February 9, 2020
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
Every Sunday, we begin our worship with prayer concerns. We lift the names of those who are sick or struggling so that we can include them in our prayers of intercession, prayers we offer on others’ behalf. It’s what we do; we are Christians and Christians pray for one another. Not everyone, however, appreciates those prayers. Some time ago, I read an on-line post by an atheist who had recently been hospitalized after a heart attack and I’m guessing that his heart attack was brought on by a sour disposition because his post was a long rant against his Christian friends who insisted on praying for him.
“I don’t want your prayers,” he complained. “I don’t believe in your God and I don’t believe that prayer does a thing, so quit telling me that I am in your prayers because that is the last place I want to be!”
While I can accept that he disagrees with his Christian friends’ theology, I don’t understand why he would resent their offering prayers on his behalf. If a man doesn’t believe in God, then why should it matter to him if you offer prayers to a deity that he doesn’t believe in? If I was diagnosed with a heart condition, and you told me that you go outside every morning and swing a chicken over your head three times while standing on your left foot chanting, “Round and round goes the chick to cure my friend who is sick,” I wouldn’t be angry. I’d be amused picturing it, and I’d be skeptical about the healing effects of your efforts but I’d also be touched that you were spending your mornings focusing on my welfare. Nevertheless, there are some strident atheists who resent any suggestion that Christians may be praying for them in times of trouble. As I thought about this man’s irritation and others like him, I thought that maybe their anger is not due to a difference in opinion on how effective our prayers are as it is due to suspicion over exactly what it is we are praying for. Think of the times when you have told someone that you are keeping them in your prayers or written those words in a card: have you followed that statement with a clarification of what it is that you are praying for? Most of us simply put a period at the end of the clause, “I am praying for you,” as if those words are sufficient unto themselves to communicate our thoughts, but what Christians use as a kind of shorthand to share our concern for one another, can sound disturbingly unspecific to people outside the church. For all they know, when we say to a person with a heart condition, “I am praying for you,” we could mean anything from, “I am keeping my fingers crossed that the medical treatments will be effective,” to, “I am praying that this heart attack will cause you to repent and come to Jesus before you die so that you will not burn in hell.” To illustrate my point, if you google the definition of intercessory prayer as I did, you will discover that the United Methodists define the primary purpose of intercessory prayer as building relationships with others (1) while the Christian Broadcasting Network describes intercessory prayer as “warfare … fighting against … rulers of darkness… [Intercessory prayer is] where the battles for our own lives, our families, our friends and our nation are won or lost.” (2)
In other words, our vague statement, “I am praying for you,” can cover anything from kindly best wishes to a fiery judgment on the sick person’s character which means that the nonbeliever has no idea what is really in the mind of the person of faith when he or she says, “I am keeping you in my prayers.” No wonder they are unsure of how to feel about our prayers on their behalf.
Obviously, the solution to this problem seems easy: we just need to be more specific about what we are praying for when we tell people that we are keeping them in our prayers ….. except that there is a major hitch in that solution namely, that if we are to be absolutely honest, we people of faith don’t always really know what we are praying for either.
A man once took his small son to town to run some errands with him and when lunch time arrived, the two of them went to a diner for a sandwich. The father sat down on one of the stools at the counter and lifted the boy up to the seat beside him. They ordered lunch, and when the waiter brought the food, the father said, “Son, we’ll just have a silent prayer before we eat.”
The father finished praying first and waited for his son to finish his prayer, but the boy sat with his head bowed for an unusually long time. When the boy finally looked up, his father asked him, “What in the world were you praying about all that time?”
His son said, “How do I know? It was a silent prayer.”
Every Sunday morning, and in our private devotions at home, we lift the names of those who are sick or struggling and offer prayers on their behalf. It’s what we do; we are Christians and Christians pray for one another. That much we know; but please don’t ask us to go into a theological explanation of what we believe that these prayers are supposed to accomplish. The surest way to reduce a church discussion group to self-conscious incoherence is to ask, “How do prayers of intercession work?” We feel comfortable talking about prayer that asks God to bolster own spiritual strength or prayers asking for God’s guidance to navigate a difficult decision, but if we try to explain what it is that we expect to happen when we offer prayers on behalf of those who are sick, our questions crowd out our answers:
Do we pray for the sick because we believe that God will only intervene in the health of those who can garner enough delegates to cause God to come over to their side? What about the shy, the quiet, or the lonely? Is God less likely to heal introverts than extroverts because there are not as many prayers rising to heaven on their behalf? (As an introvert, that’s a very disturbing thought! I’d better stay healthy if that’s the case.)
