I thought of Mary Self when I read that a new ICM survey in the run-up to Easter has found no shortage of people believing in prayer. Mary knows what can happen when people pray: she was miraculously (and unexpectedly) healed of terminal cancer following a time of prayer. You can read her story in "From Medicine to Miracle" which she co-authored with Daily Mirror journalist Rod Chaytor.
I thought of Mary because I was the one who placed the story with "The Mirror" and had the huge delight of seeing it make front page. Even better I had the thrill of seeing "The Voice of the Mirror" state quite unequivocally that when it came to prayer the newspaper wanted to solidly identify with believers and not the sceptics. It was great to get the scoop but even better to know that millions of people were being encouraged to pray.
Mary's experience matched the promise Jesus made to his disciples the night before he died when he said, "If you remain in me and my words remain in you ask whatever you wish and it will be given to you. This is to my Father's glory that you bear much fruit showing yourselves to be my disciples."
That word glory is very striking. It is a translation of a Greek work that spoke of honour and even reputation. Put simply our prayer lives can both enhance and diminish God's reputation (and no one can doubt that it certainly needs some enhancing at the moment).
Now we all know what it is to feel frustrated when it comes to what we often say is "unanswered prayer", and we are frequently left wondering why our prayers seem so ineffective. Given this it's worth noticing that Jesus offers us two helpful suggestions in this section of John's Gospel.
In the first place He reminds us of the importance of unity. John shows that that as He approached His death Jesus felt the need to stress this (and given the way the disciples were treating each other this is not surprising).
And so we need to learn that If we want to see God doing "the unexpected and the unimaginable" we need to do all we can to ensure that we are at one with other members of the Body of Christ too. We are to love one another as He has loved us, sacrificially and recklessly not sparing the cost or the apparent indignity. The cross is the gold standard of Christian love.
It is also important to appreciate that if we want to see God answering our prayers in the way He answered His Son's requests we must learn to pray as He did and that will sometimes mean accepting the way of the cross.
As Tom Smail once said "Jesus was not saved from Calvary. He had to go through Calvary. If you are looking for an experience of the Holy Spirit that is going to put you on some kind of charismatic cloud where you can float in untroubled glory straight into the Kingdom of God my friend you are in cloud cuckoo land, you are looking in the wrong place altogether. Jesus doesn't know how to give anyone an easy ride. He hadn't one Himself and He won't give it to anyone."
For in the final analysis prayer is not magic. Prayer is not a way of manipulating God. Prayer is the way God allows us to become part of His cosmic purposes – and given who He is it should come as no surprise that His ways are often very different to ours, as Good Friday shows us all too well.