Good Friday morning ...
I recall the day when I couldn't pray. It was like yesterday. The end of June, 1974.
My father was ill ... gravely ill. He was in the last stages of his battle with prostate cancer which had spread into his bones with devastating consequences. He was only 60 years old ... not yet retired ... but longing to do so. He was tired, worn out from a months-long struggle with his reoccurring cancer. Since February of that year, he had regressed downhill, steadily declining, losing physical ground week by week. His spirits were low, his body failing, his will-to-live and his very strong faith keeping him going ... one day at a time.
I had spent the entire month of June with him. As a seminary student, I had dutifully completed the spring semester and with wife and young son in tow, traveled to Virginia to spend a week with my father and my mother, simply to do what I could to help, to encourage, to reassure. That one week turned into another, then another and then another when finally, the summer job in Massachusetts, to which I had committed months before, called me in and said I had to take it or lose it.
That month of June was difficult, to say the least. Every day was trying, harder than the one before. I spent part of every day with my father, visiting him in his hospital room, talking and reminiscing, reading Scripture and praying with him.
As I reflect on those days of June, I was the seminary student, but he was the teacher. As he always did, he taught by example, not so much by imparting knowledge, but by sharing life experiences. He talked about life, sharing some of his most precious memories; he talked about family, acknowledging the blessings his had brought him through the years; and he talked about faith, offering his simple, live-by-the-Book style.
It was a struggle for both he and I ... and certainly for my mother. This was not the way they had thought closing in on retirement would be. Little thought had been given to the possibility of cancer striking, let alone crashing upon him as it did in his late fifties and leaving him and his doctors bewildered about treatment. (Remember this was the 1970's when cancer treatments were somewhat primitive.) There had already been bouts of drugs and chemo with very uneven results, though some sort of remission did set in and allowed a brief return to a bit of normalcy after a horrendous period of hospitalization and degrading temporary confinement to a mental state not his own.
The period of normalcy did not last long and in February of that year, the downward slide began. It was all I could do stay put, finish my courses and trust that I would have some time to visit with the one I called Daddy. My time came in June and extended for the entire month.
But then came the decision to return to Massachusetts for my summer job. It was not a pleasant day. Telling my father goodbye for what I knew would be the last time, was difficult enough. But it was complicated by something else. It was the day I couldn’t pray. Every other day, prayers came easily, for him and for me. Conversation was ready, for him and for me. But on that day, neither came.
My father's body was weak and weary. Mine was simply tired and fatigued. For both of us, to do anything but to lie or sit there seemed beyond our strength. And perhaps most surprising, when we tried to pray, our thoughts would drift to the discomfort, the shallow breathing, the uncertain tomorrow ... and we were left unable to ask God to answer even a simple prayer.
I wanted my father to live. But I knew he was dying. At the same time, I wanted my father to be relieved of his pain which would mean he would die. I was torn as to how to pray: to go on living, but with pain, discomfort and uncertainty; or to enter death and thereby be relieved of all earthly pain and enter into eternal glory, rest and peace.
The inability to pray troubled me. But I realized afterward, that as with all other human needs, our gracious God and Creator knew this was happening to me. I would eventually recall that He made two preparations for such occurrences; the prayer of the Spirit for us when we can't pray (Romans 8:26), and the prayer of others on our behalf (James 5:16; Galatians 6:2).
What a comfort it was to realize that the Holy Spirit was even then raising my concerns before the Father. What a gift also to hear from family and friends as they prayed for me and for him. Then came another surprise: As my friends and family asked me what to pray for, it became clear that my answers to them were also being heard by God as prayers. What a gift it is in a time of uncertainty to be reminded that God hears our heart even when we think we can't call out to Him at all.
"The Spirit Himself intercedes for us through wordless groans" [Romans 8:26].
May we be reminded that God never leaves the voices of His children unheard.
Have a blessed weekend in the Lord ...
PS. I returned to Massachusetts to assume my summer job, but a day after arriving, received the call that my father had passed away. With a broken heart I made the quick return to my native Virginia to lay him to rest and to celebrate his entrance into a peaceful, pain free eternity.