The Mourning Woman Who Taught the Priest How to *Really* Pray, or, The Power of (Even Silent) Prayer After Terrorist Attacks

There was once a couple who was not able to have children together. The woman felt alone and mourned regularly. Her husband loved her deeply.

It was her habit to go into a local sanctuary that had open prayer times during the day. Another woman in town, if you can believe it, would tease and provoke her over her not being able to bear children. So she wept bitterly and would go long periods of time without eating.

One day her husband said to her, “Why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad?”

She could not respond, except to go back to that sanctuary and pray.

* * * * * * *

One day the priest was there, close to where she was praying.

The woman was utterly distressed and prayed to God, weeping openly as she prayed.

She made a promise of sorts: “O Almighty God, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give me a child… I will devote him entirely to you.”

As she prayed the priest started watching her mouth. He noticed that she prayed silently. Her lips were moving, but he couldn’t hear any sound come out of her mouth. He thought maybe she was drunk.

* * * * * * *

So the priest, a man named Eli, said to her, “Hannah, How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine.”

She responded:

No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.

Eli responded, as with a change of heart, “Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.”

* * * * * * *

Prayer, as it turns out, is not a silent, impotent act.

Even those prayers we can’t fully voice—where our lips are barely moving—reach God.

The prayer of one of God’s beloved is powerful and effective, as Jesus’ brother James tells us.

So keep praying. Keep your lips moving, even if no sound is coming out.

Keep praying though you are in despair. Keep praying when you feel helpless and hopeless and powerless. Keep praying when evil seems to have the upper hand.

Keep praying in times of drought, in times of death and destruction, in times of violence and terror, and in times of fear and confusion and sadness.

Through our prayers and the prayers of others, we are healed. Our words uttered to God plant us in the soil of his love, and we are saved. The prayers of God’s children are powerful and effective.

Jesus’ and James’s “Spring of Water”

Spring Water


I’ve been preaching through the amazing book of James this fall. As I am able, I hope to post more of the sermons. In the meantime, here is something that occurred to me after I’d preached a particular passage.

To the woman at the well in John 4, Jesus says:

Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.

A spring of water… that wells up into eternal life. This led me to think of something James, brother of Jesus (probably), says:

Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring?  My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water. (James 3:11-12)

James never quotes it, but much of his letter is a fleshing out of Jesus’ saying, “Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks.”

It seems James could have that in mind here: it is out of the overflow of the spring of water of eternal life–given to us by Jesus himself–that we use our words to bless others.

Wisdom: Inside-Out, Outside-In



Dwite Schrute once said, “Whenever I’m about to do something, I think: would an idiot do that? And if they would, I do not do that thing.”

Dunder Mifflin’s Assistant to the Regional Manager, Dwight, picks up on a long tradition of “Stupid is as stupid does.”

This points up to the larger truth that…

…we live our lives from the inside out.

“WHO IS WISE AND UNDERSTANDING AMONG YOU?”, James will ask a diaspora group of Christians in James 3.

After a dire passage on how no one can tame the tongue, we might expect James to talk about how no one can really exercise wisdom in this world. But he comes back now to a theme he started in the first chapter, which is that wisdom comes from above, from God, and is available to all who ask.


Two Ways


It seems like God’s people are always coming up to forks in the road. You can go this way, or you can that way. There are two ways.

Wisdom, the skill and cleverness with which we live, is like that, too. There are two kinds of wisdom, James says. One from above and one from below. A different kind of fruit that each kind of wisdom produces.

Jewish Christians would have been used to this kind of language. Listen to how the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah contrast what the people of God can be.

Isaiah 27:6:

The time is coming when Jacob will take root;
Israel will blossom and grow branches.
The produce will fill the surface of the world.

versus Jeremiah 2:21:

I planted you in the land
like a special vine of the very best stock.
Why in the world have you turned into something like a wild vine that produces rotten, foul-smelling grapes?

What you fill your heart and your head with, and how you live out who you are, has visible effects–“fruit.” Any character trait in you has accompanying actions. If you find that you struggle with being critical of others, you’ll also hear snide remarks coming out of your mouth. If you experience compassion for others often welling up in your heart, chances are good you’ll act on it and spend time giving and serving others.

What’s inside you will find its way out of you.


One Kind of Wisdom: Ungodly


James says there are two kinds of wisdom. Or, only one is really properly called wisdom. The other is in scare quotes–so-called wisdom.

This passage weaves a tale of two wisdoms… James describes godly wisdom: where it comes from, what it’s like, and what it results in. He talks about ungodly wisdom: where it comes from, what it is like, and what it results in.

First, there is the so-called “wisdom” of the world. The wisdom he calls “earthly, unspiritual,” even “demonic.”


Where does it come from?

NOT from heaven.

In other words, the ungodly man or woman has not asked God for wisdom, and is going it alone. That person has not sought to receive the good gift of wisdom from the “Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.”

It’s actually worse than just coming “not from heaven.” Note James’s progression in verse 15: “Such ‘wisdom’ does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic.” You sort of descend the depths word-by-word in that passage.


What is it like?

James says in verse 14, “But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth.” There’s nothing to be proud of if you cherish “bitter envy” and “selfish ambition.” And if that does describe you, don’t deny it, James says. You’ll be better off admitting it and seeking God’s help before what’s inside you spills out onto others in a damaging way.

James talked about bitter water earlier in the chapter with regard to speech. Now he’s warning against a bitter spirit.


What are its results?

Envy and ambition, for James, lead to “disorder and every evil practice.”

As I was sketching and outlining this passage this week, with bitter envy and selfish ambition, you could end up with situations like this one…


Stick Figures


…where one stick figure knocks the other one down to the ground in a fit of disorderly rage.

