Three challenging Prayers; how they look when people pray them

The sermon title today promises that​​ we will look in on some people praying; they use​​ the invitation given to us in scriptural texts​​ to stand​​ in certain​​ unexpected places​​ in prayer.​​ 

To begin?​​ A​​ deeply religious family​​ in the Dutch Reformed tradition​​ lived in what was​​ called​​ the Beje, a famous​​ rambling,​​ ancient house in Haarlem, the​​ Netherlands. The​​ father was a watchmaker,​​ but famous all over town for​​ patiently​​ hearing​​ many​​ people’s problems and for his​​ warmth, his​​ faith​​ and​​ his​​ hospitality. ​​ His two daughters,​​ who lived and worked in the family home​​ and business​​ were called​​ Betsie and Corrie. ​​ Corrie ten Boom has become a storyteller​​ who has traveled the world​​ speaking publically​​ since 1945, and is​​ renowned​​ for the book​​ the Hiding​​ Place. ​​​​ For the​​ old​​ house​​ became just that. ​​ Although she downplays her own role, Corrie,who portrays herself as a​​ slight​​ bumbling​​ and dowdy ​​ older spinster (to use her words),​​ devoted to her sister and the larger family,​​ had become the ringleader of a city-wide​​ underground movement in the early 40’s in​​ Haarlem,​​ when Germany invaded and occupied Holland. ​​ Corrie states that incognito,​​ and using the common code name, Mr. Smit, one of the most famous architects in​​ Europe, as well as​​ ingenious construction workers, also in the underground,​​ came​​ to the old house, designed and built a hidden room;​​ disguising every wall and bookcase to look as old as the original.  ​​​​ In it were​​ gradually​​ hidden 6​​ Jews​​ escaping a near certain death in the concentration camps. ​​ In time inevitably the family was noticed and betrayed to the occupying Nazis.​​ The occupying soldiers knew that there was a hiding place in the old house but searched for two whole days and never found it. ​​ The hidden people escaped after 47 hours. ​​ The family members themselves however​​ were​​ arrested​​ in 1944​​ and sent to a federal prison.​​ The 84-year-old father died on a gurney in a hospital hallway​​ within a week of his arrest for hiding fugitives from the Nazi occupation.​​ In a matter of​​ months,​​ as the allies were invading Germany, they were taken by train into Germany itself, to​​ Ravensbruck. ​​ I cannot compress this wonderful book into a​​ few​​ paragraphs,​​ but I do want to tell​​ specifically​​ how Betsie, seven years Corrie’s senior,​​ responds to arriving at their overcrowded barracks in the​​ women’s feared​​ death camp,​​ and they find the place infested with fleas. ​​​​ Without hesitation she​​ prays​​ and gives thanks for the​​ fleas.​​ Her​​ guide in doing this, which I will call the​​ first of three difficult prayers​​ can quickly be seen here in two scriptures. ​​ First,”addressing one​​ another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart, always and for everything giving thanks in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the father.”​​ ~Ephesians 5:19, 20.​​ 

​​ Since​​ this prayer defies logic and​​ sounds absurd​​ I will not venture to give my own experience with it. ​​ Nor do I feel it should be​​ forced​​ or prayed​​ if it is disgusting to us,​​ or​​ causes​​ anger or resentment or​​ feelings of betraying one’s God-given common sense. ​​ It is sometimes wise to consult an experienced pray-er or a pastor If one feels called to pray in this way, ‘giving thanks in all things’.​​ But it​​ does occur​​ in many places and many forms in the Bible.​​ The second main text that Betsie would have been using as her guide in prayer would have​​ been I​​ Thessalonians, where​​ it shows up​​ this​​ way,​​ “Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”​​ I can only say that it is one of the hard prayers,​​ of the world Jesus opened to followers,​​ when he opens a world which has many aspects of being​​ upside down​​ or​​ contrary to one’s usual viewpoint. ​​​​ These​​ prayers​​ today all partake somewhat of that inverted world.

Corrie portrays herself as being scandalized by Betsie’s​​ giving thanks for the fleas….life​​ in the camp​​ goes on. ​​ Amid social​​ difficulties,​​ language and cultural chasms, class conflicts, near​​ starvation,​​ crushing​​ workloads,​​ untreated sickness​​ and​​ ghastly​​ overcrowding,​​ the sisters hold regular bible study groups and counsel the​​ other women​​ and​​ pray​​ with them,​​ teaching​​ others to do the same.

