God Hears the Prayers of Many

Star
SPRING 2009
PAGES 5, 6
[original publication]

My testimony about getting through my battle with acute leukemia in the Spring of 2008 is that my wife, Sugar, and I knew, felt, and experienced that we were "upheld by the prayers of many." There is no question that one of the strengths of our Christian community at Calvin Seminary, at La Grave CRC in Grand Rapids, and at Third CRC in Denver, as well as with friends near and far, is prayer. We were held up, sometimes carried when we could barely walk, by the prayers of people known and not known who called on God in intercessory prayer on our behalf. No question. We will forever be thankful for those prayers. But what exactly happens when we are held, cared for, remembered in prayer by others? What happens in our relationships to God, and what happens with us? God Hears the Prayers of Many My testimony about getting through my battle with acute leukemia in the Spring of 2008 is that my wife, Sugar, and I knew, felt, and experienced that we were "upheld by the prayers of many." There is no question that one of the strengths of our Christian community at Calvin Seminary, at La Grave CRC in Grand Rapids, and at Third CRC in Denver, as well as with friends near and far, is prayer. We were held up, sometimes carried when we could barely walk, by the prayers of people known and not known who called on God in intercessory prayer on our behalf. No question. We will forever be thankful for those prayers. But what exactly happens when we are held, cared for, remembered in prayer by others? What happens in our relationships to God, and what happens with us?

There are parts of my story that I barely remember. For just shy of a month I lay in a hospital bed at St. Mary's Hospital's Lacks Cancer Center, sometimes so very ill that it was work to open my eyes. Though I was conscious, leaving my eyes closed was just easier. The less I moved, the quieter the room, the slower the day, the smoother things went. "Just breathe... that's enough... just breathe," I would say to myself, heated up and sweating with fever from powerful antibiotics. One night they used eleven bags of ice to cool my body down. Yes, there were times when I could not pray and others carried me in prayer. When days got better I still couldn't watch television because I couldn't think, I couldn't follow a sentence, much less a plot line in a story. A thoughtful friend lent me the eight-hour video of "Planet Earth." In the course of that month I watched it through three times. As I was "neutropenic"—that is, very low on white cells and very susceptible to infection—I had few visitors; only family and pastors kept watch over me. But I never felt alone, upheld to God by the prayers of many. God never left the room.

Cards kept coming, people kept calling, pastors kept informed and sometimes literally in touch as they held my hand while they prayed. While their eyes were closed, while they were praying, I was sometimes weeping. Why? Why the emotions that build till a dam breaks in your heart and you just fall apart for a moment, only half aware of what hurts and why it hurts? I wept because I was terrified, hardly the strong-looking, put-together "person of faith" who cognitively manages life and takes what's coming with assurance. Hardly the ordained Minister of the Word, now Seminary Professor of Pastoral Care, who would model an unmoved confidence about facing death. No, I was much more like the Jesus of Luke 22, whom I love, who wept tears of almost blood in Gethsemane, so truly human was he, scared to death himself. He prayed for a reprieve he never got. I wept because I imagined leaving, leaving Planet Earth, sailing off through the clouds to heaven soon, with only a quick hospital word of good-bye to Sugar and our boys, their mates, and Elsie and Jess, our two-year-old grandkids whom we love so dearly. God knew me, and he knew I did not want to do that. My prayers, like those of Jesus in the garden, were pleas for reprieve. Life is so precious when it almost ends.

But there was another reason that I wept. I remember reading cards, just reading cards, sometimes over and over again; reading and experiencing the "power of prayer" in prose. People usually struggle, trying to say the right thing and trying not to say the wrong thing; this is the challenge of spiritual self-expression. Their cards brought me into the presence of God by telling me that I was in their prayers, sometimes every morning along with toast and coffee. Many people were praying, many people were pleading with God on our behalf, and letting us know that we mattered to them, that our lives were held before God in prayer. Many people were being the Body of Jesus Christ to us; we never felt alone, left by them or left by God. Their prayers and our prayers that we would be sustained, held closely by God, were answered loudly. When we are being the Church, doing it right, we weep together. When one weeps we all weep, as Paul reminds us in Romans 12:15. The Holy Spirit was busy, like the gentle wind that passes by when you sense that God is smiling in your direction. The prayers of many were much of the grounds for our deep sense of security ... no matter what. God never left the room.

God heard our prayers and God saved my life; God certainly gave me a reprieve from my own death. But what if I had died? My leukemia may still return and it may take my life, as it has for others I've known with the very same illness. They also prayed for remission. God did not add up the number of prayers that were prayed and accede to a popular vote on extending my life. Certainly I could have died in the hospital; half of people my age do. Ultimately, as we believe, in some timeless, eternal way, this is God's decision. "Food and drink, health and sickness, prosperity and poverty—all things, in fact, come to us not by chance but from his fatherly hand" (Heidelberg Catechism, Q and A 27). But, within the parameters of human history, we pray, we wrestle, we plea, we lament, we beseech, and we sometimes struggle with the living, listening God. The prayers of many did not save my life; God did. But God did so because his heart was moved by our prayers. And the prayers of many also changed me, comforted me, strengthened me, and held me up when I was down. We will forever be thankful to all of you who prayed for us. The prayers of many availed much. In life and in death, whenever it happens, we belong to a Lord who hears them.

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