What Does It Mean to Pray For Another?

Often when news of health crises, family discord, employment or financial unrest or the ultimate, the loss of a loved one travels through social media or is lifted up in our church,  the response is a quick “sending prayers.” One never can be sure that the words aren’t empty, that the promise of prayer is truly acted upon. Is the phrase tossed out as a way to make the speaker feel less helpless, is it said in haste, as a reflex like “bless you” when someone sneezes? I am guilty of repeating this assurance, knowing there is little else I have to offer to someone who is in my heart and is carrying pain I cannot ease. Is it enough to say I am praying for you, does it make any difference? My wonderings about the power of prayer, my own especially, wax and wane as the results I want don’t immediately appear. Yet as we have continued to breathe and eat and muster the strength required to get out of bed each new morning after the horrific news that came two Fridays ago, I am a believer in others faithfulness, if not my own ability to carry out the assurance. I know when friends and family say they are praying for us that someone is hearing those prayers. I am convinced because I can feel the pleadings to God from all those around us, I am the evidence of their power.

Sometimes prayers are more like wishes, as in a snow day request from a child, a winning basket or touchdown for our favorite team. These prayers are like our lists for Santa, have little to do truly with spirituality. Maybe our hopes are realized, maybe they aren’t this time, yet we have shared our desires with God in the midst of hopeful desperation. I have little belief in the words we lift up during these fevered moments, I think God is too busy with starving children and war torn countries for His intervention in sporting events. Still it seems significant that we turn to Him even with our wishes.

Some prayers come from abject fear, like those I spoke aloud to God each morning many year ago, as I drove to work before most others were awake, begging for the safety of my son as he experienced homelessness and seemed lost to me. I ranted and cried each morning in the silence of my car, begging God to do what I couldn’t, keep my child safe and bring him out of his addiction and home to us. Left with nothing else to do, no where else to turn, I sought out the One who I believed loved my child more than me. He eventually came back to us, extremely under weight, eyes clouded with experiences we would never fully know, bringing his broken body and deep misery to the safety of a new start with us. Whether it was my petition or just the next step that was always in the plan, I felt better for taking the only avenue left as a mother of an addict, I trusted God to hear me and I think He did.

I am better with the lifting of joys, the celebratory “Thank you God” that easily escapes my heart and lips when life is going well, when our Plum is bringing laughter and joy to our bruised souls. I firmly hold with confidence that those moments are from God, I carry the conviction of all good things are from Him during the realization of blessings that I certainly could not have engineered. Yet it often feels as if there is not enough joy to carry me through, to keep my firmly in the embrace of this God. Another blow comes, another round of troubles that I didn’t expect, and my joy blows away with the winter wind or the summer storm, elusive fleeting fragile.

We heard immediately that others were praying for us as the news spread that our 26 year old son took his last breath surrounded by pill bottles, as questions arose about our involvement in caring for his body one last time, as a cruel obituary was published in the local paper. We read the words on the cards that came, during the hugs we received, promised in texts and emails and social media messages. My anger, my exhaustion, my grief caused me to repel those words as useless. Where was God when my child started using again and I wasn’t given the opportunity to help him? No I wanted to fling those words back at those who offered them up, to exclaim loudly and forcefully that the God they were trusting had left me and my son when we most needed HIm. I didn’t want to be told to draw near to Him, this God who could have intervened and didn’t, what could I need or gain from seeking to bridge the divide that felt permanent? Still, something has been happening around me, within me during the darkness of my unbelief, something I have sought to deny and ignore. Your prayers are holding me up, as I resist being lifted. Your prayers are reminding me to breathe when I am removed from any desire to carry on living. I want to proclaim that your words are hollow, that God is not for me anymore, but even I cannot ignore your faith and trust.

As I entered church yesterday, the building that has been a true sanctuary during all of our upheaval all these years, I wanted to be invisible, I didn’t want others to know that I was studiously rejecting the very premise of our gathering. I wanted to shout that we had all been taken in, that this man called Jesus was a scam, that the Holy spirit was a figment of our imagination. Instead, I was greeted with hugs that held me up, with the kindest eyes that sought to free me from some small bit of my grief, with complete freedom to sit with my disbelief and even verbalize my inability to pray. I was given permission to question time and time again, told my lack of faith was welcome among these friends who understood my ache and promised to keep surrounding us with their faith. How can I argue with these generous grace filled people who seek not to change me but to provide a cushion as I fall, to offer words to the God I no longer believe hears me? My inability to pray, a broken connection I am nurturing in my anger, caused not one sliver of judgement among these people. They accepted the little I had to give, the minimal effort of just showing up, a doubting Thomas in their midst. They simply didn’t care that I was not joining in the singing and praising and worship. They offered their gifts to cover my inability to pay up, they covered my debt to God as if my blasphemous heart mattered not. I sat alone in the front row, our normal place inside the sanctuary, as Chef taught his Sunday school class and Plum puttered at my feet with his play doh and donut holes, fueled by my rejection of this God they began singing about. Then a tap on my shoulder, a hug of welcome. A dear friend who refuses to leave me alone sat with her family behind me, not in their usual row. Then worst of all, another sweet dear friend and her husband chose the seats on either side of me, ignoring the wall I was erecting between God and His followers. They held me as I cried, they sang the words of praise and desperation I refused to utter. What kind of God allows such heartache to shatter me and then pushes His people to offer His grace?

