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“In the morning, while it was still very dark, Jesus got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.” In the morning, while it is still very dark, I can often be found sitting in my home office clutching a warm mug of coffee. Some of my most creative hours occur just before dawn, as do some of me least creative hours. Staring at a blank computer screen, hoping against hope that the Spirit will inspire me with new insights, my vision is often distracted by the rising sun. My computer sits in front of huge bank of windows that face the eastern sky. I have seen some spectacular sunrises beyond my computer’s screen. No matter what task I am feverishly trying to complete, the blinding light of the sun always causes me to stop what I’m doing, reach for my coffee and pray. More often than not, I pray for this congregation. I pray for each and every one of you. I pray for the work we do together. I pray about the challenges we face together. I pray for the concerns you have expressed for the people in your lives. I pray about the various afflictions that trouble you. I often pray for the wisdom to respond to your needs. I also pray for healing and I pray that the demons that haunt us will be driven out. “What a friend we have in Jesus, all sins and grief to bear. What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer.”
I know, right, I’m a progressive Christian pastor. I have long since stopped believing in a God who intervenes in our lives like some kind of grand puppeteer in the sky. So, why do I pray? To whom do I pray? And, what do I expect my prayers to accomplish? If there’s no Big Guy upstairs or out there who is waiting to hear and answer my prayers, and if Jesus isn’t some sort of super-human miracle-worker, who intervenes on my behalf, then why bother praying at all?
Let me say this very clearly, because sometimes I think that people get the wrong idea about what it means to be a progressive Christian: just because our ideas about who God is are changing and we no longer see Jesus as some sort of super-human healer, that does not mean that progressive Christians no longer believe in the power of prayer. I believe in the power of prayer! I believe that prayer has worked and continues to work miracles! I pray fully expecting that prayer can make a difference. My prayers do not address a personified being. My prayers take the form of contemplation of the needs and concerns that rise up in me.
I would be the first person to sympathize with anyone who finds it difficult to understand how prayer fits into the ways in which we are just beginning to speak about who and what God might be. As our notions about God change, so do our notions about Jesus. For generations we’ve been looking to Jesus in the same way as we looked to God to cure all that ails us. But when we begin to see God as something other than a grand-puppeteer in the sky, who pulls all our strings, the way in which we see Jesus changes as well. This is not an easy transition to live through, because most of us have grown to like having Jesus the miracle-worker available to us for those really tough situations when we need to call out a really big name to help us convince the grand-puppeteer to heal someone, or something in our lives. Sometimes, usually when I’m up against something that frightens me, I really miss that old sky-god, and I long to walk in the garden alone with Jesus. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked to explain what we are supposed to do once we begin to move beyond personifying the LOVE that we call God, how and why do we pray?
So, as a progressive Christian, how do I think prayer works? The truth is, I simply don’t know how prayer works. Prayer remains a mystery to me. I cannot do anything more than speculate and like all speculation, I am fully aware that I may have it all wrong.
I may not know how prayer works, but I suspect that prayer works because the power to heal one another is ours. I have come to believe that part of being human, is the power to heal one another, to heal the planet, and to heal the world. I believe that Jesus of Nazareth loved so fully that he was able to access the power of his humanity to heal others.
I also know that healing takes many forms. There is a tremendous, largely unheralded power in the bonds between people, in the gentle touch we can offer one another, in the hospitable presence of the LOVE we can extend to both our friends and even to our enemies. I believe that the power that lies in the bonds that exist between us, is the power we access when we pray. I believe that whatever God is, exists in, with, through, and beyond the bonds that connect us to one another.
There’s a story that has always intrigued me that illustrates this reality. You can find the story in a book called “Outliers,” written by Malcolm Gladwell, who also wrote “The Tipping Point.” It’s the story of a modern-day miracle that takes place in a small American town.
