Last year, a friend and colleague of mine shared a little of his experience raising a child on the autism spectrum. He and his wife noticed their firstborn seemed behind on some developmental cues early on. They knew something wasn’t right when at just over 3 years old, he still wasn’t talking beyond a few choice words and a language consisting of grunts.
My friend and his wife diligently put their child in a specialized preschool, started therapy, and put him on a strict diet. They consulted experts and read books. And, most of all, they prayed. And prayed. And prayed.
My friend is a pastor, so he was deeply familiar with the many healing narratives in the Gospels. He prayed that his son’s story might follow a similar trajectory. And yet his prayers seemed to do nothing. The begging, the pleading, the bargaining, the sighs too deep for words—none of it made his son any better.
Maybe you have had a similar experience. Maybe you have cried out to God for a spouse to be healed of a disease; for a parent to survive an accident; for addiction to loosen its grip on a child; or for the clouds of depression to lift from your own mind. Maybe you have experienced miracles of healing and recovery, but maybe the cancer came back; maybe there was nothing more the doctors could do; maybe the sobriety didn’t last; and maybe the darkness just kept closing in.
If you have had these and other experiences like them, you may have come to the conclusion that prayer doesn’t work. And believe it or not, I’m not going to argue with you on that one. In fact, if I did sermon titles, this one would be called, “Prayer Doesn’t Work.”
Now, here’s what I mean. Prayer doesn’t work in that God is not a vending machine. Prayer is not the quarter we shove into the slot of the divine ear, expecting the candy bar of our choosing to drop down. Prayer is not some exchange where our eloquence or earnestness or faith determines whether we get what we wish for.
Instead, to quote Mahatma Gandhi, “Prayer is not asking. Prayer is a longing of the soul.” When we pray, we are not the petulant or devious child figuring out how big of a temper tantrum or how sly of a triangulation it will take to get what we want. Prayer does not come with a money back guarantee or a 5-year warranty. Prayer doesn’t work.
At this point, some of you may be ready to stand up and say, now wait just a minute. Of course prayer works. I know there are stories right here in this room of miraculous recovery. I’ve seen it myself—a family friend whose doctors offered no hope going from a coma to a fully functioning person with a job and a life again. Right here at Centenary, each Monday, we have Prayers for the People, a movement of intercessory prayer that started on behalf of a church member diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer, a woman whose recovery has been incredible and whose leadership has allowed those weekly prayers to continue. Many of you could tell me personal stories of how prayer sustained you in difficult times, how you could feel a community surrounding you in prayer in your darkest hour.
I have no desire to diminish the importance of such experiences. They are incredible stories that bear witness to God’s power and providence in tangible ways. But my dad has pointed out that when we tell such stories, people often respond by saying, “It’s a miracle!” And it is a miracle—but when we say that, it’s almost always in earshot of someone for whom that is painful, because they wonder why they didn’t get a miracle, too.
So this is why I will continue to say that prayer doesn’t work—not because I don’t believe in miracles or that I don’t think there is power in intercessory prayer, but because I refuse to limit God’s presence and response to those times where we can clearly say, “It’s a miracle!” God is present in the miracles, yes, but God is also present in our losses. God is present even in our unanswered prayers, mourning alongside us. God’s love and mercy are available not only when we can see and hear and feel them but also when we cannot.
Madeleine L’Engle says this: “I will have nothing to do with a God who cares only occasionally. I need a God who is with us always, everywhere, in the deepest depths as well as the highest heights. It is when things go wrong, when good things do not happen, when our prayers seem to have been lost, that God is most present.”
God is as present in the miraculous healing as in the untimely death. God is as present in the medically unexplainable recovery as in the impossibly bleak diagnosis. God is as present in our hope of salvation as in those sighs too deep for words.
Both of our focus songs tonight, whether explicitly or not, speak to the centrality of mystery in the human experience. Something I love about the United Methodist Church is that in our theology and practice, we are not afraid to embrace mystery. We name it when we celebrate communion, when we pray for healing, when we attempt to describe the Trinity, when we offer one another means of grace. And prayer is itself one of the many mysteries in the life of faith, its purpose and function not always clear to us even as we admit it is as needful to us as food and water.