What we would say is that​​ Betsie,​​ in her case, was authentically in prayer, and I have no doubt, in peace and joy. ​​ We do not see someone trying to use prayer as a formula, trying to ‘get God to do something’……..but​​ someone who has a lifelong spiritual practice, from which she does not depart according to circumstances. ​​ She appears to live in a place of trust, acceptance and really delight, and have a very surrendered and intimate relationship with Jesus of Nazareth.


Looking in on them​​ further along in the book​​ we read:​​ ‘Her eyes were twinkling’.​​ (Corrie describes seeing her sister…)​​ 

You’re looking extraordinarily pleased with yourself,”​​ I told her.

“You know we’ve never understood why we had so much freedom in the big room,”​​ she said. ​​ “Well, I’ve found out.”

That afternoon, she said there’d been confusion in her knitting group about sock sizes and they’d asked the supervisor to come and settle it.​​ (Knitting​​ socks for the​​ German​​ soldiers was the work assignment for those too ill or weak to work outside.)​​ 

“But she wouldn’t. ​​ She wouldn’t step through the door and neither would the guards. ​​ And you know why?”

Betsie could not keep the triumph from her voice: ​​ “Because of the fleas! ​​​​ That’s what she said, “That place is crawling with fleas”.

My mind rushed, says Corrie,​​ back to our first hour in this place. ​​ I remember Betsie’s bowed head, remember her thanks to God for creatures I could see no use for.*

We might feel a certain childishness about​​ tidying up prayer​​ like this.​​ It might embarrass us or seem to belittle adversity, or imply​​ a pat answer to trouble.​​ We instinctively shy away from fairy tale endings in prayer or vending machine contracts to be achieved with formulas….​​ Or as if we can use a certain prayer​​ ‘formula’ and everything​​ will​​ turn​​ out​​ for the best. ​​ However….if​​ I read it in a magazine or on a bumper sticker, I would surely think it diminishes the​​ majesty of communication with God, or makes small or mocks the seriousness of​​ real​​ darkness.

But these women are​​ serious and​​ practiced pray-ers,​​ and their​​ circumstances​​ were as far as possible from an “everything will turn out for the best” mindset. ​​ These are a family​​ who​​ do​​ teach about faith, but​​ in the​​ most tested of possible events. ​​​​ Their aged​​ father, the​​ town’s beloved watchmaker dies in​​ police custody in​​ a hallway​​ dragged from the​​ family​​ home at night.​​ He has been sacrificing his own safety and that of his family to follow Jesus, without security and into likely deadly peril.​​ ​​ Betsie, the elder sister of the two,​​ (who prayed the prayer thanking God for the fleas in their sleeping barracks)​​ will soon die​​ too,​​ of malnutrition and an untreated medical condition.

Neither is this the philosophy ‘everything happens for a reason’.​​ (I​​ was told this by many families of patients when​​ I served​​ as a hospital chaplain). ​​ This phrase had become a mantra sometimes called forth in our times, and some folks would​​ repeat it to me​​ as a way of, it seemed, comforting themselves. ​​ I never knew exactly what it meant​​ to them,​​ other than that there was​​ a sense of trust there​​ and a sense that behind the outward workings of the universe there was order; that we do not live in a​​ featureless​​ void with no meaning or logic. ​​ That indeed​​ did​​ comfort some people I could see, who had no more​​ personal,​​ relational connection to​​ God,​​ and​​ voicing it​​ seemed to be a part of affirming it, as any creed might.

So the 2 thoughts are quite different, but they are not opposed to one another. ​​ *Now this prayer​​ which Betsie prays​​ comes​​ with a​​ cautionary​​ label. ​​ We​​ do not go up to someone in grief or during a tragedy and say, “I think one should give thanks for all things.” ​​ It is​​ not​​ the stuff to be handed out as general advice, as we can all imagine. ​​ It can sound absurd, insensitive………………..bordering on cruel,​​ and is guaranteed to separate people at once. ​​ It is a​​ guaranteed way​​ to lose a friend or relative. ​​ It does not fare​​ too​​ well when put into words and​​ especially​​ not to be imposed on someone else. ​​​​ But we all know that…………………………………..

