Learning to Pray

January 17, 2014

My son is sick. He has been for quite some time. It has been exhausting in so many ways to have a child be so sick and no answers. It has been exhausting waiting for answers. And when the answers finally came at the beginning of last week, the exhaustion was renewed with the reality that so many things would need to change in order for him to recover his health. And throughout it all, my pillow has seen many tears- the ones held back in daytime hours. And in the security of my bedroom, or the front seat of the car, or in the deep of my mind while grocery shopping, prayer for my boy has been a constant.

I don’t think I knew how to pray until I became a parent.

Sure, I knew how to pray. I had been praying from an early age- before mealtimes when all of us siblings would rattle off the family meal prayer as fast we possibly could, in church listening to the voice in the microphone speaking of the needs of others, in Sunday school and Vacation Bible School, in youth group and bible studies. I grew up on the act of prayer. Then I became an adult and a seminary student and a pastor. And I prayed. I led prayer. I sat with people in prayer. I taught about prayer. I preached on the topic of prayer. Sure, I prayed. Sometimes I even prayed well. And I won’t discount any of those years of sincere conversation with God that I had.

But it wasn’t until I became a mom that I found prayer to be so much more than it had ever been. Not simply because my son was and is, indeed, a walking prayer. He shouldn’t exist- according to all my medical charts. He was a 1% chance. And he is a 1% miracle. He was prayed for so deeply and so desperately. Like Hannah mouthing prayers in the temple to the tune of accusations that she was a bit tipsy, our son was prayed for long before he even existed, long before he even had a chance of existing. But I learned to pray not simply because of that dark season when it looked as though we would never be parents. In fact, so many of those dark and desperate prayers were spoken from a heart that could no longer afford to believe in what she prayed for. Disappointment has a way of making faith hard. So when I would pray back then, so weary from the battles for my health and for my soul, it was sometimes simply to sustain a habit that felt lifeless, and yet a habit I couldn’t leave, because if I left that habit, the little bit of my world that was still in tact would crumble, leaving me with nothing. And while some people might condemn that I prayed simply because it was habit and not really heart, I don’t look at that time with shame. Sometimes our habits are what get us through. Sometimes they are what work when we have to do things that we do not feel. And it’s not hypocrisy. It’s courage.

But once that little baby was placed in my arms, I knew things I hadn’t known before. I knew what it was like to love with a nearly primal-like love. I have strived to learn to love people well. I’m clumsy and sometimes I just don’t do it, but it’s a desire. Yet I have never experienced this sort of primal-like love before for any human being. The realization that this little child is the most precious gift that I could ever touch and hold. And with that realization was a new revelation that this little child is so vulnerable to a world that would sooner rip his soul to shreds than care for him. In those moments as he gasped at his first taste of oxygen and squinted his eyes at the colors all around him, I knew that not only was he this walking prayer, but that all walking prayers- every single one of us- live in this precarious place of fragility and vulnerability. And so with his birth came the pain of knowing my son could be- and would be- hurt, wounded, broken in this beautiful and crazy world of ours. It was then that I learned prayer was my only defense.

And so parenting made me a pray-er. In ways I had never known before as a child, an adult, and even as a pastor. I learned that prayer for my child, over my child, is really the only thing I have. All my knowledge, all my confidence, all my strength, all my joy was dependent on this rushing back to weep before God on behalf of a child who could not do so for himself. So many breaths became prayers- prayers over his future, prayers over his present, prayers to protect his soul in these young formative years, prayers to expose him to poverty and suffering in order to grow a heart of empathy and compassion and justice, prayers that doctor appointments would go well, prayers that his teachers would all be wonderful encouragers of his growing intellect, prayers that he would be spared from the violence that accompanies so many children these days, prayers for his first words, prayers for him to always know he is loved… everything became a prayer. And yes- prayers for healing. Especially lately.

I often have thought of myself as the woman pounding on the judge’s door, persevering for things to be made right (Luke 18). Or as the psalmist spreading out his hands before God with a rising voice of longing and hope and pleas that punctuate prayers. I’ve prayed the words of scripture over my child, willing his body healed, his speech delay unlocked. But most often I’ve prayed the words of the parent in Mark 9, a man weeping in agony over his sick son, “Lord, I believe! Help my unbelief.”

I used to chastise myself for struggling to have faith in prayer. I don’t anymore. Because this man struggled too. And Jesus didn’t scold him for it. Thomas Merton’s most famous prayer includes the phrase, “I believe that the desire to please You does in fact please You.” I believe this now with all my heart. That our desire to pray, our desire for God to reach into the mundane and miraculous of life, our desire to have God nudge us along the channels of our lives, pleases God. That honesty about the struggle between belief and unbelief, between trust and fear, between reality and the dream of what’s to come pleases God. That it pleases God when a parent prays deep for healing, protection, hope, and a future coupled with the knowledge that the world into which they loose their children is filled with amazing and treacherous things. And that when we truly love our children, or the children placed around us, it is an act of hope and that pleases God.

So, I’ve learned how to pray. And I am still learning. Learning that prayer is much less about a list of needs, but about a willingness to share the deepest joys and pains with a God we choose to trust will care about those needs. Learning that prayer is less about the old youth group cliche of “God answers prayers with a yes, no, or wait” and more about a God who responds without clarity sometimes, except to simply say, “I AM” to the myriad of concerns I carry. Learning that prayer is powerful not because it gets me what I want, but because it draws me to the only One who can give me any sort of peace and hope in the realities of a life that are sometimes less than joyous. Learning that God does indeed honor and delight in the persistent prayers of his children, just as I delight in the persistent requests and responses of my son. (Coincidentally, I often warn God that I will be the annoying woman at the door with this particular prayer concern. I imagine he laughs and then says, “Bring it!”)

My son will heal. He will regain what he lost and be restored. We have been led to good doctors who are less prescription-writers and more actual gifted-healers. That’s a wonderful gift. My son will be okay. I don’t know how or when or what will transpire exactly to have that happen, but I have come to trust that when God says, “I AM” in response to my scurried prayers, he means something that is beyond my comprehension, but that I can lean into- hard.

I have much left to learn. But in the meantime, I have learned to lean. And knock. And speak. And weep. And wait. Wait for the I AM to gently knead his yeast of grace into the life of my walking miracle prayer. A child loved by so many… not the least of which, his Creator.

  “Prayer means to find the way to God and to speak to Him                                       whether the heart is full or empty.” — Bonhoeffer

One Response to “Learning to Pray”

  1. […] reasons. Our lives have been inundated with challenges these last few weeks. My son’s illness (see here) continues to baffle us. It can take a long time to heal from the damage of an infection like the one […]

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