Today’s gospel lesson (Mark 9:14-29) features Jesus, Peter, James, and John returning from the Transfiguration mountain top to find a man and his demon-possessed son waiting for him. The other disciples were unable to cast out the demon, which had thrown the boy into fire and water all his life. The “dumb spirit,” Jesus says, could only be cast out by prayer. That makes me wonder what sort of technique the disciples were using.
There are many things that can only be changed through prayer. Often someone will present me with a desperate situation, and the only thing that can be done is prayer. In moments like that, when an individual faces an insurmountable challenge, prayer might seem like a flippant, ineffectual response, but I believe that prayer has power in situations when ordinary tools (modern medicine, etc.) do not. What power it has, however, is a little harder for me to understand. Do I believe that sometimes miraculous healings occur when modern medicine has all but given up on a patient? Yes, I do. Do I trust that prayer can accomplish a reconciliation in a broken relationship when nothing else will work? Yes, that’s how reconciliation happens. Do I believe that God intervenes in human affairs in supernatural ways that modern science could never explain? Well…maybe not.
Prayer works, and it may be the vehicle for God’s miraculous will to be exercised on earth, but it isn’t magic. The laws of physics and nature do not cease when someone opens their mouth to pray. Instead, prayer works by changing the framework in which a situation occurs. There is a sign in the Wintzell’s Oyster House in downtown Montgomery that expresses a well-worn spiritual truth: “Prayer doesn’t change the world. Prayer changes people who then change the world.” I think that’s true. Prayer creates shifts in our perception. It makes it possible for us to see what is possible when previously nothing seemed possible.
When Jesus and his inner circle descend from the exalted mountain top and return to the busyness of life, they are confronted by a conundrum—a circumstance that represented “being stuck” without hope. The father’s initial request reveals just how immovable the situation had appeared: “[I]f you can do anything, have pity on us and help us.” Often when I snap back into reality, having left a place of spiritual connection, I find myself dazzled by just how real the world around me is—how stuck it can be and how stuck I am in it. Prayer frees up the world around me, making space for God’s action, because prayer opens me up to see how God works in the world. The only way I can ever be an instrument of God’s will and perceive myself as such is through prayer.