Introductory Note:

Our reading for today, Surprising Prayer, is a passage from Emilie Griffin’s book, Souls in Full Sail. She writes specifically about Christian spirituality for the later years, although the wisdom in this book applies to all of life’s stages. She calls our attention to the ways of God in the midst of our ordinary days.

Emilie invites us to be open to God speaking to us in unexpected ways. She tells us that, “The prayer of surprise is what happens when we are open, not only to the metaphors we decide on but the ones that are flung in our path, impossible to avoid, challenging us, turning us in new directions.”

The story of Emilie’s surprising prayer experience delights and teaches us. We hope one day to have this kind of experience, and yet Emilie counsels us not to assume we can construct the experience. “Even to name it might make it seem available, when in fact it’s always entirely possible and at the same time completely out of reach.”

So we learn to be attentive and responsive to the Spirit. We learn to walk with confidence and trust in the ways of God no matter our age or circumstance. We walk cheerfully and joyfully because God is at hand. We welcome what might seem like an intrusion and ask God to guide us and teach us.

Yesterday I took a drive into the country with a friend. I was telling her about what Emilie calls “surprising prayer” and her observation that metaphors help us see the ways of God. My friend’s response was something like this, “Oh yes, well a week or so ago as I was reading the gospel of John I noticed the phrase Shepherd’s Gate. I followed the thread and this is what God showed me . . .”.

I thought, “Well isn’t this just like our God.” Through both Emilie’s writing and the testimony of a friend, he is teaching me to develop a greater capacity for spiritual insight through the spiritual disciplines of study, meditation and prayer. While I cannot plan to enter into this kind of prayer experience, I can learn to recognize the metaphor flung in my path and follow the thread. I can increase my ability to recognize the surprise.

Prayer experiences are all a gift of God’s grace—God meeting us right where we are and helping us develop a deeper, more intimate relationship with the Trinity. As Emilie tells us, “. . . our faith assures us that we are being changed if we cooperate with God’s grace into the persons God meant us to be.”

Encouraged by Emilie’s writing, we can make the final verse of the hymn “Speak O Lordby Keith Getty and Stuart Townend our prayer:

Speak, O Lord, and renew our minds;

Help us grasp the heights of Your plans for us.

Truths unchanged from the dawn of time,

That will echo down through eternity.

And by grace we’ll stand on your promises;

And by faith we’ll walk as you walk with us.

Speak, O Lord, ‘til your church is built

And the earth is filled with Your glory.


Margaret Campbell

Excerpt from Souls in Full Sail

When we open up to prayer, we are often confronted with surprises. Sometimes I have a sudden and very concrete sense that God is present to me, something almost like childhood experiences of play. Someone’s hands are over my eyes. I can’t see him, but he’s saying, Here I am.” I almost hate to mention it because I know it’s completely out of left field. There’s nothing I can plan for or anticipate. Even to name it might make it seem available, when in fact it’s always entirely possible and at the same time completely out of reach. 

A concrete example in my own life: me, on a Saturday afternoon, suddenly bolting from the house with my Bible in hand, fleeing from the ganged-up responsibilities of living. (I don’t mean anything too unusual, really, just the layer upon layer of commonplace obligations and anxieties: no personal space, no time for God or for myself.) So then, I light in a place of repose: the front steps of the neighborhood library. Around me, there’s a vast lawn with brownish green grass, everything still a bit mucky from the last hard rain, not much comfort in the landscape, but then, as I open my Bible, a sound comes out of nowhere. A piper! The notes are so unearthly, so unreal, I try at first to ignore them. 

The intrusion is completely out of whack, not related to my prayer agenda, even remotely. What does this piper have to do with me? 

I open my Bible to Hosea 11. When Israel was a child I loved him, and I called my son out of Egypt. But the more I called to them, the further they went from me; they have offered sacrifice to the Baals and set their offerings smoking before the idols” (vv. 1 – 2). Somehow the piper steals into my prayer, a haunting sound that’s hard to ignore. Does the piper stand for something with special meaning for me? I myself taught Ephraim to walk, I took them in my arms” (v. 3), the Scripture continues. I know it’s a childhood metaphor, but what is the Lord trying to say? I feel the music bearing down on me, the sound and Scripture converge in my thoughts. Now I make a new association: the Pied Piper, leading the children (I’m one of them) out of Hamlin town. What a radical figure he cuts, there in his ragged garment with the odd assortment of colors. How much he reminds me that the gospel power is something the people of the status quo fail to recognize. The Lord is speaking in riddles that make perfect sense to children, but which adults fail to understand. He’s spellbinding to those with open hearts. 

I led them with reins of kindness, with leading-strings of love. I was like someone who lifts an infant close against his cheek; stooping down to him I gave him his food” (v. 4) . And is this same piper, here now in my prayer, speaking to me? They will have to go back to Egypt … because they have refused to return to me. The sword will rage through their towns, wiping out their children, glutting itself inside their fortresses” (vv. 5 – 6). 

In the Scripture, as in the folktale, the stakes are very high. The piper is playing for keeps. He expects nothing less than a full commitment, an honorable bargain, followed through to the last. And am I willing to walk with him? Into the mountainside? Taking the chance that the great side of the mountain will close up, and the children will never return? 

The most important part of this surprising kind of prayer is catching the thread and following it, even if the way lies into rough places and through the wilderness. The prayer of surprises is what happens when we are open, not only to the metaphors we decide on but the ones that are flung in our path, impossible to avoid, challenging us, turning us in new directions. Ephraim, how could I part with you? Israel, how could I give you up? How could I treat you like Admah, or deal with you like Zeboiim?” (Hosea 11:8). It is hard to trust this Lord who is so demanding. Yet if we trust Scripture, we have to take him at his word: My whole being trembles at the thought. I will not give rein to my fierce anger, I will not destroy Ephraim again, for I am God, not man: I am the Holy One in your midst and have no wish to destroy” (vv. 8 – 9). 

Finally, I turn and steal a look at my real piper on the steps of the library. Sure enough, there is a person in worn jeans and jacket, a cap pulled down over his ears, piping a tune (it’s actually Oh the Days of the Kerry Dancers,” but I’m definitely not in Ireland), and he looks more like a street person than a leprechaun. At least I know the piper is not entirely my own invention. The surprise, though, is finding him there, just at that time of special openness for me. I’m tempted to laugh out loud, it’s so improbable. At the same time the guessing game is utterly serious. I feel the Lord wants to shake me out of my complacency. I sense the moment as a challenge, almost a reproach: What description, then, can I find for the men of this generation? What are they like? They are like children shouting to one another while they sit in the market place: We played the pipes for you, and you wouldn’t dance; we sang dirges, and you wouldn’t cry” (Luke 7:31 – 32). 

The light is falling, but the piper continues to play, and the Lord’s voice is strong for me in his music. The mysteries of the kingdom of God are revealed to you; for the rest there are only parables, so that they may see but not perceive, listen but not understand” (Luke 8:10) . There are safer prayers, I suppose. There are formulas, things to recite, prayers to go to sleep by. 

But instead, because the world is in flames and people of high courage are really needed, I can choose the prayer that opens me up to God’s demands. And some seed fell into rich soil and grew and produced its crop a hundredfold. Saying this he cried, Listen, anyone who has ears to hear!’” (Luke 8:8).

In the prayer of surprises I am a child, setting out with a high heart, to find a kingdom of peace and justice: where they will do no war anymore.

Taken from Souls in Full Sail by Emilie Griffin. Copyright © 2011 by Emilie Griffin. Used by permission of the author and InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515, USA.