Healing Prayer

Randall Tremba
February 12, 2012
Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church

Mark 1:40-45
A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, "If you choose, you can make me clean." 

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Presbyterian ministers don’t do “Last Rites.” That’s pretty much a Catholic thing. But many Presbyterians don’t know better. So when I am called to perform “Last Rites,” I go.

That’s what happened about 12 or so years ago. George Marshall called me to come to City Hospital in Martinsburg where his wife Dorothy was about to die.  After a week or so in a coma her vital signs were dropping fast.

Their children had come in from various states. We formed a circle around the bed. I recited the 23rd Psalm and the Lord’s Prayer, offered a blessing and then on behalf of the church kissed her forehead. All eyes were moist. The deathwatch began. Eventually I left the family and went home.

The next day George called to say Dorothy had revived and was sitting up in bed. That was 12 some years ago. They are both now living hale and hearty lives in South Carolina.

A few years after that tenuous performance of “Last Rites,” a friend called and in a frantic voice asked me to come to her house to perform last rites for her mother. The daughter had brought the mother to live out her final days in Shepherdstown and now the end had come.

But isn’t she Episcopalian, I asked.

Yes, and a very devout one, said the daughter. But there is no Episcopal priest available right now and you’re the only other minister I know in this town.

Trying to wiggle out of this duty, I suggested to my friend that since her mother had been an Episcopalian all her life if a Presbyterian minister showed up to do this, her mother could be upset and die in fear of hell.

She won’t know the difference, my friend assured me, as long as you drape something colorful around your neck and carry something that looks like a prayer book.

And that’s exactly what I did. I’m not sure what I said or did, but something went wrong, again. The mother failed to die that day or the next. She revived and lived for several more months.

The moral of these two stories is: If you want “Last Rites,” don’t call me. I’m just no good at it.

Those two “muffed” Last Rites did, however, teach me a couple of things. One, life is full of surprises. We don’t always get what we expect. We don’t always get what we want. But if we pray sometimes we just might find, we get what we need. And that’s the other thing I learned. I got something I needed to learn.

I learned that it’s not what we say, do, think or wear that matters in the end. What matters is showing up—just being there. We hold each other’s hand as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death. For you see, none of us can get around that valley. We must all go through and most of us more than once. And the best way through is with another. We show up. We hold each other’s hand. We are there.

I might not be so good at Last Rites, but on many occasions I have successfully administered the office of healing prayer, or what is sometimes called “the anointing of the sick.” And by “successful” I don’t mean the sick got instantly better or that the cancer went away or the toxic liver regenerated or the clogged arteries opened or the broken heart mended or the bitter grief vanished. Healing prayer seldom works that way. We don’t always get what we want or hope for. But we almost always get something.

I learned that lesson from Bob Krogstad, our own Loretta’s late-husband.

Years ago, Bob Krogstad, a long-time member of this congregation, was dying. The doctors at the VA told him he had only a few weeks to live. Bob was a kind and burly man and an avid student of the Scriptures.

With the shadow of death hanging over his head, I and other members of the church visited and prayed with Bob often. And then one day, Bob told me he had been healed and would be going home. I didn’t see how given the definitive medical diagnosis and his diminishing vitality. Nevertheless, Bob said he was healed.

He died a couple days later.

You might think, Bob was wrong, delusional, or hallucinatory. Well, he wasn’t. As it turns out, Bob had learned what I had yet to learn at that point in my life: being cured and being healed are not the same thing. Bob didn’t say he was cured. He said he was healed.

A cure eliminates the disease or threat once for all. Healing connects us, or re-connects us to ourselves, others and ultimately our Creator. We become whole again.

Down deep we know no matter what befalls us in life or in death we belong to God and in that belonging we belong to a very large family, the communion of saints, not to mention the community of all creatures great and small. We belong to the whole and holy fabulous web of life. Nothing in life or in death can separate us from that web or from Love or from the Beloved.

A leper came to Jesus begging him, and kneeling he said to him, "If you choose, you can make me clean." Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said, "I do choose. Be made clean!" Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. 

I don’t know for sure, but I’m guessing that at that moment Jesus was healed, too. The leper offered a choice Jesus had never noticed or taken before. If you choose, said the ostracized and stigmatized leper. If you choose, you can make me clean. It’s your choice.

If you know about the culture in which Jesus was bred, then you know that “fear and fate” said to Jesus: you can’t and you shouldn’t touch that person. But something else said he could. And he did. And just like that Jesus was re-connected.

The ostracized, stigmatized leper standing in front of Jesus had made a choice himself. Fear and fate told him that he was doomed, that he could never change. But something else said he could. The leper stepped out of fear and fate and stepped into hope.

Today’s gospel lesson reminds us that from the beginning wherever the Jesus movement went, it cared for the sick and the dying. Choices were made. The Jesus movement brought not only love but also justice to those whom society had excluded by law or indifference. Choices were made. Fear and fate said one thing. The spirit of Love said another—and still does.

In case you hadn’t heard, caring for those sick and dying in more ways than one is a gospel mandate. It requires compassion. But how we actually care for the sick and dying requires more than compassion: it requires resources, intelligence and wisdom. Choices must be made. Techniques and therapies will change from time to time and place to place. But compassion never does. Love is the same, yesterday, today and forever.