What first seemed quaint…
The traditional church where I made my home for many years kept a “sick list.” People on their way into the service would write down the names of those they knew who were sick, suffering or otherwise in need of prayer. And at a certain point in the service, when a variety of intercessory prayers were offered, the names would be read out.
The very first time I heard this done, my response was not something I’m proud of. I guess I thought it rather quaint. But as the reading of names went on, and on, and on, it began to strike me as “bad optics” – there were more names on the list than there were in the pews. And then it began to seem comical. I had to bite my hand to keep myself from giggling out loud.
That was many years ago now, and the first shock of how extensive that sick list was has long since faded. The rhythm of the liturgy became familiar, and I knew it required discipline for me to focus prayerfully on each part of the service, the prayers for the sick included. As with all things in life, discipline is what makes it possible to go deeper, to really grow into maturity.
Adding a beloved name
As is inevitable, the day came when someone close to my own heart needed prayer. Even though I felt shy about it the first time, I added the name to the list. On that day, what had formerly been a perfunctory discipline of praying vaguely for the sick and suffering, took on a different tone. It became something I entered into wholly, because now one of those names meant something to me.
It wasn’t long afterwards that I found myself teaching Sunday school to a group of teenage girls. We were asked to participate in the service one week during the intercessory prayers. An appointed reader would read the prayers out. Then my girls were to sing the first part of the responsive prayer: “Lord, in thy mercy,” with the congregation joining in to sing “Hear our prayer.” It was simple enough, but we rehearsed anyway.
When we got to the sick list those teenage girls could barely catch their breath to sing because of their stifled giggles. I understood. So we took a little break from our rehearsal so that I could tell them a story.
Each one is precious
“I have two older sisters,” I said, “and one of them has a heart condition. She is still in her 30s and she has a daughter about your age or perhaps a little younger. Not long ago doctors discovered that she has a serious heart condition. They performed a procedure, but it did not go according to plan. Now she is in pain much of the time, and she has to be very careful not to overexert herself. We don’t know if things will improve, and we don’t know whether something sudden might take her from us.”
The girls looked at me, wide-eyed and solemn. At the time, I suspect I seemed to them too young to have a sister with such serious health issues.
“I write her name on our list sometimes if I’m especially worried about her or if I know she’s had a bad week. And when her name is read aloud it is as though the congregation assembled here is telling me that they care about her because they know that I care about her. And, with me, they are lifting her up to God in prayer.”
Understanding began to blossom on those young faces, and just a touch of shame. But shame was not my goal. I told them about my own difficulty controlling my giggles when I first heard that long list read. But now it’s different. Because I know that every single name on that list belongs to someone precious, someone with a story just like my sister’s.
And when the moment arrived, those girls sang like angels, bringing before God the heartfelt concerns of his beloved children.