Eva had lab work done today at Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego. Eva’s blood draws have usually been done through the arm, wrist, or hand—today was no different. She wasn’t happy about the poke, but she also didn’t cry all that much at the poke. The process is actually quite rapid. The nurses work quickly and before long Eva has a band-aid on her arm. Then we wait for the lab to analyze the blood. Rady Children’s Hospital has a lab on-site that can deliver results rapidly. It took about 45 minutes of waiting (while doing crafts and watching Ratatouille) for me to get word that Eva’s blood counts did not require a blood transfusion. We were free then to pack up and head home.
It was about 12:30pm when we left the hospital, which meant we needed to get lunch. Back when Audra first took Eva to the emergency department at Rady Children’s Hospital she had promised Eva that they could get In-N-Out Burger on the way home. Eva’s been asking for that trip to In-N-Out ever since. She asked again today. So we pulled through the drive through. Eva got her usual—a cheeseburger with lettuce (which she calls “salad”) and extra pickles.
Tonight after dinner we took time to get caught up on opening care packages. We had received so many care packages at such a hectic time that we had a backlog of close to a dozen boxes and large envelopes of gifts. I have been writing and sending thank-you notes as promptly as I can, but I probably still have four or five dozen cards left to write. That is not a complaint. All these gifts have revealed to us how far and wide our network of friends and family extends. God has knit us together with all of you in ways we didn’t know before Eva’s leukemia diagnosis.
We are particularly moved by how many people are praying regularly for Eva. Prayer is a frequently misunderstood and often debated topic among Christians. People wonder, “Does prayer really work?” How do you define prayer that “works”? Some say prayer works when you can say, “God gave me what I asked for.” I’m not so sure that’s right, though.
I’ve found John Kleinig’s distinctively Lutheran perspective on prayer to be quite valuable. In his book, “Grace Upon Grace,” Kleinig emphasizes that Christian prayer is primarily receptive in quality, that is, prayer is ultimately not our work but God’s work. He points out that many Christian prayer books emphasize our effort to become victorious prayer warriors at the expense of Christ and his work on our behalf. Kleinig points out that, ultimately, prayer is not exerting our own power, but “borrowing” the power of the King himself, power that Christ offers to share with us. We cannot offer any hope or healing on our own, so we “borrow” from the Father and offer it up in prayer. In that sense, nothing could be more effective than Christian prayer because Christian prayer reflects the relationship we have by faith in Christ. We are given the status of son because we are in the Son.
In spite of these heady truths, prayer remains difficult—especially in trials. It has been hard for me to pray about Eva, not because I don’t want to or because I don’t think it’s worth doing, but because prayer naturally brings my deepest longings and fears to the surface. Prayer empties me of my own strength so I can “borrow” the Lord’s strength.
This last Sunday I returned to the pulpit at my Lutheran congregation in Fallbrook. I was glad to preach again and happy to see the faces of so many people who have persevered with this congregation through some difficult years. I had assumed I would become emotional during Sunday’s service at some point, but I figured it would be during the sermon. I was wrong.
Our prayer on Sunday involved a series of petitions covering various topics. I stood at the altar and read the few sentences of each petition, concluding each one with the phrase, “Lord, in your mercy.” The congregation behind me answered in unison, “Hear our prayer.” We prayed for Word-wrought guidance in life. We prayed for peace and life. We prayed for healthy Advent spirituality. We prayed for contrite hearts and joyful forgiveness. We prayed for our daily vocation. We prayed for right use of our money and time. We prayed for opportunities to proclaim the good news. We prayed for life after death. Each time I bid, “Lord, in your mercy,” each time the congregation replied, “hear our prayer.”
We also prayed for the sick and suffering. This is when I broke.
“Merciful Lord, comfort those in pain of body or spirit.” I had to stop because I had barely choked out the words. I can’t believe this prayer is about my family. I fought for what felt like an eternity until the clenching in my chest let up. Then I resumed.
“Relieve those who suffer, and give healing to all in need.” I stopped again, because this prayer included a fill-in-the-blank exercise. “Relieve those who suffer, and give healing to all in need, especially _________.” I’ve filled that blank with dozens of names in the past, but now I have to fill the blank with Eva’s name. I clenched my hands to compose myself—again, for what seemed like forever—before blurting out the name.
“Especially Eva Bassett, and those whom we name in our hearts. According to your gracious will, answer the prayers of your people who cry to you for answers, sustain them in the day of trouble and grant them patience in their afflictions.” Another full stop, because now I’m asking for myself. I cry to the Lord for answers; I want to know how this will end. I need you to sustain me. I need patience in my affliction. Thus continued another pause pregnant with grief until I could blurt out in trembling voice, “Lord, in your mercy…”
I had collapsed across the finish line of that single, anguish-filled petition, but the congregation of believers picked me up. They cried in unison, “Hear our prayer!”
I can’t say I was fully composed from that point on, but I finished the rest of the prayer in the strength of those voices that echoed my petition and carried me through to the end. My prayer was theirs and theirs was mine. One of our own is sick, we want to know how it ends, and we need the Lord to sustain us.
This unity of spirit found in congregational prayer was but a tiny glimpse of the sublime reality underneath it that day. As fervently as we may pray, the Lord Jesus intercedes for us even more so. In fact, he has been interceding for us—for Eva, even—since before the world began. He is with us at all times, lifting us up in prayer—not amplifying our own spiritual strength, but giving us a share of his mighty power as Son and heir of the kingdom. He paid for this privilege with his own blood on the cross, he has made us partakers of this power by the work of the Holy Spirit that he has sent, and he connects us then to the Father who directs all things toward blessing for his children. We receive from him, we “borrow” his power and ask that he support Eva and all of us with it. And because we are his blood-bought children, we know he will answer in mercy when he hears our prayer.
So, Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.