When a respiratory virus attacked my three-year-old daughter’s lungs, she relied on a ventilator to keep her alive. I sat by her too-big hospital bed, searching for reminders of life as her sedated body struggled under the weight of drips and machines.
Three weeks in, I knew every nurse’s name and every IV’s purpose. My husband, Jonny, and I were taking turns in the hospital, and that night he was home with our three young sons. It was my night to sleep on the plastic pullout couch as the doctors and nurses came and went, checking stats and assessing numbers.
I couldn’t hold my baby. I could barely even touch her head without disrupting her fragile body. “Healing takes time,” the doctors told me. “She’s very sick. This is a life-threatening illness.”
All I could do was sit under the fluorescent lights and wait. I wanted to pray but had not one ounce of energy to muster anything. And honestly, I wanted to yell at God. My heart raced; my face flushed. How could He let this precious child hang in the thin space between heaven and earth? Exhaustion flooded my bones. I was putting on a front for my boys at home, trading day and night shifts with my husband, and the schedule was taking its toll on my mind, body, and soul.
I looked outside as another blizzard blanketed the parking lot. I watched the minivans and sedans disappear under thick clouds of snow and wondered about the people each vehicle represented. Each car meant somebody’s loved one was sick and in need of care. I thought of the suffering that people experience every day. I lamented. I doubted. I wrestled with fears and doubts, and I wasn’t sure if I could hand them over to God. I didn’t know how. So instead, I held on to them. I couldn’t hold my daughter. But I could embrace my anger and fear, clutching them close to my chest.
There I was, married to a pastor, and I couldn’t pray.
There I was, a Christian for the previous thirty years, and I couldn’t muster any words.
People told me they were praying for our little girl. I guess your prayers don’t work, I thought. I knew that God wasn’t a genie in a bottle who would just grant our wish if we all prayed hard enough. But still, I struggled to find words that rang true in the walls of that hospital room.
On one of my days at home, I checked the mailbox. Bills and junk mail spilled out, but there was a package nestled inside too. A book of prayers. There in my mailbox was an invitation into conversation with God — and permission to rest from the exhaustion of finding just the right words.
I didn’t have to have it all together. I didn’t have to have the perfect quiet space to center my thoughts — the beeps and buzzes of medical machines would do. All I had to do was open to the page and read, recite, and repeat until I felt my heart rate begin to calm, until I was no longer tensing my shoulders, until I could release the breaths I’d been holding for too long.
We don’t need the perfect location or perfect circumstances or perfect words in order to pray.
If we wait for that, we never will.
When everything crumbled, the prayers of another voice comforted me. And as I prayed, the written words became my own pleas and petitions, jumping off the page and nestling into my soul. As I learned in those thin spaces in the intensive care unit, the body of Christ says: You don’t have the words? Here, take mine.
After a month in the hospital, with the care of a compassionate crew of doctors and nurses, my husband and I brought our daughter home. I still didn’t have any concrete answers about the mystery of prayer. I grieved for the parents who left the intensive care unit with empty seats in their minivans. I celebrated my daughter’s return to health. I sat in the tension.
When we arrived home, unloading bag after bag of belongings, I clipped the plastic hospital ID bracelets from our wrists and tossed them into the trash. But I held on to the book.
The prayers of others had become my prayers.
What a gift that we don’t have to have just the right words for God to listen. God is already listening. God is all around us, and holy moments live in the ordinary and extraordinary times in our lives.
Are you feeling stuck or at a loss today? Borrow this prayer:
God of wonderful words and stunning silence, I come to you grateful that I don’t need the perfect words to talk to You. That I can share my silence, my sorrows, and my screams with You and that you receive it all with the loving arms of a parent. Thank you for your mercy and compassion when I can not see what lies ahead. Help me give my words and worries to you so that I may live freely in the light of Your love. Amen.
This article includes excerpts from To Light Their Way: A Collection of Prayers & Liturgies for Parents.