When You Pray for Healing
As you may know, pastors spend a lot of time in hospitals. Visiting members who are sick. Listening, offering a prayer. Sometimes being asked by a stranger to come pray for their sick family member. This happened to me last fall in an elevator at Rex. I don’t know how many people I have visited over the years in the hospital or how much time I’ve spent there.
Of course the most memorable times for me are the ones where I have been there with my own family member… for long periods of time.
I’ve learned many things from just sitting there and waiting.
One is illness, crisis, cancer… name your poison… knows no distinction of class, status, race or religion.
I have met people who are heads of their companies and people who were at the bottom of society. Rich and poor. People of deep faith… of other faiths… of little faith. When it comes to waiting rooms and illness… everyone is in the same boat. Almost all are worried… praying… longing for their loved one to be healed.
Which is why none of us should be surprised with the stories today…We have the stories of desperate people from different walks of life.
One is a leader in the synagogue of all places… We know his name because everyone then knew his name: Jairus… He who is all powerful in his religious community is now helpless as his daughter is close to dying. He is a desperate faith, a leader of the synagogue… pleading with Jesus to heal his critically ill daughter.
In Mark his story is interrupted by the encounter Jesus has with the woman who has been ill for 12 years with chronic bleeding. We don’t know her name… she is just known as “that woman who has been bleeding for 12 years”… defined by her chronic illness.
And to add insult to injury, she is considered unclean by her religious community. She is also desperate.
I feel for her… the line that stood out for me is this: “She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse.” (That’s desperation)
I don’t know how many times I’ve heard someone say, you know we have been to this specialist and that specialist… we’ve spent thousands and thousands of dollars… but no help. I remember a woman who in a previous church—facing cancer headed to a clinic in Mexico… hoping against hope to be healed. It was her “hail Mary”… and I wonder if it was this woman’s “hail Mary” to touch the cloak of Jesus… hoping against hope… Of course, in this story it worked!
Mark then returns us to the story of Jairus’ daughter who while Jesus is attending to the unnamed woman… seems to have died according to friends, family and eye witnesses. But they have underestimated Jesus… who takes the 12 year old by the hand and says, “Little Girl, get up!”… and she does.
These are powerful, powerful testimonies to the healing power of Jesus.
At one level, they are wonderful stories. And we are glad for Jairus and the woman.
At another level, they raise all sorts of questions like, “Should we pray for healing? … or “Can Jesus heal my loved one?” or “What is one to think when prayers for healing go unanswered?”… “Why weren’t my prayers for healing answered? you could probably add a few more to the list.
Being the person who has sat with a few people and prayed for a few people who are sick and desperate… here is what I’m learning (and I’m still learning!)
First, illness reveals something we don’t like to admit to ourselves. We are not as in control of our lives as we like to think.
That is why we are often driven to despair. Status doesn’t matter. Wealth doesn’t matter. Some things we are not able to handle by ourselves. And this can be a good thing.
I like the way Anne Lamott talked about it in her book of prayers called “Help, Thanks, Wow”… Help is the first of three essential prayers.
“There is freedom in hitting bottom, in seeing that you won’t be able to save or rescue your daughter, her spouse, his parents, or your career, relieve in admitting you’ve reached the place of great unknowing. This is where restoration can begin, because when you are still in the state of trying to fix the unfixable, everything bad is engaged: the chatter of your mind, the tension of your physiology, all the trunk and wheel-ons you carry from the past. It’s exhausting, crazy-making. Help. Help us walk through this. Help us come through. It is the first great prayer…
She had a friend, a staunch agnostic, who asked her to prayer for her daughter… Angie, a mother, had aggressive lung cancer, the kind that continues to grow tumors in the midst of chemotherapy. Ann says she closes her eyes and says, “I hold this family in Your light. I pray for them to get their miracle, and to have stamina, for them to be okay today, for their love and amazing senses of humor to help them through, although, if You have a minute, I’d like to know; What on EARTH could You be thinking?!” (p 14 and 22 Help, Thanks Wow”)
Anne Lamott has already let you in on the second thing I’ve learned over the years… to pray… not just for what I understand and can rationalize… but to pray as an act of faith and trust in God—revealed in Jesus as one who desires to heal his children. Because, in case you didn’t know this, Jesus loves our children more than we do…
So, when you or a family member request prayers… you will often hear me pray for healing… I would want you to do the same for me and my loved ones… I know it is risky, because often cures do not follow those prayers…
But sometimes, sometimes I’ve been surprised. I’ve heard more than one person tell me over the years that they have had a prayer answered. Usually people want to explain it away… but I won’t. I simply acknowledge the healing as a gift of God.
