I believe that prayer can heal, and I’ve witnessed miraculous healings in my own pastorates. So why was I, cast into extremis by a chainsaw, reluctant to pray?
In January I went to New Orleans with the Protestant Cooperative Ministry of Cornell University to work on a Habitat for Humanity project. My wife, Jeanene, and I drove from San Antonio through Houston and on to New Orleans. As it turned out, our journey through Houston helped us to understand the work we were about to do. I grew up on the west side of Houston, 15 miles out Interstate 10, near Katy, Texas. Our exit had nothing more than a Shell station, a small grocery store and a few shops. There wasn’t much between Katy and Houston either, mostly open country and a few familiar roads. In the late '70s I drove into Houston regularly to visit friends and sack groceries in a little store near Kirkwood Street.
For many African churches, the all-night vigil is a centerpiece of devotion and is not limited to any particular season. The event commonly begins at 9 or 10 p.m., usually on a Friday, and runs until four or five the following morning. Particularly among the independent or African-instituted churches, prayer is accompanied by acts of healing and exorcism. These services commonly draw thousands, sometimes tens of thousands of people. Night vigils also flourish among the booming evangelical and Pentecostal churches of South Korea, where hundreds of thousands pass their Friday nights in prayer and praise. In terms of timing, endurance and mass appeal, the closest Western parallels to these Christian celebrations would be found in dance clubs and rave parties in major cities.
Prayer serves many functions: it brings our attention to the fact that God is present. It makes the spot of ground on which we stand holy ground. It quiets and focuses the mind, clarifies intention and awakens the imagination, opening up the heart and lungs as we breathe more deeply and relax into this most intimate of encounters. As a communal practice, praying creates consensus and convergence of focus, teaching us how to be the body of Christ, and how to speak with one voice and one hope.