When I told God I didn’t know how to pray, he sent me a personal trainer.
Elizabeth was a towering older woman with rock star confidence who became my mentor via long distance during the late 1980’s. I first met Elizabeth at her son’s wedding as we stood in line waiting to use the bathroom. We shared about 9 seconds of small talk before she zeroed in on me, her piercing dark eyes expecting truth, and asked me if I knew Jesus. It was like being caught in the crosshairs of two laser beams.
Even though it was her son’s wedding day, she decided there was no one more important with whom she needed to visit than me. I answered her question, “Yes, I know Jesus.” But she’d heard the words I didn’t speak, “I know Him, but I wish I knew Him better”.
At the close of the evening, we swapped addresses and began corresponding regularly. She’d ask me questions about my life, and I knew that she was praying for me. She’d occasionally call, always out of the clear blue, telling me that the Lord had placed me on her heart. And she’d listen deeply not only to what I said, but to what the Lord was saying to both of us.
I learned about her life during our correspondence, too. She spent some of her days going to the nursing home to “minister to the old people”, and other days hanging out with younger people, doing just what she was doing with me – being present, listening, and praying.
Elizabeth was the child of parents who’d barely survived the Armenian genocide at the beginning of the 20th century. After a harrowing journey across Europe, her family had landed in the U.S. with nothing except their Orthodox Christian faith and the will to survive. After she’d been twice widowed, she experienced spiritual renewal at a Pentecostal church service. She was active in both her beloved Orthodox congregation and at her local Assembly of God, serving as a one woman bridge between these 2 wildly diverse arms of the body of Christ. She’d learned to seek God in the mystery and beauty of Orthodox liturgy, and to seek God to in the unstructured passion of the worship in her local Assembly of God.
During these years, Elizabeth watched as her youngest son David become addicted to drugs in his late teens, transformed through his twenties and into his thirties from a party man to a troubled man unable to hold a job to a divorced husband and father to, finally, a homeless man.
When I first met Elizabeth, she was about 25 years into David’s downward spiral. She told me she’d been too quick to bail him out, give him money or shelter in those early years. She recognized he was grieving the loss of his father, and that he first turned to drugs to numb the pain. She’d cycled through sadness, anger, self-recrimination, shortcuts, and one intervention attempt after another. She’d pounded on heaven’s door every single day, begging God to do something…anything…to get her son out of the clenches of evil and give him back to her.
As her wait for David’s return stretched into its first decade, she began to realize that too much of her prayer life was focused on seeking God for the gift of a restored son. At one especially low point, when she was frantic because she didn’t know where David was living or even if he was still alive, she heard God ask her, “Will you love Me even if your son never returns to Me?”
The question forced her to admit that being a one-woman army, bent on assaulting heaven to get her son released from hell, was the wrong paradigm for living her life with Jesus. David had become a kind of an idol in her life. “You fear what you idolize,” she told me. “I was full of fear about David’s life and choices. He was a gift from God that had slowly become a point of obsession in my life.”
It didn’t happen all at once, but eventually she told God yes, she’d love Him even if David never came back to the Lord…or to her.
God gave me an opportunity to witness her surrendered life when I ha visited her in her hometown of San Francisco. We prayed as we drove through Berkeley. We prayed as we sat in the sunshine at the Golden Gate Bridge. We prayed as we ate lunch, as we walked, as we sat in her living room talking. We prayed for David, we prayed for the rest of her family, we prayed for my family, for the people we saw that day, for people we didn’t know, for our churches. She named injustices with persistence and single-minded determination, a modern re-enactment of the parable of the parable of the persistent widow. Lacing our pieces of intercession together was a constant thread of worship. God, You are good! You are faithful! You are beautiful, pure and holy!
Intercessors aren’t born, she told me. They’re made, choice by choice, by people who have no where else to go except Jesus. God sent Elizabeth into my life at a time when my prayer life was often a plea for a quick fix and a happy ending.
Elizabeth taught me that I was asking for the wrong thing. She told me hard stuff was a summons to seek God with the commitment of a Marine drill sergeant and the passion of a head-over-heels young lover. Though she is now with the Lord she loved above all else, her coaching by example, demonstrating persistence, endurance, and surrender continues to teach me how to pray, and how to live.
A version of this story can be found in my book Parable Life: Living the Stories of Jesus in Real Time. Cover photo by David Klein on Unsplash