Sunday, November 11, 2007

No Harm In Asking

I’m not very good at corporate prayer. I do okay during the pastoral prayer at church, but when I’m sitting in a circle hearing the earnest prayers of others, I always have to fight down my inner skeptic: the critical, resistant, sometimes sarcastic voice that raises obscure theological objections or simply urges me to flee. If prayer were like a Ouija board, I’d be the nonbeliever who prevented it from working.

This is a problem each Thursday when I go to the parenting class I helped start up last year. Hosted at a church, the program requires an army of volunteers: one woman comes early and stays late to set up and take down tables, two women supervise the children’s program, four act as mentors, and many others take turns teaching classes on meal preparation and crafts (topics I’m too chicken to take on myself). I teach classes on housekeeping routines, budgeting, and parenting: last week was books, toys, and music so everyone took turns playing with shape sorters and blocks while I pointed out the learning opportunities for children in these simple toys and demonstrated how not to play with a child (a demo that involved snatching toys out of people's hands and yelling “No, no, no, you’re doing it wrong, here let me show you...”).

All the volunteers believe fervently in the power of prayer. They arrive early so they can pray for every aspect of the class, and each week they close the evening by asking for prayer requests. I’m often desperately uncomfortable during these times, keenly aware of the appearance of manipulation, the implicit suggestion that in exchange for a few free board books and a bucket of cleaning supplies these single moms and moms-to-be are required to surrender their souls.

I can’t help noticing, though, that nothing I say or do in the practical instruction hour has nearly the value of this final act of prayer.

Many of the participants in the program are teenagers, fifteen or sixteen years old. They are restless: I can compel their attention for forty-five minutes at most, and then only if I build in plenty of activities. They won’t answer my discussion questions, though they will occasionally – surprisingly – raise a hand to interject a comment when they feel they have something to add. They fidget, they suppress giggles, they talk on their cellphones.

But when we ask for prayer requests, a sudden stillness descends. One woman talks about the difficulty of maintaining friendly relations with her baby’s father; another fights tears as she describes the measures she’s taking to regain custody of her three-month-old son. Our prayers for these women are circumspect: we ask for wisdom, patience, and comfort, without necessarily specifying a particular outcome.

Last week, though, we prayed for a woman whose due date is fast approaching, and one of the volunteers offered this prayer:

“Lord, I pray that Kyra would go into labour soon. We know that she is done being pregnant, so I pray that this baby would come quickly. Let her labour be easy with very little pain. I pray for a healthy baby and for such success in breastfeeding, that the milk supply would be abundant and healthy and that breastfeeding would be pain-free. And Lord, I pray that this baby will be such a good sleeper, a mellow, easy-going, happy baby who sleeps through the night.”

I have to say, I’ve really never heard a prayer like that before. Giggles started to ripple through the room about halfway through and by the time she got to the line about “such a good sleeper” many of us were laughing out loud. It wasn’t mocking or uncomfortable laughter – just involuntary, startled hilarity.

I don’t know what to think about this set of petitions. It seems unlikely that all these pleas will be answered (and rather unfair if they are). Is it wise to regard sleepless nights or pain during labour and breastfeeding as ills requiring divine intervention? Would it not be healthier to accept these discomforts in advance and be grateful to avoid even one of them?

And yet there was something so generous and loving about that prayer – about simply asking for blessings to rain down upon a sixteen-year-old girl who has made a choice to bring this baby into the world and who knows that for the rest of her life she will bear a burden of proof to the official and unofficial naysayers who insist that she doesn’t have what it takes to be a mother. If an easy labour and pain-free breastfeeding can smooth her path just a little, then I pray these things for her too.

47 comments:

jen said...

i grew up with lots of prayer. and as i grew older and away prayers were offered almost plaintively, the condescending i am praying for you sort of sentiment.

but then recently i've had occasion to work with some ministers and they often offer to pray for me - in the context of my work - and i find it so comforting, tears in my eyes comforting even as i continue to drift.

Teah said...

