As the sun was setting one evening, my parents pulled their car into the driveway of some friends they knew from church. My brother, who is six years older than me, was visiting our grandparents. I was just 18 months old at the time, buckled into a car seat as small children are. Dad parked the car, removed me from the restraining belts, and carried me in his left arm through the yard to the covered porch at the back of the old farmhouse.
He opened the first door with his right hand, and then turned his body 180 degrees to hold the door open for my mother. Then, as she climbed the steps, and grabbed a hold of the door, he took a step backwards onto the porch. From there, he would have the room to pivot and turn once again before moving toward the entryway of the house.
Only, it didn’t work out that way. Old farm houses in that area had cellars beneath the porch. There were no lights on out back that evening. And when my father took his first step backward onto that porch, he had no idea that the hinged door to the cellar was dropped down, and that a big, dark hole would soon swallow him.
With no handrails grab on to, no visibility, and a small child in his left arm, my father absorbed two tremendous blows – one to his head, and a second to his right shoulder and neck on the concrete steps below. X-rays later revealed that he had cracked his collarbone. The attending physician commented that arthritis would surely creep in with age.
Throughout childhood, and even now, heights really bother me. I can still remember how taxicabs looked like matchbox cars from the 80th floor of the Empire State Building. I couldn’t get off of that ledge fast enough. In Southern California, Kara joyfully rode the roller coasters at Disney Land. But I was more than happy to escort Liam around, instead. In Whistler, Canada, we’ve gone from one peak to peak in a small basket driven by a pulley system. I prayed the entire way. And in Europe, my wife had no success getting me to ride the London Eye or to ascend the Eiffel Tower.
Today, my greatest fear involves those amusement park rides that go straight up, like an elevator, hundreds of feet up into the air. And then, without warning and at the flip of a switch, the passengers plummet to the ground screaming in terror from the freefall. It boggles my mind that people will actually pay money to experience that feeling. For me, it all seems too risky, too suspect, too unnerving. Perhaps, that traumatic childhood experience is burned into my psyche. Who knows?
Yet, I also believe that the feeling we experience when falling also has something in common with prayer. And that whether something seems thrilling or terrifying may correspond to our level of trust in that moment.. Just think about the people and the places where you feel safe. You know the routines that are comfortable, reliable, and true. And you also know what it’s like to feel uncomfortable. To have your fight or flight reflex kick in.
I don’t blame my father for falling backwards into that cellar of the old farm house. It was a freak accident which, in hindsight, we escaped with fairly minimal injury. Instead of blaming, I just feel fortunate for the many years of steadfast commitment that I have received from both of my parents.
Time and time again, they have proven trustworthy. And whenever I was falling, whether I was 18 months old and tumbling into a dark, concrete cellar, or whether I was facing a complex, adult challenge, their hands were always there to catch me and to provide a foundation of stability that would cushion my fall.
Today, I invite you to consider how you feel in the midst of a personal crisis. When things are not going well, and you sense that you are falling, where do you often land? What are your coping mechanisms? We often turn to quick fixes that aren’t really fixes at all – overindulging in food or drink, spending too much time behind electronic screens, making impulse purchases, or taking our frustrations out on others. For some, these patterns are so ingrained that they ultimately become bitter, cynical people.
And that’s where prayer comes in, providing a needed corrective for our impulses. More than an inner monologue, prayer is an act of hope requiring at least two participants. The first is the one who is actually offering the petitions, and the second is the one who is receiving them. This is the one whom we call God, serving as a vessel for all of our hopes and dreams, for all of our anxieties and fears, for all of our guilt and attempts at repentance. And when we are falling, this is the one who holds us in steadfast love, attending to our well-being, and guiding us through every struggle in this world.
Prayer is a relationship which calls for still deeper trust. It is a process in which God uses our receptivity as an opportunity to shape and mold our lives into a reflection of God’s will. Therefore, we pray that we might be more open and less rigid, more loving and less anxious, more committed and less hesitant to give of ourselves.
In those moments when life is going well, and we want to shout from the mountaintops, God helps us to remember the divine role in our successes. And in those moments when we feel as though we are falling, God reminds us of unfailing trustworthiness. We pray that God would hear our celebrations and our longings for ourselves, our friends, our families, and our church. That God would abide with our neighbors in need and teach those in positions of authority to lay down their lives for the greater good of all. We pray for our planet and for the life that fills it, and we ask that God would fill our lives with every good gift.
And yet, even when we sense that God near, we can still find ourselves at a loss for words, stumbling and fumbling in the dark, searching for the switch that will illuminate our petitions. In those moments, God surprises us by teaching us how to pray, and reminding us that prayer is a form of discipleship requiring our patience, our repetition, and our practice.
Recently, during a text message conversation with my mother, she reminded me to pray, not that all of my wishes might come true, but that God’s will might be done in my life. I then turned to God, offering petitions of my own before saying those words that our Lord taught us, confident in God’s promises, and grateful for the assurance that someone will always catch me when I fall. May it be so and all thanks be to God. Amen.