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Father Knows Best: Does God Hear Me When I Pray?

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By Martin Elfert

Hey Rev!

Does God really hear me when I’m praying?

–  Ray

House-ad_SPO_FKB_new_0429139Dear Ray:

Yes.

At the end of C.S. Lewis’ classic, “Screwtape Letters,” the young man around whom the book’s cosmic struggle turns is killed in a bombing raid. The young man, now entered into new life, is surrounded by the heavenly host; all around him are what the Epistle to the Hebrews calls “a cloud of witnesses.” Except that the cloud is now made visible. Screwtape describes the young man’s experience:

…the gods are strange to mortal eyes, and yet they are not strange. He had no faintest conception till that very hour of how they would look, and even doubted their existence. But when he saw them he knew that he had always known them and realised what part each one of them had played at many an hour in his life when he had supposed himself alone, so that now he could say to them, one by one, not “Who are you?” but “So it was you all the time.”

Screwtape’s description, fictional though it may be, is remarkably consistent with the stories told by those who are resuscitated after a near-death experience: here is a deep sense of connectedness, of safety, of belovedness, of knowing and being known. Here is the experience of being home. Here is the knowledge, as the mystics have long taught us, that one of the greatest illusions that we endure in this life is the illusion that we are separate or alienated or alone.

If Lewis’ Screwtape and the many who have come back to tell us about the brink of death are right (for more on near-death experiences, see Patricia Pearson’s marvelously researched and compassionately written book, Opening Heaven’s Door), then what happens at the end of our lives holds at least big two lessons for us about prayer, about our ongoing conversation with God.

First, God listens always. God is not a harried bureaucrat, overwhelmed by the problems of the world, too busy with big problems to be bothered with you or with me. Heaven is not a call center that is experiencing unusually high call volume. We are heard. At the end of our days, we shall stand face to face with the one who has known us since before we were formed in our mothers’ wombs, who has shared in our suffering and our jubilation, who has been our friend since the beginning.

Second – and this part is harder – while the day will come when we stand amidst that cloud of witnesses and the whole story of our lives will make sense, that doesn’t mean that our stories will always make sense before then. My wife’s cousin just died abruptly. He was not yet 30, he was on the cusp of a hugely promising career as a doctor. And he peeled over dead without warning. At his funeral, one of the people who spoke gave name to our shocked hurt, to our mystification. He said that this was a death that we would be unable to understand for the rest of our lives, that it would make no sense this side of heaven.

While God does listen to our prayers – and while God does answer our prayers – God does not always answer them in a way that will strike a human being as coherent or even fair. As that flawed and wonderful Saint, Augustine of Hippo, put it all those years ago, “If you understand it, it’s not God.” I have asked God for enough things for which I longed – and then not received those things – to know that I don’t understand. I have prayed for enough sick people who desperately wanted to get better – and who did not get better – to know that I don’t understand. I find reassurance in the account that, as he endured the brutality of the cross, even Jesus did not understand: “Why?” he asked. “Why have you forsaken me?”

I don’t understand. But I do trust. (Those who know Latin tell us that Credo, from which we get the English word “Creed,” is best translated not “I believe” but, rather, “I trust.”) I trust that God is listening. I trust that God is answering – even when it is not the answer that I want. I trust that the day will come when you and I and everyone will stand amidst the company of heaven and we shall say, “So it was you all the time.”

About Martin Elfert

The Rev. Martin Elfert is an immigrant to the Christian faith. After the birth of his first child, he began to wonder about the ways in which God was at work in his life and in the world. In response to this wondering, he joined Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he and his new son were baptized at the Easter Vigil in 2005 and where the community encouraged him to seek ordination. Martin served on the staff of the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Spokane, Wash. from 2011-2015. He is now the rector of Grace Memorial Episcopal Church in Portland, Oreg.

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