Around the bonfire at church camp on the Oregon coast, we sang “River of Life” to get warmed up, and then, to mellow the mood for the gospel presentation, “Seek Ye First.” A haunting descant rose over the melody, swelling my 12-year-old heart with grateful longing. I walked forward to accept Jesus into my heart, and a counselor prayed for me, shadows from the flames flickering across our faces.

Back home again, I needed to learn how to pray. I thought it was weird for the Lord to expect me, gangly and grappling with my fleshly nature, to carry on what felt like a nonreciprocal relationship with an invisible, inscrutable, and ineffable God—but I was willing to give it a shot.

Only I couldn’t tell if I was doing it right. “God is not a vending machine,” our youth minister told us. “You have to pray according to his will.” So I began by asking for help in various areas of self-improvement: I should be nice to my brother. I should have a cheerful attitude when vacuuming with the heavy canister Electrolux and not slam my bedroom door when I got mad. I needed to avoid Judy Blume books that celebrated masturbation and stop sneaking the M&Ms my mom hid in the freezer. God, please help me to be better.

My self-examination concluded, I tendered other requests, like to make the premier soccer team and for a boy to return a crush. When those things didn’t happen, I swallowed a slight doubt. Perhaps James 4:3 was at play here: “When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.” Maybe I had bad motives.

Much else went unasked because I didn’t know how to say it. I couldn’t compass any words to address the palpable rancor running through my family. And the salvation of various relatives—I just didn’t see how the Lord would manage it. On overnight visits with extended family, I’d lie in the guest bed and silently cry over their eternal fate as sounds filtered in from the shows the grown-ups watched in the evening. My pillow would get soggy as tears slipped into my ears, and I’d have to roll over.

I went on to attend a Christian college, where a line attributed (likely inaccurately) to Martin Luther held the weight of a decree: “I have so much to do that I shall spend the first three hours in prayer.” Accordingly, I tried morning quiet time. I’d get up, groggy and dull, and read the Gospels in small font or leaf through disturbing passages on the whoredom of Jerusalem. I wanted to hear from God, but I didn’t know how to respond to these Scriptures, even if I believed they were God-breathed and useful for teaching (2 Tim. 3:16).

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I determined I was too restless to read and murmur to God in the morning and needed to occupy my hands so my mind could focus. Assured by Richard Foster that prayer is merely “bringing ordinary concerns to a loving and compassionate Father,” I made the Lord my divine pen pal, filling one notebook after another with my prayers.

After college, I worked in Mexico and worshiped with a congregation of about 15 people in a cement chapel with rough wooden pews. The pastor put psalms to music because there were no songbooks. He fingerpicked his guitar as we sang Psalm 121:

I lift up my eyes to the mountains—where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord,the Maker of heaven and earth.

Alzaré mis ojos a los montes;¿De dónde vendrá mi socorro?Mi socorro viene de Jehová, Que hizo los cielos y la tierra.

Socorro was a new word for me, a lovely word. It meant rescue, and it had a purring, soothing sound, as relieving as rescue itself. It was too bad, I thought, that the English cognate was hard and unattractive: succor.

Hurricane Mitch hit Central America that year. In Mexico, my colleagues and I watched footage of floods and landslides, and I thought of my neighbors living in houses with thin metal roofs and dirt floors. One three-year-old, Adán, seemed to lead an especially wispy existence. He wandered around the dusty lanes, often walking into our home at mealtime, unannounced and stark naked. He would climb up to stand on a chair at the table and demand, “Y mi plato?

The Lord was a rescuer, I trusted; he cherished the little children. I prayed, aloud and in writing for two days: Please, Lord, stop the hurricane. Make it die out.

And it did. The hurricane never came to us. Mitch lost power as it moved inland and veered away to the Gulf of Mexico. It was the first time I had really prayed for safety, and my prayers were answered. We were succored—yet this outcome made me uneasy. More than 11,000 Hondurans and Nicaraguans died. Why would God spare us but not them?

