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On prayer

I think about prayer differently than I used to. When I was in high school and my relationship with the Lord took on a deeper meaning for me, I spent concentrated time in prayer. Forming words on paper or in whispers, dedicating myself to specific requests, or thanksgiving, or prayers for forgiveness. I prayed for loved ones. I prayed for safety and wisdom for myself and my life choices. I prayed for world leaders and penned specific scriptures on 3×5 cards all around my room. None of these types of prayers were wrong. In fact, I learned from praying this way. Over the years though, my prayers changed.

Notably, after I became a mother, I found that my time in prayer was limited. Yes, I tried waking up earlier and devoting that time. If only I could be more disciplined, I said. If only I truly had my priorities straight, I said. Instead, I found myself speaking sleepy prayers in the rocking chair in the quiet of night while nursing my baby. I began to internalize my prayers, carrying on a dialogue in my brain…zoning out to the millionth episode of Dora.

When my second baby was born with a birth defect and required concentrated effort to feed and nurture her, my prayers became even more indistinct, more impressions rather than formed words. I cried out to God in those early days with a frail baby girl who spit up most of her food, at least, whatever food actually made it past her wrecked soft palette and down to her stomach. Most of her bottle ended up on my arm and lap, pooling around her neck as it dribbled out of her lips. So, I cried, literally and figuratively, to God with my prayers. I began to feel that I finally understood what it meant to pray without ceasing, that ongoing, never stopping heart cry. I don’t want to compare or rate sorrows, because pain is pain and should be noted, however, not even two years later my prayers were transformed by struggle again when my husband was murdered. I don’t know why I prefer to say murdered rather than killed. The word choice makes it more horrific I think, and I never want to sand off the jagged edges of that event with easier words.

I prayed every night that Andy went to work. I prayed as I woke up to nurse our third baby through the wee hours of the night. I prayed the night He died, when our son, then four, woke up in the grip of a nightmare. I comforted him and rubbed his back and as he returned to sleep I prayed for Andy to come home safely to us in the morning. I checked the clock on my stumble back to the bedroom, 2:05 am, and almost called to hear Andy’s voice. But, it would have been pointless. He died at 2:00 am. I wrote a poem about that once. About how I wondered if Andy saw me, soothing our son, on his way to heaven. I wonder if he’s able to pray for us, or if he prayed for us then, knowing what was coming.

What was coming was a knock on my door and a trio of uniformed men to tell me that my husband was dead. I remember there was a woman too, and she took my hand and reminded me that my children were sleeping. Which of course made me realize that I must have been screaming. At some point there was a Chaplain assigned to me and he asked me if there were any scriptures I wanted to hear. I just wanted the beatitudes. My heart pleaded, “Keep it simple!” For years after, the only scripture I could read were the Psalms. The safe, familiar, cadenced Psalms. Sometime, during that first awful day, this same Chaplain asked me if he could pray for me. I said no. You see, I hadn’t met him before that day. I didn’t know him, but my impression of him in the few short minutes I had with him was that he prayed lots of words but he didn’t pray like he was speaking to a friend. So I said no. I didn’t want those kinds of prayers. I didn’t want lots of words. I needed simple. And I needed someone to remind me that God could be a friend. There’s nothing like trauma to make your threshold low toward niceties and fakery, even in prayer.

Thus began a span of time when I couldn’t pray with words, but in my heart and soul I felt that I was in continual prayer. There was a constant curve toward God. I needed Him, just to sit with me in the total wreck that was my life. I needed Him to BE. And, of course, He was. It was during this span that I learned that prayer is about the relationship. Just talking together and sharing together. Being together. That’s really what praying without ceasing is…just being together, mutual listening and speaking. We always complicate things, don’t we? We always feel like there need to be pretty words and pretty prayers. We feel like we need to specifically ask for the things we specifically want because otherwise, what? Otherwise, God doesn’t hear and know? No, I’m convinced He just wants to be with us, listen to us, hear us, see us, and soothe us. Whatever words we say or cant say, the beauty is in the posture of prayer. The words sort of come and go. I also found great comfort in written, liturgical prayers. My soul needed to borrow words during such a time of evisceration, similar to the way a collapsed lung needs borrowed oxygen.

I began to ask hard questions about why I prayed at all. I mean, obviously, the system wasn’t working. My faith and prayers had been real. Still, I had to bury my husband too soon. He wasn’t safe. He hadn’t come home to us in the morning. As if that weren’t enough, I had waded through caring for a child with a birth defect (obviously I had prayed against that), and years of failed support raising as we tried to be overseas missionaries. These are stories in themselves, and my prayers were not lacking, yet the outcomes were far from what I had hoped. So I wrestled and wrestled and, like Jacob, I didn’t let go.

