What Difference Does Prayer Make?

Luke 11:1-13

He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” He said to them, “When you pray, say:

Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
    Give us each day our daily bread.
    And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.”

And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.

“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 10 For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 11 Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? 12 Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? 13 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

 

There is a story that Bono, the lead singer of U2 shares about meeting Archbishop Desmond Tutu in South Africa in the 1990s. At the time, Archbishop Tutu was heading up the Truth and Reconciliation hearings. Each day he would hear horrific stories of racist attacks, murders, land taken, tires being set on fire and placed on men’s heads. And then he would start working on people’s hearts, get them to imagine one unified nation, and even try to bring reconciliation between perpetrator and victim, abuser and abused. What Archbishop Tutu was trying to do seemed impossible. He was trying to bring justice and mercy to a land that had not seen either in generations.

And Bono, whose faith in Christ’s grace and transformation is expressed strongly throughout U2’s songs, wanted to see it in action. This is his telling of what happened next:

We visited the headquarters of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and we met with Desmond Tutu. So we all walked into the room, just completely honoured to meet him. We were exchanging pleasantries and then he just turned around and said, “Can we bow our heads now please?” We all had to bow our heads and he made this prayer, which just changed the molecular structure of the room and everyone in it, and suddenly we weren’t tourists any more; suddenly he was reminding us of what was really going on here. 

 

I asked him a rather stupid question afterwards. I said, “Do you get time with all this work for prayer and meditation yourself?”

 

And he just looked at me, threw a scowl at me, a real rebuke. He just stopped in his tracks and said, “How do you think we would do this if we didn’t take time out for prayer?”[1]

I first ran across this story about ten years ago in Philip Yancey’s book “Prayer: Does It Make a Difference?” And that story has kept with me ever since.  It is a reminder of the power of prayer. Because Desmond Tutu didn’t just begin praying with these hearings. He began praying as a youth without full rights. He was praying when there was still apartheid. He was praying when Nelson Mandela was put in prison, and he kept praying for 30 years. I am sure God didn’t answer his prayers in the timeline Tutu would have wanted, and probably none of those responses looked the way Tutu imagined. But it’s amazing who he became, what he did, and what he saw change in the world around him when he joined with God in prayer.

I have struggled for years in understanding prayer. If God is all knowing, then why does God need to hear my prayer? And if God is all powerful, then why doesn’t God bring about all the things I pray for? And I mean not just small selfish requests like for Michigan to beat Ohio State this year in football, but for big, compassionate prayers, like healing a friend with depression, or keeping a loved one from dying of cancer?

The longer I live, I have realized there is no simple rule for how my prayers will be answered. There are moments I have seen miracles right away. Other times, I pray again and again and again and don’t seem to get anywhere. And I don’t believe it is because of a lack of faith or strength. There are far stronger and faithful people than I who have seen tragedy at their doorstep even as they pray day after day after day. And so I have struggled with what prayer does and how prayer works.

When I was in college, there was a time I dismissed the entire idea of God answering prayer, and maybe even the idea of God caring about us at all. And I remember speaking to a friend named Emily online one night. And we were debating this topic, while she continued to say she believed in the power of prayer. Finally, I asked her, in not a very nice way, “What would you think if your sister got sick, and you prayed and you prayed and you prayed, but she died anyway? Would you still believe in the power of prayer then?”

I was being a total jerk, but I thought I had her. I thought of course, if God doesn’t heal your sister, what’s the point of prayer? Until she responded back to me.

“I don’t know how I would act or think or respond if I lost my sister. I would be angry. I would be sad. I would be blaming anyone and anything around me. But I hope I would still be praying. Because I would need God with me in that moment. I would want to turn to God even more. I would need God in my life.”

At the heart of prayer, at the heart of prayer for Archbishop Tutu, at the heart of it for my friend Emily, at the heart of it for all of us, is an invitation. Prayer is our way of inviting God into our lives. Prayer is us saying to God, “Lord, I want you to be with me. Lord, I want you to be at work in this world.”

Prayer is not a demand. We don’t control God, as much we would like to. It’s not about our own strength or righteousness or goodness that leads God to respond or not. There’s no easy, “if I do X, then God will do Y.” because God is not our puppet. God is not our object. God is the creator of heaven and earth, the source of all love and joy.” And while we get glimpses of how God sees and works in the world, we don’t see the same whole picture God does. None of us can say, “I am wiser than you God, so do as I ask.”

And even God at times allows things to happen that break God’s heart. In giving us freedom and giving us life in a broken world, God knows we have pain and illness, addiction, and violence, hate, and destruction. None of those things are what God wants for us. As Elara read for us from Hosea 11, God wants to lead us by chords of human kindness. God wants us to always bring us back to health and wholeness and home. I think there are times God has to let bad things happen, and I don’t understand why. But I know it breaks God’s heart.

But God still wants us to come in prayer. And when we do, God does hears us and love us and join with us. It comes in different ways. Sometimes it is through big miracles that make no sense outside of faith. Sometimes it is in the slow work of transformation and grace over years. Sometimes it is the Holy Spirit giving us strength and gifts to do things we could never imagine on our own. And sometimes it is a voice just saying back to us, “I know you are hurting. But know that you are not alone. I am here. And I’m never leaving your side.” God acts in all these ways and more.

We may not fully understand how God responds to our prayers, but Jesus tells us one thing in our passage today. God wants to hear them. God wants to be invited in. God wants to be a part of our lives and at work in this world.

Christ teaches us a simple prayer to invite God into every aspect of our lives:

Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
    Give us each day our daily bread.
    And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.”

It isn’t a lot of words, but in them is an invitation to let God into every part of our lives:

-our faith

-our relationships

-our finances

-our hunger

-our guilt

-our fear

-our hopes and dreams for this world and the next

All of it, Christ tells us, God wants to be a part of, working in us and working in this world. And God wants to be invited in again and again and again. Be persistent. Come to God at all times of day and night.  If your neighbor, who most likely gets annoyed at hearing your request in the middle of the night, responds with care, how much more will our loving God, our Lord and creator. God may not always respond as we wish, but God never says, “I’m too busy. Stop asking. Instead, God says to us, I’m always here. And I always want to be a part of your life.

So come to God in prayer. Ask for God to be present, and it will be given you; search for the Holy Spirit, and you will find; knock, and the door to our loving Savior will be opened for you. Amen.

 

[1] As told on the band’s webpage at https://www.u2.com/news/article/464/