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DO OUR PRAYERS REALLY AFFECT OTHERS?

(Sermon preached at Blackburn Baptist Church, Victoria, Australia, by Rev.
Tom Keyte, sometime in the late 1970s).

Bible Reading: Ephesians 1: 15 ff.

Hugh Redwood was a well-known newspaper man. He was the first appointed
religious editor of any major religious paper. At a Salvation Army meeting,
when the appeal was made, to his great astonishment, he found himself
kneeling at the penitent form. The Salvation Army treated him poorly -
exhibited him as a real live star reporter - that didn't happen every day.
It all went to his head, and there were troubles, especially when a new
captain came to lead the Corps. And Hugh Redwood left in high dudgeon.

Many years passed and he rose to the top of his profession. Going home from
the office one Sunday night, he went into his study and started to tinker
with the crystal set that he'd made - it was the early days of radio. The
only thing he could pick up was someone talking about religion - and he
usually avoided this subject like the plague. It was Canon Elliot of St
Pauls, and something in the speaker's voice captured him. He was talking
about prayer, and our duty to pray for our friends - very down-to- earth and
practical. You can't remember them all, he said, so start a card index and
pray for them. You'll never know what might happen if you pray for someone
this night. And in that moment, there came to Hugh Redwood the overwhelming
feeling that he was being prayed for. He got down on his knees and gave his
life back to God. And was very greatly used.

Which brings us to our topic - Do our prayers really affect other people?
Prof Tyndal back in the 19th century was sceptical about this, and proposed
a test. He divided the patients in a hospital ward into two groups. One
group was prayed for and the other not - just to prove if prayer did
anything. Of course that's an impossible test. No one can say whether people
are not prayed for. How do you know? You can't say people are prayed for
because not all who say they pray do in fact pray. And you can't get a
situation in which all factors are removed except prayer.

Well it's possible to explain it other ways, but I have no doubt the correct
answer is the one the Psalmist gave - 'This is the Lord's doing, and it is
marvellous in our eyes.'

Do our prayers affect others? Yes, of course they do, but how? Being prayed
for is a tremendously rich experience. There are people here who pray for me
and I want them to know I'm deeply grateful. I couldn't do my work without
it.

It's an essential part of prayer. The Bible is full of it. Jesus prayed for
his friends, and his enemies. And in the letter to the Hebrews we read that
he lives to make intercession for us now. Jesus is praying for you now!

Paul in most of his letters refers to his habit of praying for his friends.

What it must have meant for Peter to hear Jesus say 'Peter: Satan has made a
bid to have you, but I have prayed for you, that your faith should not fail.

And in the Lord's Prayer it's all bound up with others - our Father, our
daily bread, our sins. In intercession - God and I and others are bound up
in a loving circle. So much comes to us through human channels and we can't
avoid that.

Now what happens? Do we tell something God doesn't know? Obviously not. And
yet sometimes I hear a great deal of information given to the Lord in prayer
as if God didn't know. In a Baptist Church in Victoria, I heard an old
deacon say in his prayer: 'Lord, you've simply got no idea of what goes on
around here on Saturday nights!' Now I think God does!

Do we remind God of something He's forgotten? Or are we urging God to do
something He is reluctant to do? Obviously, no, and no.

An invaluable clue is in the story of the paralyzed man and his four
friends, who broke apart the roof and let him down to the feet of Jesus.
When Jesus saw their faith he said to the paralyzed man 'Son, your sins are
forgiven!' And later 'Get up and walk'. Their faith created a certain
situation in which the power of God could be liberated.

Think of a vacuum chamber with an electric bell inside it. The air has all
been pumped out of it and you can see the hammer striking the bell - but you
hear no sound because there's no sound in a vacuum. Then gradually the valve
is turned and air is let back into the chamber, and the ringing of the bell
becomes audible. Prayer somehow lets air into the situation. - creates the
conditions in which something can happen. But it's frightening to think that
power like this can be put into our hands.