It is also​​ not to be forced into service in one’s​​ own​​ life. ​​ The prayer means​​ though, that​​ we can live in gratitude and trust. ​​ If one wishes to turn to this language in prayer, a seasoned pray-er or spiritual director who shares your faith might well be brought in to the discussion first. ​​ The guidance of the Holy Spirit, we are told,​​ is often most clear when 2 or 3 are gathered together…..


And thus began, Corrie tells us,​​ the closest, most joyous weeks of all the time in Ravensbruck. ​​ Side by side, in the sanctuary of God’s fleas, Betsie and I ministered the word of God to all in the room. { ​​ ​​​​ }​​ And here the second difficult prayer begins to be seen.​​ The​​ knitters of Barracks 28 became the​​ praying​​ heart of the vast diseased body that was Ravensbruck, interceding for all the camp---guards, under Betsie’s prodding,​​ as well as prisoners.​​ !!!​​ We prayed beyond the concrete walls for the healing of Germany, of Europe, of the world……

Betsie insists that they pray for the guards………………….

Betsie can pray for them even though they represent​​ such suffering in her life​​ and in the lives of those​​ she daily sees around her. She can have compassion for them​​ which is not just duty either​​ but real; she knew that they walked, whether or not they seemed to have a choice in the matter,​​ in the shoes of evil​​ and followed in the footsteps of that power.​​ “This was evil’s hour”, said Corrie. ​​​​ In a way Betsie could see them​​ also​​ as victims!

It is not surprising that​​ again it is​​ Betsie​​ ten boom who​​ begins to introduce​​ us to an amazing example of our​​ second ‘difficult’ prayer. ​​ The scripture​​ below​​ is a familiar one to us, and various dimensions of the same theme are woven throughout the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth.

​​ As she​​ slowly​​ draws near to dying Betsie begins to speak of​​ seeing​​ a large house they will have when the war is​​ truly​​ over. ​​ It has tall windows, with light streaming in,​​ and a long curving staircase. ​​ They will welcome people in for healing from the horrors of Germany’s war crimes. ​​ People will come to live there and work in the​​ wonderful​​ gardens. ​​ Corrie is glad to see Betsie still able to plan and dream. ​​ She looks forward to their life together after the war and although they are both​​ exhausted and ill, she too can imagine resuming a life of hospitality and activism,​​ really. ​​ As that has been the​​ whole belief overarching their lives, as taught to them by their parents.  ​​ ​​​​ But to her amazement she finds, by a question or two she puts to her sister that her sister is​​ talking about the guards in the prisons! ​​​​ Once again she has leaped over​​ what we would see as logic and order​​ into another world. ​​ Her vision​​ as we know​​ is Matthew​​ 5:44, “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you……​​ among other scriptural references.

​​ “Corrie I pray every day that we will be allowed to do this! ​​ To show them that love is greater.”

“And it wasn’t until I was gathering twigs later in the morning”, says Corrie,​​ “that I realized that I had been thinking of the [prisoners] and Betsie of their persecutors”.


I​​ do​​ not​​ mean to imply that prayer is about​​ being an athlete…..a star at it. ​​ There is a small story in Genesis where it says that God hears the prayers of​​ an infant​​ crying. ​​ And Jesus speaks of going into your 'closet' to pray; private, in solitude, and​​ not a sensational term. ​​​​ I have spoken before about a man I met in Pittsburgh when I​​ worked for the Dept. of Aging, and I went to his home to help him fill out his utilities rebate form. ​​ He and his mother had lived in their house until she died. ​​ The house was filled with softly ticking clocks, with green plants and of all things, in a few cases, stuffed animals. ​​ He took me into the den and showed me two comfortable chairs sitting on the braided rug. ​​ He said,​​ This​​ chair is mine. ​​ And this is the Lord’s. ​​ Every morning I come down here and we talk together.”​​ ​​ It was simplicity.

