Written by: Rachael Keefe

The Simple Complexity of Prayer

Okay. I’ll say it. I have some trouble with these kinds of scripture passages. It’s hard to know what to make of the stories where the impossible is prayed for …

The Simple Complexity of Prayer

baby-499976_1920Okay. I’ll say it. I have some trouble with these kinds of scripture passages. It’s hard to know what to make of the stories where the impossible is prayed for and God responds favorably. Hannah was barren. She promised to give God her child if God would grant her one. Shortly thereafter, Hannah conceives Samuel. It’s hard. As one who is childless it’s even harder. All those prayers that filled my heart and mind for so long… What made Hannah so deserving?

I can’t help but think that there is something else happening in this story. Maybe it’s more about Samuel than about Hannah. But the nagging question is still there. You know the one – “What must I do to get God to answer my prayers like that?” It’s a question that many of us have in one form or another. Prayer is tricky business and Bible passages like this one are distracting if not downright deceiving.

Looking back on my life, I can see where prayers were answered and I didn’t notice. Sometimes the answer wasn’t clear for years and sometimes it was right there, possibly before the prayer formed on my lips. But there were some big ones, like having a child, that went unanswered. Sure, I made choices along the way that hindered the process, but God is bigger than that, right? Just ask Hannah.

I used to believe that I was not good enough, that I did not deserve to have God answer my prayers. During those years I also believed that my faith was inadequate as well. Who wouldn’t? Women like Hannah and Sarah and Elizabeth had their prayers for children answered. So if mine remained unanswered the fault had to be with me, not with God. Fortunately, I didn’t get stuck in this self-blaming space forever.

Prayer in and of itself is easy enough. There’s no wrong way or wrong time to do it. It’s merely a conversation with God. Most of us don’t spend enough time listening to God, but that doesn’t make our prayers insufficient or unworthy of a response. So why are some prayers answered and some not?

I don’t know. I can rationalize an answer pretty well, though. I can say that God has an inordinate number of prayers that need attention and some get missed or delayed. I can also say that we put a lot of stuff between ourselves and God that make the responses hard to perceive sometimes. I can also suggest that the Bible stories that have direct answer to prayers are a distillation of events and offered from the writers’ perspectives. These sound good on the surface, but, ultimately, I have to return to the simple fact that I do not know.

On the other hand, I do know that God answers prayers. While I do not have children of my own, I’ve been blessed in many ways. It is too late for me to give birth, however, God could have something in mind for me that I am completely unaware of in terms of children in my life. A saying attributed to St. Augustine, “If your desire is without ceasing, then the prayer is without ceasing,” gives me hope. There are multiple ways for prayers to be answered and hindsight is often the only way to see how and when they’ve been answered.

God is more mystery than we want to acknowledge. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t pray for things we want and need. I don’t recommend the bargaining kind of prayer, but God hears the need no matter what words we use. Even though I remain childless, I believe fully that God hears our prayers and responds to our needs. Things get in the way of what God would want for us all the time. This doesn’t mean that God is not responding. It just means we might have to look harder or wait longer or be willing to accept a very creative answer.

Hannah received the child she asked for according to the story in 1 Samuel. She is a model of earnest prayer for sure, but there were other reasons for telling this story that had little to do with Hannah. Had she written an account of her desire for a child, it might look a lot different. If your prayers seem to be going unanswered, don’t blame yourself or think that God does not care. Take a breath, listen to the silence, and then look to see where your life has been touched by Mystery. You’ll likely find your answer there. If not, there’s still time. Who knows what blessings God has in store…20131019_150318

RCL – Year B – Twenty-fifth Sunday After Pentecost – November 15, 2015
1 Samuel 1:4-20
1 Samuel 2:1-10
Daniel 12:1-3
Psalm 16
Hebrews 10:11-14 [15-18] 19-25
Mark 13:1-8

Top photo from Pixabay. Used by permission.
Bottom photo is my own.

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About Rachael Keefe

Rachael is an author, a pastor, a teacher, and a poet. Her latest book (The Lifesaving Church - Chalice Press) is on faith and suicide prevention. She is currently the pastor of Living Table UCC in Minneapolis, and has launched a spiritual direction practice.

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