Oh Lord, uphold Thou me that I may uplift Thee. Amen.
“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”
I found him on the floor. It was May 12th, 1984. He was face up, eyes rolled back and he was not breathing. I began CPR trying to get oxygen into his lungs. After a few seconds, I ran down the hall and woke Peter, my best friend, and together we worked on him until the paramedics came. There were no words between us as we alternated between chest compressions and breaths of air. We were both deep in prayer. “Please God, help him. Don’t let Rory die. Don’t let this happen. He is only 23.” Two future ministers deep in prayer for the life of our friend, doing everything we knew how in the horror of the moment to save his life. But Rory died anyway. He never even made it to the hospital. Why?
She was in immense pain. Her abdomen was filling with fluid and over many hours I watched as her intestines stopped functioning. It was Halloween, 1997. Marshall was three, Eliza was three weeks old and Melissa, I could not even think it at the time, much less say it, appeared to be dying. The doctors were
stumped. They ran all over each other trying to help. They could not figure out what was going on. They talked about a rapid cancer, a blood clot, a serious obstruction, or an out of control infection. I remember standing in that room holding our new baby girl and praying with all my might that we would be delivered from this nightmare. I needed the woman I loved; she needed us. We had a new daughter who needed her mother. “Please God, please God, make this stop. Help us.” Two days later, the situation reversed itself. Her intestines began to recover, her blood counts returned to normal. They talked about a blood clot that had dissolved by itself. A clot that had blocked her intestines and was now gone. Thank you!
Why is it that sometimes we knock, we search, we ask and the gates of heaven seem locked up tight; while at other times grace flows in ways unimaginable, far beyond what we deserve or even dream? Jesus tells us that if a parent will give joyfully to her child how much more will God (who is defined as love) give to us – God’s children. Yet, let’s be honest, it doesn’t always seem to work this way. The child dies, the marriage collapses, the cancer grows in spite of our prayers, in spite of our childlike pleadings with our father in heaven. Why? Why is it sometimes our most passionate prayers our desperate longings are answered and sometimes they are not? Why? It is the one question I hear the most as I stand in the emergency room or race to a bedside. Why? Why did Rory die and Melissa get well?
Ultimately, I don’t know the answer to these questions; I don’t think anyone does. Job railed against God wanting answers to the why of his own suffering but God gave him none. If you think about it, many of the “whys” in this life remain
mysteries. All I know is, if and when I get to heaven – someone has a lot of explaining to do. But why pray? Why raise our voices to heaven when the responses seem so random? Can we really believe these beautiful words spoken by our Lord and read this morning?
There are a few things I do know and believe with all my heart. First, the God I love is not capricious. He is not playing games with us, picking and choosing, in random fashion, to answer the prayers of some and ignoring the prayers of others. A loving God could not do this, would not do this, our God is not cruel. Second, a loving God does not kill people, does not give people cancer or bring about the death of 23 year-old college students. A loving God does not cause evil for whatever the reason. It was not that God wanted to take Rory home. It was not that God allowed the child to die because God needed another angel in heaven. That is theology of the worst sort. Our God does not bring tragedy. Life does. This life is full of many horrible things but I do not believe they come from God. Third, it isn’t a matter of how hard we pray. How often have I heard someone ridden with guilt confess that if only they had prayed harder, if only they had more faith their prayers would have been answered, healing would have been given. But, it isn’t a matter of degree or method or intensity of belief. Too many bad things happen to the faithful and too many good things to the faithless for that to be true.
Can we believe the words of Jesus that we read this morning? If we knock and seek and ask will the door be opened, will we find and receive? Yes, I think so. It may sound simple, but I don’t think it is merely cliché to say that God may not give
us what we ask but God will give us what we need. While we may not understand this as we are living it – often, when we look back from the privilege of hindsight, we can see a trail of grace running through our lives.
There is a scene in the movie “Shadowlands”, the film based on the life of C. S. Lewis, where Lewis has just returned to London after marrying Joy Gresham. The private wedding service was performed at Joy’s bedside in a hospital where she was dying from cancer. Throughout the battle with the disease, Lewis had discovered the incredible depth of his love for Joy and she for him. “When he gets back to London, he’s met by Harry Harrington, an Episcopal priest, who asks what news there is. Lewis hesitates; then deciding to speak of the marriage instead of the cancer, he says, Ah, good news, I think, Harry. Yes, good news. Harrington, not aware of the marriage and thinking that Lewis is referring to Joy’s medical situation, replies, ‘I know how hard you’ve been praying . . . Now, God is answering your prayer.’ But Lewis’s prayer was not being answered, Joy was dying. He realized that Harrington misunderstood his answer. That’s not why I pray, Harry, Lewis responds. I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God; it changes me.” (Thomas Long, Whispering in the Lyrics: Sermons for Lent and Easter, Lima Ohio: CSS Publishing Co., 1995)
Why pray? Maybe that is the answer – Pray not to change God but to change ourselves, for God only knows why God does what God does. And even if God explained it to us we probably wouldn’t understand. We are creature; God is creator. Trying to understand the intentions of God is like Sherlock Holmes trying to understand the intentions of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Rather, pray to change yourself, to open yourself and connect with the only thing that makes any sense – the promise of perfect love.
Why did Rory die and Melissa get well? Why was one prayer heard and another ignored? I think just maybe in some strange way I don’t really understand, they were both heard. I love both of these people and my prayers all centered on my desire for them to be safe, for them to be o.k. Rory died and after a lot of grieving and a lot of struggle, I have come to believe that he is o.k. that he is safe. I did not get to keep him, but I do not think he is lost. We prayed for God to help him and I believe that somehow in some way I don’t fully comprehend God did.
Why pray? Because finally, through all of our selfish and half hearted prayers, and through all of our heartfelt and compassionate prayers, the one thing we can be sure of is that the God we call upon will come, he may not bring us the answers we want, but he will always bring us himself. And maybe at the heart of all our prayers that is what we are really praying for. Amen.
(Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking, Harper and Row, 1973. p. 71)