The Weight of the Prayers of the Faithful: Longest Night

January 2, 2023

     Psalm 30                                                                        Dec. 21, 2022

            I am a very light sleeper.  One of my pet peeves is when birds just start chirping ridiculously early.  I get mad when I hear them. I realize this makes me sound like a bird hater.  I don’t hate them, they just annoy me when they wake me up before I am ready to be awake. I am not the kind of person who welcomes the first light.   

            But 2022 was a different kind of year for me.  Many of you know that I was hospitalized for a month this past January.  I started in the ICU with MRSA and septic shock and moved through the various stepdown units.  The ICU was the noisiest and most unpleasant place. But whether it was the ICU or just a normal room, one thing was consistent, I hated the nighttime. It was the height of COVID, so I could only have visitors at specific times during the day.  From 8pm to 7am, I was alone.  My door had to be shut because of the MRSA and people had to be gowned up to come in, which meant people avoided coming in if they could.  It didn’t matter how many pain killers or sleeping pills they gave me, I couldn’t sleep. I was desperate for the night to end. 

            It wasn’t a whole lot better when I got home.  It was much quieter, but the anxiety kept me awake.  On my first morning back, I heard the birds chirping and I smiled.  I rejoiced in their sounds.  I realized as I listened to them, that it was the first time I had heard birds, the first time I heard any nature sounds for weeks.  When I remember that time, I think of the line from Psalm 30, “Weeping may spend the night, but joy comes with the morning…”  Now I would love for this to be the giant turning point in my story where everything got better, but life rarely works that way. Two days later, I was back in the hospital and I when I went back, it was the middle of the night.

            I have had my share of struggles before 2022…but I found those times brought me closer to God. But almost dying from a mysterious infection didn’t bring me close to God. I barely prayed at all.  Before my first surgery, I asked my Dad to read scripture for me, and I found his voice comforting, but not the scripture or the prayers. There were moments when God’s grace would break through, but those moments were incredibly rare.  More often, I was despondent and angry.  I couldn’t do anything. I just spent hours staring at the walls.  

            In the rare moments when I was thinking clearly, I was angry at myself for not being more faithful.  And I wish I could tell you that I was angry at God, but I couldn’t care enough to be angry at God.  Being a priest, I knew that was an incredibly perilous place to be.  Because apathy is so much worse than anger.  It’s when we stop talking to God when things really get bad.

            My husband made the mistake of bringing me a get well card from someone in his parish I didn’t know. He told me they prayed for me every day and I told him that there was no point because the prayers weren’t working.  When I returned from the hospital the 2nd time, my husband nervously handed me a stack of cards, many from people in this parish.  I didn’t look at them for a few weeks, but eventually, slowly I started opening them and the vast majority told me that the person was praying for me…sometimes an entire church was praying for me.  And that pile continued to grow and I eventually moved all those cards into a bag. 

            When I was feeling especially anxious or depressed I would hold the bag and the heaviness reminded me of the multitude of prayers that were being offered. Even though I still struggled with my own prayers, I felt the weight of the prayers of others, and those prayers were what got me through the nights and days, the weight of the prayers of the faithful. 

            It took months before I healed and walked normally again.  Sometimes I wonder how I would have handled it if I never recovered or lost the use of my leg. Would I have lost my faith? I don’t have the answer to that. I would like think my faith would have eventually carried me, but I don’t know. Sometimes the nights can last far longer than a few months.    

            Some of you are here because you are in mist of a particularly dark time, some might be experiencing a grief that you have been carrying for years.  Each one of us carries some pain.  You might even think that you have lost your faith, but you haven’t.  You are here. You are here on the longest night. Something/someone brought you here. You haven’t given up and that is what matters the most.  But I am also here to tell you that even if you give up, God won’t.  I have been so ashamed of my own lack of faith and I forgot I don’t need to put my trust in myself.  God makes up for what we lack. 

            Psalm 30 says that “You have turned my mourning into dancing.”  I am not sure that is what always happens.  Things don’t always shift that dramatically.  I will say that I don’t get nearly as irritated when I hear the birds now.  While their song doesn’t bring me joy necessarily, it reminds me that I am still alive and that is a precious thing.  So if you can’t dance, maybe you can sing.  And if you can’t sing, you can listen.  You can let others sing for you. That is why the Christian community matters so much.  I am a priest—I am a professional pray-er.  And when I needed God the most, I couldn’t pray.  But others could and did and that is why I am here today.  My prayer for you is that you will lean on this community—or some community when you don’t have the strength yourself.  Because I am here to tell you, most of us aren’t nearly as strong as we think we are…and that’s ok.