A few years later, back in the States, my husband and I prayed over our children throughout the adoption process, seeking wisdom and guidance. Everything fell into place in a way that seemed divinely appointed, and three children under four were in our home within ten days of our first meeting.

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Prayer immediately became harder to fit in as nurturing these little ones filled all my time. I couldn’t justify getting up early to muddle through prayer, and the tedious indoor tasks of early parenting only increased my restlessness. I began to practice kinesthetic prayer, praying through my daily workouts, memorizing Scripture and asking for God’s intervention for my family as I ran on the treadmill. I configured my mile-long swim for prayer, giving thanks and offering intercessions in neat laps. After my sets, I’d lift myself out of the water and walk across the rough pool deck, water streaming down my arms and legs, my soul limpid, almost newly baptized.

As the kids grew, we couldn’t quite shake the feeling that they were not all right, even after two, five, or ten years in our family. As they reached adolescence, we upped our therapeutic parenting, sought educational supports, set predictable routines, got weekly counseling, recruited grandparents, consulted doctors, and arranged pro-social extracurriculars. My husband and I both worked part-time so one of us would always be at home with the kids.

And I doubled down on prayer. I received a One Year Bible for Christmas and read it three years in a row. I was charmed by prophecies I hadn’t known before, describing a compassionate and just God who advocated for strangers, widows, and orphans. Scriptures became my prayers.

With Nahum 1:7, I called on the Lord to be a refuge in times of trouble. From Psalm 10, I entreated him to consider our grief and take it in hand. Luke 8 morphed into a desperate appeal that Jesus would heal my children like he healed the wild man among the graves, leaving him “dressed and in his right mind” (v. 35). I was hungry for God’s goodness and prayed continually for him to do great things for us, that we might be filled with joy.

Everything got worse.

I got so many calls with bad news. A child got kicked off a sports team for furtively flipping off teammates. A child talked suicide on the first day of school. A child was nearly expelled. My husband called me, saying that a child was long overdue from school and still not home. Later, the police showed up. The psychologist called about red flags on an assessment. A principal called me to say that they’d found my student with shards of glass and self-inflicted cuts. I was called out of a work meeting by a school counselor who was concerned about my child’s saying that “therapist” was just the words the rapist combined.

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I began practicing a new kind of kinesthetic prayer that I called the “Drunk Hannah,” after the mother of Samuel, whose prayers of deep anguish were mistaken for drunken ravings (1 Sam. 1:12–14). Each morning, I walked for an hour through quiet streets, praying and crying. The brine spilled onto my cheeks and lips, and I’d come home to find my neck chalky with accumulated tears.

Our children’s early experiences, I knew, were shaping their current reality. Early trauma can shape children’s hardwiring, even physically changing their brains in a way that lowers their stress tolerance, increases their anxiety and aggression, and, heartbreakingly, short-circuits their ability to feel secure and happy with loving parents.

Our efforts to help seemed to miss the mark over and over, and my prayers, too, seemed to lead nowhere. Prayer is not a meritocracy, I told myself. His thoughts are not my thoughts; neither are my ways his ways (Is. 55:8–9). But I had studied statistics, and the biblical record strongly implied that prayer was correlated with favorable outcomes. For me, prayer seemed to make bad things happen.

Maybe the problem, I considered, was that we weren’t storming heaven’s gate in adequate numbers. I recruited a group of friends to be prayer warriors. To start, I asked them to pray for insurance to cover several outstanding medical bills. A week later, the bills were still unpaid, and one of our children was hospitalized. I renewed my request for the insurance and added a prayer for a child’s smooth transition to short-term residential treatment. A week after that, insurance hadn’t paid, and two other children were hospitalized. For months, each time I wrote my prayer team, we’d be hit by a fresh wave of unusual problems. My prayer updates, once brave calls to arms, became exercises in waiting for the other shoe to drop.

I took to pacing the sidewalk, queasy from worry and grief. “What is happening?” I whispered to the Lord. “Is this really what you are leaving us to contend with?” I felt not so much succored as suckered.

