I have a confession. I’m a life-long Presbyterian who went to Catholic school (that’s not the confession but probably enough to make one crazy right there.) I am currently an elder in my church which would make my grandparents bust with pride. My grandfather was a stalwart Presbyterian church elder and my grandmother was the quintessential church lady and official silver communion plate polisher. Not a meal was taken in their house without grace spoken before it. Sandwich over the sink? Say grace.  

So here it is: I don’t know how to pray. My grandfather and father were the official family grace sayers and used a standard prayer. Check. In school we had the rote memorization of the rosary prayers. Done. None of those prayers felt like a personal conversation with God though. Don’t get me wrong, I have spoken to God quite a bit in the last five years but I’m not sure begging counts as prayer. My prayers sound a lot like wishes to my ears: that my husband would live, that my father would live and before that that my grandfather would live at least long enough to meet the great-grandchild I carried. He did not.   

My timing is off. The futility of when I pray has led me not to do it so much. It seems I’m always asking for the thing I so desperately desire after the conclusion has already been reached. “Please let this test be clean,” I pleaded. Too late, the cancer was growing. The test was just there to show the foregone conclusion. This was the case with my father. I didn’t learn enough. It was again the case with my husband.  

My pastor offered a prayer method to my Sunday school class one morning. It involved counting off the fingers of your hand as you pray for different groups. They teach this to children yet I cannot remember it. Your little finger is for people who are sick, I think…or maybe the poor? Your thumb, the one that points back at you, is the one you touch when you pray for yourself…I’m pretty sure. I have no idea what comes in between. 

The father of a dear friend admitted that he did not know how to pray for my husband so he simply said his name to the Lord trusting that his intentions were know. That felt right to me. Yes, that was prayer I decided.  

But…still…shouldn’t I be getting better at this? I’ve learned so much from my experiences of grief and loss. I am truly made new in so many ways and though I was not speaking to God for a while I am again. There is a peace in my heart that though the challenges of my life and those I love may be supremely difficult at the time, we will come through whether I ask or not. God has no ill intent.  

Another challenge rises and confronted with the desire to say a few words to God about this new need I come up hard against the thought in my mind that, still, I don’t know how to pray “the right way.” Cancer is at work again. A friend has been facing it head on and on the night before her surgery, my timing imperfect once again, I struggled to say…well, anything.

Before my husband’s surgery my friend, Laurie, called. “I’m good at hospitals,” she said. She wanted to come wait with me. When I do thank God in prayer it is often for the people in my life. Laurie is one of those for whom I have thanked God. Through all of my grief – anticipatory, tentatively reassured and, sixteen months later, profound – she was there. She was standing on the other side of the hospital bed to witness my husband’s last breath. How many friends are capable of that?   

On the eve of her own surgery I struggled to pray once more. I was undone by the grief and overwhelmed by the task. I could ask that the cancer not be extensive but I realize that it is what it already is. I could ask that God guide the surgeons and nurses. That thought did give me some measure of comfort. Oddly, no matter how I prayed it felt selfish. Even when I wanted to scream, “How could you let this happen?!” I felt that had more to do with me than it should. I’m tired of losing people I love. 

So I released it to God this time, “I don’t know how to pray for this.” I surrendered and let it go.  

It turns out that was a prayer. And soon came an answer.  

Author, Anne Lamott, was speaking at a church that is steps from my front door. Book geek that I am, I had the event on my calendar for a month but had not bothered to learn what she was going to talk about. Her new book called Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers was just what I needed. Seriously.   

Help – without really knowing it, this is the prayer that I said. “Help me know how to help.” “Help me say the right words that will make it alright.” “Fix this, please!” The surrender is what was missing while I wrestled with prayer. Even though I have gotten better, I’m not so good at the “thy will be done” part.  

“We don’t have to figure out how this all works—“ Figure it out” is not a good slogan. It’s enough to know it does.”    ~ Anne Lamott; Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers

Thanks – According to Lamott, thanks is an expression of gratitude for blessings from the seemingly insignificant to the miraculous. OK, I’m starting to feel better about this prayer thing even if I’m not a card-carrying grace sayer.  

Death Valley dune walker

Wow – I have been fortunate to say this prayer often. Wandering – this is how I glimpse kairos time (the appointed time of God.) It almost always involves traveling to some exotic location and marveling at the wonders of the earth. Death Valley, Newfoundland, Glacier National Park – these are the places I have reverently experienced “wow.”   

This time, however, I experienced the wow right here at home when I read:  

“I hold this family in Your light. I pray for them to get their miracle, and to have stamina, for them to be okay today, for their love and amazing senses of humor to help them come through, although if You have a minute, I’d like to know: What on earth could You be thinking?” (Lamott, Anne (2012-11-13). Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers (p. 22). Riverhead Hardcover. Kindle Edition.)   



Do you pray? Does it come easy for you or do you struggle with it? For what, today, are you saying help, thanks or wow?