I’ll never forget Jean telling me 35 years ago, when I was an intern in Morehead City, that she had been bed ridden from a spinal issue. Tried everything. Then some friends asked if they could come pray… they did… and she stood right up. She said, “Jody, I’m as Presbyterian as anyone else, but I’m here to tell you “I was healed.”
Admittedly, I don’t hear those stories very often… but now and again I hear them or hear you tell them to me. So I pray for healing…
You never know when those prayers are answered. Of course I also know of the times when the prayers seem to go unanswered in the way we hope for them to be answered. This is so very hard because these are people we love.
This is not due to a lack of faith. Jesus made that clear.
Even Paul talked about praying for a “thorn in his flesh” to be removed… he prayed three times… but it never happened. The answer he got was, “my grace is sufficient for you; for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
By the way, we don’t know what that “thorn” was, but people speculate it was a physical problem: a chronic eye problem, malaria, migraines, epilepsy, and a speech disability.
Perhaps Paul’s experience is more common… prayers go unanswered in one way… but are answered in another. Answered not by cure of the body, but the healing of the spirit or soul. Where one finds a grace and strength and peace that is truly beyond understanding.
I’ve seen that happen as well as I’ve been with people in hospice rooms… or at a bedside. I’ve heard people say to me, “I’m ready”… or literally, “I’m at peace with dying” (by the way the word peace comes from Hebrew word “shalom”—meaning wholeness)
I confess I don’t fully understand it because I’m not there yet… but I share it as a witness to you from those who have been there and whose faith has been a source of deep peace.
Illness forces us to face some very hard truths… especially in a culture who lives in denial of death. Let’s be honest… most people live like teenagers… they never think they will die. Sooner or later every prayer for healing will go unanswered in the way we want it to be answered. Jairus’ daughter would die one day.. So will the woman who touched Jesus’ cloak…
But that does not mean there is not healing in store for us. I believe Jesus healed people not only because he loved them (which he did and does) but because he wanted people to know about another kingdom in store for us… He was giving us all a sign of the time when, as John describes it in the book of Revelation, “there is no more crying or tears or pain anymore…because the former things have passed away…” He called it a new heaven and a new earth. I love that passage because it reminds me of a promised day in store for all of us… a day where every prayer for healing is answered.
Perhaps that is what made it easier for me and my brother and sister and father in 1996 when my Mom had been in ICU for a month… I remember visiting and taking my turn sitting with her… It is the hardest thing I can remember doing for someone I love.
One day, the doctor came to us and said, “You need to make a decision… she is now only existing on the breathing tube. Do you want to continue that treatment?” He gave us time to talk about it. You would think it would be the hardest decision in the world… but it wasn’t. I had been watching Mom struggle for years with one lung and other complicating factors… and was grateful for the time she got to see Anna and Joe and build memories.
But the time had come to let Mom go…to let her, and I share these words purposefully, “be at peace”… to be whole. I believed and I still believe that this is what God wants for all of us.
Sometimes we are blessed and healing comes to our loved ones as a sign of God’s desire for us to be whole… and a sign that there is a time coming when all of us will be healed… made whole… at peace… as the gift of the one who loves us far more than we ever know.
When we come to realize the depth of God’s love for us… and God’s desire to make us whole… then, we too may come to know that peace and healing that surpasses understanding… that no matter the circumstance, keeps us in the knowledge of the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ our Lord. Which is where the final healing takes place.