A year ago today, I sat and listened to my father pray for his family, an old man talking freely with his God. We probably prayed again the next day when I left to drive home, but this is the one that sticks in my mind and was likely the last time I heard him pray.
Several times during his prayer he reminded God that he really wanted to “go home” and God answered that prayer a week later, early Sunday morning, December 28th.
In the weeks following his funeral, I went through his many prayer journals, simple lists of the numerous people he prayed for on a daily basis. Not long before he died he told my sister-in-law that he needed to go home because his prayer lists were getting too long.
And so, sometime in January or February, I decided to carry the mantle of prayer for my family. I committed myself to praying daily for not only my family, but all the Marshalls who had been so dear to Dad’s heart. There are 6 in my generation; 17 in our children’s generation; and 13 great-grandchildren.
It takes awhile to pray for 37 people! There have been many nights when I fell asleep praying, only to wake up through the night remembering where I left off, and continuing. Sometimes several times. (Lately, the hot tub has become my favorite place to pray as I feel comfortable talking out loud alone in my backyard. My other favorite place is during the longish commutes to Laura’s house in Aurora.)
But what I am noticing now, is that it can also be a bit discouraging. Every once in awhile there are glimmers of answered prayer, but for the most part, I am left in the dark as to how God is actually working through prayer.
People I love are still struggling; my long list of family and friends who seem to have “left the faith” still seem far away; and my daily prayer for four young men who can’t seem to manage life well, haven’t made much (if any) progress.
Once, long ago, I engaged in a prayer walk around York High school, walking around the school that is next door to me, praying for students, administrators, teachers and even for the issue of substance abuse. (The first day when I set off from my front door there was a group of students smoking just off school property in front of my house. By the end of seven weeks, I’d learned that my son was one of those substance abusers.) I continued to pray, but after seven weeks, I found that I couldn’t make it around the school without dissolving into tears and finally, I gave up.
I don’t know how much that experience colored the next several years of my life and how much the circumstances of life weighed me down, but it was almost ten years before I dared to be really engaged in my relationship with God again. I went through the motions and maintained the tenets of my faith, but I kept God at an emotional arms-length.
I’m not quite that discouraged at this point (and hope I never get to that point again) but I am feeling disheartened. The thing about prayer is that it makes us aware of the desires of our hearts, of the needs of others around us. Prayer feels hopeful at the beginning, but wears thin after repeated requests.
I wrote the above this morning and then went to church. The scripture reading and children’s lesson were centered on Mary and Elizabeth, and Mary’s Magnificat. I’ve read and copied these verses several times in the course of Advent so they were immediately familiar.
Pastor Mike focused on the expectations of Mary and Elizabeth–and on their rejoicing. He asked us to evaluate our own expectations. I immediately thought of my prayers and hoped-for answers to prayer as the expectations or hopes that were now discouraging me.
The crazy thing about the gospel is that it asks us to set the bar high–at a level of faith that asks us to anticipate the unexpected.
Prayer increases my expectations. I want “more” for me and for the people I love. I don’t want to settle for vague prayers for God to bless them. I want to see them following hard after God, being changed and renewed by their faith. I want to see them set free from fear, anxiety, destructive emotions and patterns. I want to see the fruit of the Spirit blossoming in their lives. (And all these things in my life too.)
For so many years I’ve been advised to “lower my expectations.” Someone called expectations “planned disappointment.” I get how that works negatively in relationships, but I don’t know how to live life without expectations. I don’t know how to pray without increasing expectation. So, I think I will dare to keep praying, keep hoping, keep expecting God to do more than I think or ask–exceedingly, abundantly.
Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, to Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.