Active Participation

“Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.” —James 5:16

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I’m not sure I can identify when I began to believe in the power of prayer, but I know I was an adult out of college. I was pretty good at faking it up until then. It’s easy to do when you grow up in church and you know what to say to make yourself sound like you’re on the right track.

 

I told people I picked my college and my major because I prayed about it. But really I picked my college because it was twelve hours from home and someplace snowy, and I picked my major because I didn’t want to study anything else. If I prayed about either of those things, it sounded in God’s ears much more like “Please don’t let people give me any guff about this” rather than “Thy will be done.”

 

This is why I’m grateful that God is in the business of making good out of bad, because that may be the story of my life if I consider how many decisions I have made without prayer.

 

I’m not sure when I began to believe that prayer is an essential element of friendship, but I know it took root last January when one of my favorite people on the planet, the mother of a dear friend, was diagnosed with cancer. The prognosis was beyond grim. Doctors told her she had six months if they did nothing, maybe a year with surgery, possibly five if they followed surgery with chemotherapy. Against the prognosis, against the doctors’ best guesses, all of us who loved her prayed for a miracle. And it was the very best thing we could do for her…

 

This is the beginning of another post I wrote for Off the Page, a second in a three part series on Spiritual Friendship. I’m proud of the work I’ve done there, and I’m proud of the work that team is doing. Make sure you pop over there and check out Active Participation. And then consider perusing some of the other articles there. You won’t be disappointed.

As always, thanks for reading. You are good friends.

Good Friday

'Addolorata' photo (c) 2005, Giovanni - license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

I keep thinking about how today is Good Friday, about how it’s the day of His death, and about my friends who are experiencing death in the realest of ways today.

There were several writers at the conference last week that kept referencing a quote by another famous writer, Barbara Johnson, who said that Christians are Easter people living in a Good Friday world.

Today feels like Good Friday.

One of the writers said that maybe we Christians are too quick to rush to Easter. He said that we have to remember that we can’t get to Easter without Good Friday, and he wondered if maybe too often we want to rush through Good Friday because sitting in the pain of it is just too hard.

I’ve been trying today to just sit in the pain. I find myself crying for my friends, for the baby I won’t get to meet and that they won’t ever hold. I try to liken it to the loss that God experienced when His Son died, but it’s too much for my head and my heart too hold. And I think at those times in this day that maybe that writer is right, that sitting in the pain of it is just too hard.

Lauren Winner says that if we sit in our hurts long enough, if we’re patient in them, then they have something to teach us. That if we can be still, even if just for five minutes, that the loneliness or anger or sadness has a lesson for us. I think she means there’s a God-truth somewhere. That if we sit in the pain and hurt and somehow find a way to invite God into it that we’ll learn something about Him we hadn’t known. Or maybe it’ll give some texture to something we already know. Like, what it is to have compassion. Like, what it is to sit with someone without sermonizing. Like, what it is to pray something – “Father, not as I will, but as You will” – when it’s the hardest thing to pray.

I find myself sitting in the pain of today only thinking that is Good Friday. That it is the day of death, the day of suffering, the day of loss and grief and pain.

And I don’t want to rush through the pain of today with distractions and inattention. Because it doesn’t honor my friends who are suffering through today, and I don’t think it honors the Good Friday part of this Easter weekend.

“It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, while the sun’s light failed. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!’ And having said this he breathed his last.” (Mark 23:44-46)

I feel the cloud, the darkness, the failing sun today. And I’m glad to be leaving for church soon, to sit with my oldest friend and take communion and sit in prayer and be reminded that yes, today is Good Friday, but Easter is coming.

Easter is coming. Hallelujah!

A mustard seed and a miracle

'Mustard Seeds' photo (c) 2013, Veganbaking.net - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/New Year’s Eve has been my least favorite day of the year for many years, but this year I was resolved that it was going to be different.  I was going to a party with a group of friends I like a whole lot, with a boy I like a whole lot, dressed to the nines and wearing the heels that make my feet hurt, but that always make me feel feminine and pretty.  Indeed, the morning of New Year’s Eve, I had determined that this was going to be a good year, that I was going to leave cynicism behind…or at least I was going to try really, really hard.

I didn’t know, of course, how quickly that resolve would be put to the test.

