Once when my brother and I were much younger – about 8 and 5 years old – we wanted to ask mummy if we could do something, go somewhere or have something – I can’t remember now what it was we wanted. We lived then in a very big house and finding mummy wasn’t always easy. On this occasion we found daddy first and had the following conversation:
“Daddy, where’s mummy?”
“She’s gone to do a bit of shopping.”
“When will she be back?”
“Quite soon, why do you want her?”
“We want to ask her something”
“Can’t you ask me instead?”
“You’ll only say no!”
We had a bit to learn about the art of communication and subterfuge!
It’s possible that we might think, from our Gospel reading, that Jesus is saying that whenever we ask our heavenly Daddy for something he will always say “yes”. We might have to be a bit persistent, make a bit of a nuisance of ourselves, but the answer will always be “yes” in the end.
But we all know that it doesn’t work out like that.
- A man prays that he will get the job he’s applied for after several months of unemployment, but someone else is appointed.
- A mother prays that her son will be kept safe when he rides his motorcycle but he’s killed in an accident.
All of us here probably have our own stories to tell of prayers prayed from the deepest places within us that seem to have been ignored or rejected by God.
As parents and adults we know that sometimes we have to say “no” when children ask for something:
“No, you can’t go to the park on your own.”
“No, you can’t stay at home every day, you have to go to school to learn.”
We say “no” for the safety or longer term benefit of the child even though the child doesn’t understand or accept our “no”.
So we might understand it if sometimes it seems that God says “no” to us without our understanding why. And we might understand it if sometimes it seems that God says “no” to us because he has something better in mind for us.
- But I was living with my parents when their eldest son, my oldest brother, was dying, aged 34, leaving 5 children, the youngest only just 4 months old when he died.
- I’ve seen friends facing the death of their husband or wife and the devastating loss they experience afterwards.
- And I know people with debilitating mental illnesses whose despair and unhappiness keep them shut up in a very dark place.
And I can’t see any reason or justification for God saying “no” to the anguished prayers offered for the recovery of these people.
Nevertheless, Jesus does say:
“Ask, and it will be given to you.”
He also says:
“If you … know how to give good gifts to your children how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
And these words might help us to think in a different way about prayer. I’d like to offer you some of my thoughts that come from own experience and the experiences other people have shared with me.
Jesus promises us that his Father will give his Holy Spirit to those who ask him. And if we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit we are caught up in the life of the Holy Trinity, One God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We are caught up in a life and a mystery far beyond our understanding or imagination, a life outside time and space. And because God is love, we are also caught up in the love of God that again surpasses our understanding.
So the God to whom we pray is the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen. But that doesn’t mean he’s not concerned with the lives of every single one of us. Jesus tells us that God is also “our Father in heaven” who knows us intimately: “even the hairs of your head are all counted” he says. Every single one of us matters to God more than we can know. He loves every single one of us with a love that cannot be broken. St Paul says, “I am convinced that there is nothing in death or life …. nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord”
Terrible things can and do happen: road accidents, serious physical and mental illnesses, and bereavement. But they cannot separate us from the love of God. When we face such dark times, when we’re feeling frightened, bereft, despairing, hurting or abandoned our God of love, our heavenly Father, is there beside us saying, “I am with you and I love you”. He is there and through his Holy Spirit he gives us each day the strength to keep going when we’re exhausted, enough hope to keep faith alive when we doubt his presence with us and enough comfort not to be completely overcome by despair.
I don’t believe that God puts us through dreadful experiences on purpose. What I have come to believe, though, is that into even the darkest places God brings his love, his light, his goodness and healing and out of that darkness he will bring something good and life-giving. Somehow suffering is redeemed and given meaning.
All this week I’ve been thinking about a very dear and special friend of mine who died of cancer 20 years ago last Monday. She had an unshakeable faith in the loving-kindness of God’s purposes for the whole of his creation. She believed with heart and soul that, in the words of Julian of Norwich:
“All shall be well
and all shall be well –
and thou shalt see it thyself
that all manner of things
shall be well.”
Sometimes I still have a sense of her saying to me now, “All is well” and I pray that I too will learn to trust in the love of God as completely as she always did.
Let’s end with a prayer of St Paul:
“Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”