I learned this week (source) about an art technique called pentimento. I am not a gifted drawer, that masterpiece above notwithstanding, so I can’t claim first-hand knowledge with this.

But pentimento is when the original base color on a canvas bleeds through. So if an artist started with a base of one color and then decided to switch that color and keep the same canvas, when that first color shows through, it’s called pentimento. What’s *really* there at bottom bleeds through whatever else is covering it.

It’s not that you can’t change the canvas. But sometimes, depending on your first color, you just can’t do anything to hide it in that same canvas. You can’t cover it up.

What’s underneath finds its way to the surface. What’s several layers inside, makes its way to the top.

That’s how James sees wisdom working. If you’re always envying others and trying to make a name for yourself, that’s going to bleed through. It leads to disorder and actually doing bad stuff.


The Other Kind of (Real) Wisdom: Godly


Then, James turns to real wisdom, the kind that God gives.


Where does true wisdom come from?

James says it’s “from heaven,” or from God. James has said this already earlier in the letter.

When he asks, “WHO IS WISE AND UNDERSTANDING AMONG YOU?”, it’s a rhetorical question, but there is an actual best answer to this question, I think, which I only came to when my eldest son was kind enough to write it down for me in my sermon notes. I had just left the question hanging there: Who is wise and understanding among you? Next to that, with a picture of a cross, he wrote, God! God is among us, is he not? And there simply is no one wiser and more understanding than God:

Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! (Romans 11:33)

Great is our Lord, and abundant in strength; His understanding is infinite (Psalms 147:5)

With Him are wisdom and might; To Him belong counsel and understanding. (Job 12:13)

This God, the Lord of infinite understanding, the God of unsearchable judgments and unfathomable ways, this God is the source of all wisdom. He freely gives of himself, of his wisdom and understanding and ability to make good judgments–he gives this to us when we ask.

And that ask, remember from James 1, is not, “If it doesn’t trouble you too much, God,” and not, “I’ve been asking around, so I figured I’d try you, too,” kind of ask. It’s a wholehearted, intense, yearning-filled, urgent request, “God, would you please grant me wisdom?!”


C.S. Lewis Quote


C.S. Lewis says, “The terrible thing, the almost impossible thing, is to hand over your whole self–all your wishes and precautions–to Christ.”

In doing so, we come to God empty-handed, ready to receive the gifts he will give. One of those is wisdom… sound judgment… better understanding… the ability to make sense of and move forward in a world that is at times just downright perplexing.


What is wisdom like?

James almost sneaks this one in. Look at verse 13: “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.”

Humility. True wisdom is humble. You don’t know wise people by their own claims… you know wise people by the smart and strategic and wise things they do… in humility.


What are its results?

The results of wisdom are many. Here they all are in verse 17: “But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace–loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.”

Pure seems like a funny word here. When many people hear the word “purity,” the mind goes to “sexual purity.” But James is using the word to refer to an undivided spirit. A heart that is fully trained on God. This is the antithesis to the double-minded person in James 1 who asks God for wisdom, doubting all the while that God even cares enough to give it. The wisdom that God gives is pure–it’s undivided in its loyalties. It’s focused in its motives.

And then–after humility and purity–there are seven more traits of wisdom James lists: “peace–loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.”

Each of these words is worthy of our measured consideration. In fact, you might take some time this week to read through this passage again, but spend a good minute or two prayerfully meditating on each of these words or phrases: “But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace–loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.”


Inside-Out, Outside-In


Faith produces deeds, and wisdom bears fruit. The God-centered life is lived inside-out. What’s inside you will find its way out of you.

What’s in our hearts and minds flows out into our actions… just as is true with Okilly Dokilly, the world’s only Ned Flanders-themed metal band.


Okilly Dokilly


If you’re really into Ned Flanders, that’s going to manifest itself. They call themselves the world’s only “Nedal” band. At their shows, they’ve got a Simpsons-looking, giant inflatable donut they throw out into the crowd.

What’s inside you ought to and usually will find its way out of you in full expression.

But if our lives are lived inside out, change can only come from the outside in.

What’s inside you will find its way out of you… but perhaps the only way to change what’s inside of you is to look outside of you… to look up, to God, the source of all goodness, peace, and wisdom.

The recently deceased preacher Fred Craddock describes a trip to the eastern Kentucky mountains, where he taught classes in a poor community there. One woman, as a token of her thanks, gave him a poem:

There is the hint of quiet rain coming soon,
Not much, enough to soothe the greening needs
Of outstretched leafy arms and hidden moss,
Shy and quietly waiting for the damp.

There is the hint of quiet moments coming soon,
Not much, enough to soothe the thirsting needs
Of outstretched, anxious hearts and hidden selves,
Private and silently waiting for the peace.

Louise Davis (unpublished poem)

The poet describes the “outstretched leafy arms and hidden moss” that are “quietly waiting for the damp.”

So, too, we, with our “outstretched, anxious hearts and hidden selves” are “silently waiting for the peace” of God.

James is not the first biblical writer, you might have guessed, to connect wisdom and peace-making.

He closes out the chapter: “Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.”
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God,” The ones who do what their Father does… working (as God does) to bring peace into the world. Just a little bit more here… just a touch more there. Just a small bit of resolution over here.

That kind of work–the work of making peace, of showing mercy, of bearing good fruit, of exercising wisdom–that kind of good work can only happen when our arms are outstretched… when our eyes fixed heavenward, looking to the Giver of Peace and Wisdom to fill us with good gifts.

We long for these gifts that will enter into our hearts, transform us, and make their way out into the world.