My phone rang a little after 10 on the morning of December 31.  My friend of ten years was on the other end, sobbing before she even got a word out. Her mom had been at the doctor’s to receive word on whether or not the mass they had seen in her stomach was cancerous. It was, and the prognosis was not good.  Six months if they did nothing, a year if they only did surgery, hopefully five years if they did chemo after surgery.

“I’m going to need you next week when Mom’s in the hospital,” she spat out in broken breath.

“I’m there,” I choked back.

And when we both had gathered ourselves again, she continued, “And I need you to go to your party tonight and I need you to have a really great time.  I need you to do that for me. I need to know you’re having fun.”

At that point, I didn’t want to go to my party anymore.  I wanted to jump in my car, get myself to Delaware and to my friend, and hug her and her mom. But, that’s not what she needed.  She needed me to go to a party, because she needed to know that someone she loved was going into the next year having fun.

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I had lunch with one of my Bible study girls the day before I left for Delaware. Over burgers and fries in a bar booth at Chili’s, I admitted that I was angry because cancer had taken so much from my family over the last two year, and that it couldn’t have someone else I loved, as if I had any kind of control over it, and that I worried my resolve to not be cynical was going to crumble before January even really started.

My friend didn’t say anything.  She just sat and listened, her eyes filled with such compassion. Borrowing from her calm, I took a breath and found myself saying out loud, “I have to believe for a miracle this time.”

In that breath and in that moment I knew that my faith was so small, and not in the mustard-seed-way that we’re supposed to believe.  When I say that my faith was small, I mean that it was limited, that I had limited God to moving only in ways that I could conceive. He could do anything really, but His means had to be conventional. He could change the course of a whole country, yes – but only if the right people were in the right political positions.  He could change dire financial straits, yes – but only if the person accepted a job with a big salary, and it probably wouldn’t hurt if they tithed every week too. And He could heal, yes – but only through medicine.

This is small faith, but this is not mustard-seed-faith.

Mustard-seed-faith knows a mountain will move if it were so commanded. Mustard-seed-faith knows a mulberry bush could flourish planted in an ocean.  Mustard-seed-faith knows the Son of Man was killed and rose again on the third day.  (Matthew 17 and Luke 17 have kicked me in the face.)

It seems to me that mustard-seed-faith has some unreasonable edges to it every now and again, that it leaves room for God to move against convention, that it hopes and it surprises. Mustard-seed-faith, I think, believes in miracles.

And sitting in that booth in Chili’s was my mustard-seed-moment.  Either I believed for the miracle, against all reason, against the doctors’ diagnosis and prognosis, or my faith stagnated where it was.

I prayed desperately and expectantly for the first time in my thirty years, and I knew, even for just a moment, what it was like to have faith the size of a mustard seed.

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I was sitting at the dining room table reading one of Aesop’s Fables with my friend’s ten year old when her husband came down the stairs having just gotten a call from my friend at the hospital, her mom out of surgery.

“It’s benign,” he said. “There’s no cancer. And there’s no sign that there ever was cancer.”

We put down the Aesop’s Fable, pushed the pause-button on home-school for the day, and did a happy dance in the kitchen.  I stole off to another room to call my mom, and we cried together – for the miracle that had just happened, for the loved one that cancer did not take from us this year.

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I know that not everyone gets a happy ending to their mustard-seed story. I know that cancer wins sometimes.  I know that bad things happen to good people.  I know that just believing for a miracle doesn’t mean you’re going to get it.

But…

Sometimes you do get the happy ending and sometimes you do witness a miracle.  And maybe when you do, you have to talk about it. Because maybe, like my friend needed me to know I was having a good time at my party, when things seem at their worst, we need to know that God is moving in good ways in the world. And because maybe knowing that God is moving in good ways is what keeps the cynicism at bay.

2014 has already taught me that it certainly doesn’t hurt.

Grace is a party.

'Scotch in solo cups' photo (c) 2010, Kevin Galens - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/I talked about craving grace last week, about wanting to find ways to accept it and extend it. And then this weekend, a situation that required more than I had.

A party, a borrowed house, a 1 AM phone call to break up said party at said borrowed house while the owners were away on vacation.

