We sat at the table with the usual chaos and disarray inherent in mealtime with toddlers. We were spending a wonderfully relaxing weekend at the lake house with one of my husband’s older brothers, his wife, and their two young kids. Our kids played fabulously well together, laughing, pretending and disappearing for hours without needing intervention. The lake house is a miraculous haven for this very reason and a place I cannot wait to go.
Mealtime, however, is always mealtime and this one was proceeding as usual: kids in and out of their seats a million times, messy hands grabbing at everything in sight and lots and lots of promises for mounds of sugar in exchange for a bite of a carrot. In between all the bribing and grabbing, my sweet niece, Reese, decided it was time to pray. She communicated this by telling everyone to hold hands and then once all the kiddos were in place, she said, “Ok, Aunt Noelle, pray.”
I tried to redirect her by overstating how much I wanted to hear her pray and when that didn’t work I said maybe one of the other kids had something to say. Her insistent demand that I pray became louder and more urgent, so that the other adults in the room now turned their attention to our hand-holding. My husband tried to help, “Oh, Reesey, I don’t think you want to hear Aunt Noelle pray.” Her own mama and daddy encouraged her that she could pray for herself and we could all get back to lunch.
But one of the truly beautiful things about kids is that when they get a good idea in their heads, they stick to it. I love this determination, except of course, when I’m awkwardly the recipient of it. Finally, my own son lowered his head and softly said, “Thank you for this morning”, which is something he heard his Papa say a few months ago and has intermittently repeated ever since. This appeased his cousin enough that we were all allowed to let go of each other’s hands and return to our vain attempts at sitting still and eating vegetables.
The scene stuck with me the rest of the day and began to haunt me as the week went on. I felt so exposed and so incapable as a mama and an aunt in that moment. A flurry of memories filled my mind and I kept wondering why I couldn’t have just said a heartfelt, “Thank you for this amazing family and this time we get to spend together.” Simple, real, Amen.
But, the truth is, I haven’t prayed in over four years. Nothing about prayer feels simple or real anymore.
I used to pray religiously – in every sense of the word. Regularly, routinely, by the Book, to the One, ask and you shall receive, morning, noon and night. I prayed with friends, I prayed for friends, I wrote prayers, I sung prayers. For over a decade, prayer was an enormous part of my days. And when I prayed, I had a secure sense of Who I was speaking to: Part Love, Part Wrath, Powerful and All-ears. I felt my prayers were making a difference and being heard, despite the creeping skepticism and doubt. And so I prayed and prayed and prayed.
Little nicks and cracks started to appear in the walls of my prayer life over time. There were days when it seemed the connection had been lost and I just wasn’t getting through, the answers weren’t being delivered fast enough, something with the formula was off. The first time I remember this happening was when I was about seven years old. I’d been sent to my room for a timeout, by which I mean, I’d pushed long and hard enough that my mom couldn’t stand to be around me anymore. I had one of those school fundraiser catalogues in my room, with all the over-priced wrapping paper and chocolate goodies. I flipped through and found a pile of chocolates that I just had to have. It must have been a Sunday afternoon, because this lesson was fresh on my heart: “Ask and you will receive.” It seemed so simple and so obvious. Why hadn’t I heard of this a long time ago? So I started praying something like this, “God, I heard this morning that if I really want something and honestly ask you for it, I’ll get it. So, I’d like to put in an order for this pile of chocolate, which looks so delicious and would be the perfect hold-me-over while I’m suffering through this isolation up here. Please give me this chocolate, God. Amen.” It’s amazing how vividly I remember sitting there and waiting with my hands open, half-convinced that real, live chocolate would fall into my lap any second.
As the seconds wore into minutes, I uttered a few more reminder prayers, hoping that my first prayer had just gotten lost in the pile of other requests. I was used to having to wait my turn, being one of five children, so I patiently asked again. Then again. And again. The longer my hands remained empty and that glossy pile of chocolate stared at me from the catalogue, the more hopeless I became. It reminded me of all the other times people hadn’t shown up in my little life. A voice seemed to say to me, “See, I told you it wouldn’t work.” And so, eventually, I gave up. And that’s my very first memory of prayer.
As I got older, the let downs got bigger. When I was a Senior in high school, I earned the right to address my entire class and small town as Valedictorian. By this time, I was a devout Christian, attending multiple meetings a week, spending hours of private time in prayer and Scripture reading and serving in several ministries. In April, when it was confirmed that I was ranked number one and would give the class address, I went into prayer overdrive. My heart and mind went wild with visions of people falling on their knees in repentance and weeping at the revelation of Love. All that good, radical Christian stuff.
