- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 12, 2004

The following are excerpts of a sermon given recently by the Rev. Gregory L. Adkins at Fairlington United Methodist Church in Alexandria.

I was drawn like a bee to nectar to an article titled “The Gift of Unanswered Prayer.”

I summarize the article this way: Sometimes God’s “no” is exactly what we need. The basis of the article is a story about a mother’s 3-year-old son who is dying of an incurable disease. The mother believes that God can answer her prayer and heal her dying son. Who would surrender such hope? The mother says that she prays “with all the power of her soul.” Then she makes this confession. “Although I pray, somewhere deep within, I fear that God will not move the mountain, that God will not act according to my desires, but according to God’s own will.” Eventually her son dies, and she questions why the God to whom she prays allows this to happen.

In this same article, the author goes on to say that sometimes God says “no” because our prayers are selfish. There is, of course, some truth to that. We pray for victories in elections as if God controls the ballot box. In advance of their win over the Yankees during the American League Championship series, I even heard the mayor of Boston say, “Dear Lord, it’s been 86 years, please help our team to win.”

Selfish prayers are prayers that prop us up at the expense of others. We observe such kinds of prayers in sports, politics and religion, where some are winners and some are losers.

Yet, are there not unselfish prayers? Are not prayers for peace and justice unselfish? Yet, these prayers often sound like a “no” as we see the deaths of warriors and citizens. Is it justice that any 3-year-olds should die or that children go to bed hungry?

Snuggled between two mountains, the “Church of God that Jesus Built” welcomes 40 to 50 people into its white frame as the sun begins to hide its bright face behind a distant mountain. This is the Wednesday-night prayer meeting. Out under a large oak tree, the men’s cigarette smoke drifts in the evening air while they debate the current price of coal that is the foundation of their living. Inside, the musicians tune their guitars and begin to sing — a sign that the service is starting. The spirited voices sing “Sweet Hour of Prayer” as if it really is. The praying is loud, as if God is hard of hearing. But what’s curious is the length of time spent talking about “answers” to prayers. It seems like everyone they had prayed for since last week’s prayer meeting is healed of some dreadful disease.

Answers to prayer drift down around them like leaves shedding off an October tree. It appears that the aim of praying is to parade answers that match with our expectations.

But the small church also holds those who don’t speak of answers to prayer. I listen closely as they say, “Please pray for,” and they rattle off a series of names they had been praying for as long as most could remember. They ask for prayers for peace and wisdom when it’s hard to find both. Up until that moment I never heard anyone say, “I prayed, and things did not turn out as I wished.”

Up until that moment, I never heard anyone imply that the aim of praying isn’t about how things turn out today. I learned that sometimes the “amen” at the end of our praying is more of a question mark than an exclamation point. Luke’s parable [Luke 18:1-8] says, “In a certain city there was a judge who did not fear God and had no respect for people.” …

Entering into this unjust judge’s courtroom is a woman. She does not give up. She does not take “no” for an answer. We imagine that after days, weeks and months of pleading, the judge gives in. From his chambers, he’s heard to say in a voice so loud that it puts fear in all who hear. “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.”

Our Lord turns to those who pray weekly in sanctuaries, homes and hospitals and to some who are ready to depart from the road of faith. He turns to all who have been told that the aim of praying is to get the answers now and still have no answers. He turns to those who have been taught that God says “no” to moms who pray for their children to be healed. He turns and says: If the unjust judge vindicates the widow, how much more will God grant justice to His chosen ones who cry to Him night and day? If answers to our prayers drop around our feet like leaves from an October tree, we would not need a story on persistent faith. Christians end their praying with an “amen” as a sign that we leave the outcome to a loving God.

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