When I was a probably four or five years old, I really wanted a horse. I’d been praying for one for a long time. Our next door neighbors had a pasture with horses in it. Our next door neighbors on the other side often had horses in their pasture. And while we didn’t have a pasture of our own, we had a sizable yard, and I thought a horse would really complete my already pretty good life.
My parents had told me that we couldn’t afford a horse, unfortunately. But I also was always taught about miracles and bible stories and I figured praying for a horse was the best way to possibly get one.
Then one day, my dad and I were home together for the afternoon while my mom was out with my other siblings. It was my nap time, and my dad decided to take a nap during that time as well. I woke up mid-nap because I was thirsty so I decided to go get a drink of water.
When I went into the kitchen, I looked out our big bay window in the dining room and in our backyard, under our big climbing tree, I saw a horse. I was so excited I immediately ran into my dad’s room and woke him up.
“Dad! Dad!” I shook him awake. “There’s a horse in our back yard! I’ve been praying for a horse and now my horse is here!”
He asked me if I was sure. So I ran back to the kitchen, and double checked. There he was, brown and mighty in all his splendor. My long awaited horse. I ran back.
“Yes! There’s a horse! It’s not a cow, I double checked,” I told my dad.
I was ecstatic. Prayer worked. Miracles happened. Life was good. And I had a horse.
My dad got up, still not believing the word of his ever-wishful toddler, until he too looked out the window and saw that there was a horse reaching up and eating leaves from our mulberry tree, just as I’d said.
“There’s a horse in our back yard!” he said, smirking at me. He told me to get my shoes on and we’d go out and investigate.
It was the first time that the harsh realities of life broke in and broke down my childhood whimsical belief that anything was possible — God didn’t just manifest this horse in our backyard to answer my prayers, my dad tried to explain to me. The horse, he said, belonged to someone else, and we had to try to find out who was missing their horse. It wasn’t ours.
“But what if we can’t find any owner and it really is an answer to my prayers??” I pleaded. He explained that if that was the case, unfortunately, we still couldn’t keep it. Apparently the cost of buying the horse was not the main cost we couldn’t afford — it was having a horse that we also couldn’t afford. (Information I would have addressed in my prayers prior if I had been privy to it.)
My dad spray painted a very red-neck looking sign on a sheet of plywood: “Horse Found.” We propped it up against our mail box pole so that anyone passing by could see it. Soon, a neighbor from down the street came and claimed his horse. His fence was broken and she’d wandered away.
My answer to prayer was led home to the her rightful place four houses down. And I learned that sometimes, even when you get exactly what you’ve prayed for, it isn’t actually an answer to prayer.
Ten years later, when my sister was in the hospital, in a coma, I was terrified to pray for her to live, because I was afraid that if I did pray for that, and she still died, my faith in God would be irreparably shaken.
Instead, I prayed like a politician: “May your will be done,” is all that I could bring myself to pray. And then Julie died. She turned 21 three days before, and then she died.
That prayer caused more turmoil in my faith and my theology than I think praying for her to live would have, because for years after I was left wondering if God had answered my prayer — if it was actually his will for her to die.
It’s been 12 years since then, and my prayers look very different now. They’re not often requests, and they’re not often political pleas. They’re just conversations. They’re just me talking to someone who’s been there with me through it all. I don’t bullshit God anymore and try to dance around things that I want or things that I want to pretend he doesn’t know. I just talk to him. Because at this point, I’m not sure that he answers prayers in the ways that I used to think he might. I haven’t prayed for a horse since I found one in my backyard and learned that it still wasn’t mine. I also haven’t hidden what I want in vague, maybe manipulative pleas, pegging my desires on God’s will. If I want someone to live, I say it, like I would to a friend.
In some ways, I think my faith in God has gotten smaller, but not less magnificent. Smaller like when a crowd gets smaller. It’s become more personal, and less majestic. He’s less the genie granter and more the father that I share my confusion and frustration with because I thought the horse could be mine. I thought my sister could live. I thought that life was good. He’s the one that I cry with because of these disappointments and tragedies. And for me, that’s enough. I don’t need a God who grants wishes. I just need a God who lets me know I’m not alone, and that he hears me.
Whether he answers or not, I think he hears me. And that’s enough.
Jo O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.
Other places are
instagram: @jrolicious twitter: @jrohanlon email@example.com
Good morning Jo, I was going thru some old VCR tapes yesterday and sat and watched you perform in the “Let there be Light” contacts. It reminded me to pray for you and then this morning I read your blog. You lost the horse, then your sister, and I have watched your parents walk thru life trusting God to answer their prayers. They also lost both you as the Jo they knew & had adapt to how God answered there prayer about both you & Jason. My life & my families life has been greatly touched by walking along side of yours. Yes, in my humble opinion, God does always my prayers, just not always the way I envisioned them. So I’ll keep praying for you, not because I particularly envision anything, but I have a confidence our God will keep on answering your prayers in the complex plan He has for “the rest of your story. Love & Prayers. Vern
I did not edit or spell check. Vern
Beautiful writing, Jo! I think what struck me the most is that through your disappointments, you found out what God really means to you. Our faith is not our own until we find it through life’s trials and tribulations and realize who God really is and how he loves us so much that we are never alone. I really believe that it’s our life’s journeys that bring us to that personal, heart-felt place with God. Bless you today as you remember your sister, tomorrow as you continue without her, and from here on as you hold her memories close to your heart.