is saying that praying should be our way of living. Praying should be how we respond to whatever life unfolds before us, in the midst of suffering, in cheer, in sickness and everything between. I do pray, but normally I don’t remember to do so until all my other problem solving tactics have failed me. Prayer should be my first response but so often, I confess, it is my last.
But, one of the aspects of this passage about prayer which is so important is that prayer does not only depend on me or any one of you, but prayer, as James envisioned it, was all about the whole community. When he asks, “Are any among you sick,” he doesn’t say, you alone should pray. You alone are responsible for praying for yourself. But, he says, “They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord.” James reminds us that the suffering, the cheer, the sickness and all the rest are not to be lived out in individual vacuums. Instead, we are in this as one body, a community of the faithful who have each pledged to walk alongside one another, sharing burdens and sorrows as well as joys and celebrations. This is what relationships are all about. Prayer is at the very heart of following Jesus. It is how we come to know God more fully.
This year, in the peaks and valleys of deployed life, I have experienced the power of the prayers of my community of faith. Just when I feel like I have hit a wall, and have had all the energy sucked out of me, I will get an email from a friend, simply telling me that I, along with my soldiers, have been prayed for. Even though people have told me that they would be praying for me throughout this year, it always surprises me. Whenever I get one of these emails, I feel wrapped in the presence of God.
Just this week, I got emails from friends who are elders in my own community of faith. One is a pastor and the other three are ordained leaders in my church, so it is no stretch to think that they would be praying for me, especially because they know that this month has been so challenging. Yet, reading their emails over the past few days, hearing that one of them is lighting a candle each day and saying prayers for us, this was just the reminder I needed. I am not alone. None of us are. And, even when we haven’t remembered to pray first, others have stepped in for us. This is what a family does for one another.
James was so right. Gather all the elders together and before you do anything else, pray-- for the sick, for the suffering, for those who struggle in mind, body, or spirit. There is lots of work to be done to be sure, but start with prayer and go from there. Let God hear you. Let God be an active part of your life because God’s presence and strength and wisdom and care will make all the difference.
Still, though, for some of us, it is hard to know where to begin with our prayers. If we have endured unspeakable sadness or disappointment or have struggled with depression, we may find ourselves at a loss for what to pray. When we feel far from God or even angry with God because of the circumstances that we are dealing with, finding the words to pray may not be easy.
My childhood friend’s grandmother used to talk to us about her prayer life when we were growing up. She had been a faithful believer throughout her life and then one day, her youngest daughter was murdered. It was a random, shocking crime which left their whole family reeling. Though this woman had spent her lifetime praying, suddenly, she found that she couldn’t pray anymore. Her loss, her anger, her grief, her sadness-- they were too painful. Though she couldn’t pray her own prayers, she told us that she still prayed the Lord’s Prayer every day. “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven...” She prayed this, for months, maybe even for years, this prayer which Jesus taught her and all of us to pray. “Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us...” Praying this prayer helped her to survive this tragedy. “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil…” In the end, this prayer gave her a way to stay connected to God even when God felt so far away.
If there are any among you who are suffering, you should pray for God hears your cries and helps you in your distress. If there are any who are cheerful, you should pray, too, giving thanks and praise to God for all of your blessings. If there are any who are sick or struggling, get the elders together to pray, for we are all in this together. Through the love and support of one another, we are reminded what faithfulness looks like, even when it gets dark. We are given the strength and the courage to live our lives as God has called us, trusting that God will be there with us.
“For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever and ever. Amen.”