According to the most recent Pew Research Center survey,[i]
more than ½ of Americans say they pray every day;
and about ¼ pray weekly or monthly;
Which means over 3/4 of Americans pray regularly!
Even among those not going to any church
and not affiliated with any faith group,
21% pray every day!
By and large, Americans seem to be a praying people.
As far as what people pray for…
about 20% say they have prayed to win the lottery;
(presumably to help out those family and friends! )
and 13% say they pray for sports teams (though I think that number may be a little bit higher in New England this summer!)
Now here’s an interesting survey…
how often does God answer all those prayers we send out?
The authors conclude that
when God answers prayers, God tends to do it in the South.[iii]
Southerners are twice as likely as northerners
to say that all their prayers are answered.
Today we continue our sermon series on ‘why’
and we’re looking at the question: “Why pray?”
I’ll share 3 reasons
which may not be the most obvious.
Why pray indeed?
Annie Dillard writes about an experience she had
as her pastor was leading prayer at church.
“Once, in the middle of the long pastoral prayer of intercession
for the whole world –
for the gift of wisdom to its leaders,
for hope and mercy to the grieving and pained,
succor to the oppressed,
and God’s grace to all –
in the middle of this he stopped, and burst out,
“Lord, we bring you these same petitions every week!”
After a shocked pause, he continued reading the prayer.
Because of this, I like him very much,” Dillard continues.
We do, I do, you do
pray for the same things every week, every day, every moment.
Healing; food, shelter;
Peace; justice; safety; community;
Jobs; good weather; good grades;
Wisdom; guidance; care for creation
The issue in our prayers is never that we don’t have enough to pray for…
It’s that there seem to be so many needs…
So here’s one thing about why we pray…
We pray not because we have to remind God about those needs…
(We heard in our passage from Jeremiah that God promises to listen to our prayers…
the first time.)
We pray because there are needs we may be the ones called to answer.
It’s not that God has trouble remembering our prayers
so that we need to repeat the same requests over and over again…
It’s that sometimes God’s response involves us,
and we’re the ones who haven’t been listening!
The first (not so obvious) reason we pray is to remind us of the needs of the world.
A second reason to pray is especially important
when it seems our prayers are unanswered and we’d be inclined to give up.
There’s a beautiful scene in the movie Shadowlands
which is a film about the life of theologian CS Lewis.
Lewis is returning from the hospital where he visited his wife, Joy,
who is dying from cancer.
A friend named Harrington asks Lewis what news there is.
Lewis focuses on their marriage and his love for his wife.
He replies to his friend, “Good news Harry, yes good news.”
Harrington thinks Lewis is referring to the cancer.
He says, “Now God is answering your prayer.”
Lewis responds, “That is not why I pray Harry. I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I am helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. Prayer doesn’t change God, it changes me.”
Prayer changes us to act in response to the needs of our neighbors,
but especially when we are in distress,
prayer changes us so that we can open our hearts to what God is doing.
A simple prayer that I often say is,
“Open my heart, Lord.”
In that prayer I mean,
“God help me see this situation from your point of view”
a point of view which is always broader than my own.
To me that prayer is a request to change me –
to open my heart to be attentive to God’s answer.
Earlier this week I was having one of those days,
where I was questioning everything…
I was asking myself, “Here I am preaching about prayer and yet do I really believe in its power?”
(Yes, your pastor has those days too!)
So I prayed my little prayer,
“Open my heart Lord.”
And not more than five minutes later,
I got a text – from one of you – one of our members – out of the blue – saying,
“God bless you. See you Sunday.”
I have to say I was a little freaked out.
I looked around a bit wondering if anyone noticed!
I believe that text was an answer to prayer.
I don’t know how it happened.
Maybe God did something;
maybe God put my name on the heart of that person.
Orperhaps that by praying, “Open my heart, Lord,” I was the one who was changed.
I allowed myself to be open to God –
I could receive what God had been trying to communicate to me all along.
So a second reason to pray, I believe,
is that it changes us.
Our gospel reading from the 17th chapter of John
comes from a part of the gospel called Jesus’ “high priestly prayer.”
That’s rather a lofty name;
someone has suggested that maybe we could more simply call it
“Jesus’ prayer for his friends before he leaves them”
because that is what it is.[iv]
So a third reason to pray,
is because it’s one of the things Jesus told us about and showed us how to do.
Throughout the gospels Jesus prayed anytime and anywhere.
He prayed in morning, in the dead of night,
alone and with friends;
on the mountaintop, on the plain;
when he was distressed, when he was thankful,
for himself and for others,
for all kinds of reasons.
A third reason to pray is simply because Jesus did.
So let us pray:
Open our hearts Lord…
Open our hearts to hear in our prayers our call to respond.
Open our hearts to allow ourselves to be changed by prayer.
Open our hearts to pray like Jesus – any time, anywhere, and for anyone.