This post emerges from the precarious situation we are in. Bethany is almost 19 weeks pregnant. Her water broke nearly a week ago, and day by day we have prayed, cried, held one another, and prayed even more; we have pled with God for the life of our daughter Hannah.
As I’ve read about (all focused on one chapter in one book, Celebration of Discipline) and practiced prayer this week in a deeper and more intense way than I ever have in my life, I have been absolutely struck by the below quote from Richard Foster. It has stuck with me through thick and thin; prayer for Bethany and Hannah when beside them and prayer for them when apart; prayer in the more steady moments, and prayer in the crushing crisis moments.
“We do not pray for people as “things,” but as “persons” whom we love. If we have God-given compassion and concern for others, our faith will grow and strengthen as we pray. In fact, if we genuinely love people, we desire for them far more than it is within our power to give, and that will cause us to pray.”
More than anything else (especially when I’ve had long stretches of sitting beside Bethany and Hannah), I’ve quieted my heart and nurtured the compassion that comes from seeing them as “persons whom I love.” Without saying anything for awhile, I focus on that compassion, allowing it to grow and grow until my heart feels like it’s going to explode with love for them. And from that place, I begin to pray in a more specific, “God, have mercy on us!” kind of way.
I have stayed and drilled down deep with the words of Richard Foster because he exemplifies the very best of theology; the kind of thinking that is in intimate relationship with practice. He does not write about prayer from an ivory tower, or an academic institution somewhere where it’s his job to write and think about prayer (as important as that can be). He is a deep practitioner of prayer. He chooses to engage in the bold kind of prayer we are called to in the Scriptures, and he wrestles with prayer from that place. He is committed to ” learn to pray so that my experience conform(s) to the words of Jesus rather than try to make his words conform to my impoverished experience.”
What is Foster’s method to pray? “We should never make prayer too complicated,” he says. “We are prone to do so once we understand that prayer is something we must learn…but Jesus taught us to come like children to a father. Openness, honesty, and trust mark the communication of children with their father. The reason God answers prayer is because his children ask.”
I have been working with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength to pray in this way. Nurturing compassion in silence until my heart bursts with care for my wife and daughter, then moving to pray with strong desire and conviction that God deserves to hear from my very heart with boldness, not pious words of “if it be your will” that we use as protection to keep us from the dangerous edge of prayer.
I have come to believe in a deeper way this week what I’ve been moving toward for a while now. God not only welcomes the direct communication that comes from us; he has created the world in such a way that certain things in creation will not be done if we don’t participate in the work of prayer. That certain things are not done is not because God is not sovereign; somehow unable to correct a creation in chaos and rebellion. No, certain things are not done because God limits his own absolute authority out of a desire for his creation to step up to the plate and be counted in the work of prayer. We are called “co-laborers with God” (1 Corinthians 3:9) because we have an essential role to play.
This is not magic; there are no incantations that make God subject to our desires. No. But our Creator so expects our participation that he waits, he tarries, for us to care enough about the world that we work to make prayer as habitual as breathing. As Foster said above, “if we genuinely love people, we desire for them far more than it is within our power to give, and that will cause us to pray.” Prayer is born out of a love for God and for people, and is made powerful by the growth of that love.
I have said to others in this crisis, “God is not on trial in this situation.” This is true in one sense. The existence of a God out there somewhere does not hinge on whether our baby girl Hannah survives. I have met that God in Jesus and will never turn back again. I have never encountered any way of life so beautiful, so worthy of all of my life, so purposeful. But that statement “God is not on trial” is not true in another sense. God has revealed himself to be good, to hear us and to see us, to identify with us in our anguish and move in response to our cries. If this is how God has been revealed, then I expect that God will hear us in this crisis, will see us in this crisis, will identify with us in this crisis; and will act, will not hang back waiting when his creation rises up and screams “MERCY God! MERCY! HEAL and ACT!”
If our daughter dies, this will not destroy my faith, but it will inflict a wound on my heart, it will tempt me to take a step toward the belief that all things are inevitable and prayer is only psychological adjustment to accept the inevitability of life and/of God’s will. There are a million steps back to that place, but I can only be honest and know God hears how much this matters to me.
And I know God’s response would be, “Nathan, learn from what you are feeling in this crisis. Take your commitment to bold, humble prayer, and practice it until it becomes as natural as breathing. Take what you have learned about the essential role of a powerful love for people empowering prayer and love people deeper; battle against a belief system that crushes or dehumanizes people; never let it rule you.”
So I will practice this bold, humble prayer. Life has brought wounds on my heart and will continue to. God will not be my magic puppet as I would like him to, and this will hurt. And yet God has made his human creation to co-labor with him in prayer; limiting his own authority as he awaits their faithful response.