Prayer Sermon

God, Help Us
[This is roughly the sermon I gave at Chalice Christian Church in Gilbert, Arizona on June 3, 2007 and, in abbreviated form, later that day at Waymark Gardens.]

While Linda is on her mini-sabbatical, we are going to consider four different types of prayer. This week the topic is intercessory prayer, which is praying to ask God to do something for someone else—praying on behalf of another person.

Even though intercessory prayer is very common, we do it every Sunday and it is probably what most people think of when they think of prayer, it poses challenges for me. It confounds my rational mind at times. And so, today, I hope to present some ideas to further the understanding of intercessory prayer and get you thinking, but quite seriously I won’t be able to draw conclusions. You will have to do that. You will have to answer for yourself: Should we pray like this? and What good does it do to pray like this?

* * * *

Intercessory prayer has two actions and three actors. The person praying sends a prayer to God, God receives that prayer, and finally God renders assistance to the person prayed for. I will start by considering what saying these prayers does for the person praying.

Act One: Praying
Naming what troubles you. There is something very helpful in naming what is on your heart. It is like the emotional equivalent of organizing your thoughts by writing them down. Writing forces you to put things in an order and fill-in gaps. By naming our concerns, we bring them into greater focus for ourselves. Surely that alone is therapeutic. For many of us, talking things out is a part of our coping.

Calling you to action. Praying for someone or something can also motivate you to make things better. For example, if I pray for Ed in the hospital, maybe I think, “Hey, maybe I should go visit Ed.” If I pray for peace, I think, “Hey, maybe I should call John Kyle or Jon McCain’s office.” And so on.

Learning empathy. I read something from the Dali Lama this week. He said that prayer for others helps us hone our empathy. This really makes sense to me. We do have control over our emotions & instincts.

Consider the commandments prohibiting us from coveting the things of our neighbors, or Jesus’ admonition to not even lust in your heart, or to love our enemies. Can you control what you long for or who you lust after or love? You bet you can. In fact, this is why a culture of consumerism, pornography, and jingoism is bad. By indulging these lesser natures of ourselves, we cause them to grow in significance.

Prayer feeds our better natures. By taking time to care for others, we are better capable of caring for others.

Act Two: Results

For this discussion, consider someone with an infection. The patient is taking antibiotics and is being prayed for. I give this concrete example because I think it will be helpful in dispelling apparent paradoxes.

Prayer doesn’t always work. It is true that prayer does not always work. Sometimes people do not get better. Indeed, some of the people we prayed for earlier today will not get better. But, some people who get antibiotics won’t get better either. That doesn’t mean we should not give them antibiotics. It also doesn’t mean the antibiotics aren’t good enough or the person isn’t worthy of the antibiotics.

Now, prayer is different in that we like to assume God can do anything. First, I would ask you to not take that position lightly. It is one of those things that are said over and over, but not sufficiently questioned. Now is not the time, but think about it during you study of scripture.

Even if God is all powerful, there are other things involved in the workings of the world that our desires. I don’t like to think of it as a grand plan, I don’t believe that. I don’t think God wants children to die of cancer, but I acknowledge that there are things at work in the universe beside what I want. Still, it does not mean we should not express our desire to God.

Prayer isn’t fair. Another false problem with prayer is that it isn’t fair. Why should those who have loved ones praying for them end up better than those without? Well, it is equally unfair that children with loving parents will thrive. I don’t have an understanding of why there is inequality in the world, but I can’t say that something is illogical because it is unequal.

Okay, folks, no more Mr. Nice Guy. About a year ago, some people revealed the results of a study. They follow 1800 cardiac by-pass patients. Members of several churches prayed for people by their first name and first initial of their last name. So they prayed, “God, please help Jim B. recover fully.”

For minor complications, those prayed for had a slightly higher rate than those without, but it was not statistically significant. For major complications . . . those prayed for had a much higher rate of complications. In other words, if anything prayer hurt the recipients.

What do we do with this? I know what you want to know, “Well, who are these guys doing this study?” They were people hoping document the effectiveness of prayer, careful scientists, yes, but these are the opposite results that they hoped for.

Now, the study is deep but not broad. It very, very carefully considered the narrow question of anonymous prayers. I think it is significant difference from the normal way we pray. But it raises questions for me.

