The miracle, mystery, and madness of prayer
“Our wounds are often the openings into the best and most beautiful part of us.”
― David Richo
I’m thinking a lot about God and prayer and healing this week. I know, why can’t I just read a People magazine and start worrying the Kardashians for a change? I hear ya. So, maybe I ought to get all this out so that I can move on to the more mundane matters of life. Here’s a quick update from last week.
Yes, that’s Emma, 48 hours after brain surgery. Seriously, I was expecting her to be unconscious, head shaved and wrapped in gauze, with beeping machinery. You know, like in my medical training from Grey’s Anatomy and ER. But no, there’s Emma, feeling as good as someone with a spinal scar on Percocet can feel. Today, she’s home. Going home meant a decrease in meds, so there is considerable pain with every movement but there is also recuperating at home in one’s own bed. Recovery will be a long road with progress measured in baby steps, not huge leaps. Still, many of those at the hospital–from the neuro nurses to the brain surgeon–say they’ve seen few patients recover so far, so fast.
For me, that photo will forever be a reminder of the power of prayer. Our little faith community has been praying for Emma for four years, ever since her original injury. For four years we prayed–and nothing happened. Emma made no improvement. The pain remained intense and debilitating. I could sense people’s unease in the community. Here we were, faithfully praying, and nothing was happening. It’s like it made God look bad. It was bad PR for the big guy. Oh, but we are a silly species that is only able to believe what we can easily see, aren’t we?
In talking to Emma at the hospital, we heard a bigger story. I’m sure we don’t know the half of it, but what we heard was an intricately weaved web of stories that began with a doctor in New Zealand who had an idea for a study. He connected with another guy at CMU who said come on over to Pittsburgh. Another woman went to work raising millions of dollars for the study. Other med professionals joined the study. One of them was a cousin/acquaintance of Emma, who called Emma’s mom to tell her of the study. Emma’s mom had seen the study highlighted on a local newscast but thought nothing of it. After talking to the cousin, the date of the accident made it seem as though she wouldn’t qualify for the study. But people went to bat for her. Finally, she was accepted and went in for brain scans. The scan was normal for a study that was investigating brain mapping. But the scan found something else in Emma’s head. Turns out, her condition was visible in a scan from two years earlier, as well, but it took a specialist to see it, I guess. Suddenly, Emma was no longer a participant in a study but a patient headed for brain surgery.
Hippocrates once said, “Healing is a matter of time, but it is sometimes also a matter of opportunity.” Emma received her opportunity to heal. So, while we were praying and nothing seemed to be happening, all these connections were going on behind the scenes. If any of these connections had failed, Emma would still be suffering without hope. If that New Zealand doc had gone to the Mayo Clinic instead of to Pittsburgh, Emma wouldn’t have been involved. All this stuff had to happen. Did it happen because people prayed? No one will ever know. No one can ever prove that it made a difference; no one can prove that it didn’t. All I know is that people prayed, and this impossible combination of circumstances—of opportunity—was erected like a Rube Goldberg science machine.
Now, the tough question is this: would God have brought this all together for Emma if we hadn’t prayed? You know, why couldn’t God have just done all this Himself because He loved Emma, instead of waiting for all this prayer to occur? Why did it have to take four years? All those are interesting questions but they are beside the point. In fact, I’m not even sure that healing is the point.
Prayer is a funny thing. It’s talking to someone you’ve never seen and never heard speak as if he is sitting there in the room with you. Even the various branches of Christianity don’t fully agree on what prayer is and how it works. Some shout it; some whisper; some speak crazy gibberish; some do it in complete silence; some fast; some dance; some use beads; some raise their hands. Praying for healing is particularly touchy. Some Christians believe that God heals every time, every day, and if He doesn’t, you either lack faith or you’re doing it wrong. Others, called Cessationists (note: I mistakenly referred to them as “Dispensationalists” originally. Big theological mistake, there. My apologies to all you Dispens out there), believe that miracles, including miracles of healing, went out with the apostles. Their take is that the early church needed miracles because they didn’t have a Bible, but now that we have the Good Book, God doesn’t work that way anymore. The rest of Christianity is found at various spots along the continuum between those two stances.
All I know is that Jesus told us pray, so it must be important. He didn’t say “if you pray,” he said “when you pray.” Thus, for some crazy reason, God wants us to pray. Think about that, in the midst of the hubbub and chaos of the universe, God wants us piddly human beings to mumble our requests and praise in His direction. And He hears it. Or at least that’s what the Bible says. In fact, the Bible shows us that prayer can change God’s mind (see Sodom and Gomorrah). The Bible shows us that prayer can heal cripples, lepers, the blind, the deaf, and the dead. But it isn’t a light switch that we throw and God is not a trained monkey or genie who performs tricks at our beck and call. So how does it work?
And what do I tell the couple in our community who are praying for a young mother and pastor’s wife who suffers from multiple forms of cancer that has spread throughout her body? For her, the clock is ticking and the prognosis is not good? Do we pray for a miracle? Of course. But why does God seem to move in one case and not another? Seriously, a lot of superficial answers have been dreamed up to address questions like that. And I’m sure that many people think Christians cherry pick results in a manner that looks something like this:
All the good results become proof positive that God is good and prayer works. Then we mix the unanswered prayers and bad results into a murky area called “the will of God.” As in, hmmm, that must not have been God’s will. I know! I hate that. It totally lets God off the hook with a shrug and a “What are ya gonna do?” It turns God into this arbitrary puppet master who wants one person healed and the other person to die.
Read the Gospels and you will see that sometimes Jesus healed everyone in the room and other times, like at a healing pool surrounded by the lame and suffering, only one person walked away healed. What’s up with that? When Jesus healed people, he often told them to tell nobody else. As strange as that sounds, I think Jesus knew how easy it would be for his mission to become all about healing. And that’s not what it was about. It was about bringing a lost and broken humanity back to God for eternity. Healing is always a temporary fix. The last time I checked, the death rate was still 100%. Even Lazarus, raised from the dead after three days in a tomb, eventually went back into that tomb. Healing is always temporary. This is not our final home. So, to make healing the total focus of Jesus’ ministry would have been to ignore His more eternal message.
When it comes to God, I always go back to the picture of a young child and a loving father. The father doesn’t fulfill every request of the child. Sometimes he says yes; sometimes he says no. To the child, the father’s answers may seem arbitrary and confusing. But the father sees a bigger picture and has his reasons. And the father’s love for the child never diminishes whether the answer is yes or no. Even when his answer is no, he still wants that child to continue to ask for the things he wants. He wants to stay in close, intimate communication with the child.
So, I ask God for the desires of my heart because that’s what He wants me to do. Sometimes, God jumps on His own. Other times, God jumps when I ask Him to jump. And still other times, God jumps even higher when I ask Him to do so. And when I am disappointed with His answer, He continues to love me, He offers me strength and comfort, and He can even use the most painful hurts and circumstances to achieve good in my life and the lives of others.
Maybe, to you, this still seems like a lot of crap and arbitrary rationalizing. I wish I had a better explanation. This is the best I’ve got.
I pray for Emma (still) and I pray for that pastor’s wife. Who knows what comes of it? Do you have an impossible situation you are praying for? All I can tell you is this: Don’t ever give up because it’s too hard or it’s taking too long. Don’t ever think that God is tired of hearing your request or that He is ignoring you. For me, I will always have that photo to remind me of how God was working during those four years I prayed. Let me know what you are praying for and I will join my voice with yours, at least this once.
“Scars have the strange power to remind us that our past is real.”
― Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses