Prayer as a Discipline, Prayer as Delight
I hadn’t been gone from my parents’ home in Winchester, KY, for ten minutes when I received a call from my Aunt Sandy, who was visiting Mom and Dad. “Sarah, Abby collapsed in the bathroom and isn’t breathing. Uncle John is doing CPR, but it doesn’t look good. You need to come home.” Abby, my thirty-five-year-old little sister, had appeared perfectly healthy during the few hours I’d spent with her that morning. My initial reaction was to pray. But my four small children were with me in the van, so I first briefly told them what I knew, and called my husband to update him. I don’t remember much from that day, but I remember that the words that came to me to pray were from Psalm 139. So, I prayed aloud in my minivan, “Lord, I praise you that you knit Abby together in our mother’s womb, and that you knew all the days you had planned for her before even one of them came to be.” I prayed that the Lord would be with her, that he would prepare our hearts, that he would be a tangible presence near my mother, and that he would protect the eyes of my children. My conversation with God was interrupted when I heard a siren behind me. The hilly, narrow road on which my parents live didn’t provide a shoulder to pull over, so I had to actively look for a driveway. The intentionality of that action jolted me to reality. As the siren blared past me, I realized that it was probably headed to my parents’ home. In that moment; that scary, devastating moment, I felt the care of God Almighty. I hadn’t previously had time to ponder the fact that 911 had probably been called. But as I sat in that driveway and took a deep breath, He had given me opportunity to prepare my children and my own heart for the fact that there would likely be emergency vehicles waiting when we arrived back to Mom and Dad’s.
Our Abigail died that day. It was the hardest day of my life, so far, and also the day and season during which I felt most loved by God, most cared for, most tended to in the details of grief and trauma. Prayer took on a new meaning that day and in the days that followed, but God had been preparing me to meet him in prayer for years.
I have always been a fairly anxious person, a person who tends toward anxiety and depression. I went through a phase as a young mother with tiny children in which I was perpetually anxious. Everything seemed scary, dangerous, menacing, especially to the four little people who so fully occupied my time and attention. I was intellectually aware that my fear was a lack of trust in God, but my efforts to change that were in vain. I dove into the Bible, and, honestly, became even more anxious. I could find portions that were comforting, but I also found passages that terrified me. I actively and truly desired to love God Almighty more than I loved my husband, children, and so on, but I had no idea how to will myself to that point.
After a few years of this debilitating angst, I read a portion of a book that hit a chord. In this(nonfiction) book, one mother asked another how her adult sons had such strong relationships with God, despite the fact that their father was an atheist. The mother with the adult sons responded that she had spent an hour in prayer for her sons every day. One of my hesitancies in prayer had always been that I didn’t want to feel that I was telling God what to do, or asking for something outside of his will. When I read that story, I realized that I could pray to God for the salvation of my children. This would not be outside his will. I started to spend devoted time in prayer, and something changed in my heart. I could praise God and not be outside his will. I could express gratitude in good conscience. I could ask for forgiveness and discernment. I could pray for salvation for my children and others. I could pray for my marriage and the marriages around me to be strong and centered on God. Later in my journey, I became aware that a “safe” prayer would always be that the Spirit would convict me of sin, that he would reveal idols in my life and heart, and tear them down. Not only did I spend time in formal, dedicated prayer, my days shifted to an ongoing conversation with God. My sensitivity to the Spirit increased, and the Lord allowed me the great privilege of laying things, people, or situations on my heart for prayer. I would often discover after the fact that that thing, person or situation was in need at the moment I’d been prompted to pray. It is not uncommon to wake in the night with a person on my heart, and be told later that the person’s ill family member had died in that timeframe, or that for whatever reason, prayer had been appropriate. These situations are incredibly humbling and faith building, and they reveal the heart of God to me in new ways. Instead of primarily seeing God as stern and unyielding (yes, he is sometimes both), I began to see him as deeply loving, intensely interested in details, and actively involved in our lives. God doesn’t need me to pray. He allows me that gift of communion, and it is a very great gift. Prayer is intimate. The intimacy flows from the pray-er to the God who listens and from the person praying to the person or people being prayed for. It is impossible for me to pray to this God and not learn to love him. It is impossible to pray for people and not feel invested and loving toward them. It is impossible for me to look at my life and feel anything but gratitude.
One of my favorite ways to talk with and listen to God is at night in bed. I frequently pray myself to sleep, and these moments are especially comforting. During a time of day that is physically and sometimes emotionally dark, my spirit and emotions are altered considerably when I articulate the kindness of God to me. I cannot think of a better way to fall asleep than to talk to my Creator about all the reasons I’m grateful. “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” is a good way to start the day, and a good way to end it.
Through prayer, my life has changed. I don’t know another way to describe it but that I feel like I’m more familiar with the heart of God. I don’t hear audible words from him, but he meets me in prayer in ways that I would not have felt possible. I can always praise, always express gratitude, always ask for forgiveness and guidance, always pray for salvation, always request conviction of sins, always ask to be used of him. I still tend toward anxiety, but when I catalogue the way he’s cared for me, fellowshipped with me, provided for me, and shown me his tenderness, I know I can trust him.