I have a bit of a confession to make: whenever I pray out loud in front of other people, I always try to prepare ahead of time. I used to write out whole paragraphs and sentences. These days, I still jot a few notes to myself if I can. I don’t do this when I pray privately, but in public, especially when I’m praying for other people or their loved ones, I always want to present my perfect prayer both to them and to God.
Writing prayers ahead of time isn’t an offense by itself. It’s my need to speak perfectly that reveals my pride (and insecurity). We don’t need to be perfect in order for God to hear us in our suffering. What’s important is that we turn to prayer instead of giving up and that we are honest with ourselves and with God. Because God is there waiting for us, asking us to open the door to this relationship even when times are hard. In fact, when we are suffering the most and feel the most alone and are at our most incoherent, God reaches out to comfort us and listens to our prayers however they are and offers us provision and offers us faith.
In 1 Kings there is a story of a widow who lives alone with her son in a land completely destroyed from drought. Elijah, who prophesied this drought, comes to her and asks for some bread to eat. She says, basically, I have nothing to give you and I am about to go home to die.
This woman is at her end. She has lost her husband. She is about to die of starvation and she can’t provide for her son. But Elijah tells her to make him some bread and tells her that if she does this, God will provide for her. Can you imagine giving your last morsel of food to a stranger asking you to have faith in God? After almost every conceivable suffering has already befallen you?
She does so, welcoming Elijah into her home. And then her jar of flour and jug of oil become bottomless and she is able to feed her family and this stranger from then on. But one day her son gets incredibly sick and she yells out in her anger, “What do you have against me, man of God? Did you come to remind me of my sin and kill my son?”
Elijah too cries out, “Lord, my God, have you brought tragedy on this widow I am staying with, by causing her son to die?”
These are far from the perfect prayers, but they are exactly what we need to do in our times of suffering. Instead of turning away, we continue the conversation with God even in our anger and despair. We yell about how unfair it all is and ask why God has forsaken us. When we are honest with God and then wait and listen and are welcoming, God responds.
God working through Elijah brings the widow’s son back to life. Then the widow tells Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the Lord from your mouth is the truth.” She has received tangible gifts, but what she has received most deeply is faith.
What is it that you fear happening the most right now? There are a lots of worst case scenarios running through my head each day: the mental, physical and spiritual deterioration of ourselves and our communities, sickness, unemployment, death, civil war, the destruction of our planet by climate change. These are not really carefree times.
What if any of those things happened? They could happen. We aren’t really in control of any of that. And God doesn’t promise us to always send in an Elijah to tangibly resurrect our losses. But God does promise to find us in our times of greatest suffering, to stay with us, to suffer with us, to never leave us alone. And in our turn, we can look for God instead of allowing our fears to guide us. It doesn't really matter what words we use or how nice our prayers sound but that we are turning to God. We can listen well and welcome God into our anxiety and our suffering.
Instead of trying to predict the future or assuming that we aren’t vulnerable all the time, we can focus each day on deepening our relationship with God. Whether we are distracted wishing for the most amazing thing or worrying about the worst, we can know that we walk each step at Jesus’s side. And that if we turn towards God always, God is always there for us and will fill our empty jars and give us the gift of faith.
by Dianne Garcia, Pastor of Family Ministry