February 4, 2018 – by Rev. Dr. Anne Simmonds
Isaiah 40:21-31 Mark 1:29-39
In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.
If you thought that because I teach a course on prayer to theological students at Emmanuel college that I am an expert, you would be wrong. Each year, about two months before my course starts in May, my inner critic screams: “Who do you think you are? You can’t pray! You’re a fraud”. When the voices are the loudest, I try and remember to let the words of Thomas Merton comfort and encourage me. He says, “We will always only ever be beginners at Prayer.”
I grew up with the notion that if you were a Christian, prayer was something you did. As regular churchgoers, you might also have that idea. Along the way you might also have picked up the notion that clergy are expert at it and you are not. Not so. For clergy, it is often the first thing to fall off their to-do list. Franciscan priest Richard Rohr suggests that if religious teachers taught their parishioners contemplative prayer, where individuals can experience the love and mercy of God for themselves, they would not be so dependent upon the clergy. Or church attendance! Is he saying it might not be in our best interest to teach you how to pray?
When there is a public disaster, often the first words out of a prominent person who must respond: “Our thoughts and prayer are with you.” This well-worn phrase, even, “I’ll pray for you”, can sound like a cliché. But I know the power of hearing I am being prayed for. Every three years or so I get a postcard in the mail from Trinity College where I did my Masters of Divinity. It reads, “You were prayed for in our chapel service today.” Surprisingly, this simple statement often brings tears.
Last year before my prayer course started, when I got the class list, I decided that I would commit to praying daily for the students I did not yet know. I simply uttered their name and asked that God’s will be done in their lives. I’m embarrassed to say that it took me eight years to think of doing this, but better late than never. I never told the students I did this, but what I found was that it changed me and how I felt about them – Not only did it help me remember their names, but I felt more open and connected to them in their lives and struggles. Who needs you to pray for them? Who Prays for you? Do you pray for yourself?
What do we expect when we pray, especially when we pray for someone to be healed? In my years of pastoral work, I have been with many families who prayed desperately that their loved one be healed – usually they were not, not at least in the way they desired. Where is the divine then? For some, the church and the notion of faith seem irrelevant, faced with such reality.
In the Mark reading, Simeon’s mother-in-law has a fever – not a terribly complex problem. It is one of many healing stories in the gospels. In fact, about one-fifth of the gospel literature is devoted to stories of Jesus’ healing. This one contains the typical features of a healing story. There is a description of the illness; a request for healing: an action by Jesus who, in this case, “takes her by the hand and lifts her up.” Lastly, there is evidence that the ailing person has been restored to health. The fever left her and she began to serve them.
At first glance this story might be quite annoying. The men come home and find mother not well enough to get their meal on the table, so they engage the services of their friend and healer to get her out of that bed so she can get dinner ready! Such an understanding would be limited.
The writer of Mark uses the same Greek word to refer to this woman’s service, as he used earlier to refer to the angel’s attention to Jesus during his time of temptation in the desert. The word, from which the Christian Church took the term “deacon”, means “to serve” or “to minister to”. This places her care of Jesus in a very positive light. Jesus not only ministered to her, she also ministered to him.
One element of the prayer course is a class on prayer and healing. This takes a whole day, which ends with a healing service where the students work in pairs. They share with their partner what they feel needs healing in their life and offer prayers for one another. It is not uncommon to witness tears as we move through this ritual. Prayers, tears and healing – I have no doubt there is a connection. Saint Ephrem went so far as to say until you have cried you don’t know God. Most of us think we know God—and ourselves—through ideas. Yet, embodied theology acknowledges that perhaps weeping will allow us to know God much better than ideas. Following this class last year I got an e-mail from one of the students who had been dealing with a chronic problem for years. She wrote that she woke up the next day pain free, something that had not happened to her for a very long time. Prayers, tears and healing – a direct link!
