A Living Thing


bethany suckrow -a living thing-3

I’ve had a complicated relationship with prayer for a long time now. Most likely, it started around the time that I realized that ten years of praying for God to heal my mom’s cancer hadn’t come true. I know–that last sentence sounds more like a genie in a bottle, my prayers like desperate scratches at a lottery ticket. It felt more real than that back then. I had strong faith. I believed in God. What else was there for me to do but ask? What else was there for Him to do but answer?


It was a year after she died, a beautiful summer day not long before her birthday. I used my lunch break from work to go meet a friend who worked at a church nearby. She and her husband had been spiritual mentors to me in college, right around the time of another turning point in my mother’s illness. We spent hours praying together over my mother, and I listened to endless stories from them about miracles they’d witnessed or heard from other Christians. The stories ranged from astonishing and hopeful to flat-out weird–an uncle whose gold crown fell out in a prayer service and discovered his broken tooth had been reformed. A group of charismatic congregants that found golf-ball sized rubies in their belongings after a particularly fervent worship service. A dead man who had been violently hijacked on his way home came back to life, thanks to a very vigilant prayer circle. I didn’t know what any of it meant anymore, or what I believed of it, but who was I to say it hadn’t happened?

When I arrived in the expansive church lobby, my friend greeted me with a hug. We shuffled quietly through long carpeted corridors and sunny stained glass windows to a prayer room. We made small talk as we sank into the overstuffed couch.

“So how are you?” she asked. Her kind, questioning eyes scanned my face.

“I’m fine,” I chirped, and in stilted words, tried to explain how spiritually bereft my mother’s death had left me. She nodded and mhmmm-ed often as I rambled on, slowly dissolving into tears and a string of questions–what does it mean that God has a plan for us, if this is how it ends? What is healing? What is blessing? What does it mean that you and I prayed for my mother for so long and he didn’t heal her and now she’s dead? What really happens to us when we die?

Finally I stopped to take a deep breath and wipe my face with a tissue. It occurred to me as she listened quietly and answered nothing that I wasn’t sure why I had come that day. Perhaps I had gone hoping to feel some of that old reassurance I felt when we would pray together, or that heady, electric sense that the Holy Spirit was about to do something wild and inexplicable.

I knew my mother couldn’t be resurrected, but maybe I was hoping that somehow seeing my friend again would resurrect me?

After a long and awkward silence, she asked if she could pray for me.

The words spilled out in that familiar, breathless manner, asking God to please comfort us in our confusion and to give us a sense of His presence and peace. It was all very kind but strangely empty. Maybe this is unfair, but the prayer felt more like a reflexive habit to avoid my questions. I drove back to my office mourning what felt like the death of a charismatic faith that didn’t belong to me anymore. I haven’t seen my friend again, and she hasn’t reached out.


Last spring, I found an old picture of my mother with my eldest cousin, Amy Jo. My mother was a young teenager when Amy was born, so the two of them look very young in it; they could almost be sisters. They’re lying side-by-side on a bed; my mother holds a well-loved copy of Cat in the Hat above them as she reads aloud. When I found it I had just learned that Amy was in the hospital with a life-threatening respiratory infection. They weren’t sure she was going to make it.

I, the recovering evangelical-wannabe-charismatic, the post-everything cynic, didn’t know what to do anymore with the news that someone I love is sick. But the tenderness in the photo called out to me, the love resting there between them so evident and palpable.

I went to bed that night and I didn’t pray, but I imagined my mother lying beside Amy in her hospital bed, reading Cat in the Hat. It felt more real than any prayer I had prayed in a long time. The next day I messaged Amy to tell her about it, and when she was on the mend a few weeks later, she emailed me back to say thank you.


So this is what I do now. Can I really call it praying? At the very least, it’s an act of mindfulness, an intentional moment set aside to hold space for the people I love who are suffering. I imagine myself going to sit beside them. Maybe we share a blanket and a bottle of wine. Maybe I’m in their kitchen, cooking dinner for them while they sit and rest for awhile. Maybe we go and stand on a beach and let out a primal scream together.

In reality, we may only be texting. Everyone I love lives so far away and there’s so much happening that we’ll never be able to fix or control and none of us have much money. But I try to take a moment to quiet my mind and let my imagination do the work.

Love, after all, is a living thing.

