The British Navy has a strange custom. If there is a sudden disaster aboard ship, “the still” is blown. This particular “still” is not a place where moonshine is made, but a whistle which calls the crew to a moment of silence in a time of crisis. When the still is blown, every man aboard knows what it means: “Prepare to do the wise thing.” Needless to say, this moment of calm has helped to avert many a catastrophe.

The value of a moment of calm reflection rather than an hour of scatter-brained action can be noted in places other than aboard a British ship. Long ago, the Psalmist wrote, “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). He, also, was pointing out the secret of living with poise in the midst of difficulty.

Jesus believed in sounding the still when things looked tough. Time and again, he drew himself away from the burden of his work to pray. Sometimes his prayer was only a short exclamation of joy or thanksgiving. Sometimes he remained all night in prayer. He was always urging the disciples to pray. Jesus believed that prayer works. “Ask, and it shall be given to you; seek and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7).

Let me hasten to add that Jesus did not believe that every prayer will work the way we want it to work. Jesus did not preach that prayer is like a signed blank check drawn on the Bank of Providence, requiring only that we fill in the amount and all the Fort Knox’s in life would be ours. Nor did Jesus teach that prayer is like a rabbit’s foot, carried in the pocket as a talisman, its furry surface ready to be rubbed every time we get into a jam.

Prayer works, but it doesn’t always work the way we want it to work. Sometimes God says, “Yes,” sometimes He says, “No,” and sometimes He says, “Wait a while.”

One reason many people don’t think God answers their prayers is that they have never prayed for anything important. Instead of using prayer for the high purposes for which it was intended, they reserve it for such mediocre matters as pay raises, new fishing rods for Christmas, good grades in mathematics, handsome husbands and honeymoons in the Bahamas. They pray, “Give me,” and nothing happens. If they prayed, “Use me,” or “Change me,” instead of “Gimme,” they would find their prayers quite beneficial.

Too many people pray for an improvement in their situations instead of improvement in themselves, for changes in their own attitudes. Prayer is not a tool by which we talk God into changing all our problems into peaches and cream. Prayer is a tool by which we allow God to talk to us about what he wants us to do about our problems.

Somebody said, “Prayer changes things.” That’s true, but it might be more accurate to say that, “Prayer changes people so they can change things.” It is a well-known medical fact that prayer is a powerful instrument in the treatment of illness. It changes people and therefore it changes things.

If you will permit me the metaphor, prayer is a thinking person’s reality filter. It helps them filter out life’s non-essentials and lets in the flavor that makes life worth living.