Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven.
— James 5:14-14
“… to be successful in life and find the right man.”
– A prayer request left at Beliefnet.com
Jeff and Homer
Jeff Beagley and his wife stand trial for the death of their son, Neil. Neil had died needlessly because his parents had not sought medical help for a condition that could have been treated easily by doctors. Instead, they prayed for healing.
One question has continued to come to me, “If Neil had fallen off a ladder and broken his leg, would Jeff and Marci have taken him to the doctor or gathered to pray?”
This is not a snide question from a cynic; it is the question of someone whose father prayed in faith over his son’s broken legs. My father, Homer, took me to the doctors first and then he prayed.
I grew up with a rare bone disease called “osteogenesis imperfecta,” commonly called “brittle bone disease.” By age thirteen I had had thirteen broken legs. It was a genetic disease I had inherited from my father. In its earliest stages, my bones were the most fragile. Before age one, simply banging my legs against the crib resulted in two fractures. Fortunately, our country doctor in eastern Oregon had read an article on osteogenesis imperfecta and diagnosed it from the bluish tint of the whites of my eyes. Parents of children with my condition are often falsely accused of child abuse.
My broken legs became routine, and I was in and out of hospital rooms, and in and out of casts and wheelchairs. My father felt an immense amount of guilt, because he had passed on this affliction. He did everything within his power to make my life good, to make it “normal”.
I remember being home from church due to yet another broken leg. I was in a body cast on my bed in our living room. My parents had left me in the care of my older brother. I was watching television. Oral Roberts’s, “Something Good Is Going to Happen to You” came on the air. At the end of the broadcast, the camera panned into a close-up of the evangelist’s face. He spoke in earnest tones directly to me, “If you believe, God will heal you. If you have faith, rise from where you are and touch the screen of your television. I will pray for you and your faith will make you whole.”
I could not rise from where I was. I was in a body cast and had not yet moved to crutches. So I rolled to the side of the bed and awkwardly lowered myself to the floor and dragged myself across the braided rug to the television, and to Oral Roberts’s large sweaty face. I reached out and touched the screen. I placed my palm in the middle of the screen as the evangelist prayed for my healing. The show ended. I had believed whole-heartedly that I would be healed. I did not expect to stand and walk, only that I would never have another broken bone. The next year, another broken leg, another stint in the hospital, another wheelchair and another year of coping.
One evening, after Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting, instead of driving home, my father stayed in the parking lot of church. We sat in the darkened station wagon. I was puzzled, as several men, my father’s friends from church, got into the car. “David, the Bible instructs us to call the elders of the church to pray for the sick and anoint them with oil.” Nervousness clutched my stomach. “Prayer is not like magic. There is nothing magic in this oil or in the words we say. But I do believe God can heal you.” My father asked the men gathered to lay hands on my head as he took a small vial of oil from his coat pocket and poured some on my head. Each of the men prayed for me, asking for “God’s will to be done.” I continued to break my legs. My father continued to take me to the hospital. And my father continued to pray for my healing.
I went on to become a pastor. I often prayed for people at their bedsides in hospital rooms or at the altar of the church. I prayed not so much for their healing as for their comfort. Over the years I had prayed for many things: to be cured of homosexuality, to find a good parking space on a rainy day, for enough money to pay the rent. At a more zealous phase in my life I kept track of answered prayer. It seemed like God performed at about 50/50. I comforted myself and others with the words, “God always answers prayer, just but sometimes His answer is no.”
My last prayer was that God would lift the dangerous cloud of depression that covers my life. That cloud drifts in and out, but seldom dissipates entirely. Low-level chronic pain is like sandpaper on my soul. I am faced with a paradox. It makes no sense to pray. It is impossible not to not pray.
As a teenager, I grew up with the notion of “praying hard enough”. I watched people scrunch their faces and clench their hands. I saw people weep and convulse in an attempt to prove how hard they were praying. People believed that God could be convinced by the sheer number of people praying … for the cancer to be taken away, or the storm to be averted. Some would be cured, some would die, and for some the storm would rage on. Was God’s success rate fifty-fifty? Even Oral Roberts died eventually.
Most modern-day Christians live somewhere in the middle, between the fanaticism of the Foleys and unexpressed doubt that prayer makes a difference. Prayer is a polite way of informing God of our needs and desires, like one could might inform a wealthy uncle who might be kind enough to respond. Prayer becomes something of, “It can’t hurt to ask.”
I do pray. But my prayers are sometimes angry tirades or sullen silences, and sometimes it does hurt to ask. All I know is that to not ask hurts even more.
As it turns out the Foleys did not need to pray, only to put their son in the car and take him to the nearest emergency room. My guess is that if he had fallen from a ladder and broken his leg they would have done exactly that.
God, sometimes I can’t figure out who is the bigger disappointment, you or us.