There are always at least two people in the room with me whenever I think about, write about, or preach about prayer. I met them while I was a student pastor in a small Tennessee town, barely nineteen years old and trying to preach and pastor among this little rural church. My encounters with them have formed, and continue to form, my understanding of prayer.
Mark was a fifteen year old kid who loved nothing more than being out in the woods on the weekends, hunting, fishing, and riding his three-wheeler. His life was typical of most of the teens in that community; raised close to the land, acquainted with the ebb and flow of nature, full of life. One weekend I received a call that Mark had an accident on the three-wheeler and was at Vanderbilt Hospital in critical condition. When I arrived at the hospital, I discovered a devastated family. Mark was in a coma, he was probably brain-damaged, and it was not likely he could breathe on his own. I stayed with the family while they agonized over a decision no parents should ever have to make. Prayers filled the waiting room, rose up from the little community in homes and sanctuaries, and surrounded Mark as he laid unconscious on the bed. In the end, they removed him from life-support and we all prayed for a miracle even as his life slipped away.
Russ finished his freshman year of college at Tennessee Tech and was on his way home for the summer when he slipped off a rain-soaked two-lane road and down a steep gully. He died instantly. His family called and asked if I would come to their home in the hours after the accident. I entered a home filled with the kind of pain that even now, twenty years later, is hard for me to describe. Russ was the youngest of their children, incredibly smart, and a decent, loving, committed disciple of Jesus Christ. The senselessness of his death took our breath away, and left us with nothing, it seemed, to say, or believe, or hope.
Mark and Russ – and their families – are always in the room with me when it comes time to pray. They are a constant reminder of the words of C.S. Lewis, “Every war, every famine or plague, almost every death bed, is a monument to a petition that was not granted.”
I have to admit that for a long time after these experiences, I was reluctant to pray with any kind of specificity. My prayers became generic odes to “Thy will be done,” hardly recognizable from one to the next, no matter the situation. I feared that if I actually prayed for healing, say, or reconciliation, or relief in concrete situations, I was doing violence to their families. How dare I suggest God answers prayers for any other individual or family, when God did not answer the prayers of these families?
In those years my faith was hardly distinguishable from the “Watchmaker God” of the Deists. God merely winds up the world and then retires to the Divine equivalent of the Bahamas to watch it all unfold, never entering into its ebb and flow, never influencing its events, never getting involved. It seemed to me an offense to the memory of Mark and Russ and their faithful families to think of God in any other way. Harold Kushner once famously posited that God had to either be all-powerful or all-loving, but could not be both and account for evil. He settled on all-loving but impotent. I was willing in those days to grant all-loving and all-powerful, just absent.
It was Richard Foster who woke me up to my immature thinking. He writes, in discussing the spiritual discipline of prayer:
“In our efforts to pray it is easy for us to be defeated right at the outset because we have been taught that everything in the universe is already set, and so things cannot be changed. And if things cannot be changed, why pray…It is stoicism that demands a closed universe, not the Bible.”
Foster challenged me to expand my idea of prayer from simply telling God what I want to listening for what God was saying to me. Soren Kierkegaard says, “A man prayed, and at first he thought that prayer was talking. But he became more and more quiet until in the end he realized that prayer is listening.”
Gradually my immature ideas gave way to a much richer, though complex, understanding of prayer. Prayer demands a listening heart, a humble spirit, and a profound connection with those for whom we pray. Prayer is an active discernment of the ways God is at work in a given situation, and a humble recognition of that Divine work. Sometimes prayer involves words; often it does not. Listening is the doorway to intercession. But it is a listening that does not shy away from speech. It demands the kind of daring specificity that mirrors the radical specificity of a God who would live among us in a first-century Jewish peasant and die a shameful and violent death.
Mark and Russ will always be in the room. But their presence need not silence my prayers. Instead, I (and we) can dive into the mystery of God-with-us, knowing that God does not reside far off, but near, in Jesus Christ, and that even in our weakness and vain attempts to speak the unspeakable, the Spirit intervenes with sighs too deep for words.
There were a lot of sighs and groans and loud, inarticulate cries that rose up in those days as we stood watch with Mark and as we grieved Russ. I never stopped to consider that maybe the source of those sighs was the Source of all that is, seen and unseen; the One who prayed until drops of blood fell like sweat from his beaten brow; the One who cried from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”; never dared imagine God was the One “whose heart was the first of all our hearts to break.”
Mark and Russ are always in the room when I pray, and so is the One they called Lord. That’s why I still pray, sometimes against all odds, with great specificity.