reflections

how we pray now

This is both a post about Jackson and not a post about Jackson.

When the fetal MRI results came back last Monday, something broke open in us. Not only does Jackson have a cleft lip and palate, no right eye, and possible breathing difficulties, but also his right ear is displaced and the canal unformed. All the internal structure to hear is there, but it's not opened to the outside world.

This should be it. This should be when we turn the prayers toward being prepared, toward acceptance, toward the hope of good surgeons and NICUs and doctors. It should be, but I told you something broke open.

Nearly five years ago, I sat on a couch with Jesus. As I detail in my first book, this was a visceral encounter with the Christ, unsettling and fearsome. He said to me, "It's going to be about trust with you," and then he left. And for years I walked and often still walk in a place of silence. The work he left me with was the work of trust, the work of belief, and for a long time the stakes for such trust and belief were not very high. Until we were having a kid with serious complications. Then the stakes were very, very high.

What do I trust? What do I believe?

I told you something broke open in us and what broke open was belief. What broke open was trust. I don't advocate praying beyond what God has given you permission to pray for. I don't advocate praying for a yes when God as spoken a no. Prayers for easing into death swiftly and painlessly are good prayers when God has brought peace to the situation where healing is not going to come. Prayers for the ministry of surgeons and the consecrated work of nurses are good prayers when God has brought peace to the diagnosis as final. Good prayers, faithful prayers.

But God hasn't given Hilary and I peace about Jackson's diagnosis. We have peace, but it's peace around praying for his healing.

I wish I could write a post in which I talk about that one person we told this to who didn't understand it at all, who asked how we could believe such a thing, because it would be an easier point to illustrate: us, vigilant and persistent, in the face of unbelief. But it's not like that. Everyone we've spoken to about it responds the same: "Of course. Until God tells me to stop praying for this, I'm praying Jackson is completely healed."

I marvel at these people. I marvel at their belief. I marvel, because I'm sure they think I believe it along with them. I did, sort of. And I do so much more, now. But there was a good space of weeks and months when I didn't.

I believed when we walked into the first ultrasound to confirm the diagnosis that we would find out nothing had been wrong all along. I put my trust in ultrasound machines malfunctioning, in unskilled eyes, in mistakes. I put my trust in false positives and clerical errors. I put my trust, really, in anything but God. I trusted God abstractly, around the edges. The machine failed—God knew it all along, blessed be God!—so that would be the answer. God a participant in, not the source of, the relief.

But Jackson did have what they said he had. Jackson had more. And each visit there was something new. Each visit there was but one more thing. So I stopped believing in healing, because I believed in acceptance. I believed in the machines and the doctors and the statistics and the geneticist. I believed in the plan we would make to give him all he needed. I believed these machines and these people and these plans would accomplish in Jack's life what I really should have been relying on God for: everything. I had made God peripheral again. I had made God a bystander hoping along with us for the best.

Again, I believe God does use machines, people, and plans. But I am convicted that God uses them when I first look to God, from whom they are then set in motion, instead of looking to them as a way of not having to really deal with God. Because when I deal with God, when I bother to ask God how we should pray, God does not say to trust the machines, the people, the plans. God says to trust God.

Which isn't so bad when God then says, "And here are the machines, the people, and the plans that I have aligned for your son." It isn't so bad when there is evidence like ultrasounds and MRIs and being close to one of the best hospitals in the country for Jackson's differences. It isn't so bad when your wife is getting her PhD in philosophy with a focus on the mere difference view of disabilities. It isn't so bad when all these things seem to be aligned for Jackson to have a good life.

But God doesn't say that. God says, "You are not to stop praying for his healing."

Seriously, God? Are you kidding me?

And I hear God, crisp and direct, "Are you?"

I've been thinking a lot about what I believe. What I really believe. I've been praying the psalms, reading the Scriptures, encountering miracle after miracle. I so often read these passages and recast them safely: the God who heals, brings water from rocks, makes the blind to see, the lame to walk. This God still does these things, but only abstractly. God does something like this in our hearts. God does something like this in our lives. God causes our inner paralysis to heal, our inner blindness.

Are you kidding me? I hear God ask. Is that all you think I can do?

Do I really believe, or do I work hard to believe only what's palatable? We say Jesus Christ rose from the dead. We say the blind saw, the deaf heard, the lame walked. Do I really believe these things? Do I take them as seriously as I should?

I've confronted myself before with the assumption that the reason God miraculously heals people in less developed countries is because it serves as a sign to draw people to God, whereas here we have the medical technology readily available that we don't need such things. I pause over those words now and see them for what they are: I want us to be gods. I want us to have the answers. I want us to be able to tell God that God can go stand over there and wait, because the humans are using those brains God gave us and we're just going to handle this for ourselves.

But God has broken that in me. God isn't letting me get away with that thinking anymore. Either I really believe God is all who God says God is or I don't. Either I believe in the miracles or I don't. Either I believe this is how extraordinary God actually is or I don't.

