What Prayer Can Be

Sunday evening at the end of Evening Prayer, a young man in our midst whom I respect and treasure very much offered to say the prayers for the night.  He asked if there were any prayer concerns.  Our Princess spoke up and looked over at me as if seeking approval for her request.  She shared about her upcoming piano recital and how nervous she was.  I realized this was important to her, but what really touched my heart is that she felt comfortable in this group of adults to share her innermost feelings.

A couple of minutes later Cooter raised his hand.  He shared that he had auditioned for a play and that he would be finding out about his part and beginning rehearsals the next day.  He too was nervous…..and very excited.

My heart was overwhelmed.

As the young man offered a heartfelt, beautiful prayer for illnesses and diagnoses and peace and healing, he also asked for calming of nerves and the ability to do what needed to be done to do a good job and feel comfortable playing the piano, standing on a stage.

Bless him.  His words were just right.

I will admit that I lifted my head just a little as our friend asked for peace for Cooter, who was sitting right in front of me.  What I saw was so precious it moved me to tears.  His countenance was turned to the sky and he was looking around, slowly, with a delighted look of anticipation.  And then it hit me.

He was looking for God.

Oh my heart.

Prayer can do beautiful things and open up eyes and hearts looking for God.

There’s a story that is being shared rampantly across social media.  The story of a daddy/daughter date at their local fast food restaurant.  While there, they saw a man come in whom the dad writing this assumed, based on appearance, was homeless.  The man went up to the counter and asked if they had any extra food.  He waited on a manager, and the man watching him noted his kindness and the way he smiled at folks around him.  When the manager came out, he offered a full meal, not just leftover scraps, to the hungry man who had asked for food, and the only thing he “required” was that the man let the manager pray with him.  The “homeless” man agreed, and the manager stopped what he was doing and prayed what was described as a beautiful prayer filled with love.  And at some point during this prayer, the daddy watching it all and writing about it snapped a photo of the hungry man and the manager.

At this writing, this has been shared over 109,000 times on social media.  People are praising this manager and this restaurant for their Christian ideals.

Oh me.

A hungry man was fed.  A good thing, right?

Hamburger_sandwich

Ericd at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

I don’t know if this man actually was homeless or not, because the person who wrote the about this didn’t share the man’s name or his story.  He didn’t mention asking about it.  The thing is I have friends who are homeless.  They have names like Mac and Rick and Donna and Travis and Roger and Tonya.  They have powerful and broken stories as to why they are without a home to find refuge in.  They have stories of how they have been treated and what they have had to do in the face of hunger.  They also have stories of kind people and people who have used them.  And that is why this story tears me up inside.

What they have had to do to get food when they are hungry breaks my heart.  That someone would require one of my friends to pray with them before getting food, not knowing how long it had been since he or she had last eaten…..that does more than break my heart; it makes me sick to my stomach.

In all fairness, I read some of the comments in the thread. I could hear how pleased folks were with what this manager had done.  I wondered if maybe I was missing something, so I wrote my wise friend and advocate for those in the margins, Hugh Hollowell from Love Wins Ministries in North Carolina.* What he had to share opened my eyes even more, and he put what I was struggling with into words.  Good words.

“The way to think about this is to replace ‘prayer’ with ‘whatever the helper wants to do.’  When seen that way, it is horribly offensive, and can be abusive. If Aub broke down, and asked for help, and some guy said he would give her a lift if she went out with him, that would be seen as creepy as hell. That is exactly the same scenario. Guy asks for help, the helper will only help if the recipient will do what makes the helper happy…..it is all about what the giver wants, and not at all about the recipient.”

My friends who are homeless will tell you they aren’t walking around with a lot of dignity.  Folks aren’t eager to hear their thoughts on much of anything.  They aren’t given the respect and consideration that other folks are given.

Think about it.  This man’s picture was taken.  It was shared OVER 109,000 times and, to my knowledge, no one asked his permission.  I’m not sure anyone bothered to ask his name.  Did anyone invite him to sit down and eat with them?  The man on the daddy/daughter date watched it all and took a picture of the actual prayer to put with his story.  While I don’t know what happened after the prayer was said, there is no mention of anyone reaching out to this man and taking the time to get to know him.  I sure hope it happened that way, but I have my doubts.

