“Can you hear me now?” For many of us, those words elicit the memory of the Verizon guy (who interestingly is now the Sprint guy) asking that question in commercials several years ago. The point, of course, was to highlight the reliability of Verizon’s network. They had fewer dropped calls and bad connections than their competitors, something they wanted to emphasize in their marketing.
Unfortunately, bad connections still happen. As I regularly drive from the small town of Glenmora where I minister, to the city of Alexandria where I visit those in the hospital or the nursing home, there is always one place where I know my call will be dropped. In that one-mile stretch where the road goes downhill a bit just in front of Tall Timbers Baptist Camp, I almost always lose my connection. For some reason it continues to surprise me. I wait for a few seconds for the reply that is surely coming from whoever is on the other end of the call, and then it hits me. I look down and see those words, “call failed.”
Prayer can be like that as well. N. T. Wright says, “At its lowest, prayer is shouting into a void on the off-chance there may be someone out there listening.”  Who hasn’t had the experience of shouting into their phone, “Hello, can you hear me?” You know they were there, and you keep expecting some response to demonstrate that they are still there. And yet, nothing. The Psalms describe this experience in various ways.
Why, O Lord, do you stand far away? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble? (10:1 ESV)
How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? (13:1)
Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression? (44:24)
O Lord, why do you cast my soul away? Why do you hide your face from me? (88:14)
How long, O Lord? Will you hide yourself forever? (89:46)
Answer me quickly, O Lord! My spirit fails! Hide not your face from me, lest I be like those who go down to the pit. (143:7)
Suffice it to say, the Psalms are replete with instances of prayer suffering from a bad connection. As I read many of the emotional pleas found in Scripture, I am reminded of a scene commonly found in TV dramas or movies. A person is locked in a room, basement, or box, or perhaps they are trapped in a hole. They scream out for help, not so much because they know or think someone is listening, but because their only hope is that somewhere out there, someone will hear them. Wright describes this as prayer at its lowest, yet it is still prayer.
Wright goes on to describe the opposite experience: “At its highest, prayer merges into love, as the presence of God becomes so real that we pass beyond words and into a sense of his reality, generosity, delight and grace.” This experience is also well-attested in the Psalms.
O Lord, you have brought up my soul from Sheol; you restored me to life from among those who go down to the pit. (30:3)
He drew me up from the pit of destruction, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon the rock, making my steps secure. (40:2)
He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be greatly shaken. (62:2)
These are the prayers we want to pray. We want to speak of feeling God’s presence and protection, not to question his existence. As nice as it would be to always experience prayer “at its highest,” I question whether that is possible. After all, “highest” is a relative term. When hiking trails in the Appalachian Mountains, I always love the beautiful vistas that spread out before me upon reaching the top of the mountain. Those vistas are possible only because of the contrast in height between the mountains and the valleys. Without lows, there are no highs.
As ministers, we are called to counsel those who are experiencing a prayer life full of “dropped calls.” Our task is to walk with those who long to see the beautiful vistas of the mountaintop, but who feel as if they are trapped in a never-ending valley. At the risk of sounding simplistic, we must never tire of encouraging these people to keep dialing the number, to keep hiking on the trail. At some point they will get a good signal again. There will come a time when the way ahead opens up and the top of the mountain is reached. More than anything, we must help people understand that this is not an atypical experience. They are not spiritually weak, faithless, or “doing it wrong.” In fact, they are in the company of the great cloud of witnesses, whose own stories testify to the reality that following Jesus comes with ups and downs. The important thing is to persevere.
Not too long ago I was going through that stretch of road I mentioned earlier, where my calls always get dropped. Right on cue, I suddenly stopped hearing my mom’s voice. “Call failed” appeared on my phone, so I hit the button to call again. No signal. I repeated that process three or four times before I finally heard the phone ring and my mom’s voice answer, “You must have been going through that bad spot.”
Sometimes our own experiences, our own locations, make it seem like our calls are not getting through. Rest assured, however, that if we refuse to quit calling, we will once again hear that voice on the other end of the line.
Wright, N. T. Matthew for Everyone, Part One Chapters 1-15. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004. 57-58.