FOR Karl Sandberg, it was a major challenge to his faith in God and God's healing power. He was serving as a military chaplain in the United States Army and was soon to be shipped out to Vietnam. His 11-month-old son became seriously ill with a high fever. There had been an epidemic of meningitis in the community. A Protestant chaplain - with whom Sandberg and his family were staying - expressed concern that the infant had contracted the disease.
Chaplain Sandberg, a Christian Scientist, turned to prayer. He and his wife stayed up all night with the child. ``We prayed diligently to see God as the father and mother of all His children,'' he says.
The chaplain's previous experience bolstered his conviction that ``deep trust in God'' for the care of himself and his children was a ``safe, healthy practice.''
The child responded. He fell asleep and awakened later much improved. Soon he was entirely well.
Sandberg's friend, the Protestant chaplain, witnessed the healing. This friend said, however, that if the child had not improved he would have insisted that the child receive medical attention.
How was this father able to place his infant in God's care without resorting to medical help?
Sandberg says that he felt sure that prayer results in healing. His great love for his child helped free him from fear. He would have taken any steps necessary to heal and comfort his baby.
``Prayer is important to family life because it allows us to see God as the center of the family,'' he explains.
``The spiritual relationship to God, established through prayer, brings a family closer together than any biological relationship,'' he adds. ``Children pray for parents as well as parents pray for children.''
This is not an isolated instance of healing. Nor is healing practiced only by a particular religion or denomination. New Testament scholar Robert Webber writes: ``People who take the Bible seriously should take Christian healing seriously.''
Dr. Webber also points out that there were ``models of healers and healing'' in Israel prior to the New Testament. He notes that the Bible records Elijah and Elisha as doing ``Jesus-like miracles.'' Abraham and Moses, among others, healed through prayer. And even Jesus' enemies conceded his healing power, but claimed it came not through spiritual understanding but through the devil.
TODAY, prayer and healing continue to have an impact in the United States. Charismatic Christian groups talk openly not only of moral regeneration but of healings of physical infirmities. Various denominations have healing services.
``The atonement includes the healing of our bodies as well as the forgiveness of sin,'' writes evangelist Frances Hunter.
``It amazes me when people tell me that God doesn't heal today,'' she says. ``If God doesn't heal, then I wouldn't be here.'' Mrs. Hunter talks about a ``contaminated blood infection'' that threatened her life, which she says ``became pure'' as a result of prayer.
``I have no choice,'' she says ``but to believe in healing.''
Healing and prayer are finding a revival in modern society despite some dips in church membership and a lack of broader commitment to religious denominationalism.
``A large number of parish churches have a service for prayer and healing,'' says Harvard University theologian Krister Stendahl, former bishop of the Stockholm Church of Sweden. ``This was not so 25 years ago,'' he says.
Public opinion surveys show a steady influence of prayer and meditation in American life. For instance, pollster George Gallup Jr. and religion writer Jim Castelli find that ``religious belief in America is remarkably high - certainly the highest of any developed nation in the world.''
The Gallup-Castelli book, ``The People's Religion: American Faith in the '90s,'' indicates that 9 out of 10 Americans say they have never doubted the existence of God; 88 percent believe that God loves them; and 9 in 10 pray.
Data compiled by the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research show that 66 percent of those interviewed agree, at least in part, that ``prayer is frequently effective in healing sick people.'' The Roper data also indicate a high degree of confidence in medicine and the scientific community among those who pray regularly.
A study of readers of the family magazine Better Homes and Gardens found that 96 percent believe in God, but only half say that spirituality is gaining influence in family life in America.
Other studies show that the current interest in religion and prayer is more often manifested among minority religions than through mainline churches. Some theologians show concern that although religious pluralism often leads to greater tolerance, it may also result in prejudice and repression.
DESPITE constitutional guarantees of religious freedom and free speech, courts continue to consider possible restrictions on the right to practice what one preaches.
Current cases deal with the government's role in curbing the right of Jehovah's Witnesses to refuse blood transfusions, intruding on the ``sacred ground'' of American Indians, invalidating the Sabbath of Seventh-day Adventists, and discouraging Christian Scientists from relying on prayer - rather than medical treatment - for the healing of their children.
Upcoming court decisions outside the religious area, such as those regarding parental rights in the use of special equipment to prolong the life of a comatose or severely brain-damaged patient, could also affect the free exercise of religion.
Political figures generally acknowledge the importance of prayer, particularly on Thanksgiving and other religious holidays. The government subscribes, at least officially, to a National Day of Prayer. And public meetings are often opened with readings from the Scripture.
Allowing prayer as an alternative to medicine, however, is strongly challenged by some as ``bad'' public policy.
The American Academy of Pediatrics, for instance, has termed reports of religious healing ``anecdotal'' and has urged states to repeal statutes that prohibit criminal prosecutions of those who provide spiritual treatment in lieu of medical care for their children.
Those who rely on prayer, however, say that it is effective in their lives and in the lives of their children. As in the case of Karl Sandberg, this trust comes from a study of the Bible and an understanding that Scriptural authority for healing extends to modern society.
COMING UP: Part 2: The Paths of Prayer - Tomorrow Part 3: Prayer and the Public Trust - Wednesday