BY STEPHEN DUNN
13 Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. 14 Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. 16 Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective. James 5:13-16
I come from the stream of Christianity that takes the instructions in these verses very seriously. Those of us who are pastors and elders approach it with fear and trembling because we know that we are going to be instruments of an Awesome God, a God of the Impossible–a God of healing and of hope.
Many years ago I was serving a church that was making its first “baby steps” into a deeper and more authentic discipleship. I had seven elders. One had been an elder for some time, but by his own admission, at a fairly perfunctory level. One was a life elder, which in that church was an emeritus status. The other five were relatively new as elders, still engaged in some “on the job” training. Then there was me, the pastor.
We were a church that had a growing reputation as people that love. It was a new direction God had taken a congregation that had sometimes been fractious, a little too worldly, and more works-oriented than grace-formed. We had gone this direction by simply taking the commandment to love one another and loving God more seriously by being sure that we practiced in the ways that the Bible commanded of us. We were still forming this new identity, feeling our way through years of confusing church history.
Ruby was one of the members of our congregation who embodied a spirit of love. She was a widow with a southern drawl. Gentle-spoken and gracious, always dressed carefully and and with dignity. Willing to defer to others, gracious in her praise, and confident in her faith. We all loved and respected Ruby.
The rain falls on the just and the unjust. Ruby got cancer. They tried many treatments over a long period of time. Nothing worked to arrest its development. Without extraordinary measures, Ruby would soon die.
Ruby was invited into research protocol at the National Institute in Maryland, more 600 miles from her home. Ruby wasn’t necessarily gung ho, but she new it was important to her children that she do everything to preserve her life. A few days before she and her daughter would make that journey, I went to visit Ruby. “You know, Ruby, there is still one thing we can do. We can anoint you and pray for your healing.” Ruby was quite familiar with the words from James. She agreed and we set the appointment for the next evening.
I contacted all of the elders,but since only one of them had ever been a part of this kind of service I suggested we meet at the church at 6.30, an hour before our appointment with Ruby. She only lived a few blocks away.
All of them were busy and the schedule would be tight but they agreed to be there at the appointed time. I was the last to arrive. Just before leaving the house I had gotten into a fight with one of my sons and my attitude was not good. I wasn’t feeling very spiritual at the moment, let alone righteous. When I arrived I confessed my attitude and my anger to my brothers.
Immediately Glenn, the elder emeritus spoke. “I must confess, too, that I have harbored some attitudes towards people that I know don’t please God and I have not been behaving with a spirit worthy of being a leader of this flock.”
Next another elder opened his Bible and read to us words of counsel and encouragement. Soon each elder was confessing his own sin, some sharing scripture that God had been using to convict them. Then we gathered in that room holding hands and praying for one another that God might do His cleansing work in our lives. The hour passed quickly. We set out for Ruby’s.
Ruby greeted us along with her family, inviting us to sit. “You will stay for tea afterwards, won’t you.” We agreed. Ruby was not someone to say “no” to.
After a bit, we placed in a chair, read the scripture, anointed her with oil and then each one of us in turn prayed for Ruby. We declared upon the promises of God that we believed Ruby would be healed. Then, Ruby prayed for each one of us who had prayed for our wholeness, our healing, our faith.
Ruby left for Maryland.
Each Sunday her son-in-law would greet us before worship to share an update on her progress. For weeks there was no change.
Then one Sunday, as two of the elders and I stood in the lobby, he came up and said, “I have incredible news. Ruby’s cancer is gone. The doctor’s examined her yesterday and said where there had been a body riddled with cancer two days before, there was absolutely no sign of tumor or lesions or anything!” He said, “We cannot explain it, but Ruby is cancer-free!”
One of my elders, the youngest in fact, spoke with awe in his voice. “We prayed for that! We prayed for that! God has answered our prayers.” No shouting, just a quiet word of reverence recognizing that God had used them and their prayers as instruments of His healing of Ruby.
Ruby returned two weeks later. There was great rejoicing. She lived a very long time.
And these seven men, and myself, had a new sense of awe for what God can do and a deeper realization of what we can do when we let God work in and through us.
(C) 2012 by Stephen L Dunn