What I discovered was that this way of praying… where you pray towards a specific end, pray to get the things you want (not even bad things but actually really good things), is only one version of prayer. I would venture to say that it’s the starting point of prayer. The kiddie version. It’s not the grown up version. It’s really ok to pray that way for a while, and even still pray that way from time to time, but I don’t think it’s where we are supposed to stay. Sadly, it’s the version where so many people get stuck, without variation. It’s the milk, not the meat in the praying world. The prayers where we are trying to move the hand of God are often about thinking we know what we actually want, thinking we know best, thinking we are reliable narrators of our own lives or other people’s lives. At it’s worst, it’s a way of being “magical” about what God could do if we had enough faith. This type of prayer, if you can’t or won’t mature past it, can even wound others. It’s the way of praying that causes people to say things like, “I’m so glad I prayed before I left the house this morning because there was a three car pile up on my way to the office!” Meanwhile, you might not think that one of the people in the cars in the accident prayed too, and with a vastly different result. Or what if you prayed that your cancer results came back negative…and they did, but the hospital wards are full of people just like you, praying people like you, who are living with positive cancer results. And treatment, and long hard days. We can even use this type of prayer as a bid for control… If I only fast and pray hard enough, then what I want might happen.

I think of King David who prayed and fasted and begged God to spare the life of his son. Yet, David’s son died. I think of Moses who prayed and asked God to go into the Promised Land. Moses died in the desert. I think of Jesus who prayed and asked God to spare him from his coming crucifixion. Yet, I also think of Abraham who asked God to spare the life of Lot and his family and God said yes. I could go on. There are plenty of examples in scripture of prayers not turning out as hoped…I’d say there are more of those than the ones that turn out great. So, what does that say to us? We pray for so many more reasons than because of what may “happen” if we do. I don’t want to pray with magical thinking. I don’t want to pray as though it’s a ritual I DO so that God can then DO something. I don’t want to grasp for control. I just don’t believe prayer works that way.

I pray because I want to have a conversation with God. I pray because I so desperately want to feel not alone. I pray because I know that He sees me, and likes to hear me. I pray because I want to say thank you and just be in His presence, with my words. I pray to say I’m sorry when I know that the worst parts of me have come to the surface and caused pain.

When I pray for someone who is sick, or a child who is dying, or a friend who is struggling, I don’t typically pray for any specific outcome. Most often I pray that they will be comforted. I pray that they will feel the presence of the Lord right in their mess with them and know, deeply, that they aren’t alone. I pray that regardless of any outcome, that they will shine with the light of Christ. I pray that if they die, they will die well…with dignity and peace and surrounded in love. I pray for peace. Honestly, I think the world needs to see more people handling pain well, with grace and courage. I think they need to see this much more than they need to see miraculous healing, in America anyway.

Sometimes I tell God the way I’d love for things to work out, because, I know He likes to listen to my heart. Yet I find that is a different posture than praying with presumption. I guess it would be like one of my kids walking with me through Target and telling me that I should buy them that toy because they know I can afford it. That may or may not have happened one time. Of course, it’s very different when they are walking with me and very sweetly showing me the things they think are fun. One attitude is about the relationship, while the other is about the benefits.

When I’m talking about God to others, I avoid the litany of all the ways I’m “blessed” or the ways He has answered my prayers. Don’t get me wrong…I know that I have a fortunate life and I know beyond doubt that God has moved throughout my life and sometimes in very specific ways. Yet, I’m careful about attributing that to faith or prayer or anything I’ve “done”. I know what it feels like to hear someone talk about how their prayers changed things and wonder what is wrong with me because my prayers didn’t change the outcome of my life the way I had hoped. Actually, when I let go of that feeling of inadequacy, when I look back and all around me, I think God is writing a beautiful story with my life, without my help. I just want to sit with Him and enjoy it, rather than critique the twists and turns that I haven’t particularly enjoyed living through. The most wonderful thing is that I was never alone. I was always seen and loved and cared for deeply. And I get to talk to Him. That’s enough.

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8 comments on “On prayer

  1. Laura
    November 12, 2014

    Exactly what JJ and I have been learning about lately. Relationship with our living God is not a means to an end, it is the end. Whatever means necessary. He is the goal and the outcome. Hard one to learn….beautiful and worth the pain.

  2. Callie lynch
    November 12, 2014

    I love hearing your heart through the words on your blog. Truly, thank you for sharing.

  3. Angie Lee Makinson Critcher
    November 14, 2014

    Thanks

  4. Sarah
    December 8, 2014

    Such a needed message for the church. Amen, amen, amen. You are a voice crying in the wilderness.

  5. Laura
    April 27, 2015

    Hi Susanna. I actually found your blog because of the Sorbetto top you posted. I saw this post and clicked on it and am so glad I did. There have been a lot of things in the last few years that have caused me to really struggle and think differently about prayer. For too long I have been using the “kiddie version” of prayer, and I am trying to move to the grown up version. The type of prayer just to have a relationship with our Creator, Savior and Lord, not because I want something or am fulfilling a duty.
    Anyway, I just wanted to tell you that this blog really touched my heart, gave me a lot to think about, and encouraged me. Thank you for your openness!
    (and your Sorbetto was adorable too) 🙂

    • bluebarnfarm
      April 28, 2015

      Thank you so much! I haven’t blogged in so long…I was starting to feel like maybe it didn’t matter. And now here you are telling me that maybe it does matter after all. I’m so glad you were encouraged.

      • Laura
        April 28, 2015

        Sharing your heart always counts. Living life open frees others. Love you dear friend. Miss you

      • Laura
        May 1, 2015

        Definitely! Your words have been rolling around in my head all week. Hope you and your sweet family have a wonderful weekend. 🙂

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