United Methodist pastor Adam Hamilton tells this story: “A woman in my congregation, after years of fertility treatments, finally conceived. She and her husband were filled with joy. But early in the pregnancy she became extremely ill. By her fifth month, doctors informed her that if she continued to try to carry the child to term, she would not survive. While she was willing to take that risk, her family was not. The child was unable to survive outside the womb. The baby died, and the mother lived.”
She wrote Pastor Hamilton, “I had never wrestled with the will of God. Now my life and faith depended upon it. I had always thought God could and would do anything if enough people prayed—but people had and God didn’t. Who was God? What good is God?”
It’s a heartbreaking story and, in one form or another, happens all the time. It goes like this: “I prayed and God didn’t answer the way I wanted, so I have given up on God. Why bother? My prayers don’t make any difference. God’s gonna do what God’s gonna do, despite anything I ask or say.”
Remember Garth Brooks’ song? “Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.” But to those whose unanswered prayers seem to lock them in their own personal hell, it sounds like a hollow sentiment.
Have you been there? I have. I’ve had some answered prayers, but I’ve had a whole lot of prayers that weren’t answered, at least not from my perspective – my own limited, finite, tunnel-vision, very human perspective.
Three Gospels record the baptism of Jesus. Luke is the only one that adds this little detail: when Jesus waded into the waters of baptism, he was praying when heaven was opened (Lk 3:21). This is when the presence of God came down in the form of a dove and the voice of God spoke like thunder. It was prayer that opened the windows of heaven to let the Spirit descend; it was prayer that made God’s voice heard among the people. While the sky may not cleave when we pray or doves flutter down, heaven still opens and God still speaks—sometimes loudly, many times in a small, still voice.
There are almost a dozen different words for prayer in the Bible. One word means to request, another to make a vow; some mean to praise, one specifically means to cry out. The word in this Luke passage takes in all of these meanings, and more. The New Testament was penned in Greek and the word is “proseuchomai.” It’s an ugly word that carries a beautiful meaning. It is a compound word—one word formed from other words. In this case, it is the combination of two different words:
Pros – to turn toward
Euchomai-to utter, to speak aloud
Putting it together, proseuchomai means turning to God to speak. This word is a powerful reminder of the essence of prayer – that our Father in heaven is a relatable and relational God who desires to have direct and active communication with us, no matter what the circumstance of our lives. That means we can turn to God in joy, anger, peace, confusion, grief or gratitude. It means that when we turn toward God, we discover that God has been turned toward us the whole time, ready to open the heavens for us. We may not discern it immediately or instantaneously, but if we keep praying, we will discover not just the gifts of God, but God Himself, the One whom Jesus called Abba, our Heavenly Poppa whose grace is sufficient for us.
When I was in 5th grade, I had to come up with a science project. Being the good Texas Aggie that he was, my dad suggested I do a project on the life cycle of plants. He even lent me a case of seeds that he had made for a college class. “Be careful with this,” he said. “I made it with my own two hands and it’s special to me.”
So, of course, the case got broken right away. A classmate accidentally knocked it off a table (that’s my story and I’m sticking to it). I was heartsick. I tried to get some friends to go home with me, because I figured my dad wouldn’t kill me with eyewitnesses around. But I went home alone and moped on the swing set, waiting for Judgment Day. When I heard my dad roll up into the driveway, I knew that soon I would meet Jesus. Moments later, my father appeared, six feet-two inches of apocalyptic doom marching right toward me. I kept my eyes down, but my dad told me to look up. He always insisted that I make eye contact when I spoke to him or anyone else. I slowly looked up, expecting The Fatherly Hand of Judgment to pop me right over the fence. Instead, I saw a calm expression on his face. He gently said, “Your teacher called today and said my seed case got broken.” “Yessir,” I peeped. “She said it was an accident.” “Yessir.” “Well,” he said, his tone still light and even, “accidents happen. Let’s go inside. I think your mother has supper on the table.”
WOW! I was expecting punishment and condemnation, but all my dad had to offer was mercy and forgiveness. Looking back on this incident, my dad gave me a small picture of a big God that day.
God is not a hateful deity who wants to flick us off the face of the earth like we’d flick a spider off our arm. “God is love” (I Jn 4:8) and yearns to take us up in His everlasting arms and open up the treasures of heaven for us – whether that’s comfort in our grief, rest in our discontentment, power in our weakness, peace when life makes no sense, purpose when we are scattered in a million directions, grace in all and through all.
Prayer makes this happen. Prayer may not give us what we want when we want it, or even how we expected it, but it will eventually give us what we need, what our soul deeply desires.
Every. Single. Time.