Esther 7:1-6, 9-10, 9:20-22; Psalm 124; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50
My dad’s favorite verse in the entire Bible was James 5:16 ‘the effectual fervent prayer of the righteous man availeth much.’ Sorry for the gendered language: it was a King James era. He understood that prayer isn’t magic–do it right, often enough, with enough heartfelt emotion, and God’s obligated to deliver what you’re begging for, magical thinking at its purest. After all, this was a man whose parents divorced in the 1940s, not a great time to be one of four kids in a single parent house where the only income was from the mom whose only skill was being a mom. His mother died of lingering painful breast cancer, his dad was a very public alcoholic from a prominent family whose failings were the stuff of delighted town gossip. He knew that prayer didn’t work magic, because trust me, he prayed a lot for things to be what they never turned into. And yet he knew that prayer availeth much.
Like anointing with oil for the sick (thank you to the many clergy who offered to do so this weekend, and to Fr. Charles who was simply the first to ask when I was awake to answer ‘please’), prayer isn’t magic. The oil on my forehead isn’t going to make my pain go away–for that, we need good medicine and smart physicians, and thanks be to God that I’ve had both. Prayer and anointing never promised that we’d always get what we wanted (“100% cure rate when used as directed, no side effects other than fitting into your college slacks again, if you can’t afford the miracle you requested help may be available by calling…”), and it’s frankly arrogant to conclude that, not delivering on what they never claimed to deliver, they must be utterly useless. “What, prayer didn’t fix my health/ finances/ broken marriage/ world hunger in 22 seconds? Well, let’s move on to something that will deliver like…pyramid power/ political messianism/ sneering disdain for everyone who doesn’t see how great is my burden and how light is theirs?” The purpose of the universe has never to make me happy on my terms, on my schedule: it has always been to provide the kindergarten in which my soul can learn enough to grow up into maturity.
Prayer and anointing don’t promise healing and success. No, but they do re-craft the person who’s being anointed, the person who’s praying. They cast me into an attitude of humility (“God, I don’t know all the answers, and I trust that You do and will choose what’s best for me even if I can’t understand that, in Jesus’ name, amen”) and they move me from rugged individualism to standing in a community of support (“pastor, could you come over and pray for me, with me, because I’m not strong enough for this on my own”) The thing that’s effectually being changed in prayer and anointing isn’t the illness or the sadness: it’s the person experiencing those conditions, the person carrying that burden. Changed in such a way that they might, perhaps, be able to carry the burden more graciously. Or to learn something important from the experience. Or even, maybe, to accept healing (which does happen, after all, just not on demand) as a precious gift and not think of it as “my due.”
We’re all of us a bit too ego-centric, too apt to accept that the universe owes us what we want when we want it, too apt to try to do this on own on our own terms. Prayer and anointing demand of us that we be willing to become the change that avails much in a broken world. And that, friends, may be even more beautiful, more powerful, that the all-too-common feeling that things are unfair unless they’re rigged in my favor.