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.