It seems overwhelming.
I don’t know about you, but everything having to do with the Coronavirus at times seems overwhelming. If you turn on the news or listen to the radio, you can’t help but watch the number of people who have the virus keep growing. At the same time, the death toll continues to go up at an alarming rate. I’m both fascinated and disgusted with the little stats tracker most TV news stations keep up on the right-hand side of the screen that shows both numbers day after day. But I also can’t help myself from looking and feeling pretty helpless before this invisible enemy. I know a lot of you are anxious. I know a lot of you are worried about getting ill or maybe worse worried someone you love will get ill. And even though they’ve stressed over and over that most of us, even if we get the Coronavirus, will recover just fine, it’s hard not to fixate on the negatives. People over 65 are at higher risk. People with underlying health conditions are at higher risk. And this one they popped out just a couple of days ago, men are at higher risk. And even if you aren’t in any of these groups, you can be a risk to the people around you. It’s put most of us at least a little on edge and some of us a lot.
What do we do?
When we are faced with a situation like this where so much seems out of our control, what CAN we do? We can listen to the experts. We can protect ourselves and our loved ones by being physically distant while still reaching out to one another. For those who are able, we can offer a helping hand whether that’s shopping for a neighbor, buying dinner through Door Dash to support a local business, calling a friend who might be lonely, writing a letter to someone who would love a little sunshine in the pile of ads and bills. And we can pray. As a people of faith, in times of strife, in times of darkness, in times of joy, we can pray. It’s what we do.
But does it work?
Most definitely, yes. Let’s get that out of the way as soon as possible. I want to assure you that prayer works! God listens to each and every one of us. God hears us and knows our pain, knows our happiness, and knows our struggle. But I find that even among those who believe we struggle with what prayer is and what it does. Some feel foolish praying. Some feel pessimistic praying. Some just feel like there is no evidence that it works at all. But I guess it depends on your definition of “works.” The biggest problem is how to measure the effectiveness of prayer. Dr. Candy Brown from Indiana University in Bloomington wrote that most researchers study prayer as they would any other phenomenon. They set up studies, they do double-blind trials, they set up a control group and an experimental group, and then they compare results. But maybe that’s part of the problem right there. Maybe you can’t measure the effects of prayer simply by doing blind trials. As Brown noted, “…when people actually pray for healing, they usually get up close to someone they know, touch the person and empathize with their sufferings… Double-blinded, controlled trials are not the only — or even the best — way to gauge the effects of this kind of prayer practice.” Prayer is such a personal experience and the results may not become evident for a long time or they might unfold in a way we never expected.
That’s the biggest problem with trying to measure the “success” of prayer.
Sometimes it doesn’t happen the way we expect. We often say “Wishing Well” prayers. By that I mean, we tell God what we want and we measure our prayer’s success on if we get what we ask for. Like a Wishing Well. And then we judge God by whether or not God lives up to our expectations. Except God doesn’t work that way. If you’ve ever heard the song “Unanswered Prayers” by Garth Brooks, you know what I’m talking about. Garth sings about how when he was young, he prayed hard for God to help him out with a girl he liked. That if God would make this one girl his wife, he would never ask for anything again. But God didn’t answer that prayer. At least not in the way he wanted at the time. Instead he ended up meeting the woman who would one day become his wife and he sums it all up in the chorus by saying, “Just because he doesn’t answer, doesn’t mean he don’t care. Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.” We’re going to hear about one of those unanswered prayers in our reading today.
Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” 37 He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. 38 Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”
39 Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”
40 Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Couldn’t you men keep watch with me for one hour?” he asked Peter. 41 “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
42 He went away a second time and prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.”
43 When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. 44 So he left them and went away once more and prayed the third time, saying the same thing.
45 Then he returned to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and resting? Look, the hour has come, and the Son of Man is delivered into the hands of sinners. 46 Rise! Let us go! Here comes my betrayer!” – Matthew 26:36-46
God didn’t answer this prayer.