Oh, the prayers I have prayed. There are nights when I just want to know WHY. Why, when I prayed so fervently for my baby to sleep well, does she wake up crying and restless three times during the night? Why can't she sleep through a cold, when I specifically requested that blessing in my prayer. Why can't she be good when I ask for divine intervention during a particularly rough day. I think the answer is - He can't answer everything, and shouldn't. Ok, I'll re-phrase that - he could answer everything, but doesn't. It's better that way. It's better that I should know the rough nights so I appreciate the nights when she sleeps well, or the days when she is an angel. I don't think He minds us asking, sincerely, for help...but we should always be careful not to dictate. Remember, in the Lord's Prayer, he closed with "not my will be done, but Thine." That's the key - some nights don't require divine intervention - they require our patience and our own growth.
Sorry to preach, but this has been on my mind a lot lately, and I'm mostly preaching to myself.

Marian said...

Good post.

So you're walking through a shopping area and your child sees a gigantic, colorful lollipop in a store window-- you know, the kind that is coiled into a cirle about 7 inches in diameter and striped with a rainbow of colors, that look scrumptious but don't, in reality, taste that great? He asks if he can have one. Do you rightly scold him and blame him for even asking? You know that dinner-time is 10 minutes away,or that they really don't live up to their appearance, or that they're full of sugar, or taht you already have one ready for his Christmas stocking, or that you're low on funds that day... but he doesn't. His job is just accept your answer and trust that you know what you're doing... And that, if it was the right thing for him at the right time, you would delight in giving him that good gift, just to see his eyes light up with pleasure!

bubandpie said...

Teah - I've wondered sometimes what it would be like if pregnancy were completely comfortable, labour quick and painless, and infancy full of long, sleep-filled nights. Would we value our babies as highly if we didn't have to suffer for them? I'm not sure I would. (I would love them eventually, of course, for the fun, quirky, passionate people they are - but it takes awhile for them to become those lovable people.)

Emily said...

You know, I don't pray. Yet, I am always moved when someone says he or she will pray for me. Praying for someone else is a selfless act, and it is lovely.

winslow1204 said...

I for one, would love the pain free labor.. I mean, what a prayer:) wish it could happen!!

Chaotic Joy said...

Oh Bub-I have worked in an inner city ministry before and prayer is welcome there like rain after a drought. People in these desperate situations want desperately to believe that there is someone out there that loves them unconditionally and that can offer them help in situations that may seem otherwise hopeless. It is a wonderful way to minister to them and show them your love, while introducing them to Gods.

I don't profess to understand prayer and how it works. My teenage son asks me about this often and I am left grasping at the wind while trying to explain why I do it. But I do believe strongly in the power of prayer. I believe because of things I have experienced and because of the peace it brings my soul.

Wonderful post.

Jenifer said...

That is the power of prayer and the power of not being judged if only for a moment.

Glad to hear you are still involved in this program, it sounds like you are all making a difference.

Kyla said...

Sometimes I think the power of prayer is in the asking. Maybe those petitions won't be answered, but the impact hearing those words prayed over her could be tremendous. Prayer is an act of love, and to have someone love you like that builds you up inside. So even if she ends up two weeks late with 48 hour labor ending in a c-section and a colicky baby. She'll still remember the words someone spoke over her in love, wishing the best for her.

Patois said...

I know the point of your post isn't the fact that you've done this thing, but what a testament that you have. You and your fellow volunteers are likely answering many people's prayers for help in how to actually raise the babies they have had or are about to have.

radical mama said...

When I was pregnant, my SIL said "I wish you a quick and easy labor." I appreciated that statement so much. With everyone else, it was horror stories and "Oh, it's going to hurt so much! You'll never make it!" Her statement recognized that labor is often not quick and easy, but in a positive way. I'll never forget her saying that.

I think the prayer did the same thing. They recognized that things often do not go the way we had planned (hence the laughter), but good wishes are a way of showing support whether or not things are perfect.

Karen said...

oh. I can be skeptical even of my own prayers, but sometimes the needs are so right there at the surface and a prayer like that is really just honesty, it's so clear that what we all want is a little reprieve from our very difficult world - and even just having that acknowledged outloud to ourselves, to others, to God can bring the sweet rest of not having to pretend to have it all packaged with a neat little bow.

Kathryn said...

I often feel silly asking God for tiny little things. My mom always reminds me that no prayer is too small. God wants us to bring all of our burdens to him, large or small.

Mary Joan said...

I come from a family that has been devoutly Catholic for generations. Although I don't share their faith, I have learned to be grateful for prayers. I dislike my younger self which used to resent their prayers as inflicting their Catholicism on me. I know understand that they were assuring me of their love and concern and taking the time to hold me in their hearts and thoughts.

slouching mom said...

