You get a call from a friend late at night. She tells you that her marriage is in trouble…or that she got bad news from her doctor that afternoon…or that she is afraid she is about to lose her job. So you talk about it awhile, but there really isn’t much you can do to help. At the end of the conversation you say, “I’ll pray for you.”
A surgeon meets with the family in the hospital waiting room. He says, “We did all we can do. Now we just have to wait and pray.”
Just before the Sunday service is to begin a mother comes up to a minister and asks that her daughter’s name be put on the prayer chain. “I need the support of the church’s prayers,” she says, “for my daughter, and for myself.”
Maybe you came into church this morning and when someone asked you how you were doing, you smiled and said, “Fine.” But inside you’re worried about your daughter who has moved to a new city and is having trouble adjusting to being away from friends and family. In worship you silently say her name during the time of the pastoral prayer.
In the years I have been in ministry, I have discovered that most everyone believes prayer is a good thing. If someone tells you about a personal problem, when you say, “I’ll pray for you,” the response is almost always the same. “Thank you, I appreciate that.”
John Buchanan, pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago and publisher of the Christian Century, wrote an editorial about his experience of receiving prayer when he had hip replacement surgery. “We’re praying for you,” people told him…friends, colleagues, and church members. A secretary at the church made an appointment to see John in his office and when she came in, she said she wanted to pray for him – and she took his hand and said a prayer. He was surprised when the locker room attendant at his health club came up to him and said, “God will be with you and I’ll pray for you everyday.”
Buchanan has spent much of his life praying for others, but this time he received the special blessing of being prayed for by others. It filled his heart and caused him to reflect, “I know this in a new and profound way: [that] strength and courage and hope and wholeness are imparted in the know-ledge that others are holding you up to God in prayer. And I know that God’s healing love somehow uses the love and concern and prayers of others in the work of restoring, comforting and creating wholeness.”
In today’s gospel reading, the disciples say to Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray.” And he teaches them the Lord’s Prayer. A prayer that most of us memorized as a child and know by heart. It is the one prayer all Christians say — though there is a notable variation in the phrase different congregations use in asking for forgiveness. At the church I attended in LaGrange, we would say, “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” Then at the church I served in Michigan, I was a “debtor.” And now here at Kenilworth Union, I am a “trespasser.” Also, if you were brought up in the Catholic tradition, you notice that the Protestant version of the Lord’s Prayer doesn’t end with, “deliver us from evil,” but continues on to say “for thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever.”
Our third graders at KUC are taught the Lord’s Prayer. Learning how to connect with God through prayer is one of the most important things we teach our children. For there are bound to be times in their lives when they will find themselves in the midst of a troubling situation, or facing a difficult decision, and turning to God in prayer will help them get through.
Some 90 percent of Americans pray, surveys show. Howard Rice says it is because, “Something inherent in the human spirit, when threatened by the unknown, cries out to whatever unseen powers there may be that seem to control the world. All prayer thus arises from the human sense of transcendence, some power beyond what can be seen and touched.”
Prayer is nearly a universal activity. You pray about the test result due from the doctor’s office on Tuesday. You pray as you prepare to go to a job interview. You pray for those serving in our military in Iraq – knowing full well the dangers and the possibilities of death in that place. You pray when you are upset and feel depressed. You pray for others who are sick and suffering.
According to Jesus, by far the most important thing about praying is to keep at it. In a rather comic way at the end of today’s scripture reading, Jesus says that God is like a friend you go to borrow bread from at midnight. The friend tells you in effect to go away, but you keep banging on his door anyway until finally he gives you what you want so he can go back to bed again. Jesus then concludes this little vignette saying, “Ask and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you.”
It’s a reassuring promise. But how are we to understand it in a world that is governed by natural law? That if we will only keep at it, God will answer our prayers? If that is the case, then it leads to a rather large question. Bluntly put, the question is this: “Does prayer work?”
With all my being, I trust the answer to that question is – “Yes…Sometimes.” I know that I, for one, pray for things to work out the way I hope for them to be. Yet, there are many faithful people who consciously shape their prayers to be in the realm of the possible, careful not to ask God to change what seems impossible. But I believe it is important to pray from the heart, not the head, being open and honest with God. I trust that God is moved by passionate and compassionate prayers. And in ways that I do not pretend to comprehend, sometimes, sometimes, the course of events seem to be influenced by the spiritual power of prayer.
