Is anyone else finding it hard to pray these days?
I am finding it hard – not because the need isn’t great or because my heart isn’t willing; it’s because I hardly know where to begin. On any given day, I have half a dozen urgent things I want to lay at God’s feet. By dinner time it’s up to a full dozen. And yet I find myself putting it off. Prayer that is. I’m worried God will want to know where I’ve been or what’s taken me so long. Or even that my worries and anxieties will seem small and selfish against the waves of turmoil our nation and nations are experiencing.
To add to my guilt, prayer is my “star word” for this year. I chose it unwittingly from a basket of countless other star words on Epiphany Sunday back in January. As we went up the aisle for communion, we were invited to select a small, balsa wood star with a word printed on one side. Back in my pew, I carefully turned the star over in my palm. When I saw the word “prayer” printed there, I felt both pleased and a sense of foreboding. What might 2020 have in store that prayer would be especially important, that it would be my compass word? The word to guide me like the Star of Bethlehem guided the Magi to the manger?
My reluctance to pray, my feelings of futility and insignificance got so strong that I considered dropping out of the prayer chain at my church. I did this passively, by not returning the confidentiality form I was asked to sign. And then one day it arrived in the mail, complete with a self-addressed, stamped envelope to return it. The group’s leader was not letting me off the hook so easily. I went to bed determined to send her a note that said, “I’m sorry, but I just can’t do this anymore.”
Before falling asleep I happened to read a short essay about prayer. In it, a young man who is losing his faith and planning to drop out of rabbinical school seeks counsel from his professor. The teacher doesn’t question the young man’s decision to drop out. Instead he asks him, “But you still pray, right?”
His message seemed to be: Prayer is most important when we feel the most doubt.
I woke up the next morning with my mind churning with ways God has responded to my prayers in the past. I got up and began to write some of the down.
- A friend and neighbor of mine died, leaving two small children without their mother. I prayed for these children throughout their school years, knowing their father was crippled by grief. Then I learned my friend’s daughter became pregnant right out of high school and moved away. I was devastated, feeling certain this would have broken her mother’s heart. I wrote the young woman a letter and to my amazement she got in touch and asked to meet. I was nervous. I couldn’t believe she wanted to see me, and I didn’t know what to expect. When I finally met her and her husband and new baby at a coffee shop, I was struck by the peace I felt when I was with them. I witnessed the love and purpose they felt as a young family. It was as if God was saying to me, “See. She is fine. She is loved. She is happy. I heard you.”
- I prayed for years that a particular prisoner of war might be released. I’ll never forget learning one Sunday in church that he had been freed and feeling overwhelming joy and gratitude rise in me, filling my eyes with tears. Later that same day, I went to a graduation party where a woman, without prompting, confided in me, “I was so happy, I cried. I have been praying for his release for years.” I had felt so small and alone in praying for such a miracle. Now God was letting me know I wasn’t either of those.
- I worked for several years against a development in my neighborhood. I became obsessed over it and took a lead role testifying against it at hearings and distributing flyers to my neighbors. I kept praying that it wouldn’t happen. But we lost the fight to defeat it, and the development moved forward. I had no choice but to accept it or move, so I asked God to turn my heart around. It didn’t happen right away, but each time construction trucks roared up our street or contractors sped down it at breakneck speeds, I asked God to help me. Gradually, I learned to smile at the drivers instead of glaring at them. Now, I marvel at the young families who have moved into our neighborhood, who walk and bike up and down the street. The neighborhood is stronger than it was before. It’s like God was saying. “I know you’re afraid, but you can trust me.”
I could go on, but isn’t it strange that the very night I decided to quit the prayer chain, all these thoughts filled my head and clamored to be noticed? They clamored so loudly I had to get up and pay attention.
I know the heaviness I feel when I think about praying won’t necessarily go away. I’ll have to work through it and persist in praying (it is my star word) even when I don’t feel like it. But I have decided to stay on the prayer chain. I have decided to persist in praying, evening praying poorly, knowing God is listening. He’s joining my prayers with those of others. Even though we are afraid, we can trust Him.