How do you offer a healing prayer in a divided and wounded community? I got a first-hand experience this week at Yale Divinity School’s Marquand Chapel.
Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest.’ ~ Matthew 9:35-38
I was returning from helping some people at my church on Friday, when I received an email titled, “Prayers in Marquand?” I wasn’t sure what to expect as I opened the email. It’s kind of a big deal to serve at Yale Divinity School‘s Marquand Chapel. You have the eyes of the school upon you – amazing faculty and administrators, students, distinguished guests – and so, even for a prayer or reading scripture, people notice what happens carefully.
So I was pleased and excited to discover that I had been invited to lead this Monday’s service in its closing prayer. I was to follow the sermon offered by Willie Jennings, Associate Professor of Systematic Theology and Africana Studies – and a highly accomplished preacher. Based on this, and the supplied gospel reading for the day, I came up with the following prayer, which I think of as a healing prayer, though for a particular kind of healing:
Creating God, Redeeming God, Transforming God, we open our hearts and our spirits in prayer to be at one with your love and your grace. We seek your living presence here and now, O God, for you lead us away from our trials and tribulations, and towards your healing and hope. Like sheep without a shepherd, O God, we are scattered in our thoughts and in our hearts; we are rendered helpless by our fears and our weaknesses; we are harassed by our afflictions and our afflictors; and so, dear God, we are vulnerable, weak, easy prey for the dominion of sin that calls us into darkness.
Therefore, dear God, we pray for your forgiveness, for we are sometimes overwhelmed by the tides of our lives and by the storms of history unfolding before our eyes. We fail to seek you, even as you seek us insistently and persistently, convincing us of your love, setting us straight in it, helping us to endure in it, and perfecting it in our own hearts.
Even now, O compassionate God, you walk in our cities and our villages, you teach us about your holy ways, you proclaim to us the good news of your kingdom, you seek to cure every sickness and every disease, even the diseases of hate, of injustice, of bigotry, of abuse, of slavery, of destructive self-centeredness, of ignorance, of cruelty, of indifference to the gift of life and even to creation itself, of lies for the sake of selfish gain, of power that serves nothing but vanity and a striving after wind.
All these, and more, O God, are demons worthy only of destruction in eternal darkness, so that you may be glorified through our redemption.
And so, O God, we ask you to anoint us in your Spirit for your labor, the labor of love that bears the fruit of your eternal kingdom. For you are the Lord of the harvest, O God, and we are grateful that you have called us to be the few laborers for your harvest. The fields of our labors are immense, O God; we are humbled by our complete insufficiency for your work. And so we await your living presence, O God, to guide us in our labors; show us the way to the most plentiful harvest for your kingdom.
Help us first, O God, to allow you to reap our own hearts and lives, that we may become your first fruits for the bounty of your kingdom. Equip us with righteousness and true discernment, so that all those who are ripe for your redemption may come fully into your sheaves. Help us to consider even those who we may not want to have in your harvest, O God, for your storehouse has many rooms, and we dare not presume that your harvest is ours.
May this all come to pass to complete our mutual joy, not because we ask it of you, but because we seek to love you and your ways completely, in the image of the Lord of your eternal harvest, your Son, Jesus Christ, we pray, now, as forever. Amen.
Healing prayer for a diverse community
I practiced the healing prayer several times, tweaked it, and practiced again, knowing that I would have to rush to chapel after classes. When I got to chapel, things were different than expected. Another student was delivering the sermon, and she did very well. The attendance was good, but much less than usual for a Monday chapel service.
Later, I discovered that there had been some controversy about the chapel message on Friday – which probably contributed to me being asked to fill in at the last minute. Wounds were opened in the midst of a grieving, diverse community, with words that shocked many people, apparently. Why I was selected to fill the gap is still unclear, but I was grateful – and eager – for the opportunity.
In a way I am glad that I did not know about this controversy in advance, because I was able to deliver a healing prayer that addressed the need and the purpose for healing from both an emotional and a transcendent perspective, In the day’s passage from Matthew, we see Jesus looking at people who needed shepherding – strong but affirming guidance that could sustain Christian communities and help them to grow.
The power of his own healing was evident in the towns and villages that he visited, but he saw that there was a plentiful need for this healing, and that the time had come to prepare his disciples for this ministry. Jesus’ forgiveness and healing wasn’t enough – it was time for others to carry it into the world.
Accepting our brokenness as a requirement for offering wholeness
That was the main message that I wanted to offer the YDS community – we must trust in God’s healing for ourselves as well as others who are in need of it. God will heal the pain that comes from our most bitter emotions and wounds, but first we must admit to God, to ourselves, and to others whatever wounds we have created as the result of that pain – both in the world and in ourselves. Shepherds need shepherding, too, it seems, always to be united with the most intimate and universal power of healing and hope – our loving, grace-filled God.
How can we enter into a future of hope through a healing prayer if we have not allowed our bitter past to die in God’s loving hands? It is then that we are prepared for anointment by God’s Holy Spirit for rescuing a perishing world – including, and, perhaps, especially, those who we may not want to experience God’s salvation. All sins are worthy of banishment into eternal darkness, but all souls are desired earnestly by God for redemption.
This notion is a hard pill to swallow for many people. We want our story to be God’s story, instead of God’s story being our story. We want our narrative of “rightness” to be God’s eternal narrative of righteousness. We want our liberation from the challenges of temporal history to be justification for God’s eternal history. But that’s not really what God’s harvest is about.
God certainly yearns for a world that resembles God’s eternal kingdom right here, right now, and this is certainly why we have been offered redemption though faith in Jesus Christ – to make the present a living experience of God’s eternal present. But it is, first and foremost, God’s world, not ours; a gift of grace. We condemn the sin, but we seek the sinner. So we must ask for grace to conquer our own sins to serve in increasing that grace, knowing that it’s true shape and depth is beyond our ultimate imaginings.
A prayer that served a thanksgiving purpose
The prayer went as I expected, starting out gently, bringing it to a strong emotional point, and then introducing more contemplatively the notion of preparation for harvest. After the service, a classmate of mine remarked, “My, who would have guessed that such a quiet guy could speak like that!” When it’s needed, I let God use that part of me, to be sure. The chapel organizer said simply, “Perfect.”
But to me the most important comment came from a young man who thanked me warmly for the prayer, that it was just what he needed to hear. Clearly he had been waiting for something to help him bring his heart and soul into a framework that could help him to build a new story for his faith in the middle of a broken time. The healing prayer had hit its mark.
That’s probably all that we can ask of a healing prayer in a broken time: that it affirms God’s goodness in the middle of the brokenness, that we affirm our truth and our value in God’s hands in the middle of the brokenness, that we affirm thankfully our need for God’s strength to move forward, and to ask to be sent forward to fulfill God’s mission, trusting in God’s good plans for us.
The harvest is plentiful, and the laborers who sign up for this commitment of faith are often few. But when we ask for it, often we are surprised and thankful for who steps forward to respond to it. It is as good a way as any to begin a Thanksgiving celebration. There is wholeness in faith, there is mission in faith – and that is enough.