I work out at a gym. That gym has a bin for discarded books. I stick my nose in that bin every time I’m there. Occasionally I find, and when I do I always retrieve, discarded Bibles. Can you believe people drop their BIBLES into a discarded book bin? Don’t you think there should be a sacred burial ground or something for discarded Bibles? At this point I have given away more retrieved Bibles than I have kept— I have given several to boys at the Discovery School, and one to a woman who came to the church a few times—a hurting soul, needing a space to reflect on her life for a few Sundays. So, just so you know, I myself am doing my part to put Bibles to good use!
One of the Bibles I rescued from that bin, is titled “The Life Recovery Bible.” It is for recovering alcoholics. I kept that one. No, I am not an alcoholic, thank goodness, but I so appreciate the footnotes that accompany that particular Bible’s text. So for instance, this past week, after reading our scripture for today, my eyes dropped down to the footnotes. This is what I read: “…We will persist in prayer and realistic hopes once we fully appreciate the kind of father who hears our prayers. Many of us in recovery have suffered because of …abusive parents who gave us stones and snakes. ….we must …rethink our concept of God as a father who gives good gifts to his children…”
Wow! That as they say, is a reality check. I had loving parents who saw that I had enough food to eat, clothes to wear and a good education. They never would have given me a stone or a snake when I was hungry. I hope you did, too. If that is the case, then like me, you are fortunate—you, too, are blessed. Jesus says that God loves us as our loving parents loved us.
However, I HAVE had moments in my life when I have wondered if God IS so very loving. In other words, there have been times when God and I have not seen eye to eye—on what I wanted and what God provided. I suspect God and I will continue to have, a sometimes conflicted relationship. So it is with parents, right?
So today, I want to present to you two true stories from my prayer life— one when maybe my prayer was answered, or at least God and I were on the same page, and then another, an instance when my prayer wasn’t answered.
First story: I was serving as an associate pastor at a church in McLean, Virginia. A church member, Agnes, (I’ll call her Agnes, but it’s not her real name) called the church office to let us know that her husband, Clive, (also not his real name) was in the local hospital’s ICU. Agnes was actually calling the church an airport in Boston. Their daughter had just had a baby. Got that? Clive’s in the hospital in McLean, Agnes is in Boston. Agnes was just about to board a plane to fly back home, and be by her husband’s bedside. In the meantime, could a pastor stop by the hospital and stay with Clive?
I went to the hospital. I found Clive in the ICU. He was hooked up to all kinds of machines. He looked like a centipede lying on his back. His tubes and lines like bug’s legs sticking out. You know what I mean?
Clive looked to be unconscious. Still I prayed out loud over Clive in case he could hear me. Then I went out into the waiting area. Agnes eventually showed up, with a friend. The friend had been kind enough to meet her at the airport and drive her to the hospital. Agnes told me tearfully, “Clive had a bad cold when I left for Boston. That’s the reason he didn’t go with me. And now he’s in the ICU?” Together we visited Clive. Again, no response from the patient. More tears from Agnes. Then, Clive’s doctor appeared in the hallway outside Clive’s room. He wanted to talk with Agnes. I hung back, but she pulled me and her friend into the conversation. “I need you,” she said. So, Agnes, her friend and I listened as the doctor relayed the grim news. “Clive has pneumonia. His condition is very serious. His organs have begun to shut down.”
After he left, the three of us looked at each other. What else do you do? We returned to the waiting area. I probably prayed there, too, but I honestly don’t remember.
Now, I read a lot. At that time, I was reading a book on prayer. According to the book, most peoples’ prayers are on the wimpy side. So we say something like, “Please God, if it be your will, in your great mercy, could you, and so on and so forth.” That IS how most of us pray, right? A better prescription for prayer, according to the book, I’m not saying this is right, but according to the book, the way to pray effectively is to demand what we want, like TV evangelists do. So, a better way would be to pray: “In the name of Jesus, BE HEALED!” In other words, don’t pussyfoot around. Just get it out there!
After a long while sitting in the waiting area with Agnes and her friend, I shared what I had read about prayer. Agnes said, “Well, why not? What’s to stop us from going into Clive’s room and praying like that?”
So, the three of us marched into Clive’s room. Nothing had changed. So me: “Lord, we know you are a God of healing, we know you are a God who cares for us, and loves us. Clive wants to see his daughter and new grandbaby. Restore Clive’s liver and kidneys and his other organs to full functioning. Give him energy to fight this pneumonia. Clive, be healed! In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.” No wimpiness. Direct. Then we returned to the waiting area.
