8/23/2016 Sermon: Prayer #2 – “Your Brain on Prayer”

1886 - Halderson, Albert & Rachel family & farmhouseLast month, I did something that I hadn’t been able to do for a long time.  I did a little reading-up on my family’s story, going back a few generations.  I only mention this because I suspect that my family’s background was probably a lot like yours.  Knowing your family’s story can help explain why you turned out the way you did! In my mind, I have this imaginary conversation with my great-grandfather.  “Abner (that was his name), could you tell me why…”  He’d give an answer and I’d say, “That explains a lot.”  Where did your family come from?  Do you know why?

I think there are a few basic immigration stories that many of us share.

  • In this church, I think it’s safe to say that most of our families came here on boats to escape something that was going on in Europe; maybe it was to escape war or persecution.  Coming to America may have provided a way to escape poverty. Then younger families often moved west because that’s where the farming land was. They took a chance on coming to a new place, but with few exceptions, nobody changes countries (or states) because they like to travel. They sought refuge.  They were refugees.
  • People generally had a lot of kids. Survival wasn’t a promise.  Sometimes people died in tragic ways that could have been prevented today, especially children. One of the children in that photo died in a fall from a barn roof.  In every family, there are times of pain and suffering. Every family has a unique story of trouble.

Last week, we started a brief series on prayer and focused on the Book of James.  If you’ve never read James, I’d like to encourage you to open it up and see what it has to say.  James isn’t a very long book; strong words concentrated into a small space.  Warning – reading through James, you might find yourself sometimes “cut to the heart,” to use a New Testament expression.

There are a couple of things that make James a little different from the rest of the New Testament.  Many people think that James was the half-brother of Jesus, so James didn’t just know Jesus, he was related!  To me, it means he “gets” Jesus in a different way.

Maybe it’s because he has had that unique relationship with Jesus that he expresses the meaning of faith in a blunt, undecorated way.  Lately, I’ve been hearing that some people appreciate it when certain political candidates “tell it like it is.”  If you’ve thought that, maybe you’ll like what James has to say.

The quick take-away from James is: God uses your faith, our faith together, to make a practical difference in other people’s lives, or, what’s the point? Faith needs to play out beyond your relationship with God. Let your faith express itself in the good things you do for people.

The first words of James are:

James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,  To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion: Greetings.   (James 1:1)

 He is writing to people who are refugees.  The “twelve tribes” is just a code word for “believers.”  They are mostly Jewish Christians and they are dispersed; many of them are refugees from their original homes in Palestine.  When they received this letter from James, these believers were strangers in the places where they were living.

They were also fulfilling the command of Jesus, “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  (Acts 1:8)  Sometimes, the church spread because people were forced to move.

There might have been some point in your life when God took you to a place you never thought you would go.  And you have found yourself saying, “God, you are awesome, and I thank you for everything you’ve done for us, but I never thought I/we would end up here.”

You might understand why James says…

My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, 3because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance…  (James 1:2-3)

Endurance.  Strength for the long haul, for people who are struggling.  And it all stands on prayer.  The doing of prayer can be many things, but the core meaning of prayer (from last week) is simply “paying attention to God.”

Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. 14Are any among you sick? 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. 15The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. 16Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. 17Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. 18Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest.

All of the words of the Bible were written for a reason.  Different reasons, depending on the writer, the audience, and the situation.  James felt the need to write his letter to people who were stressed (just one reason). He understands that in any group of people, there’s a mix of things going on.  There’s a mix of things going on in this room right now.

Are any among you suffering? They should pray. (James 5:13)

It’s true that stress and suffering probably generate more prayer than anything else.  One thing might be a good tool for that time of suffering is simply to open up the Book of Psalms and use those as your words.  Let’s say this psalm together; I don’t think you’ll need your Bible…

1 The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2   He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
3   he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake. 

4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me. 