The​​ third prayer, which I call difficult​​ is often called the prayer of faith.​​ Amid several verses on prayer we see the unusual advice from Jesus​​ in Mark chapter 11, verse 24:​​ ​​ “Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”​​ The woman we​​ read​​ about in our opening paragraph today,​​ the​​ As​​ We​​ Gather​​ section, although she does not​​ call​​ it prayer, is praying what is often called ‘the prayer of faith’. ​​ She is using her​​ gift of her own​​ imagination​​ to picture her little son well. ​​ And in the​​ future. ​​​​ His future life! ​​ She uses detail.​​ Her ‘prayer’ is non-verbal.​​ ​​ We do know that this is​​ exactly​​ what Jesus means when he says the odd lines in​​ the gospel of Mark. ​​ But again,​​ this is a way to​​ co-author with Jesus;​​ we​​ imagine part of the story. ​​​​ We help, in​​ our​​ mind,​​ to write part of the script! ​​​​ We find the boldness to do so, however,​​ only​​ because he specifically invites us to do it. ​​ It does not mean everyone is called to do it.​​ One should not feel compelled or forced into ways of being with God.​​ ​​ And it does​​ not​​ mean​​ that​​ we are in charge or are claiming some kind of​​ power.

We do not always​​ know​​ what is going on in the journey God is taking with a loved one who is ill. ​​ All we can know, as​​ Denis​​ and Matthew Linn would say is​​ that ‘God will always​​ do​​ the next most loving thing. ​​​​ And we can​​ also​​ know that we are​​ welcome to​​ take part in that,​​ and to enter into that….and we call that healing prayer.

Again​​ that important note of caution:​​ it is possible that​​ tragically​​ some​​ believers might​​ convey to someone ill that if their faith had been stronger, they would have gotten well. ​​ This is​​ not​​ what Jesus means. ​​ It would make​​ us all-powerful and 100% in control of our own and other’s life and​​ death! ​​​​ So we know that he cannot mean that. ​​ This would interfere with the sovereignty of providence in our lives,​​ and the mystery of suffering that is part of our journey here,​​ and the personal walk each of us has with God. ​​​​ And it is mechanical thinking. ​​ As if we would just have​​ enough​​ of ………something……..called faith, and we could​​ control​​ our being​​ and that of those around us.​​ No.

It​​ does​​ mean, however that we are​​ invited and encouraged to take a full part​​ in picturing healing. ​​​​ And doing so can feel​​ quite​​ unlike​​ anything​​ else​​ we are​​ used​​ to​​ doing. ​​ Anyone who has tried this will know what I mean.


If you will look​​ back in our bulletin for today,​​ at the​​ As​​ We Gather section​​ you will see a wonderful example of exactly what Jesus means:​​ 

​​ Agnes Sanford who wrote the classic​​ the Healing Light,​​ gives her own directions on praying the ‘prayer of faith’ as it is sometimes called. ​​ In​​ the Healing Light​​ Agnes addresses the ills of the body, emotions,​​ or spirit, I noticed, in​​ a similar way to Jesus calming the storm on the Sea of Galilee.​​ It is found in all 3 of the synoptic gospels.​​ As we will see she addresses them as confused or worried children almost, or misbehaving children​​ at times. ​​ She does​​ not​​ plead for God to ‘fix’ something, ever, (in​​ her particular case). ​​ The mood is all about the use of our imaginations (like the young Filipina mom in our reading this morning). ​​ And it is all about​​ gratitude​​ for healing, expressed sometimes directly, as we will see​​ to the healing forces​​ in our bodies and minds…..themselves. ​​ Gratitude even when healing is not yet visible!

She​​ says:

​​ 1.)​​ Sit​​ comfortably and think about God​​ in the way that makes God most real for you.

2.) Find some way to ‘say’ that you know there is healing energy within and outside of our bodies, and​​ simply ask to receive more of it.

3.) Say if you can,​​ I want you to do this. ​​ Thank you, I believe that you are doing it.”

4.) Make a picture in your imagination of the “leg”, i.e. well. ​​ See a light on it, warming it and flowing all up and down it.

Note from​​ Agnes, “Could you make a table, for instance if you didn’t first see in​​ your​​ mind the kind of table that you are going to make?

5.) Thank and encourage the healing forces in the body. ​​ Congratulate them and tell​​ them​​ that they are doing good things…..well.

6.) Then​​ “Thank you, God I believe it is going to be OK”.

