I once asked my mother when I was a teenager if she had ever had a direct answer to prayer – one in which she was absolutely certain that God was giving her direction or speaking to her. Her response wasn’t exactly what I wanted. She replied that the experience I was looking for came to her very clearly in the voice of God, after she’d prayed for an answer to a particular problem: “I gave you a mind. Now use it.” Because I knew my mother to be a person of deep faith who prayed fervently, I was somewhat relieved although a little disappointed. It seemed like a little hill moment – not really a mountain top experience. (She would, I think, give me a different answer today.)
Years of praying have taught that for me, at least, mountain top experiences rarely happen. Prayer continues to be the way I offer my fears, hopes, concerns, activity, communities, loved ones and choices to God and try to listen and observe how God might be calling me to respond. But I confess to sometimes wanting more…something clearer, something so in my face that I couldn’t possibly misunderstand God’s intent.
In the darkest moment of my life, I finally had that, and the strength and power of it still takes my breath away. It involved a community, a written prayer, and technology, of all things.
On the Tuesday morning before Thanksgiving, I woke up to my sister and brother in law telling me that our son had died unexpectedly and incomprehensibly in his sleep. Bob and I were visiting him and his young family, reconnecting with our granddaughter in Cyprus and meeting our two month old twin grandsons for the first time. It had been a wonderful four days. We had plans for the week. We had conversations to have, trips to take, meals to share. Amid tears and wails, I tried to pray. But my prayer every time was NO! NO – I can’t bear this. NO – how could this happen? NO – those precious children and his beloved wife. NO – how can we tell Robert’s sisters? NO – isn’t one child dying enough? I knew my insistence on the ‘no’ of the situation would not change it, but that is all I wanted to offer God – NO. NO.NO!!!! It was the only prayer I formed for hours and I wasn’t listening at all for anything God might have to say to me.
Grief is a shared language. Our daughter in law and her family were equally devastated and their community immediately responded with care and concern and love – for Oksan’s family and to us – but primarily in a spoken tongue that we did not share. I recognized and experienced their grief but I also needed words with which to express my own, and I needed my community as well.
Around 5 o’clock Cyprus time, my phone began to have constant ‘pings’….emails were coming in, and they were coming in quickly. Ten – fifteen – thirty – even more – filled my inbox and they all contained not just personal words of comfort and concern, but this prayer which I now know Carla wrote and shared with the congregation and asked you to pray.
Almighty God, source of all mercy, Shepherd who seeks, rescues, and brings home the lost sheep: graciously tend to Ann, Bob, Catherine, Julia, Oksan, Izel, Aron, Rob, and all Robert’s family. Hold them close as they bear the pain of Robert’s death. Help them cast their sorrow upon you. Console them with your love. Remind them of your promise that death has been swallowed up in the victory of our Lord Jesus Christ; our hope in you is real, and we can live in it, until we are all gathered to our heavenly home in the company of all your saints; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
When the first one came in, I was able to have something to offer God besides my wild no’s. By the time the fiftieth one came in, I knew the prayer by heart and I prayed it with each individual who sent it to me. And with every email that came in that included that prayer, I began to feel physically enveloped in love…. hold them close became a very real experience for me. In the midst of all that surrounded us that was frightening and overwhelming and horrible, God was holding me close and I felt it and I knew it and I was weak with relief and gratitude.
God spoke to me directly and clearly. I would have preferred a ‘yes’ to my ‘no’, but experiencing physically the sense of being held close by your prayers and God’s love in the midst of the worst thing I could have ever imagined was a powerful and moving experience.
My need for that prayer hasn’t ended, and God still hears my ‘no’. But your prayer remains close and I pray it still. If my grandchildren ask me one day if I have ever had an experience when I felt God speaking clearly to me, I will tell them about my faith community and this prayer.
Ann Knox and her husband Bob joined GPPC in 1981 and raised their children in our church. She is a graduate of PSCE, the Media Director at Union Presbyterian Seminary, and our website manager. A list of her volunteer positions with GPPC would fill another blog column. As her faith community mentioned above, we are grateful for her sharing of this story, especially as she typed it out with a mending broken wrist.