5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.  (Psalm 23)

Did it help to say that?  Whatever it is that you’re going through, you don’t have to do it alone. The sun will come up again tomorrow…

Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. (James 5:13)

It’s easy to forget that Jesus commands us to have joy, to experience love, and to give those things to each other.  Maybe even when we don’t feel like it.

Do these people balance each other?  Or annoy each other?  Both things are possible, but both are focused on communicating with God.  And with God’s Spirit working in them, they will help each other.

Just a few other things to point out from that scripture:

Are any among you sick? 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 5:14)

Sickness brings its own kind of stress, but now the church is involved.  God works through the church in a powerful way then they are involved in the prayer.  Notice that it isn’t just the pastor who does this ministry.  At St. Paul’s we have a Called to Care ministry who can get to many more folks than the pastor can.  The church prays over folks; it’s what we do.

The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven.  (James 5:15)

Now, James knows that not every sick person will be healed because of prayer, and that’s not what he’s saying.  But he does want the people who are praying to remember one thing he said at the beginning of the letter:  When you pray…  “ask in faith, never doubting…”  (James 1:6)  Do you remember that James said that last week?  The point is not so much to be sure that God will give us what we want, but that we are trusting God with our lives no matter how things go.

You can tell James has spent time with Jesus by those last few words:  “Anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven.”

Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. (James 5:16)

This isn’t some formal religious exercise that James is talking about here.  When we confess to each other how we blow it in our relationships, and when we allow God to be present in those relationships through prayer, that’s when we are healed.  The “prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective” when?  In confessing our sins and praying for each other.  When we pray to God, “God, I really made a problem for so-and-so. Please forgive me.”  I think you can imagine God’s response.  “Okay, but you won’t be healed until you go fix it (confess your sin) with them.”  Sometimes, that isn’t possible, but I think you get what I mean. On behalf of God, the church is a place that communicates and gives away the forgiveness we all need.

Prayer is good for you.  Do you believe that?

Maybe you remember the anti-drug abuse campaign from a few years ago.  “This is your brain on drugs.”  And there would be an image of fried eggs.

I’ve often thought of prayer as God’s natural high and it turns out that might be more than just a concept.

*Dr. Andrew Newberg of the Jefferson Hospital in Philadelphia has been studying the effect of prayer on the brain for more than 20 years. He injects radioactive dye into people, and then looks for changes in their heads when they pray. He does not claim that prayer is a cure-all, but he believes that it can be every bit as important as science in helping people to heal.

brain[Using this kind of image] to show brain activity, Newberg said to NBC News (December 24, 2014), “You can see it’s all red here when the person is just at rest, but you see it turns into these yellow colors when she’s actually doing prayer.”

Without prayer, your brain is red — a hot and inflammatory color — and with prayer, your brain is yellow. Well, that’s not such a great color, either. You’d think that the praying brain would display a color that’s quiet and calming, like a light blue or teal. Kidding.

These changes help Newberg to believe that prayer has the power to heal. He thinks that “by doing these practices, you can cause a lot of different changes all the way throughout the body, which could have a healing effect.”

So let’s re-imagine the old anti-drug commercial. “This is your brain,” says the man. “This is prayer.” Put the two together, and what you have is not a fried egg. Instead, it’s a person who is healed and made whole. Saved, raised and forgiven. 

*based on an article in www.Homileticsonline.com (September 27, 2015)


In prayer, we invite God to work in our lives, changing us into the people we need to be.

Clapping Hands - lens flare


God, we have been reminded this week once again that the events of our world make the future less than certain.  We hear about out-of-control fires and terrorism. We hear about wars and rumors of wars, conflict in politics, business and church, and we worry about what we’ll read in the papers next.

So, come and give us peace. When we are frightened, hold us tight.  When we are angry, calm us down, soothe our spirits.  Teach us to give our futures to you, and we will have faith to step in the direction you will lead us.  Amen.

