Apparently, the best way to survive a fall from a great height is to spread your arms, close your eyes, and relax your whole body.
Yesterday I asked some ladies from church to pray for me. I asked them to pray for healing. I asked them to pray for a family for us. As they prayed, I held out my hands and I tried to believe. I thought of God and His promises to me, of Jesus telling me to simply ask, and I let myself believe that maybe, just maybe, God could do something.
If I’m honest I haven’t prayed like that for years. I may have said the words out loud, but my heart didn’t believe. Others have prayed, hands open, expectant and I was happy for them to take the risk for me, to make their faith vulnerable with hope. But I couldn’t, not like I used to.
My decision to stop asking was gradual. It began a year before I became an expert at peeing on sticks and hoping for a smiley face. It began with a failed business, bankruptcy, and a body weakened by stress. That’s when the God dreams stopped, when my imagination ceased to be fuelled by faith, my prayers curbed by disappointment and the reality of struggle.
Then I got pregnant, but with each prayer for a healthy baby I ended up in hospital. My disappointment slowly grew, swallowing any hope I had left until my hands were kept firmly in my pockets and I’d stopped bothering to even ask. My heart wasn’t just bruised it felt like it had been destroyed, and exposing it with hope, praying for God’s intervention, felt too risky. Would I ever recover if I believed and my prayers weren’t answered again? No, it was far safer to not expect anything. Don’t ask and you won’t be disappointed. I would look at those who continued to pray for healthy pregnancies, who talked about names and nurseries, and maternity leave before the first scan photo was in their hand, and I judged them for their naivety. I thought I knew better and for a while it felt good, it felt safer, as though I finally had some control.
But what I’ve found is that you can’t just renounce hope in one part of your life. It spreads.
A couple of months ago on a Thursday evening I was sat in the chapel service at Ridley Hall, where my husband was training to be a vicar. The preacher that evening started her sermon by talking about a statue outside the Polar Institute in Cambridge. She spent a few minutes describing the bronze sculpture, it’s posture, it’s texture, it’s colour and it’s story. She then moved onto the next part of her sermon, but I wasn’t listening anymore, I was too busy thinking about the statue. I had to go and see it.
The following day I cycled to the Polar Institute. Cars and bicycles passed me in blurs on the busy road to my left as I stood and stared at the bronze statue in front of me. Before me was a young man, standing tall, arms spread out, palms open, raised to the skies, head tilted back, face open to the heavens above. To me he embodied what freedom should feel like. I walked around the statue, taking in every angle, every contour, wherever I stood the statue talked to me about freedom. Green rust followed the contours of his body, making the sculpture even more beautiful, even more real. Standing there, absorbing the artist’s work another image came to into my mind. I could see a person curled up on the floor. Fingers tightened into fists, legs drawn into their chest, head bowed, eyes closed. I knew it was me. My thoughts moved between the glorious freedom of the statue in front of me and the image in my head of the anxious girl curled up on the floor, desperate for control, scared of getting hurt again. My fear of disappointment had changed me, it had changed the way I lived, my hopes for the future and the way I connected with God. I wasn’t enlightened after all, I wasn’t free from pain, I wasn’t in control, I wasn’t living the way I’d been created to live.
Now I’m not going to attempt to solve the mystery of why some prayers get answered and others don’t, of why some people move into the next stage of life with ease and others live the struggle. But what I am learning about is the dirty reality of living with unanswered prayer. I can’t control my future but I don’t want that to stop me dreaming, stop me hoping, stop me asking, stop me living. It’s not easy to inhabit this freedom, my hands aren’t always open, and some days grief overwhelms. But I want to dream again, for my mind and the thoughts it nurtures to expand and be lifted to imagine the possibilities that life and God can offer, rather than allowing disappointment to rule over my future. The Bible doesn’t tell us that God will always save us from pain. In fact, it promises the opposite. But what it does talk about a lot is hope. I know I need to question where my hope ultimately lies, that it can’t just balance precariously on whether or not I have a child. I’m learning that this calling to live as a person of hope is a much higher one than I first realised, and it’s not a hope that is reliant on me to sustain, it comes from God, I’m not in control of it. He is the God of hope, not me.
Last week we went to a gospel choir concert, and there was one performance that I just can’t get out of my head. As the choir sang ‘Man in the Mirror’ we were treated to this amazing solo dance routine by a guy with Down’s syndrome. He was incredible. As the song played and he danced we clapped along and cheered. He danced his heart out. He hadn’t been healed, he still had Down’s syndrome, he still lived the struggle, but he was dancing and smiling and living. In that moment he was free. He didn’t let the fact that life hadn’t turned out as he’d hoped limit him, it didn’t stop him living, he still had hope.
'May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.' Romans 15:13