I'm a cynic. The more specific a prayer is, the less I respect it.

Cyndi said...

I know what you mean about that prayer. But God tells us to ask for our hearts desire and to come with Him with everything and to pray without ceasing. So, while I always feel a bit selfish to pray like that, we should

Lisa b said...

This is my favourite kind of prayer. I think in asking these things for the young mother the woman gave her such a gift.
Thanks for sharing this beautiful story.

Amy said...

Great post!

Pieces said...

I love prayers like that. In a way they are more honest than the more general requests for wisdom and strength. The fact is--God knows what we want, so why don't we just ask for it? While we know that all of those requests may not be answered, imagine the sense of gratitude that may well up in that young mother's heart when her milk flows abundantly or her delivery is quick. The act of asking breeds gratitude for something that may have been taken for granted.

Julie Pippert said...

What an interesting angle to consider this from. I too like the sentiment behind mundane prayers such as that.

But, as I think I've blogged before (or meant to? it's all a blur) sometimes I think we ask for the sort of materialistic things when we need to ask for a less concrete thing, and it frustrates me. The prayer for Kyra is sweet, but I'd so much more likely pray for her to have the strength to handle all that lay before her.

It's because I don't think of a prayer as shopping list or letter to Santa, I guess.

It's more of a "help me be who I need to be and have the faith I require to make it through this time" or a "thank you for walking with me" or similar. KWIM?

Julie
Using My Words

bubandpie said...

Slouchy - That was what made it funny, I think, how specific it was. Almost like asking for the baby to be 7 lbs, 8 oz, or that Kyra would go into labour in the morning, after a good night's sleep (though that last one, actually, is very much worth praying for - never happened to me, though).

Kyla, Pieces - So, here's the thing - if there IS a 48-year labour and a C-section and a colicky baby and low milk supply - does the fact that such prayers have been uttered make that easier or harder to deal with? And should we pray differently for others than we do for ourselves? I have a pretty long history now of rejecting prayers of the "make my life easier" variety - but on Thursday I saw how the very concreteness of that prayer made it so much more loving and powerful.

And that still leaves the question open - do the routine pains of child-bearing and child-rearing have value? Or should we avoid them as much as we can?

bubandpie said...

Um, I meant 48-HOUR labour. 48 years really would be too long.

natalie said...

It seems as though the prayer might have been the woman's way of expressing her own care and compassion for the teenage girl, her own desire for events to unfold as smoothly as possible. Prayer would then be a way of asking God to bear witness to the sincerity of one's compassion, of taking our good wishes for one another out of the realm of commonplace reassurance, formalities, and good manners and (re)inserting them in a sacred space, giving them spiritual meaning.

Great post.

kgirl said...

Whatever - I could use that prayer.

flutter said...

shoot, I wish I would sleep through the night, too.

Lawyer Mama said...

If even just to let them know there are others with the same worries and concerns, then it sounds like a good thing.

Kyla said...

I think in many cases, the answer to prayer is much less important than the request. Even if she doesn't get the things that were asked for...the fact that someone cared enough to pray them for her will be a comfort. I don't know that it makes anything easier or harder, it just might be a good memory to hold on to. Unless, I guess, that she expects all prayers to be answered in the affirmative. Then she will be disappointed I'm sure. ;)

I do think there is value in the pain and struggle of child birth and those early days. It is a rite of passage, almost sacred...no matter how lucky we get or how hard we try to avoid it, we still get our share.

Beck said...

I think that prayers like that are our way to trying to alert God to our tenderness and kind wishes for someone we care about. But praying out loud in public makes me feel just about as ackward as I can get. I feel like I'm blushing just THINKING about it.
Poor girl. I DO hope things go well for her.

Niksmom said...

As one who has recently and quite publicly asked for the prayers of others (http://maternal-instincts.blogspot.com/2007/11/lighting-darkness.html), I wasn't quite sure where you were going with this one until I got to the end.

I do think that the act of praying, when it is sincere, is a way of expressing one's love for a fellow person. I imagine the young woman wanted to express the depth of feeling for her friend in the only way she knew might not be mocked by teenage peers.

