What happens when we pray?


There is only one time when I was glad that the Pittsburgh Steelers did not make it to the Super Bowl.

That one time was Super Bowl XXVIII.

The Steelers had gotten into the playoffs.  But they lost at Kansas City.  On a field goal.  In overtime.

I was relieved.

Because the date of Super Bowl XXVIII–that evening–was January 30, 1994.  It was the evening when I was scheduled to be ordained as a minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA).

As things turned out, the big game wound up being Dallas vs. Buffalo.  (Dallas won 30-13.)

Had it been the Steelers, I’m not sure how many people would have shown up for my ordination.  I do know it would have been a much quicker ritual, and we would have had a television at the reception (if not at the sacred ceremony itself!).

We couldn’t change the date, because I had to fly in especially for the ordination.  I had already been serving a congregation near Madison, Wisconsin since New Year’s.  But I hadn’t been ordained yet.  So four weeks into my ministry, I had to fly from Madison to Pittsburgh for the event (to be officiated by the Pittsburgh Presbytery).

Another oddity–another reason we could not change the date–is that the ceremony was not going to be held (as normally an ordination is held) in a church.  That’s because I had essentially been banned from the church where I had been a member!

I had begun going to this congregation in Pittsburgh because of a friend.  It turned out to be a very conservative congregation.  Over time, my views changed.  By the time I had graduated from the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, I was regarded in this church as suspect.  I wasn’t following the fundamentalist line.

Still, when it came time for me to be ordained, as I was planning the event, I naturally sought first to have the ceremony at this church where I had been a member (which is the custom).  I had been a Sunday school teacher and an elder and a leader in the young-adult ministry.

I got turned down!

I had to look elsewhere.  I learned that I could hold the event at the chapel of the seminary.  In fact, I was told it was the first ordination ever to be conducted in the magnificent Hicks Memorial Chapel. (Apparently getting banned from one’s own congregation was not something other seminary graduates had to deal with.)  I called it “my ordination in exile.”

Tonight is that same date, January 30.  It is the 21st anniversary of my ordination.  I have served three congregations, but now have been out of the pastorate for 2 1/2 years because of cancer. I continue looking.  I still feel called to the work.  But I’ve been attacked enough times as a pastor to know by now:  I apply only to congregations that advertise themselves as progressive.

In my search, I’ve had some “near hits.”  Pastor Nominating Committees have expressed interest.  But, in the end, my medical history has been scaring them away.

So, I’ve had a lot of time to myself–a lot of time to THINK.  Starting this blog site is one result.

And, contending with cancer, I’ve been thinking a lot about what people are doing for me:  praying.  I get it in letters, cards, e-mails, Facebook posts–“I’m praying for you.”

It feels good.

Being thought about feels good.

But–honestly–I really wonder:  Does it do good?  What happens when we pray?

Years ago, in my first church, the one in Wisconsin, I got a phone call totally unexpectedly.

I didn’t know the caller.  His voice was that of a young man.  He identified himself as calling from California.  He was calling me not because he knew me; rather, because he was calling every pastor he could reach all over the country!

His friend’s grandfather was going in for surgery.  And this caller wanted me to pray for him.

The caller was then ready to hang up!  He was rushing on to call other ministers.  I said, “Wait!  What’s the person’s name?”

He told me.

I said, “Okay.”  He hung up.

I sat there thinking, “What should I do?”

It seemed so odd.  I figured that the caller was a young believer who had been told in whatever Bible study or church he belonged to that this is what faith demanded.  Did he really have faith in prayer?  Okay, then, call out the troops!  Numbers must matter.  Get as many people praying as he could!

I sat there pondering.  “Would my prayer really make a difference?  Do I myself even believe in this way about prayer?”

Frankly–no!  Should I go ahead and pray then?

If I just ignored his strange phone call, he wouldn’t know it.  I myself didn’t believe prayer worked the way he was asking.  I didn’t want to be false to my belief.  But I also didn’t want to be false about myself.  I told him I’d do it–so I did.  I prayed for the old man.

I never heard back from the caller whether it did any good.

I have participated in all kinds of prayer:  individually, in pairs, in a Bible study, in a congregation, in a hospital as a student chaplain, praying at an Eagle ceremony for a Boy Scout, opening a session of the state Senate in Madison, Wisconsin…I’m limiting this topic only to:  pleas for help.  I’m not wondering about about saying grace before meals or giving thanks at Thanksgiving or just meditating on being in the presence of God.  All of these types of prayer–I believe in.  They do something.  They remind us of our connections.   This type of prayer elevates our lives to a higher level, a broader, healthier view of life.  Morale can feel lifted.

