Miracles, Really?

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Rev. Dean Snyder

James 5:13-18

One of the questions that came up when we were talking with people and surveying people to prepare for this series on prayer was “What about miracles?”

Is it okay to pray for a miracle? Should we expect miracles? What if we pray for a miracle and it doesn’t happen; what then?

What about praying for physical healing? Whose fault is it if it doesn’t happen?

What about praying about our finances? Is it okay to ask God for money?

Someone asked this question — How much money do we need to have before praying for more becomes tacky?

So all of this is an interesting topic and we will surely have some disagreement in our congregation about this. Which is ok. Matter of fact, if we can talk honestly about our disagreements about these kinds of topics it will be a very good thing and we will learn from one another.

So I want to try to be real with you about my thinking about some of these things and I hope you will be real with me and each other.

I am a product of modernity …Western modernity … like most of us are. Western modernity was built on deist assumptions. The assumption of modernity is that what happens in the world can be explained from within the natural world without the need for supernatural explanations. If we had complete knowledge, there is nothing we could not explain.

And modernity has served us well. It has given us science and medicine.

We discovered germs and viruses because there was someone who believed there had to be an explanation other than evil spirits and hexes as to why we become sick. Thank God.

We discovered how to predict hurricanes and prepare for them because someone believed that weather must follow some natural principles rather than be arbitrary acts of God. Thank God.

Most of the great advances of modern times have been due to people who believed that the operation of the universe is explicable without recourse to the supernatural.

Yet, I have seen and heard too much not to believe that miraculous things happen. I have heard and seen too much not to believe that prayer makes a difference in some pretty amazing ways.

When someone I love gets sick, if you had the power to force me to choose between medicine and prayer, I would pick medicine. Fortunately, you couldn’t force me to make that choice, but if you could, I would pick medicine. I have been to places in the world that do not have much access to medical care and vaccines and medicine. I’ve been to places that did not have access to rubber gloves. Here is the truth … where there is medicine, people live longer; they live less painful and more productive lives. If I had to choose, I would pick medicine. Medicine is an answer to prayer and it is miraculous.

I have seen too much and heard too much not to believe that prayer can accomplish miraculous things.

So here are some things I believe about prayer. I do not want to limit what God can do so I call these “as a rule” principles. They apply as a rule.

First, as a rule our lives and our prayers need to be consistent. We can’t live unhealthy lives and pray for health. As a rule, for God to answer those prayers would be divine malpractice.

I often listen to sermons on my ipod while I am exercising or walking, and I listen to sermons from a wide range of churches from Pentecostal to Unitarian. I listen to a Pentecostal church where the pastor begins his sermon most Sundays by reporting on 4 or 5 miracles that happened during the past week, some of which are pretty remarkable, including a recent report he shared that over half of the rabbis in Israel have secretly converted to Christianity.

Even this particular pastor got upset not long ago because there was a young person in his church who got angry at God because she prayed not to become pregnant and she became pregnant anyway. Even he acknowledged that prayer is not an adequate form of birth control.

I am inclined here to make a statement about a certain candidate for the senate who has some strange ideas about pregnancy but Don Lowe told me recently about a couple who decided to attend another church because they thought Foundry had become too political, so I will restrain myself.

We can’t eat Big Macs and drink Big Gulps every day and then pray for God to heal our diabetes. I suspect God doesn’t want us just to be healthy; God wants us to live healthy lives. We can pray for God to free us from our addictions to fat and sugar but for us to ask God to protect us from the consequences of our own self-destructive actions while we keep doing them must put God in an awkward position.

As a rule, we ought to be willing to do for ourselves if we can what we are asking God to do for us.

Second, as a rule we probably ought not to want God to heal us from what is not a disease. When I did a little survey monkey about prayer a few weeks ago, someone left a comment about having trouble believing in prayer because he prayed for years to become straight and he is still gay. Being gay is not a disease.

Being differently abled is not a disease. I told a friend about another friend who uses a wheel chair, how when she was a child, people prayed for her to walk and, when she couldn’t, they blamed her for not having being “healed” because she didn’t have enough faith. My friend said about the other friend who uses a wheelchair – “She is the healthiest person I know. She is the person least in need of healing I know.”

I believe that we can pray pretty much for anything, but as a rule we should not expect God to heal us from what is not a disease.

Third, as a rule when we are not healed in the way we pray to be healed, we do well to look for a deeper purpose. You remember the Apostle Paul had “a thorn in his side,” which we assume was some sort of pain or weakness. Paul said he prayed three times for God to remove it. But he says God would not remove it. God said to him: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor. 12:9) Paul believed the thorn in his flesh enhanced his ministry because it caused him to rely more on the power of God rather than his own strength.

