God… Hear Me Now, I’m Desparate!There is only one play I can think of in football with an overtly religious name. I saw it recently at a Chicago Bears game. The Bears were a touchdown behind, the clock was ticking off the final few seconds, and the goal line was many yards away. So the Bears ran all their receivers to one corner of the end zone, and their quarterback heaved a desperate toss against impossible odds. The ball bounced off a few people and fell into the hands of James Allen, a diving running back, and the Bears won the game. This particular kind of play picked up a name that is used by Protestants, Catholics, and atheists alike: the hail Mary pass. The rationale is that a pass thrown under such desperate circumstances could only be completed with the help of divine intervention. The phrase comes, of course, from the Catholic prayer based on the angel’s greetings to Mary recorded in the first chapter of Luke’s gospel: “Hail Mary, full of grace…”
I believe “hail Mary” play is brought in for the last play of the game because prayer is something we generally associate with desperation. The idea behind this terminology is that for the majority of the game I can rely on my own resources. I will depend on my game plan and my personnel. However, at a moment of crisis and desperation when I’ve run out of time and opportunity, when human cleverness and mortal strength have failed me, and when all other options are gone, that’s the time to throw up a prayer.
Desperate people pray. They pray without thinking about it; they pray even if they are not sure who they’re praying to or if anyone out there is listening at all. When we reach the limit of our resources, we pray instinctively, reflexively —like the way a man lacking oxygen gasps for breath and the way a man who is falling reaches out for something to grab.
It is not bad to pray in a time of crisis. One of God’s most amazing attributes is that he is humble enough to accept people when they turn to him in sheer desperation, even when they have been ignoring him for years. Desperation prayers have been the beginning of spiritual life for many people.
But by themselves such prayers are not sufficient to sustain spiritual life. Many of us fall into a pattern where the only times we pray are the times when we are prompted by crisis or pain; the rest of the time we rely on our own strength and cleverness.
This pattern points to what we really believe regarding prayer. In most ordinary moments we are not convinced that prayer really changes things. The Bible’s teaching on prayer leads overwhelmingly to one conclusion: Prayer changes things.
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