The Transformative Power of Prayer
November 25, 2018
Jesus was known for his teachings, but as we hear in Matthew 4: 23-25, he was followed for his powers to heal:
Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them. And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.
When Jesus was no longer with them in bodily form, his disciples realized the power of prayer as we hear in the letter of James:
Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.
(sing together) Black Hymnal 521 vs. 1
In solitude, in solitude, I come to God in prayer. In silence and simplicity, my spirit blossoms there.
Most of the time we pray in solitude. Those of us who come to worship pray together each Sunday, and those prayers take different forms. Years ago I was invited to meditate for an hour with 2,000 people in a huge ballroom in a downtown hotel in L.A. There was an energy in that room you could feel. You could hear a pin drop. At one point I felt tears rolling down my cheeks. I worried that I might have to blow my nose, but thankfully I didn’t need to.
At the end of the meditation they invited us to stand and think of those in our lives or in our world who needed our prayers. Then they had us rub our hands together like this and send those prayers out into the universe. I will never forget that evening and the power of our prayers I felt at that moment.
(Invite them to stand and do this)
I believe in the transformative power of prayer. I wouldn’t be standing here today if I didn’t. The number of hospital rooms I’ve sat in with people who were gravely ill or dying, including both my parents, are too numerous to count. It is through these experiences that I have come to see the power of prayer in action.
Several came to mind this week. Let me share one of them. I was on call one night working as a student chaplain at Methodist Hospital in Southern California. The patriarch of a large Mexican family was dying, and the family needed a Spanish speaking priest to lead them in prayers. After a frantic search I located the most amazing young priest. I remember standing in the doorway of this man’s room. His family lined the walls, probably 20 or more of them. The priest was leading them in the rosary, and then in hymns they all knew.
I looked over and the man in the bed was propped up with tears running down his face. The love in that room was palpable. I could feel it in the doorway. My tears mingled with the others in that room. There was no doubt in my mind that the spirit was present.
Was this man dying? - yes. Could we change that outcome? - no. Did our prayers make a difference? ohhh yes, probably in more ways than we ever imagined. Just place yourself in that hospital bed and imagine being filled with the love in that room. I’ve never forgotten it. I’m sure the others in that room never forgot it either.
In his book Pray All Ways the Catholic monk Edward Hayes calls tears “prayer-beads,” because they arise from the fullness of the heart, not from the head. So often words are not necessary. It’s your presence with someone in grief, allowing them to cry without embarrassment, even crying with them, that can be a powerful healing moment.
Music too, can be a form of prayer that radiates from the heart. This morning while I was reading over this sermon, I remembered a time at my last church when a woman who had sung in our choir for years was dying and I invited the choir and choir director to come to her house and sing hymns. She was lying on a hospital bed in the living room. I knew they had a piano. We lined the room as her husband called out her favorite hymns and we sung them at the top of our lungs while passing a box of tissue. She didn’t move or open her eyes, but as soon as we left she said to her daughter “Beautiful music.”
Thinking back over the times when I have been the most emotionally invested in my prayer life, it was those times when my life seemed spinning out of control, when loved ones were facing catastrophic illness or death, those times when I knew life would never be the same again. So often it’s in those times we turn to God with the most authentic prayer.
Anne Lamott calls “‘Help!’ our first great prayer.” She describes prayer as “communication from the heart to that which surpasses understanding …” She explains: “Prayer means that, in some unique way, when we feel we have nowhere else to turn, we believe we’re invited into a relationship with someone or some force that hears us when we speak.” To believe in a Christian God is to believe in a relational God, a loving God that wants only the best for us.
And yet, there are plenty of times in my life when I’ve wondered: Is God a loving God? What did I do to deserve this? Doesn’t God care? How could God let this happen? Is there even a God?
I remember many years ago now, when my mother became paralyzed after a surgery that had saved her life. I called a minister friend of mine back home in tears, shouting how angry I was at God. How could God allow this to happen to such a good and kind woman? It took a number of years to come to the understanding that God doesn’t control every disease and catastrophe that befalls humankind, and God doesn’t carry a magic wand to make them all better.
If one believes that, then the big question arises: What happens when we pray? Am I just talking to myself? or is there a connection to God, and to that person or persons I’m praying for?
I started questioning, is anyone listening? Are these prayers making a difference? And then I met the brother of a friend of mine who was diagnosed with liver and pancreatic cancer and given three months to live. He had a wife and two children, his own business in a small town in Iowa. He went into an experimental treatment program at Mayo Clinic. He lived over two years, while the others in the program died. He didn’t use the morphine pump they gave him until the last week of his life.
He lived those two years to the fullest. He told me he wasn’t afraid of death. He had a good life and so much to be thankful for. He wasn’t angry at God. Death was a part of life. But what I remember most: he said he felt all of those prayers that were being prayed for him - family and friends, and friends of friends he didn’t even know personally. They all touched him in some unexplainable way and helped him to face the inevitable with dignity and grace, and live fully until then.
That is how Gregor, the partner of Mark Seifried, the interim minister at our Brighton Alston Church, has chosen to live each day since he was diagnosed with a virulent form of cancer. We’ve asked for prayers on more than one occasion as they live in this roller coaster journey of highs and lows. Mark send out updates in a blog. He recently wrote his friends:
Thank you for the prayers and amazing support! We commented to the doctors that the chemo was just part of the healing miracle they are witnessing – that we have thousands of people praying and offering loving kindness in so many forms. The jubilant hematologist looked at Gregor and said, “It is obvious that you are being well cared for. I can’t believe you are that terribly sick man I first met in a hospital bed two months ago. You look and sound great.”
I saw Mark when I volunteered at his church before Thanksgiving. He told me “The prayers are working.” Then the next day he wrote:
After seven hours at the hospital, rather than wallow in "What if?" and "Why me?" I am going grocery shopping while Gregor naps. We are planning to have a quiet but significant Thanksgiving feast together. We can't be with a crowd. Gregor is weak and tired. We can enjoy the intimacy of a luxurious day, sitting by the fire, listening to good music, reading books, and eating well - all things that many in the world could not imagine. We have today. We have hope for tomorrow. We trust that God will keep being God and getting us through - until the next bump in the road when we reassess the course and how we need to change to navigate it.
Yes, prayers can make a difference.
John Welshons, in his book When Prayers Aren’t Answered, writes: “The things that are truly helpful and truly healing are love and community - the feeling that we are not alone… that we have friends whose hearts are big enough to hold our pain without judgement or aversion.”
Prayers may not change the ultimate outcome, but knowing that others care about you and are sending love and prayers can change how you live each day. When my mother became paralyzed, a dear friend sent her a funny joke or cartoon or story each day for months. That was her form of prayer, and it made a difference.
It changes those of us who are praying too, by opening our hearts and feeling compassion for others. So we gather here today in love to reach out to others. We are here as conduits to connect our own and other’s needs to the love of God, and to each other. May this time of prayers today change all of us in little and big ways.
Response Hymn: In Solitude Black Hymnal 521, vs. 2-5