Does God answer prayers? What is it ok to pray for without being a jerk?
While oil gushes into the ocean and jobs and livelihoods are lost and fear mounts and whole ecosystems are on the brink of collapse, I prayed that I would make it to Georgia for my goddaughter’s birth. I prayed that the 3 day visit I planned for 5 days after her due date would somehow fall right on the time of her birth, so that I could be there, stand with my friend, watch this girl come into the world, hold her fresh from the womb.
I shamelessly prayed for that, and a little shamefully too, but I prayed nonetheless. Conflicted by my friend’s discomfort in being overdue, aware my chances were slim, I worked to let go and be content with whatever happened. But really, I told God, what I really want is to be there when it happens.
And I was. Somehow, inexplicably and amazingly, I was there. I arrived on Wednesday and she went into labor on Thursday morning and was born Thursday night. I slept there in the room with mother and daughter as they acclimated to each other, meeting and discovering what it meant to belong to one another. I sat and watched her brothers meet her for the first time Friday morning, took photos and video of the astounding moment for the family. Boys, here is your sister.
Friday night I took those sweet boys home – one of whom is also my godson – I took them home and read to them and tucked them into their beds and prayed with them for their new sister and their mom and dad, and I slept there and awoke to watch the family be reunited in their home to start this new part of their life together before I boarded a plane and came home.
This week was a crazy, overwhelming gift. I don’t know why I got it. I feel guilty for getting what I wanted. I feel awed by the powerful experience of standing with a friend, a family, bearing witness to their joy and her pain, watching and seeing and participating in this stunning moment in their lives – when new life enters the world and they are irreversibly changed by their connection to her.
Mother, here is your daughter.
But why did I get that when there is still oil pumping into the gulf? When people are living in tent cities in Haiti? When children are being blown apart in Iraq? What made God listen to my prayers? What did I do to earn that, to deserve that? How can I celebrate my gift when so many other, more important prayers, are going unanswered? How dare I say it was anything other than coincidence?
But I can’t. It was a gift from God. It was grace, for some reason, grace.
Whether we admit it or not, we often read stories from the bible to figure out how to figure out God, to determine how we should be to get God to do what we want God to do. What does it take to get God’s attention? God’s favor? What should I do to earn some points with God so that when it matters God will listen to me? Or, how badly have I messed things up, how hopeless is it that God will ever want to help me out? What would I have to do to become someone God would see, listen to?
Only, the bible is all over the place on what God does and how and why God does it. Why would God, in the middle of a famine, feed God’s prophet by the hand of an impoverished widow and her son, and then keep them going on food that never runs out while all around them others pass away into starvation? What did they do, and how did they do it, to catch God’s eye? To deserve their miracle?
Elijah, God’s prophet, is told by God that God will take care of him in the middle of this famine, in this wilderness. I got your back, God says. Just head off to that town and there is someone there who will feed you, I’ve got it all worked out. So he goes, and the woman comes out and Elijah asks for food – only instead of saying, “Oh! I’ve been expecting you! Come to the feast all laid out at my mansion!”?
No, she says, “we’ve got enough for this one last meal and then we’re going to die.” Not exactly someone you’d want to take food from.
But Elijah says, OK, so give me some of what you have first, share with me out of your nothingness, your poverty, and then go on with your plans, only God will provide for you. So she does, and God does. These unlikely partners – the prophet and the penniless.
But then when it seems like God is really with them her son goes and dies. And she turns on Elijah and demands an answer – is God punishing her for sins and killing her son? Elijah grabs the boy’s body and takes it upstairs for a confrontation with God. He demands God intervene, and then – as though to transfer the life and breath from his own body, mouth to mouth, limb to limb, he stretches out on top of the boy three times, crying out to God to give him life. And God does. Then Elijah brings him down and places him in her arms. Here is your son.
God is not the way the woman supposed at all, punishing her for her sins, or giving her what she deserves. That equation doesn’t work at all in this story. And in this story instead of sending his prophet to care for an impoverished widow, God chooses this one who has nothing to be the provider.
God doesn’t play by rules that make sense to us.
