When prayer loses its meaning

Dear sweet girl, You lie there in the angle of light bent around the door, in that sheltered, private spot where the light illuminates your papers, but your parents, in the living room downstairs, can’t see you from where they are reclining. The white-painted posts from the stairs in the hallway outside your door cast ...

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[Excerpt from Designed to Pray]

Dear sweet girl,

You lie there in the angle of light bent around the door, in that sheltered, private spot where the light illuminates your papers, but your parents, in the living room downstairs, can’t see you from where they are reclining. The white-painted posts from the stairs in the hallway outside your door cast striped, curvy shadows across the carpet, and you hear the faint noise of a laugh track from the television below. You can’t see her, but you know your mom is wrapped in a soft blanket, quietly turning the pages of a book until she yields to her yawns and goes to bed.

In that sheltered place, you make charts on graph paper, carefully checking off each prayer as you pray it daily and transferring your prayer list to a new sheet of paper when you’ve filled every box. Maybe your prayers aren’t prompted by passion. You’ve never seen that before and don’t know to aspire to it. You’re not sure what your mom would think of you praying, but you’re certain that it’s wrong to be up past bedtime.

At the same time, you’re strangely determined to master this prayer thing. To do it right. You feel your way through. But you’re on your own. This isn’t a lifestyle you’ve witnessed yet. Your eyes slide down the list, praying lofty wishes—that God will heal the sick and handicapped. That He will help you stop all your bad habits and become a better person. That He will forgive you of all your sins and help you follow all the rules.

You don’t know yet that religion is not what you want. What you want is Him. But all you know are the words you’ve heard a handful of people say, so you mimic them, offering big, general, dutiful prayers.

You pray the same words, night after night. Over time, they will lose their meaning.

One day prayer itself will lose its meaning.

You’ll run out of words when your mother is no longer downstairs—or anywhere on this earth—because you aren’t entirely sure who you are without her. As a teen, you haven’t experienced God speaking to you personally yet—but later, when you stop hearing Him, you’ll feel the loss deep in your gut. As an adult, you’ll stare at the occasional lines printed in red ink in your Bible and fight an internal war. A part of you has always believed, has always yearned for the balm that those words might bring. Something drew you to these words long before you knew why, but eventually the time will come when you begrudge every spark of hope you felt reading God’s promises because now you know that there isn’t always a happy ending.

Thirty-some years from now—when the house you grew up in has been sold, and your dad has moved south to a warm climate and a new relationship, and Mom’s Lands’ End bathrobe has been donated to Goodwill and her contact deleted from your phone—you’ll ache at the memory of the young girl who was so sheltered and naive.

You’re no longer tiptoeing around the shadowy edges of your room, avoiding the squeaky floorboards. Now you’re tiptoeing around the edges of your faith. Wanting God, but not wanting to be caught wanting Him. Wanting to hold tight to promises that sometimes seem to be false.

But yet? You’ll marvel at the fact that God saw fit to plant those tender shoots of faith in the stripes of light falling across your bright blue carpet. That in the silence between the creaking floorboards, He whispered into your soul a desire for words that you wouldn’t need for many more years. The funny thing is, through all the changes over those three decades, one thing never changed.

What you need now is what you needed then. And it’s not a cute boy. A flirty look. Or straight As on your report card.

You feel a bit of desperation, wanting to exist in that world again, the one where the worst thing that can happen is that you’ll be caught out of bed at 11:00 p.m. You want to go back to wherever it is that Mom yawns in her bathrobe and prayers can be mastered with nothing more than graph paper and colored inks.

But sweet girl? That sheltered place? It still exists. It doesn’t reside in the house your family no longer owns. It’s not to be found only in a church. Because even if you don’t always like the words you hear, God still whispers. He still holds you close.

And you’ll find that even in the midst of pain, God’s presence is the only balm. When you hurt enough that you’ll finally fumble through the words to ask God to fill your soul, to smooth over the gaping wounds of loss and disappointment and loneliness—well, that’s when He will pick you up in His arms and hold you in the shelter of His heart.

And you’ll know that you were never alone. That you were never abandoned. That when you face the crippling sorrow, when you let God back in to feel it with you, you’ll find something new. Reminiscent of the past, and not always easy, but in some ways better.

Because along the way, you’ll discover that you’re safe in your Father’s arms, and that you’ve found your way home.

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