By Joey Royal
A few years ago, three men went missing on Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic. This happened shortly before Easter. They had left from Iqaluit, the capital city, and were travelling on snowmobiles to a smaller community located several hundred kilometers away. When they failed to arrive after a few days, people became worried. Search parties were organized; some on snowmobiles, some in planes. At some point the military got involved. A Hercules aircraft began to scour the vast snowy sprawl that makes up the South Baffin region. More than a week went by and there was still no sign of them. People began to fear the worst.
The Thursday after Easter many people gathered together at St. Jude’s Cathedral in Iqaluit. The occasion was a healing service, but since the missing men were at the forefront of everyone’s mind the service doubled as a prayer vigil. We called out to God, asking for the safe return of these men.
While we were deep in prayer, the stillness was interrupted by the familiar beeps and buzzes of smartphones and mobile devices. Murmurs began to fill the room, then shouts of excitement, then joyful tears and triumphant announcements. The men had been found! And they were safe! The details were quickly filled in: they had been caught in a blizzard and went off course, but had survived by shooting a caribou for food and building an igloo for warmth. Searchers flying overhead in a Twin Otter had spotted faint snowmobile tracks that led them to the men’s location.
The prayer vigil erupted into an exuberant service of praise and thanksgiving. God had heard our prayers and delivered these men from danger. The words of Jesus we had read that night had a special poignancy: “Don’t be afraid; just believe” (Mark 5:36).
The next day one of the men was interviewed by the CBC. He described the harrowing ordeal of getting lost and fighting for survival. He told of the brutally cold temperatures, the dwindling food supply, and the very real possibility of death. As if those things weren’t enough, he and the others had noticed a hungry gray wolf was stalking them.
Speaking in Inuktitut, he described the feeling of nearly losing hope just before the search and rescue team found him. And yet in this experience of desperation, when hope was nearly lost, he cried out to God: “I prayed to be found. I prayed and prayed and I yelled Amen! and then I heard a plane. They found me and I couldn’t stop crying.”
Whenever I am discouraged and don’t feel like praying, I think of that story. It reminds me that whatever we’re up against and whatever we’re feeling, our prayers are not in vain. God listens and hears us. God heard the anguished cries of Israelites enslaved in Egypt all those years ago, and he hears us today. The Scriptures attest to this repeatedly, as James 5:13-18 makes clear:
Is any one among you suffering? Let him pray. Is any cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed.
The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects. Elijah was a man of like nature with ourselves and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again and the heaven gave rain, and the earth brought forth its fruit.
Prayer works, and not because we say the right words or use the right formula. It works because the gospel is true, which is to say it works because God is for us, bringing healing and wholeness to his wayward creation, including our sick souls and disordered wills. The events of our lives are not (cannot be) a sequence of haphazard happenings; they are always and everywhere the raw materials through which the Sovereign God brings us salvation. And, in God’s mysterious providence, our prayers are a factor in how this all comes out in the end.
During this season of Lent, let’s recommit ourselves to prayer, confident in the knowledge that it matters and that it works. And this only because God, in his infinite mercy, has chosen us as his covenant partners and has, in Christ, brought us to his throne of grace. Thanks be to God.