Saturday, February 14, 2009

Sick of Sick

Some snippets of dialogue from yesterday at my house, where, after a month in which it seems we've been to the doctor countless times for each of us, half the household was now throwing up:

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Boy (exasperated, in the fleeting seconds between flash-pukes): Dad, pray for me!

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Boy (later, looking around at the room strewn with bodies flaked out on couches): Dad, the prayer doesn't seem to be working.

Dad (after a pause): Maybe God just wants you to get some rest.

Boy (exasperated again): But we've been resting like this for a long time.

Dad (who had just been muttering the same sentiment to God under his breath): I know.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

As a pastor 90% of the prayers people ask me to pray are for their health. I never know what to say. I can't stand it when I'm pressured to pray for someone's health on stage. I resist it as much as possible. Anyone relate? What do you say? What should I have prayed with my son?

I don't really beat him over the head with the need to pray, so it sure was interesting to have that instinct rise out of him in a moment of suffering.

I do thank God there is more health in our house today. But at the same time, prayer is not a get-out-of-trouble-free card.


Tony Tanti said...

I hear ya on that, the rain (sick) falls on those who pray and those who don't, as does wellness. I've never known what I'm asking God when praying for health for me or anyone else.

Micah Smith said...

I love what Alexander Schmemann said about death in relation to healing (from 'For the Life of the World'):

[paraphrased from memory]:
Healing is a sacrament: we can know God through healing and being healed. But praying to God for healing cannot be simply the next (and final!) attempt to get healing after the doctors are unable to succeed.

That becomes simply using religion as a better healing stick, in a finite life.

I'm struggling with this also, especially with current family situations.

How much do they need to suffer, really?? Can I just pray for them to have strength to see this through? Can I just pray for Christ to be with them in this? Certainly it must be as much in Christ's heart as in mine, to pray for them to be made well ...

jon said...

tanti! i've missed you!

i hear ya micah. nice to hear from you too. hang in there.

i guess i like the idea that prayer is talking to God about stuff. saying all that stuff you've said.

its asking him for stuff, that's where i don't know . . .

The Hansens said...

In class everyday we have morning devotions. Kids bring up some pretty lame prayer requests but in their head it is pretty big. Big enough to want to be vulnerable enough to share it in front of the whole class (some just like to hear their own voice). I also struggle with how to pray for sick people as well. Also when kids ask to pray for the family pet or the cow on their farm that is in labour. I'm also not a big fan of praying for the weather, kids wanting to pray for more snow so that school will be cancelled!


Matthew A. Wilkinson said...

I can't pray anymore. I just can't do it.

As an atheist, when negative things happen I have to accept them. There's no purpose for me in blaming God, or in appealing to God for help.

It's not comforting. That's for sure.

But it's also not confusing.

It is remarkable to me -and I hope it is abundantly clear that I say this with utmost respect for your faith, Jon- that you can believe prayer serves any purpose other than therapy after witnessing so many legitimate requests to God going unanswered.

That the rain falls on both those who pray and those who don't surely indicates that prayer does not effect the rain. No?

What do you say to someone in pain?
"This sucks. And prayer's not gonna help."

Ugh. I feel like a jerk typing this, but all the tiptoeing around the obvious in discussions of prayer is a source of frustration for me.

jon said...

dwayne: good to have you here too. good point about children's prayer requests meaning a lot to them even if they seem small to us. this goes for adults too. i have to remind myself that an adult asking for prayer for their (or someone else's) health is often coming from deep within. an expression of hope, desparation, etc. Then again it is often a prayer request thrown out in order to avoid discussing anything more personal.

matthew: you don't come across as a jerk. thanks for speaking into this.

truth is, i'm officially confused when it comes to prayer. i have certain feelings about prayer but i haven't decided what i think about it.

i certainly wouldn't be the first christian to say that I think prayer is more for us than for actually changing things, or God. So this would be what you would probably be referring to matthew when you say "therapy", even though as a believer in God I still this not as self-talk but as sharing oneself with God and finding comfort in him and finding his voice in Scripture. I'm not sure I want to say that this is ALL prayer ever is, but for me mostly this is all I expect it to be. But that isn't to say it is nothing, or useless. I see giving myself and my thoughts and feelings to God as fairly important.

And even when I ask for stuff, I am often looking at it as an expression to him. I'm not sure I'm expecting anything other than what would have happened anyway.

And when I ask for healing or health or something it sometimes feels like I'm asking for something unfair; for a leg up. Like seeing teams in sports pray that they'll win. I don't like that. And I feel sort of dirty when I do it.

But these are feelings and I'm not sure what I think. I do think it worthwhile to talk to God, becaues I believe he is there and cares. I do find Scriptures that tell us to pray, and then there are Scriptures that say not to babble on and on because God knows what we need before we ask.

And when it comes to people asking me to pray for healing on stage, well, that is another matter, especially since Scripture asks us to tackle these things in community, to involve the elders and such, and doesn't seem to recommend one-off healing prayers from the pulpit by the supposed guy who can get it done. I am uncomfortable with that. At least in James 5 when it says to bring the prayer to the elders I can see that God is either going to heal, or bring the person into a community that will help them deal. That seems sound to me. Thus my discomfort with the one-off prayers, where I'm not sure what to say anyway, especially when I don't even know the person.

So, those are feelings. ANd some thoughts. Not sure what I think officially though, as if I ever will. A lot of this comes down to the Calvinist/Arminian/Free Will debate for me.

Sure it is confusing, Matthew, but given convictions about God and the Bible I have to wrestle with it. But if pushed on it I'd probably have to admit that I think prayer is mostly for the pray-er. I think it is more than therapy (as in self-help), but I'm not sure I expect my prayers to change anything.