Isaiah’s people needed a good cry. They were living in exile; their temple and holy city had been destroyed. They were discouraged, weary, and felt that God had abandoned them. Yet, this prophet was preaching hope. He told them that the one who calls them to freedom is the God who created the earth, who calls out the stars, whose strength knows no limits, and who gives that strength to the faint and the powerless, giving those who wait on God the power to fly. How do we need to pray for this community? For our world?
Jesus knew the necessity of waiting on God. In the second half of the Mark passage we read: “In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.” We often think of Jesus as the source of healing, but was it not rather that Jesus knew that God was the source of healing? At times through the centuries, theological thinking has suggested that the healing stories in the gospel were only for that time and place and that we cannot expect such healing in our day. In tracing the history of healing in the Christian Church, theologian Morton Kelsey describes the development of an actual “hostility to the idea that healing might or ought to take place within the church.” In his book “the Uncommon Touch”, Tom Harpur suggests that intelligent people including whole denominations do not take the phenomenon of spiritual healing seriously, because of the “antics of bible-thumping, money grubbing hucksters seen on television and elsewhere.”
Many theologians and Christian thinkers are taking us deeper into our understanding of prayer and healing. Joan Chittister writes: “The traditional definition of prayer as ‘the raising of our hearts and minds to God’ misrepresents God. As if God were some regal, distant judge outside ourselves. But science – with its new perception that matter and spirit are of a piece, sometimes particles, sometimes energy – suggests that God is not on a cloud somewhere, imperious and suspecting. God is the very Energy that animates us. God is the Spirit that leads us and drives us on: the voice within us calling us to life; the Reality trying to come to fullness within us, individually and together. It is to that cosmic God, that personal, inner enkindling God, that we pray.”
We don’t do the healing, God does. We pray because what we really want, above all else and in the deepest places of our being, is to experience this animating energy, this life, this presence of the divine.
When I was in my 20’s, a young mother and struggling to make sense of the Christian faith I was raised with, I got involved with a charismatic group – this was the 1970’s and such groups were going to renew the church. They held that the problem was that most Christians had not been “baptized by the spirit.” When this happened, they taught, we would not only be “filled with the Spirit”, we would “speak in tongues.” I thought this was what would finally make me enough for God. I’d been with the group a number of months, they had “prayed over” me; nothing happened. It seemed it was my problem; my faith was not strong enough. One evening following the group, I went home, got down on my knees gave God an ultimatum. I stayed there all night praying to be “filled with the spirit.” By morning, nothing happened other than that I was very tired. I said, “That’s it!” and I stopped trying or believing. What I wanted then was definite answers, thinking if I was a “Spirit-filled Christian”, then everything in my life would work out as it should, meaning, as I wanted. I now see that my prayer has been and continues to be answered, simply not in the way I wanted then. Thank God! I would have been such a misery to live with!
There are no shortcuts to life in the Spirit. There is no magic. There is only tending to life, where we are, right here, right now, trusting that the Spirit is in us, with us. I’m not an expert on prayer, but I have come to understand that I can practise, and the practice is what it means to be faithful – like wearing shoes as Ruth Forman so poetically suggests;
I Wear Prayers Like Shoes
I wear prayers like shoes
Pull them on quiet each morning
To take me through the uncertain day
Don’t know what might knock me off course
Sit up in bed, pull on the right, then the left
Before shower before teeth
They were my mama’s gift to walk me through this life.
She wore strong ones
The kind steady your ankles,
I know cause when her man left,
Her children gone
Her eldest son without goodbye
They the only ones keep her standing
I saw her still standing
Mama passed on some things to me
My smile, sense of discipline, my subtle behind
But best she passed on
“Girl you go to God and get you some good shoes,
cause this life ain’t steady ground.”
Now I don’t wear hers
You take them with you, you know
But I suspect they made by the same company
Pull them on each morning
First the right, then the left
Best piece of dress I got.
By Ruth Forman from collection Renaissance
PS Girls and guys, you go to God and get you some good shoes, cause this life ain’t steady ground. Pull them on each morning, First the right, then the left; Best piece of dress you got.