A while later, Clive’s doctor came in. He reported: “Clive has turned a corner. His organs are beginning to function on their own again.” Whoopdeedo! And get this, eventually, Clive made a full recovery. Amazing huh?
After that, anytime Clive, Agnes and I happened to be together in a social setting--at the church fellowship hour, say—they would point to me, “She’s the pastor who saved Clive’s life.” Now that is absolutely NOT true. You know and I know that God did the healing. Did the prayer have an effect? I don’t know. Maybe? Who knows the mind of God? I certainly don’t, even if I often think I do.
Now here’s another instance, this one an instance of failed prayer. It was at that same church. Debbie and her husband Gregg had adopted a little girl, Tracy. I got to know Tracy and the rest of the family when I served as a Sunday school Kindergarten teacher. That was before I entered seminary. Little Tracy was in that class. It was obvious to me and to the other teachers that Tracy had problems. She couldn’t sit still for story time, she had poor motor and social skills. The other children stayed clear of her. They didn’t dislike her, but she was just, well, different. She was extremely loving though, and that made up for a lot. She wanted hugs, and hugs she got from me and the other teachers.
Tracy was in the public school system but after a year in Kindergarten, Debbie, shared this with me. Tracy’s teacher and the school’s principal did not think Tracy should be in a regular classroom. They suggested she and her husband look into schools for mentally challenged children. I guess that’s the politically correct term these days. “Mentally challenged?” Debbie raged. She would not have it. She and her husband were determined that Tracy be mainstreamed. It took Tracy’s parents quite awhile to accept what everyone else already knew. Tracy was different. Eventually they found a school that catered to Tracy’s special needs.
Debbie shared with me her feelings of helplessness. There were these what if’s that loomed large for she and her husband: “What if the special needs school can’t help Tracy enough? What if Tracy can never learn to live independently? What if we have to take care of Tracy for the rest of our lives?”
That’s when I started praying for Tracy and her family. Now maybe like you, when I pray alone, my prayers are silent prayers. I don’t use words, I just send thoughts God’s way. So I sent thoughts God’s way about Tracy and her family. God knew my intentions, though. I wanted God to heal Tracy, so that one day she could live independently. That’s not so much to ask, is it? Really.
Now people usually move on and off my prayer list. I may pray for a person about to go in for surgery and then when that person comes out of surgery. But after he’s recovered, I stop praying for him. So many people to pray for, so little time—However, I decided that Tracy and her family should stay in my prayers for the long term. It would take awhile for God to heal Tracy. It got to be a habit with me. At the tail end of my prayers, I always prayed for Tracy and her family.
And then. Gregg, Debbie’s husband, Tracy’s father, died. It was sudden. A massive heart attack. He was maybe 50, 55 years old. So, on the young side. Come on God! Debbie was like poor Job. You know, first his possessions are destroyed, then his slaves and children die, then he suffers boils all over his body. Like that. Debbie would have to raise a handicapped child on her own.
God heard from me. I was angry! But I couldn’t just stop praying. Debbie and Tracy needed prayers more than ever. I prayed on—we’re talking years. I lost track of their lives. I went to seminary. They left the church. I found out Debbie and Tracy were worshiping at a church that had a church school for special needs young people.
I next saw Debbie at the grocery store, maybe? Somewhere around town. By this time, Tracy was a young adult. We caught up on each others’ lives. Then Debbie said this, “Yes, I miss Gregg, but I am fortunate to have Tracy in my life. She lives with me. We keep each other company. I am so blessed.” That’s what she said.
I took Debbie and Tracy off my prayer list.
So, in this instance, God didn’t answer my prayers. I suspect, though, God knew from the get go, that I was praying for the wrong thing. The lesson learned here is that I needed to learn to pray with humility. I just assumed I knew best. God knows best.
So, I will continue to believe that God is all loving, like a loving parent—and we know what that means, if we have been blessed to be raised by loving parents. What Jesus says is true, “What parent when asked by his child for bread would give him a stone instead; what parent, when asked by a child for a fish, would give him a snake instead?” I will add to that, though: sometimes when we ask God for bread, God gives us cake. Sometimes when we ask God for fish, God gives us filet mignon. Amen