Someone clipped a comic strip called "One Big Happy” and left it on my desk. The first panel shows a little girl kneeling by her bed getting ready to say her prayers. It must have been a long day for her because she begins this way: "I’m so very tired tonight that I can’t even remember the words to my prayers.” In the next panel she folds her arms on the bed and adds, "But since you already know what I’m going to say ...” She then begins to say the letters of the alphabet: "A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, L, M, N, O, P, Q, R, S, T, U, V, W, X, Y, and Z.” In the final panel she looks plaintively toward heaven and says, "Maybe you could put the letters together in the right way. Thanks and Amen.”
We all feel like that sometimes.
Prayer is easy until it isn’t.
I remember getting the phone call some years ago that my mother had died. We quickly rounded up our boys and drove to Alabama for the graveside service. The whole trip is a blur in my mind. One moment you’re home, and your life seems to be running smoothly, then suddenly you are hundreds of miles away greeting old family friends you haven’t seen for decades. It was a true "wrinkle in time” for me where the past, the present and the future all seemed to come together for a fleeting moment. Then just as suddenly, you’re back home again trying to get on with the demands of life.
I do remember that I had trouble praying during the trip to Alabama. Perhaps "trouble” isn’t precisely the right word. Perhaps I mean that for those few days I felt distracted and unable to concentrate. It was emotion plus weariness plus being somewhat under the weather plus seeing so many old friends so suddenly. But for whatever reason, prayer was difficult and came in spurts, when it came at all.
What happened to me was not uncommon. The pressures of life sometimes make prayer difficult.
It is precisely at this point that I take comfort from the little girl’s prayer. Paul reminds us in Romans 8:26 that often we do not know how to pray. We don’t know the words, we aren’t sure what to say, our minds can’t focus, and the strength simply is not there. In those moments we have the consolation that the Holy Spirit prays for us when we can’t pray for ourselves. He speaks to the Father with groans that cannot be expressed in human words. This means that we need not feel guilty when we cannot pray. When you come to the moment of complete exhaustion and can no longer frame the words, you don’t have to worry. The Holy Spirit will pray for you. In your weakness he is strong. When you cannot speak, he speaks for you.
Take heart if you feel overwhelmed today.
The Holy Spirit can "put the letters together” when you can’t find the words to say.