Bethany Suckrow
I’m a writer and blogger at at bethanysuckrow.com, where I shares both prose and poetry on faith, grace, grief and hope. I am currently working on my first book, a memoir about losing my mother to cancer. My musician-husband, Matt, and I live in transition as we move our life from the Chicago suburbs to Nashville.
Bethany Suckrow
Bethany Suckrow

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  1. Yes. Thank you, I needed this today as I seek a way to pray for someone I love who is hurting… X

    • I hope it helps you and the person who is hurting, Fiona. I said this in another comment, but one thing I love about this new way of “praying” is the way it transforms my posture and guides me toward more practical ways of caring for the person. If I were sitting with them right now, what would I say? How would sitting with them – maybe on their couch, or on a beach – change the way I say it?

      • Yes. It invites us into empathy. And empathy is a doorway to love.
        It strikes me that the woman in your story, I imagine that she was really trying to care, in the way her tradition had taught her. But it was limited because she was unable to enter into your pain with you, to really understand it and feel it. So her prayers for you then rang hollow. It’s a reminder to me to not use prayer as a facade to hide behind, when it starts to feel uncomfortable to be with someone in their struggle, but to continue to hold that space for them.

  2. pastordt says:

    Yes, yes, YES!!! This is prayer at its finest and best. Holding others before the presence of God, images rather than so.many.words, love, a living thing that somehow manages to travel across time and space and nourish another. Beautifully said, Bethany. And beautifully lived. Thank you.

    • “Holding others before the presence of God” – I love that imagery, Diana. Our love for people and God’s love for us goes so far beyond words sometimes. Thanks for reading and commenting. xo.

  3. sandyhay says:

    My prayers have very few words anymore. I’ve also come through the charismatic merry-go-round. Not that those years didn’t bring spiritual healing for me on a certain level. They did. Not that I didn’t learn how to rely on the Holy Spirit. I did. Yet the damage took years to work through. I couldn’t go back but I wouldn’t want to erase it either. Thank you Bethany.

    • I often feel the same way, Sandy. I’m grateful for the people I met and some of the things I learned about myself, and I don’t disregard all of it, and yet – some of it had lasting damage that is painful to work through. Thank you so much for sharing your heart. xo.

  4. Terry Stuhl Smith says:

    Bethany, I copied your description of yourself into my journal- I have been trying to put into words what I have been going through and you described it perfectly. I too am a ” recovering evangelical wannabe charismatic. post everything cynic” and it can be a very lonely and scary place. Now when my still praying faithfully friends ask how I am doing in my “struggle” I can tell them. I too will try to set aside time to hold people in my mind’s eye when I know I just cannot pray- words seem so empty these days, and if God knows our hearts than I’m sure he will be able to add the text to the mind pictures. Thank you for sharing your heart- you are not alone in this journey-(me either!)

  5. Prayer is a struggle for me as well, and it does seem that the more I love someone, the harder it is for me to pray for them in wisdom and with open hands. A few years ago, I stumbled upon the practice–and I don’t know really how to describe it other than as just a lifting of their precious-ness before the Lord. It sounds as if you are doing the same thing. When we don’t know what to ask for, or when we don’t trust our own motives, we are thrown back onto our trust in God’s motives and His love for a much-loved person in our life.

    • Thanks for commenting, Michele. I think your practice and mine are very kindred to one another. We don’t know what to ask for, but we know how much our loved ones mean to us, and more broadly (thinking about so many devastating news headlines) how precious human life is and how vast the needs are. We can’t fix it, but we can hold space for it, and if nothing else, I think it changes our own posture and guides us toward a practical sense of how we want to respond to the world. Sometimes this “holding space” technique helps me figure out exactly what I want to say to a hurting friend, or exactly what I want to do to respond to the injustice I see – whether it’s calling my senators or investing in a charity.

  6. Judith Otala says:

    What has tagged at my heart most has been the questions; “What is healing? What is blessing?”. I am currently healing my heart and usually questions like these keep popping in my head. What is healing? Is it the absence of pain? Is it when I no longer feel betrayal when memories from the past start flooding my mind? What is happiness?

    I love the practice of setting aside space to hold people. I am setting aside a space for you Bethany. This is a practice I am going to borrow, not just for the people I love but also my self; for my heart and that girl who is always hopeful but keeps getting crushed by the world.

    • Judith, thank you so much for commenting. Your questions resonate with me deeply. “What is happiness?” is a big one for me right now as well. I really sense that you’re holding space for me, and I hope that you sense that I’m holding space for you. xo.

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