how to pray when you don’t know how to pray

We walk the kids to school like we do most mornings. Everything we can see is the same – uphill most of the way there, we stop to tie a shoe or two. I wrap cold hands around a half-full coffee mug.

When we get to the doors, the warm air from the building pulls us inside. But we’re walking sideways and distracted today, still shaken by images we’ve only seen in our heads. Normal thoughts swirl around with terrible thoughts – I hug my six year old bye for the day, laughing at the look he gives me.

Still smiling, I look over his shoulder into his classroom to see if there is a closet where the teacher could hide them.

There’s no closet, but there is a bathroom. That should do.

We walk away from the door, notice they’ve changed the artwork in the main hallway. I’m still thinking about his classroom, all those coats hanging on hooks on the wall.

I make dinner at the end of the day and for the first time since last Friday, I feel a wave of anger rise up in me. It comes strong and unexpected and brings tears of rage.

The chili starts to boil. I turn off the stove and set the pot on a cool eye. Chili isn’t supposed to boil.

Teachers aren’t supposed to have to hide kids in closets. Or bathrooms.

I thought I would only write one post about all this, but I’m not sure who I thought I was. I know this isn’t the first school shooting. But something about this one feels so personal.

As I stand at the sink after dinner, hot water runs over the heavy bowl. I lose my grip and the bowl slips. It’s loud and the water splashes my face and arms, soaking my shirt.

I have real emotion over it, mutter under my breath. Immediately, a flash of guilt – what have you got to be frustrated about?

I nearly stopped there, letting the guilt push me into proper behavior of thankfulness.

But as I become more fully myself, I think I’m also accepting my humanity in more complete ways.

I’m still going to roll my eyes at telemarketers and mutter when I drop dishes. My first response is still a human one when small annoying things happen the same way my first response is a human one when huge, unthinkable things happen.

We are fully human and our emotions run deep – our anger is red and sharp, our sorrow the deepest shade of blue.

Though I’ve only seen maybe fifteen minutes total of the news coverage, I have images in my head that I can’t get out. We all do – not the pictures we’ve seen, but the ones we imagine. I don’t want to imagine things from the classrooms, but the images come anyway.

It is horrifying.

We can’t linger there.

The things we feel most deeply – be it anger or sadness or fear – let these be hints of how to pray. Let your particular personality become fully awake in the midst of the questions. Where is your burden heaviest? Pray that.

I am an intense feeler with a sensitive imagination, and so I feel pressed to pray in the ways that make sense to me. I pray that those children and teachers and first responders who have survived will have renewed imaginations. That somehow, the horror of what their eyes have seen, what their souls have lived through, will fade.

There is an honest part of me that doubts that is possible.

I read Psalm 23, read about the Lord as Shepherd, the kind who leads and quiets and calms.

The kind who restores souls.

Lord, may it be so.


  1. says

    Yes, prayers that the forethought of the first responders who asked the children to close their eyes will mean that, when they close their eyes for the rest of their lives, they will only see happy things. I work with veterans and know all too well what seeing can do to someone. A thoughtful post today. Thank you.

  2. says

    Thank you for this. It’s the first thing I’ve read about this that makes any sense to me. My emotions are so raw still. Going on like normal feel so awfully wrong. Thank you for your words. It truly is a gift.

  3. says

    The horrificness that happened on Friday will always be remembered. But this, your open-ness, is so refreshing. I’ve enjoyed (if one can enjoy) reading the different posts circulating in the blog world about this tragedy. May we always remember to pray for these sweet families.

  4. says

    i also immediately thought of the kids who survived and how horrific those memories must be. i’m given hope by posts like these and those cute therapy dogs that were sent up there. <3

  5. maria says

    Thank you for your post – I thought you might have more to say if only because you are a writer with such soul depth – this event was not one you could just move on from – just like 9/11. Your words helped me, and it helps to know others are struggling with me. I know the Lord will bring good from this, even though it seems ridiculous, hideously insensitive to even say such a thing. When 9/11 happened I was like a zombie, I cried, I asked God why these poor people? Why not evil terrorists or evil people with evil plans to harm others, especially innocent others? The answer I got was Luke 13:1 and following verses. It almost shocked me – like Habakuk. It also reminded me of Corrie Ten Boom’s reply when they asked her where God was while peopled died in the concentration camps – she said, “there are worse things than dying in concentration camps, and that is dying without Jesus into an eternal hell.” I came away from that thinking that we are in such a way as a nation that it may take desperate radical events to turn us back – at least some of us back to God. I know the little ones are with Him. I, as a mom, cannot fathom with any part of my being what these parent’s pain must be. I just can’t and my heart is truly broken for them. I pray this brokenness leads me to live more a more authentic faith, to be a voice in the darkness here that the reality of hell, worse than anything we can fathom here, will not be true for at least some others I can hopefully influence. I really do not mean to be heartless, far from it, or cruel, tho’ maybe this is not the time to say certain things. I just can’t help feel and be so angry too that perhaps this and other senseless evil would not have happened if we did not kick God out of school and most other public arenas all because we “do not want to offend” as goes the excuse. You don’t have to allow my comment if it is still too raw (will it ever not be? – in my memories all such heinous things are always raw). Still, I would understand, but I just had to say it somewhere – I am angry, so very angry and I feel helpless to do anything to change this darkness. Our only hope is to be a light – to speak Jesus’ truths. He loved humanity and so He said things that offended, if only to bring us out of darkness. That is my hope, prayer for our nation and this world.

