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What Dare We Pray?

Our friend Abbey is dying.

If you’d ask anyone in the congregation, they’d tell you that Abbey was the spiritual mother of the church. Not the matriarch, which is another role entirely; Abbey never told everyone else what to do, under threat of her disapproval. She’s been trustworthy, gentle, and altogether kind. Everyone loves her. I suspect she’s done most jobs in the church at one time or another, though people often said that Abbey’s playing the piano was the biggest blessing she gave us. She was a kind mother and faithful wife even in some decidedly difficult circumstances she and her family went through a few years ago. And she was a faithful Seventh-day Adventist believer who, though never taking a sententious tone with others, always practiced herself the teachings of the Seventh-day Adventist church, including the health principles.

A little over a year ago Abbey was diagnosed with cancer. The operation appeared successful. Everyone thanked God, and Abbey was soon blessing us again from the keyboard. But niggling problems remained. Eventually her oncologist broke the news to her: the cancer was back.

Abbey didn’t lose hope, and neither did the church. We visited, took meals, helped any way we could. And of course, everyone prayed. “I know God can heal her,” so many people said. “If there’s anyone who deserves it, it’s Abbey.” I couldn’t but agree, on both counts.

One Sabbath, after the Lord’s Supper, we gathered the whole congregation on our knees around Abbey. People prayed who’d known Abbey their entire lives. Good, godly people. Lifelong friends, whose children had grown up with her children. Young people who’d been taught by her in Sabbath School. People with whom she’d shared countless meals. At the end, I prayed, and passed around a vial of olive oil so everyone could join in the anointing. Abbey’s face was greasy with love! I think we all felt something special that day. A sense of restored hope. People said, “God will answer this prayer. So many people love her. We need her. God will heal her. I know he will.”

Abbey and her husband took an additional step of faith. They drove out to Eden Valley in Colorado, where Abbey received natural cures, the kind that Ellen White recommended. Heat and water treatments, regulated diet and exercise, lots of fresh juices. This was a big sacrifice for them, both physically and financially. Abbey called us a few times from Eden Valley. She said she was feeling better. It felt like the swelling in her abdomen was going down! The news traveled fast through the congregation, and we felt even more hopeful. So many people in that small city knew Abbey and her family, and someone mentioned what a testimony this would be to the truth of our teachings about health and healing.

A couple of weeks later, Abbey called me from the hospital. Her intestines were blocked by tumors. Even then, we didn’t stop praying. Even after the oncologist told her the cancer was advancing rapidly, and she had only weeks to live. People prayed around the clock for her, a special organized prayer vigil. We poured our hearts into it. We were, as the Bible advises us to be, persistent.

Should anyone be tempted to jump in at this point with cynical, clear-eyed realism, please don’t. Resist the temptation to opine about denial. And the others of you, hold off, for the moment, the rehearsed answers: that sometimes God says no, that he knows what’s best for us, that not every prayer is answered. Those all have their place, and some of them may even be true.

Instead, just listen, and try to understand the deep love and sincere faith behind our prayers. We love Abbey, and we trust God. We read in Scripture about Jesus healing people, about God answering prayers. There’s no way around this for the Bible-believing Christian. The Bible says it happened, and that’s where we get our faith that we should pray for it to happen, here and now. Abbey was our Dorcas, and we wanted to see God raise her up again.

I will tell you that this sort of thing comes up often in a pastor’s life, and I’m a pastor who didn’t just fall off the turnip truck. It’s happened so often that I confess I wince a little when I hear us praying for a miracle. I don’t want us to be disappointed. Disappointed in the unanswered prayer, and ultimately disappointed in God. Yet what kind of pastor would I be if I said, “Listen, folks, don’t get your hopes up. God doesn’t bring people back from the edge of death very often”? What about faith to move mountains? Where’s that balance between the kind of unquestioning expectation that brings results—which we’re told repeatedly is the secret to fruitful prayer—and calm acceptance of whatever happens?

So no matter how many times we’re disappointed, we try again.

Yet I must ponder these questions, for every Christian who prays, and for the pastors who pray with and for them. Should we be weighing the realism of our requests, and only praying what seems possible? The Bible tells us to pray big, for God can do more than we can ask or imagine. But it’s my opinion that God doesn’t come through nowadays nearly as often in those kinds of requests as he seemed to in the Bible stories. From the testimonies I hear, God helps people find lost car keys, get a job, do well on a test, even recover from sickness. But the spectacular answers, the kind where people get up from the death bed? It doesn’t happen nearly enough to suit me. And in every case that I know at least one prayer for healing—the last one—is turned down flat, for everyone dies. Even Jesus! The odds are 100% against us.

One of the great rabbis of the past is said to have prayed, in a moment of disillusionment, “We will keep calling you Father until you begin to act like one.” I understand. We can’t stop hoping, we can’t stop believing. So we keep praying. But we wonder: where are the miracles? Perhaps prayer is effective for terminal illness as a tweed coat is for dandruff: palliative, but no solution? There are times when, if I ignore the rest of what Jesus teaches about prayer, I wonder if the only legitimate prayers we can pray are his last ones: “Nevertheless, not my will, but Thine, be done,” and “Father, into Thy hands I commend my Spirit.”

Here’s a blessing: I’ve found that God helps most praying people move from expectation to acceptance once it becomes clear that what we are asking isn’t going to happen. In this situation, it helped that Abbey was beautifully accepting of death—calmer, it seems, than the rest of us. So perhaps it’s my balcony view as a pastor, looking at the whole process with a slightly wider vista, that makes me fear that expecting too much will cause us to crash spiritually—that it may be easier for us to be believers if we expect from God only what might happen anyway.

After Abbey was confined to her home under hospice care, I talked to my congregation about all that had happened. I reminded them of how diligently we’d prayed, the faith we’d invested. It requires great faith to pray for a miracle, I said, yet it takes even more faith to accept, without becoming resentful toward God, that what we wanted isn’t going to happen. I reminded them of Abbey’s own faith, how peaceful she’d been, how unafraid. And of course, that there’s more to life than this life. We’ll see Abbey again.

Yet I still want to know: should we pray for the impossible?

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