At the start of a new year I decided I wanted to learn to pray better. Eight months into that year my brother was told he had germ cell cancer with two tumors in his chest. I cried and I prayed.
His chemo treatments started and I relaxed. There was a plan. So many of us prayed for his total healing, and by Christmas he was cancer-free. The cancer was stubborn and returned multiple times to his brain and spine with different treatments to remove it each time. A year later my brother went through a stem cell treatment out of state. He received a great report, there were lots of tears and praising God for his healing. And then the cancer returned.
My stomach dropped at each new diagnosis and relaxed at each new treatment. It was a twenty month roller coaster ride that ended abruptly. When the doctors said there was no more that could be done, my brother died eight days later in his home at age 33. I had the privilege and profound sadness of being with my brother and his wife when he took his last breath.
I had never prayed for another person so much in my entire life. And I had certainly never prayed so fervently. That’s a word I heard often in the church growing up, but I only recently heard it defined so well. The word “fervent” means “the stretching of a muscle as far as it can go.” I get that. I felt pulled as far as I could go as I cried out my prayers to God over those two years.
Early on, I made an offhand comment to God. I said, “If you wake me up, I will get out of bed and pray on my knees for my brother each night.” I don’t remember praying on my knees before, but the severity of my brother’s situation seemed to warrant desperate prayers, and knee praying seemed appropriate.
God surprised me by quickly keeping up His end of the agreement. Having been a great sleeper in the past, God woke me up between 3-4 am every night, except for just a few, for over a year and a half. I dutifully pulled myself out of bed and onto the floor and there I prayed for my brother each night until he died.
The night after he died, God woke me up again. So I prayed for my brother’s wife and daughter. I prayed for a good man to come into their life to be a good husband to his wife and a good dad to his daughter. I kept this prayer up night after night until God answered that prayer.
At first I wondered if praying on my knees would make a difference. Would God hear those prayers faster? Would they mean more? Would my earnestness change the outcome? I imagine God hears all prayers whispered, shouted, and unspoken just the same. So a posture on my knees isn’t any better than standing or sitting.
But I think it changed something for me.
I was more aware of my prayers. When I pray in bed, my mind wanders and I eventually forget what I was saying. But when I prayed on the floor it was different. For one thing, I was cold, having just left the warm blankets. And I couldn’t really fall asleep sitting on my knees. To keep my mind from wandering, I whispered my prayers out loud.
I met God on my knees, in the dark, in the middle of the night.
When I think about my early question to God, “Will you teach me to be a better pray-er?” – I wonder if He was using all this really crappy stuff for good. Maybe God used our middle of the night chats to prepare me for a time when I would need Him the most.
I fully expected myself to be mad at God after my brother died. But it didn’t happen. I was mad at the cancer, but not at God. Though He saw my brother’s pain and ultimate death, I knew He didn’t cause it.
There was unexplained peace and comfort after my brother’s death. I tried to figure out why that was. I realized during those late night prayers, God was showing up with me. I knew God was with me the night before my brother died. And I knew He was with me the night after he died. I knew God hadn’t gone anywhere and I could meet Him on the floor again.
And when I thought about Jesus, I felt like He was grieving with me. The same way He did with Mary and Martha when their brother Lazarus died. I don’t know how else to explain it, but I could picture Jesus. I felt like He was crying too, both of us sad that my brother had died.
The nightly practice of those prayers made it easier to pray during the day. I would talk to God when I woke up, while I got ready for work, and when I drove in the car. Our conversations were never formal, always honest, and sometimes I heard God say things back to me. I’m thankful that He used that incredibly tough time to teach me how to pray better.
And I still miss my brother.