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Sister McPherson and the Power of Prayer #585

Between 1919 and 1922, the incredible actions of one woman made headlines across the United States.

Her name was Sister Aimee Semple McPherson, and was known as the “miracle woman.”

“No one,” one commenter said, “has ever been credited with anywhere near the number of faith healings attributed to McPherson.”

Through the late 1910s, and over the next decades, Sister McPherson could attract up to 30,000 people at her tent meetings, and by the end of the night, many of them had thrown away their crutches, or risen from their wheelchairs.

She was born in Canada, and raised in the tradition of the Salvation Army, but her evangelical career began in Corona, Long Island in 1916, when a young woman in the painful advanced stages of rheumatoid arthritis was brought to her.

McPherson laid her hands on the woman's head, and later, as witnesses looked on, the woman walked out of the church without help.

Many said she was possessed; some called her a fraud. In 1921 the American Medical Association launched an investigation into her successes, and, after reviewing dozens of her cases, concluded that Sister McPherson's healing was “genuine, beneficial, and wonderful.”

In the early 1990s, author Daniel Mark Epstein decided to write a biography of Sister McPherson. Suspicious that her “miracles” were staged, or that her patients were paid actors, he sought to expose her fraud.

In the book that resulted from that investigation, though, Epstein concluded that there was no such fraud.

“I found hundreds of pages of newspaper documentation of reporters who were overwhelmed by what they saw at the healing services,” he wrote. “The famous phrase used back then was, “Those who came to scoff ... stayed to pray.”

Epstein was able to track down some of those who were healed in the early 1920s, then in their eighties and nineties, and they too confirmed that there had been no artifice or trickery at work.

Ultimately, Epstein came to endorse the work of Sister McPherson. He couldn't explain her work scientifically.

Her career -- and his subsequent exhaustive research of it - all but forced him to acknowledge the potential of a connection between the state of our bodies, the state of our faith, and the prayers that seem to tether them to one another.

He shared his belief in the body's ability to secrete healing enzymes, which can reverse some forms of illness. The enzymes, he posited, were triggered by complete faith.

Often when I read this week's Torah portion, in which Moses's sister Miriam falls ill, I think of Sister McPherson and her successes in reversing illness through prayer.

This week provides one of the rare cases in the Bible in which a specific request is made of God: Moses implores God to heal his ailing sister. El Na Refa Na La - “God now, pray: heal her.”

Is there power in our prayers for others to be healed? If there is, is it God interceding, or does the

prayer cause minds and bodies to respond directly?

Does the Misheberach (prayer for healing) which we recite each Shabbat morning actually work?

A very rational rabbi once challenged me: “Do you think that two twins suffering from the same congenital disease will have different outcomes if someone prays for one and not the other?”

“Do you think,” he asked me, “that God will spare the patient in hospital room 303, and kill the one in 302, because someone prayed for the person in 303?”

Believe it or not, studies consistently show a 10-12 percent higher success rate in recovery when prayer is involved.

When we pray for someone to heal, that person is energized. They are reminded that they are not alone. Prayer has the power to create hope and ultimately healing.

Here's the thing, though. A prayer to heal someone who is ill can't just be a conversation with God. God, for a start, expects more of us. One of the most detrimental and tragically frequent side effects of serious illness is loneliness and a sense of isolation.

A healing prayer has to involve reaching out - visiting, calling, writing. It is from our acts, not simply our words, that the power of prayer is realized.

Perhaps prayer isn't meant for analysis: it comes, after all, from our hearts, not our minds. When we stop debating, stop thinking analyzing - stop trying to control or assert ownership of God - we make room for miracles to slip into the world.

We must all accept the central role of medicine's power and limitations in the healing process. And I believe that the connection between prayer and healing is a real one. 

They don't have to contradict each other. Azariah Figo (1579 - 1647), a Venetian rabbi and physician, taught that the study, practice, and advancement of medicine is a responsibility we owe to God, who didn't give us ingenuity and curiosity so that we could let them gather dust. But there is a relationship between the benefits of medicine and spiritual intention.

You believe in prayer too. It's one reason why, as I depart for Israel this weekend, I will carry with me more than eighty notes from you to place into the cracks of the Western Wall.

There they will rest with the prayers of thousands of others, sending a collective request to God. “Please, God, send healing.”

In the end, Miriam returns to the camp healed both mentally and physically, and resumes her role as prophet and advisor to Moses.

Her healing is a message from the Torah that, no matter what our illness is, we can be comforted and inspired through the power of prayer.

Sometimes we just need to exhale, and breathe God in.

It is God who ultimately dictates when our time on earth is complete, but as the profound faith and passion of Sister Aimee proved almost a hundred years ago, Emunah Shelaimah – full faith – can play a vital role.

Our world is becoming more rational all the time. That makes it hard for us to make peace with anything we can't explain, even if it's helping us.

But our ability to defer to God can bring spiritual and physical healing to those we care about.

So Moses, sends us a message this week.

El Na Refa Na La. God, “God now, pray: heal her.”

It inspires us, thousands of years later, to believe that healing is possible when we lower our veils in deference to a higher power.

In so doing, we let God in. And from there, true healing can begin.

Shabbat Shalom, v’kol tuv

Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Sat, July 4 2020 12 Tammuz 5780