The Day I Couldn’t Pray: A True Story of Lament

It was graduation day. I was receiving my first college diploma. I was quite pleased with myself, and it was sort of a big deal in my family. They were all coming to see me receive my diploma. Even my grandmother, who was my last surviving grandparent at that point, made the long trip from the coast to the mountains of North Carolina for the big event.

Oddly enough, in the end, they did not get to see what they had come for.

Graduation was on a Sunday. I was borrowing a cap and gown from a friend and was supposed to pick it up at the Wesley Foundation, which is a Christian group on campus that I was a part of. Most of my college friends came from there. Even the campus minister and his wife were close friends of mine.

So, Sunday morning I headed off to the Wesley Foundation to retrieve the cap and gown in hopeful expectation of bumping in to the campus minster as he prepared for the Sunday school class he taught there.

On such a joyous day, he would be nothing more than a toothy smile. It would be good to see him.

I was surprised to find the doors locked. They were usually open early Sunday morning for those coming to Sunday school.

I will never forget what happened next.

I cupped my hands around my face to block the glare from the morning sun, and leaned into the glass doors to see if I could spot anyone inside.

At this point, I should say that it was not unusual for something very unusual to be going on at The Foundation on a Sunday morning. As the Sunday school teacher, our campus minister loved to surprise us with “lessons” that would then carry into the classroom.

So, at first it was not too surprising to see what looked like him reclining on the stairs in the back part of the building.

The morning glare was actually exceptionally harsh that day, so I couldn’t see enough to be quite sure what was going on. So, after a very brief second, I rapped on the glass.


No movement, no sound – nothing.

I hurried around to the back door and, peering into the tall window beside it, looked down the stairwell. No doubt about it – that was my minister, and something was wrong.

I ran to the church next door, found the associate minister in the kitchen and told him that something was very wrong with the campus minister next door at the Wesley foundation; and, without giving him a chance to respond, I grabbed an exceptionally large and heavy cooking pot on my way back to The Foundation.

I stood at the front doors alone.

No words, no thoughts, just the glare of the sun off the glass and the cooking pot.

With one huge heave, I slung the pot at the glass and it shattered with no resistance at all.

The next thing I knew, I was standing next to him. I checked for a pulse, checked for breathing – nothing.

I remember nothing else until I was in The Foundation’s upstairs apartment with the police. I’m sure that they were asking me questions about what happened, but all I remember is being told that I would not make my graduation ceremony.

Truthfully, at that point it really didn’t matter. But, that’s all I remember about being with the police.

The next thing I remember is them leaving. I was left alone – finally.

My emotions were running rampant: pain, grief, fear, disappointment, loss, anger. The world was spinning too fast and I needed some peace. Sitting there in a burnt-orange easy chair that was now under stuffed from years of use, I decided to pray. “God…”

That was it. “God…”

No matter how many times I tried, that was all that would come out. I had no words. I was lost. I began to cry. The only sounds in the room were the muffled sighs, cries and groans of my grief.

Words were too trite, too limited, to tell the tale of the struggle and strife that was beating my insides apart. Beyond feeling physically sick, I also felt spiritually sick. I had tried to pray, but I could not pray.

I didn’t know whether to blame God or to run to God.

The good news is that now I know, that I didn’t have to know.

Romans 8:26 reads, “And in the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” (I took the liberty to change “sighs” to “groaning” which still fits with the original Greek very nicely).

Groanings too deep for words. That is the real essence of a prayer of lament: groanings too deep for words.

Our words are too trite, too limited, to communicate anything about our souls — souls made in the very image of God. Souls that were breathed into, given life, by none other than the Divine.

Words? Words to describe the pains of the soul? Who are we trying to kid? Ourselves? Because we certainly are not kidding God.

I don’t claim to have full understanding of Romans 8:26. I just claim to have experienced it that day in that under-stuffed-burnt-orange easy chair.

I do know this: the Spirit of God does not pray an eloquent poetic prayer for you when you are so numb that you can’t pray; it just comes beside you and begins to groan.

It is a prayer that can only be grown (groan) out of human experience.

Jesus hung on a tree and threw up prayers, “Father, forgive them,” “It is finished,” “My God, My God why have you forsaken me?!” But I believe that the most profound prayers that day were not recorded.

They were not recorded because they were not words.

They were prayers flung up to heaven in each sigh, cough and groan that slipped pass Jesus’ lips with each lash of the whip, each cut of the nails and each prick of the crown of thorns.

Groans that spoke of human suffering, the brokenness of this world and a longing for something better.

It is okay to groan. It is deeper than our words can ever be.

So, my friends, when you doubt, when you hurt, when your soul aches to touch God – just groan. It’s the most authentic prayer you may ever pray.

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