Why Can’t I Get A Dog?

Grace Lindvall
(Matthew 7: 7-11; Romans 8: 18-28)

“This is how the pendulum slowly shifts in the other direction, by the very act of howling in the wind, which always blows back eventually, a breeze carrying seeds.” Anne Lamott

Will you pray with me? God of the faithful, God of the doubters, and God of the in between, pour your Spirit upon us that we may be more than hearers of your word today. Sit with us, guide us, encourage us, comfort us, and discomfort us by speaking to us in new and fresh ways this day. Move your Spirit that we may be empowered to be your disciples in the world. Amen.

Why Can’t I Get A Dog? This question intrigued me the moment I saw it nearly 2 years ago as I thumbed through a handful of index cards filled with the honest doubts of our congregation. Written in thin pencil lines in characteristic children’s handwriting filling out just one small line on the index card was the doubt, “why can’t I get a dog?” My first inclination was, I should find this child’s parent and tell them, “hey, just wanted to tell you, get your kid a dog and they’ll believe in God.” But as I read through the rest of those cards in April 2017 I noticed that this sentiment rang true for many of us in our doubts.

Why.

Why are things not as they should be? Why are these things that seem so right and good for me and the world, why aren’t they happening. Why isn’t God listening to me!? Why are my prayers unanswered?

Two weeks ago I stood around the bedside of a young faithful dying man. Many of you know the amazing care our church gave to him in his final months. As I stood at his side, I stood with saints of our church and his grieved family members. The time was nearing, the hospice staff had told us, it wouldn’t be long now. Many shed tears for the life that was being lost too soon, and many shed tears for the pain they saw in their friend’s face. As I prepared to leave, we held hands around his bed, we shared scripture together, I offered a prayer gently nudging God to welcome him home, to relieve him of his earthly suffering, to show him the promise and hope of the resurrection and eternal life. We held our hands tighter together as we began reciting the Lord’s prayer. I fully expected and hoped to open my eyes at the resounding Amen of the gathered people and watch our friend breathe his last breath; I hoped and prayed for it. We prayed with many saints, we prayed hard, relieve him of this pain. And yet, it didn’t happen as I had prayed, as I had thought was fair and right.

Perhaps you’ve prayed fervently like that as well:
Please God, rid me of this loneliness.
Dear God please, please, help me find a job.
God, I am suffering, relieve me of the pain of watching my loved one suffer from cancer.
Or a prayer request we receive often from our Room Inn the Inn guests, “God, please help me find housing and safety.”

Why do these prayers go unanswered so often? Why, when they are prayed feverishly and hopefully? Why, when they are well intentioned, things that are good for the individuals and the world? Why do so many of our good prayers go unanswered?

I must say to whomever this young theologian who asked the question, “why can’t I get a dog?” thank you. Thank you for the question, thank you for the honesty, thank you for asking what so many of us want to know – why do we bother praying if the results don’t seem to come? Where is God in my unanswered prayers?

There are a few schools of thought on what prayer is, on what it does, on how we ought to pray, and on what happens when we do pray. We hear a bit about it in the scriptures just read from Matthew and from Romans.

Paul gives a few glimmers of insight into prayer. First, he tells us that the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words” and second, he reminds us that God searches our hearts knows the mind of Christ and so that Spirit intercedes in our prayers according to the will of God.

Writer Annie Lamott says in her book Help Thanks Wow that “Prayer means that, in some unique way, we believe we are invited into a relationship with someone who hears us when we speak in silence.”

But still, what happens when we pray? What is going on?

There is a school of thought that when we pray, the angel lobbyists take our prayer cases to God and plead them to God who then changes God’s mind based on the angel lobbyist’s work.

However that school of thought feels a bit more like give and take, as if we can control what God will do. Writer Lillian Daniel who pastors a church in Glen Ellyn Illinois writes in her book When Spiritual But Not Religious is Not Enough makes a good point she says, “Sometimes we pray to God with so much specificity, it sounds like we are lecturing a sloppy subordinate at work about when and where to show up for the key event”

There is another school of thought that when we pray, it is we who are changed and that is the effect of prayer.

This makes a lot of sense to me, that in prayer, in my deep reflection with God, I would find some new understanding. But still, it leaves me wanting more, hoping for more, frankly, needing more. If prayer is just about me growing , why don’t I spend my time at a yoga class instead? Why don’t I meditate or spend some time journaling? There must be more to prayer than simply changing me.

