Eliot Church of Newton, 11/09/2014
James 5: 13-16
Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. 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. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and 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.
The Message “The Transformative Power of Prayer”
I believe in the transformative power of prayer. I wouldn’t be standing here today if I didn’t. The number of hospital rooms I’ve sat in with people who were gravely ill or dying, including both my parents, are too numerous to count. It is through these experiences that I have come to see the power of prayer in action.
Several came to mind this week. Let me share one of them. I was on call one night working as a student chaplain at Methodist Hospital in Southern California. The patriarch of a large Mexican family was dying, and the family needed a Spanish speaking priest to lead them in prayers. After a frantic search I located the most amazing young priest. I remember standing in the doorway of this man’s room. His family lined the walls, probably 20 or more of them. The priest was leading them in the rosary, and then in hymns they all knew.
I looked over and the man in the bed was propped up with tears running down his face. The love in that room was palpable. I could feel it in the doorway. My tears mingled with the others in that room.There was no doubt in my mind that the spirit was present.
Was this man dying? - yes. Could we change that outcome? - no. Did our prayers make a difference? ohhh yes, probably in more ways than we ever imagined. Just place yourself in that hospital bed and imagine being filled with the love in that room. I’ve never forgotten it. I’m sure the others in that room never forgot it either.
In his book "Pray All Ways" the Catholic monk Edward Hayes calls tears “prayer-beads,” because they arise from the fullness of the heart, not from the head. Music too, can be a form of prayer that radiates from the heart.
Thinking back over the times when I have been the most emotionally invested in my prayer life, it was those times when my life seemed spinning out of control; when loved ones were facing catastrophic illness or death; - those times when I knew life would never be the same again. So often it’s in those times we turn to God in the most authentic prayer.
Anne Lamott calls “‘Help!’ our first great prayer.” She describes prayer as “communication from the heart to that which surpasses understanding …” She explains: “Prayer means that, in some unique way, when we feel we have no where else to turn, we believe we’re invited into a relationship with someone or some force that hears us when we speak.” To believe in a Christian God is to believe in a relational God, a loving God that wants only the best for us.
And yet, there are plenty of times in my life when I’ve wondered; Is God a loving God? What did I do to deserve this? Doesn’t God care? How could God let this happen? Is there even a God?
I remember many years ago now, when my mother became paralyzed after a surgery that had saved her life. I called a minister friend of mine back home in tears, shouting how angry I was at God. How could God allow this to happen to such a good and kind woman? It took a number of years to come to the understanding that God doesn’t control every disease and catastrophe that befalls humankind, and God doesn’t carry a magic want to make them all better.
If one believes that, then the big question arises: What happens when we pray? Am I just talking to myself? or is there a connection to God, and to that person or persons I’m praying for?
I started questioning, is anyone listening? Are these prayers making a difference? And then I met the brother of a friend of mine who was diagnosed with liver and pancreatic cancer and given three months to live. He had a wife and two children, his own business in a small town in Iowa. He went into an experimental treatment program at Mayo Clinic. He lived over two years, while the others in the program died. He didn’t use the morphine pump they gave him until the last week of his life.
He lived those two years to the fullest. He told me he wasn’t afraid of death. He had a good life and so much to be thankful for. He wasn’t angry at God. Death was a part of life. But what I remember most: he said he felt all of those prayers that were being prayed for him - family and friends, and friends of friends he didn’t even know personally. They all touched him in some unexplainable way and helped him to face the inevitable with dignity and grace, and live fully until then.
Prayers can make a difference.
So what happens when we pray for someone? Let’s be honest here, no one can answer that with any certainly, although many have tried. One that I find intriguing comes from the distinguished Process Theologian Majorie Suchocki in her book on prayer In God’s Presence. It’s impossible to explain her theology of prayer in a paragraph or two, but let me plant a couple of seeds, in her own words, for you to chew on, that might help you to think about prayer in a new way.
Since God is a mystery, really unknowable, we have to speak of God in metaphors and one of her favorites is ‘water.’ “Water rushes to fill all the nooks and crannies available to it; water swirls around every stone, sweeps into every crevice, touches all things in its path - and changes all things in its path. The changes are subtle, often slow, and happen through a continuous interaction with the water that affects both the water and that which it touches…. The water doesn’t exert its power by being “single-minded” over and above all these things, but simply by being pervasively present to all things. What if God is like that?
To imagine how God experiences intercessory prayer … consider that since God relates to each aspect of creation in all of creation’s varied time frames, then no matter how remote two persons may be from each other, there is a sense in which they “meet” in God. The same God receives the influences of both of them, and responds to both of them according to God’s own character and to the particular circumstances of each.
Prayer is a partnership with God, not a manipulating of God.
God works with the world as it is to lead it to what it can be.
Our praying makes a difference to what God can do. We offer our prayers for well-being, knowing that God will fill in the blanks of precisely what that well-being can be. And we know that there is no inadequacy in our praying, no matter how inadequate we might feel, for God’s own self, through the Spirit, prompts our prayers, receives our prayers, and translates our prayers into the stuff for God’s doing. And so we release our prayers to God to whom we give them, trusting this God who works with us all to do with them as God can and will.