After a couple years of regular Drunk Hannah praying, we took our son backpacking with several family friends. We hoped a trip together would draw us closer following several crises, but my husband and I were also anxious to shield our companions from our son’s unpredictable outbursts. As the sun set on our first night, we lingered in easy conversation over an alfresco dinner, then peaceably retired to our tents. “Thank you, Jesus,” I breathed as I drifted to sleep.

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I awoke to screams. In the pitch dark I could hear our friend Andy crying, “Oh my God! Where are you?” I crawled out into the open and felt something brush against me: the boughs of a large tree that had just fallen across a tent of sleeping children.

Andy carefully slit an opening in the tent fabric near where we heard his son crying. His legs flailed out, and we pulled the boy free. I picked him up and handed him to Julia, his mother, who sat with him in her lap, trembling but quiet. I held them to me for a few seconds, stroking Julia’s hair.

The tree had trapped their daughter by her lower legs, and she couldn’t move. Andy cupped her face in his hands, saying, over and over, “You’re okay. We’re going to get you out.” She nodded up at him and swallowed back sobs.

But the tree was impossibly large. It was five in the morning. We were seven miles out in the back country. Our group discussed what to do.

“I can get help,” I said. “I can run.” I pulled on my boots and started grabbing my keys, my phone, water, food.

“Someone needs to go with you,” Andy said. “Who else can run?”

The men needed to stay and deal with the tree, but I scanned the group and saw my son. “My son can be my buddy,” I said. “He can run.”

The two of us ran through the dark woods. We slowed to a walk on the rough parts, so we didn’t turn an ankle, then ran on, pacing the seven miles to our car as the light steadily grew. We lurched onto the porch of the ranger station near the parking spots and knocked on the door. No answer.

We drove out on the dirt road, taking one turn too fast and skidding near the lake. My son grabbed the door handle and looked at me. “I need to slow down,” I said. “If we crash, she might die.” Near a tiny grocery store, we had enough signal to call 911—and to text my pastor: “Pray that we can get the girl out; tell everyone to pray.”

“I will do that,” he responded right away. “Praying.”

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It took a few hours to set up communication relays and to assemble a rescue team. As we accompanied them back up the trail, the National Park Service radioed that they were sending a helicopter.

My son asked if he could run ahead, and I said he could. He burst into the waiting group, shouting, “They’re coming! We need to find a place for a helicopter to land!” While we’d been gone, our companions had used sticks to dig under the tree, freeing the girl’s legs and lifting her, like the men seeking Jesus for their paralyzed friend (Mark 2:3–11), on a mat to a safer place.

There was nowhere to land a helicopter. The pilot hovered overhead while two rangers attached the girl’s shroud-like stretcher to the cable and clipped in beside her. The cable retracted, lifting them clear of the treetops, and then the helicopter ascended and flew off, its human cargo dangling in mid-air, a tiny bundle on a thin string.

We learned later that hundreds of people had been praying, a chain reaction set in motion and multiplied through my hasty text to my pastor. Her rescue seemed proof of God’s power and resolve. It was a miracle—the tree could have easily killed her. She had three bones set, needing no incisions, and went home in two casts.

“How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news” (Is. 52:7). We were clapped on the back and congratulated. Julia and Andy told me that my son’s return was the advent of hope for them that day. I watched closely as he unwrapped their thank-you gift, aching for him to catch some of the healing that was on offer. But their earnest gratitude seemed to bounce off, leaving him apparently untouched.

“There’s no greater honor,” one friend told me after the accident, “than being someone’s answer to prayer.” I didn’t argue. I was glad to help, but I also wanted to wave some flags to let the Lord know that there were still people who needed some serious succor over here.

God could rescue spectacularly if he wanted to—we had seen it with our very eyes. And yet I felt suckered again. We would soon be seeking residential treatment for my son because we couldn’t safely care for him at home. There would be no helicopter for us.