Agnes Sanford clearly has a gift for healing prayer, which St. Paul tells us some members of a congregation are more specially called to…….among several other gifts. ​​ But she also tells us she studied long and hard to learn more about the ‘prayer of faith’. ​​ She says that​​ we can all do it well.​​ (The mother in​​ As We Gather​​ does it with her son instinctively).​​ ​​ The​​ book​​ the Healing Light​​ is challenging to read​​ in terms of her personal style of expression. ​​ ​​ I guess I might say that it is​​ partly because​​ saints can be​​ both delightful but also​​ annoying.​​ They are just​​ so good at some things​​ which​​ we only long to understand or​​ experience!​​ I am not going out of my way to call​​ a​​ Mr. Rodgers,​​ a​​ Betsie ten Boom or​​ an​​ Agnes​​ Sanford​​ saints, but when one studies their practices and words,​​ they and their entire personalities stand out as​​ unique. ​​ I recommend reading all of them. ​​ But few people who live around saints could have found them to be ‘business as usual’ folks in any way shape or form. ​​​​ She can sound​​ quite eccentric​​ when you read her, but also enormously fun in a way.​​ Again I want to say that this message today is not about​​ heroics​​ in prayer. ​​ Mr. Rodgers had the spiritual practice of kneeling by his bed each night and going down a carefully kept list of names to hold up in prayer. ​​ They were men and women, children, employees, friends, family,​​ people he met,​​ young and old. ​​ It is a​​ simple​​ practice. ​​ It depends not on us showing that we have​​ more faith​​ than someone else or have studied harder​​ to learn a method. ​​ It is based on a feeling of being in God’s family, or invited at all times as a friend into God’s presence.

Agnes​​ was born in China,​​ with a father who was a Presbyterian missionary. ​​ Much of her adult life she lived in New Jersey as the wife of an Episcopalian rector. ​​ As one who wrote an introduction on her book puts it, “Anyone who steps into the presence of Agnes Sanford steps into the right kind of climate for healing.”​​ 


I want to​​ conclude by talking​​ about​​ a most unusual​​ prayer I experienced recently. ​​ I had a Celtic​​ knot​​ of worries.​​ (They​​ were all centering around a holiday​​ immediately​​ coming up. ​​ They involved Covid​​ (of course)​​ , a lie I had told​​ (!)about a family pet,​​ which had seemed necessary to spare someone needless suffering, a sick dog, a ton of work I needed to do and​​ regarding which​​ I​​ didn’t feel emotionally able, some health issues, etc.) ​​​​ Nothing earth shaking. ​​ But I could get​​ no peace. ​​ I prayed over and over about the tangled list but could feel no consolation.​​ It made me feel​​ worse………​​ I felt I was speaking to a wall. ​​ The minute I allowed myself​​ to admit​​ the ‘wall’ feeling​​ there was a shift within me. ​​​​ I was embarrassed and disappointed to hear myself ‘feeling’ that way about God, and felt like a failure and guilty for saying it……..​​ And​​ yet​​ as soon as I​​ let myself admit it​​ to myself I felt this shift! ​​​​ Many pray-ers,​​ especially in the OT speak to God about​​ the hiding of God’s face…..a similar topic. ​​ They​​ criticize​​ God for​​ allowing​​ this feeling they have;​​ of God ‘hiding’ or not ‘answering’.​​ But I felt​​ unexpectedly​​ called to accept it. ​​​​ I felt called to​​ accept​​ the feeling of a wall; the​​ visual image​​ even of a wall.

​​ I did not feel, in​​ this​​ case,​​ it was really because of anything I had done. ​​ I​​ simply​​ felt called to embrace it. ​​ The wall suddenly felt like a friendly place! ​​ Although​​ still​​ agitated,​​ and unable to sleep,​​ I found I could​​ lie down next to the ‘wall’. ​​ (Using​​ a metaphor) The ‘wall’ felt safe and part of God’s relationship with me​​ (?),​​ and I went​​ happily and peacefully asleep with it. ​​​​ There were​​ no answers. ​​​​ The knot remained​​ unbreakable and dark, full of dread,​​ and unfriendly. ​​ But God’s silence,​​ and lack of changing it,​​ had shifted into a ‘place’….an​​ object​​ even. ​​ And I felt at home there! ​​​​ The wall had become a sanctuary! ​​ Amen


Rev. Elizabeth Wrightman

May 15, 2022

Independent and United Church of Christ