Of course, answers to our prayers do not always come in the way we may want. I have been both surprised and disappointed by answers that have come and have not come to my prayers. The promise is not that we will get what we want when we pray, but that in giving to God the deepest desires and needs and longings and hopes of our hearts, God transforms our desires and somehow gives us not what we want, but what we need. It is in this way that our prayers are not so much about what we get from God, as what God gives to us.
In the congregation I served in Michigan, a 45-year-old man was diagnosed with brain cancer. One day when I visited him in the hospital, the doctors came into David’s room to discuss the results of the tests he had been taking. I sat by and listened in. The news was not good. There were possible courses of treatment, but no promise of a cure. The doctors’ words were hard to hear. Still, my own instinct — and I suspect David’s as well — was to hold on to the possibility of some undefined shift in the course of the cancer, a spontaneous remission maybe. One hears stories of such things happening, so why shouldn’t it happen this time? Not even the doctors want to rule out all hope.
Over the course of the next few months, whenever I visited with David, we would pray. It became my custom to ask him what he’d like me to pray for. At first, he said that he wanted me to pray that he’d beat this thing (as he called the cancer). So that’s what we prayed for.
I knew, of course, and so did he, that prayer isn’t a magic bullet. We pour out to God what we want, and God responds in ways that don’t always match what we’ve begged for. Still, we went to God in prayer and asked for what David truly wanted. We prayed for a cure, trying to trust that God would know what to do with our prayer.
As time passed, I continued to ask David the same question, but he began to give me a different answer. He may have still hoped to beat the disease, but he didn’t voice that as much. He asked me to pray for his family, especially his wife and young son. And so that is what we prayed for.
The last week I visited David, when I asked him what he wanted to pray for, he responded with one word: “Peace.” And so I prayed to God that David would know peace.
To discover you have a mortal illness in the prime of life is to freeze most everything exactly where it is. What’s not been done is not likely to get done; what’s not been fixed is not likely to be fixed – or, at least, not to be either done or fixed the way one would have, had there been more time. In our prayer for peace we were asking God to relieve David of the burden of any unfinished business, and any unresolved issues he may have had. And, of course, in praying for peace, David was asking God for the inner strength to accept the unacceptable. So that is what we prayed for. Shortly afterward, David died.
Did our prayers work? I suppose in a strictly utilitarian sense, you could say that our prayers did not work. There was no spontaneous remission, no miraculous cure.
But in living this experience with David, I came to know that there is another answer to the “Does prayer work?” question. It is deeper and more subtle. Prayer is not just about changing the course of events, or even getting what we want. Prayer doesn’t change things that can’t be changed. Prayer is also about changing you and me. In this way, I believe that God gave to David the prayer of his heart.
Prayer brings us into deeper intimacy with God. When we talk with God and tell God the prayers of our hearts, we are building a relationship. We lay it all out before God and in the process draw closer to God, which is valuable in itself, and oftentimes can help to give us the insight and strength we need to face the trials we must bear. And even for those times we are unable to find words to express our prayers, the apostle Paul reassures us that “the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” What matters is that we continue to pray.
Every Sunday we bring our prayers into this sacred space…prayers that are spoken, prayers that are held silently within ourselves. We pray for the world, for our families, for our children, for ourselves, for strangers, for friends, for those we know who are facing illness or bereavement or heartache. We pray on behalf of all those in need of God’s tender care.
I find the time we come together in prayer to be one of the most meaningful parts of worship. As we pray together, we become more aware of how difficult life really is for many of us, and how much we need the heartfelt prayers of those around us. Side by side, in prayer sharing the hopes and concerns of our hearts, we become connected to one another as we are connected to the mysterious goodness of God.
These are words that were found on a piece of paper in the pocket of a Confederate soldier over a hundred years ago. It is a prayer that pretty well sums up what I have been trying to say.
“I asked God for strength, that I might achieve; I was made weak, that I might learn humbly to obey. I asked for health, that I might do greater things; I was given infirmity, that I might do better things. I asked for riches, that I might be happy; I was given poverty, that I might be wise. I asked for power, that I might have praise; I was given weakness, that I might feel the need of God. I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life;
I was given life that I might enjoy all things. I got nothing that I asked for — but everything that I have hoped for.”
“Ask and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you.” Does prayer work? Yes…In some way. Maybe not the way we expect, but in God’s way.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.