I’ll tell you this much, nothing makes you (or the friend who’s with you) feel more like an adult than yelling at incoherent teenagers phrases like, “It doesn’t matter how I found out, this party is over!” and “I can call the cops or I can call your mom!” and “I don’t care if you can’t get a ride, are your legs broken?”

I’m not at my most gracious at 1 AM.

But then I think about cleaning puke out of the kitchen sink and I think, maybe I am.

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After the kids had been sent home to be someone else’s problem, I stood at my friends’ kitchen sink scrubbing pots of burnt spaghetti and dumping solo cups of a some kind of red alcohol-based punch.  I shook with anger and prayed for calm.

A party. A borrowed house.  Lots of alcohol.

This wasn’t my house, this wasn’t my sink. This was my friends’ house and it had been violated. And I couldn’t make it okay that it happened, but I could make sure their pots and counters were cleaned.

A party. A borrowed house.  Lots of opportunity for grace.

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I realize in this moment that what makes this whole grace thing complicated on the human side of things is…well…the human side of things.  We go with what’s easy, and more often than not avoid what’s hard.  When our friends suffer at the hands of a  teenage party, the grace to clean the puke in their kitchen is easy to find. But, grace for the puker or for the kid who threw the party, that’s harder to come by, maybe even that takes a little bit of work.

My friends’ whose house was violated found grace for the kid who threw the party quickly.  They, of course, issued appropriate consequences, but they also expressed love.  I asked them how they did it, and they answered, “Prayer.”

Prayer, it seems to me, is the work of grace.  And it is only through prayer, through being connected to God Himself, that you can look at a kid who puked in your sink after trashing your kitchen and partying in your house and say, “I love you.”

And maybe, because you’re praying, you’re able to clean the sink at 1 AM after a party in a borrowed house.

But, maybe the point is that both are grace.

A praying person

I’ve been thinking a lot about prayer lately. Actually, no, that’s a lie. I’ve been praying a lot more lately.

'Pray' photo (c) 2012, RelaxingMusic - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/One of my favorite authors talks about how she’s prayer-ish. She says that she’s prayer-ish like she’s yoga-ish. She wants to be a person who’s all calm and centered and does yoga, but by the time her sweats are on her kids are crying, or something is burning on the stove, or her editor’s calling, or something else comes up and she never quite makes it to the gym. So, yoga is nice in theory but very hard to follow through on. She says that’s how she is about prayer. She wants to be a person who prays, but at best she’s prayer-ish, if she’s honest.

If I’m honest, I’m prayer-ish too. I have the best of intentions to pray and I want to be a person who prays about…well, everything…but I’m easily distracted and something always comes up.

I’m thinking now, though, that sometimes things come up that kick you right into being praying person. Your marriage falls apart, or your boyfriend gets sick, or you lose your job and money gets tight. You get into fight with a friend, or your church, or your boss and everything starts to feel just a bit unhinged. Or maybe you start to feel unhinged. Whatever it is, all of sudden, you find yourself driving, or showering, or running on the treadmill AND praying.

And then you get an email or a text or a phone call, and you find yourself talking to God about whatever it is, like He’s sitting right next to you, with the same kind of language you use in your everyday life with your everyday friends. You’re just being you, spending a little time talking to Jesus.

And then you sent out a text, or an email, or a phone call, and you find yourself asking other people to pray for you, or your husband, or your boyfriend, or your friend, or your boss.

And you begin to realize that prayer changes things. Maybe it doesn’t change the situation, maybe your marriage falls apart or you lose your job or your friend, even though you’re praying. But, you start to realize that prayer is changing you. The spending time with God that you’re doing is shifting your head out of dark places and bleak beliefs, and you’re starting to feel hopeful. Hope in spite of the situation, hope in spite of stacked odds, hope in the midst of feeling really sad. And maybe you begin to find that this little band of friends who you’ve called on to pray for you are becoming “your people,” and they’re shouldering pieces of the situation that you can’t. Maybe you find that their fervent belief that you are going to be okay actually helps you feel okay. And in the midst of everything, you’re just really glad for this little band of friends who love you and are in the mess with you.

And maybe, just maybe, this is how you find yourself all of a sudden a praying person.

Not that I’m saying this is how it’s worked out for me or anything. Except that I’m a lot more about prayer and a lot less about “ish” these days.