Editor's 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. www​.ivpress​.com

Join the 2020-21 Renovaré Book Club

An inten­tion­al way to read for trans­for­ma­tion. Cur­rent­ly under­way and runs through May 2021.

Learn More >