    • maria says

      Can I also say that speaking truth alone is not enough – we need to be His love in action, to bring the gospel and help the poor, the hurting, to give our life to it in whatever capacity we find ourselves, just as Jesus did. I pray for the grace to do this in my life.

  6. says

    we need your honest emotion. i needed to know it was okay.
    yesterday i lost my 3-year-old in wal-mart, a horrifying, panicking, i can’t even remember what color his hair is 5 minutes.
    & still the emotions are so raw.
    thank you for validating your own feelings.
    they validate mine, too, giving them a place in this world.
    this world that needs them, Him, us, so badly. us in all our real-ness.

  7. says

    I’m an intense feeler, too, and in the days that followed the shootings at Newtown, this intensity has been looked upon with wide-eyed wonder, amusement, and/or pity. I’ve been praying for the students, the teachers, and their families. I’ve also been praying for our collective humanity, because I think that is equally in danger.

  8. says

    Emily, I see so much of myself in your words today. I’ve been struggling with my imagination lately too. It’s funny- my imagination- it can be my best friend and my worst enemy.

  9. says

    I am a faithful reader who rarely comments … but this. this post is exactly where my heart is at … I just can’t get over this. I just can’t put those innocent children out of my mind. I live in CT … it’s just too close to home. I think this is something i will be thinking about and praying about for a very long time. And perhaps that is good, it’s too brash to think we can simply move on to ‘normal’ life after such a tragic time in our nation. thank you. your words are perfect.


  10. says


    How this post touches my heart! You’ve expressed so many of the things I’ve been feeling and thinking and doing. Thank you so much. Would that I could have said this rather than my woefully inadequate post of yesterday.

    I too hold the survivors and their families in my heart, praying for healing and wholeness.

  11. says

    love this reminder to let our emotions drive us to prayer~ and love that no matter what those emotions, God isn’t scared away by them. i can come in all my mess and question and anger and even childish fit throwing. He can handle it all.

    once again, beautiful gentle encouragement here, emily. thank you.

  12. says

    Thank you for beautiful, Spirit-filled words. I have found myself avoiding (repressing?) the thoughts and self-imagined images because I, too, feel things deeply. Your words make me bold to sit quietly with them and see what they show me….and then to pray.

  13. Susan says

    Thank you for this. As I came home the other night and made dinner, it seemed so ordinary, and my thoughts turned to those in Connecticut whose ordinary has been shattered. As I read a quote, “Christmas has been canceled”, it reminded me to pray that God, who entered dark earth to bring light, would be revealed – that all His hope, all His presence would be Christmas to these people.

  14. Chris K. says

    Thank you for your words Emily! Yes, the image and our mental pictures stay with us for a very long long time.
    It’s amazing how God, by His Grace, let us face our true emotions with courage and acceptance of ourselves.

  15. says

    Thanks for writing… As a mom and first grade teacher I processed through many of the same thoughts on my last blog post… I’m glad you had courage to press into writing this when so many are at a loss for words.

  16. says

    I am a fellow “intense feeler with a sensitive imagination”. I join you in your prayers for renewed imaginations of those who have experienced reality in a way none should have to. He is our Shepherd who walks with us daily and I pray He walks with them too…

  17. says

    I leave in about an hour to go to my child’s school and see his Christmas program. It’s a normal Friday, or should be, and all I can think about is last Friday. Yes, the what-if images are very real to me and it lingers in the pit of my stomach. Thank you for this post. Thank you for leading me as to how to pray.

  18. says

    Thank you, wonderful, encouraging words. I want to hide from my feelings, my terror over this event. Too big to put in words. Your paragraph, “The things we feel most deeply – be it anger or sadness or fear – let these be hints of how to pray. Let your particular personality become fully awake in the midst of the questions. Where is your burden heaviest? Pray that.”
    Perfect words, for me to hear. Not to deny, but to listen. And to pray. My theme word for this season is “Awake.” This gives me a tool to handle the confusion and panic mixed with our happy family joys – the contrasts are almost overwhelming when I think of….but this helps me. Don’t run from my thoughts. Listen and pray.
    A deep thank you, and blessings to you and your family.

