When I’m surprised by prayer

I am not what you would call a “prayer warrior.”

I forget to pray. I tell people I’ll pray and then I forget. I try things on my own effort before praying as a last resort. I intend to make a dedicated time in my day to pray and then oversleep or get distracted by the children fighting in the first 10 minutes of being awake. (Summer, we love you, but it seems like we’ve had enough.)

And even when I do remember to pray and do so faithfully for a time, I give up too early when I don’t see anything change and I wonder if prayer really is effective, like the Bible says, or if it’s me who has a deficit in righteousness.

But then there are weeks like this last one. When I pray and the answers surprise me and I believe all over again that God cares and hears, and yes, prayer matters.

Our eight-year-old mini-van has been limping for a few weeks now. We weren’t sure what was wrong only that she wasn’t running as smoothly as she could. (Why is our van a “she”? I have no idea.)

On Tuesday, the kids and I piled into the car to run a quick errand only to discover the car would not start. I panicked, then took a deep breath, then tried again and it started but it was still being funny and I prayed all the way to the store and back that please, God, could you just get us there and back without trouble.

He did, and the car did not repeat its antics for my husband (which always makes me feel like a stereotypical hysterical female, even though he does nothing to encourage that feeling) when he drove home from work that night.

I continued to pray for safe travels around town, but as I prayed through the week and the car continued to limp, I changed my prayer from “get us there and back safely” to “if we’re going to have a breakdown, let us see You in it.” I feared being stranded while out running an errand and prayed that we would see a friend if that happened. I feared being stalled in traffic and prayed that a police officer would pass at the right moment to help us. I prayed that Phil would be with us when it happened because his head is much cooler than mine in times of adversity.

We made it through the week without a breakdown, and I breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that Phil would soon make the call to get the car into a mechanic. We had survived another week and I felt like we’d won a battle.

Sunday was a busy day for us. Phil was scheduled to preach one of his occasional sermons. I was in charge of coffee and snacks and had two containers of muffins to contribute.

Because he works a full-time job during the week, sermon prep often happens in his head and takes shape on Saturday night. Sometimes late. I prayed that he would have clarity and vision and focus. His process would drive me, the planner, crazy, but it works for him and God always shows up.

Still, when the light bulb of an idea went off on Saturday night and the message took shape, I shook my head in amazement.

Why am I surprised when God answers prayers?

As I baked the muffins, I continued my praying because I have struggled to have a servant’s heart during coffee hour. I love providing food and coffee for people but sometimes, I am overwhelmed by the burden of it and the need to be appreciated. So, I prayed for God to change my heart, which was tending toward selfish, and let me have a heart of service. And I prayed that we would be able to feed people with the few snacks we had available. Our stock was desperately low, and the muffins were a last-ditch effort to make sure we had enough.

We managed to be ready to leave for church when we wanted to be–early enough that Phil could get prepared for his part in the service and I could start the coffee. The kids were dressed and mostly behaving, so we were feeling good for a Sunday morning.

The kids and I loaded ourselves into the van. I turned the car on to lower the windows while we waited for Phil to join us. He got into the car, stuck his key in the ignition and turned.

Nothing happened. Except the thing that had happened to me on Tuesday. The dials on the dash went wacky but the car didn’t start.

He tried again. And again.

He popped the hood.

And tried again.

We had no extra time to try to get the car going, so we phoned for help.

Our pastor came to pick us up. We loaded our kids and their seats and the muffins and the sermon props into the car and headed to church.

I was in tears.

Of all the mornings, Lord! Why this one? Why when Phil has to preach did the car not start?

The short drive to church reminded me that this exact thing is what I had prayed for. (Okay, maybe not this exact scenario, but it was an answer to prayer.)

We had been stranded at home. On a Sunday. When lots of people we know are available to help us and drive by our house. We had time to spare before church started. Yes, it was inconvenient and not according to plan, and yes, we had to rely on the help of others, but of all the scenarios I’d imagined about our car breaking down, this was by far, the best one.

It didn’t happen on vacation. Or on our many trips through the Midwest to take the kids to their grandparents or pick them up. It didn’t happen while we had a van full of groceries or while Phil was at work or on a busy road.

I still cried about it because I hate when things break, but I saw the good in it. And how God had answered my prayer.

I headed straight for the church kitchen when we arrived. The kids and I had done some prep work the day before, so all I really had to do was turn the coffee pot on and get a few things in order.

But I was stopped in my tracks by the sight of four boxes of donuts on the counter.

Four. Boxes. Of donuts.

I hadn’t planned for them, but there they were. Provision. Not exactly like fishes and loaves, but a close enough comparison to make me grateful for the God who hears and sees and provides even donuts.

I set to work cutting the donuts into halves so they would go further, and I shared our troubles with friends who popped in to ask how we were.

And I realized that my prayer for a heart of service was answered, too. Because it is hard to worry about what other people are thinking of your snacks when your van is sitting dead in the driveway and people are pouring love into you by caring and shuttling and hugging and offering to help.

The van needed a new battery, which in itself was an answer to a prayer I didn’t pray because that’s a less expensive solution than having the car towed to the mechanic and who knows what else. After a Skype consultation with my dad (our family mechanic) and a ride from a church member to the auto parts store, Phil was able to fix the battery problem, and we still made it to his work picnic in time to have dinner with his co-workers and their families.

Our car troubles are not completely over, but this week reminded me that my worries are not a worry for God. My prayers do matter and God hears them, even when I pray for things to turn out a certain way and He has other ideas.

I forget that prayer is not just telling God something or making a list of requests, but it’s part of a relationship. And it doesn’t end when we say “amen.” If we keep our eyes open, we might discover answers to prayer we didn’t expect.

I could use more of those kind of surprises in my life; couldn’t you?

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