Prayer changes things, doesn’t it?

Mary Copping, 20 October 2019

In our gospel reading we heard of the widow who kept bothering the judge and wouldn’t give up. Eventually she got what she wanted; Jesus’ message was to keep praying and not lose heart. Does this mean we must keep going until we get what we want? Yet we have all experienced unanswered prayer, we have all experienced God’s seeming absence in difficult situations.

Does prayer work like this? A description I heard of this sort of prayer is, you keep putting money into a slot machine until you get a prize. Do we keep praying, putting those prayers up, and eventually we’ll get the prize, get what we’re asking for? No! But still the gospel is pointing to us to keep on praying, in faith that God hears us and answers.

Does prayer change things? It definitely changes us, as we take time to sit with God and talk to him. When we pray God listens; it is amazing to think that we’re talking with the creator of the universe. When we pray, we partner with God to seek his kingdom.

I always feel that Martha gets a poor deal in the story of Martha and Mary, as Mary kneels at Jesus’ feet listening to him, while Martha rushes around. Yet Mary did the better thing simply because she first spent time with Jesus, listening to him, before she (hopefully) then went to help her sister. Time spent in prayer before we go into the day – just listening, resting in God’s presence – gives the day a completely different feel.

Some people find it so difficult to stop and pray. Some find it impossible to sit in quiet before God. Yet, even if we can take a few moments to focus on God in the mornings, we will be changed, have a different attitude to the day, be brought closer to him. It has been shown that prayer improves a person’s mental health, reducing anxiety and stress.

The story of Jacob wrestling with God tells us that even in the darkness of suffering, God is still there with us. Jacob knew it was God – and God is with each one of us in the darkness of our struggles. As we hurt, so God hurts with us. Jacob came out of his experience changed, with a dislocated hip; we come out of each time with God, each prayer, changed in some way.

As some of you know, my four-month-old granddaughter, who is a twin, has been in and out of hospital all her short life. I have prayed many prayers for her, as have others. I have struggled with where God is in the whole situation. Yet God is there: in the love and care of the nurses and doctors, in the help and strength given to the family, in the amazing medical equipment developed by ingenious people, in the cuddle buddies (retired people who come in to hospital specifically to hold sick babies). God, in his love and care, is in this with us all.

God is working with us in our world, though often we cannot see it. He hasn’t just left us to get on with it. He loves all he has made – all his people, all his creation – and wants to bless us. The psalms are so helpful when we don’t know where to turn. ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?’ (Ps. 22: 1) ‘Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord? Awake, do not cast us off for ever!’ (Ps. 44: 23) But almost always at the end, the psalmist comes to a trust in God’s unfailing love.

God is unknowable. We can never presume to know or understand how God works; but we do know that he loves us, he wants the best for us, and he somehow works with us in this world. Karl Barth, a 20th-century theologian, said, ‘To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world’.

To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.

But do our prayers change situations?

There is an organisation called ‘24/7 prayer’ which began in 1999 with a few people praying in a warehouse in the south of England. Amazingly, young people flocked to the first prayer room, even at night. They prayed, wrote things on the wall, listened to music – even atheists coming in said they could feel God’s presence. Now two million people around the world are involved in 24/7 prayer rooms, with rotas of individuals praying all day and all night. These people must and do believe that prayer changes situations, changes people, and not just themselves.

Cardinal Newman, a great man of prayer, who wrote many prayers and hymns, has just been made a saint. For this to happen, two miracles have to be attributed to people praying to them. Newman has been credited with curing a man’s spinal disease and a woman’s unstoppable bleeding. So miracles of God really do happen, even now, and not just for people praying to God through Cardinal Newman but for others too.

Of course we can say, why are others not healed? We would like to see many healed, but God is mystery, and we can never understand his ways and the ways of the world. As with my granddaughter, often our prayer is just, ‘Help us, Lord, give us the strength to endure’.

Our Building for Life journey has always been on a foundation of many people praying and of many hard-working people giving up their time to focus on this. Kathleen Freeman’s prayer e-mails have been part of encouraging us to pray each week for different aspects of the progress of this work. We are beginning to see a culmination of these prayers. Now prayers are needed so much for all the work being done, and for our continued presence here at Western School.

In our Sunday services we pray the prayers of the liturgy each week – prayers like incense rising to God. And we know that Christians around the world are praying with us. First we pray the prayer of preparation – asking God to cleanse our hearts, to prepare us to receive him – before confessing together all that we’ve done wrong over the week. Then there are prayers of intercession for the Church and the world; and the prayer of thanksgiving after Holy Communion, thanking God for all that we’ve received from him and for his goodness to us. Often we’re not thinking in too much detail about what we’re praying, but these prayers are embedded in our souls, and it is such a powerful thing to pray together as a church community, lifting our hearts up to God.

As we know, Muslims pray five times a day facing towards Mecca – a reminder to them of God five times a day, and a reminder of the fellowship of Muslims praying. So for us as Christians, let us not give up in prayer, even in the darkest of times. Prayer is the heart and soul of our Christian faith and, as we pray, things change.

To end, a prayer of Cardinal Newman: May the Lord support us all the day long, till the shades lengthen and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done.