Does Prayer Change Anything?

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, March 11, 2012

James 5:13-18

“Prayer changes things.”  At least, a popular bumper sticker says it does.  Does prayer really change things?  That is the question, isn’t it?  And if prayer does indeed change things, what does it change?  What really takes place, what really changes, what turns out any differently when people struggle in prayer?  If we could divide up all the residents of Oak Ridge into two sides—half on one side of the Turnpike and half on the other—asking all those who believe that prayer changes things to stand on the south side and all of those who don’t believe that prayer changes anything to stand on the north side, we might have a pretty evenly divided city.  And I am guessing from my conversations with many of you, we would have a similar division here.  I know some of you believe that prayer changes things, and I know others of you have your doubts. 

And when one prays, is the purpose to change God’s mind and make God do what one feels should be done?  It is easy for us to think that God should answer prayers in the way we choose and as quickly as yesterday.  Such an idea can border on the assumption that we know more about life than God does.  Such an idea could also assume that God can be ‘bullied’ into doing something that [God] really doesn’t want to do. By the way, what one believes about prayer can say a lot about what he or she also believes about God.  The ramifications are many.  So then, if the purpose of prayer might not be to make God do what we want God to do, then what is the purpose of prayer?  And how does prayer change things, if indeed it does? For the sake of goodwill, let’s consider different sides of the issue. 

First, what about the idea that intercessory prayers—prayers that we pray on behalf of others—make no difference at all.   I know many in Oak Ridge fit this category.  And in their defense, a few years ago, the John Templeton Foundation funded a $2.4 million Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer.  Now, if you know anything about the John Templeton Foundation, you know it is no fly-by-night organization.  The Templeton Foundation is well-respected the world over, an organization committed to the study of the intersection of religion and science.  A group of heart patients randomly selected from six different hospitals were assigned to one of three groups.  Those in Group 1 were prayed for after being told they might or might not be prayed for.  Those in Group 2 were not prayed for after being told they might or might not be prayed for.  And those in Group 3 were prayed for after being told they definitely would be prayed for.  The results were somewhat surprising.  Supposedly, those who were prayed for not knowing whether they were prayed for or not fared the same as those who were not prayed for.  And those who were prayed for, and knew for sure that they were being prayed for, actually fared worse than those who were not.  At least this is what the study concluded.  Not the conclusion they were expecting or hoping for, I imagine.

Then there are those who firmly believe that intercessory prayer can make a difference.  The poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson said, “More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of.”  In contrast to the Templeton Foundation Study, other studies on the effects of intercessory prayer have revealed just the opposite results.  Such as the ten-month study that was conducted at San Francisco General Hospital in the 1980’s.  The study involved 393 cardiac patients.  Special prayers were said for one half of the patients, and none were said for the other half.  The conclusion was those who did not receive intercessory prayer did not fare as well, showing a higher incidence of needing antibiotics as well as assistance in breathing.

Some years ago, the syndicated Atlanta Journal-Constitution humor columnist Lewis Grizzard wrote a column in which he seriously stated, “Prayer brought me back.”  Grizzard had just survived a serious heart surgery.  It was his third open-heart surgery in 11 years.  After the surgery, his heart wasn’t strong enough to function without the help of pumps.  Doctors warned that Grizzard was near death.  They later said it was a miracle that Grizzard had lived from what were the most complicated of complications.  Grizzard attributed his miracle to the prayers of those who prayed for his recovery. 

Many of us have had experiences when after someone prayed for us, or we prayed for someone else, things changed for the better.  Often these experiences might be chalked up to pure coincidence or the power of modern medicine, but sometimes we’re left to wonder if maybe there was more to it than that. 

I will be gut honest with you this morning.  Some days I feel quite convinced that prayer does make a difference.  And then other days I have my doubts.  Maybe many of you feel the same way.  That’s part of being human, I suppose.  But I guess I’m just not quite ready to give up on the idea that prayer might make a difference.  Not that I believe in God as a Being sitting somewhere in a far-off place like television’s Judge Joe Brown hearing cases and deciding which prayers to answer and which to not answer.  But rather, when I hold onto the idea that prayer just might make a difference in the world and in the lives of others, it is more of the idea of tapping into and being in harmony with the Divine-Sacred Energy of the universe that most of us simply call God. 

But to look at prayer another way, for those who may doubt the effects of prayer as far as it having any effect upon the well-being of others, could it be that such people can still find value in the practice of prayer?  I think so.

One definite benefit of honest prayer is the fact that it can change the person who prays.  Many—both conservatives and liberals—agree that prayer benefits the person who prays.  Soren Kierkegaard, 19th century Danish theologian and church reformer, said, “Prayer does not change God but changes him who prays.”  American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “No [one] ever prayed heartily without learning something.”Russian novelist Dostoevsky said it in a similar way: “Prayer is an education.”It is through sincere prayer that we can see a true reflection of the persons we are meant to be.  As we humbly open ourselves to sincere prayer or meditation (if you prefer), then we are changed; we are transformed.  Prayer “polishes the soul.”  “Prayer illumines the soul.”5   Or in the words of my favorite contemporary poet, Mary Oliver, prayer “is a dipping oneself toward the light.”  Liberal theologian D.M. Greely wrote, “I do not believe in prayer for special favors, but I do believe in prayer for strength and courage to face the exigencies of life.  Surely the Life Force that brought me into being in the first place can renew or reinforce my mind and heart and conscience in the second place if . . . I attune myself to its reality.”7   Let us reaffirm it: prayer has the potential of changing the person who prays.  And if prayer had no other benefit, it would be good.

But there is one more thing: since prayer can change the one who prays, the end result is that prayer can change the course of the world.  You know, I’ve often wondered why Buddhist monks spend so much time in prayer, when the fact is that many Buddhists do not believe in God per se.  If one doesn’t believe in a Higher Power, then why pray?  Perhaps precisely because of what I have just discussed: if prayer can change the person who prays, then that also changes how that person relates to the world.  How would our world be different if ours was a world at prayer?  If each one was praying for self-transformation, as well as for others and their well-being?  If each religion was praying for other religions rather than maligning them?  If each nation was praying for other nations instead of being bent on destroying them?  Don’t you think that if these things were true we would have a much better world?  Prayer, as James presents it in today’s reading, is a communal affair. 

Each of us has his or her own beliefs about the efficacy of prayer, and I am not out to change your way of thinking.  But regardless of what scientific studies may show, individuals and a faith community joined in mutual love and prayer are changed for the better.  So in that regard, if in no other, prayer does change things.  Amen. 

1Sam Young, 1986 Minister’s Manual.  2Larry King, Powerful Prayers, p. 108.   3Emerson, Miscellanies: Nature.  4Dostoevsky, Brothers Karamosov. 5Brother Giles, Little Flowers of St. Francis.   6Mary Oliver, Winter Hours, 108.  7Edgar N. Jackson, Understanding Prayer.


About randykhammer

Minister and writer
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