About Prayer and Surgery

A good story for the eve of a double mastectomy …

When I was a young pastor in Tennessee, I made visit to the hospital to see a parishioner. Edith Watson was an elderly woman who had never married or had children. (To be fair, she was probably only in her 60’s at the time, which I now know is NOT old; however, she was an “old soul.”) She literally gave her life to the church. She was at the church almost every day helping in some capacity, mostly as the self-appointed historian of First Presbyterian Church, Knoxville, which at the time was 200 years old. Therefore, I was surprised to learn that Edith had entered the hospital and had surgery.

I knocked and entered Edith’s hospital room. There were 3 or 4 of her friends around her bed in chairs. I did not know what was wrong with Edith – or why she had surgery. I was taught to ask open-ended questions, “How’s it going?” or “How is it with your soul?” or “Tell me about it?”

Edith was a bit of a loveable curmudgeon, and she fussed at me for coming. I don’t remember exactly what she said, but the general theme was: “I told them not to tell you I was in the hospital. You shouldn’t have come. Get on back to the church. I am sure you have more important things to do.”

After a few, very long minutes, which contained several awkward moments of silence, I asked all the ladies to stand and hold hands with Edith and me to pray. We formed a circle around her, and I began to pray. Again, I don’t remember my exact words, but I remember the general tone. I used plenty of bountiful words. I asked God to “touch” her, “restore” her, and grant her “fullness” of life, and may God “magnify” her joy, and return her to “wholeness.” Bring her to “completeness,” and so forth and so on.

Half-way through the prayer, I could feel the ladies’ hands shaking. Then came the peep of a repressed giggle. And, when I pronounced, “Amen,” they all burst out laughing and wiped away tears from their eyes. I was lost. This was a fairly conservative, pietistic group, and I knew they were not inclined to be irreverent. I left quickly, a little embarrassed, sensing I had spoken wrongly.

When I got back to the church, the smiling receptionist had already had a phone call from Edith. The receptionist said, “Edith called to tell you that you didn’t seem to know that she had breast reduction surgery, and, if it’s okay with you, she’d just as soon not be restored to fullness or wholeness. And, you’d better hope God doesn’t answer your prayer because she doesn’t want to have her breasts cut off again.”

People, be careful what you pray for!