“What good does it do?” 09/14/2014 by Rev. Stacy Swain (Click on title for audio)

September 14, 2014

Romans 8:18-26-27 and Matthew 6: 5-13

When my son was little, one of my favorite times of the day was right before bed. I’d sit down beside him, read a story and then we would pray. I’d start off and then he would take over. And he would chat on and on with God about his day and then at the end of each prayer he would say “God bless everyone we do know and every one we don’t know, Amen.” I loved that that – how he knew God saw and the whole even though he only knew a part.

But as he got older, we prayed together less and less until we stopped all together. If you asked him now, I think he would tell you that he is not so sure about prayer any more. I don’t think he is the only one.

Even though prayer is a big part of what we do here every Sunday, and even though we may say grace before meals or a blessing before bed, I would venture prayer is not something that many of us are so sure about. Prayer, may even be something that we too feel rather ambivalent about.

Perhaps our ambivalence about prayer is that in our fast paced world of instantaneous communication, prayer can seem a bit antiquated or rather quaint. Harmless perhaps but not particularly impactful. We send off our prayers into the cosmos but never receive confirmation message has not only been delivered but read.

Or perhaps our ambivalence about prayer is because we don’t really know how to pray. We are just not that good at it. We don’t know what to say ourselves and so reciting words written by another feels rote, impersonal. Maybe, our hearts are really not into it.

Or perhaps our ambivalence about prayer is that, in our heart of hearts, we wonder “What good does it do?’ After all, we have been praying for peace for a long time but nonetheless, wars and the rumors of wars seem to multiply weekly.

And then there is the question that has always needled me and that is central to the Scripture this morning. And that is, if the Spirit is interceding on my behalf with sighs too deep for words, and if God knows what I need before I ask, then WHY do I need to pray? It seems like I am well covered right? What more could my feeble utterings add?


As ambivalent or confused we may feel about prayer, those first disciples of Jesus were not. The disciples, seeing Jesus at prayer, say to him “Teach us to pray!” And so he does. One of the things we may find maddening about Jesus is how evasive he could be. Instead of saying things straight he often replied in parables leaving us with more questions than answers. But in the text this morning, Jesus could not be clearer. In an unusually detailed teaching Jesus tells his disciples exactly what they are and are not to do and what they are and are not to say. Clearly he wants them and us to get prayer right.

But why? Why is he so insistent on prayer? Or for that matter, why as some theologians assert “is prayer central to Christian life.” Why is “Calling upon God as necessary as breathing in and out.”[1]

Those questions sent me scurrying to the library this week where I emerged an hour or so later with a dozen or more books on prayer written by the great theologians of the past such as Karl Barth and Leonardo Boff and to contemporary voices such as Roberta Bondi and Daniel Migliore. I spent hours this week pouring over their words.

While much of what I found in their pages was interesting and even moving, I ultimately came home to the truth that I have come to know for myself: that the good that prayer does is the change that it brings, beginning with the one who prays.

Prayer leads to a deeper knowing and acceptance of our true self. Contemplative prayer, a practice very akin to Buddhist mediation and one that we practice here every Wednesday morning, is particularly helpful in quieting the chatter of the ego and to rest in the silence of the essence of who we are — no more and no less than beloved children of God. Prayer helps us return to the assurance of that love that propels us to action to live out of that love and to bring that love through all that we do and say out into our days. Prayer leads us to internal change, to calm down and be centered in who we truly are and then to live more fully out of that place.

Prayer also leads to deeper knowing and acceptance of those around us. When we pray together as we will in a few moments, what is on your heart also becomes what is on mine and what is on mine becomes part of what is on yours. Your joys become my joys and my sorrows become your sorrows.

Daniel Migliore, a contemporary Christian theologian and professor Emeritus of Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary says that prayer is always communal, for it is a moving out from ourselves into intimacy with all that is. He notes that the Lord’s Prayer begins with “Our”, not “my,” but “our” and sees in that prayer as solidary in suffering and hope, solidarity with the entire groaning creation.

