Not all lessons about prayer are taught in church. During a rushed afternoon out in the Brazilian bush, I learned one about praying for my father.
A few days earlier, my wife and I had returned from several months away at a Bible translation workshop in the city. Now we were back in the Canela village, and I was itching to finish setting up our household so that we could get back to work with our translation helpers.
In the mid-afternoon, a couple of my Canela sisters came to see me. Two Canela families had adopted Jo and me during our first session of living with the Canela, and we were now well integrated into the extended family kinship system. This had its privileges as well as responsibilities—noticeable especially since we had a four-wheel drive compact truck.
“Please take our manioc roasting pan out to the field in the hills”, one of my sisters asked. I knew from bitter experience that, along with the two-metre wide shallow metal pan, a whole load of relatives would want to catch a ride as well. Since our little truck was not much more than an overgrown jeep, it was easy to overload. I had already broken several springs driving it heavily over-loaded across rough terrain.
“Okay, let’s go,” I said, wanting to get it over with as soon as possible, before the news got out and twenty people would want a ride. Within minutes we were rolling, the pan, some hoes and axes, and half a dozen sisters and brothers bouncing in the back. So far so good.
After an hour of resentfully grinding up and down sandy hills and fording muddy creeks I arrived at the small field-village. I had planned a quick turn around before the word spread through the fields that the truck was going to the village and . . . overloaded springs!
But no, my Canela mother came running out of the house, shouting, “My son, I’m so glad you are here. Come see your father!” Well, okay. I ran into the palm leaf hut and knelt by my old Canela father who was lying on his side on a mat on the dirt floor.
“My back hurts”, he mumbled in a pain filled voice. “I fell from a ledge and landed on my neck and shoulders.” I leaned over him to look, and . . . what a shock! I saw an obvious break in the middle of his back, his spine broken to form an obtuse angle between the fifth and sixth thoracic vertebrae. Amazingly he could still move his legs, so the spinal cord was not damaged. But what could I do? He would never survive a seven hour-long trip on the back of a truck to the nearest doctor.
I hurriedly pulled some pain pills from the medical pouch I always carried, gave them to my mother with instructions on when to give them, and ran back to my truck. Only ten people jammed on the back, “Good, let’s go before more come!” I thought. I backed the truck around and just as I jammed it into low gear to lurch away, my conscience shouted out,
“You are a crummy Christian! You didn’t even pray for your old father! What kind of a son are you?”
All true. Reluctantly I shut off the engine, walked back to the hut, knelt by the old man, and put my hands on that bony lump. Then the worst missionary in Brazil prayed to the Great Healer to take care of his old father.
I returned to the truck—good, still only ten people—and drove slowly back to the village. The whole way back, I was deeply convicted about being more concerned about a possible broken truck spring than about an actual broken back in a fellow human being–someone made in the image of God.
About a month later I had another shock. A quavering voice by the door said, “My son, I’m back.” There, to my utter astonishment, stood my old father! Bent over and leaning on a stick, the vertebrae still sticking out at an angle, he had walked all the way back from the field village! Amazing that God should answer the prayer of such a miserable missionary.
I have probably sinned more in failing to pray for people and situations than in any other way. That’s why one of my questions for accountability is, “Have you prayed at least three times this week for individuals for whom you promised to pray?” I have to work at it. My conscience doesn’t always shout as loud as it did that day in the pickup truck.
Jesus’ disciples once asked Him, “Lord, teach us to pray.” I need to pray that prayer a lot. Not “Lord, teach me HOW to pray,” but just “Teach me to pray.” All of us may need to pray this prayer from time to time.
My old Canela father died before we completed the translation of the partial Bible into Canela.
Here’s a Fathers’ Day prayer for us to pray:
“Lord, teach me to pray for the hundreds of millions of fathers around the world, who speak languages in which none of the Bible is yet translated. May translation work start soon.”
Note: I first published this story in the “Look” blog post series about nine years ago.