This past Sunday was the 23rd anniversary of my mother’s death. On the Mother’s Day nearly six months later, my father wrote a reflection on the role of prayer when suffering. Her death at age 66 as a devout Christian prompted the kinds of questions that arise so easily when we are confronted with untimely, unjust death. I have given this to many people over the course of my ministry because he so beautifully probes the intent of prayer and what we might need consider to be a failure of prayer. So I offer you his sermon. He was a career Air Force Chaplain and then retired to serve a congregation where he and my mother developed deep and lasting friendships. It was very meaningful for me to preach his words (emotional as well!) on the anniversary of her death. Nine years after her death, my dad also died of cancer on my mom’s birthday. We took solace in knowing they were together again. I pray that you are blessed through this message that combines theology and love!
For six months I have assured you, Katie’s and my faithful and loving friends and family, that I would share my thoughts and beliefs on the power of prayer as it addresses suffering and disease. Part of this is for my own benefit because through all Katie’s suffering and her eventual death, I often had trouble adding it all up. The basic question that many of you have asked and which Katie and I discussed on more than one occasion is: What good is prayer if the condition about which one prays, in this case, Katie’s cancer, goes on unrelieved and unabated, leading finally to her death? Why pray, if we are involved in an apparent cosmic lottery where some who pray not at all are made well and those for whom hundreds pray with fervent devotion suffer and die? That’s the basic question and it is not an easy one with which to deal.
Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote a little book many years ago entitled When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Whenever I have asked groups to remember the title of that book, they always say, Why Bad Things Happen to Good People! Why do people change in their minds the “When” to a “Why?” Because that is what we all want to know and hope that book will tell us. It does not and does not pretend to.
Our question is not unique to us or even our era. It has been asked since the dawn of moral consciousness in the human mind. It is raised in the Bible by Habakkuk, Jeremiah and, of course, Job, among others. To begin to understand it we have to acknowledge a few basic facts of life. First of all, we will all die, early or late, quickly or slowly, justly or unjustly; but we will all die. Therefore, to pray for recovery from illness will, sooner or later, prove to no avail. At some time our prayer will fail. I have always contended that the job with the worst prospect of continued success was that of faith healer, because eventually they will fail in every case! So that is a given.
Secondly, if we believe in a God who seeks our good and not our harm, then there is nothing wrong with death itself as it must be part of God’s plan, if there is a God and if that God has a beneficent plan. So Christians who understand this do not fear death, even though they may not look forward to the process. Katie never feared death through the whole process. She did not welcome it or rejoice in it, but she did not fear it! So if we believe in a kind and good God who seeks our well-being, and part of whose plan involves the fact that we will grow old and die (or perhaps die without growing old) then somehow we have to reconcile this dilemma that has troubled us at least since the days of Job. To the believer, this too is a given.
So with these basic assumptions in place, our next question is then, “What is the purpose of prayer if not to make us well and at least postpone death?” The answer to me is found fairly clearly in the New Testament. Nowhere does it say that the purpose of life is to live long, or to live prosperously, or even to live well. The rich man who thought he had achieved that was called a fool?? It is to live lovingly. Jesus is asked what is the greatest commandment in the Old Testament and he replies with two (Mark 12: 29): “The first is ‘Hear O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength,’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” The rest of the New Testament echoes this again and again. It is the dominant theme of the whole collection of books. It is, we must conclude, what God wants from us: Love for God and love for each other.
If this is what God wants, and God is in charge, we had better seek that which God wishes. I remember an Air Force chaplain friend of mine telling me his attitude toward inspectors when they arrive at his base to inspect the Chapel program. He said, “I try to find out as soon as I can what they want to hear and then tell it to them” While there is a certain duplicity in this, it does recognize the value of knowing who is in charge and that their will has a precedence over our own. Without the duplicity, something of the same nature is involved here.
So a valid prayer in this context is, “Lord, make me more loving of You and my neighbors.” For, in so doing, we are seeking to achieve the very things that Jesus says are the most important elements of God’s law. Jesus’ classic prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane is instructive. He prays that the cup (symbolically meaning the cross) might pass from him, but then adds, “not my will, but Yours (God’s) be done.” From that I conclude that there is nothing wrong with presenting our own wants and needs to God in prayer, but the final criterion is not our will but God’s. We test our own desires and hopes against what we come to understand to be the will of God.
Once we accept that, then we seek in prayer that which is the loving thing to do and the loving state in which to operate. As we do this through a lifetime, we find that this giving up of our own selfish will in prayer and seeking instead to be instruments of God’s love, we find that the love we gave away keeps flowing back to us in multiplied measure.