Though one may not be religious, I find there is great comfort and power in the act of praying.

painted maypole said...

corporate prayer is hard for me, too. And I'm married to a church professional, and have been employed by the church myself.

a very sweet post. and fabulous that the parenting class encompasses such young parents. They need that kind of support even more than we older moms do (and we sure need it, too!)

Pieces said...

One thing that it helpful is to look at the way the Bible portrays people praying. David repeatedly asked for God to smite his enemies without mercy. Christ himself asked that God would take away what He was about to suffer. But they both also prayed that God's will alone would be done.

When I pray, whether alone or corporately, I openly say exactly what I think I want. And then move to the point of expressing willingness to accept whatever God allows and request strength and wisdom to move through it the way God would want me to.

Corporate prayer also takes into account the people that are there. When a four year old is awake in the middle of the night with a nightmare, is it better to pray with them that they will not have more nightmares or that they will be strong enough to handle the ones that will come?

You raise good questions about praying differently for others than for ourselves. The impact of seemingly unanswered prayers on the young woman really lies within herself and her faith. Will she be angry with God if those prayers aren't answered? Or will she feel closer to Him because she knows His people understand the hardships she is facing?

Christine said...

i can easily and almost fervently pray in a large group. but i think i am caught up in wanting to be part of a group so my non-belief gets buried for the moment.

Gwen said...

I'm not a pray-er, so I can't really comment on the meaning of specific vs. general prayer, but I will try to address your question about the value of difficulty in child-bearing and rearing. Not that I'll answer it, oh no, but when I was drowning in PPD, when raising an infant seemed just too painful, it was the question I asked over and over. I wanted someone to tell me that my suffering--my leaky, achy boobs, my sleeplessness, all the anxiety and stress--served a biological purpose, that it strengthened a bond or helped love grow or something, anything. But no one could ever tell me Why, why it was all so hard.

I guess I believe that if suffering has a purpose, then it's easier to deal with, but at the same time I reject the way the evangelical Christians who raised me took that idea--that suffering brings results--to the extreme, to explain away all human horror and pain as part of God's greater plan. For some reason, the idea that a deity perpetrates pain to teach us something, to refine us by fire, as it were, is abhorrent to me. I'd prefer to think suffering is part of the human condition, and that a god like being exists to comfort (somehow; how, I don't know exactly, if there's no purpose to it all), not cause.

Which doesn't answer your question at all. Could I love my children as much if I hadn't struggled with their suffocating need for me when they were young? The irony, of course, is that I will suffer, am being ripped in tiny places already, as their need for me diminishes.

Angela said...

How sweet and how beautiful, really, that these young women are trying their best and praying hard along the way. There is just such a simple goodness in that. It is wonderful. Intent is everything. And in their prayer, they intended to express their care for a friend.

Bon said...

i am now beginning to pray, adamantly and fervently, for release from that 48 year labour. ;)

and to your question about whether the suffering makes love greater - i think there is a balance to that. certainly, dropping children like kittens might make us less acutely aware of their value, train us less to the act of loving and mothering them. but speaking from my own experience with brutal labours and 4th degree tears and colic - nope, i really don't think that was necessary for the love. really, really i don't.

theflyingmum said...

I think that was just an excellent prayer, something all mother's recognize as things we would certainly pray for, ourselves: "Please God, let him sleep through the night tonight!" You're right, it was a very generous prayer to ask these things on behalf of another person.

Sarcastic Mom (aka Lotus) said...

I grew up an atheist, and came to God through beauty in nature (long story), so my faith is a bit different than that of a person "raised on God." Prayer (as it's commonly thought of) has often made me uncomfortable, especially the type you describe. Prayer to me has always been (and still is) me talking to God thoughout the day, about whatever. Sometimes it's in my head... sometimes it's out loud - sometimes it's thanking, sometimes it's begging, sometimes it's questioning, and sometimes it's even angry. It's all prayer to me.

I used to think the type of prayers you described was selfish and that we shouldn't ask for things all the time.

Over time and through many discussions with God, John, and experiences at our churches (Vineyard churches, which I LOVE), I've come to realize that God just wants us to build relationships with Him. And maintain them. Just as regularly communicating with our earthly friends helps us build and maitain healthy relationships with them, so does doing the same with our Father in Heaven. After all, he already knows the desires of our hearts! He doesn't need us to ask Him for them! He just wants us to build and maintain a strong relationship with Him.

