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Prayer Chain Pain
September 23, 2001
1 Timothy 2:1-7
"If no one has linked you to a prayer chain, count your blessings." So runs the headline of a March 7 Wall Street Journal article. This story sounds strange, if not sacrilegious, but it invites us to consider the case of a Church of Christ missionary from Dallas named David Allen. Allen picked up a parasitic infection while stationed in Thailand in 1997. For about a year, he could not eat much except saltine crackers. His weight dropped from 172 pounds to 139. "I am in constant pain," he told four colleagues in a lengthy e-mail. His message, with details of messy symptoms and frank admissions of despair, was meant to be private, but it was forwarded to several Internet sites that solicit prayer on behalf of those in need. Some people posting the messages embellished the facts, and added a diagnosis that Allen would "apparently die within two months." He was deluged with 10,000 e-mails and 2000 letters in the first six months. Now, even though he has recovered, he continues to get responses. There seems to be a point at which prayer chains become a problem and yes even a pain. That is, unless you happen to enjoy sorting through 55 e-mails a day while you are doubled over with a parasitic infection.
On the Internet, prayer chains often expose the most private aspects of people's lives from site without their consent. The popular Beliefnet.com site carries postings seeking help for a "Bipolar Father and Husband" and for a fellow named Mike who "Needs Help Being Nice To People." Full names are given. On partnersnprayer.org, a North Carolina site, a travel agent in Colorado wants help for her husband, described as alcoholic and no longer interested in being married. Stephen, in South Carolina, posted a multisite plea recently asking for his wife's deliverance "from anger, hurt, guilt, resentment ... so that she will be able to again feel the love she has" for him. Both of the people who posted these prayer requests later acknowledged that they did not tell their spouses about the requests, although the messages disclosed their identities. Now I believe in prayer as much as anyone, but there is also such a thing as invasion of privacy.
I heard about another prayer practice that strikes me as invasive, even obnoxious. Some churches in Michigan use pagers. They call sick people on pager to let them know that people are praying for them. An incoming page is meant to signify a prayer. To me that just sounds downright irritating. I do not think I could ever tell anyone not to pray for me, but I do not see why they need to page me to tell me they are praying for me.
Many churches use a prayer chain. One person calls another with a prayer concern and that person calls another, and so on down the chain. It can be very effective if done right.
A Christian named bonnie wrote the following:
Oftentimes in my life I have felt the power of the Creator's loving presence. One of the best times was the few days I spent in the hospital during my quad bypass. During that time I felt the presence of love from my various communities, especially a Lutheran prayer chain requested by my sister, and my Catholic community prayer chain requested by myself. I was also supported by prayers of many individuals. ...
From the day I entered the hospital I was calm and felt the loving care of God and my friends, both known and unknown. I went into surgery believing I might not survive but believing that was okay with me. I trust God and believe when I die I will be going to the Creator. What greater gift could I receive?
I was awakened in the intensive care unit a day after surgery. Still calm, still feeling the love that surrounded me. For two days I stayed there until I was well enough to be moved to a room. I will never forget the love I felt as I rode in the wheelchair to my room. Prayers do make a difference.
[A Christian named Bonnie, "The power of prayer chains," April 9, 2001, belfrys.com/prayer_chains.htm.]
That is an example of a good use of a prayer chain, but with the Internet and email, prayer chains sometimes seem to get out of hand. For example, ePrayer.com offers a unique service - the ability to send free virtual prayers, complete with your choice of background, verse, music and font color. Other free services include prayer requests, daily inspirations, and more! An online site called Beliefnet.com has over 1,000 prayer chains which invite people to pray for women with breast cancer, folks with financial concerns, people living with chronic disease, adolescents with developmental handicaps, divorced moms, families with sick children, the mentally ill and their families, and bereaved parents who have lost a child. "These are real relationships that form on our message boards," claims Beliefnet's editor-in-chief; "real consolation is offered, real compassion expressed, real prayers traded."