It makes me sick to my stomach that prayer was used as a bargaining tool for food.  A basic need.  I can’t even begin to imagine what I would do to get food for myself (let alone my children) if I were hungry and someone said, “Sure but first I require…..”  That this has been hailed as a beautiful Christian act makes me realize once again why my friend Mac once asked me, when he was trying to figure out why I was giving him a ride, “So what are you?  One of them…..Christians?”

That last word was said with disdain.  Since reading this story, my heart has been heavy wondering just what all has happened to my friend at the hand of well-intentioned Christians that has him saying the word in such a tone.

It’s not okay, y’all.

We are supposed to love.  Without conditions.  Or demands.  Or requirements.  Just love.

Or, in the face of hunger, feed.  That’s a form of love.  No tests, no hoops to jump through, no questionnaires.

Prayer can be a beautiful thing.  It is relational, something that makes it very holy to me.  What happened on Sunday night, when Cooter and our Princess were prayed for, that was sacred.  It was beautiful and it touched my children deep in their souls.  Our Princess hasn’t blinked an eye of worry over the recital and has practiced intently ever since that prayer was offered for her.  Cooter took it to heart and felt only anticipation and joy as Monday afternoon rolled around.

Prayer is beautiful.  Those prayers were heartfelt.  Because my children asked for them, specifically sharing their needs, in a room where they felt safe with people they felt connected to.  And the prayers were offered by a young man who knows their names and listens to their stories and has a relationship with them.

And that to me, makes all the difference in the world.  When prayer is asked for, and it is freely given, that is a beautiful, precious, and holy thing.

Tonight I’m thankful for the people in that room Sunday night who seek and build and nurture relationships and who try to love each other just as we were commanded to do.  I’m thankful for a young man with a giving heart, one that listens for the whispers of grace and talks to God with unfaltering trust and faith.  I give thanks for my friend Hugh and people like him who teach the rest of us about loving folks, all folks, and giving them the respect we all deserve and the love we all yearn for.  I am thankful for folks who ask others their names, hear their stories, and build community such that when one needs a friend or guidance or peace, they feel safe asking for what they need and for prayer.

Prayer can be a beautiful thing.  But it should never be currency.  Or required.  It should connect us, not separate.

Love to all.

 

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*It is interesting that I went to Hugh for his input on this story.  It was Hugh’s writing about prayer that first stirred my heart years ago and led me to work through some hard questions I had about prayer.  If you’d like to learn more about or support his mission, please click here.  You can subscribe to his weekly newsletter about the pursuit of beauty here.

 

The Puzzle of Prayer

pic of walk

Tonight after supper the littles asked to take a walk.

It surprised me.

I’m used to them asking for dessert, or to play some kind of electronics, or to watch a tv show.  But to take a walk? It’s been a while.  And the irony of them asking on this day.  It just about made me cry.

Four years ago exactly, in the evening, I was taking my second walk of the day.  It was a luxury I didn’t take lightly.  Walking through the neighborhood by myself, letting the breeze blow out the cobwebs.  My husband was home doing prep for a procedure, so when I saw him walking towards me through the shadows of dusk, I knew something was wrong.  It was Daddy.  He was in the hospital ER and it wasn’t good.

Tonight as the littles and I walked, off and on Cooter would reach up and take my hand.  So sweet.  And our Princess would lean over and hug me happily as we walked side by side by side.  The sound of thunder rumbling sped us along, as I didn’t want it to find us before we were able to get inside safely.  The dark was closing in on us as the clouds grew darker and closer.  Just as it did four years ago.  That blasted darkness.

Just the day before we’d gathered at Mama’s and Daddy’s to celebrate my nephew’s fourth birthday.  In the midst of the laughter and merry-making I sat next to Daddy on the brown couch in the big room.  He was unusually quiet.  I don’t claim to know something was going to happen but there must have been some kind of prescience as I remember wanting to hug him close and not let go.

We’d had at least six months of symptoms to seek explanations for, but it was when Daddy’s hand wobbled and he couldn’t get his glass to his mouth that day that Mama noticed and said, “It’s time to do something.  Now.” And so they went to the ER.

I was relayed the message that I was NOT to go to the hospital that night.  So I didn’t.  I did what I was supposed to do which was make calls and share the situation with family.

That night was the beginning of the change in my relationship with prayer.  Before this I really thought that if I prayed hard enough or believed enough…..