8/16/2015 Sermon: Prayer – Paying Attention to God

how great thou artMost of you know that I’ve been away for the last five Sundays on a Sabbatical month.  Normally, I try not to be gone for more than two weeks, but a Sabbatical allows pastors a chance not just to refresh and reenergize, but to see things in a new way.  So, Kathy and I visited churches (got good insight and free things), spent a few important days with family, but mostly got to know the (eastern PA) area a little better.  This was especially good because we are not originally from here.

To cut to the chase a little, I believe God has blessed us to live together in a wonderful place.  The abundance and good things God has given us are amazing to me.

I started my time away with a visit to Philadelphia.  Parking is an issue there.  It’s expensive, whether you park on the street or in a private lot or a garage.  An Internet joke:

My wife and I went into town and visited a shop. When we came out, there was a man in a blue uniform writing out a parking ticket. We went up to him and I said, “Come on man, how about giving a senior citizen a break?” He just ignored us and continued writing the ticket.

I called him a *name.* He glared at me and started writing another ticket for having worn-out tires.

So my wife called him a *name.* He finished the second ticket and put it on the windshield with the first. Then he started writing more tickets.

This went on for about 20 minutes. The more we abused him, the more tickets he wrote. He finally finished, sneered at us and walked away. Just then our bus arrived; we got on it and went home.

GW & Ind. HallIn Philadelphia, we visited Independence Hall.  Have you been there?  Tours are run by the national park service. We took an “Express Tour.”  15 minutes, 80 people at a time. We waited over an hour to get in, but I think it was worth it.  What was remarkable to me was the variety of the people in the crowd we stood with.  They were from everywhere.  I could tell that some of them were recent immigrants to this country.

We eventually made our way to the room where the Declaration of Independence was signed…

Independence Hall 2I’m imagining the discussion happening in that hall, around those tables, the intense conversation that led to the decision to separate from England and the King.  They knew this wasn’t going to be easy, and it wasn’t.  They went to the head table and one by one signed a document that said, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  Then six more years of war.

But, good stuff, right?  Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.  Words written to explain the war that, in some places, had already started over a year before.  Worth it?  We probably all think so.

GettysburgAt the end of the month, we spent a day at Gettysburg.  Beautiful, pastoral fields. But for a few days in July, 1863, it looked like this…

A section of the Diorama on display at the Gettysburg National Battlefield. Painted by French artist Paul Philippoteaux in 1883.

It was a massive battle that turned the tide of the Civil War for good.  A lot of Pennsylvania people lost their lives in that field.  If your family lived in Pennsylvania, it’s almost impossible that they were not affected in some way by the Civil War.  The people who sat in this room 150 years ago could tell you stories that don’t have happy endings.

When we were wrapping up that day in Gettysburg, I started to realize that the conversation that started in Philadelphia in Independence Hall “four score and seven years” before, had found its way to that battlefield.  Think about it.  Are all people created equal?  Do we all have a right to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness?  If you pay attention to the news, you can see that as a country, we are still trying to figure that out.  So much chaos.  The “North” won the war and might have resolved the slavery question, but as a country we still struggle with whether everyone is entitled to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.  Our Covenant as a church calls us to take a stand on that issue and do something positive to lead the community in a helpful way.

This all led me to want to pray, and to spend a few weeks thinking – and praying – about prayer.  I found a great definition of prayer that I’d like to share:

Prayer is, at root, simply paying attention to God. (Dr. Ralph Martin, The Fulfillment of All Desire, p. 121).

For a moment, try to absorb all that can mean for you.  The purpose of prayer is so simple.  When you pay attention to God, you give God access… to you.  When you pay attention to God, and God has access to you, life can be transformed in positive ways, for you and for all of us.

There are so many places in scripture to find the guidance you need about prayer, and over the next few weeks, we’ll look at those.

I found myself reading the Book of James and I’ll invite you to go through it with me for the next few weeks.  So, let’s start at the beginning:

James 1:1-8.  James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes in the Dispersion:  Greetings. 

2 My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, 3because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; 4and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.