Remember what James said (in J B  Phillips' translation): 'Tremendous power
is made available through a good person's earnest prayer.' Nobody knows what
might happen if you pray for a friend today. This is one of our primary
responsibilities, that we pray for others.

One of the obstacles in our thinking about these things is the idea that we'
re separated from each other, as the planets are separated from the sun and
each other. But new insights from the social sciences about all this. As
John Donne put it 'No one is an island.' You can only understand an
individual in the context of his or her relationships. As you can only
understand the meaning of a word in its context on the page or screen. If
you see the word 'fast' what does it mean? Speedy? Immovable? Flighty?
Someone's going without food? You only discover the meaning of that word in
the context of the sentences in which it appears. And people are like that -
all bound up together in the bundle of life. How each individual fares is
everybody else's business - not just your own. Scientists tell us that when
a boy throws a stone at a tin on a post he's affecting the balance of the
whole universe!

What we do affects all other people. Unseen filaments running somehow from
mind to mind connect us together in countless ways. Now I'm not suggesting
that our prayer for others is explicable in terms of ESP or telepathy or
something like that. We do not need to create the channels betweem
opurselves and others: we need to understand and hallow the channels already
there. Leslie Weatherhead writes: imagine several Indian farmers digging
wells on their neighbouring properties down to a common underground lake. If
one farmer was foolish enough to poison his well he'd affect all the other
wells in the neighbourhood. But if one were to put into his well some
life-giving salt or chemical of some kind it would enrich the whole
reservoir of the rest. And at the very least our prayers help to increase
the reservoir of love and goodwill and healing in the world, and offset the
forces of evil in the world.

I would like to see from our gathering together this morning that every one
should compile a prayer-list and use it systematically. There's not a person
who can't do that.  And if you're too busy to do it you're too busy. This is
a priority. You never know what you may be doing if you pray for others this
day. And we all have the right to expect that from each other. - it's the
true priesthood of believers. Your friends and loved ones; people you don't
like - they need it more than those you love; also  those who've injured or
hurt you in some way. Jesus said pray for those who persecute you. And pray
for the church and its total ministry across the world.

I love the story of the missionary coming to the end of his career. He
served on a lonely station in Africa where he was the only white person. And
when we was at home in his hut in the evening, and train the light of his
torch around the photographs of his friends on the walls, and while he held
them in the light he would pray for them. Not a bad kind of description: we
hold our friends in the light, and pray for them.

Healing will be a part of it. This has been so neglected for so long  in the
church but is now coming back into recognition. Of course this aspect
bristles with questions and needs treatment on its own. But it is part of
intercession: 'The prayer of faith will save the sick', says James. 'When he
saw their faith, he said to the paralyzed man, "your sins are forgiven you!"
' Our prayer sometimes seems to fulfil the function of oxygen in an oxygen
tent, with a patient in a bad way. The oxygen comes in and revives him - and
gives the healing forces in his body a chance to take over. Those healing
forces come from God.

Three kinds of results will follow this ministry:

1. Changes in the person we've prayed for - strength and comfort and healing
and conversion and reconciliation. And if here this morning we could see all
the changes which have taken place in people's lives because of all the
prayers that you have offered this week, we would experience a result which
is stunning.

2. Changes in the person who prays. There are many stories of people who've
been healed themselves in the course of their praying for others. And how
many grudges and resentments have died when we have prayed for those who've
offended us. You can't continue to regard as an enemy someone for whom you
sincerely pray. There's a lovely thing in the book of Job. His 'friends'
were very self-righteous and cruel to poor Job. But in the old version this
lovely touch occurs: 'And the Lord turned again the captivity of Job, when
he prayed for his friends.' That's worth thinking about.

3.  An ever-deepening of the awareness of people and their needs, and of God
and his resources. And this growing awareness is where real intercession
takes place.