Every morning leading up to my speech, I set my alarm for 5:00am. Then I would mount my bike, imagining I was Joshua leading his troops around the wall of Jericho; I rode around and around the school, praying the whole time. I prayed for specific classmates and teachers and administrators, imagining the walls of their hearts falling down and accepting the Good News of Jesus. I prayed for old boyfriends and past enemies. I prayed for a community awakening. I pedaled and prayed for an hour or so and then went home to change before heading to my morning babysitting job, where I prayed some more. I dreamed and prayed and expected all month.
In the afternoons, I turned my prayer focus to the content of my class address. I wrote several drafts, seeing this as the catalyst for the miracle that was about to happen. In my youth group, I shared my dreams and prayers and asked my friends to join me. I really, really believed that what I was praying for was going to happen. When graduation day finally came, I was so prayed up and hyped up, I think I literally expected God himself to descend from heaven with a burst and a bang.
I was, perhaps obviously, sorely disapointed. I gave the speech without hiccup or stutter, nevertheless, God did not descend. Nobody began weeping or spontaneously fell to their knees. Nobody cried out, “Oh, thank you, God!” or ran to the stage for prayer. To this day, I am not aware of a single change in anyone’s life that came from all that praying and expecting…except my own. It put another crack in my faith, another “See, I told you it wouldn’t work” written on my heart. God hadn’t show up again and I was confused and hurt.
I started the summer voicing some of my hurt and confusion, but nobody seemed to have any answers or any interest in sitting amongst the questions with me.
In hindsight, I think it mattered more to me to be a good Christian than to be at peace with my questioning.So, eventually I did what seemed to be the only logical option: I stuffed the questions and the pain down, down, down. When I think about that process of stuffing, I imagine the questions as a balloon and me as a large glass vase with a small opening at the top. Every time I pushed the balloon in, some other part would pop back out, so that there was always this sense of squirming and discomfort and misfit about my faith.
Eventually I did become an avid prayer again. There was a season that I begged God daily for my father’s health; another when I prayed and weeped for the pain I saw in family and friends around me. I prayed they would know God, make good decisions, find friendship and peace. I prayed for orphans and injustice. I prayed for neighbors and foreign exchange students. I prayed for provision and guidance. I prayed often for forgiveness and help with all my own personal shortcomings.
Over the next several years, I prayed and prayed and prayed some more. There were many more nicks and cracks in my prayer faith along the way. More voices taunting “I told you so” and more daggers piercing the truth further into my heart that nobody really shows up. Somehow I kept managing to silence them all, or rather to keep more or less ignoring their nagging, stuffing them down with more prayer and a very busy religious life.
Then, in 2008, my husband and I moved to Chiang Mai, Thailand. For years we had planned and prayed for this move, dreaming of a life overseas, serving the underprivileged and orphaned, sharing our faith with the locals and raising our own family. In many ways, our Christian faiths had built up to this move. It felt like the fulfillment of years of dreaming and praying. And now, with much excitement and anticipation, we were making the move.
Within weeks of our arrival, the dream began to fall apart. I’ve written about much of our Thailand experiences elsewhere – the loss, the betrayal, the disappointment. From a prayer perspective, it was the final crack in an already crumbling foundation. We’d spent hundreds of hours in prayer over relationships and ministry projects that now fell lifeless at our feet in a single day. We prayed for friendships and marriages back home that also withered into lifeless heaps. We prayed for guidance and comfort and found silence and confusion instead. We, and many, many others, prayed in groans and pleas and constant beseeching for our foster son, Makham, only to have him inexplicably ripped from our arms. Nick, crack, shatter...
As I write today, it’s been exactly four years since Makham (now Joel) was taken from us. Losing him and experiencing the months of emptiness following that loss was the crack that made the whole foundation of my faith and prayers crumble. In the past four years, my prayers have been reduced to infrequent moans, guttural “Oh, God’s” and “If only’s”. If I've prayed, it's been out of sheer exhaustion and with no expectation of any answer or comfort. These were second-nature moans, with nowhere else to turn, certainly with no understanding of to Whom I might be speaking.
It's felt as though I had no option but to finally resolved myself to all those whispers and all those daggers that spoke of what never would be.
And so, it was out of all this that I heard my niece’s sweet, simple request for a mealtime blessing. In a second, all those cracks revealed themselves and all those daggers pierced me again. I sat there and took a 15 year life tour of unanswered prayers, shattered dreams and a mysterious God. I gave all the loss a moment of silence. I couldn’t find the words to explain to my niece why I didn’t have a prayer to voice that day. I couldn’t figure out a way to simplify all those years and all that pain. I couldn't explain to the kids why part of me wept at their cousin's innocent request and I certainly couldn’t begin to explain to them why another part of me welcomed her invitation; why, in some oddly, undefined way, part of me was ready and willing to offer a prayer of thanks that day, to someone, somewhere. So, instead, I redirected and smiled a lot. I encouraged my son when he offered his own little prayer. I squeezed hands tightly and said Amen.
And then I whispered, "Thank you."
And then I whispered, "Thank you."