Baptismal Meditation delivered by The Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens at The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, August 12, 2001, 10th Sunday after Pentecost, dedicated to my mother as she goes to surgery this week and to Jennifer, Elizabeth, and Henry Keefer on their baptismal day and always to the glory of God!
(Part I of IV in series "The Power of Prayer")
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16 and Luke 12:32-40
Today we embark on a four week journey into the power of prayer. Prayer is "your soul's adventure with God." William Shakespeare wrote of prayer, "My words fly up, my thoughts remain below: Words without thoughts never to heaven go." Prayer is the unity of words and thoughts. It is both listening to God and speaking with God. Prayer is the language of love and gratitude and the silence of stillness in relation to the Divine. It is as simple as "please and thank you, Lord" and it is as complex as any relationship can be with the divine power of the Universe.
Often in our prayers we seek answers, but we should be mindful, in Ernest Findlay Scott's words, that "prayer is answered when it enables us to act as God desires."
This sermon series will explore the power of prayer: The power of prayer to heal us, to redeem what has been broken within us, to bless us and finally to approach and intimacy with God - as we have been taught in the Lord's prayer by our Savior Jesus Christ.
As we enter into this sermon, I invite you to pray with me. This is a centering prayer I use each week from the Book of Numbers in Hebrew Scripture. It is prayer which I learned years ago my grandfather Ahrens used each week in worship. I offer this prayer now as always to enter this holy and sacred time known as the sermon...
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our salvation. Amen.
Let me tell you a story about the power of prayer. In my first church in Cleveland, I saw many people die of cancer. In four years of ministry in Cleveland, I buried close to eighty people, half whom died of cancer, it seems. I was convinced that between the working and living conditions for many of my blue-collar members, there was something seriously wrong. Too much death for too many people.
I began to explore the power of faith to heal. I began to practice healing touch and hoped that perhaps God would use my hands and my faith for his healing purposes. I would regularly pray with people using the prayer of healing and the laying on of hands. I was not sure if God was using these hands for healing, but I know that I came to feel and experience the energy of life (and death) in any number of my parishioners.
Each time of prayer was (and remains) for me a sacred, holy, and healing time. Late one night at the bedside of one of my members who was criticially ill, I laid my hands on his ailing head as he lay sleeping and begged God to heal him. I found myself overcome with tears. Exhausted and feeling overwhelmed by death, I simply cried. As I closed my prayers for healing, kissed his forehead, and prepared to leave, he opened his eyes. In the darkened room he reached up and held my head and said, "Rev. Tim, thank you for your tears. They are for my healing." We embraced and I left. In the weeks that followed, he gained strength. Eventually he was healed. Now was he healed by prayer? By medicine? By his faith and belief in healing? By the tears themselves? What was it that brought this man from the edge of death to renewed life?
It is written in the Jewish writings of Talmud:
"All gates of Heaven are closed except the Gates of Tears. These are always open. (Talmud B'rachot, 32a). Of this the "Yud" said, `Why are the Gates of Tears always open? They are always open because tears are a sign of grief, and grief cannot open gates that are closed. The other gates, however, need not be kept open, for they can be opened by joyful prayer."
Prayer can heal. This is a belief common not only to Christians, but to religions worldwide and to a growing body of emerging spiritualities. Nearly all world religions have prayer traditions that invoke the healing response, says Dr. Herbert Benson, associate professor of medicine and president of the Mind/Body Medical Institute at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Benson discovered the healing effects of prayer while conducting research on the power of prayer, transcendental meditation and other activities that heal. In what may appear to be a cold scientific or mechanistic approach, Dr. Benson used rigorous laboratory experiments and in the end concluded, "We see all of this as a reaffirmation of what people have been telling us for millennia: Prayer is good for you." Prayer heals. (Quoted in Prayer, Faith, and Healing, p. 26).
