Healing and Prayers, Comfort and Discomfort

One of the things I struggle with in sermon writing is navigating the healing stories. Don’t get me wrong. I love the stories. They fill me with hope and faith. But mostly they bring out my questions and my questioning. And I’m okay with that most days. One of the things I like best about my faith is that it allows me to question, to wonder, and to struggle with the text and with God.

But translating that from my own personal wrestling, to preaching a message to a congregation is hard for me. And a year at of working with sick and sometimes dying children didn’t exactly help that. I have been fortunate to witness the miraculous. But I’ve also been witness to sorrow that is beyond words, ache that knows no soothing, brokenness that shows no sign of repair. I trust in the bigger picture of God, that in God’s good time will, as Julian reminded us, all will be well. Yet in the rawness of sorrow and illness and death, it’s often hard to reconcile the healing Jesus with the realities of the world. Add to it that whole pesky prayer thing. What happens when I pray and my prayer seems to go unanswered, when despite all I believe, what it feels like is there’s no one on the other end of the line?

The Bible has wonderful accounts of how Jesus shows up and heals some people. I’m left wondering about the people he couldn’t get to and the people who were standing on the wrong side of the sea and the people (like us) who seem, at least at first glance, to be standing on the wrong side of time.

Where is God in the most broken of places? Where is God when we feel most alone? I don’t have it all neatly wrapped up in a bow. I don’t have a perfect answer for this post. But I know it’s a place where my deep discomfort is moving me towards a different and new perspective.

In his book Night, Elie Wiesel, professor, author, political activist and former prisoner at Auschwitz writes of a time when they were forced to watch a child being put to death, hanging from the gallows. Someone asked:

“Where is God now?”

And I heard a voice within me answer him:

“Where is He? Here He is—He is hanging here on this gallows. . . .”

At my core, I fiercely believe that God is with us in the midst of our suffering, our sorrows, even when it seems impossible, even when it seems we are alone. And I believe that part of how we come to know God is with us is through the ministrations of other sojourners who travel this earth with us. The power of prayer is not that it fixes everything–it’s that it changes relationships–our relationship with God, our relationships with each other.

So what do you think? Where’s God in suffering? Where’s God in prayer? Do you believe in miracles? Does God still intercede, jumping around like Jesus did, healing the lame, the blind and raising the dead? I’m curious to know what you think.

A final thought: the Senior Warden at my last parish introduced me to this. It resonated with me at such a deep level. Part of it is listed below.

From A Year of Days with the Book of Common Prayer by Bishop Edmond Browning:

If my prayers do not turn to these things into the releases and healings for which I long, does that mean they’ve failed? Does it mean I didn’t pray right? Didn’t pray hard enough? Only if the narrow test of immediate historical change is the only test of prayer’s efficacy. If the only useful prayer is a prayer that works right here and right now, in just the way I want it to work, we’re in trouble. Prayer is not a way to get around human sorrow, a special incantation that produces a desired result God would otherwise withhold from us. It is a thread of holy energy that binds us together. It enables the communion of my soul with the souls of others, whether I know them or not. “I could feel myself lifted by all the prayers,” someone will often tell me after a serious illness. Get enough of these holy threads wrapped around a person, and she will feel them, quite apart from the issue of whether or not she gets what she wants.

 
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Red Moons and Executions

The lights were bright. But not in the cheerful, welcoming Christmas way. Nor were they the holy, hopeful, Advent-waiting light. They were the jarring lights, that welcome complete exposure and clarity. But I did not stay in the light for long.

I saw a small group of people in the darkness, and I somehow intuited that I was supposed to be with them. Pulling through the open gates, into the harsh, bright lights, I handed my Driver’s License over to the officer and asked “can I go stand with them?”. “Are you here to protest?” he asked. I hesitated. I was there for that, to protest the execution of a man who killed a police officer. And as I looked into the face of the officer holding the card containing all my most personal information: name, address, height, weight, eye colour, I was not afraid. I was, however, worried he might be offended, worried he might roll his eyes at me, worried he might engage with me in a debate about how police are treated in this day and age. “Yes,” I said. And he, very politely, invited me to turn left. Three more officers, and two police dogs welcomed me into tree filled field.

“Get all your belongings before you leave,” the officer said. I locked my car and felt a breath of relief when I noticed that another clergy friend was also exiting his car. I greeted him and together we waited as the dogs sniffed his car for drugs and bombs. And together we walked to a cleared corral, sectioned off just for us. There I met a couple of other clergy, some activists who have long been attending these executions, one of W’s lawyers and some of W’s family and closest friends. It seems an extra insult to injury that the family must wait outside, with port-a-potties and the whims of the elements, while they wait for word that their beloved son/brother/uncle/friend has died.

I gathered with the people I knew. We made small talk. We held signs that no one else saw. The one I wanted “Thou shall not kill” was already being carried, so I took “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind”. One man never let go of his sign proclaiming that 144 people executed by the state were later found to be innocent. In total, there were about 20 or 25 of us, I think. I’ve never been too good at counting people. The Bishop of the Diocese where I currently serve made the comment “If you want to know what Calvary was like, you can imagine it was a lot like this.” His comment stuck with me throughout the night. It made sense. We were here, a few that, for whatever reason, needed to be there. The rest of the world was still spinning, doing things that needed to be done. And while the sky moved from dusk to dark, the moon began to rise and we waited.

In Jerusalem, etched into some of the ancient stones, ones that we imagine date back to the time of the crucifixions, back to the time of Jesus, there are markings. Imagine tic-tac-toe boards, only bigger. I’m told that the soldiers used these to pass the time while waiting for the crucified to die. On Good Friday, whenever I hear “they cast lots for his clothes,” my mind instantly goes to those games. Dice games, played on the streets, passing time, waiting for the human body to die, the heart to stop beating, because the government had decided death will somehow keep the rest of us alive. While the government kills, we cast lots and play dice and make small talk.

I would write of my encounters with his family. But they are not my stories to share. But if you’re taking time to read this (thank you!), I hope you know that W has a family. And they are wonderful. Funny and bright, kind and thoughtful. And they love W. And from all I can tell, W loves them too. A lot.

We waited, through 3 appeals, all denied. The moon continued to rise, and it went from hazy to pink to red. A harvest moon? A blood moon? And then it was back in its rightful spot, and traditional colour once again. Word finally came. The State had permission and clearance to kill W. It took 17 minutes for the poison to kill him. Seventeen minutes. Seventeen minutes of poison moving through his body, seventeen minutes of what? We were told, and suddenly there we were, at the foot of the cross, looking at the face of Mary, looking at the Magdalene, looking at the women who waited. Grief is that universal pain that stabs the heart the same today as it did back then. There is no cure for it, save maybe time and love.

And then it was over. And we got in our cars and left the empty field. Back to our lives. I got home and couldn’t get warm. My Chicago blood has thinned, five hours of standing in the December cold is a lot. I crawled in bed and shivered. “Seventeen minutes” I whispered my sleeping beloved, who woke up and held me as I struggled to get warm. “Seventeen minutes.” There has to be another way.