5 If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. 6But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; 7, 8for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord.

I’d like to encourage everybody to slowly go through the Book of James and absorb what it has to say, especially about our prayer relationship with God.  For now, I’d like to point out a few things about that passage, those first few words of James.

He writes to the twelve tribes in the Dispersion.  In the Old Testament, the twelve tribes of Israel were sent into exile.  But for James, it meant people who wanted to believe and follow their God, but were living in a place that didn’t support that.  This letter was coming from “home base” in Jerusalem to Jewish Christians having an “out-of-culture” experience.

Maybe you’ve felt like that.  Maybe that describes where you are right now. You’ve been saying to God, “Oh God, I want to do what you need me to do, but I feel so alone.”

This is why James immediately writes those next verses.

My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.  James 1:2-4

You know life is like this, full of “trials of various kinds,” and I don’t have to ask you to imagine what those trials are.  Life is a roller coaster.  We all have extremely hard times.  It’s so hard to get through the hard times without losing your mind or yourself.  We all go through this.  And I think you know why he says those ridiculous words: “consider it nothing but joy,” because you know that if life were only an easy, wonderful party, you’d have no idea what joy is.  In your life and your faith, you’ve had those moments of making it to the other side of a raging river.  There is someone here that needs to know that in spite of how things seem today, your life is in God’s hands, that you have the privilege right now of learning endurance.  God has made you tougher.  God has given you reasons to pray, and to look back with gratitude – “Thank you, God, for getting me, getting us, through all that.”

What’s so amazing to me is that James, right at the beginning of this short book, not wasting any time, jumps to an idea that needs to be at the center of all prayer:

If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord.  James 1:5-8

Ask God.  If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God.  I’m trying to imagine a local church pastor receiving this letter to read to the congregation. “We’re about to pray now.  Does anybody needs wisdom?  Maybe just a little bit? Show of hands?”

To do what James is talking about here requires a little… humility, admitting to God and to your brothers and sisters that you don’t have it all figured out.  That, without God, you’re prone to mistakes.  That, in order to live the kind of life you know you want to live, you need God’s wisdom.  But that wisdom comes through the doorway of humility, an understanding that you can’t do life alone.  Face it; you are vulnerable, you have needs.  In particular, you need God and God’s wisdom.

In the Old Testament, Solomon, as he was about to become king, in a prayer to God, in front of all the people, put it this way:

And now, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in… Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?’  1 Kings 3:8-9

And God’s response went like this:

It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this. God said to him, ‘Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right,

I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you. 

I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honor all your life; no other king shall compare with you. If you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your life.’  1 Kings 3:10-14

And for a while, things were awesome.  If you read on in that story from 1 Kings and you learn that Solomon eventually had trouble with that last part and consistency with his relationship with God.

A definition of wisdom goes this way:

Knowledge of what is true or right coupled with just judgment as to action; understanding, discernment, or insight.

It only takes the briefest slip, the briefest moment, to do or say the things that get us into trouble.  Wisdom takes time. When possible, let go of the temptation to react.  It’s possible that in the space of counting to ten, or hopefully longer, wisdom will have the time it needs to take root and grow.

We began by talking about the chaos of life, some of which you experience very personally, some of which we all see on a massive scale.  The experience of life leads us to prayer, simply paying attention to God.

Ask God.

Ask for Wisdom. 

Ask in Faith.  Never doubt that God can bring you that wisdom you need.  God may not change your circumstances, but God can change you.

The sign out front still asks the question:  How can I be close to God?  The simple answer is – talk to him.  And we will talk to God together.


Heavenly Father,

I come to you today

To give you my whole life.

I need your forgiveness.

I need your wisdom.

Through your Son, Jesus.

Make me brand new.

Fill me with your spirit.

Give me power to know you.

To serve you.

To follow you.

My life is not my own.

God, I give it to you.

Thank you for new life.

Now you have mine.

In Jesus name I pray.

(based on a prayer by Pastor Craig Groeschel)