Alright, but what about the other side; how many of you have benefited from people praying for you? [Just over ½ of those in attendance raised their hands.] How many have known someone positively affected by prayer? [About ¾ of those in attendance raised their hands.] So, so many of us have experienced this.

This is really tricky for someone whose life has been about facts and evidence.

Act Three: Now what?
Let’s look back at what Paul said, “The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” The Spirit can help us know how to pray.

A few weeks ago I was helping some folks fill out immigration paperwork. Most people that came to me, and they came to me if they had a tricky case, fell into three classes. First, some people had simple questions that they just needed an attorney to answer for them. Second, a lot of young guys had drug convictions. Third, there were a couple of older guys that were given LPR status when they probably should not have been and now had to figure out if they could be citizens. The last two groups we put in touch with immigration attorneys because their cases would require extra attention.

Then I saw Maria. Maria started off asking about an overly restrictive reading of a question and I thought things were going to go well. Then she took a breath through her nose and started to touch the crucifix on her necklace. She said that while in Kingman a couple of years ago, a man accused her of hitting his car. She explained that she called the police to clear things.

When the police arrived she started to tell the officer what happened and he told her to shut up. She paused, and started to cry because she didn’t like thinking about this. She said the police officer called her a wetback and told her to go over to her car.

On the way to her car, she heard her daughter tell her to look out. She turned as the officer tackled her. She said he then used his Taser on her. After putting her in the squad car, the officer’s partner asked what happened, and why he had used such force. Maria told me the officer said, “Well, she was going for a gun, right? You’ll back me up, right?”

Maria was ultimately charged with a class one misdemeanor assault. Her public defender told her that there was no use fighting, who would believe her? Likewise, when she talked to a private attorney about a civil suit she was told, “Who would believe you over two police officers?”

I gave her my grim but limited assessment of her chances for citizenship. I put her in contact with attorneys that were more qualified to handle such cases. (She also shared with me, that because she refused to lie on job applications, since pleading guilty to the assault she had been unable to get a job.)

I could tell she needed more. I looked around and decided we had adequate privacy in my temporary cubicle. And, despite it being inappropriate, I took her hands in mine and prayed, “God help this woman find justice, Amen.”


3 replies on “Prayer Sermon”

The closing of this sermon was evidently not particularly clear. That is surely because I’m not entirely clear on how I feel about prayer, even now.

I hoped it would display an example of where, despite my doubts and uncertainty, I was compelled to pray with this woman. Not being irresponsible, I didn’t pray instead of giving her legal advice, but as something I was moved to do.

My son, on the other hand, thought the point of the final story was that despite prayer not being effective, some people can find comfort in it, and for that reason it is good.

He may be right.

Hmmm, Jim, your closing in particular touched me & did, indeed, seem clear and appropriate. What I experienced as I read your description of Maria’s ordeal was helplessness. The cruel injustice she experienced, with no apparent means of resolution, is something outside my own experience, but on a spiritual level it reminded me of other injustices and so I could sympathize with her. It also reminded me that there are times in life when there is simply nothing else we can do. Often at those times of complete vulnerability, even those of us who don’t regularly pray will hear ourselves calling out to God (or perhaps using another name for the sacred other).

But maybe the most powerful part of your story for me is what you demonstrated to Maria when you took her hands and prayed as her intercessor. You showed her that she was not alone. You demonstrated solidarity in a way you couldn’t even have done as an attorney (a person with greater power and privilege than she). Your prayer recognizes that there is a higher power than the courts. Praying with/for her acknowledged your own vulnerability and your equality with her before God. What a gift. Perhaps that is the real best reason for intercessory prayer.

I wonder if, when we are praying at our most vulnerable times, we are perhaps calling out to a being we perceive to be greater than ourselves and simultaneously calling out to our own deepest being (as though we have been separated from our selves). Somehow I think that that deepest place in our being is where we meet the one I call God.

For me, that is prayer at its best — encountering the Holy. Outcome is less important than engagement. It’s a very quiet thing.


Thanks for your comments. It is a joy to get such feedback.

Regarding prayer, I think you are right. I think prayer is something I practice, but don’t understand that well. There was a telivision show in which a character asks another to “let me show you how to pray.” That rubbed me so wrong. The notion that you can show someone how to prayer. Ug.

The truth is, I can’t show anyone how to pray. That’s the deal I have. But that doesn’t mean I can’t continue to muddle through.

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