Every night I tuck my son into bed. I anoint his head with oil from a tiny bottle — the same oil of frankincense and myrrh given by some church leaders to my son before his brain and skull surgery a few years ago. I make a cross on his small forehead and recite a well-known benediction:
“My dear son, may the Lord bless you and keep you,
make his face shine on you and be gracious unto you.
The Lord look upon you with favor,
and grant you his healing, protection and peace.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Now and forever.
This nightly ritual raises for me a conundrum. On the one hand, I feel compelled to stay with it in hopes that it makes a difference. At the same time, I can never know what effect, if any, it may have on my son’s circumstances.
It is widely believed that prayer is a powerful tool for making a difference in the world. But is the purpose of prayer to motivate God to change how things are? Does prayer really move God to end suffering, poverty, injustice, abuse, war, and illness?
Aside from the benediction I say each night over my son, I no longer pray for his healing. I no longer pray this way because it is ridiculous to do so. For in doing so, I resort to using prayer and God to shield myself from the reality of life’s sufferings. Praying for my son’s healing denies the cross that I am called to pick up.
Praying for God to take away hardships denies the cross of suffering that Jesus Christ took up for the brokenness and sins of the world. It puts a damper on encountering God as love.
I have shared the following story in a previous post, but it is worth sharing again because it drives home my point. One time I took my son to his therapy session. Another little boy was in the waiting area. This boy could not speak. He communicated by shrieking and screaming as if his ‘normal’ self lay trapped in a cave. I started to pray that God would give him the ability to speak, for I felt uncomfortable and sad for the boy.
As I prayed this way, a question arose for me: what if this boy never learns to use words to express himself? In that moment, I became lost over how to pray. So I asked God to show me how me sees the boy. God answered but not in the way I expected. Despite the boy’s inability to speak, God still sees the boy’s life as sacred and with a purpose.
I no longer take comfort in the idea that God has the power to heal if it is God’s will. Instead, I engage in prayer to commune with God by being honest and vulnerable, which is the key to praying this obscure way.
For instance, when I find myself praying for a loved one’s safety or healing, I force myself to reflect on what is behind my need to pray in this magical way — that underlying my compulsion to pray for God to protect, heal or comfort is my fear of losing that loved one. When I slip into praying out of desperation for something to change or for something not to happen, I try to go deeper with God by acknowledging my need for control.
Too often prayer can take the form of denial of what is going on in the world and in life’s circumstances. When I commune with God in prayer as opposed to making requests, I encounter God as love. God answers with the promise never to leave or forsake.
I will continue my ritual of anointing my son’s head with oil and praying over him at bedtime, uncertain of whether it will make any difference in his uncertain prognosis. And as I lay awake across the hall, I will continue my other ritual of pouring out my heart and letting God’s love touch my deepest fear, that of losing my son.
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