In Succor and Silence

On praying past the end of silver linings to a God who often does not answer as I hope.

Around the bonfire at church camp on the Oregon coast, we sang “River of Life” to get warmed up, and then, to mellow the mood for the gospel presentation, “Seek Ye First.” A haunting descant rose over the melody, swelling my 12-year-old heart with grateful longing. I walked forward to accept Jesus into my heart, and a counselor prayed for me, shadows from the flames flickering across our faces.

Back home again, I needed to learn how to pray. I thought it was weird for the Lord to expect me, gangly and grappling with my fleshly nature, to carry on what felt like a nonreciprocal relationship with an invisible, inscrutable, and ineffable God—but I was willing to give it a shot.

Only I couldn’t tell if I was doing it right. “God is not a vending machine,” our youth minister told us. “You have to pray according to his will.” So I began by asking for help in various areas of self-improvement: I should be nice to my brother. I should have a cheerful attitude when vacuuming with the heavy canister Electrolux and not slam my bedroom door when I got mad. I needed to avoid Judy Blume books that celebrated masturbation and stop sneaking the M&Ms my mom hid in the freezer. God, please help me to be better.

My self-examination concluded, I tendered other requests, like to make the premier soccer team and for a boy to return a crush. When those things didn’t happen, I swallowed a slight doubt. Perhaps James 4:3 was at play here: “When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.” Maybe I had bad motives.

Much else went unasked because I didn’t know how to say …

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