  19. says

    You and I feel in very similar ways. I understand completely what you are saying and I’m thankful for your encouragement to pray what I’m feeling. My third grader came home yesterday and told me that all the classrooms in their school now stay locked at all times. His teacher emailed us and told us how much she loved our kids and that she would do anything to protect them and my first reaction was not so much gratefulness (though I am abundantly gratfeul at the educator’s willingness to go to all measures to protect our children), but my initial reaction was that of anger. After the conversation with my son I had to walk away and cry. It was a bitter, sorrowful, angry cry.

    My kids shouldn’t have to be locked inside a classroom inside an already locked and patrolled school. That’s prison. It shouldn’t be school and I’m angry and sad. Our teachers shouldn’t have to imagine what they would do if a gunman came in. They shouldn’t have to mentally prepare to take a bullet for someone else. That’s the job of people who enlist in the Army or the CIA, but teachers? They shouldn’t have to play those scenarios out in their minds.

    I’m sad and I’m mad and I cannot stop praying. Like you, my heart is wrapped around the first responders, the teachers and the parents. The mamas who are looking at unopened gifts. The daddies who are sitting in empty bedrooms. I think this one feels so much more personal because it is. Those people are us. They are parents who did what we all do every day – kissed their babies goodbye and sent them to learn about the world. We are all wrapped in grief – only ours is imaginary and theirs is so very real…

  20. says

    “Let your particular personality become fully awake in the midst of the questions. Where is your burden heaviest? Pray that” . . .
    thank you so much for this honest piece, emily. and just a little while ago, i shared these words of yours with our TruthInWeakness community on FB:
    “Don’t run away from those places where it seems your faith is small. Run into them, look around, be honest about how it feels as you stand there. And know we have a God who can handle it.” (jan, 2012)

    thank you for your gentle voice of truth, emily. may our souls find rest in knowing, as max lucado once said, that “Jesus responds not to the eloquence of our prayers, but to our pain.”

  21. says

    I love the prayer you prayed for their imaginations. It is so true. God has healed my own imagination of horrors of losing a brother in a tragic circumstance long past… and it starts there. And he has led me in similar prayers for others. But the way you put it is beautiful…

  22. Anna says

    It’s so easy to feel guilty for emotions and try to block them out, guilty for the way we are made… Reminds me of this verse I love: Phil 4 msg 6-7 Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns. Before you know it, a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down.

  23. says

    Well, I finally mustered up the faith to comment on this post.

    I’ve been hiding out for a couple weeks, and I must admit, I wanted to pretend like I didn’t read this post, ever.

    Because of Connecticut, because of Sandy, who just hit my area of NY, because of the craziness over our recent elections, and because I’m human and life is just hard sometimes and because of a millions other becauses.

    I didn’t want to receive what you wrote. That:

    “We can’t linger there. The things we feel most deeply – be it anger or sadness or fear – let these be hints of how to pray. Let your particular personality become fully awake in the midst of the questions. Where is your burden heaviest? Pray that.”

    I didn’t want to hear someone say that we take these feelings and emotions and fear – and we pray them. Use them to our advantage. I didn’t want to hear you say that this is what we should do. That it’s okay to feel them, but they we must must must move beyond them.

    I didn’t want to live out your post because, I knew you were right.

    It’s easier to stay where it hurts. To wallow.
    It’s easier to play out and plan out life in your head, hiding behind your fears.

    You begin to believe that this is how you prepare yourself for the worst. And that that is what will help you handle, when the horrific happens.

    It’s like, if you pray, you’ve no choice but to put your hope and trust in God. And well, what if you don’t want to do that. What if, you’re afraid of being let down.

    I know, He is good. But sometimes, I forget. When life gets all crazy like it has.

    And how do you pray for someone, something else…when really it’s you who needs the prayer.

    They Lord is MY shepherd…MY shepherd…Maybe the more I remember that, the more I won’t forget His goodness…

    All this to say, thanks for letting me be mad at you (even though you had no idea). Thanks for writing with grace that washes over the most afraid, most worrisome, most burdensome hearts.

    Thanks for being real and raw and shedding light on those things which you struggle with.

    And thank you, for pointing us (me) to He who can handle…even cradle us in these times.

    • says

      For a writer, your anger is really the highest honor. Because it means I’ve said something that has substance, that moves and breathes – I’m so glad you commented and moved with and to the rhythm of hope, even in the very words you wrote here.

      Thank you for coming back, Rae.

  24. says

    I was led here by Edie’s blog….I’m so glad she mentioned you. This is a lovely post…one that puts into words so many things I haven’t been able to. Thank you.

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