Today we took a different route home from our morning coffee jaunt. We zig zagged through a quaint little village that clings to treed hills that are divided by a twisting river. The clash of geography means most roads and driveways need some combination of mossy retaining walls and creaky wooden bridges. Toward the outer limits of the settlement we drove along the backyards of a dozen or so older houses, each displaying cultured lawns and overflowing gardens.
That’s when we passed the man on the stump.
The man and the tree stump were situated close to a wire fence that separated his property from the road. The stump was weathered and wide. The man was perched on it. He sat motionless with nothing in his hands and no apparent purpose in mind other than sitting. On the stump.
A wrinkled frown was pressed into his face. At first I thought it was directed at us but he continued to gaze straight ahead as we passed by. It was an all-encompassing frown, as if stump-sitting was the only rational response to the frustrating activities outside his fence line.
I don’t know why he was sitting on his stump but I envied him. I envied the simplicity of his stump-pulpit where he could stare and rage silently at the crazy outside world.
Then I realized that I had been stump-sitting myself. I didn’t have a literal stump but I had been sitting with a helpless scowl on my face while peril stampeded through my life.
I’ve been away from the blog for awhile. I have missed the writing; missed your responses to my writing. A number of hostile events have hampered my ability to focus on anything creative or unnecessary. I have been sitting on a metaphorical stump, frowning helplessly at the circumstances swirling around me.
Of course there has been political craziness, wars, starvation, and injustice – the usual. But I hurt my back in the spring and found myself horizontal in bed for an uncomfortably long time. Then I foolishly exposed myself to an angry patch of poison ivy which went on to cover 247% of my body (do the math, that’s a lot). Recently, Cheryl and I have finished more than two weeks of battling … yep, Covid.
More seriously, my dad has had continuing health issues since the spring and he has made numerous trips to the hospital. Looming over all of it, the year has been filled with our daughter’s battle with cancer. Long story short, the healthcare system stood the test, she fell into the care of an exceptional surgeon, and she is currently recovering.
For her, the outcome was unexpectedly positive and we are thankful. Some have called it a miracle and I am inclined to agree for personal reasons I will share later. It’s just that I’m very reluctant to toss around the word ‘miracle’ because … christians.
The words slip out easily, honeyed and sincere: “I’ll be praying for you.” For some, it’s that simple … pray, believe, don’t stop asking.
Yet we have an underdeveloped theology of prayer. We think that God is supposed to answer our prayers if we pray hard, repeatedly, and somehow just believe. Usually we engage in elaborate mental gymnastics to come up with evidence that our prayers were heard.¹ Conversely, when things don’t work out as hoped, we blame ourselves and our lack of faith.
But it has never been that simple for me, or most of you. Cheryl and I have each lost people close to us in spite of an army of concerned saints and their desperate prayers. Cheryl smiles as she confirms how most of us feel: “Don’t ask me to pray for you, I don’t have a good track record.” Yes, we should all humbly admit that.²
During the past months a relative has been fighting a tough war with another kind of cancer and all its layers of complications. He is a wonderful young man: a son, a husband, a father. And he is still fighting as I write this. Another friend has to revisit concerning health issues that don’t seem to take a break.
And recently three people I know passed away unexpectedly. All three losses were in the category of wrong: one was too strong, one was too vibrant, one was too innocent. All were too early.
It is the question that stumps most of us. Why do we continue to ask God to heal even while actual, observable miracles are rare? And what are we to make of a God who is so flippant and random?
I have come to understand that prayer is not about happy answers but about my trust in an Ultimate Good. In the mists of eternity, God is love and that’s all I have to cling to.
We could listen to Oswald Chambers who suggested, “To say that ‘Prayer changes things’ is not as close to the truth as saying ‘Prayer changes me and I change things.'”
Okay. That’s a good start.
The recently deceased Frederick Buechner thought of it this way: “If indeed there is a God … one of the ways he speaks to us, and maybe one of the most powerful ways, is through what happens to us.”
Still an icky answer but yeah…
When I reflect on prayers, answered and unanswered, I realize something larger has been at work in my life. In the darkest times when I was in pain and nothing was reconcilable, God somehow filtered through as Refuge, Hope, Meaning … my Abba.
I can’t ignore prayer because my soul craves it. When trouble darkens my doorway, I realize that I can’t not pray.
When our daughter was sick I prayed – desperately, repetitively, with a list of things that needed to happen in order for her to be well. But during the darkest part of her illness a piece of scripture from Psalm 27 jumped out at me, grabbed my heart, and I couldn’t shake it.
I promised myself I would share it when the time felt right:
“I remain confident of this:
I will see the goodness of the Lord
in the land of the living.
Wait for the Lord;
be strong and take heart
and wait for the Lord.”
I realized this was my lot; my life. Easy or not, I knew in my soul that God would somehow be good. I no longer needed to tell God what to do because he understood perfectly and loved fully.
From that time on, my prayers got shorter – yes, shorter. I sat down on my figurative stump, brain full, hands empty, and scowled at the danger around me. All I could ask was a simple, “Abba. Heal.”
In the end, prayer is much more important than simply getting answers.
So let’s keep doing it.
~ ~ ~
¹ Confirmation bias is rampant whenever christians talk about answered prayer. We also like the easy alternative, “Sometimes God’s answer is ‘no’ or ‘not now'”.
² If you can convince people that you get regular, miraculous answers to prayer, good for you! I see a ‘ministry’, a book deal, a private jet, a late-night television show, and highly profitable cheap merchandise in your future.