Under the best of circumstances, prayer can be difficult. Far better is prayer when we are beset by the worst of circumstances, for that is when we truly cry out to God. A those times, we need help -- badly, and now. But I suspect that how we pray in the best of times is the better indication of how much we believe in prayer and how important it is to us.
Recently, this was once again brought home to me by a summary I read of missionary Helen Roseveare's quite amazing answer to prayer some time ago. (Roseveare's name caught my eye because I heard her speak 30 years ago at an Urbana Missions Conference, and she made an impression that lasted.) Roseveare was an English missionary in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (then Zaire) from 1953 to 1973, founding hospitals and clinics. At one point, she felt God leading her to start a new ministry to lepers, but she lacked the money to do so. She prayed, expecting God to supply. As the time approached when she would need a specific amount of money to start the work, she began to be concerned, as no money arrived.
As Betsy Childs summarizes: "As the first day of the next month dawned, Roseveare went to work discouraged and confused. At lunch time, Aunzo [a leper she employed] greeted her with a large brown envelope. It had been delivered the previous day to a different missionary by mistake! Inside the envelope was money that came to the sum of 4,800 francs. Roseveare quickly subtracted the tithe [she always tithed 10% of any gifts received] in her head, which left 4,320 francs, the exact amount needed to pay the bill for the supplies. She writes: 'The total was made up of three gifts, from an unknown couple in North America, from two prayer partners in Northern Ireland, and from a Girl Crusaders' Union class in southeast England. The North American gift had been on the way some four months, transferred from our Philadelphia office to the London office, from London to Brussels, Brussels to Leopoldville (Kinshasa), and finally upcountry from Leopoldville to Paulis (Isiro). Every transfer involved a certain percentage cost. At the end, the three gifts had arrived together to make the exact sum needed, and two of the gifts were designated: 'for your leprosy work'—and I did not have a leprosy work when the money was actually given!'"
That's an amazing story and it demonstrates that God certainly can and does answer prayers very specifically. In fact, the story is very similar to the one Edith Scaheffer tells in her book, L'Abri. As I recall, the Schaffers, who had a ministry in Switzerland to college students and seekers of truth, were asked to leave the canton in Switzerland where they lived. They could move to another canton, but they needed a specific amount of money to do so. They received it, on the last day, because I man in the United States woke in the middle of the night with the sense that he needed to take his contribution to a mailbox and mail it right away -- to the Schaeffers -- who receievd it, the exact amount needed, at the last moment. Another amazing story.
What I am disturbed by is my reaction to these stories. Yes, there's the good: I am encouraged. I am reminded to pray specifically, expecting God to answer, sometimes in very concrete ways. But another thing I experienced when reading this was skepticism -- can this really be? Is this an account that has been exxagerated in any way? I attribute part of that to a culture of unbelief and cynicism, and I recognize that this has effected me as well. But I can't lay all the blame there. Part of it, no doubt, is my own struggle with believing God at His word, believing that He answers prayer, that I'm not just talking to myself and attributing good outcomes to His hand.
This is disappointing about me. But I suspect I am not alone in this. I suspect others struggle with this doubt at times. We can only say "Lord increase our faith" as we continue to watch and pray, pray and watch. I'm thankful for these stories, and more like them, because they remind me to ask and expect, and with God's grace I'll continue to do so.