The Harvard study found two keys to producing the beneficial response. First, there was the repetition of a word, sound, prayer, thought, phrase, or muscular activity. Second, was the ability to return to the repeated words, sounds, or such when other thoughts intruded. Dr. Benson found that one of the most powerful prayers was that used by Trappist monks - now for over 16 centuries. "While kneeling, one breathes out the word, Jesus while experiencing the feeling of love."
Healing prayers. Each of us brings to prayer such different experiences. Some of us have been praying all our lives. Like breathing itself, we may not have been breathing most effectively, but prayer is has become like breathing for us. But, prayer is not like breathing for others. It is hard. It is laborious. They are not comfortable with prayer.
But, they needn't be. Prayer should be like breathing for you and for everyone. God wants our heart. God seeks the flow of our heart and mind. Thus, God wants us to be open to listening and receiving grace, peace, and healing.
So, let's try it. Breathe in. Breathe out. (Repeat....) Using the name of "Jesus," or "Yahweh" or "God" breathe in...then breathe out. ...The word for "Spirit" in Hebrew is "Ruach" which means "Breath" or "Wind." Breathing, as Dr. Benson has found is for the healing of persons, communities and nations. Through such as this, we're strengthened for healing.
Larry Dossey is writing his book Healing Words, examined more than 130 scientific studies on the efficacy of prayer. Healing Words is now used as a text in many medical schools. Dr. Dossey found that two forms of prayer stood out as most often used by people. He referred to them as "I'm the Boss" and "You're the Boss."
"I'm the Boss" prayers are those the researchers call directed prayers. This is where we pray for specific outcome. We tell God exactly what we want and ask for it to be granted. This is the form of prayer Jesus taught in Mark 11:24, "Whatever you ask for in prayer, believe you have received it, and it will be yours."
"You're the Boss" prayers are non-directed prayers. We practice these prayers when we do not direct God but rather place our concerns in God's hands and ask or trust God to do whatever is best and right in the greater overall scheme. This is the prayer of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsamene, "Lord, thy will not my will be done."
According to the research, both forms of prayer work. Dossey concludes in his writings, "No formula was found to actually come out superior in every instance." Non-directed prayer seems to have a slight edge or directed prayer. But, the bottom line for healing prayer is that each of us needs to look into our own hearts and find out what method of prayer seems most genuine and most authentic for us. I believe the studies (and my personal experience) show that love, compassion and deep caring are the qualities that make for effective prayers. When these qualities are present, the forms of prayer are secondary. (This section of the sermon is quoted from Prayer, Faith and Healing, pp. 28-29).
In other words, be wary of people telling you how to pray because no one has cornered the market on prayer! Prayer and connecting to the Divine power of the Universe belongs to the entire human race. Whether spoken aloud in worship, felt in our hearts, thought in our minds, sung or whispered, whether wordy or wordless, prayer is a state of being. It is an attitude of reverence, or awareness of the Holy, of adoration, of attunement, or atonement - which simply means "at-one-ment" - or just being with God! (Ibid, p.29).
I am mindful of the prayers that seemingly go unanswered and friends and family who are not healed. We find ourselves asking "Why, Lord?" In the face of "why?" German philosopher and avowed atheist, Friedrich Nietzsche answered, "I doubt whether such pain improves in the face of "why?" but I do know it deepens." (Ibid, p. 33). What prayer (and science as well) cannot heal, often haunts us. In the face of pain and death - particularly the pain of our most dearly loved ones, we want and we need answers! I believe this where our faith heals the hurt of our unknowing. The Apostle Paul tells us of what he called "the thorn in my flesh." We are not sure if Paul's "thorn" was malaria, epilepsy, or some sort of eye disease, but one thing was certain for him, God had other plans for him. God told Paul, "My grace is sufficient for you. My strength is made perfect in your weakness." (II Corinthians 12:9, NKVJ). Through a tremendous faith in Christ, Paul was able to live fully in the face of his suffering. He said, "I take pleasure in my infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecution, in distress, for Christ's sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong." (II Corinthians 12:10).