As a rule, when our prayers are not answered the way we want them to be answered, we might do well to ask whether there is a deeper purpose at work here.

I do not believe disease comes from God but I do believe that God has used diseases to help us become more compassionate and wiser people.

I do not believe that God is responsible for world hunger but I do believe that God is trying to use the reality of world hunger to make us a more compassionate and just people.

As a rule, when we do not get what we want from God, we ought to look for a deeper purpose.

Number four, as a rule we should not pray in isolation from others. We should not keep our prayers secret. Much of what God manages to accomplish through prayer happens not just between God and me as an individual but it happens between people.

The reading from James says: “Are any among you weak? [Our translation says sick but the Greek word really means weak.] They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.” (James 5:14-16)

To be healed has much greater meaning than simply to be cured. Much of the healing God does happens through the relationship we have with others when we ask others to pray for us and when we are part of communities and small groups that pray for one another.

Guilt and shame can make us sick and most of us need other human beings in our lives to release us from guilt and shame. Isolation and loneliness can make us sick. Too little love and affirmation in our lives can make us sick. God alone, without others, may not be enough for us to appropriate what we need. Jesus himself implied that it sometimes took two or three to be together for his presence among them to be fully realized. (Matt. 18:20)

John Ortberg in his book Everybody’s Normal Till You Get to Know Them cites the Alameda County Study headed by a social scientist from Harvard. It tracked the lives of 7,000 people over nine years. The study found that that the most isolated people were three times more likely to die than those with strong relational connections.

The study found that people who had what we usually consider to be bad health habits such as smoking, poor eating habits, bad sleep habits, no exercise or excessive alcohol use but had strong social ties lived significantly longer than people who had great health habits but were isolated.

In other words, Ortberg says, the study discovered that it is better to eat Twinkies with friends than to eat broccoli alone.

Harvard researcher Robert Putnam notes that if you belong to no groups but decide to join one, “you cut your risk of dying over the next year in half.” [i]

As a rule, we ought to be sharing our prayer requests and praying for one another rather than to keep our prayers private and secret because much of what God accomplishes through our prayers God does between people.

Sharing our prayers with others also holds us accountable and helps our prayers from being too petty. If we are embarrassed to share our prayers with our friends, it may be a reality check that our prayers are either too selfish or too petty.

One more. As a rule when we pray we ought to pray with all of our mind as well as all of our heart. Jesus said “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” (This is Foundry’s key Scripture.) The Message translates it “Love the Lord God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence and energy.” (Mark 12:28-31)

As a rule, we ought to pray with open minds as well as passionate hearts.

This August I have been reading and praying a different prayer from the United Methodist Book of Worship every day. This past week I came across a prayer in the Book of Worship based on some of the writing of John Calvin, who is not my favorite theologian. But the prayer is quite amazing. It is in the section of the Book of Worship of Prayers for Others.

This is what it says:

Strong covenant God, save us from being self-centered in our prayers,

and teach us to remember to pray for others.

May we be so bound up in love for those for whom we pray,

that we may feel their needs as acutely as our own,

and intercede for them with sensitiveness,

with understanding and with imagination.

This we ask in Christ’s name. Amen.

Part of prayer is to pray with imagination. Pray expecting that God may open our minds to new possibilities, and to new understandings and to new ways of thinking.

A pastor friend told me about a woman who began attending the church he served. She brought her two children with her. She never missed a service. She seemed very focused and intense during the services.

After attending the church he served exactly six months she asked to meet with him. She said she wasn’t going to be attending anymore. She said that she had prayed intently for the past six months to win the lottery and since it hadn’t happened, she was leaving.

I wonder how often I’ve prayed that way. Without imagination.

I believe that as a rule we can pray for anything, but we ought to expect God to be as likely to mess with our heads as God is to mess with the world.

Another pastor friend told me about a young man who had started dating a young woman in his church and started attending church with her. His entire life up until that time had been obsessed with Kung Fu. Kung Fu movies; Kung Fu comics.

One day he called up my pastor friend and said something strange was happening to him. His friends would call him up inviting him to go to see the latest Kung Fu movie and he found himself not wanting to go. He was losing interest in Kung Fu and he didn’t know why.

On an impulse, my friend asked him if he had been praying.

He said, Yes. Since he’d started attending church he’d been trying to pray.

Well, he said, I couldn’t figure out what else to pray for so I’ve been praying for world peace.

Don’t pray unless you are willing for God to mess with your head.

[i] http://blog.hartvillehealthandwellness.com/nutrition/it-is-better-to-eat-twinkies-with-good-friends-than-to-eat-broccoli-alone/