05 October 2013

Of Mulberry Trees and Prayers

The young man sat across from me and described to me how he lost his faith.

“I had the faith that Jesus asked me: and I asked him for things.  And he didn’t answer.  My pastor couldn’t give me answer. And I’m not a Christian any longer.”

And what could I say to this?
While we may not have given up our own faith because we don’t think God is listening to our prayers, we all have the experience in our prayers of not being heard: we ask for miracles of healing, for a son or daughter to break the bonds of addiction, for a promotion for a spouse so that we can make ends meet.  And then, the promotion doesn’t happen, the sickness isn’t cured, or a million other little prayers seemingly go unheard by the Almighty.

And we’re left to wonder: why isn’t my prayer working?  Is it a lack of faith? Is it because I haven’t said the right words or used the right formula?  Or have I just not prayed hard enough, long enough or passionately enough?  But in the end, these questions all find their end in one feeling: God hasn’t answered my prayer – how do I know that I’m not being ignored?

This is the exactly the question that the prophet Habakkuk asks in the first reading today.  He shouts, “How long O Lord I cry for help but you do not listen!”  Habakkuk speaks these words after being called by God to be a prophet, and having his message ignored by the people.  Even worse, all of the promises that Habakkuk makes on behalf of God don’t come true: this prophet looks like an absolute fool.  Habakkuk’s response to this is so absolutely human, that it may be on any of our lips, I know they have been on mine:  “Why do you let me see ruin; why must I look at misery?” In other words, God, if we really have a relationship, why are things going in this way?

So often, we ask these questions, not just as a one-time experience, but also in some very major ways; or in the many little ways that our prayers seem to go unanswered everyday.  As if this situation needed to be sharpened further, our Gospel seems to be telling us that we when our prayers haven’t been answered, it is because we lack the necessary amount of faith: the mulberry trees of our broken relationships, bad habits and broken dreams haven’t moved into the ocean precisely because we are doing something wrong.

We all know the feeling that takes over us when our prayers don’t seem to be working.  However, today’s readings aren’t describing for us a cause and effect: do this, say that, believe something else and then get something in return.  The true nature of our relationship with God is not like this at all.  Rather, God is calling us into a relationship this morning when we are able to listen to what God calls us to be: beloved daughters and sons who are readily available to serve those around us with the confidence that comes with knowing we are the friends of God.  

And so we sing, “If today we hear God’s voice, let us harden not our hearts” in the psalm.  By singing this – by praying this – we are reminding ourselves that prayer isn’t primarily about what we want or what we need.  It isn’t about the personal projects in our lives, no matter how worthy they may be: first and foremost, our prayer is about being able to listen to and understand what is God’s prayer for us. 

I guess what I’m trying to say is that it is a really tough challenge presented in today’s Scriptures that sometimes our prayers seem to go unanswered. At the same time, an equally trying situation is when God’s call in our lives – to conversion – goes unheard. And so, quite practically, I’d suggest three ways to make our prayer different this week: quiet, bold and honest. 

Make it quiet so that we can listen, turning off the noise around us, even if it’s at the bus stop itself to consider how God may be wishing to speak to our hearts…

Make it bold, daring God to show us how to give our very best to others – whether it be in our relationships with those we know or to those who suffer who we do not know…

And make it honest: let God see those places in our hearts that have gone hard: those places where we are unable to forgive or offer kind words or even those times we believe we’ve gotten the short end of the stick from God.

In other words, the first step of growing our relationship with God this week will not come from learning how to speak to mulberry trees, but instead inviting God into our increasing quiet, bold and honest prayer lives. 

And if we do this, we’ll find in time that mulberry trees don’t need to planted in the sea; but our hearts do need to be softened.  Thankfully, that’s a prayer that, when made, God will always answer.


Ron Martel said...

Thanks Matt. Just came back from church and God only knows what the Indian priest was saying. So frustrating. Glad I found this homily. Ron

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