493) Prayer and Faith

     Where I live in Minnesota we are again finding out what it is like to go without rain for a while.  There is not much one can do.  We can pray, of course, but we know what happens then.  We know that sometimes it rains and sometimes it doesn’t rain.  Anyone who knows the first thing about prayer knows that we are indeed commanded to pray, so we do pray.  But then we leave it in God’s hands, trusting that He knows more of the whole picture than we do.  Think about it— if everyone, all over the world, got just the right amount of rain all the time, there would be such a surplus of everything that crop prices would go down to practically nothing, and every farmer everywhere would go broke– and then what?  God has a lot to keep in mind as he decides how to answer our prayers, and we had best leave it in his hands.
     I am familiar what the Bible says about prayer, I’ve read many good books on prayer, and I have a bit of experience with prayer myself.  So I know a lot about prayer.  For example, I know enough not to make any guarantees about specific answers to prayer.  Prayer is a request, and a request is something that may or may not be granted.  And my theology is deep enough and broad enough to trust God even when I don’t get the answer that I request every time, or even part of the time.
     However, despite all of my education, experience, and theological depth, there is still a part of me that likes the old story about a little girl who trusted God to answer prayer, even though she had none of my theological sophistication.  The story takes place in another time when there was not enough rain.  It was, in fact, one of the very worst droughts in the history of our nation, during the Great Depression of the 1930’s.  People were already in deep financial trouble, and then the rain stopped; for weeks, then for months, and then it turned into several dry years in a row.  It was hard on the farmers, and therefore hard on the small towns that depended on the farm economy.  In this particular small town, the mayor called for a prayer meeting on the courthouse lawn.  All the people from all the churches in the area were called on to come together to pray for rain, and a huge crowd gathered.  Just as they were getting started, they were interrupted by a noisy little girl who was arriving late.  And she was late, she said, because she had gone home to get an umbrella.  Imagine that!  No one else thought to bring one.  Why should they?  It hadn’t rained in months and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.  And this was going to be nothing more than a prayer meeting, and who really expected anything to come of that?  But this little girl heard that they would be praying for rain, and so she thought she better bring an umbrella.  That’s faith.  Now, we all know that faith like that can get disappointed, and that’s why as we grow older our faith deepens.  I have faith, but I probably would not have thought to bring an umbrella that day.  But I still admire the faith of that little girl.  Her faith will also need to deepen as she grows, but she was absolutely right in being open to receiving something good from God that day
     Matthew 14:13-21 tells a similar story of faith in the miraculous feeding of the 5,000.  Verse 14 says that a huge crowd had followed Jesus to a remote place, desperate for his healing touch.  They had been with him all day, and now it was evening, they were hungry.  The disciples point this out to Jesus, suggesting that he call an end to the meeting, and send everyone home.  But Jesus says in verse 16:  “They do not need to go away– you give them something to eat.”  And the disciples brought to Jesus all that they had– five loaves of bread and two fish.
     You have to admire the disciples.  They did what they could with what they had, bringing it to Jesus and leaving it in his hands.  Then Jesus said a prayer of thanks for the meal, divided the loaves, gave the bread and fish to the disciples, and told them to give it to the people.  At that point, to even begin to hand out such a meager amount of food to 5,000 men plus women and children displays a faith on the part of the disciples similar to that of the little girl who brought the umbrella.  This was a test of their faith.  Jesus was often testing their faith and the disciples often failed the test.  But here they came through.  They stepped out in faith without knowing what would happen, and the loaves and fishes were multiplied thousands of times over.  Everyone ate and was full and the leftovers filled twelve baskets.
     We can learn much about faith and about prayer from these two stories.  The little girl and the disciples were ready to move forward in faith, even though it looked as if there would be no chance of success.  Sometimes such faith is blessed, and we want to be open to that.  And sometimes there is not a happy ending–  and that was the case even for Jesus.  One of the most famous prayers ever said by anyone was said by Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.  His request was that he would not have to endure the suffering that was before him.  And what happened?  Jesus did not get what he requested, the suffering came, and Jesus was ready to endure it.  He had prayed that it could be avoided, but then left it in his Father’s hands, saying “Not my will but thine be done.”
      When we pray we want to remain open to receiving great things from God, and, we want to be ready to leave the results in his hands, receiving from him whatever he does for us, or, allows to happen to us.  To put it simply, we might say, “Faith trusts, and faith adjusts.”  Then even as we adjust to whatever it is we receive from God, we continue to trust.  Jesus endured the suffering and on Good Friday he died.  But then on Easter Sunday he rose from the dead, victorious over the grave.  By believing in Jesus we have also the promise of victory over death.  There will be many ups and downs along the way, but in the end, we will not be disappointed.
     A pastor I know tells about a parishioner who stopped in to see him one day.  He said, “Pastor, you have been here a long time and I have learned much about faith from your preaching.”
     “Yes,” the pastor said, “you have heard a lot of sermons.”
     “Well,” said the man, “we’re about to find out if I am really on board with this faith.”
     “What do you mean?,” the preacher asked.
      “I just found out that I have cancer,” the man said, “and the doctors aren’t giving me any guarantees.  They think they might have detected it early enough, but they are not sure.  They want to do more tests, and then start some kind of treatment.  But, I can see that this is more than a medical matter for me.  This is my day for a religious exam.  We’re about to find out what my faith is made of, aren’t we?”
     The preacher agreed.  Such times give us an opportunity to do some deeper thinking about faith and prayer and how it works.  And for some, faith and prayer will lead to healing, unexpected, miraculous healing– as unexpected as 5,000 people being fed out of a single picnic basket.  Other times, healing does not come.  But even then, with faith in God, there is still a deeper hope.     
     After the funeral of her daughter who died in an accident a mother said, “I never thought much about the resurrection.  I never needed to– until now.  But now I see that everything depends on what I believe to be true about the end.”
     We pray and we trust; but no matter how God responds to our requests, we do not need to fear the next minutes because we know that God holds the last hour in his hand– and he has promised us life.  Believe it and you will be saved.
Revelation 1:17-18  —  …He placed his right hand on me and said:  “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last.  I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever!  And I hold the keys of death and Hades.”
Luke 11:9-10  —  (Jesus said),“So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.  For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.”
Romans 5:3-5  —  More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.
Luke 22:41-42  —   (Jesus) withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.”
 Our Father who art in heaven, Hallowed be Thy name, Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
 –Jesus, Matthew 6:9-10