I served for several years as a campus minister. Among the regulars in my campus center were several with mental health issues. I’m thinking at the moment of one in particular: a woman who lived in a retirement community close to campus. She was not herself or retirement age; but places where she might live on her full disability income were limited. Her condition included, among other things, moments of uncontrolled rage.
I received word one day from the institution where she lived that she had been arrested. She had, apparently, become angry and had attacked a woman many years her senior. The administrators felt they have no alternative, and had called the police. And, since this wasn’t her first outburst, they felt they couldn’t house her there any longer.
That same day, and well before I had really had time to think through for myself all that I had been told, the woman herself called me. “Marshall,” she said, “they put me in jail. I guess I shouldn’t have hit her, but I was mad. But they called the police, and they put me in jail. Will you come and bail me out?”
Well, when she called I just wasn’t sure what I should do. As I recall, I told her at the time I would see what I could do. But at the time I certainly wasn’t sure what to do
I certainly understood that jail was an uncomfortable and frightening place for her. I realized, too, that she had only a limited understanding in her current condition of the import of what she had done. Now she was still angry, and just wanted out!
So, what should I do? I thought about bailing her out. There is, after all, that part of me that simply wants to make people happy, and hates to see them suffering (it’s a character flaw – one that I’ve been dealing with for a long time). On the other hand, if I did, what then? She had no place to go. She couldn’t go back to the retirement community. They wouldn’t have her. I will admit that momentarily I thought about taking her in; but I was a young father with two small children, and knew that even if I didn’t realize how that might affect the kids, my wife certainly would.
I began, too, to think like a chaplain. In all probability this had happened in part because she had neglected her medications. She was, after all, not so much a criminal as a patient. If I left her, I knew what would happen: she would be taken to the state psychiatric hospital a few blocks away, and assessed. She would receive care, some therapy, new medications, and social service help to find a new place to live. Now, that wasn’t what she wanted; but it seemed to me it would get her what she needed.
Of course, her next phone call was literally vitriolic. If she was disappointed that I hadn’t bailed her out, she was incensed that I had let them take her to the hospital. Thankfully, over the next couple of weeks the third and fourth calls were easier; and ultimately she thanked me for what I had done. As she said that, I couldn’t help but think how angry she was that I had “let her down” by not bailing her out; and how sick and abandoned she would be if I hadn’t.
The Gospel passage from Luke this week is one of the hardest in the chaplain’s experience. “Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened:” those are verses that chaplains dread. They’re right up there with, “If two or three of you agree on anything it will be given to you,” and “whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”
And I’m sure you can appreciate why, for a chaplain, these are such frightful verses. In 27 years of chaplaincy I’ve seen entirely too many folks disappointed in their prayers. Patients and families and clergy pray, and pray pretty specifically, and don’t get what they ask. They have prayed formally or spontaneously, fervently or quietly, hopefully or anxiously; but all too often what they wanted, what they thought was best, was not what happened. That’s not to say I’ve never seen it happen. I have, and I’ve given God the praise when I did. At the same time, as I have had to tell grieving families all too often, while I believe in miracles, and have seen miracles, I’ve been a chaplain long enough to know that we don’t necessarily get the miracle we ask for at the time we ask.
And, of course, this is not just true of chaplains and it’s not just true of health care. We have all known times and places where heartfelt and fervent prayers appeared to go unanswered. That experience is a large part of the theological challenge of theodicy – the problem of pain, or the problem of evil. The real question, whatever the specifics of the circumstance, is “How did God allow this to happen;” and we’ve been dealing with it ever since.
But for all our struggles with the problem of evil, our understanding of God’s intent, and our participation in it, is reflected in what we know in Jesus. And Jesus still says in today’s Gospel, “For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” We trust that God came among us in Christ, and called us into relationship with him, intending our growth and not our destruction.
I think in some ways this is a problem of proof-texting, of taking these verses out of context. The lesson begins with what we have come to call the Lord’s Prayer. Luke’s version is simpler, shorter than Matthew’s, which we use more often. It emphasizes God’s intent to provide for our needs.
And then after those verses that trouble us so, Jesus goes on to say, “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
And that, I think, holds the missing piece. When we pray, even when we pray for specific things, we are working first and foremost on our relationship with God in Christ. I talked last week about that relationship, and about God’s desire that we be real in that relationship, sharing the desires and the emotions that move us.
But for all God’s desire that we be open with him, and his intent to be open with us, he remains God. God is not simply a blessing machine, granting us what we think we want, however justified it might seem. What Christ has promised is that God will act for our good, providing a fish rather than a snake, an egg rather than a scorpion; and that whatever else God will provide, he will always provide his Holy Spirit. It is in the Holy Spirit that we encounter God in our own lives, and it is in the Holy Spirit that we discover God’s will and our participation in it.
And that is a matter of great hope, even when things seem dark. When we pray, and persist in praying, we will receive the Holy Spirit. That’s who we’ll receive when we ask. That’s who we will find when we search. That's who will open the door when we knock. God will always come to us in the Spirit, and lead us to see what he is doing in us and for us, day by day; and in the Spirit we will see ever more clearly how God is with us, and to know God’s miracles as they come.