A number of summers ago when all the children were still home, and every day was marked by swim team practice, and every week was marked by Wednesday nights gathered with a small band of friends who wanted only to sit at the feet of Jesus, we got a call that changed the way I thought about prayer.
A two-year old little boy had wandered to the backyard of his grandparents’ home and fallen into the pool. He had been rescued, but was on life support.
We gathered the children together and we prayed. And for the next days we didn’t stop praying. We joined with others in the waiting room and prayed. We gathered with our friends and prayed. We set our clocks to get up in the middle of the night and prayed. We joined the precious mom and dad at the bedside of their son, attached to monitors and kept alive by machines that whirred and beeped, and prayed.
We prayed boldly.
We prayed hopefully.
We prayed expectantly.
And then we received word , that Friday at 5pm, they would turn off the machines and see if this little boy would get a Lazarus story.
I was home at the time getting ready to speak. Mid-afternoon it began to sprinkle. Our home was located in a beautiful corner of the world where it was common to see a rainbow or two when afternoon showers rolled in. As the rain loosened the Virginia clay, I ran outside to look for a rainbow. I believed God would give us a rainbow as a sign that this child would have a Lazarus story. There was no rainbow.
But I didn’t give up hoping, praying. God doesn’t always give the sign we want, even when he’s going to do a Lazarus.
I had to leave the house just they were turning off life support. As I drove, the afternoon shower gave way to a torrential downpour like I hadn’t seen all summer. The sky darkened, the clouds roiled, the thunder cracked, and lighting split the sky. And I knew. He was gone.
And he was.
After the funeral, I stood with his mother by the tiny casket as we gazed at this beautiful boy, so full of life only days before. And she said, “Cindy, I believe that if God wanted to, he could still raise him from the dead.” And I did too. But this wasn’t a Lazarus story. As much as we prayed it would be.
And I wondered about prayer. Were we wrong to pray with such faith? Such belief? Perhaps if we had prayed longer, or harder, or on our knees …
But then as I read of the night Jesus spent in the Garden, sweating blood and praying,
Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. “Abba, Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” Mark 14:35-36
Jesus prayed boldly, hopefully, expectantly. And this is what we do too.
If you’re hoping for a Lazarus story, let me tell you what I learned that summer.
The Father delights in our bold prayers. He is our Abba Father, our Daddy. He wants us to come to him and pour out our hearts. Praying for healing and life is good. We don’t need to shy back from praying boldly.
The Father sees beyond our spoken prayers. He knows the inclination of our heart. He knows if we desire his will above all else. We don’t need to say it all the time. We just need to live it.
The Father isn’t impressed by formulaic prayers. He’s not going to be moved to give us what we ask for if we pray in a certain position, or with a certain phrase, or in a certain place. We don’t need to worry that we didn’t pray in the “right” way. We just need to pray.
The Father is not looking to us to save his reputation. We prayed for this sweet child to live, and God said, “No.” He doesn’t need for us to make excuses for him, or change the way we tell the story so that God looks better. His ways are sometimes (often?) simply beyond our understanding.
The Father shapes our heart as we pray. When our prayers are honest and real and raw, and we look like children climbing into our Daddy’s lap, then we find that we learn to trust the Father, even when he says, “No.”
The Father welcomes our mess as we pray. He’s not overwhelmed by our emotions. He’s not displeased with our confusion, or grief, or anger even. We are never too much for him. You are never too much for him.
And I’m wondering about you today. Has God’s “No” left you disillusioned? Wondering if prayer makes a difference? If God really is good? Powerful? Real? Has his “No” made you run away, or at least hold him at arm’s length. Perhaps you still believe in some vague way, but you just don’t believe you can trust him. You think he’s real, but you doubt he loves you. If your hope for a Lazarus story has hardened into a tight knot of bitterness, I’d like to ask you to turn back to God. Climb into his arms. He loves you. And he’s waiting for you. Maybe the Lazarus story is actually your own.