February 23, 2014: When You Need to Pray, but Aren’t Sure if Prayer Works

Posted on : Feb 20th, 2014 | By | Category: This Sunday's Service

In June of 1989 one of the members of our church was in the hospital critically ill.  He was dying from complications related to AIDS.  He was in excruciating pain.  Lisa and I stood next to him, one of us on each side of his hospital bed, each of us holding one of his hands.   It was as if his pain came in waves: tidal waves.  He was in such pain he could barely speak.  As his pain levels peaked he would say, “Pain! Pain! Pain!” and then he would say, “Pray! Pray! Pray!”

Lisa and I would alternate back and forth praying for him.

One thing I have never forgotten from that experience was that it was only when we were praying for him that he found any comfort, any relief from his pain.  As we prayed, his body would relax.  He calmed down.  His breathing became more regular.  And he would slightly loosen the vice-grip he had on our hands.  When we concluded praying for him, he would be at peace for what seemed like only a minute or two and then it started all over again. “Pain! Pain! Pain!” followed by, “Pray! Pray! Pray!”

Twenty-five years later, I remember that experience like it was just yesterday.  I honestly don’t know what it was about prayer that helped him, but I do know it was THE ONLY THING that brought him any comfort, peace and relief.

I also remember another member of our church who was in an Intensive Care Unit in one of our hospitals and in a semi-conscious state.  We hear conflicting stories about whether people in comas or semi-conscious states can actually “hear,” but long ago I was convinced they can.   I’m quite sure that though they may not be able to respond, they can hear.

Each time I would go to visit this person, I would pray for him as I have done with so many others.  After he regained consciousness and was moved to a general room in the hospital, I was visiting him and he said, “Thanks for praying for me.  I was so sick I couldn’t even pray for myself.”  He then thanked me for something I included in one of the prayers.  The only way he could have known what I said, was by hearing what I said.

People often ask me if prayer works.  There is study after study done in hospitals where one group of patients are prayed for and others aren’t.  Each study proves something different: no change in outcome, some change in outcome, big change in outcome.  Some studies show those who are prayed for heal faster, others show no difference.

Personally, I don’t care what the studies show.  The way I answer the question, “Does prayer work?” is like this:  Prayer works for me.  I can’t speak for anyone but myself, but I can tell you, prayer works for me – and it has nothing to do with the fact that I am a minister.  I know a lot of non-clergy who say the same thing and have had the same personal experience.  Prayer works for them.

I think part of understanding the answer to that question is understanding what we expect from prayer.  Sometimes I find that people approach prayer the way they do an ATM.  You put in the card and expect the blessings to come out.  When you approach prayer like that, some folks discover they have forgotten their PIN.   Others get the bad news:  insufficient funds.

For me, God is not an ATM who offers a big payoff to those who have a nice healthy balance.  God is loving spirit.  Big difference.

In this Sunday’s gospel we encounter the disciples coming to Jesus and saying to him, “Jesus, teach us how to pray.”  He does.  But he shows them a way of praying that they never expected.  One of my favorite teachings about prayer comes from the Apostle Paul. Paul says quite clearly that we don’t know how to pray as we should, but nonetheless, the Spirit prays for us even through our “sighs too deep for words.”

Most of us know what “sighs too deep for words” are.  It’s those moments in our life when we are so out of control, out of sorts, in pain, lost, at our wits end, that all we can do is sigh.  Big sighs.  Paul reminds us that even those sighs are prayers.  So even when we don’t think we know how to pray, we do.  We pray even through our deep sighs.

This Sunday we’ll look more at prayer as we focus on the next to the last in our “It Helps to Have Faith” worship series.  It helps to have faith when you need to pray, but aren’t sure if prayer works.



~ This Sunday’s Scriptures ~

Matthew 6: 5-13

Jesus teaches us how to pray.

“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others.  Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.  But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to God who is in secret; and God who sees in secret will reward you.

“When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words.  Do not be like them, for your God knows what you need before you even ask. “Pray then in this way:

Our loving God in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kin-dom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we forgive our debtors.
And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from evil.

Romans 8: 26-27

Paul reminds us that when we can’t pray, the Spirit prays for us.

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit prays for us with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

Leave a Reply