I remember my first fervent, desperate, I-will-do-anything-if-you-answer-this-prayer-God prayer. When I was 8 years old, my little brother’s life seemed to hang in the balance. I don’t know now if the situation truly matched my fear of it at the time. My brother, six years my junior, looked pale, limp and my medical-profession parents looked panicked. Nothing frightens a child like seeing their parents frightened and I had never before seen them so alarmed. My brother has a permanent tracheotomy and that night something went wrong. I remember the darkness. Frantic adult voices, a scramble to the car, a ride from our rural home to the rural hospital where my dad was normally on the inside of the doors through which patients were brought by family members looking for help. All the while I kept praying: Please God, oh, please God, make him be all right.
Memory fades over time and details elude me about the sequence of events. The story ended happily with my brother back to his annoying antics in short order, but I do remember praying: “Dear God, don’t let him die. God, please, please, please help my brother.” Truly, there was nothing else I could do, and I longed to do something for him. I vowed to God in my elementary-school mind that I’d do anything, anything, if God would just make sure my brother returned to normal from his sick, helpless state. My quid pro quo theology was suspect, but I don’t think my motives have been purer before or since.
Prayer has come under fire as of late. Promises of “thoughts and prayers” feel vapid, condescending, useless. The phrase carries as much heft as “take care” at the end of a conversation, or “have a nice day” from the friendly sales clerk. We are keeping the latest victims of a mass shooting in our “thoughts and prayers.” We are remembering the millions of refugees in our “thoughts and prayers.” Take care. Have a nice day. So what? The criticism rings valid. But dismissing prayer altogether throws the baby out with the spiritual bath water.
Jesus prays. Jesus teaches his followers to pray. The oldest book in the New Testament, 1 Thessalonians, instructs us to “pray without ceasing.” Saints through the ages have followed that mandate and I don’t know many people of faith I want to emulate who don’t pray with regularity. Power, God’s power, accompanies prayer. Thoughts and prayers, when actually thought and prayed, carry the heft of the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit speaks, intercedes, accompanies, advocates.
Even as a child, I in no way imagined that my plea to God on my brother’s behalf determined his fate. Many times, those “please, oh please, oh please, God” prayers did not result in the ending I so tenaciously wanted. (Questions will be asked if I am blessed to see God face to face.) And yet, I do believe that prayer for my brother mattered. I believe every prayer that others and I have lifted to the throne of grace matters. Not because they were answered, but because they were uttered.
When we can do nothing else, we can pray. And yes, I get it – we can’t only pray, we must also act. But our actions may be better ordered and in line with God’s if we pray before, during and after we act. Prayer puts us in our place, after all. Prayer reminds us of our created-ness and our limitations. Praying reveals relationship, with God and with each other. A posture of prayer engenders humility, connection and hope.
My prayer for my brother revealed to me on that long-ago night the depth of my love for him, despite the daily aggravations he enacted and I often bemoaned. My prayer laid bare the limits of my power and control. My silent cries on behalf of my baby brother unveiled an ownership of the faith I’d previously thought belonged to my parents or the preacher or the adults I’d prayed with week after week in the pew. That prayer, the first one I recall praying unscripted, unsolicited or unprompted, contained a hope to which I continue to cling: There is a God who listens and cares, a God concerned with me and my concerns, a God who acts, even when all I’ve got are thoughts and prayers.
Grace and peace,