In preparation for my niece’s upcoming heart surgery, I have been extremely blessed by so many friends. Last night, when I posted on Facebook that her surgery had been postponed for a day, due to another baby’s emergency, I was overwhelmed by the responses. Kindness and concern stood up from near and far. There was a common link in almost everyone’s comments: “We are praying for you.”
In my work, and in my life, I hear and say, “we are praying for you” a lot. And I mean it. I truly, truly do. But I confess that I have often felt like an inadequate pray-er. My prayers often go something like this: “Dear God, thank you for this day. Thank you for my family. Please keep my children safe…. does Ryan need a haircut? Lord, his hair grows like a weed and his head looks huge when he needs a haircut… sorry, sorry sorry! GOD, I’m back. Please be near the patients and families I care for. They are so afraid. Give me the strength to DAMNIT, I forgot to turn in Sean’s basketball registration. Ok, I’ll call Janet- she’ll fix it for me. What was I saying? Patients? Families? Strength! Right!! I need Strength…”
And I am really not any better with formal prayers like the “Our Father” or “Hail Mary”. "Distractable Me" interrupts my chain of thought in just the same way. I forget the words, and then I worry that is some kind of sin which puts me into a worse spiritual state than I was in when I started to pray.
Recently, I had an experience that helped me understand prayer in a different and more comfortable way. I know what you are thinking. She’s going to tell a beautiful story about a hospice patient, right? Nope. Not even close.
I came home last weekend to find Kevin, Ryan, and Sean glued to the TV. They were watching some documentary on the Discovery Channel about this massive python that was terrorizing this village and the villagers were attempting to capture it. I was about to walk on by because I get so disgusted when they watch these things but I found myself frozen with shock at what I saw. This snake was SO FREAKING BIG that to show its full size they had to photograph it from a helicopter. A hel-i-cop-ter. For a snake. Good Lord, Almighty! And there was this British narrator with this lugubrious voice talking about how this snake had terrorized this (seemingly third world) village. He called it a “keel-ah” and a “moan-sta”.
At this point, Ryan and Sean and Kevin have gotten up and moved on, but I am riveted by this “Village vs. Snake” drama. The documentary then presents a woman from the village whose brother was eaten by the python and she watched it. Who knows what language she was speaking, but it didn’t really matter because her tone and her eyes said all you needed to know. Her eyes were wide open, her mouth dry and there were a lot of high pitched syllables. A LOT of syllables. The British narrator needlessly explained that she was saying, “My brother. He was eaten by a SNAKE. And I watched. Holy S--T!” The devastation and complete bewilderment shown on her face at what had happened was not entirely unfamiliar. It looked a lot like the faces of patients and families I meet with to whom the concept of hospice is being introduced.
So what does all this have to do with prayer you say? Well, I haven’t told you about the end. The villagers needed to get the snake out to a firmer piece of land where a bulldozer (not kidding) could take the snake away. They had to carry it. It was so big that men, and in some cases boys, came from other villages to lift this beast and carry it away to a place where it could do no more harm. The swampy marsh that they carried it through was full of other snakes and beasts and thorns and many had no shoes. But they carried it. Together. Because they had no other choice. And when they were done, they celebrated. Together.
This week, the snake in my village is my niece having to undergo a very serious open heart surgery. She will be better for it, but it is certainly not something you’d wish for any 12 year old girl. I have had other snakes and so have each of you. My friends have shown me in all their conveyances of prayer, that they are coming to my village to help carry this snake out. My theological epiphany that came from the Discovery documentary was this: in my head, when I say, “I’m praying for you” what I am telling you is to lay down your burden, however big and ugly it is, and let me help you carry it to a place where it can do less harm. I am scared of it too, but we will face it together.
Haven’t each of us many times spoken in the language of the woman villager, broken high pitched syllables that say, “I found a lump in my breast.” “My husband was laid off.” “My mom died. She really died.” Perhaps behind a stoic face are the same wide eyes and dry mouth that ask,”how did this happen?” Our job, as pray-ers, is to listen and encourage the hurting to lay their burden down. To take it off their singular back and share it. One person would most certainly be crushed beneath the weight of such stress, such fear, such grief.
The Bible says, “Do not be Afraid” 365 times and I don’t know that from my studies of the ‘good book', but from my studies of Pinterest boards with motivational quotes. Regardless, it is a good reminder that every day, God, however you perceive His (or Her)presence, is with you and wants you to know that He (or She) understands your fear and is next to you, too, carrying the snake. In my head, I don’t think God is like a big Santa Claus in the sky listening to and deciding upon your wish list. He is dispatching snake carriers to your village. Putting boots on the ground. Sharing a backstock of hope to get you through this day.
So today, as many other days before and to come, I am afraid. Your prayers, in whatever way they make sense to you, are deeply appreciated. I can’t get this snake out of my village alone. And I won’t let you carry yours out alone either.