Prayer is Great Travail

“From the Lakota [Sioux] Native American tradition comes this parable. It is called The Jumping Mouse Story: They say that one day the Great Wolf was standing by alone and crying.In his sadness, loneliness and pain, he had lost his eyes and was blind. And as the Great Wolf stood there crying, his Little Mouse brother came. Little Mouse was very tiny but asked the Great Wolf, ‘Why is it that you cry?’

“And the Great Wolf said, ‘In my sadness and my loneliness and pain, I have lost my eyes and I am blind.’’

i’ve been taught to give my very best

“Without having to think because of his teachings, Little Mouse took his own eyes out and, reaching out, gave them to Great Wolf. Great Wolf took the little mouse eyes and put them in and at once began to feel powerful because he could see again.

“He looked down and said, crying, ‘Little Mouse, why did you give me your own eyes?’

“And Little Mouse said, ‘I realize before all the universe and before the Great Spirit, I am very humble, and I have always been taught to give my very best to my brothers and sisters.’

“Great Wolf began to weep even more for his Little Mouse brother. In his tears, though, he could still remember a truth. He remembered there was a sacred lake where anyone could make offerings to the Creator, the Four Directions and Mother Earth. So he took his Little Mouse brother by the hand, and Great Wolf and Little Mouse began their journey.

“Finally one day when it seemed that they could not go another step, when they had been through many sufferings and problems, they came to the top of a mountain, and Great Wolf looked below and saw the most beautiful lake he had ever seen. He looked at the beautiful lake and said, ‘Oh, Little Mouse, if you could only see the beauty of the lake below us. We have finally come to the end of our journey.’


And he took Little Mouse brother by the hand, and they walked down to the edge of the lake. There Great Wolf called upon the powers of the universe, upon the Eagle People, upon the Hawk People and the Thunderbird People and offered the tobacco to all the powers of the sky, and called upon the power of the West, from which come darkness and other powers; of the North, from which come the white snows; of the East, from which comes the red sunrise; and the South, where the yellow deserts lie. He called to the Creator of all good things. He called upon the powers of Mother Earth to help his Little Mouse brother.

“Then he said to Little Mouse, ‘The Creator, the Great Spirit, speaks to each one of us in our own way and in our own time. Now, I am going to leave you alone.’ So they hugged each other, and they cried because they knew they would not see each other for a while. 

Great Wolf left.


“Little Mouse stood by the edge of the lake, and all of a sudden Little Mouse heard a voice. ‘Little Mouse, brother, jump.’ So he jumped. ‘Jump higher.’ He jumped higher. ‘Jump higher.’ And he jumped higher. ‘JUMP HIGHER.’ And he jumped higher until Little Mouse felt he was floating in the air.

“The voice then said, ‘Little Mouse brother, because you gave your very best to your brothers and sisters, because you humbled yourself before all creation, from now and forevermore you will be the Great Eagle that will fly high above the people.’”

stories of suffering and glory

We know stories like that: Moses on the mountain wanting to see God’s glory even as he struggles with the Israelites. Elijah suffering by the stream as he runs from Ahab and Jezebel, just before God reveals himself to the prophet. The disciples waiting in fear and worry on that Saturday after Jesus dies.

That’s why Little Mouse sounds so familiar, like a story we know very well, doesn’t it? We read something of the kind in Philippians 2.5-11. The story of great personal sacrifice for a greater, if yet unseen good, resonates with us because that story is the heart of who we are as Christians.

When we read Paul’s hymn to Christ in Philippians 2, we remind ourselves of the power and wonder and miracle of Christ giving himself for us. That’s why we observe things like the Lenten season, to remember the story. That’s why Christians observe the events of Holy Week all over the world. The story matters; the story is life-changing, life-giving, and life-saving. We need desperately need this story of travail and joy — really this truth of Christ giving himself for us. We need it.

Well, for five posts, now, we’ve discussed prayer. We’ve asked: What does prayer mean? How does prayer make a difference for us? Can we learn to pray better, pray more, or pray with faith-filled hearts?

What does prayer mean? How does prayer make a difference for us? Can we learn to pray better, pray more, or pray with faith-filled hearts?

We’ve read wonderful stories that confirm and reinforce the power of prayer, the need for prayer. Those stories really help us understand prayer as we’ve talked about prayer being protection and covenant and provision and forgiveness. In the last post, we talked about prayer being great joy.

We saw that joy as we saw Mary anoint the feet of Jesus. When we say “prayer is great joy,” we mean the expense and the expanse of our lives, a great offering of perfume that will fill the house, a great offering of our lives poured at the feet of Jesus — a Savior who lived, suffered, died, and rose just for us.

It’s not easy; it’s most certainly costly; but, prayer truly is great joy as we pour ourselves out for the one who poured himself out for us — and the glory and the joy of the pouring will fill this place, will fill our lives, with joy.

the greater the joy, the greater the pain

The companion, if you will, to prayer is great joy is this understanding of prayer as great travail. The truth is, they go together, great joy and great travail. We cannot separate them. That’s why the drama of moving from Palm Sunday to Maundy Thursday to Good Friday to Holy Saturday to Resurrection Sunday is so important in the lives of Christians — it helps us understand the full, rich, and deep nature of great joy and great travail.

In the words of St. Augustine, “The greater the joy, the greater is the pain which precedes it. Before Jesus could reach the joy set before him, he had to pass through the pain of many dark nights and shadowed valleys.” So, as we read and consider Luke 22 today, I want us to think about how prayer is great travail.

