My grandmother used to tell the story about how my dad contracted dysentery at the hospital when he was born, and so he was sickly for two years, eventually resulting in rickets. Finally, at the end of his second year, Nana was exhausted and worried. One day, out in the backyard in the weak Seattle sun, trying to get him to soak up some Vitamin D, she prayed to God that if He would save him, my dad would be his for a lifetime.
What was remarkable about the story was that not only was my grandmother not religious, but also she never told my dad about the prayer until after he was almost finished with seminary. He’d grown up without any spiritual inclination until he attended a Billy Graham crusade with a friend when he was 15 years-old, and then, step by step, found his path pulling him to become a Presbyterian pastor. It wasn’t until after he retired after 40 years in ministry that he and I had a substantive conversation about Nana’s prayer. Affable as always, and deeply faithful and respectful of the mysterious ways in which God works, my dad still mostly laughed about that story. “A prayer in a foxhole,” my mom succinctly summed it up, and while that is undoubtedly true, I still feel the miracle of that family story.
I’ve also come to see what my dad was teaching me as well. It’s that there is a discipline that faith brings, so that prayer becomes less of a laundry list of requests and more gratitude for all the lessons that life delivers.
I didn’t follow my dad’s path into the Presbyterian church, but instead have developed a deeply spiritual meditation practice. Every morning, I find my way to my meditation cushion and breathe a little of the mystery of life. I’ve come to see that faith is believing that I will get what I need and not what I want, and prayer has become my method of bringing those two lists closer together. I breathe in the gratitude of all that I have, and then I breathe out the insecurity of the feeling of want. When I do that long enough, I usually discover that I find a little miracle in some part of my life that I hadn’t seen that way, or appreciated more. For the moment, I feel balanced and secure.
But this past week — when Seattle became the first city in our country to experience deaths from the coronavirus — has challenged that. I’m an incurable optimist, which often means I am the last to anticipate trouble, but the daily news of more local deaths, the visible difference in traffic, the steady stream of cancellations and changes to business as usual, plus the dropping attendance at my daughter’s pre-school throughout the week was enough to bloom a feeling of dread. Then, my 4 ½ year-old-daughter started coughing, a day later got a fever, and now is experiencing tummy pains. Last night, I awoke to sounds of my 7-month-old baby boy starting to cough, and in the morning I found he had a new red mark on his face. Normally, I’d care for each of these ailments without extraordinary concern, but with the heightened awareness of a new, untreatable virus — even one who seems to spare children— I’m in a panic. I’ve kept us all quarantined at home since I heard one of my daughter’s schoolmates took the coronavirus test, and it will be four days until we get the results, so it feels isolated, maybe a little like a foxhole. All of a sudden, I understand my grandmother’s prayer a little better, because I’m down on my knees begging that we’ll all get through this okay.
Perhaps there is a place for both types of prayers: prayers as a showing of gratitude for the life we have, and prayers as a confession of naked need. Both open our eyes to what is essential in life, and create a little space in the heart where miracles can appear.
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