James Howell: Unsettling prayer

Prayer alters perceptions about the world and the signs of God’s life in it.

Prayer for healing has never been my strong suit. Of course I pray all the time -- in hospitals, over the phone and privately in response to the endless requests for intercession -- but I’m never entirely at ease. I’m bugged that over 90% of the prayer requests we receive are health-related when we live in the healthiest place and time humanity has ever known. Why don’t my people want to pray more for holiness, or for the betterment of God’s mission on earth?

I also have felt a call to moderate between people’s prayers for healing and medical realities. Some clergy seem cocksure God will heal, but the number of allegedly miraculous healings I’ve witnessed could be counted on one hand with a leftover finger or two. My vocation, I’ve believed, has been to stand in the breach and help people understand God still exists, or God isn’t punishing, when prayers aren’t answered, when the cancer still advances, when the heart surgery fails.

Truth be told, beyond my professional praying (and I really do honor every request for prayer, even if only once, or quickly), I find I do not ask God for much, or at least not for specific favors.

So how dizzyingly uncomfortable was it to find myself in the ICU waiting room when my daughter’s boyfriend, whom I adore, was lingering near death? I reminded God I don’t ask for much -- and then, like all the people to whom I’ve offered pastoral care, I pleaded with God for the miracle I of all people knew was exceedingly unlikely. The family seemed to feel they had an edge in our praying, with me on their side, but as I laid my hands on the young man’s head, I apologized to the family, explaining I felt desperate and really had no clue how to heal.

And then he beat the odds and began to recover. Onlookers called it a miracle, but I was the one who resisted -- I spend my days with people who pray earnestly for someone with a year to live, but the beloved dies in just four months. Faced with what might be proclaimed a miracle, I was the one to demur.

I mention all this here to raise the question about clergy and prayer. What are we really doing, we professional prayers? And what are the linkages, or disconnects, between our pastoral office of intercession and what we do in the thick of our own personal stuff?

I wonder why seminaries teach so little about prayer and theologians speak so rarely about it, when people obsess over it above all other things ecclesiastical or spiritual. During our personal crisis, I announced I was going to lead a little workshop on prayer -- and over 500 showed up, and more than 500 others have watched on YouTube; the kindred email series has elicited enthusiastic response.

I’m more unsettled, and yet, as a result of all this, more settled about prayer than I’ve ever been. But I wonder what others think and feel. Do we grasp how crucial the way we pray, and what we say about prayer, is for all our work?

James Howell is senior pastor of Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina.