When a Child Prays
Some lessons learned young last a lifetime.
by Bill Vossler
Hands upraised, our minister urged his congregation to pray: “If My people who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin . . .” (2 Chronicles 7:14).
He added, “Your words of prayer will soar up to heaven.”
He could just as well have fixed me with a long finger and said, “Except yours, of course.” God refused to answer my prayers.
At ten years old, I was a Christian and a pray-er. I prayed until my knuckles ached. I prayed for a two-gun holster set and a bicycle (used would be OK), and I prayed that my father would come back home to me.
Days, then weeks stretched on, moving toward the new year. No father, no sign. Nothing.
So instead I asked God to bring my father home for a visit. Just a short one. As a present. Just this one time? I wouldn’t ask again.
But no knock rattled our door. No stranger dogged me while I delivered the Fargo Forum, although my eyes darted, ever alert.
The new year came, but not my father. Nothing — except the emptiness of missing him.
Months rolled on. I turned eleven. No holsters, no bike, no Dad. My prayers remained unanswered. My faith seeped out, day by day, like a balloon with a tiny leak. When I prayed, it seemed that God wore earmuffs.
I scoured the Bible for answers. First John 5:14: “If we ask anything according to His will, He hears us.” Psalm 66:20: “Blessed be God, who has not turned away my prayer, nor His mercy from me!” Philippians 4:6: “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God.” So I did.
I prayed in public. Then I followed the biblical injunction in Matthew 6:6: “Pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.” But nothing happened.
Refusing to pray
So I swore I would never pray again. At the end of each service, the call to prayer seemed to mock me: “Ask and you shall receive.” “God answers all prayers.”
Ha! I thought. Then where is my dad? Maybe God answered other people’s prayers, but not mine.
A year after I had sworn off prayer, I sat in the front pew of church and watched the old men from our small community limp up the aisle with jeweled snowflakes glittering on their dark clothes. The old women followed, white shawls draped across their broad, bowed backs.
The piano played. Children twitched nervously.
Then everyone stood to sing, and the minister said, “Let us kneel and offer our prayers to God for the birth of our Savior.”
I slumped back. Why? What good had prayer ever done me? The rest of the congregation folded their hands and, while I sulked, began to pray. At first a low murmur, then higher and louder, filling the church like the sounds of a rising spring storm.
Two pews behind me, I spotted my grandpa, wearing a gray herringbone jacket. He shook his head, his thumbs pressed against his chin.
The cacophony of voices rose and fell like cicadas in a grove of trees, high-pitched, quaking voices begging for forgiveness in German, English, or a mixture of both.
As I glanced at Grandpa, I felt a pang in my heart. All voices dimmed, then faded. Except Grandpa’s. I heard only his soothing voice in that slow, familiar tread. Then I comprehended his words as he supplicated God, saying he was sad, asking Jesus to enter the heart of his grandson — me! — and bring him back into the warm fold. Back to Jesus.
How did he know I’d left? I tried to swallow the lump in my throat. Tears coursed down my cheeks, and suddenly I found my hands were folded. I closed my eyes and prayed. “Dear God, how can I make my grandpa happy?”
The service ended, and I stepped out into the aisle, feeling renewed, joyful — as though a burden had been lifted off my back.
That night I slept hard and happy.
One day in January I was pulling a Fargo Forum out of my bag when a dark car slowed. It circled the block, met me again, and slowed once more.
I slogged through deep new snow into Andy Stockburger’s yard. The car U-turned at the stop sign and stopped 15 feet away.
The window whirred open. A man stuck out his head. He had a five o’clock shadow. “Billy?” he said. Puffs of white ballooned out of his lips.
I peered into the car. “Daddy?” For a moment I was paralyzed. Then I flung my newspaper bag in the snow and rushed across the street to the clicking of my overshoe buckles, skidding, thumping against the car door. I dove inside the window, into the warmth of the heater and my father’s arms. “Daddy!” I exclaimed. “Daddy!” I smelled the dadhood of him.
After a moment I stood back. I leaned against the car, holding back the tears. He asked how I was. What did I want him to buy for me? His eyes seemed always to look just to the side of mine.
I wanted to ask why he hadn’t come home in four years. I wanted to say I needed him back home. Instead I said I wanted a two-gun holster, like the Lone Ranger wore.
“Silver bullets, too?” he asked. I laughed. “No, regular is OK.” He promised he would send me the holster. He glanced at his watch. He had to go. He’d see me soon. I wanted to ask when. He socked me on the shoulder, rolled up the window, and drove off.
I waved. He did not wave back. I watched until his taillights blinked crimson, and then the car disappeared down the hill.
Afterward I kept replaying the moment when I had been folded in his embrace. Then I stopped, my mouth open. I realized God had truly answered my prayer. Just for a short visit. Belatedly.
But He had answered it. The air was clearer, the day brighter.
I never saw my father again. But that day I learned that prayers are not necessarily answered quickly.
Some prayers take years. And they’re not always answered the way I expect. But as Psalm 66:19 says, they are always heard by a God who “attends to the voice of my prayer.”
Scripture quotations are from the New King James Version.