When I Could Not Pray

What if you were prevented from praying or physically couldn’t pray? I had a few interesting months when I was prevented from praying and, during this time, I felt scared and confused. However, the experience also gave me a newfound appreciation for prayer.

When I received news that I had a brain tumor that would have to be surgically removed, I rightfully grew concerned as doctor’s listed the risks. Since I am a preacher, they were sure to forewarn me that one of the main risks was being left entirely speechless. Regardless of my post-surgery speaking abilities, they encouraged me that I should still be able to read, write, and think. After the surgery, my doctor informed my family that he removed almost 100% of the tumor, but they stopped the surgery once my speech was being affected. We wouldn’t know for sure how much it was affected until I woke up. I awoke speechless and essentially prayerless. I could not pray. Notice I did not say, “I would not pray,” but “I could not pray.”

The inflammation and irritation of surgery itself caused more extensive brain damage that would only be remedied by time. Cognitive damage made processing the simplest orders during my recovery very difficult. To my family, this confusion was masked by another condition—expressive aphasia. I had great trouble expressing words, thoughts, or ideas with speaking and writing. This was expected and we knew it might only be temporary. When I awoke from surgery, my wife said I would point and say the word “the” but the rest of my thoughts would not come out.

After a week in the hospital, I could still only say a few words. The RN provided a pamphlet with about twenty or thirty words and pictures. I couldn’t say the words at first. Even if the pictures were familiar, it was difficult to produce the right sounds.  For example, I would say “blush” instead of “brush” or “vamily” for “family.” As the neurological connections strengthened, I grew increasingly confident in saying words like “family,” “friends,” and “toothbrush.” While I had easy access to the few words that I had been practicing all week, I had difficulty expressing my thoughts with words not provided for me. I was essentially trapped in my own head. At that time, I realized how difficult it would be to pray.

I thought returning home would be pivotal for my prayer life. Things should naturally return as my life started to look normal again and my brain healed. But they did not immediately return. I would sit in my room alone to pray and could only utter, “Dear Lord.”  The rest of the words wouldn’t come; they couldn’t come. It was incredibly frustrating, as if they were locked in some vault in my brain to which I had misplaced the key. But I pressed on.

In the course of time, my speaking slowly improved, but this had no direct impact on my prayer life. I was able to lead family worship again, but I was restricted to the page of Scripture in front of me and even then, I read slowly. I was reading at a first-grade level. I was discouraged but my family was so sweet. My daughter (who is 10 years old) began praying, “We thank you that daddy gets to read this story to us.” I took turns in praying most every night, but prayers would be somewhat like this: “Dear God … thank you for this day, … thank you … for this Bible story … in Jesus name we pray. Amen.”  Very simple, very basic momentary glimpses of a prayer life coming back.

When we got to Houston, Texas for my radiation treatment, I made a breakthrough. I don’t know why this didn’t occur to me at home, but I found I could remember better when I wrote things down. I got a notebook and, in the mornings when the apartment was quiet, I recorded the names of friends that I had met in the cancer clinic and apartment complex. This trick actually worked! I then listed my family and church members. I read through the names and then prayed through a simpler version of Hebrews 4, “I lift these friends near to the throne of grace, confident that they will receive help in their time of need.” This is how I slowly began my climb.

I still have to make lists. I cannot do extemporary prayer—or at least not well. I have difficulty remembering the specifics I wish to pray for and having a prayer laid before me is a great help. Through this discovery, I better understood why Jesus gave a prayer for His disciples to memorize. I could remember every word to the Lord’s Prayer. I had said it so often through the years that the familiar words came back. Needless to say, through my struggle, I had a newfound appreciation for that prayer.

I never imagined that prayer could be taken from me. Now that I have it back—although in a limited degree—I realize how much we take it for granted. The Heidelberg Catechism says, “Why is prayer necessary for Christians?” It answers, “Because it is the chief part of the thankfulness which God requires of us, and because God will give His grace and Holy Spirit only to such as earnestly and without ceasing beg them from Him and render thanks unto Him for them” (HC, 116). This catechism notes that we should express our thankfulness in prayer to God. Should we not give thanks for all we have and chiefly have in Jesus Christ? Would we not also render thanks to God for His amazing gift of grace? And would we not eagerly pray for God’s Holy Spirit and expect that He should answer? For a moment in time, I lost the gift of prayer. May my story encourage you to take full advantage of this gift we’ve been given.