Rather, the prayers that I wonder about are–petitions.  Asking for something.

For many believers, merely to hear my questioning this type of prayer draws instant reaction.  They get all up in arms.  People have heard their entire lives about prayer.  How many times on television, a broadcaster interviews somebody whose loved one died in a terrorist attack, and the interview always ends with, “We’ll keep you in our thoughts and prayers.”  People always hear this phrase.  They figure, prayer must be important.  Since childhood perhaps, they’ve heard somebody telling another about somebody having a heart attack or cancer or expecting to have a baby or whatever…and the response always has been, “I’ll pray for them.”  Now they themselves carry on the practice.

I see it daily on Facebook.  “I need prayer for this or that.”

Responses are quick.  “Prayers!”

But really, honestly–is it doing any good?

Wherever I’ve been a pastor–Wisconsin, New Jersey, Illinois–there have been some church members who have complained about me.  “He doesn’t believe in prayer.”

They say this because I don’t pray at length during the worship service–not what they’re used to.  They’re used to a pastor praying long, praying about everything.  They also say I don’t believe in prayer because whenever I do a home visit, if I go with a deacon or two to deliver communion, we end the visit by saying together the Lord’s Prayer.  It isn’t enough.  They want me to pray for someone individually.

Other times, whenever I do a hospital or a home visit, I don’t pray at all.  This revelation is shocking to some.  “He doesn’t pray during a visit?!  He really, truly does not believe in prayer!”

I’ll pray if the person I’m visiting asks.  Otherwise, I don’t.


I don’t want to feel as if I’m putting on an act.

I like to turn the remark around when somebody says that I don’t believe in prayer.  I say, “No–you don’t believe in prayer.”

They are surprised.  I explain.  If you really believe that prayer is powerful–that God will do things if you pray–if you believe about prayer in that way, then what should I say when I visit an elderly couple who are both in wheelchairs because of arthritis?  According to you, I should pray: Heal them of their arthritis!  Heal them completely!  Not a trace remaining!  Let them walk!

But we both know–neither you nor I would pray like that.  That is putting on an act.  And it’s putting on an act for the sake of upholding belief in prayer.

People pray like that who think it’s a test:  “Do I really believe?”  Okay, then, I’ve got to pray big.  Ask for a miracle.  “Expect great things from God.”

And then when the prayer isn’t answered just the way it’s asked, the conclusion is:  “Thine will be done.”

A person feels safe.  One’s belief in prayer is secure.  “I was faithful in praying.  The rest is up to God.”

Fine.  If that’s the way a person wants to play it–fine.  But I don’t believe that self-delusion is healthy nor helpful.  The hard reality is:  I think it’s safe to say that most prayers are not answered the way they are asked.   The miracle asked for does not happen; the illness is not removed; the jobless situation is not remedied; the debt is not magically paid…

We’re getting specific here.  This is the type of prayer which is done at a distance.  What I mean is:  It’s praying for somebody at a distance–for somebody you don’t know, or for somebody that you have no intention of doing anything for yourself.  You’re just sitting in a room with others praying for somebody in a prayer chain or in a Bible study or in a worship service.

“Let there be peace in Iraq.”

“Lord, hear our prayer.”

“Let all of the homeless find shelter.”

“Lord, hear our prayer.”

“Let all suffering from illness be ended.”

“Lord, hear our prayer.”

Good grief.  We’ve all heard it countless times who have been in churches.

The hard reality is:  If we ourselves don’t do something, prayer itself doesn’t do it.  Just praying for poverty to end, just praying for somebody to be healed, just praying for a person going through a difficult time…may feel good, as if carrying out an act of faith.  But what does it really do?  

That kind of prayer, I do not believe in.  It’s the worst of “churchiness.”.

Rather, I have a saying about praying:  “Prayer prepares.”  Praying prepares to move not God–but us.

This is why I visit somebody in a home or in a hospital.  I don’t go there to pray.  The visit itself is the prayer.  Being moved to do something is the best prayer.  Just praying and leaving it at that–that’s self-indulgent.  It does something for the person praying–makes them feel they’re being faithful.  But what does it really do?