That sounds great, but a question we need to ask is: Do we need all this to make prayer effective? Is this what the Bible means when it talks about praying for one another? Will sheer numbers of prayers somehow spur God into action? The prayer-chain assumption seems to be that you have more clout with God when 10,000 people pray for you, and thus, if only one poor person, namely you, is praying over your sorry state of affairs, you might as well forget it.
Prayer boards, prayer chains, prayer circles and prayer request lines can turn prayer into a popularity contest--or, even worse, a kind of talk show. Invariably, the most dramatic concerns get the most attention, just as the most outrageous guests on Jerry Springer draw the biggest ratings. You can bet that the announcement that "a missionary may die within two months without divine intervention" is going to inspire more prayer than a request from "a mother of three is having trouble making her mortgage payment." And yet, God is as concerned about a mother as he is about a missionary.
Instead of going to the Internet then, let us go to today's passage from 1 Timothy, where we find some words about prayer.
Four types of Prayer
I Timothy is an exhortation to keep the faith despite deceptive pseudo "evangelists" who teach false doctrine (1:3ff). Timothy was a protégé of Paul who is mentioned throughout Paul's letters. In I Timothy, he is urged to "fight the good fight" (6:12) of obedience and faithfulness. Within Timothy's mission field were any number of competing Christian and Judaic and pagan sectarian groups. Timothy and his fellow Christians continually faced the strife and tension of first articulating and then maintaining the faith as they had received it. The central issue of most of the Pauline epistles is making clear the distinctions between what are acceptable Christian practice and doctrine, and what are not.
I Timothy chapter 2 identifies prayer as the main activity of a Christian community. The exhortation for Christians to pray in worship seems obvious enough; however, there is more than that. Four types of prayer are mentioned:: supplications, entreaties, intercessions and thanksgivings (v. 1).
Supplications are prayers for help in personal need
Entreaties ask God for a beneficial outcomes to a situation.
Intercessions are petition for others in need
Thanksgivings are prayers for blessings received.
Proof of Prayer?
Now I suppose that at this point a skeptic would ask: what proof do we have that prayer changes things. My answer would be that we are dealing in matters of faith not proof. News stories, midmorning talk shows, and celebrity figures such as Deepak Chopra claim that prayer can improve health. Others scoff at the same assertion. As is typical of so many debates regarding faith, people often see what they want to see: believers seeing proof of prayer and skeptics seeing disproof. This raises the question: What does the research show?
According to Dr. Harold Koenig, an associate professor of medicine at Duke University and the country's leading authority on faith-and-medicine studies, academic research does show that prayer has beneficial health effects, although mainly for the person who does the praying. Studies of "intercessory" prayer - Person A prays for the health of Person B - find scant if any effect. But studies of "petitionary" prayer, in which a person prays for his or her own health or peace of mind, show tangible statistical results. When you pray for your own health - especially your own mental health, in cases of clinical depression - science suggests you may be on solid ground.
[- Gregg Easterbrook, "Can you pray your way to health?" April 9, 2001, beliefnet.com.]
But the prayer of faith is not only for the self but for everyone. Not just people with dramatic concerns, not just people that we likebut everyone, without qualification. V4 says that God wants all to be saved, and v6 says Christ Jesus gave himself as a ransom for all. What is the primary issue here? God's concern for all.
Certainly after Tuesday, September 11, this is something we need to hear. We are still cleaning up the wreckage from the terrorist attack. We have a list of well over 5,000 people who are missing. We may never find their bodies. We are still trying to deal with this both individually and as a nation. I Timothy says, Here is something you need to know. God is concerned about us, and therefore we can pray with confidence to God.
Another good point for us today is made in v2 where we are encouraged to pray for "kings and all who are in high positions." Certainly, in our time of national trial, we should pray for the leaders of our nation and for the leaders of the world. Have you noticed the number of foreign nationals who are on the list of the missing at the World Trade Center. To take one example, there were apparently hundreds of British citizens who were killed. In one sense the attack on the World Trade Center was not so much an attack on America as an attack on the world banking community and on the new global economy. That is one reason why so many nations have indicated a willingness to stand with us in any response we make against terrorism.