Some rules about praying for others. We don't know all the positive and
negative factors governing all this, but people who have practised it have
brought some of this to light. And they're all inter-related, and in a sense
all variants of the first:

[1] THE LORD LOVES. Leslie Weatherhead, out of a very long experience of
this sort of thing, could say that it is demonstrated that more healings
take place when the person who is prayed for is loved. They're more loved;
prayer is more effective when we share in some way the pain and struggle of
others. Elizabeth Barrett Browning said to her husband, 'And when I sue God
for myself, he hears that name of thine and sees within my eyes the tears of
two.' That's intercessory praying.

[2] Then, the law of faith: what I have been saying can even be dangerous
unless it's supplemented by faith. We can be sucked into a whirlpool of pain
and despair, unless we hold confidently to the belief that God wills that
all should be free, and whole. The more sensitive one is to evil, and its
power in a world like this, the more we must come with an ever-deepening
certainty, the saving power of Christ.

[3] And then there's a law of persistence: we give up too often, too soon,
because the answer is slow in coming. And often because the answer has
apparently come. Sometimes I think we've been guilty of losing the battle
for someone's welfare because we haven't kept on praying after the first
signs of change have appeared, forgetting that there are such things as
relapses.

[4] Another 'law of effective praying': the law of praying for the whole
person - not only for some annoying or disabling symptom.

There was a woman of whom I read who had a neighbour deeply troubled about
the drinking habits of her husband. And the two of them contracted to pray
together about it. They concentrated in meditation picturing the man cured
of his desire for drink. A week or two later he said 'Something strange has
happened to me: I don't want to drink any more'. And this went on for some
months. But then they had a flaming row and she said 'I suppose you're going
to get drunk again!' And he did. You see these people had been praying
concerning the symptom, rather than the underlying domestic relationship
from which the drinking came. Pray for the whole person. And allied to this
is praying positively rather than negatively.

One greatly skilled group was concerned at the lack of results concerning
someone who was quite desperately ill, and a wise person said: 'You've been
seeing her sick; you must see her well.'

[5] Then there's the law of praying dangerously. Intercession isn't simply
handing someone over to God and washing our hands of that one. There's no
real intercession unless we too are involved. Let me quote James again; he
has a very pungent comment here: 'Suppose there are brothers or sisters who
need clothes, and haven't enough to eat. What good is there in your saying
to them, "God bless you: stay warm and eat well", if you do nothing about
it.' Praying for other people can be costly: and not only in that sense.
Praying for other people can make us vulnerable, deeply vulnerable. It may
even involve going down with somebody else into their own private hell, and
being the instrument of God's healing there. And that may be the result of
our praying.

As I close I come to the deepest thing I want to say - that the real bond
between us is the Holy Spirit himself, and he is the real inspiration for it
all. He is the sphere, if you like, in which prayer operates.

In J V Taylor's book on the Holy Spirit - the best I've ever read - 'The
Go-Between God' - he describes a West Indian woman in London, who in her
flat had just received the news that her husband had been killed in a street
accident. She sat in the corner of the sofa paralysed, immovable. Nobody
could get near to her - it was almost as if she were in a trance. And then
the teacher of one of her children came, and saw the situation in a moment
and sat down beside her, and put her arm across her shoulders and held her
tightly. The white face was pressed to the brown one. And as the intolerable
pain of this seeped through to the visitor, her tears began to fall, on to
their hands clasped in the woman's lap. This went on until the grieving
woman herself began to weep, and their tears were mingled, and their healing
began.

Now I'd like to read you Taylor's comment on that. 'That is the embrace of
God. That is his kiss of life. That is the embrace of his mission with our
intercession. And the Holy Spirit is the force in the straining muscles of
an arm, the Holy Spirit is in the thin film of perspiration between a white
cheek and a brown one. The Holy Spirit is in those mingled tears falling on
to those clasped hands. He is as close and as unobtrusive as that, and as
irresistibly strong. Nobody knows what you may be doing if you pray for a
friend this day.

Before we sing our hymn I'm going to ask you to do something. First of all,
bow your heads and your hearts in prayer; remembering that you are in the
presence of God, who knows every thought and intention of the heart. First
of all, pray for someone you love, who has a need...   Now think of someone
you don't like, someone who irritates you and gets on your nerves, and you
find it hard to tolerate them. Pray for that person. And pray not merely for
the removal of the things that irritate you so that the person will be more
acceptable to you, but pray for his or her welfare in the sight of God.

