Back in my Pentecostal days we talked a lot about the power of prayer. We were taught to expect that God would do mighty things, just like in the Bible days. So, if you pray for the sick, you should expect them to recover. If they don’t, then something is wrong with the prayer. Either the pray-er or the pray-ee must lack faith.
It’s easy for those in non-Pentecostal circles to make light of such views, but don’t you expect God to answer your prayers for healing by restoring people to health? Why else would you pray? And when someone we’ve been praying for reports back that their cancer has gone into remission or they got that desired job, don’t we rejoice at this answered prayer?
Eric was my TA back when I was teaching in Kansas. As far as I know, no one ever said anything bad about him. He was a joy to be around, and because he had all the tools to be a great youth minister, that’s where he devoted his ministry. Yes, everybody loved Eric, but despite a lot of prayers, Eric died at a very young age of brain cancer.
Steve was one of my youth ministers. He went on to pastor a church, but he too developed cancer. Although his community strongly believed in the power of prayer to heal and though they prayed with all their might that he would be cured of stomach cancer, like Eric he too died young. Both men left behind wives and children, along with grieving churches.
Just the other day I received word that Don Shelton, the retired Regional Minister of the Pacific Southwest Region had died of a recurrence of bladder cancer. Although Don had “retired,” he remained active in ministry. His death hit me hard, because if it wasn’t for his wisdom and encouragement I probably wouldn’t be in ministry today.
In each of these cases people, including me, offered up prayers for healing, but a cure was not to be there for them. So how do we respond? It’s natural to respond with anger or sadness. For some, faith shrivels up and dies of disappointment. I expect that questions will always remain about why one person is cured and another isn’t. So what do we make of prayer? Should we hedge our bets – offer up prayers, while crossing our fingers?
The letter of James offers us a practical guide to Christian living. He speaks to us across the centuries, inviting us to live lives of faith in such a way that the Christian community is strengthened. James is clear. Faith without works is dead. And he closes this brief but powerful letter with some words of advice about the power of prayer.
James tells us that if you suffer, then pray. If you’re happy – sing. If you’re sick, don’t just pray, send word to the elders and ask them to come and anoint you with oil and pray for your recovery. Why? Well, because – “prayer that comes from faith will heal the sick, for the Lord will restore them to health. And if they have sinned, they will be forgiven.”
There’s a lot packed into these two verses. In fact, the message here can be rather troubling, because it seems to link sickness and sin, healing and forgiveness. But not only that, he suggests that a faithful prayer will heal the sick. And if you need an example of such prayer offered in faith – just look to Elijah. He prayed that the rain would stop and the land experienced three and a half years of drought. Then, when Elijah said let it rain, it rained and “the earth produced its fruit.” Wouldn’t you like to have the power to pray like that? Wouldn’t it be nice to have the power to control the weather or maybe raise the dead? Well, even if you haven’t stopped the rain, moved mountains, or raised the dead, our prayers can affect the realities of our lives.
Now, I’ll admit – I struggle with prayer. I’m not the contemplative type. I have hard time keeping my mind still. I need to be doing something – reading, writing, talking, doing. Sitting for an hour or even 30 minutes is difficult. So, I take comfort in Jesus’ teaching about the number of words needed to communicate with God. You see, God apparently isn’t impressed by the quantity or even the quality of the words we speak. A simple prayer offered with sincerity is just as affective as a long and flowery one. But, my struggle with prayer doesn’t excuse me from sharing in conversation with God – whether in the privacy of my closet or in public.
But whatever our prayers sound like, James speaks of their power. So, where does the power come from? How can the “prayer of a righteous person” be “powerful in what it can achieve?” Could it be that the power is found within the relationships we have with each other? Could this be what frees God up to work powerfully in our lives?
Although James doesn’t discourage us from going directly to God with our prayers, he does speak of the role of the community. When you’re sick, you can pray for yourself, but call for the Elders as well. Ask them to come and offer up the prayer of faith. Isn’t it interesting that James doesn’t tell the reader to call the pastor, the prayer chain, or even the Stephen Minister – not that there’s anything wrong with that? Isn’t it interesting that he tells us to call for the Elders, who are to come and anoint with oil and pray for healing? That’s their job. It was true back then and it’s true today. So, with James’s directive in mind, do you know who your elder is, so that you can call on them when necessary? If you’ve not heard from your elder yet, check out the list in the hallway and make a call – even if you’re not sick!
James also speaks of confessing sins to one another and restoring the wanderer to the faith. When you take instructions like these two, along with the instruction to lay hands on and anoint with oil, which speaks of touching the bodies of those in need of prayer, we see the importance of community.
There’s power, it would seem, in the community. It’s the power of the Spirit, which is symbolized by the oil with which the sick are anointed. It’s the power that comes when two or three gather in the name of Jesus and he is present in their midst. Yes, we can and should pray in our closets, but shouldn’t we also pray for each other within the community?
Over the years, I’ve prayed with and for a lot of people. I’ve prayed for healing, though like many, I may have hedged my bets a little by adding – “let your will be done.” Have you ever done that? You want to believe that the person is going to be cured, but you don’t want to be too disappointed if the news is bad.
I’ll admit, I’ve not seen a lot of curing, but that doesn’t mean that healing hasn’t taken place. I once prayed for and anointed a parishioner not long before she died. While it may not have been a cure, could it have been an act of healing?
Last weekend Amos Yong helped us better understand the nature of wholeness and healing in the context of disability. He reminded us that healing and cures aren’t always the same thing. The word we translate to speak of healing is also translated as salvation and wholeness. So, the question is – What is healing? Although it may not involve a cure, it could involve the healing of relationships or acceptance of what some would call a disability. And the power of this prayer could be the community that the Spirit builds when we allow the Spirit the freedom to move amongst us and build relationships of openness, welcome, and inclusivity.
My life has been enriched by the lives of Eric, Steve, Don, and many others, who weren’t cured, but through whom God brought healing to my life and to the lives of others. May we find that our prayers will have that power that comes through the Spirit so that God’s world may experience peace, joy, love, and wholeness.
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
18th Sunday after Pentecost
September 30, 2012