But to return to the scripture, in the latter part of v2 we are told why we should pray for our leadersso that so that we "may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity." This indicates the ideal of the Christian life in this world. We are not called to war and anger, not to vengeance and turmoil; rather, we are called to a quiet life of prayer focused on spiritual matters.
The best witness of the church is the witness of the church in prayer. We saw that last week at that tremenous service at the national cathedral and in all the other services that were held around the country and around the world. The world saw a people at prayer, and that was a mighty thing.
Nor should we suppose that prayer is a passive activity. When I suggest prayer as a remedy for a problem, some folks say, "That is OK, but what are we going to do." My reply would be that in prayer we are doing something that is effective. You see, I actually believe in prayer. The bumper sticker says that prayer is the answer, and that is true. However, I should add that I do not believe that we should only pray. In prayer, we receive our directives that lead us to other actions. But we need to have prayer first and foremost.
We need prayer for everyone, including our enemies. In MT5:44, Jesus says, "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." Have you been praying for Osama Ben Ladin? You have seen his picture on TV. Have you thought about offering prayer for this mans soul, for his deliverance from evil? This may seem like a strange idea, particularly after September 11. I never considered praying for this man until a couple of days agoFriday. On Friday, in spite of my revulsion and contempt, I finally obeyed the commands of my lord, and prayed for the terrorist leader. As I prayed for him, realized that I know nothing about him. In America, in much of the world, Osama Ben Ladin has become the personification of evil. Yet prayer makes me ask questions about the man that would turn him into a human being. For example, why does he hate us so much? He was our ally in the war in Afghanistan against the Russians. What happened? And not only to Osama Ben Ladin, but to all the thousands of people in these terror networks. Why are they so filled with anger and alienation that they are willing to die to strike a blow against civilization. I think these are the kinds of questions that arise when we start praying for enemies. And as God leads us through such questions, we come to a new understanding of why they are what they are.
The point then is not to get 10,000 people focused on one needy soul. The point is to get each one of us praying for 10,000 needs. And when we open our hearts and minds and spirits to the needs of the world we begin to see the world as God does. And when we see our planet from the Lord's perspective, then we can actually begin to do his will for this planet.
God is the Source
Prayer does not change God. Prayer changes us. Prayer makes us more compassionate, caring, and gospel-sharing. Prayer turns us into people with hearts for the world that Jesus lived and died to save. Prayer also helps us to "lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity" (v. 2). Prayer helps us to lead lives of godliness in relation to the Lord, and lives of dignity in relation to people around us. Godliness and dignity begin with prayer - prayer to the God who as v4 says, "desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth." Because God's passion is for everyone, we can exclude no one.
So prayer is not about being late to work and asking God to give you green lights as you careen down the highway, or to give you a parking space close to the door at the Mall. Let's face it: some prayer requests are downright frivolous. One pastor reports that a man in his congregation asked him to pray for a character on Days of Our Lives. "She's going through a hard time, you know," whispered the man confidentially. When I read that I thought here is a man who needs to get a life.
He needs prayer, but then we all need prayer. But it is not the numbers of people praying who make the difference in prayer; it is God who makes all the difference.. The number of people praying for a particular concern does not push that need any closer to God. Yet every prayer from every single individual goes straight to the Father because in his love he hears us. Our challenge then is to offer a chain of prayers for all the people of the world, day in and day out, a chain of prayers that links us to God and to each other in a spirit of love and concern.
Christian prayer "is an attentiveness to God that also makes us attentive to others," says Brother Jean-Marie of the Taizé community in France. Our chain of prayers for a hurting world connects us not only to God, but to one another. We can certainly rejoice that missionary David Allen was healed of his parasitic infection, but ten thousand e-mails had little to do with it. God had everything to do with it. Amen.
Carton, Barbara. "If no one has linked you to a prayer chain, count your blessings." The Wall Street Journal, March 7, 2001, A1.
King, Larry. Powerful Prayers. Los Angeles: Renaissance Books, 1998, 201-216.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2000 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified, 11/01/01