It would have been tough call even if I’d been in a ‘good place’ but I wasn’t. I was feeling battered, weak, inadequate and ineffective. God hadn’t seemed to be answering my prayers either for myself or for anyone else I prayed for. Disheartened wouldn’t be too strong a word for how I felt. However three days before the sermon, I went on a retreat day. I was still ranting on about what on earth I could say and generally moaning about a heap of other stuff God didn’t seem to care about. My spiritual director listened carefully, made several wise observations but most importantly sent me out to spend three hours in a beautiful garden. I was given an orange blanket and a copy of Henri Nouwen’s In the Name of Jesus. Wrapped in the blanket and looking for all the world like the victim of some natural disaster, I soaked up the spring sunshine and read the book (wonderful, wonderful book). Better though than the book, the blanket or the garden was Jesus himself who came to sit with me.
Well, I did go on to write the sermon, although I don’t for a moment think that God turned up just so I’d have something to say. He came because I needed to be reminded that he was on my side. And he didn’t just say it once: the following day, I ‘chanced’ to pick up a true story I myself had written 16 years ago, I’d forgotten all about this incident but reading it again was like an echo of my conversation with Jesus the day before.
It’s all about how we feel when God seems not to come through for us:
Matthew my son started nursery age 3. He is now 19 and yes, he has given permisson for me to tell this story. Matthew didn’t want to go to nursery. He found the idea of being left in a strange place with lots of noisy children quite unpalatable. It didn’t do him any good to tell him about the sand-pit, or the train set, the Lego or the playdough: as far as he was concerned the only good thing about nursery was coming home at the end. As it seemed unrealistic to expect him to enjoy it, I turned my attention to reassuring him that he would survive it. I found out that the session always ended with a group story time, so I promised him that ‘Mummy would come back after the story’. This reassured him on two counts. It told him I would come back and when I would come back, 11.45 being a bit meaningless to a three year old. So leading up to his first day, we repeated this promise like a mantra, ‘So you’ll come back after the story?’ ‘Yes, I’ll come back after the story’.
On his first day I left him making a noble attempt to be very brave, mouthing the words of the well-worn promise through the window at him as I left. He nodded solemnly. What happened next was recounted to me by the nursery leader when I duly returned at the appointed time.
Matthew had made the best of the situation for about half an hour and had then decided he’d had enough and ‘could he please go home now?’ Faithful to the formula I’d given him he’d trotted over to the book corner, selected a story and put himself on the knee of an unsuspecting helper. Quite naturally, she read him the story. When they reached the end he looked round expectantly and then burst into tears. ‘Mummy said she’d come back after the story’ he managed to blurt out between heart-rending sobs. He had not been able to make Mummy magically reappear and it had taken the helpers a good twenty minutes to calm him down.*
It can often feel that God lets us down in the same way that I let Matthew down that day. He fails to come through for us in the way we’d like and our distress is made all the greater when we shake our fist and say ‘You promised…’ God has indeed given us many wonderful promises about his love and his power but we cannot control God by quoting these at him. When God isn’t answering our prayers we have to conceed we may not know the full story. We trust in people who know more than us. That’s why phrases like ‘Trust me I’m a doctor’ or ‘Trust me I’m your mother’ work. On that afternoon in the garden, it was as if Jesus was saying ‘Trust me, I’m your friend’. If you’re not given the miracle you want, can you trust me enough to receive the miracle of my transforming presence in the midst of pain and confusion?
If you want to hear the sermon, here’s the link. If it doesn’t work just go to m20 on my website list. It’s called ‘Signs and Wonders in the Early Church’ but ‘When God’s not answering your prayers’ would have been a more accurate title.
*First published in The Art of Imperfect Parenting by Sheila Bridge Hodder and Stoughton 1995