I remember the first time I prayed for someone on the other end of a phone line. A parishioner was hospitalized, but I couldn’t visit since I had the flu. It seemed a little strange—not very Lutheran. But it was well received by the “pray-ee” and, we hoped, by God. That was 20 years ago—eons in technological terms.
Now the Internet has added a new dimension to the practice of intercessory prayer.
Last year I retired and relocated to the tiny, northernmost Baltic country of Estonia. I was disappointed to learn that the Lutheran church, though cited as the predominant religion, doesn’t play a vital role in the life of the majority of citizens. The Soviet Union’s troops may have left, but that government’s influence on religious life remains.
Not yet knowing how to sing the Lord’s song in this most foreign land, the on-line prayer requests from congregations back home took on increasing significance. Two congregations I had served transmitted church news and prayer requests by e-mail. It was comforting to be able to keep up with former church friends in Texas and Oklahoma, especially to join in prayer.
A few weeks before Easter 2005, an e-mail from the Oklahoma congregation requested prayers for a young member and his family. Tim had been fighting cancer for years, suffering through countless treatments, surgeries and skin grafts. Yet this request seemed more urgent, and I remained at the monitor offering silent prayers on behalf of Tim and his concerned circle of caregivers.
Two days later a progress report came—the news wasn’t good. Visitors were prohibited, so the pastor asked that we pray and send cards and e-mails. Another parishioner volunteered to print out and deliver the latter to Tim’s bedside. And so it began—the “great Lenten e-mail ministry.”
The pastor was allowed in the intensive-care unit regularly. She heard the doctors’ reports firsthand and used the church’s e-mail network to keep the whole congregation abreast of the news. Every few messages concluded: “Please keep sending e-mails. We’re reading them to Tim, and he responds.”
Many of us, especially pastors, know that even the most loving, most dedicated spouse or relative can run out of things to say to a hospitalized loved one. At first it wasn’t easy to know what to write—aside from “still praying for you.” But as I began a daily routine of writing one message for Tim and one for his life’s companion who was riding those waves with him, I realized I was only one link in a chain.
I knew a few parishioners would send biblical messages—perhaps lines from familiar psalms that speak grace-filled words to critical situations. Others would have memories to share, some humorous, adding new threads into the pattern of comfort and care Tim’s congregation and pastor were weaving.
On Palm Sunday evening, I e-mailed a friend—also a retired pastor whose exceptional Holy Week services I had attended years back—and asked, “What are you doing this year?” I mentioned that I’d been unable to locate any special services here, but that I would be praying with others for a church friend “who’s in ICU in Tulsa.”
His welcome reply: “I’m joining the prayer team for Tim.” And so I was able to report that a pastor in New England had joined us. Another friend in Texas offered to include Tim in that congregation’s active and faithful prayer group—sending him the message that “you don’t know us, but we’re praying for you.”
As the long, white Estonian winter began to give way to spring green, I found myself falling into a new Holy Week rhythm and routine: Layer up (the temperature was still in single digits), walk the dog (praying as we went), wipe up the snow from his wagging tail and my boots, turn on the computer, drink keefir-with-kama (a traditional Estonian “health” food), make the tea. So equipped, I then sent off my e-mail prayers to Tulsa. This routine helped me stay connected with the Holy One during that Holy Week.
My “regime” did include one familiar, personal Holy Week tradition—listening to the John Rutter Requiem by the Turtle Creek Chorale of Dallas. This recording includes musical settings of several psalms and blessings. I found that the alternating mournful and hopeful strains seemed to echo both the week’s themes and Tim’s struggle. They encouraged a prayerful spirit and inspired my messages. A line from the Gaelic blessing, “Deep peace of the running air to you …,” seemed just right for both Tim, struggling for air, and for his caregivers, to whom I could say, “This must be very tiring. Don’t you forget to breathe.”
Crucial tests were scheduled for Good Friday morning, with results signaling whether we were all facing Tim’s last hours or a possible, but unlikely, positive turn. Good Friday was just dawning in Oklahoma as I began dinner preparations, aware that Tim’s tests were in progress. No e-mails arrived that evening or most of Saturday.
Finally I saw the now-familiar subject line—“Tim: Progress Report.” I read: “It was a good Good Friday!” For the first time in weeks, all the “numbers” that spoke volumes to the medical experts, if very little to the rest of us, were positive. The e-mail concluded: “Tim took his first deep breath in a long time.” So did a lot of prayerful companions.
Anticipating the Easter Sunday greeting by a few hours, I sent Tim a single, simple “Hallelujah!”
And to his family: “The words from Psalm 27 have been hanging in the air since Thursday: Be strong … and God will comfort your heart. You were ... and God did. Thanks be to God!”
John’s Gospel records that on Easter morning Jesus told Mary: “Go and tell the others.” I thought how easy it had been to share Tim’s good-news message in a matter of minutes to a widely scattered prayer circle. States, synods, countries and almost four continents had been woven together through this “World Wide Web of prayer.”
In the 1850s, the Scottish writer George Macdonald wrote, “He will listen as thou walkest.” And now—glory be—as we e-maileth!
About Tim? There was, and remains, a battle for his health. But the immediate crisis is over, and he's doing quite well now. And the e-mails—sent with loving concern, printed and then transported by a caring pastor—are in an album for Tim to reread as he continues to fight.
© 2014 Augsburg Fortress, Publishers