One family member asked what could be done.  I said, “Hit your knees and start praying.”  I was so convinced we could ward off the Giant with prayers.

The next morning I called to tell Daddy’s sisters and brother.  My Aunt and I cried together as I recall.  Her big sister, the one in the middle between her and Daddy, offered to pray with me, for me, for all of us.  I remember being comforted and some of her words have stayed with me–words about how much I loved and needed my Daddy.  And how much his grandchildren needed him too.  She knew, she got it–her Daddy died when she was in her twenties.  Her words covered me and held me tight as I knelt in the dark inside my closet, weeping where my children hopefully couldn’t hear me.

Prayer is a hard thing, you know.  Or maybe it isn’t for most folks.  But for me, I don’t get it.  I read part of a book where a man walked around the property he hoped would be his community’s church one day, praying around it.  And it “worked.”  They got the property and have grown since then.  I know people who say that their prayers have been answered in one way or another.  And I’m not saying they haven’t been.  I just know that when someone is sick or hurting or they ask for prayers……all I can say is “I’ll keep you in my thoughts” or “I will be thinking about you” or “You are in my heart and on my mind.”  Which is all true.  I cannot say “I will pray for you” because I don’t know what that is supposed to look like.

And here is why.

Starting very shortly after this date in 2009, when my children fully grasped that their loving grandfather, their “Cap,” was very sick, they ended their table blessings ALWAYS with “And make Cap better. Amen.” It was so much a part of their prayers that they even said it at his table with him sitting there after he came home from the hospital several weeks later.  Loving friends and family let us know they were praying.  Friends in Japan and Germany and young women in Ghana whom we never met were praying for us, for Daddy.  If ever anyone was covered in prayer, it was my Daddy.  And yet….

On a cold morning in November of 2011 I was driving as quickly as I safely could to my parents’ house, my three babies in tow.  When our Princess realized we weren’t taking her big sister to school and that it was still rather dark out, she asked, “What are we doing?  Where are we going?”  I waited until we were on the backroads in case I had to pull over I guess.  I told her, “Baby, God is coming to get Cap today.  Sometimes He has to take folks to Heaven to heal them all the way.”  Or something like that.  And that’s when she started crying and said,

“Oh no, we didn’t pray hard enough.”

Dear God, what had I taught her about prayer?  And what do I teach her now?

It’s a hard thing.  And so I think about it more than I should probably.  And I worry over it.  Not so much for God’s sake as I figure I’m not the first to ask hard questions, but for those I love.  Those I love enough to want things to be better but not really understanding the process enough to commit–“I’ll pray for you.” How can I if I don’t know what I’m doing?

After Daddy died,  I spent fourteen months trying to get my faith and my prayers back on track. Then Mama went in the hospital. So many people praying, saying to us that they were praying for the surgeons, for us, for Mama. Three weeks later, after suffering more than anyone ever should, she too passed on from this world. My friend Mac has told me he has sat in the park and cried and prayed and asked God to take away the taste of alcohol. He’s prayed for strength. I’ve told God how much he means to me and asked God to help him through the constant battle of addiction. And still…..here we are.

I’ve talked with some folks about prayer. Told them that I don’t get it. I don’t understand exactly what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. Expectation management as my husband would call it. If I’m praying, believing God can or will heal my Daddy, my Mama, Mac…..then is it any wonder that my faith is shattered and my heart broken when they aren’t healed? And if I’m praying, knowing it could go the other way, then why bother at all? That would be praying, having no faith that it could help. I’ve heard some folks say, “Well you must not have prayed hard enough.” NO. I can’t take that upon myself, nor can I believe in a God that would punish for prayers said wrong or not at all. Somehow I think we’re missing a piece of the puzzle here. I pray and…..? And what? There has to be another part of it.

I don’t know what the answer is and may not know in this world.  For now I borrow from a wise Mennonite minister, Hugh Hollowell, who shared in an old post that his prayers evolved into telling God how much someone meant to him and asking Him/Her to be with that person.  That I can do.  That doesn’t set expectations or requests–just puts someone in the Light for a few minutes. And I’m hoping that in the midst of the dark and brokenness that can be overwhelming, that if I talk to God and share how much I love that person, maybe for a moment the Light will shine through the darkness.  And shine a bit of peace through it all.  For that person I care about and for all of us.

Amen.