And why, in our Luke story, did Jesus resurrect that particular widow’s son? What did she ever do to deserve it? She didn’t ask for his help. The story says nothing about pious faith or a track record of selfless philanthropy. All it says is that she was grieving. Heartbroken. Her son is dead. Her future gone; all she has is this moment walking alongside his body and nothing beyond that.
And Jesus steps in. Jesus barges in on her funeral parade, brings her son back from the dead and gives him back to her. Because he wants to. That’s it. He is moved with compassion and death is no thing in the way. Neither, apparently are decorum or decency, politeness or purity laws. He just interrupts the procession, tells her to quit crying, slaps his palm on the dead man’s gurney and raises him up right then and there. Woman, here is your son.
But God’s grace is like that. Inexplicable, and unnerving, it invades and interferes here and there and we don’t know why.
So here is what I wonder: Did the widow walk around feeling bad that her son lived while others died? Did she spend the rest of her life feeling guilty about her gift? Embarrassed by her good fortune? Or did she find a way to live in joy and gratitude for this inexplicable thing that had occurred that had given her a different future? How does one go on living after a grace intrusion like that?
I can’t help but think of the 1998 film “Saving Private Ryan” – where, following the invasion of Normandy, a group of US soldiers go behind enemy lines to retrieve a paratrooper whose three brother have all been killed in the war. They are to find him so that he can be returned home to his mother.
So they can give him back to his mother.
Woman, here is your son.
Several die in the search for him, but they eventually do find him and he goes home. But then Ryan spends the rest of his life trying to earn this gift he was given. The lives that were lost to save his, he spends the rest of his life wondering if he is good enough to have made it all worth it.
When grace doesn’t leave good enough alone…
Sometimes God listens when we plead and beg, and intervenes to change the course of things. That's grace.
Sometimes God leads us into unfamiliar places and puts us in awkward situations and makes us rely on those we wouldn’t ordinarily think would have anything to give us. That's grace.
Sometimes God stretches us, asking us to give or share or help another– even when we are at our very end – and then meets us in abundance when we do. That's grace.
Sometimes God steps into our grief with compassion, unbidden, uninvited, uninhibited, and gives us a gift we didn’t know to ask for. That's grace too.
Sometimes God is this way.
The bible and life itself are full of all manner of strange and wonderful stories, and terrible and confusing stories, all of which God is somehow in the midst of. But it’s certainly no simple formula or prescription.
And the goal is not to figure out how to get God to give us what we want, or how to stop wanting things except for those that are selfless and global, praying only for others and for all the suffering in the world and never ever for the little things in our own lives that are certainly, we assume, unimportant in the grand scheme of things.
I guess what I am trying to say is that there isn’t a grand scheme of things; there is a Grand Schemer - who is moved with compassion at our grief, who hears when we cry out in anger and confusion and even accusations of betrayal, who is part of the unfolding story, whatever the story may be, part of it, involved, bringing people together, who moves within circumstances and situations to give us grace, life, hope, joy. And who came and joined it with us:
World and all who live and breathe – here is your God.
And the common thread in our stories today is that God gave them to each other. That in this act, in these shared words, “he gave her back her son” grace was experienced, God was encountered, hope was made alive.
Just as Christ himself looked down from the cross just before he died, and met eyes with his own weeping mother and his dear friend John, “Woman, here is your son,” he said, and in their grief he gave them to each other.
And in my own story this week, I watched, grace palpable, poignant, as God gave them all to each other. Boys, here is your sister. Mother and Father, here is your daughter.
So I suspect that grace is something we know in relationship, that Jesus joins us as we join one another. That the gift we most often experience, the place God most often is recognized, is when God gives us to each other.
I have no idea why some prayers are answered and others aren’t.
But I know that my prayers were answered this week. My silly, sentimental prayers for this week were answered, and they weren’t silly and sentimental to God.
So how can we recognize God’s grace in the world and celebrate it? How can we live unafraid to ask for things, and brave to share what we have? Where is God at work, giving us to one another? And how can we join God’s grand scheme of leaking grace into the world?