Or about this question: is a relationship between the pray-er and the pray-ee necessary in order to make intercessory prayer effective? There are scads of places on the internet where you can list the names of people in need of healing: do the anonymous prayers of people in cyberspace really make a difference to the outcome of a person’s disease?
And the toughest question for all of us: what do we do with the times a person isn’t healed by our prayers? I know that many of you sitting here today still carry grief over a loved one who died in spite of your keening prayers to God for their healing — in spite of hundreds of church members and friends praying on their behalf — and I imagine that any time you hear someone attribute their healing to the power of prayer, you wonder why that power was not available to the person you cared about the most in the world. How do we explain intercessory prayer working for some and not others?
One time when the church prayer list had gotten quite long, I downloaded an app that is designed to help church members keep track of prayer concerns. Each record contained the sort of information you would expect: a place for the person’s name, their illness or difficulty, and the date you added them to the list. There was one field, however, that threw me into a theological quandary: each record had a checkbox that you were supposed to tick off when the prayer was answered. I didn’t know what to do with that checkbox especially when the person we had been praying for died. I certainly didn’t want to check off, “prayer answered,” upon the occasion of their death but there was no option to check off that said, “Even though the outcome that I most desired, hoped for, and prayed for didn’t happen, I have to believe that my prayers somehow made a difference even if I’m not exactly sure how.”
I deleted the app. But I did not stop praying. In the face of all of my questions about prayer, the one thing I know is that it is what we are called to do; we are Christians and Christians pray for one another.
In today’s passage in the gospel of Mark, a woman has been sick for twelve years, poked and prodded by doctors, submitting to the horrors of what passed as medical treatment in the 1st century, and she has exhausted all of her options. Bone weary from her illness and desperate for healing, it is no wonder that when she sees Jesus, she is moved to hope once more. If only, she thinks, she can get close enough to him that she can touch him, even if it is only the hem of his robe, then maybe she will be healed. The healing of this woman is unlike the other healings we read about. Other people come to Jesus with words, specifically outlining the problem they face and the outcome they desire: “Lord, my daughter is sick. Come lay your hands on her that she might be well,” they say. This woman, however, has no words. She knows she wants to get well but she has been sick for so long that she may not even remember what well looks like. She doesn’t want a conversation with Jesus about her condition because she doesn’t know how to express what she hopes for; how to instruct Jesus on the outcome she desires. All she knows is that she needs to be close to Jesus to be well.
To be a Christian — to be a person who follows Jesus and trusts in him — is to be a person who prays even if we don’t understand prayer, even when we can’t explain it, even when it doesn’t appear to change the outcome of someone’s illness, even when we are filled with doubts about the effectiveness of that prayer. Like the woman in the gospel of Mark, we push through the crowded doubts of our own minds and reach out to Christ in prayer because the one thing that we know as Christians is that this man Jesus is the one we need to be with when we are afraid for the future. This man Jesus is the one we need to be with when we are bearing on our hearts the hurt of others. He is the one we can trust with our fears and who will understand our hopes and desires. Ultimately, prayer isn’t words; prayer is the longing to be in the presence of a love that is powerful enough to help us endure the trials we face and the trials of others that bear on our hearts. When a child comes running to you in tears because they have fallen and scrapped their knee, do they come to you because they believe that you can heal that scrape or because they need someone to be with them in their moment of pain? Small children may believe the former — they may believe that you can kiss it and make it better — but as they grow and discover that you can’t repair every wound they will suffer, they will still come running to you in their tears because we all need to be in the presence of love when life hurts.
And so when we pray,“Heal my loved one of their illness,” what we are saying through the inadequacy of our words is, “I love this person so much and the reality of their mortality is unbearable to me. I don’t want them to die and don’t know what I will do if they die, and I am so afraid of a future without them in it that I can’t breathe thinking about it. If you can, God, take this horrible situation away so that none of us have to bear the heartache of being mortal.” We pray for the healing of bodies because we we don’t want to have to pray later for the healing of broken hearts, but we are mortal and sometimes life hurts, and so no matter what may come, as Christians we continue to pray because we know that in the face of heartbreaking times, we need to be in the presence of a love that can bear us up and lead us on … no matter what may come.
And so we pray. It’s what we do; we are Christians and Christians pray for one another. We pray for ourselves; we pray for others who are in pain or afraid or hurting; we pray for a broken world mired in despair. We pray with inadequate words knowing along that we need to reach out and touch the love of Christ and hear the assurance that he spoke to Julian of Norwich, when he said to her in the depth of her prayers,“All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”