We all have faced them. The dark and difficult times in our lives — we all have stories. Maybe we’re in one right now, wondering how we’ll make it. Maybe we just finished one, and we’re recovering, growing from the experience. Maybe we haven’t seen one in a while, but we can definitely remember what it’s like. It’s close, real, and maybe even raw – the scar we’ve learned to live with; the wound has healed, but the memory is still there.

Hope made the difference in the darkness; hope for a better day, hope for that joy that we knew, even if we couldn’t touch it — we knew it was there.

The struggle of the travail only becomes fully realized after it’s over, when we’ve finally made it to joy. The wonder of the whole thing is that in the middle of the travail, it was the joy that kept us going. Hope made the difference in the darkness; hope for a better day, hope for that joy that we knew, even if we couldn’t touch it — we knew it was there.


The disciples had to trust; they had to believe. Jesus had been telling them all along what must happen in Jerusalem. How were they to take those gloom and doom pronouncements from Jesus? He tells them three times what must happen (Luke 18.31-4). “And taking the twelve, he said to them, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. For he will be delivered over to the Gentiles and will be mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon. And after flogging him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise.’”

What is so astonishing and challenging is those final words Luke adds to the words of Jesus: “But they understood none of these things. This saying was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said.” They couldn’t see, couldn’t know — despite what Jesus had told them. Maybe it was too fantastical to believe; maybe it was too terrible to believe. Yet, on the other side, they saw, they knew.

keeping hope alive in the dark

“At the university there was a piano teacher that was simply and affectionately known as ‘Herman.’ One night at a university concert, a distinguished piano player suddenly became ill while performing an extremely difficult piece. No sooner had the artist retired from the stage when Herman rose from his seat in the audience, walked onstage, sat down at the piano and with great mastery completed the performance.


“Later that evening, at a party, one of the students asked Herman how he was able to perform such a demanding piece so beautifully without notice and with no rehearsal. He replied, ‘In 1939, when I was a budding young concert pianist, I was arrested and placed in a Nazi concentration camp. Putting it mildly, the future looked bleak. But I knew that in order to keep the flicker of hope alive that I might someday play again, I needed to practice every day. I began by fingering a piece from my repertoire on my bare board bed late one night. The next night I added a second piece and soon I was running through my entire repertoire. I did this every night for five years. It so happens that the piece I played tonight at the concert hall was part of that repertoire. That constant practice is what kept my hope alive. Everyday I renewed my hope that I would be able to play my music again on a real piano, and in freedom.’”

Prayer is great travail is moving through the darkness, knowing there is light. It’s believing in the sun, even when we can’t see it.

Prayer is great travail is moving through the darkness, knowing there is light. It’s believing in the sun, even when we can’t see it. It’s practicing the piano in the dark while facing death, believing for that day of sitting at a piano again. It is the joy in the middle of the travail that makes the difference.

So, Jesus prays in the garden of Gethsemane. Throwing himself on the ground, he struggles tearfully through prayer, groaning desperately that this cup pass from him. Yet, in the groans and sighs and blood and tears, he firmly says, “Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.”

His friends can’t stay awake. These same friends who’ve pledged their loyalty, and promised to remain with him even if they die — these same friends will flee for their lives as he suffers and dies. “Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.”

He prays more, looking for relief. He feels alone, but God’s presence comforts him. He agonizes, he cries, and he sweats blood as he cries to this God he knows, loves, and utterly and completely trusts. “Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.”

the tortured’s love for the torturer

Maybe we should ask, “Why?” Why suffer? Why die? Why?


Frederick Buechner, in one of the most memorable passages from a memorable book, The Magnificent Defeat writes: “The love for equals is a human thing…of friend for friend, brother for brother. It is to love what is loving and lovely. The world smiles. The love for the less fortunate is a beautiful thing…the love for those who suffer, for those who are poor, the sick, the failures, the unlovely. This is compassion, and it touches the heart of the world. The love for the more fortunate is a rare thing…to love those who succeed where we fail, to rejoice without envy with those who rejoice, the love of the poor for the rich, of the black man for the white man. The world is bewildered by its saints. And then there is the love for the enemy…love for the one who does not love you but mocks, threatens, and inflicts pain. The tortured’s love for the torturer. This is God’s love. It conquers the world.”

Why, indeed? “Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted….[L]et us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12.3, 1-2).

Prayer is great travail. Jesus prayed for us; Jesus lived for us; Jesus died for us. The story of God’s love as the “tortured’s love for the torturer” never grows old or tired or dies. The story lives because Jesus lives. He knew something about really knowing the Father, and that something is so overwhelmingly powerful that he poured out his life so that we might have life. The deep joy of that knowledge held him as he faced the great travail of his last days before the cross.

The deep joy is a revelation of the fullness of God in Jesus Christ — the risen Savior, and God is waiting on the other side of travail in love and grace and mercy, waiting for us to see that risen Savior, and know that unshakeable joy.

A text for the table: Luke 22.39-53.

Story Credits: “The Jumping Mouse Story” from, taken from Voices: Native American Hymns and Worship Resources, Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 1992, pp. 76-77; St. Augustine’s quote, and Frederick Buechner’s The Magnificent Defeat also from “Herman, the Pianist” from James S. Hewitt, ed., Illustrations Unlimited, Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1988, p. 293.

Photo Credits: “Wolf,” “Eagle,” “Angel Prayer,” “Hands Playing the Piano,” and “Jesus in Gethsemane” (Creative Commons).