Of course, this observation of mine isn’t a scientific finding.  I’m just going by what I hear being prayed for–and the results.  What’s prayed for more often does not happen the way it’s asked.

I groan whenever I see a Major League baseball player making the Sign of the Cross at home plate.  Does he really think it’s doing any good?  If so, why isn’t anybody hitting .400?  Or even .300?  And it doesn’t seem to stop them from getting hit by a 95-mile-per-hour fastball.

The way I see it, if you want to pray to do well in a sport, the time to pray is not just as you step into the batter’s box.  The time to pray is six months before the season starts!  Pray that you’ll work hard, practice hard, prepare hard.  You’ll have a much better chance of hitting the ball.

If the people praying aren’t moved by their own prayers to act, the prayers are just pious indulgence, satisfying one’s own self.  “I’m being faithful–I’m praying.”  They talk all the time about the power of prayer.

There have been attempts to prove prayer is powerful–that is, through experiments.

There have been experiments in which people in a hospital are prayed for by people who don’t know them.  Another set of patients is not being prayed for by the group.  After a while, the medical records are checked.  Voila!  The people being prayed for had better results than the ones not being prayed for.

If anybody cited that as proof of the efficacy of prayer, they’d get laughed out of any discussion (unless it’s a discussion with others who already believe in prayer).  Using that example as a correlation–prayer results in patients improving–ignores so many other factors going on in a patient’s life.  To insist it’s a one-on-one, direct cause & effect would be scoffed at by any doctor.

In my own situation, I am being kept alive not because of prayer–but because of the surgeons and the nurses and the researchers who came up with the chemical therapy & radiation therapy.  If nobody at all prayed for me, these professionals would still be doing for me what they’ve been doing all along.

I hope I’m not seeming ungrateful.  When I hear somebody saying, “I’m praying for you,” that means a lot to me–but only in my own way of thinking.  It means, “They’re thinking of me.  They’re pulling for me.”  That expression on their part means a lot to me.  But do I believe that the prayer itself is causing anything to happen?

I would be just as pleased if somebody said, “I’m thinking of you,” who says, “I’m praying for you.”  To me, it’s not the prayer–it’s the support that matters.  I remember being told that the Roman Catholic congregation in the village where I was a pastor in Wisconsin said a prayer for me one Sunday morning after I had first been diagnosed with cancer.  I knew the monsignor.  I knew members of the congregation.  That felt very good–to have that kind of support in the community.  But I sincerely doubt if it would have done me any good had I never been told that they were praying for me.

This is what I wonder about–praying for somebody without letting that person know, and thinking it’s doing some good.

Or praying big, and thinking it’s going to do some good.

I have read the biography of a now-retired bishop of the Episcopal Church who is a main figure in the progressive movement among religious:  Here I Stand by John Spong.  Bishop Spong wrote that when he was a young rector, he was visiting a church member in the hospital.  The visit went fine–until the very end.  He knew he was expected to pray.  He did.  He said the prayers he thought they wanted to hear.  He remarked afterwards:  I felt awful.  I felt as if I were putting on an act.

I feel the same way.  It feels like an act, these prayers of petition.  I do not believe that such praying by itself does any good.  It is wishful thinking at best.  It is delusion at worst.  And all the worse, it’s under the guise of:  This is what it means to be a true believer–you have to believe in prayer–even to the extent that they feel righteous in judging those like me as not being true believers.

I believe in prayer if it’s prayer that moves me or others to do something.  If it’s just praying at a distance with no intention of acting towards carrying out the plea, it’s not “power”–it’s powder-puff religion.

I like the story I’ve heard about the evangelist Tony Campolo.  He was a guest preacher in a church.  At the end of the worship service, a woman of the congregation asked Dr. Campolo to lead them in prayer, because they were trying to raise money for some special cause.  The famed preacher refused!  He said, No–I’m not going to pray.  Why should we pray about this?  You have enough people right here & now to raise the money.

At that, a collection was taken up.  They raised all the money!

Those who criticize me are right–in a way.  I do not believe in prayer.  That is, I do not like to pray when I myself am not willing to do something about  it.










One thought on “What happens when we pray?

  1. Lori Holstein

    Thank you Rev. John! This is right where I’m at in my thinking and understanding. Like I told you… I’m a late bloomer in most things, and this time is no different. Middle aged, seminary trained, avid reader of the scriptures and of so many books by leaders of the faith, 16 years in ministry and I’m just now learning how this all works… You’re blog is a huge help!



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