When God Doesn't Answer
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I was 18 the night I stopped praying for my brothers. Sean is severely autistic. Niall has Down Syndrome.
I'd tired of hurling nightly prayers for divine healing, or variations on that theme, at my bedroom ceiling: "God, the Bible says you care about healing. Please heal Sean and Niall." "God, what about our family made you think we could handle two handicapped sons?" "Is it something we've done? Not fair!" "Lord, why am I normal and Sean and Niall not? Is there something I'm supposed to do or be to make up for them?" "God, why their handicaps? Why?"
My words always seemed to bounce off the ceiling and fall flat—words that couldn't move an implacable God. God's non-answer to my "Why?" pierced me deeper than the in-my-face physical nature of my brothers' handicaps: Niall cannot feed, clean, or clothe himself. He will never talk, read, or write. Sean fares little better.
Nails Have Names
Nails—painful, difficult situations that hurt desperately and pin us down—can come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Sean and Niall were my nails—sharp and pointed, driving home one reality: God was God and who was I to expect that he'd answer my prayers the way I needed?
Nails hurt. I'd rather pry them out, bandage the holes, and limp far away from the affront Sean and Niall represent to my understanding of God (or rather who I think God is and what his creation should be: beautiful, in order, whole).
But Sean and Niall won't let me pry them out. They are my brothers after all. My mind's eye always sees Sean's twitching fingers, hunched shoulders, and too-thin body in perpetual motion, even when he stands still. Niall's cross-eyed glances and smiles mute the script that threatens to run continually in my head: God, I guess I'll have to fix all this somehow as you can't or won't. I can't hobble away from them any more than I can from the unanswered "Why?" of those countless prayers.
Perhaps I didn't know how to listen. Perhaps my faith couldn't accept the finality of God's silence. Whatever the reason, I stopped praying for Sean and Niall's healing. Instead, I grieved God's seeming abandonment of them, of my family, of me.
I resumed praying for Sean and Niall 30 years after I'd stopped. It was during a session in "An Hour on Sunday," Willow Creek Canada's 2006 arts conference. Teaching pastor Nancy Beach, had just shared about the reward of Sundays for those leading or involved in worship: transformed lives.
"Are we living like Jesus would live if he were physically in our bodies? What are the places in our lives that need to be more like him?" she asked. "What do we need to let go of so that we can discover the depths of God's heart?" As her questions faded, a poignant video began to play of Bill Hybels and members of his team baptizing congregants in a lake.
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