When It’s Hard to Pray

Today, like so many other days over the past year, I opened my Bible to Psalm 40. In the margins, written in pencil, is the date 9/13/18, and I pray I always remember what that date means. It’s the day I got my Bible from the security staff at Lakeside. I had to specifically request it because they don’t give you anything but essentials from your belongings unless you ask and only if it passes the safety test (I guess they figured I wasn’t going to try and whack myself or anyone over the head with my Bible). When I was admitted to Lakeside on September 11, 2018, I was unprepared to have to relinquish all of the stuff I packed, and it wasn’t until 2 days later that I realized I could ask to have my Bible. Being without my Bible or any way to read it on my phone (since Lakeside took that away also) felt jarring. I have gone more than 2 days without reading the Bible before, but I felt the loss very acutely being in an unfamiliar, scary setting with unfamiliar people. When I finally did get my beloved Bible, I opened to Psalm 40 first because Stephen had sent that Psalm to me in an email, and I loved everything it said and related so much to its words. I was in a pit and saw no way out, but I hoped and prayed that the Lord would deliver me and set my feet on a rock. I wanted to know that His steadfast love and faithfulness would preserve me and that He does not withhold mercy from me. 

On September 13 I had a hard time believing these things to be true (and sometimes still do, if I’m being honest), but I read the words over and over again nevertheless, underlining them with my stub of a pencil (the only writing implement Lakeside allowed, although I don’t know why because you can totally do some damage with a sharp pencil). I prayed weak but desperate prayers, begging God to help me and be near me and rescue me. I couldn’t believe I was actually in a place like Lakeside. I couldn’t believe that I had come so close to ending my life. And I couldn’t believe–yet–that there was end to the despair that was eating me up from the inside out. But I clung to the words of Psalm 40 and have continued to read them almost every day since September 13.

There have been days when the pain was too deep, when the darkness clouded all rational thought, when I could barely form the words of a prayer. On days like that, I turned to words already written, words expressing better than I could how deep the pit of depression was but also how strong the grip of God is. Praying God’s Word back to Him has been the lifeline I have needed when I feel my grip weakening, when I can’t imagine how to hold on a minute longer. It is in those moments of desperation that He showed me that He always does the work of holding on to me and keeping me under the shadow of His wings while the storm rages. 

One day during my depression found me in the office of my pastor, who has been a  source of counsel and comfort to me. He listened to me tell of my continued despair and doubts in God’s goodness, and he met me with compassion and love. He encouraged me to keep clinging to the Scriptures and to be honest with God about my doubt. He assured me I was not alone. And then he opened his Bible and encouraged me to read Psalm 88 aloud as a prayer to God. I only read two or three verses before I started crying. The words in that Psalm–some of the most depressing words in the whole Bible–mirrored my own feelings so closely that I could not ignore them. I was overcome with the kindness of God, the kindness that led Him to move the writers of the Bible to include such gut-wrenching words. That very same kindness of God led me to my church, to my pastor, to my friends, to my therapist, to my husband–to all of the people who have helped see me through this long darkness. Reading those words back to God as a prayer felt not just like a desperate plea but a holy moment, one on which I can look back and recall the nearness of God at a time when I questioned His very existence. 

On days like today, when hope seems far and troubles so very near, how glad I am to have the Word of God to give voice to the prayers I can’t pray on my own. I can pray Psalm 40 and believe that one day God will put a new song in my mouth, that others will see and put their trust in the Lord. And when that day comes, I will not restrain my lips but will tell of His deliverance. 

How Friendship Found Me

Several years ago, a stomach virus struck our house, and one evening all of us were sick in such a way that caused both Stephen and me to pass out at separate times, with my fall resulting in a hole in our guest bathroom wall. Charlotte was 8 months old at the time and sick herself, and it was around midnight. As I laid on the floor, I didn’t know what to do and felt helpless in a way I had not felt before. I started thinking about whom I could call, and the list was short. I didn’t have many friends that I was close enough to that I felt I could call them in the middle of the night, so I called my parents. My mom said they would come right away, but since they live an hour away, I needed to call someone close by to help with Charlotte since I wasn’t sure if I was injured or would faint again (fortunately I wasn’t and I didn’t). I decided to call my college roommate who lives in town, and she graciously agreed to come over. She came quickly and tended to Charlotte and helped get her vomit-covered sheets into the wash. I was grateful for her presence and care, but after she left I felt a sadness that my list of people I could call in a crisis was so small. Why didn’t I have more friends?

The short answer is, I wasn’t actively trying to make any. I was hungry for female friendships but was also reluctant to make the first move and reach out to the women at my church, and so even though we had been attending for a year, I hadn’t developed many relationships that went beyond small talk before and after church. I kept hoping someone would invite me out for dinner or coffee, but it never occurred to me that I could be doing the inviting as well. People are busy, and we often assume people already have their “friend group” all set. I certainly assumed no one was really interested in new friendships since it seemed that many of the women close to my age had already been at the church for a few years and knew one another well. So I kept to myself, and though I never would have admitted this out loud, I honestly hoped that new best friends would materialize of their own accord.

As you might have guessed, I didn’t magically wake up one morning with friends. But what I did wake up with one morning is ulcerative colitis. Being sick with that disease, at first not even knowing that it WAS a disease, leveled me in a way that nothing before had. At my disease’s worst, I found myself too weak to do much but shuffle between the bed and the bathroom, so things like home-cooked dinners and clean floors and bedtime stories gave way to naps at all hours of the day.

It was then, when I had lost most ability to function on any kind of useful level, that those magical, make-believe friends I wished for the previous year began to appear. Two women from church showed up in my hospital room, bringing cheer and encouragement. Another one called and offered to “clean something, anything” for me. Another one brought my family dinner and organized others to do the same. Another one let me sob into the phone while she prayed for me. One friend’s husband came to our house after Charlotte was in bed so Stephen could visit with me for a few hours. Almost overnight, I looked around and saw something beautiful: the church in action. Friends in action.

I had prayed that God would bring me friends, had prayed that He would show me how to be a better friend myself. I had even gone so far as to confess my loneliness to a group of  women at a prayer group only a month prior to getting sick. Though He answered those prayers in a rather peculiar way by also giving me an autoimmune disease, it was impossible for me to miss the way that crisis in my life became a landmark by which I recognized the faithfulness of God. Honestly, I didn’t enjoy being the recipient of so much help and would have much preferred to be the one extending such help to others. But that is not the role God gave to me at that time, nor is it the role I have found myself in for much of the past year. God has shown me many times over the years how my weakness allows His strength to shine through. He has shown me how my friends, in loving and caring for me, were daily reminders of His promise to love and care for me. What my weakness and need has helped me see is that being vulnerable in community is better than facing life alone.

We all have pain we wish to hide, but when we choose to hide our pain rather than bring it into the light of community, what are we missing? We could very well be missing out on the exact friendships we wish we had.

I hope I never have to call for reinforcements in the middle of the night again, but how thankful I am that if I should, God has grown my list in a way I never expected!

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Photo by Noorulabdeen Ahmad on Unsplash