Prayer – You Keep Using That Word

Can I be honest here?  I do not like this reading in Mark.  It is a story I struggle with and don’t really care for.  It is the same story in Luke and Matthew and you know what’s ironic?  I’ve been talking the last couple of weeks about how Mark is usually more concise and succinct about his story telling.  And it is THIS week and THIS story Mark decides to have the longer version.  Thanks a lot, Mark.

Is it okay that there are readings in the Bible that pastors don’t like and stories that they struggle with?  I hope so because that’s reality.

[audio http://www.buzzsprout.com/33052/345846-prayer-you-keep-using-that-word.mp3]

Why don’t I like it this reading?  Why do I struggle with it?  Mostly because I don’t understand how this faith and healing thing that Mark describes actually works and so I have a hard time saying anything intelligent about it.  This story makes it seem like all we need for healing from disease is to call on Jesus in prayer and faith.  This story makes it seem like all we need to return from death is to call on Jesus in prayer and faith.  At the same time we all know people we’ve prayed for healing from disease and prayed for protection from death and it seemed like those prayers weren’t answered.

About a decade ago my brother was diagnosed with Huntington’s Disease and after a long period of decline and struggle he died a little over a year ago.  I was with him for most of the time he struggled with the disease and I was with him when he died.  You can be certain that through those years I, and a whole lot of other people, lifted a lot of prayers of healing and of comfort for him and so far as I can tell, none of them were answered.  As kind of a combination of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, Huntington’s Disease gives no chance of healing and is never comfortable.

What about our prayers?  Where did they go?  Why weren’t they answered? What difference did it all make for my brother, anyways?  Many of us have had similar experiences.  This is why I do not like this reading in Mark and it is a story I struggle with.

I think it is fair to say that our concept of prayer is terribly accurate sometimes.  I can’t say exactly how it all works but I have a suspicion that too often prayer is consigned to the realm of what is known as ‘moralistic therapeutic deism.’  That’s where we do good things to keep God happy so that when we need something we can turn to God and lift up our request, or demand if we’re honest about it, in the form of a prayer.  Since we’ve been good and God is presumably happy with us, God will try to keep us happy by answering our prayers.

It reminds me of a scene from the movie Bruce Almighty.  Jim Carrey’s character has taken over for God because he believes he can do a better job at being God than, well, God.  He runs into some challenges when it comes to answering prayers:

Whatever it is I don’t know about God and faith and prayer, I’m pretty sure that isn’t how it works.  In the first place we know full well that yes is not the answer to all our prayers, don’t we?  Just next week there will be several million people praying for the opposite outcome in the super bowl.  So I don’t think there is some logical checklist approach that God uses to answer or ignore prayers.   There isn’t a computer algorithm that God uses to say yes and no to prayers.  I don’t think that is how prayer works at all.

So if prayer doesn’t work like that, how does it work?  Well, there is no simple answer to that.  Which is evidenced by the fact a search for ‘prayer’ on Amazon books returns 125,000 results.  A google search on “What is prayer?” returns 220,000,000 results.  Give or take.  Guessing that no one really knows how it actually works.

Whether we understand it or not, prayer matters.  Prayer changes things.  Former atheist turned Christian author C.S. Lewis said once something to the effect that prayer doesn’t change God, it changes us.  Maybe prayer changes us, and whatever or whoever we’re praying for, in some fundamental way that we don’t really see so much.  Maybe prayer connects us with the God who gives us in Christ Jesus the sure and certain hope in forgiveness and resurrection.

It is that connection to God that holds us.

When it feels like the sacred is torn from your life, prayer is how we are loved.  When everything has fallen, the promise is that we’ll be held.

That’s what it means to be held.

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