#29: Prayer and medicine

Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? 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. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. (James 5:13-16)

In Biblical times, olive oil was not just food but a cure-all medicine. So James is saying, “Take your medicine, and pray!” David Hansen is a pastor in Montana.

“Willie Barnett just had surgery for cancer; she’s pretty serious,” a nurse in the church told me.

“Who is Willie Barnett?” I asked.

“A woman who used to go to our church.”

I pondered the information skeptically. Almost everybody in this town “used to go to our church.” I didn’t know Willie Barnett, and I didn’t know if I wanted to know her. I didn’t know if she wanted to know me.

I pray with my parishioners—that is a given—but I don’t visit every cancer patient I hear about. What about this cancer patient? I’m not called by God to pray for everyone. I wish it were clear to me who God wants me to pray for. Instead, I usually just stumble into these things and hope it’s God’s will.

I don’t remember why I decided to visit Willie. Maybe I figured I’d end up doing her funeral. Maybe I happened to be at the hospital for another visit and so I stopped by. Anyway, there was no sign from heaven that I was supposed to pray for her.

I walked into her room and guessed she was in her late sixties. She was definitely in pain. I didn’t know if it was the right time to be there or not, so I looked into her eyes for a sign. They didn’t read “Get the hell out of here.” So I proceeded to initiate a visit, slowly.

“I’m Pastor Hansen from the Florence-Charlton Church. I hear you’ve had surgery. What’s your situation?”

“Pastor, I’ve had surgery for a bowel blockage, and I have ovarian cancer. A year ago I had surgery for uterine cancer. As soon as I recover from this surgery, they’ll start me on chemotherapy.” She winced through her pain and teared up.

I recoiled, thinking: Chemo. Poison. Rotting guts. I wasn’t planning on staying long.

“May I pray for you?” I inquired.

“Oh yes, please do, Pastor. I need prayer,” she pleaded, her voice cracking with emotion.

I prayed for her. It was simple, direct, short. Afterward her eyes glistened, and through the anguish I saw hope.

I visited Willie and her husband about three months later in their home. We talked about her situation. She was ashamed of her hair loss, and the chemo was working on her digestive tract, making her nauseated. Her prognosis was not good. It was all wait and see.

She and her husband raised sheep. They were lambing at the time, and she hated not being able to help out. She had grown up on a farm, so she was well acquainted with life’s beginnings and endings. She was not afraid to die, but she loved life and wanted to live. We prayed for healing.

I visited many other times. Each time we talked, I read Scripture and prayed. The more I visited, the more I was able to enter into the prayer with my own love for Willie and her husband. I began to allow myself to feel their pain and pray out of my sense of their pain. Those prayers connected.

Six months after they began, the treatments ended, and Willie was declared clean of cancer. She told me many times that there was no doubt in her mind that the prayers healed her. Not many women survive ovarian cancer, so I wasn’t going to argue. They started coming to church faithfully and made many Christian friends.

[Some] years later, as we shook hands after worship, I saw the wet, helpless eyes … and knew something was wrong. She was to have surgery again. More cancer.

When I visited her in the hospital after her surgery, I thought she was going to die. She was too exhausted to cry. We prayed, and again, through the pain, I could see the hope. This woman believed in God.

The recovery and the chemo were especially tough this time. She was having trouble keeping food down; her hair was gone. She was jumpy, itchy, numb and limp. She felt as if her nervous system was corroding. Praying was tougher this time.

This was a summer of drought in Montana … The streams were drying up, the forests were burning down. It was a summer of drought for our prayers, too; our faith was arid. We prayed together, but none of us wanted to enter into the pain. Praying in the space given to us by God left us feeling dead. We had no assurance that God was at work.

I knew that Willie loved right-out-of-the-stream, pan-sized trout, so one day, instead of going to her house and praying for her, I went to the wilderness and fished for her. My goal was five small Western Slope Cutthroat trout. The year previous I had caught and released seventy trout in three hours at Boulder Creek, so that’s where I headed.

Boulder Creek was reduced to a trickle of tepid water. I came away with three fish. Three creeks and four hours later I had my five fish.

When I arrived at Willie’s, I didn’t stop in and pray with her; I just handed her a plastic bag filled with five slimy fish. She wept for joy as she clutched the bag. That evening she fried them in cornmeal and a little butter and ate them up. Many times later she claimed that those fish were the turning point in her recovery.

Today Willie is healthy; she knows that God has healed her. Her doctors told her as much: “Someone up there is looking after you.” I’m not so certain. I don’t jump to conclusions about prayer. But I’m glad I prayed for her. Ω

Reflect: When have you experienced healing through confession and forgiveness? When have you experienced healing through other people’s prayer? When have you known healing not to occur? How has this affected your faith? Tell God about this.

#Lent2020 © Sanctuary, 2020 quoting David Hansen, The Art of Pastoring. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994. Order your copy through your favourite bookseller.


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