Thursday, March 4, 2010

Chelsea King -- When the Heavens Seem Silent

For those who don't live here in San Diego, Chelsea King was a precious 17 year old girl who was abducted and murdered in a popular community park in upscale Rancho Bernardo last week.  From the moment her parents discovered her empty car in the parking lot well after the time she should have been home, and knew something had gone awry, prayer began to ascend to the heavens for her safe return.  Word went out rapidly via email and text, and groups sprang up everywhere -- from vigils at the high school to huddles of moms in homes to churches across the nation on Sunday morning.  We all held out hope against hope that she would be found alive, even after they arrested a suspect.  Sadly, Chelsea was probably killed long before the first prayer was uttered on her behalf.

What was God doing?  What was happening in the heavens as untold numbers cried out?  These are difficult things, troubling situations that are impossible to understand or explain without running the risk of being cliche or insensitive or deepening the wounds that are still so very raw and painful for those who loved Chelsea.  This is surely not the time for bystanders to opine with pat answers.

But as it turns out, in the study I'm doing in Matthew this week, Jesus addresses the issue of prayer, exposing a critical myth.  Simply put, it is the notion that our ability to get God to hear us is related to something we do.  In the particular case He mentions, people supposed that the more they repeated their prayers, the better their chance that God would hear and answer. Eugene Peterson interpreted Jesus' words this way:

The world is full of so-called prayer warriors who are prayer-ignorant. They're full of formulas and programs and advice, peddling techniques for getting what you want from God. Don't fall for that nonsense. This is your Father you are dealing with, and he knows better than you what you need.  (Matthew 6:7-9)

From there, Jesus goes on to offer the simple model prayer that most of us learned to recite as children.  The implications here are far-reaching.  I, for example, am ever prone to think that the words I say, or the amount of times I ask, or even the number of people I can get to agree with me in prayer will determine whether God responds or not. As I, like many others, have been consumed by the tragedy of Chelsea King, I realized that there may be those who struggle even now with the fact that the heavens seemed mute when there were literally thousands of requests that went up daily for Chelsea's safety. Frankly, it can be easy to get disillusioned with prayer, and perhaps even God himself when these things happen.

Years ago I wrote a book called Intimate Intercession, in which I set out to take a look at some tough questions.  What makes God answer some prayers and not others?  Why does He tell us to keep asking and seeking and knocking, if He isn't moved by the number of our words?  Why does He call us to persist in prayer, yet offer no fail-proof promise that when we do, we will get the things we ask for?  In the end, I was compelled to begin the book by confessing that I simply did not have the all the answers I had hoped to find.

The fact that there were thousands praying for Chelsea cannot possibly mean God was more inclined to care about her family than the plethora of parents in Haiti for whom no one had time to intercede as they watched their children die in the earthquake.  A God of compassion, His heart has surely hurt for them all.  Why the answers did not come is something hidden for now from human understanding -- for us to claim otherwise would be the worst kind of presumption.

But there are some things I know -- that God is sovereign, that He is good, that He does hear and answer prayer and that He desires to involve us in the process of accomplishing His purposes through intercession and supplication. Still, trying to put all these things together in some kind of a neat package is a dangerous endeavor. What I am convinced of however, is that God wants us to come to Him, in fact He yearns for us to unveil our hearts in His presence and share with Him our deepest needs, even though, as Jesus pointed out, He already knows what they are. And should He choose to answer in the way we have hoped for, it is always out of the bounty of His grace and goodness and eternal wisdom -- never because of how well we manage to order our prayer lives. 

So let us keep praying -- for Chelsea's mother and father and younger brother and all those who have been personally affected by her passing.  Let us pray for the teenagers who are asking questions about the meaning of life and for the community that has come together in a way many say is unprecedented.  And let us not forget to pray for the salvation of John Albert Gardner and for his parents who have had to flee the area -- they too must be unimaginably devastated.  And as we pray, may we draw near to the heart of our God who though we may not always understand, surely waits to offer solace to all who come to Him in this time of desperate need.