It really is about trust with me.

We have told God often that we are so ready to hear that this is what Jackson has and it's done. We are ready to receive that. We are ready to believe it. We are ready to prepare. We have nine weeks left, God free us from the prayers of healing and let us alone to make peace. No matter what, we will still worship Jesus. No matter what, we will yet praise him.

But God does not release us. God says to us and to many others to pray on.

So here we are, we can do no other.

I don't know what will happen, but I know what I hope: I hope Jackson David Yancey will be completely healed. I hope he will have an eye. I hope he will have a formed ear. I hope he will have a closed face. I hope he will have a closed palate.

This is what we are praying for, on the other side of all things, when it would now be undeniably God if he were healed.

But I remind God often of the psalms. I remind God that God likes to show off. So show off, O Lord. Show off. For you alone and only you could do this.

This is how we pray now. Wild. Untethered. Rushing into hope and trust that God is who God says God is.

And we believe fully that, should the healing not come through the miracle of God but the miracle of God through machines, people, and plans, God will give us the courage, the character, and the conviction to walk through that. But we'd be shamed to ever tell our son we stopped praying fierce for him when God had not spoken a word to us to stop.

I was reading The Message translation of 2 Corinthians 1:8-11 two nights ago when the conviction settled in me to write this post, the reason it is here:

We don’t want you in the dark, friends, about how hard it was when all this came down on us in Asia province. It was so bad we didn’t think we were going to make it. We felt like we’d been sent to death row, that it was all over for us. As it turned out, it was the best thing that could have happened. Instead of trusting in our own strength or wits to get out of it, we were forced to trust God totally—not a bad idea since he’s the God who raises the dead! And he did it, rescued us from certain doom. And he’ll do it again, rescuing us as many times as we need rescuing. You and your prayers are part of the rescue operation—I don’t want you in the dark about that either. I can see your faces even now, lifted in praise for God’s deliverance of us, a rescue in which your prayers played such a crucial part.

How we pray now for Jackson is to pray for the impossible, but will you join with us in believing God is I AM?

I don't care what denomination you are. I don't care what you believe about Communion. I don't care what you believe about sex. I care that you believe in the power of Jesus Christ. I care that you believe God is capable of doing what seems impossible, because how many times has God already done that? I don't care how you pray. I don't care where you pray. I don't care if you call God him, her, it. I care that you love Jesus. I care that you believe Jesus.

I'm calling on my charismatic friends, you who speak in tongues and sing out miracle, I'm calling you to pray with us wild like we believe in the God who turns water into wine.

I'm calling on my catholic friends, you who confess Jesus is made known in the breaking of the bread, I'm calling you to pray with us wild like we believe in the God who raised Jarius's daughter from the dead.

I'm calling on my reformed friends, you who know God is sovereign in all things, I'm calling you to pray with us wild like we believe in the God who orders and establishes our steps.

I'm calling on my evangelical friends, you who profess God's nearness and desire for us all, I'm calling you to pray with us wild like we believe in the God who gave disciples power to proclaim the kingdom through miracles.

Join us in fierce prayer. Join us in fierce trust. Because no matter what happens—no matter what—I think what matters most right now is the willingness to show God how much we trust God. We are setting out prayers before God like incense, inclining God to what we ask. We are broken open. May the perfume of our trust and belief be pleasing to God.

You only, O God, could do this. You alone. That's what I believe. That's what I am learning to trust.

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dear jackson, fear not

Read other letters to Jackson, here.

Dear Jackson,

It takes no great mathematician to figure out you were conceived around Christmas. You're due September 22nd and people since Genesis have counted back nine on their fingers every time a birth announcement is made. Now, someday I'll tell you more about this, I'll tell you the moment when your mom and I both knew, but for now I'll tell you this: God planned you.

Your mom and I were going to wait, were going to have things planned better—be out of debt, be buying a house, be a whole list of things more along than we are now. But there was a moment for each of us, separately, when the Spirit said, You are not to wait. There will be a child this time next year.

Before you were, you were, Jacks.

I return to this point often with God.I return to this particular peculiarity of your coming into being. Tomorrow is your fetal MRI. Tomorrow we are going to have a lot of pictures made of you. They'll figure out how severe your cleft lip is, the palate as best they can, confirm you don't have your right eye, and take a look at your brain. They'll take a lot of pictures and then we'll wait a few days for a phone call. In a month, we'll meet with the plastic surgeon and the speech pathologist and they'll tell us what they think the plan will be.

I paced downtown yesterday on the phone, telling a good friend of mine about you. I told him about the MRI and about God saying to your mom and I that you were supposed to be born. I told him, too, about praying for your healing.

That's been harder these days, Jacks. It's been harder because I don't want to be unprepared. I want to make sure you have everything you need. I want to make sure you're taken care of. Three ultrasounds now, seeing your face on the screen—even though you still won't fully show us the cleft—I should just accept that this is how it's going to be for you, shouldn't I?