Now let’s turn all that to Katie and our year we shared during her final illness. There were certainly times when we prayed and fervently wished for a miracle of healing for her. There even were times when a momentary success would convince us that we had received such a gift. But the background out of which we worked and prayed was one in which Katie had, to a remarkable degree, prayed through the years that hers would be a life of love and giving to me, to our kids, to our wonderful friends in churches here and across the Air Force, and to the many children she served and loved in conjunction with her paid and volunteer work on their behalf. On our gravestone we have inscribed under her name, “Loving Advocate of Children.” Such she indeed was. So in her case we entered this time of trial, of suffering, of sadness and ultimate separation with that foundation of love shared and reciprocated. We said to each other many times as the year went on, and well before we had reason to assume that she would not recover, that whatever the outcome of her illness, we had had a glorious ride together with wonderful parishes, amazing children and a vast host of loving friends.
So what happened through all of this? Obviously, she did not recover. But our relationship deepened as at no other time in our love for each other and its expression to each other. I seriously feel that if I were now given the choice of an instant, sudden death, or a lingering one such as she had, I would think long and hard before choosing the sudden one. A year before that would have been my automatic choice! The values that the two of us gained by this experience were immeasurable. The opportunities to sit and just talk about life’s deeper matters, (such as why the righteous suffer!) were invaluable. Secondly, the kids came in with regularity over the seven months after her surgery until her death. I made sure that I got out of the way when they were here so that they too could have undisturbed and meaningful times to visit with her on this profound level. After we were told that she would not recover, I began, at her behest, to schedule in friends and family for visits which we all knew would be final ones. These were shared moments that I know they cherish and I know from Katie’s comments, that she treasured. Finally, the enormous outpouring of love and concern from our friends in Bath and the host of friends from our Air Force years, as well as her friends from childhood and college, was almost overwhelming. This was the tide of love that she had sent out, coming back in glorious echo of that which she had given over the years.
So if the valid object of prayer is not just to tell God what we want and when we want it, but to learn in prayer of God’s desire for our love to God and extending from that to love for our neighbors, then Katie’s life was one of answered prayer. If that is what God wants from us, that is what He got from her in mighty measure. I have always been amazed at her capacity to give herself to others, happily including me (perhaps preeminently me!), but also embracing everyone she met. One of my fondest memories of her is when I would be greeting people at the door of the church after worship on Sunday morning, I would look out across the little narthex of our church and invariably Katie would be there, surrounded by many friends, a glowing smile on her face as she listened to each one’s story and/or needs. She would remember them all and tell me about them when we were home so that I might know and act upon them as my ministerial contacts made appropriate.
So if our prayers were simply that she would get better, they were not answered. But if we understood that all life ends sometime and that the object of it all from birth until death is not to prolong it as far as possible, but to fill it with love and joy for others, and if this is what we prayed for Katie, then our prayers were answered amazingly. And at no time in my 42 years with her were they answered more than in the last months of her life. Small and large miracles of love occurred with such regularity that we would often sit in amazement at what had just transpired. On numerous occasions we sat together and wept at the sheer magnitude of some gift of love that had just been shared with us by one of you.
Would I have had her live longer? You bet I would! Would I have had her life a longer but less loving life? Not on your life!! Do I believe in prayer? Absolutely , if prayer is the process by which we learn of the will of God, if it is that we love God and one another, and that from that love comes the greatest blessing life can bestow: the fellowship of love with that God, with our families, and with the many friends with whom we have shared that love. As much as I miss her and long for her touch, her laugh, her smile, I know that I too am wrapped by that great mantle of love, fabricated largely by her hands and of which all of us are the blessed recipients. So it is my prayer not that I may live long upon the earth, but that for whatever years I have left and in whatever condition I live them, I may be, as she was, an instrument of God’s love. For I know that if I am such, I too, in whatever condition, will be sustained and illuminated by the love of those whom I have loved. You to whom this message goes are that group, those friends. I thank God daily for what you were to Katie and me over the years. We have been blessed by your friendship. I am exhilarated by the knowledge that each of us, as we share that gift of love with each other, will renew our strength, we will mount up with wings like eagles. We shall run and not be weary, we shall walk and not faint. This is the gift of God and this is the answer to prayer. Thanks be to God that our faithful prayers of love are answered in measures we can not imagine or understand until we are surrounded by them and rest in their embrace.
In just such a way were your and my prayers for Katie answered abundantly. She illustrates the passage of Jesus in Luke 6:37-38: “Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back.” Thanks be to God, Katie gave in generous measure. In her final months, she received back in overwhelming measure the love that she so freely gave. Truly her cup overflowed. We can pray for no more than this! Thank God for our answered prayers.