A prayer shawl warrior friend of mine (Margaret) recently completed her first shawl ministry project: A baby blanket for a preemie baby born to a friend. Margaret had carefully chosen the yarn and the pattern, and committed herself to picking up a craft she hadn’t done in some years. Love and prayer for this baby were stitched into every yarn over, and once finished, she sent it to the family. I’d heard about this wee babe’s fighting spirit as we sat and stitched, and knew that she was wrapped in a wide community of love and support.
It seemed that the critical time had passed. It seemed that this tiny fierce spirit would win out over her early and precarious start in life, but it didn’t happen that way. A day after the blanket had been delivered, tiny V. slipped away from this world. When I heard what had happened, I called Margaret. I was thinking of something that had happened to me years before, when my own response was “what? I didn’t pray enough?”
When I was working as an oncology social worker, we had a young patient with advanced colon cancer. She was terrified of death, and also terrified of life. She was guarded with her life story, but clearly had been exposed to some very toxic faith concepts. I spent a lot of time with her and also enlisted the help of Pastoral Care, but the twisted messages of a demanding, punishing God were seared into her brain.
I did what I could as a social worker, and I prayed. I prayed that she would have a spiritual healing so that she could face whatever she had to in physical disease. Perhaps she would heal physically, perhaps not, but surely God would deliver spiritual healing?
It didn’t happen that way. Her cancer spread swiftly in spite of surgery and chemotherapy, and she died much sooner than anyone had anticipated. I drove to the funeral home, having That Long Talk With God along the way.
“Why?” I said. “Why? I know she was so scared; she was afraid of You, and You could have fixed that! In fact, You’re the ONLY one who could have comforted her, You could have at least healed her spirit so she wouldn’t have been so scared! Why didn’t You?”
A whisper came to me, so sudden and surprising I could not have thought of it myself: I did heal her spirit.
I realized it was true. I don’t know if it happened before her soul left this earth, or if a release from this life was the best healing left for her, but I knew in that moment that she had indeed been healed and that her spirit was truly, finally, at peace.
So what does this have to do with prayers and a blanket for a premature infant?
I could imagine some of what Margaret was thinking. She, too, was having That Long Talk With God. I made this blanket as an act of prayer… and it didn’t do any good. There were so many people praying for her. And now the family has another reminder of their loss. My prayers for V didn’t do any good. Boy, did I know the feeling.
No? How can prayer ever NOT do good? There is no way we can tally the effect of prayer; sometimes it seems to make a miraculous difference and sometimes it seems to vanish into nothing. One can say “if nothing else, it helps us” but I believe there’s a lot more to it than that. Any form of prayer opens one to Spirit. An object made with prayer carries the intention with it. And sometimes the unexpected happens.
Margaret is a teacher, and one of her 5th grade students (Em) sat next to Margaret on the way to a field trip. During the ride, she asked about the blanket that Margaret was working on. This opened up a conversation about the blanket, the baby, and faith. No “preaching” here, just a simple conversation and a child’s opportunity to observe faith and compassion.
Later, Em surprised Margaret with a handmade pillow with the word “Faith” on it. Em knew that Margaret must really love the baby to make such a thing for her, and Em loves Margaret, so Em made something for Margaret that expresses that love. She also understood that Margaret is a woman with a lot of faith. Em had lost her own mother not too long before this, yet still could express love and faith.
Margaret and I both had reactions of “my prayers didn’t do any good” and yet I know that’s not true. A young woman with cancer moved into the surprise and joy of discovering a loving God, just in a different way from what I’d hoped for. Margaret’s blanket touched Em in an unexpected and healing way.
And baby V’s parents have a single photo of their tiny daughter, wrapped in a blanket made with love and prayer. We don’t always see results of prayer, and when we do, they don’t always look like we’d envisioned. But the prayers are heard, and a prayer shawl or blanket is a tangible reminder.