Saturday, July 31, 2010

Unanswered Prayer and Acceptance (18.C)

Lately, I’ve been having a lot of car trouble, so people have started telling me car jokes. The best of them was about the minister who went to the local garage. He said “I hope you won’t charge too much to fix my car. I’m just a poor preacher.”

“I know that,” replied the mechanic. “But I’ll give you a discount anyway.”

Whether or not I am a “poor preacher” is a matter of opinion, but one thing’s for sure: last week’s homily hit home for many of you. After the 10 o’clock Mass, one parishioner told her husband he had to come to the 5 to hear the homily—and he’d already been to Mass elsewhere!

I know why the response was so strong. It wasn’t what I said: it was the topic, unanswered prayer.

Lots of time I preach to only half of the congregation. I might be talking about raising children to single people, or about the challenges of the single life to married people. But when I talked about unanswered prayer I was speaking to everyone, since nobody over the age of three hasn’t prayed for something and not got it.

Last week I tried to talk about what prayer is not. To quote another preacher’s sermon that I found on the internet , prayer is not a lottery. It’s not twisting God's arm to make Him do what we want. Prayer is not an automatic guarantee of success.

This week I would like to offer the other side of the story on prayer. If prayer isn’t what we thought it was, then what good is it?

I’d answer this way: Prayer isn’t about getting what we want nearly as much as it’s about wanting what we get.

That’s a mouthful, but you can boil it down to one word: acceptance. As I’ve said before, acceptance is the key to peace in the face of worry, misfortune, and every other form of human suffering and trial.

And this not a new idea. It is the heart of the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, which have delivered countless thousands from the bonds of addiction to alcohol and many other things. It is the message of the famous Serenity Prayer, which begins “Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change…”

But how, you might ask, can I accept the unacceptable? How can I accept the bad hand life has dealt me, the injustices, the sorrows? It’s certainly not easy; I think we’ve all met people who have given up on God when misfortune overwhelmed them.

The answer lies in the providence of God, that “quality of God’s action by which he brings good out of evil, or by which He permits us to do evil so that He may eventually bring good out of it.”

Put another way, “only God is powerful enough to control all things and He seems to prefer to make some things come out right without changing them.”

Those words are from a little booklet called Acceptance: The Key To Serenity and Peace of Mind. It was written fifty years ago by Vincent Collins; over the years I have given away hundred of copies, and preached its simple message a dozen times.

Collins says “The trouble is that most of us think happiness consists in the fulfillment of our wants and desires, or at the very least in freedom from pain and suffering. Actually, it consists in the serenity that comes from conforming our own will to the Will of God. We achieve happiness by forcing ourselves to accept what God wants for us.”

The Serenity Prayer sums this up. In it, we pray “to accept hardships as the pathway to peace; taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is, not as we would have it; trusting that He will make all things right if we surrender to His will.”

Of course we don’t believe that God directly wills evil to happen . He cannot and he does not: “he merely permits it, even while he works the marvel by which [evil] results in good.”

When we find ourselves tempted, as Jesus was, to rebel from our fate, we must pray as he did. We have to avoid the prayer that someone described as “Helping God not to make mistakes.” And we must pray that he will “make all things right” in his way, in his time.

Most of us think that peace consists in the fulfillment of our wants and desires, or at the very least in freedom from pain and suffering. In his suffering and in his resurrection, Jesus showed us that peace comes from uniting our own will to the will of God.

And that is done mainly through prayer.

When things seem desperate, we need to think about what God did for Jesus, and to trust that in his providence he will do the same for us. We must accept what we cannot change, saying “Not my will, but Thine be done.” Not what I want, but what you want, and what you can and will turn to my eternal good.

Then and only then the burden will drop from our shoulders and our souls be filled with the peace that passes all human understanding.

We will find the security and peace promised to us by Christ when we surrender control of our lives to him—not asking him to change everything we’re dealing with, but asking him to change us.

Acceptance is the antidote to the discouragement of unanswered prayer, and the surest path to peace of heart. Because “only God is powerful enough to control all things and He seems to prefer to make some things come out right without changing them.”

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