When Ellia went into the hospital, my prayer life was already in the dead middle of winter.  A few days before Ellia lost the ability to move, I was up all night struggling with God about prayer. “How do I pray for my kids?  What does prayer do?”  What do we do when we realize that the security of God doesn’t mean the avoidance of difficult circumstances?  How do we pray without trying to manipulate God?  How can we approach God with our faith in one hand and our feelings in the other? When Ellia was in ICU, the questions were still unanswered.  I had real and tangible concerns and knew that Ellia’s sickness would be my prayer classroom.  I’ve had many questions regarding why we should pray and whether prayer has purpose beyond communion and centering our soul.

In recent days, I’ve heard people describe prayer superstitiously, thinking their words have magic power to coerce God into action, as if there is a God who wants to act, but is powerless until we do our vital part.  I’ve heard people describe prayer not as a means to be with God or plead with God, but as a way to relieve their own anxiety, treating prayer as a self-focused attempt to quell our own fears and insecurities.  And there are people who intimate that prayer is useless because God has ordained all things: all prayer does is align our hearts with the reality God has instigated.

The foundational problem is that we act like prayer is ours.  Prayer is first and foremost God’s thing and for us to assume we can dissect, configure and put back together prayer is to arrogantly encroach upon a mystery.  Prayer is not ours to own.  We have been invited by Grace to explore, enjoy, fight, praise and question with prayer, but all of our discovery must lead us to the rest in the mystery of God.  Prayer is the ocean in which we’re invited to play.  We are encouraged to explore its beauty, but it is too big for us to define, control or subject to human understanding.  We can only enjoy the ocean if we’re willing both to dive in and to respect the mystery.

Why do we pray if we aren’t sure of the actual wiring, inner workings and results of prayer?  Not only do we have biblical narrative examples through Jesus and others, but there is something instinctual that keeps us praying. When Ellia was in the hospital, I prayed the only thing I could—make Ellia well.  No fancy words, no formulas, just bare bones prayer—anything else would have been a lie.  But there were those moments when my prayer was even rawer—the time when Ellia stopped breathing or the time she choked because she’d lost the ability to swallow or when, at 3am, they decided she needed a blood transfusion.  As I was frantically pushing the nurse call button, I was praying.  But my prayers weren’t words, I was crying out.

These prayer-cries are the unformed words, the pleas that spill out unplanned.  These cries come out when earth-shattering events disrupt the everyday.  Far from the premeditated and thoughtful words to God, crisis draws newfound soulfulness from our prayers.  We find our vocal chords and speak to the God who has always been.  This outcry is instinctive.  In Exodus 2, when the Israelites were crushed under their oppression, they cried out.  We cry out.  Somewhere inside of us, we know that there is a God.  Somewhere inside, we know that this God is our only hope.  In the midst of life’s wreckage, we reach out for a God we hope is there.  We need something bigger than ourselves.  I don’t know much more about prayer than I did a month ago, but I do know there are times when I can’t help but pray.  Something in me knows there is an active and loving God who will listen.  So I continue to turn to the One who created me—the One who has the power to speak order into chaos.

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