Sometimes we proclaim that God answers prayer, but we are unwilling to accept that God’s answer can be “no.”
This week as I visited Florida’s Space Coast to talk to churches, hospitals and bookstores, I recalled that “No-go” was an answer I sometimes heard during my days at Canaveral Air Station, where I served as a chaplain at the Cape from 1999 to 2001.
As a formal member of the launch crew, my job was to deliver a written prayer to the crew consoles of anyone requesting a prayer prior to a rocket launch.
In the multi-faith environment of a military workplace, the 50-word prayer was limited to stating our shared concern for fair weather and safety; it represented more ceremony than a legitimate attempt to court God’s favor. Nevertheless, my prayer and pastoral visit served as a reminder that spirituality had a valid presence in the workplace.
The first five launches I attended went up without delay.
On the early morning of my sixth launch, many of the folks were jokingly bragging that they’d found their lucky chaplain.
I returned their banter by joking about the early hour. “I’m not sure God’s up yet,” I said as I laid the prayers aside their consoles.
Night launches were usually spectacular, but occasionally weather or technical problems caused us to scrub the launch and try again the next day.
That was the case on this launch, and we were forced to return at “O-dark-thirty” the next morning for our second attempt.
At about “T minus 60” I again greeted the crew, walking down a long line of consoles with a smile and my photocopied prayer.
Suddenly, I heard a bark from the commander’s console.
“Chaplain!” yelled the general.
“This is the same prayer you prayed last night!”
“It didn’t work!” he said with a smirk.
Like Gen. George Patton who asked his chaplain to pray for better weather, the general sent me back to the ecclesiastical drawing board in search of a “better prayer.”
I didn’t ask him if he was joking. Superstitious ball players wear lucky socks, pendants or shirts; launch crews aren’t much different. He had implied that my prayer jinxed the launch, so I returned the following night with a new prayer.
I repeated the rewrites for the next three nights until our rocket soared into space.
Daily life can be equally frustrating in our attempts to force things to go according to our plans. When we fail in our launch attempts, we often ask God to try again. Like the spoiled child, we don’t take no for an answer.
Somehow, in our “never-say-quit” Western society, we have picked up the notion that “no” is an unacceptable answer from God. My experience tells me that it’s a very spiritual answer that says several things.
First, it calls to mind the Serenity prayer, which asks for the courage to accept the things that cannot be changed.
This is one of the deepest prayers I know, because it forces me to confront that carnal desire to be the “Mission Control” for everything and everyone.
Second, it presents a much more spiritual challenge than does the word “yes,” because it reminds us that we are not God, nor can we control God. At this finite level, we are forced to turn our attention toward a God who has our best interests at heart, not just our personal interests.
Of course I understand “no” isn’t acceptable when dealing with an umpteen-million-dollar rocket. After five attempts and four different prayers, the rocket launched.
Nevertheless, “no” was the answer we all eventually accepted — the rocket never reached its intended orbit.