Answered and Unanswered Prayer
Today’s sermon brought together several “pieces” of my own personal prayer journey. So, I wanted to share it with you. We began with Isaiah 55:
“Come, all you who are thirsty,
come to the waters;
and you who have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without cost.
2 Why spend money on what is not bread,
and your labor on what does not satisfy?
Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,
and you will delight in the richest of fare.
3 Give ear and come to me;
listen, that you may live.
I will make an everlasting covenant with you, my faithful love promised to David.
4 See, I have made him a witness to the peoples, a ruler and commander of the peoples.
5 Surely you will summon nations you know not, and nations you do not know will come running to you,
because of the LORD your God,
the Holy One of Israel,
for he has endowed you with splendor.”
6 Seek the LORD while he may be found;
call on him while he is near.
7 Let the wicked forsake their ways
and the unrighteous their thoughts.
Let them turn to the LORD, and he will have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will freely pardon.
8 “For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD.
9 “As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
10 As the rain and the snow
come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
11 so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.
12 You will go out in joy
and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and hills
will burst into song before you,
and all the trees of the field
will clap their hands.
13 Instead of the thornbush will grow the juniper,
and instead of briers the myrtle will grow.
This will be for the LORD’s renown,
for an everlasting sign,
that will endure forever.”
Treasure these words in your heart.
This week Robbie and I celebrated our five year anniversary. Our beautiful wedding was filled with meaningful imagery and one of the centerpieces of that day was our wedding puzzle. During the ceremony, when many couples use their individual candles to light a candle of unity, we put together a puzzle with pieces decorated by our wedding party and family members. It added a little bit of fun and games to the service, and told the story of how we “Found our missing pieces in the puzzle of life.”
We had both lived as singles into our 30s and had always prayed for a partner who was adventurous and would share our love for God, enjoying life and giving back to others. Both of us had struggled to find someone who matched, and when we finally found each other, it was like we found another piece, and now we would be putting the puzzle of life together as a team.
Samantha is another one of those pieces. Some of you know our story, and the short and tender version is that we had some heartbreaking losses in our journey of trying to have a child. We prayed and we trusted. Some prayers seemed rejected, and others seemed merely “unanswered”. I can’t say what we did or how we prayed just right to get Samantha when we did, mainly because I feel we were not given Samantha as an “answer” to prayer. We prayed specifically and zealously for her, and I believe God’s response included this funny, communicative, curious, peaceful and grace filled child.
These words spoke through the prophet Isaiah are central to my understanding of Prayer and God’s response to prayer:
“Is anyone thirsty?
Come and drink—
even if you have no money!
Come, take your choice of wine or milk—
it’s all free!
Our compassionate creator calls us into relationship, and insists that we share our hungers in prayer: "Why spend your all of your effort on substance that does not give you strength? Why pay for food that does you no good?”
"Listen to me, and you will eat what is good.
You will enjoy the finest food.”
When we abide in the Living Waters of our Gracious Creator, we will enjoy the gifts that cannot be earned or bought. The gifts of God are free to the people of God, and what we receive from God will satisfy our hearts in ways we could never imagine.
John Calvin describes 4 Rules or movements to prayer in his Institutes of Christian Religion. First, we come to God in reverence, then we submit our requests and desires, and before we finish certain hope and faith in God to accomplish what we ask, we take a stance of humility. In other words, we recognize our frailty, our sinfulness, our mortality and our vulnerability. Calvin stresses that we must lay aside all sense of our worth, our vain haughtiness, but I feel like there is a certain claim of our worth and value to God when we see our weakness and pain as something that matters to God. This naming of our struggles and desires to God becomes an offering to the powerful master architect who can do something about this enigma we are facing in our lives. Our prayer becomes a declaration of God’s kindness and mercy to invite us into relationship as co-creators in this world, partners for a job which either of us could have faced alone.
When we hold God to one single possible answer to prayer, we are putting God in a box, treating God like a vending machine, or like a slick restaurant app on our phone, where we can order anything we want with the gift card from Jesus.
But when we acknowledge our humility and our limitation to only see certain pieces to the puzzle of life, we set our prayers free, we set God free to surprise us and offer us a request we could never imagine, and we discover true freedom for our lives as we are able to receive a new and fresh vision of hope in our lives.
“My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,” says the Master Architect.
“And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine. For just as the heavens are vaulted and separated from the earth, Just as the spiritual realm exists in mystery to the physical realm, so my ways are prepared from a different perspective than your ways and my thoughts appear mysterious when compared to your thoughts.”
In her book, In God’s Presence, Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki stresses the essential condition of release of our prayers. She makes a clear distinction between “hoarded prayer” and “released prayer.” “Hoarded prayer,” she says, “insists upon its program, and is not willing for God to do other with the prayer than that which is dictated in the prayer. This is truly prayer, but it is not freeing prayer. Released prayer is more like a breathing, stakes the same depth of one’s heart’s concern to God, offering it and releasing it, offering it and releasing it. To release prayer is to count on the fact that it is God who receives and deals with this prayer, not oneself.”
When I read this, I was like, “Yes!” That’s what I’ve experienced from God. Making demands for exactly one result in my life makes me feel like I’m holding God hostage.
But sometimes I have felt that there is such a need for peace and resolution that I wanted to almost pick God up and shake this cosmic being with anger and frustration. Living a life filled with love means that we also experience great loss and desperation, finding ourselves on our knees in confusion and pain. We doubt ourselves and we feel rejected by God. These “unanswered prayers” at times leave us with feelings of guilt and shame.
Marjorie speaks this compassionate word to us for these moments of despair. “Prayer is prompted by God, and released to God. It is not our business to second-guess after the fact what could or would have happened had we done thus or so. We might as well blame God for not prompting us more forcefully to prayer, for does not God give us a guiding impulse in every moment of our being?…Just as we are called to release our prayers of intercession to God, even so we are called to release our prayers of confession to God, and then to get on with it. We must trust this God unto whomever we release our prayers, and look for the health that is deeper than death."
The still small voice whispers, “Come to me with your ears wide open.
Listen, and you will find life."
Seek the great IAM who yearns to be found.
Call on this one who is near to you.
Like a child who is in need, calling out in the darkness of night, we have a parent who is waiting to comfort us and offer us warm milk. Sometimes, our cries may seem to fall on deaf ears, or we will feel the impulse to wake up our sleeping and patient God, but when we can fully entrust our desires to God, we will find rest in the waiting, peace in the pause of silence.
Eugene Peterson puts it this way, “What is wrong with the world is God’s business. It is a business in which you will have a part, come morning when you get your assignment. Meanwhile God is giving help at a far deeper level than any of your meddling will ever reach."
I have a gift for you today. It’s a small puzzle piece. You can keep it in your wallet or on your nightstand or in the change pocket in the dashboard of your car. And when you get to that moment of confusion or desperation, struggling with the unease of unanswered prayers, may you hold this piece and release your prayer to the one who holds all the pieces and knows where this one will fit.
Through good times and bad, our Committed Partner and Lover gives us this vision of hope: You will live in joy and peace. The mountains and hills will burst into song, and the trees of the field will clap their hands!
13 Where once there were thorns infesting the ground, cypress trees will grow, pointing to the sky.
Where nettles grew and blocked your path, myrtles will sprout up, providing shelter and blossoms full of beauty.
These events will bring great honor to the LORD’s name; they will be an everlasting sign of God's power and love.”