I try. I try hard to do that. But after the first few moments of the comfort of resignation, God taps me, Have I told you to stop praying for this?

Jackson, I know so little about God. I know so little about why I can't let go of praying for your healing. It's confusing. It's a bit maddening. See, I'm not worried about how you'll look. I'm not worried about how you'll sound or hear. You're not less whole, not less you if healing comes in the form of trained surgeons and careful doctors. These, too, are the friends of Jesus along with the cadre of saints interceding for us. So if I'm so comfortable with all that, why does the impulse linger? Why does the fixed hope not uproot?

I didn't always love the psalms, Jacks, not the way you know me to love them now. I found them boring and frustrating. It wasn't until you the psalms began to make a certain kind of sense. I pray a litany of them over you every night, my hand on your mom's stomach, upon you, and I find the psalms have a power I hadn't known before:

Some trust in chariots and some in horses,
but we trust in the Name of the Lord our God.

It could easily have been:

Some trust in ultrasounds and some in geneticists,
but we trust in the Name of the Lord our God.

The psalms are fierce in their confidence, Jacks. The psalms pray boldly because they know something about God most of us have forgotten. Someday I'll tell you the story of Jacob, later called Israel, who wrestled with an angel of God. Jacob would have won, it seems, had the angel not wounded him at the end. The rabbis say this soberly reminds us of two things: Israel is the nation that gets to wrestle with God face to face; and, in doing so, they walk with a limp. That intimacy comes with a cost.

In and through Jesus, we're a part of that family. We're a part of the family that gets to wrestle with God. Our prayers get to be big and powerful and bold and wild, too. We get to remind God of the promises God has made. We get to tell God our anger, our fear, our doubt. We get to ask for the impossible because we have been invited to grapple with the Impossible all the time.

And so it makes sense that after the first ultrasound, after the first visit, I would pray big and impossible for your healing. I told God so often about how God was the one who said you were to be born, so God needs to take care of you. I asked big because God is big. I'm so sure of that. But after awhile, it seems silly to pray for it, doesn't it? It seems after the second ultrasound, the third, it's time to let it go.

They forgot God's works and the wonders God had shown them.

That's from another psalm.

Sunday was hard, Jacks. It was hard because we just want to hold you, we want to keep you close, we want to know exactly what is going on with you and do whatever we can to make sure you're okay. Your mom and I stood in church and held each other, weeping because we don't know why God seems so out of reach, so quiet. As long as you're okay, it's enough. No matter what happens, no matter what doesn't happen.

I told my friend on the phone all of this, then I told him the rest.

I told him how about how when your mom and I first found out, we had a private Eucharist and time of prayer with our bishop and his wife. I told him about how during that time of prayer I had a vision of Jesus the King, who looked me through and said, "I am the Good Shepherd, but I am also the King. What I say is accomplished is accomplished."

I told him about the way people have prayed for your mom, you, and me. I told him about how no one seems to quite feel that this is a settled thing. I told him about the passages of Scripture; about how praying for you like this before you're born is a different sort of thing than praying for you like this after you're here; I told him about the people who have had visions of you; I told him about the nearness of Mary these days, the knowing that there is a company in heaven praying for us, for you.

I told him all of this and then I told him the hardest truth: when you're someone who sees the signs of God everywhere in the world all the time, everything is a sign until suddenly nothing is.

See, Jacks, I want all those Scriptures, those visions, those moments to mean something very specific. I want you to be healed. I want that. So I want all of those things to be a kind of evidence, proof-text, surety.

Some trust in visions and some in feelings,
but we trust in the Name of the Lord our God.

But the truth is, I haven't gotten a yes or a no from God about this.

Maybe that's the limp. Maybe the limp is the God who speaks but does not clarify.

I hung up the phone and sat vigil in the stillness while your mom read for comps.

And you know what I heard, Jacks?

It takes no great mathematician to figure out you were conceived around Christmas. And what is the message of Christmas? What is the message of a child God says will be born when parents otherwise didn't have plans for it?

Fear not.

Fear not the diagnosis. Fear not the MRI. Fear not the surgery. Fear not the waiting. Fear not the rest of his life. Fear not the work he is to do.

Fear not, fear not, fear not.

This is God's answer today, Jackson, the night before your MRI: fear not.

I want to have it recorded somewhere. I want to have written down somewhere the why when people ask how we're not so sad, how we're not so grieved.

The answer is because the Lord has spoken.

Because the same Lord who announced to us it was time and right and good for you to come into being is the same Lord who will see you through.

It is the same Lord who told me not to stop praying.

It is the same Lord who told me that he is the King.

It is the same Lord who no matter what an MRI does or does not show will be your guide behind and before every day of your life.

Your mom and I don't trust in chariots or horses, Jacks. We trust in the Name of the Lord our God, we trust in God's good work in you, and we, through Jesus, fear not. Whatever does or does not happen, Jackson: fear not.

We'll keep walking with that limp, but we'll keep walking with the same Lord.

Fear not.

Love,

Dad

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