And now think of someone who's deeply hurt you, who's injured you in some
way, so that you find it hard not to think of them without deep resentment.
Someone you even hate if you let yourself do it. Now pray for that one, with
a request for forgiveness, and being willing to forgive. Pray for that
person's true welfare. Lord, hear our prayer and answer us for Jesus' sake.
Amen.

(These notes of Tom Keyte's sermon were transcribed from an audio-tape by
Rowland Croucher. April 2002).

DISCUSS:

Begin with a few short summaries of the stories of biblical intercessors -
for example, Abraham (Genesis 18:16-33), Moses (Exodus 32:11-14), Nehemiah
(1:4-11), Habakkuk (1:1 - 2:20), Jesus (John 17), Stephen (Acts 7:60), Paul
(Colossians 1:9-12).

My (Rowland Croucher's) mother prays for me more than I pray for myself.
Anyone else in that fortunate situation?

Jacques Ellul (Prayer and Modern Man) says there's only one reason to pray:
We are commanded to pray. What other reasons have influenced us?

Have you ever been so concerned about someone that you felt driven to pray
for them?

Hugh Redwood, the well-known London journalist, tells how at the time of
disastrous floods in London, he found his way to a true faith.  He saw the
evidence of the reality of God at work in the lives of the Salvation Army
officers who were working hard to bring relief to those in need.  He
recounted one experience when they were trying to help a family who had lost
everything.  The Salvation Army had been able to re-equip them as far as
clothing was concerned with everything except shoes: there were no shoes
left.  However the workers were not worried for all they did was soaked in
prayer.  Four pairs were needed and they were sure that they would be
provided.  Just at that very moment a parcel was handed in.  They opened it
and inside were four pairs of shoes, all of the correct sizes. The Salvation
Army officers took it as a matter of course; they were so used to God
answering their prayers. Hugh Redwood's comment was significant:  "You might
call that coincidence" he said, "but if so, it is the first and only time I
have seen four coincidences wrapped up in one brown paper parcel!!" Discuss
the issue of prayer and coincidence!

Maybe throw this one into the discussion: 'When I pray, coincidences happen,
and when I don't pray, they don't.' -- Arichbishop William Temple

When Princess Diana and Prince Charles got divorced, Queen Elizabeth saw to
it that Diana's name was removed from the list of beneficiaries of the
public prayer. Want to comment on that?

Rollo May, the therapist, used to teach his counselor-students (see his The
Art of Counseling) not to think negatively or critically about your clients.
They'll pick it up, even if unspoken. What do you make of that? And the
great modern teacher on intercessory prayer, Frank Laubach believed your
thoughts affect others - for good or ill - and this natural process of
'thought transference' is what God, who created us with this facility, uses
to answer our prayers. Do you agree?

I received an email that said:  '>Why would you want to pray for the world,
when the Scriptures tell us not to.' Do they? (See, e.g. " I urge, then,
first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made
for everyone" 1 Timothy 2:1)

Talk about these: "He prayed for His enemies, and you do not even pray for
your friends." Johann Arndt, *True Christianity*.  "When you pray for your
friends, be ready to lend a hand. Lip service does nothing for God."  Dennis
Kean

What are the advantages of praying for others in a group, as well as
individually?

Those of you who have access to the Usenet Newsgroups on the Internet might
like to visit, for example, talk.religion.spirituality and print off some of
my (Rowland Croucher's) prayer material in the articles 'Pray for the World'
or 'Prayer for the World' - and then pray for the world, particularly the
Middle East.

Is there anything else in Tom Keyte's sermon you'd like to discuss? There
are some big questions he did not address (like 'unanswered' prayer, how to
pray for another's healing etc.) you might like to discuss.

Rowland Croucher, 13th April 2002

 
rowland @ johnmarkministries . org
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