At least not the way Jesus was asking him to. Jesus knows what’s about to happen. He knows the agony he is about to endure. And he begs God to let him off the hook. But God doesn’t do it. God doesn’t save Jesus from a death most would consider cruel and evil. Instead, God lets it happen. God lets the most blameless, sinless, holiest person ever to walk the Earth, die on the cross. And it’s not like God couldn’t have saved him if he wanted. After all, if you read the story of Elijah, one of the great prophets of Israel, God just whisks Elijah up to Heaven. It was within God’s power to do so. But instead God let him hang on the cross. Jesus was even mocked for God’s inaction. They ridiculed him. Dared him to save himself. Put a crown of thorns on his head and a sign above him saying “King of the Jews.” If there was ever any evidence that prayer didn’t work, this was it! Except that God had something else in mind.
We know the end of this story.
We know that Christ died for us. Because we are at the other end of history. But at that time it must have been hard to believe. Look at Peter. He denied even knowing Jesus. Hardly any of the apostles came to support Christ in his greatest hour of need. Jesus was left alone by almost everyone but a handful of people. But we know how the story ends. We know that Christ rose from the dead. We know that because of his willingness to trust in God, we have been forgiven for our sins. And we know that God had something greater in mind than what we could possibly imagine. We have such a limited idea of who God is that we judge him based on our criteria. And if God fails to live up to our expectations, we tend to think that he must not care, or he must not have heard, or he must not exist. But God operates on a whole different level than we do. The concepts of time and space are not the same for him as they are for us. And a being who lives in a reality so different from ours cannot and should not be judged by our standards. And this is where trust comes in. We need to trust that God hears our prayers. Our prayers are not falling on deaf ears, but on the ears of someone who loves us intensely. And just because we don’t get the response we’re looking for doesn’t mean that God doesn’t care.
I do believe God answers prayers.
Why some people get what they pray for and others don’t, I think is really about our own expectations rather than if God is listening and answering. It could be that God answers every prayer in his own time, in his own way. Some prayers seem to get an immediate response and some just seem to languish. Sometimes it takes years to see a prayer get answered, even decades. I am still struck by the story of a man I was able to baptize much later in his life. I believe he was in his 60s or late 50s. Either way, God caught up to him and struck him in a powerful way. He told me pretty much his entire adult life his mother had been praying for him to come to know God, to be baptized and accept Jesus in his heart. And for decades that prayer went unanswered. Finally, he came around. Through a series of incidents, he decided to be baptized and only about a week or two after he was baptized, his mother passed away. He hadn’t been baptized just to please his mom’s dying wish because her death was unexpected. She was older to be sure, but had no indication she was close to passing on. It was hard for me to hear this story and not think she was holding on just long enough to make sure her son was alright before letting go.
Our definition of whether or not prayer “works” is too narrow.
Science definitely proves there are benefits to prayer. Prayer has been shown to improve self-control, to make you nicer, to help you be more forgiving, to increase your trust, and offset the negative effects of stress. Pretty awesome benefits. I would think that anything that give you more self-control, makes you nicer, more forgiving, trusting, and less stressed out definitely “works!” But praying to God isn’t like tossing a coin in a wishing well. Prayer isn’t meant to be simply telling God what we want and then getting everything we desire. Prayer is about this ongoing relationship with God that helps us to trust in him and know that he is there. Prayer is meant to be a regular, constant building of a relationship with God that brings us comfort in times that are dark and joyous in times that are bright. During these times of doubt and anxiety where every day seems to bring up new problems and new dilemmas, I want you to give prayer a chance. Keep your social distancing, stay in self-isolation, do what you can to help your neighbor and loved ones, but don’t forget to turn to God in prayer. If you don’t already pray regularly, try doing so. Pray every day even if it’s just for a little bit. And don’t worry about saying the “right” prayer. God is simply waiting to hear from you. Just pray. Open yourself up to what God is speaking into your life. Truly listen to where God is leading you through prayer. And know that God is there. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.