I feel I probably shouldn't admit that, especially since I'm a pastor right now living with certain expectations. But yeah, we tiptoe around this stuff too much. Can't let the atheists be the only ones willing to talk about it honestly!

(To be fair, lots of Christians will talk about this honestly).

And here I was trying to stay out of these big blog conversations for awhile!

Matthew A. Wilkinson said...

Wow. Thanks Jon.

Prayer is more for the prayer. That's quite a statement. And it seems to me you've got as reasonable a position on prayer as I could hope for without asking you to step outside of your fundamental belief in an interventionist God. So yeah, thanks. Great response.

I see where you're coming from. As always, I'm so glad to be reminded there are Christians willing to be honest in their examination of faith; willing to admit things that sometimes "shouldn't" be admitted.

joel said...

“I pray to change myself, not God”

I think C.S. Lewis said that, didn’t he? It is a very interesting idea. My memories of prayer were essentially bang-on to what I had been taught; that prayer was a kind of connecting with God. When I read that Lewis line, it occurred to me that something good could be coming from the action, and that this could be so even if God were not there, listening or if I was praying to the wrong God.

Also, as an atheist now, I still utilize this process as a kind of self-reflection or contemplation. Sometimes I just voice my fears thoughts or desires; sometimes I try to talk myself out of worry and it usually works or at least makes me feel better to some extent.

Isn’t talking to oneself of the many signs of madness? Uh-oh.

Jon, I am starting to think that Christianity might have a really positive place in society; even from an atheistic perspective. I am starting to think that the questions of God (theology) are quite distinct and separable from Christian culture. I know the Christian would likely frown on that kind of division, but as a culture there are many good things to be desired.

I am starting to realize that the problems I have with religion are less and less ontological problems (in that they posit a factually existing God) but more so on cultural issues.

If prayer is a state of contemplation with the intent on figuring out virtue and thought organization- then I would say that action is quite beneficial to any who partake in it.

I can see the scary thing for the Christian is that there is nothing in that definition which excludes other religions or other gods from being just as successful.

Perhaps it is not scary but sobering?

Tony Tanti said...

Good stuff. I still believe God can and sometimes does intervene, (likely not as often as most Christians think). With the rain example though, I've prayed for rain to go away many times, on the day of a friends outdoor wedding for example, but on that same day there were likely farmers praying for rain so yeah I don't see why prayer would change weather.

I also see many prayers go unanswered or answered "no" so I don't really pray to ask God for things anymore. Not to say that I don't mention things I'd like to see God do in my prayers, but I don't expect them to be done because I prayed that's for sure.

Praying to me is a conversation with God, about anything and everything. Does it need to be about more than that? You're points are great Matt but I fail to see the connection between not believing that prayer affects rain and not believing in God.

Matthew A. Wilkinson said...

The idea of unanswered prayer and the idea of a godless universe don't have to necessarily be connected. I should have been more clear about that.

jon said...

I would differentiate between prayer and (what I'll call) self-talk, but at the same time I gotta say that lots of Christian prayer I hear seems like self-talk. I also am not saying I never ask for stuff, but if I do it is in response to stuff in Scripture, expressions of longing for God's promises and redemption, expressions of submission to His will for my life, stuff like that. In these prayers I feel I have had some dialogue with God. One could go on I suppose, but that's my caveat, without denying the stuff I've already said here.

Joel: Obviously there is lots we disagree on, but I am glad to have come to a sort of "understanding" (if I could call it that). But I'm not thrilled that there is such a gap between Christian culture and what I believe to be defensible Christian theology. It drives me nuts. There are plenty of critiques to be lobbied against Christian culture, and yet I'm going to continue to try to make them from Christian theology itself. Even then, in my current role as a pastor I find myself recognizing that not everything in Christian culture is ALL bad, and recognizing the need to do so from the context of relationships with actual people, and not with sweeping changes. So this is slow and perhaps painful. I'm not sure I can sustain it long, actually. I'm not sure pastoring is the life for me. We'll see.

maybe that's a bit of a tangential comment from me. just what comes to mind.

Brendan said...

Hi Jon,

I read your blog sporadically. I'm sure we crossed paths more than once in Caronport.

I happened upon the "Sick of sick" entry, and it got me to thinking and reminiscing, and so I thought I'd not be a lurker for once and join in on the discussion.

I wonder sometimes, too, what the point of prayer is. I wonder if the fairly common idea of prayer as "conversation" or somesuch is generally unhelpful in understanding what it is. Perhaps not least because I think that most of what passes for conversation in our time seems often perfunctory at best.

I wonder, when I read of the prayer habits of many of the spiritual "giants" in the history of the Church, whether prayer is not (also?) somehow like labor. I do wonder if perhaps in some instances we do not labor long enough. I'm not sure where to go with this thought - I haven't really sat down and given more time to it.

As for the blog entry to which this comment is related (and the other comments)-

Maybe sometimes prayer is mostly for us - not in the sense that we are engaged in self-consolation, but rather that we are exercising and reinforcing our knowledge of God's character - that he hears and loves and has mercy.

Having said that, I remember quite vividly a situation somewhat analogous to what you described in your blog - I was probably about twelve - and wound up feeling quite (uncharacteristically) ill one evening - a splitting headache, nausea, etc. As I recall, my parents had a guest over - but I went and interrupted the visit and asked my Dad to come and pray for me - which he did. I believe that God honored that prayer - I remember distinctly and immediately feeling better as he prayed, and was able to sleep and felt fully recovered the next morning.

Take out of that what you will, I suppose. This is just what came to mind . . .