I cannot pray these days. I don’t want to, I prefer to yell at the One who was supposed to save my son for a glorious testimony one day. I want to reject and repel all those words of prayer that just keep coming at me. Alas I cannot because this God who knows I am silent and turning my back on Him is sending His promises through the love of His people. One friend told me it was okay with her that I couldn’t pray, she and others were doing it for me. She said she knew one day I would do the same for others, but not today. How can I deny the grace of God when I am accepted just as I am amongst these people? I can feel their intervention, their intercession inspite of myself. While I may not trust God right now, I find I am able to trust His followers. I think that is the point of us gathering to share our true hearts. God is surely rejoicing in His children at St. Andrew UMC, those who feel compelled to send messages and cards from all around the country. Faith in action, acting as his hands and feet, offering up His embrace through the arms of those who know words are not enough and will never be again, this is how I will learn to pray again one day.

In the midst of my darkness I can feel the warmth of all the tiny candles of hope that are offered. Someday I will tell you all how grateful I am, when I can feel thanksgiving once more. For now I hope it is enough to tell you I am still breathing because of you. I know your words are not empty, I trust what you say to me. Surely this God is rejoicing in you. Prayers offered are life giving, not mere wishes. I am blessed by you all, you light bringers, you burden lifters. Someday I may again be able to tell Him of your faithfulness and celebrate the rising of the sun again. I think though that He knows, that He is sending His children to us and will reward them all for hearing His voice and reaching into our darkness. If I ever begin talking to Him again, I think He will rejoice with me in you all. For today just know that I believe in your belief and have chosen to rise again to greet the new day. It is enough and it is huge.

 

My Whale of Grief

The story of Jonah and the whale has been reverberating these last few days, bouncing around my mind as I vacillate between trying to string thoughts together and shutting down any thoughts at all. Why is this bit of scripture pestering me, what have I to learn or gather from the story of a man who avoided his calling, who went to extremes to push his own agenda and allow his anger and hate to fester? What I am sure of is this relentless pursuit of my soul is not of my prayers, rather those of all who are surrounding us in these dark days. I just want to be left alone, allowed to nurture my resentments and give way to the grief that is telling me to give up, to become bitter and even to explain to the God who is supposed to bring me comfort that He has failed me miserably. Yet the whale and this man are hounding me.

I can barely type the words that share I have lost my son. I cannot find motivation to live in this world without the hope of reconciliation, without the knowledge that my baby is out there somewhere, smiling and laughing and being so silly. No, I have been swallowed by the whale of heartache, unlike Jonah I haven’t found a way to pray to this God who seems to love others, to cherish them and allows a mother’s heart to be shredded again and again. I wish I were stronger, more faithful, to rest in the truth of God’s ever presence, even within a sea serpent’s belly of soul crushing devastation. But maybe if I allow a bit, a tiny thread of connection to this far away God, I can admit that even while Jonah was disobeying God, questioning the direction God was asking him to go, still He saved this man and allowed him sanctuary within the whale, a place of darkness, room to mourn for the ideas and hopes he had while preparing for the next step in his journey.

The rest of Jonah’s story is seemingly not for me, a future of proclaiming God’s faithfulness and even then resurrecting anger and hate. I am stuck in hopelessness, filled with the horror of seeing my son for the final time in such a horrible state, days after he had taken his last breath, after an autopsy that only brings insult to the baby I held, the child I nurtured and cuddled and bathed. Desecration, disrespect as the crematorium owner placed a box of tissues on top my son as he laid cold and bare, swollen and discolored, a simple act of treating him like a bench forever etched within my soul. The belly of the whale will hold me for longer than Jonah’s three days, I am comfortable there where no light shines. I have no great testimony to lead others to truths that seem empty as each night comes and then the morning, the sheer insult of time continuing for me when it has stopped for my boy.