In the face of such struggle, we are left to receive answers of "no," not yes. We are left to live with the "maybe's" and the "not yets." I don't know about you, but I hate the no's and maybe's and not yet's - particularly when they are for my family, for your children, for the innocent who are literally caught in the line of fire, and for those who are needlessly suffering in this city and across the world. Nevertheless, through prayer, I have learned to let go and let God work his wonders in the face of a sin-scarred world. Like Paul, you and I can be sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.
These reflections composed by an unknown Confederate soldier who was a prisoner-of-war somewhere between 1861-1865, have helped me on any number of occasions face the circumstances of what I believe are brought on by unanswered prayers. He writes:
I asked for strength that I might achieve; I was made weak that I might learn humbly to obey. I asked for health that I might do greater things; I was given infirmity that I might do better things. I asked for riches that I might be happy; I was given poverty that I might be wise. I asked for power that I might have the praise of men; I was given weakness that I might feel the need for God. I asked for all things that I might enjoy life; I was given life that I might enjoy all things. I got nothing I asked for; but everything that I hoped for. Almost despite myself, my unanswered prayers were answered; I am among all men, most richly blessed." (Prayer, Faith, and Healing, p. 36).
Richard Foster in his classic, Prayer: Finding the Heart's True Home, offers four straightforward steps for Healing Prayer. He offers them in hopes that people will use them in ordinary situations, everyday. First, he says, Listen. This is the step of discernment. Listen to people and listen to God. Sometimes people share their deepest needs in the most offhanded ways. Listen to them. When listening to God, ask God to show you the key to the problem you are facing.
Second, Ask. This is the step of faith. As we become clearer about what is needed, we invite God's healing to come. Dr. Foster tells the story of asking God to heal a small boy who was suffering from a degenerative eye disease. He had known him for months, but when he prayed the healing prayer, it was literally in the darkest hour for Franky. They both dared to ask for sight, and their prayer was granted! We have to risk asking, after we have been still in listening!
Third, we Believe! This is the step of assurance. We believe with our whole body, mind, and spirit. At times we confess to God, as with the father of the demonized child, "I believe, help my unbelief!" (Mark 9:24). But, regardless of whether we are feeling strong or weak in our belief, we pray and lift up our concern based on the faithfulness of God! We focus on God's trustworthiness and compassion and love. Focus on the love of God flowing forth in the healing power of our Savior Jesus Christ! But, in belief, we pray!
Fourth, we give thanks! This is the step of gratitude. Thank God for the measures and miracles of God's healing love in our lives. An attitude of gratitude! That's what I call it! We express our thanks to God for the small gifts and graces. We thank God for the multitude of blessings.
Years ago, when faced with what seemed like the death of one of my members from Lupis, I spent many hours at her bedside while she lay in a medically induced coma. I read to her. I prayed for her. I laid my hands on her for healing. It was around midnight, one night. It was the night I thought she would die and I had gone to say "good-bye." In walked her doctor. He was the head of the Intensive Care Unit - there at midnight, too. We greeted and spoke. We prayed together and during my prayer, something sparked his curiosity. As the prayer ended, he asked me, "You pray as though you expect her to die, soon. Is that true?" I acknowledged that it was. He smiled and said, "I believe she will live. She has made it this far through the power of your prayer, her faith, and our medicine. She will not die, now!" Out he walked! With that, I turned to her and said, "Ellen, forgive me, if I projected my fear on your condition." One week later, she was out of her coma, on her way to full recovery! I told her this story and she smiled and said, "I know, I heard all that you two said that night. I laughed when the doctor taught you something about faith! God is wonderful, isn't He?"
God is wonderful! Listen! Ask! Believe! Give thanks! Through the power of Prayer, God is working out God's Salvation! Amen.
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