The Busy Signal

By Paul Knudtson

459Yesterday I missed my mother.  It’s been almost two years since she died, but I still refuse to delete her number from my cell phone.  Her daily conversations were part of the rhythm of my life that is now silent.

I was reminded of a time several years ago when I spent an entire morning trying to call her.  I was concerned because mom had reported that for two days she had great difficulty getting around her apartment because of a sore foot.  When I tried to phone her at 9:00 AM, her line was busy—I got that beeping of the busy signal. Now my mom used her phone often, so this was not unusual. Her phone was often busy.

I phoned mom all morning. I even went for a long walk, because I couldn’t concentrate—and gave her lots of time to finish her phone call. But when I came back at 11:00, her phone was still busy. Still at noon, I couldn’t get her. I began to worry. Was mom alright? No one talks on the phone for three hours. My imagination started to work. I hoped that her phone was simply off the hook—but I thought that, who knows, maybe she knocked the phone off the hook when she was trying to call for help, and now she lay unconscious or worse in her apartment.

mom.JPGMom got meals each noon from “Meals on Wheels.” So I thought that when they showed up to her apartment, having tried to phone her from the door to the apartment on the first floor, they would tell her, “Do you know that your phone is busy?” Or, they would discover if mom was in some state of dire need. They arrived between 11:30 and 12:00 noon each day, so I thought that when I called at noon, she would get her phone back on the receiver. But when I called  noon,after her phone was still busy. I didn’t know what to do.

So I texted my sister, “I notice that mom’s phone has been busy all morning. Do you think it is off the hook?” Then I waited. But my sister must have been busy too. She didn’t respond to my text. I sat on the little couch in my office and wondered what to do.

Then I remembered that we had had trouble with my cell phone recently and had to re-enter some phone numbers. I wondered if the right number had been entered for Mom’s phone number. There it was; it was the wrong number, with the wrong area code.  I had been phoning the wrong number all morning—that’s why I could never get through to mom.

So, I tried the right number, using the correct area code, and guess what? The phone was busy!  But when I tried again a few minutes later, the phone rang and I heard my mother’s voice on the other end. That was a great relief!

It illustrates our frustration with prayer:  sometimes we get the wrong number, or when we try, we get a busy signal.

20161216_154347.jpgWhen it comes to getting through to God, Jesus is the right number. The apostle Paul often uses the word “through” when speaking of Jesus, as in Romans 5: “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand” (Rom 5:1-2).

At times, we get a “busy signal” and God does not seem available to hear our prayers. But there are two who need to listen in prayer: God, and us. Prayer is not about a one-way conversation, where we do all the talking and God must do all the listening. Prayer is about a relationship with God in which there is dialogue, where we listen as well as speak.

There is an aspect of prayer that involves getting away from the crowd. It involves solitude and stillness, freedom from distractions.  It is about being alone, in a deserted place: quiet, by ourselves, undisturbed, shutting the door to the outside.

It is about paying attention. Listening.

Prayer involves not only listening to and answering God—“where are you?” (as in Genesis 3 in the garden)—it also involves listening to ourselves. Prayer is giving verbal expression to what is stirring deep within us. This deep stirring is referred to in Paul’s statement on prayer in Romans 8.

“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” (8:26)

listeningPrayer is a vocalization—sometimes wordless-of these pains.

Prayer is listening to the suffering within ourselves, and expressing this pain to God.

Prayer is a way of dealing with the suffering of this life—and I think it is good to realize that the worst kinds of suffering are often not physical, but mental and emotional.

Prayer is about consolation for our afflictions:

16So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. 17For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, 18because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.” (2 Cor. 4)

Along with these frequent cries of pain that are scattered throughout the Psalms, there are also frequent testimonies of the LORD’s help and comfort:

  • Psalm 130 – “7O Israel, hope in the LORD! For with the LORD there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem.”
  • Psalm 6 – “9The LORD has heard my supplication; the LORD accepts my prayer.”
  • Psalm 4 – “7You have put gladness in my heart more than when their grain and wine abound. 8I will both lie down and sleep in peace; for you alone, O LORD, make me lie down in safety.”
  • Psalm 22:24 – “For he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him.”


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Paul was a preacher and teacher until he retired in 2015. He continues to write and listen to what God is saying to him in the ordinary and extraordinary things of life. Elaine was a public school teacher and administrator until she retired in 2018. She is using her retirement to reflect on God's work in her life and to share insights with her family and friends.

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