Maybe one day I will emerge, asked to be thrust back into the world where I can find purpose and shout that God held me during my exile. Until then, I can feel the prayers of those who surround us, those who tell me that they are talking to God because they understand that I cannot, that I will not. The problem is that I do not want to loosen the binds of my grief, what is left if I allow myself to fall fully into this horror, will I someday come to laugh and smile again? How could I want to carry on, to do the work of this God who seems to care so little for me? No, Jonah,  I will sit within the belly of my grief, you can pray to God all you want, I prefer to stay in the darkness, secluded from joy.  God and I have some things to work through, words I must speak that are not fit for those who wait on the shore. I have been angry at God before but this time, this is just a bridge too far, a brokenness that will never be healed.

As raw as the fish that were swallowed with Jonah, my grief is foul and writhing. As I claim my time within it, I can hear the whispers of you all. Thank you for your belief, for lifting me and telling me to breathe. Someday I may tell you a story of my healing. That day is not today.

When You Parent an Addict

I know there are stages of grief, I haven’t bothered to research where anger falls, should I have already been depressed or shocked or is the anger that is consuming me right on time? I lost my son last friday morning, the truth is that he was lost to me when he began using again and we had to make him leave our home, again again again after all the years of prison visits and commissary money and daily phone calls. We welcomed our sober son back into our home, took him to get his license reinstated, got his teeth fixed, got a car for him and a job. We bought new clothes for the new man he wanted to be. We welcomed home this humble, grateful young man who so deeply desired a relationship with his son, who wanted to do projects around the house and lift anything even slightly heavy for me, he sought ways to repay us for our steadfast support. He was surrounded by those who loved him to health, loved him always enough to say no.

My beautiful son who wore a tattoo proclaiming, “mama’s boy” met a girl who brought him a bottle of wine for dinner, he wanted to impress that girl, he wanted to be the guy who could have a drink and not lose himself. Yet he quickly disappeared, became the secret-keeping, bottle hiding, angry addict who neglected his child and forgot that he was so much more without substances clouding his beautiful blue eyes. We lost our 26 year old son Friday morning and have been dealt indignity after indignity by those who are clinging to the fantasy that young men die naturally at home with pill bottles around them. That is was normal for an opioid addict to get a prescription for Oxy and take it with no issues. My friend reminded me that successful addicts require equally determined enablers to practice the dance with their demons. My son was nothing if not a skilled manipulator of those who wanted to believe his lies, wanted to drink and use, some able to walk away, go back to work, leave him in his misery.

Parenting an addict means you dread that phone call, you beg God to protect him when you no longer can. Parents of addicts rarely get to say yes, we have to say stop, no, you cannot do that here.  We have to drop them off at rehabs and call the police and then pay for lawyers when they finally get arrested, a desperate last hope to save them. We too had a dream for our son, one that included his reality, that he needed to be held accountable, that one slip up could be his last one. We dreamt of his reconciliation with his son, for his silly goofy laugh to fill our home again. Staying strict to the plan we were given 11 years ago during his first stint in rehab, the one that said we cannot enable or we will contribute to his death, we had to say no. Yet his charm allowed him to find others who would say yes, others who would hasten what we sought desperately to avoid.

My son lost his battle, one last high after a night of using and shopping for gifts for his son, spending an hour on the phone with Plum’s mom who could hear him slurring more and more as the call progressed. He wasn’t planning to die, he just wasn’t planning to live. The truths that I will carry with me always is that my son loved his family, he adored his son. He loved his mama, he had the deepest gratitude and respect for Chef. His heart was the biggest part of him and he was big.  He was a forgiver, his sensitivity was unmatched. He would be appalled knowing I walked into a ghetto store front crematorium to identify him, days and days later, my final goodbye too horrific and callous to comprehend. He would be furious that his son has been relegated as an after thought, he would hate that Chef wasn’t included in the obituary and I came after the dog. Yet it all makes perfect sense, knowing that addicts have to keep the parts of their life separate, telling one story to one person, another to someone else, building a sandcastle of lies. He died using, but he was more than those final moments.

My son died Friday morning and I am angry. We owe him no less in death than we gave him in life, the truth. We owe the truth to all those who are struggling with their own children, with their own addiction. None are guaranteed one more high. To all who are living out the anguish, remember, you can choose the hardest road and find it is filled with laughter and raindrops and starry nights and the sweet smell of your child’s hair. My son chose wrong. We didn’t. I would do it all over again, because when you are the parent of addict, what else can you do? While we will never heal from the loss our son, we will wake each morning with no regrets. His demons won out Friday morning yet now he will smile his beautiful without agony or fear or shame, he is safe back with the One who shared him with us 26 years ago.