My writing buddy Kelly O’Dell Stanley entrusted me with this gem of a guest post–a letter to herself as a girl. Her new book, Praying Upside Down, released last week, and I’m so honored to share some of her gorgeous thoughts on what can come after our earnest prayers lose their meaning.
Dear, sweet girl. You lie there in the angle of light bent around the door, in that sheltered, private spot where the light illuminates your papers, but your parents, in the living room downstairs, can’t see you from where they are reclining. The white painted posts from the stairs in the hallway outside your door cast striped, curvy shadows across the carpet, and you hear the faint noise of a laugh track from the television below. You can’t see her, but you know your mom is wrapped in a soft blanket, quietly turning the pages of a book until she yields to her yawns and goes to bed.
In that sheltered place, you make charts, three-hole-punched sheets of graph paper, painstakingly transferring your prayer list to a new sheet when the check boxes are all filled. Maybe your prayers aren’t prompted by passion. You’ve never seen that before and don’t know to aspire to it. You’re not sure what your mom would think of you staying up to pray. But certain that if nothing else, it was wrong to be up past bedtime. At the same time, you’re strangely determined to master this prayer thing. To do it right. You feel your way through. But you’re on your own. This isn’t a world you’ve witnessed yet. Your eyes slide down the list, praying lofty wishes—that God will heal the sick and handicapped. That He will help you stop all your bad habits and become a better person. That He will forgive you of all your sins and help you become more religious.
You don’t know that that’s not what you want. What you want is Him. But all you know are the words you’ve heard a handful of people say, so you mimic them, offering big, general, dutiful prayers.
You pray the same words, night after night. Over time, they will lose their meaning.
One day prayer itself will lose its meaning.
You’ll run out of words when your mother is no longer downstairs—or anywhere you can visit—because you aren’t entirely sure who you are without her. You’ll remember those nights of flipping through the illustrated Bible you got the night of your baptism, jumping from one red-lettered statement to another, skipping all the stuff in between. You haven’t experienced God speaking to you personally yet—and even though it’s something you haven’t contemplated before, when it’s gone, you’ll feel the loss deep in your gut and in the center of your wrists. You’ll stare at the occasional lines printed in red ink and fight an internal war. Something in you has always believed, has always yearned for the balm that those words might bring. Something drew you to these words long before you knew why.
But as an adult, the time will come when you begrudge every spark of hope you feel reading God’s promises because now you know that there isn’t always a happy ending.
Thirty-some years from now, when the house you grew up in has been sold, and your dad has moved south to a warm climate and a new relationship, and Mom’s Lands End bathrobe has been donated to Goodwill and her contact deleted from your phone—you’ll ache at the memory of the young girl who was so sheltered and naïve. And yet, you’ll see that this was where that tiny seed was planted. The place where those seedlings started to sprout.
You’re no longer tiptoeing around the shadowy edges of your room, avoiding the squeaky floor boards. Now you’re tiptoeing around the edges of your faith. Wanting God, but not wanting to be caught wanting Him. Wanting to hold tight to promises that sometimes seem to be false.
But yet? You’ll marvel at the fact that God saw fit to plant those tender shoots of faith in the stripes of light falling across your bright blue carpet. That in the silence between the creaking floorboards, He whispered into your soul words that you wouldn’t need for many more years. The funny thing is, through all the changes over those three decades, one thing never changes.
What you need now is what you needed then.
And it’s not a cute boy. A flirty look. Or straight As on your report card.
Someday you’ll know what you’re yearning for and you’ll feel loss profoundly. And you’ll feel a bit of desperation, wanting to exist in that world again, the one where the worst thing that can happen is that you’ll be caught out of bed at 11 pm. Wanting to go back to wherever it is that Mom yawns in her robe and prayers can be mastered with nothing more than graph paper and colored inks.
But sweet girl? That sheltered place? It still exists. It doesn’t reside in the house your family no longer owns. It’s not to be found only in a church sanctuary. Because even if you don’t always like the words you hear, God still whispers. He still holds you close.
And you’ll find that along with the hurt comes a balm. How they can exist simultaneously, I’ll never understand. But when you hurt enough that you’ll finally fumble through the words to ask God to fill your soul, to smooth over the gaping wounds of loss and disappointment and loneliness—well, that’s when He will pick you up in His arms and hold you in the shelter of His heart.
And you’ll know that you were never alone. That you were never abandoned. That when you face the crippling sorrow, when you let God back in to feel it with you, you’ll find something new. Reminiscent of the past, and not always easy, but in some ways better.
Because you’ll discover that you’ve found your way home.
Kelly O’Dell Stanley is a graphic designer, writer, and author of the new book, Praying Upside Down. With more than two decades of experience in advertising, three kids ranging from 21 to 14, and a husband of 24 years, she’s learned to look at life in unconventional ways—sometimes even upside down. Full of doubt and full of faith, she constantly seeks new ways to see what’s happening all around her. Subscribe to her blog (www.prayingupsidedown.com) to download her free ebook, Praying in Full Color, along with this month’s prayer prompt calendar to jump-start your prayer life.
Image credit: Bruno with my modifications