And to help others do the same.

That prayer showed that girl (and others in the room) the practical love of God through the prayer.

Amen.

Catherine said...

Yes. I agree completely. Prayer is such an interesting thing...

Karen said...

and now I throw a big monkey wrench into the conversation to share that there is scientific evidence that suggests the pain we experience is childbirth is seriously influenced by our cultural view of birth...which makes me think, it's not necessary. And there are cultures in our world that consider a crying baby to be an anomaly - because people live such interconnected/dependent lives that there is always an adult or older child to hold and carry or feed - which makes me reflect that so much of my pain as a new mother had more to do with the fact that the bulk of each day I did this incredibly hard thing, alone. I am proud of that and it did bond us, but I'm inclined to say that it's not destiny or God's purpose because it all seems so bound up in the systems we make ourselves - not to sound naively envious of poor women in third world villages, that would be just insulting to the grueling, limiting poverty they rear their children in, but I swear to you, they laugh at our concerns. I've told them in person and they laugh - don't know what all the fuss about baby sleep is, don't know what all the fuss about fussing is. I do sort of envy that outlook, the one that doesn't demand so much of babies and mothers -so, in short, necessary? no - but used? yes, clearly we all use it or God uses it, or somehow it forms us and frames the outline of our earliest relationship to this little people we cherish.

Owlhaven said...

Though we've been active in our church for years, we never made the habit of Wednesday 'fellowship' night at our church until this summer when our new girls ame home and I thought that the more casual gathering would be a good chance for them to make friends.
Well, I have found the group prayer time to be deeply meaningful, more than I ever expected. I also get tears when someone prays for my concerns...

And sitting in on the kids group one evening, I couldn't help but giggle to hear a 2 year old earnestly asking Jesus to fix the teeter totter..... (that reminds me, we've gotta get someone in there to do that!)

Mary

JCK said...

It sounds like your parenting class is really making a difference in people's lives. That must be a good feeling! Group prayer is shown to make differences, isn't it? I mean, statistically. Interesting to contemplate. One's own faith is such a personal journey.

nomotherearth said...

Your question (in the comment, in the post?) reminds me of one of my favourite songs from Into the Woods. The woman is talking about a fabulous "moment" she just had, and wishes that life were only made of moments. Then she realizes if life was only made up of moments, then she'd never know she had one.

I often find myself praying for mundane things. I think that it's more attainable than "world peace" or "happiness". I realize, though, that sometimes, the answer to my prayer is "no". Sometimes I need the rough to appreciate the smooth.

Carrien said...

OH see, I KNEW the first time I read you that we had this kind of thing in common, this cynical analytical side that coexists with faith and theology. Well, perhaps I didn't say it quite like that...

I also find it uncomfortable, and I grew up in fervent praying circles with people who believed that the more specific the better, that their prayers do the work of the kingdom. But I've had too many experiences with real answers to be able to just ignore it.

I like your description of the prayer as generous. And as one who has experienced easy labor and pain free breastfeeding and mostly sleep-filled nights I know it's possible.

But what I would find myself praying for Kyra is that she would have the grace (Powerful outpouring of God's presence) to give birth and breastfeed and parent her baby at night with strength and dignity. That she would be able to rise to the challenge, to find a connection to the strength and love available to her and access it often as she steps into motherhood. It seems to me more realistic, and more ultimately beneficial to her and her child for this to happen, than for it to just be easy at the beginning, though I hope for that too.

And now I'll shut up before you catch on that I'm just rambling haha.

Ally said...

I enjoyed this post. And I really appreciated that prayer. I love its specificity, and its generosity. I agree that it doesn't hurt to ask.

I also enjoyed your description of the "startled hilarity."

dawn224 said...

I think that's a lovely prayer :)

(I admit there was one sleepless night I thought God must not exist because he would answer the tiny prayer of LET THIS BABY SLEEEEEEEPPPPPP!!!!!!)

Stephanie said...

I just followed links to your blog today.

I love this post. I think about this a lot, too, and have trouble praying for comfort or ease. I don't know about the theology behind it, but it just doesn't usually sit well with me.

bgirl said...

catching up on all my reading!!!

this was a good one...thought provoking for me as i contemplate the power of prayer. i don't pray, but i wish and send positive statements out to the universe...

let me know if that specificity works and i'll adjust my wishes!