This solidarity in suffering and in hope proves to be profoundly liberating. Migliore continues “called to pray, we are summoned not to passivity but to activity, not to bondage but to freedom, not to indifference about the evil in and around us but to a passion for justice, freedom and peace in the whole creation.[2]

Many times I have heard from you how moving you find our communal time of prayer where we share with each other and with God that which is on our hearts. You have told me how it changes the way that you interact with each other after the service, allowing conversation to go deeper, touching and sharing in what is really going on in our lives beneath and beyond the busyness of the days. We pray for those suffering under the Ebola outbreak and that prayer moves us to also pick up the phone and make a donation to send medical supplies to the region. We pray for one who is going into surgery and we are moved to also bring by a hot meal. And I never truly experienced until last December when I fell and broke my ankle how incredibly life giving being prayed for can be. I truly felt lifted up, held and healed by this body praying for me. So what good does prayer do? Prayer brings us to closer solidarity with the suffering and hope of those around us, and propels us to acts of compassion, healing and liberation.

And all of this would be reason enough to pray for me to just leave it there, and many do and that is fine.

But for me there is something more. I believe prayer also changes God. The great company of voices that I checked out of the library this week are not all in agreement on this and I would be interested to hear what you think. Some believe that as all seeing, all knowing, and all present, God is immutable and cannot be changed or moved. But others, like Karl Barth, the great theologian of the 20th century is bold enough to claim that “God does not act in the same way whether we pray or not. Prayer, he contents, exerts an influence upon God’s actions even upon [God’s] existence.[3]

When we are in relationship with God, in shared communion of our very selves, when we open our hearts to the heart of God, new possibilities can open up, new healing can happen, new life and hope can break forth even in places where before there only seemed the darkness of deepest night. When we pray and practice communion with god, God is liberated to act through us. When we join our hearts with God’s heart we participate in the redemption of the world — that the love that overflows can and does move, shape and heal ourselves, those around us and all creation.

So what does all of this mean, what is prayer ultimately about? The good that prayer does is the change prayer can bring whe prayer is an act of communion not communication alone. Prayer is not the transfer of information, me telling God something, but about me releasing myself into the life of God that already is. Jesus tells his disciples how they are to pray right after assuring them that their Father already knows what they need before they even ask, because asking of God is not the point. Sharing in God is.

And this is I think the deeper reason why prayer can make us feel uncomfortable and inadequate. The practice of placing ourselves in communion with our selves, with one another, and with God, may not be something with which we are very familiar.

We are more familiar, with living behind the fortress of our ego (as Pastor and Theologian Howard Thurman says). We are more familiar with the protective hiding of our heart of hearts, our most tender vulnerabilities and our deepest needs.

And yet, ironically, it is this very hiding that keeps us from the communion that our hearts long for Our task is to learn to liberate our hearts from the fear and feeling so shame and inadequacy the prevent our communion with God. [4]

Prayer is a pathway into communion that is at the heart of faith. We pray in order to open our hearts and join our lives one to another and to the heart and life of God. Last week, we lifted up the metaphor of church as a body, where we are the body of Christ and individual members of it. Prayer is the circulatory system of such a body, so to speak. Opening the vessels and arteries so that the love we have for each other and for God can flow through us.

So let us pray. Let our hearts be in communion with each other and with the heart of God. Let us be in communion with presence that is present to us before we even open our mouths to speak. Let us pray so that we may partake of and participate in the communion of healing, wholeness and peace that is our heart’s and all creation’s desiring. Let us Pray! And may God bless everyone we know and everyone we don’t know. Amen.


[1] Migliore. The Lord’s Prayer.

[2] ibid

[3] Prayer. Karl Barth. Ed. Don El Saliers. Trans. Sara F. Terriern. ( The Westminster Press: Philadelphia, 1952). P. 33.

[4] On Prayer. Karl Rahner, S.J. (Paulist Press Deus Books: New York, 1958). P. 45.