Reading Paul’s words to the Romans, I find something in the in between. Something in between prayer simply helping us to change our mind and prayer simply being a question of who can pray the most or the hardest to get what they want.

Lillian Daniel tells a story in her book about a seminary intern who took the prayer requests one Sunday. The church prayed the written prayer requests during the prayers of intercession and petition in worship. The intern found himself struggling to pronounce the complex Polish name of one of the beloved congregants on the prayer list that week; the congregation over time had learned its proper pronunciation but the intern not yet. He tried one attempt, failed, sighed, tried another, failed tried again and simply could not get it. She writes, “finally he let out an exasperated sigh that the whole congregation was relieved to hear, since it meant he would stop trying. He looked up to the heavens and said, ‘Oh God, you know what this woman’s name is.” Now that was an honest prayer, the sigh of frustration and the trust in God. Daniels writes, “He was being honest in his emotions in the middle of a prayer, and trusting that God could take care of the details.”

So consider this sermon an invitation to honest prayer. That as we wrestle with the question of unanswered prayers and God’s work in the power of prayer, we find ourselves empowered to try our hand at honest prayer. I am not here to judge whose prayers are honest and whose are not, I think the prayer for a dog may be very honest whereas a prayer for comfort in times of hardship may not be, that’s not my job to decide. I am also not saying that God is looking down at us and discerning our prayers for their honesty and relevancy, but I do think when we really truly honestly pray we open ourselves up to a connection that is beyond our understanding where we will find answers and questions. Where we will find comfort and we will be discomforted. But that is the nature of prayer, it is honest, not fabricated, it is connectional, not transactional.

I believe prayer is most importantly a connection, a conversation, an understanding. A connection between us mere humans and God. And that within that connection, amazing and unexplainable things begin to happen. Sometimes those amazing things are God removing the plaque built around our hardened hearts that have come to detest someone or something. Sometimes that connection means God hears our exasperated pains and sighs and cries with us and in that unison cry we find comfort. And sometimes in that deep connection with God, God hears our desperate needs and the Spirit works amazing things and the world around us changes according to God’s will and God’s magnificent power.

But still the question remains – why can’t I get a dog? Why do my honest prayers go unanswered. Simply put, I do not know, I do not know why the homeless woman’s fervent prayer for housing has not been answered. I do not know why this young doubter cannot get a dog. I do not know why our loved one’s body is not rid of the cancer you’ve been praying to go away. But I do offer some thoughts on where God might be in the midst of unanswered prayers. The idea that God answered my prayers in ways I did not even know. Foster says again, “Our prayers are indeed answered, but we lack the eyes to see it. God understands the deeper intent of our prayers and so responds to this greater need, which, in its time and in its way, solves our specific prayer concern….a part of our petition must always be for an increasing discernment, so that we can see things as God sees them.”

While I was doing my field education in Trenton, NJ, one of my duties was to help prepare for Sunday School. One day as I was in the mismatched marker box, I found a lost little scrap of paper. The Sunday School class had done a display about prayer a few weeks ago and on it had written either their prayers or their thoughts on prayer. It had been hanging in the hall for a bit now, surrounding a big could that said “Prayer” were tiny little clouds that said things like “I pray for my Mommy and Daddy” or “I pray for my friend Ava.” But in the mismatched marker box on that lost prayer cloud I found the profound words of another young theologian that said, “I prayed so hard God answered me in a different way.”

The second thought is the common notion “thank God, God did not answer my prayers.” Richard Foster writes again, “Sometimes our prayers, if answered, would do us in. We simply are not yet prepared for what we have asked.”

But when those responses fail you and you still wonder why, why are things the way they are, why is God not doing something with these fervent and heartfelt prayers. When the cries of “why” are so deep they hurt, find comfort in knowing that God cried with us. That the cry “why!?” shouted in anguish was also cried by our Lord as he hung on the cross and cried out with all of humanity “my God my God why, why have you forsaken me.” Find comfort in the solidarity of Jesus’ cry why. Find comfort in the spirit’s sighs that are too deep for words, for they are the sighs of pain that understand the struggle. For the Spirit groans from the load that we are unable to bear: our sins, our pains, our troubles, all the scars of life.

Somewhere in our honest prayers, God is at work. We simply won’t always know how but we must know it to be true.