So if prayer doesn’t work, then why do we pray? Madeleine L’Engle, again, asks this question in her book A Ring of Endless Light. In it, young Suzy Austin interrogates the adults in the story about the efficacy of prayer in this exchange:
“Prayer didn’t keep Jeb from being hit by a motorcycle. It didn’t stop Grandfather from having leukemia.”
“Prayer was never meant to be magic,” Mother said.
“Then why bother with it?” Suzy scowled.
“Because it’s an act of love,” Mother said.
Prayer is an act of love. We pray for the things for which our soul longs, for the people whom we love, for the things that break our hearts. And even if that prayer doesn’t “work,” it is not meaningless. Madeleine L’Engle says, “Prayer is love, and love is never wasted.”
“Prayer is love, and love is never wasted.” We get caught up in our society and even in the church around things that work, things that are useful, things that are not wasteful, and although this is good to do, sometimes it causes us to dismiss or misunderstand the most important parts of our Christian practice.
To reduce prayer or worship or faith or hope or love to something that works or is useful is to diminish it and remove all meaning from it. While we place value on the function and utilitarianism of people and practices and things, God calls us higher and deeper, to a love that is useless, to prayer that doesn’t work, and promises that even when it feels pointless, love is never wasted.
Andy Crouch says, “Prayer does not work. It does something better than work. Prayer brings us into the life of the one by whom all things were made and are being remade.”
Do we ever stop to think about what it is we pray for most? Whenever you ask for prayer requests, 90% of what you’ll get will be prayers for healing. This isn’t wrong—it’s an expression of that love, that longing, that desire for healing and wholeness. But where are our prayers for holiness, for justice, for reconciliation and peace?
Anne Lamott says there are three basic prayers: “Help,” “Thanks,” and “Wow.” We tend to stick to those “Help” prayers—the requests for healing or guidance. And that’s OK.
But look at what happens when we move on to those other two prayers. First, “Thanks.” We’ve talked about gratitude here before, about how expressing thanks for our lives can be transformative. Gratitude makes us see and speak and act differently.
Same with “Wow”—this one might actually be the hardest, because it asks us to simply stand in awe of God. Mary Oliver has a lovely poem called “Prayer” that talks about being attentive to God even in seemingly un-awe-inspiring things. It goes like this:
It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.
Looking at these three kinds of prayer helps us to see the power of prayer to change and transform us and our own limited vision. Because if there is one way in which prayer does work, it’s that it works on us. Prayer is a way of paying attention, a way of giving thanks, a way of making space for another voice to speak. Prayer makes a difference, but first and foremost in our own hearts and minds.
The story my friend told about his autistic son did not end with his unanswered prayers. Neither did it end with a miraculous healing—at least, not the one we would expect. After a long time fighting with God over his son’s condition, my friend realized that perhaps it was not his son’s voice but his own perspective that needed healing. He had been working so hard to fix his son that he could not fully appreciate just how wonderful this child already was, how God was already revealing his love and joy and beauty through him.
You see, though my friend’s son struggles with social interaction, with crowds and noisy places, one thing he does brilliantly is that he sings. This little boy knows dozens of songs by heart, and he will sing them in perfect pitch and rhythm, even in harmony with his dad.
For a long time, my friend had tried to get his son to play with trucks or do things the other kids were doing, but suddenly he realized: this kid just wants to sing, and he wants to sing with me. Who am I to stop him?
So my friend has stopped praying for his son to change and started praying that he himself would change. He started praying that his own heart and eyes and ears would be opened. And when he did, even what looked like weeds in a vacant lot became as beautiful as the blue iris of that Mary Oliver poem, became a doorway into thanks for what was instead of demands for what could be.
Mary Karr says, “prayer is a way of standing in the light.” The journey my friend’s family is on has not magically gotten easy since that shift in his thinking. It has remained difficult and will continue to be so. But I suspect that now there is a little more light on the way.
Prayer helps us to see things differently, to pull our pain and fear and our very selves out of the darkness and hold it in the light for a little bit. Prayer does not work, but prayer helps us stand in the light, so that even when answers elude us and outcomes fall in ways we never would have chosen, we can stand in the hope of what we do not see and wait for it with patience. We can sing, “When the night is cloudy, there is still a light that shines on me.”
Sarah S. Howell