Roseto, is a small working-class town in Pennsylvania that was founded back in the late 19th century. From its founding to the late 1950’s it was populated by Italian immigrants from a town also called Roseto in Italy. Roseto would have remained a relatively obscure little town had it not been for the work of a medical school professor called Steward Wolf. While attending a medical conference Professor Wolf met a GP from a town very near Roseto who told him that he’d been practicing medicine for 17 years and in all that time very few patients ever came to see him from Roseto who were under the age of 65 and were suffering from heart disease. Professor Wolf was very surprised by this, because in the 1950’s heart attacks were epidemic in the United States. Heart disease was the leading cause of death in men under 65. So, Professor Wolf decided to investigate. Colleagues and students from his medical school were recruited and they analyzed the medical records of the inhabitants of Roseto.
The entire population was tested and re-tested. The results were astonishing. No one under 55 had died of a heart attack or showed any signs of heart disease. Indeed, the death rate from all causes in Roseto was 30 to 35% lower than the national average. Wolf’s team broadened their research and brought in sociologists and members of other academic disciplines. They found there were no suicides, no alcoholism, no drug addiction, and very little crime.
So, what was going on in this town? They checked their diets. But the locals were cooking with lard not oil. They were eating plenty of sausage and salami. The researchers found that a whopping 41% of their calories came from fat. People in Roseto didn’t jog they didn’t practice yoga. In fact, many of them smoked and were struggling with obesity. So, the researchers began checking genetics. They tracked down relatives living in other parts of the United States to see if they shared the same remarkable good health and found that they did not. What about the region in Pennsylvania where Roseto was located? Perhaps there was something in the water, the climate, or the soil? But the two closest towns, just a few miles apart, didn’t enjoy the same good health and the water, soil, and climate were all the same.
Eventually the researchers realized that there was something in the way the people of Roseto related to one another. How they visited one another. How they stopped to chat with one another. They saw how three generations lived under one roof. They saw the calming and unifying effect of the local church. They counted 22 separate civic organizations in a town of just 22,000 people. They picked up on the egalitarian ethos that discouraged the wealthy from flaunting their success and helped the unsuccessful thrive despite their failures. People are nourished and healed by other people. At one time the little town of Roseto became a laboratory demonstrating that neighborliness is good for your health. Medical journals have dubbed the miracle of this small town the Roseto Effect.
Sadly, over time the Roseto Effect has faded as the values instilled in the close-knit little town were traded in for more modern ways of living together. But the well documented Roseto Effect show us that: how people relate to each other and the bonds between people are wellsprings of health and healing.
When I read or hear stories about Jesus healing the sick and the disturbed, I don’t imagine Jesus as a super-human miracle worker, who dispensed healing wherever he went. I imagine Jesus as a well-rounded human being who helped other human beings realize their own human potential for healing. Jesus helped us realize that the bonds that exist and those that are developed among us can and do heal. When we gather together as the people of God to pray for one another and for the world, we are not praying to change the mind of some grand-puppeteer in the sky, we are praying to change ourselves, because the God we pray to is the God who is the Ground of our Being, the One in which we live and move and have our Being, the One who dwells in, with, and through, us. Our prayers echo through our community and through our psyche and move us to acts that bind us together in LOVE. It is those bonds that I believe are the very composition of our God who is LOVE.
As a progressive Christian Pastor, let me assure you that just as sure as I am standing here before you, I am sure that prayer works. Prayer changes who we are and how we act. Prayer moves us to embrace our neighbours in deep bonds of LOVE and that’s a power we have barely begun to understand or tap into as we seek the healing that our world so badly needs. So, continue to pray without ceasing. Open yourselves to the power of God that lives and breathes in, with, though, and beyond you, so that you can become more fully the human that God created you to be. Embrace all that you are. Embrace your humanity in prayer, embrace it in your life which is the greatest prayer you will ever pray. Feel the embrace of the bonds of love that bind us one to another. Be the LOVE that IS God in the world.