Thanks to DKBlog for this quote from Rabbi Harold Kushner on the subject of prayer:
If prayer worked the way many people think it does, no one would ever die, because no prayer is ever offered more sincerely than the prayer for life, for health and recovery from illness, for ourselves and for those we love.This quote summarizes why I have never liked the use of intercessory prayer in church services. I understand that, for many people, prayers for health or healing or the like are really ways of unloading onto God our concerns and fears, rather than serving as a bona fide attempt to convince God to intervene theistically and supernaturally to change the course of events. But even if this is the way some people feel about it, in my experience it is rarely stated that way explicitly in church services, and even the term "intercessory" (which is sometimes used in church) presumes that God will somehow "intercede" on our behalf if we ask "him" nicely enough. On the other hand, as Rabbi Kushner says, if we pray for courage or strength in the face of our fears, frailties, and difficulties, then we often find that in just talking to God we discover something inside ourselves that allows us to better face the world. In that sense, God can be a wonderful shoulder to cry on.
People who pray for miracles usually don’t get miracles, any more than children who pray for bicycles, good grades, or boyfriends get them as a result of praying. But people who pray for courage, for strength to bear the unbearable, for the grace to remember what they have left instead of what they have lost, very often find their prayers answered. They discover that they have more strength, more courage than they ever knew themselves to have.