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Moving from “Help me” to “Thank you”

It’s strange how the subtle things during the week sometimes become how I experience God. As I thought about this week’s topic, I kept going back to an experience I had early Tuesday morning. It’s one of those experiences that seems kind of like a dream – ineffable and hard to describe, but since it seemed real, I’ll try anyways.

I went back to work this week. I’m usually a good sleeper, but on Monday night, I had a night of bad sleep. Maybe it was renewed worries about the months ahead, but my sometimes wonky neck and head kept waking me up. I have a little routine I usually do on nights like this. I stretch out on the living room floor, trying (usually in vain) to stretch out the aches, and I begin to pray.

Popular author Anne Lamott says that we all really have only 2 prayers, “Help me, help me!” and  “Thank you, thank you!” (I once read that she now has a 3rd prayer: “Wow.”) My middle-of-the-night living room floor prayers are always of the first variety. They don’t get a whole lot fancier than “Help me!” “Help me make it through the day tomorrow with my students God.”  “Help me get better.”  “Help me get through this.” And just plain, “Help me God.”

This night was no different until a thought came to me. It occurred to me that maybe I was catastrophizing things just a bit. Don’t get me wrong, I truly believe that God wants us to “cast all our cares” on Him in prayer, but I began to wonder if in praying my “help me” prayers, I was overplaying a crisis. This is one of my worst habits and it gets me in trouble all the time. I take things too seriously and life becomes burdensome. I somehow unconsciously think I am a queen who deserve a life of no suffering. In a strange way, life’s challenges get warped into something to be desperately wished away.

Graffiti seen near my house

It was literally an “Aha!” moment where my perception got shifted. I had never thought of my prayers for help as being part of my habit of catastrophizing. Lying on the floor, it felt like I got snapped awake and I stopped my moaning. Maybe my trial wasn’t as big of a deal as I was making it out to be. Like the old game of hot potato, I dropped my help me prayers and became silent.

Through the rest of that night, I replaced the prayers, or perhaps I should say that God replaced my prayers, since I believe that it is God, not us, who prays through us. I prayed a string of thanks for all the people in my life who have shown me God’s face. And I prayed the Lord’s Prayer  (usually getting only a ways in before I got distracted and had to start again!)

For the rest of the week, I thought of this moment of insight on the living room floor. When I was a teenager, I once memorized a poem and a line of it kept running through my head, “Into each life some rain must fall.” Sometimes I forget that everyone experiences some form of suffering and that I am certainly not alone. I might not be able to choose my trials, but I can choose how to respond.

When I was at the Y the next day, running on the treadmill, I was listening to Romans in preparation for our upcoming Watershed study, and a verse struck me, “We can even rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” (Romans 5:3-4)

It takes a real view of the big picture to see our troubles as something we can rejoice in. Usually I start whining immediately to be rid of my troubles! But these verses remind me that suffering brings with it some hard-won lessons, but only if we open the eyes of our heart to see. I remembered earlier last year when I was given words of advice from our pastor Paul to become tougher on the inside instead of steeling myself on the outside against what life brings me. (I wrote about this advice in a previous blog post.) Becoming tougher on the inside speaks to me of developing stamina and remembering that character and hope can be borne out of what is difficult.

Running on the treadmill, I knew these verses were a confirmation of the insight from the night before. When I shared my experience with my friend Bev the next day, she nodded enthusiastically. “It sounds right, and I’m sure Paul would say so too,” she said.

It’s not like I’ve never heard these verses from Romans before, but as I dropped my desperate prayers, I heard them in a new way. Like any human being, I’d rather not experience troubles, but if I must, I pray to lean on God, and allow them to produce perseverance, character and hope in me. God knows we need more of these virtues this in our troubled but beautiful world.

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