I didn’t understand why God’s healing of my little ones remained so far off. Why was it my job to work and watch fruitlessly? I tried to come up with explanations. Maybe it was a way to develop my emotional awareness or to grow my compassion. Maybe it was a “severe mercy,” a painful but beneficial dissolution of some hidden idolatry like self-sufficiency or salvation by works. Maybe our grapple with shame would be an example for others to triumph over their own shame. Maybe this was the deluge before the rainbow: All my children’s early pain would be resolved somehow, and the only way out was through.

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Eventually I got tired of scrounging after silver linings. The plain fact was that the Lord had a flintiness about him. I wondered if I should be shouting at him, like Sonny in The Apostle, “I love you, Lord, but I am mad at you! I AM MAD AT YOU!”

But I didn’t have the energy. One angry scream, and my throat hurt.

And I wasn’t mad, exactly. God was beautiful, and I loved him. I just didn’t understand why he seemed so harsh, why he had apparently given me an impossible task and then pulled the rug out from under me. I thought I knew a little of what Moses felt when God forbade him from entering the Promised Land after all his years of service (Deut. 3:21–28).

“I can’t pray anymore,” I finally told my friend Annie. “The opposite of what I pray for keeps happening. I can’t muster the imagination. I can’t formulate the words.”

“There’s this idea that if you can’t pray, you’re far from God,” she replied. “But I think that when you can’t pray, you’re right there in the heart of God.”

The Lord was near. I knew that. I felt it in the inexplicably palpable belovedness of my soul—there was no way I could feel so alive and cherished except by God. But his nearness was explainable in another way, the way that poet Christian Wiman says is “God entering and understanding human suffering.”

When we endure suffering, Richard Foster writes, it prepares us to “enter into the anguish of others” in a way that brings healing. It becomes a ministry. Likewise, Henri Nouwen says in The Wounded Healer that our sufferings are a place where God unfurls his new creation. It’s the regenerative, redemptive way we catch glimpses of his kingdom reality.

After the accident, Julia had said to me, “I won’t be able to go camping again if you’re not there too.” These words touched me strangely. I had looked at the sorry, unsuccored estate of our family and felt that our lives were dim and disfigured, good for nothing. Instead, she saw me as a ministering presence, someone with healing to spare. “There are many things,” Oscar Romero said, “that can only be seen through eyes that have cried.”

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I began to realize that wounded-healer moments beset me continually; they were darts and arrows of love shot into my life. It was like the Lord had lavish tricks up his sleeve and wasn’t above showing off.

My friends knew that I was heartbroken and regularly missing work for emergencies and appointments, but they kept calling to talk through their griefs and insecurities. “You might not have time,” one friend in ministry would say, “but I could really use some Wendy Wisdom.” Mothers told me their problems and dashed away salt drops as I listened. Young women sent me late-night messages or wistfully sidled up to me after church to talk. Strangers crossed my path, blooming under my attention.

At the end of that summer, I canceled a visit to my best friend because I couldn’t find anyone who could safely supervise my children. I felt stuck at home, disappointed and full of dread. I happened to call a neighbor, curious about her house hunt. She told me that her family of seven was moving the next day; the truck would arrive in the morning.

“Who is helping you move?” I asked.

“No one,” she said, “I’ve been too busy to ask people.”

“Can I and my three teenagers come and help?” I offered. We boxed their belongings, packed the truck, and directed the younger kids for the next two days. I had prayed for a certain kind of rescue, but, rescueless, glimpsed instead the suffering heart of Jesus and a sacred chance to minister to others. Perhaps I could say, like C. S. Lewis’s Queen Orual in Till We Have Faces, “I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You are yourself the answer.”

A few weeks later, I reached for my Bible and ran my fingers over the puckered pages. To whom else could I go? The Lord has the words of eternal life, and I’m a complete sucker for him.

Wendy Kiyomi is an adoptive parent, scientist, and writer in Tacoma, Washington, whose work on faith, adoption, and friendship has appeared in Plough Quarterly, Image Journal, and The Englewood Review of Books. She is a 2023 winner of the Zenger Prize.

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