Petitionary prayer: the monkey’s paw of my faith

This morning was trash day in our neighborhood. Trash day is an important day in our household because my seven-year-old son is obsessed with garbage trucks. Actually, “obsessed” is putting it mildly, but suffice it to say that he gets up early every Wednesday so he can see the garbage truck come down our street and watch it empty the trash cans into its hopper. Sometimes he gets up at 3 a.m. just to be sure he doesn’t miss it, but that’s really beside the point. Today was trash day, and although my son woke up on time, the garbage truck was late.

Unfortunately, school is still in session here, and my son has to go to school regardless of whether or not he has seen the garbage truck yet. This is easier said than done, of course. If my son hasn’t had his Wednesday morning garbage truck fix, he does not want to get on the school bus, and he will invoke the nuclear option. I had a lot of work to do this morning, including getting two of my other kids to their respective schools, so I was pretty stressed out and really didn’t want to manage an autistic seven-year-old who’d been deprived of his garbage truck, so as the clock ticked ever nearer the scheduled bus-arrival time and the garbage truck still hadn’t shown, I became ever more nervous. I really, really needed that garbage truck to get here fast. I didn’t know what I’d do if it didn’t.

As luck would have it, the garbage truck arrived on our street from the north at exactly 7:48 a.m.–about two seconds before my son’s bus arrived from the south. The garbage truck and the bus reached an impasse right in front of our house; the garbage truck couldn’t go any further or pick up any more trash cans until the bus drove away, and I was not going to let that bus drive away without my son. It was a cosmic O. Henry story written just for our family.

You know the old proverb, “Be careful what you wish for, you might get it”? Well, if there’s any lesson that God has endeavored to teach me over the years, it’s that He is not a magic lamp, nor a Magic 8 Ball, nor any other magic thing. He doesn’t exist to serve me; I exist to serve Him. Technically, I did not get down on my knees and issue a formal invitation for divine intervention on the garbage truck issue, but I can’t deny that deep in my heart I was performing some type of petitionary prayer–something along the lines of please please please let that truck get here before the bus does–even though I should know better by now. It’s a reflex, and I can’t help myself.

When my first child was a baby, I had difficulty adjusting to the responsibilities of motherhood, i.e. I had difficulty adjusting to the sound of crying that doesn’t stop no matter what you do. Because I was a somewhat devout individual in those days, I used to pray that God would help me to be more patient with my daughter. Because I was young and naive, I didn’t realize that praying for patience would only yield me more opportunities to develop patience. After several weeks of crying and screaming–not all of it the baby’s doing–I finally got on my knees and told God, “Remember when I asked for patience? I was just kidding. I don’t really want patience. In fact, I’d be perfectly happy if I never got any more patience than what I have right now. So let’s just forget I said anything, shall we? Thanks! X’s and O’s, amen.”

It might have been a coincidence or my imagination that my daughter’s screaming let up a little after that, but these experiences have lasting effects on our psyches. This was when I first realized that I needed to be careful what I prayed for because there was no foretelling what divine intervention would try to pull on me.

For those of you who never had to read “The Monkey’s Paw” when you were in school, let me just explain that the story is about a guy who gets this bewitched monkey’s paw that grants wishes to its owner, but the wisher will inevitably be punished for screwing around with fate. I don’t want to give away the plot, but let’s just say our hero’s wishes are granted, all right–with a vengeance! And because of various experiences that I have had over the years, I can no longer hear the familiar standard, “God always answers our prayers, just not always the way we expect Him to,” without thinking of the Monkey’s Paw.

Lately, for reasons unrelated to garbage truck punctuality, my seven-year-old has been unusually irritable, invoking the nuclear option at the slightest provocation (and sometimes, I suspect, just for fun), and it has been extremely challenging for my husband and me to deal with. Last Saturday he was having a major meltdown over who-remembers-what, and I had a meltdown of my own, for which I was immediately sorry, but I wasn’t sure how to repent of it. The challenge of parenting an autistic child is that the part of the brain that you really need to connect with often seems totally inaccessible. My son lives in his own world; to pull him into ours long enough to communicate requires some fancy footwork, and I’m afraid I’m not nearly as graceful as I need (and ought) to be.

As I sat in our upstairs hall, cradling my sobbing son in my lap, I thought, “What on earth am I supposed to do with this child?” I remembered a conversation I had with a friend several years ago. My friend’s oldest daughter was what we euphemistically term a “strong-willed child.” (How many people have weak-willed children, I wonder, and how does one break into that racket?) She said that when things got really bad with her daughter, “that’s when I go into my bedroom and I pray, ‘Heavenly Father, you have to tell me what to do with this child because you know her better than I do.'” My initial reaction was, “That’s really profound,” and, simultaneously, an incredulous “And that works for you?” If I were to have that conversation with God, the best response I could hope for is “I gave you a brain–figure it out yourself, lady!” I shudder to think of what answer I’d get if He were feeling creative that day.

I know that sounds wrong–perverse, even–but I truly believe that God speaks to us in the language we understand, and in my language God’s favorite catch phrase is “There’s nothing much wrong with your life that couldn’t be fixed by you being a better person. So suck it up, we’ve all got problems!” The second most popular is “You get what you get and you don’t get upset.” So as I sat there in my upstairs hall with my son (who was still crying and screaming, incidentally), at the end of my proverbial rope but fervently avoiding an appeal to the Power That Be for fear of invoking aforementioned Law of the Monkey’s Paw, I thought to myself how immensely grateful I was that the situation wasn’t any worse than this, and how, considering how much worse my situation could be, I should totally be able to figure something out. Suck it up. Whatever. All I really knew at that point was that I was definitely not praying for patience. God and I have been over that before.

At this point I imagine that some of my friends will read this and think, “So if this is Rebecca’s attitude toward prayer, does that mean that when she says I’ll be in her prayers, she’s actually pronouncing some sort of curse on me?” Oh, no, brothers and sisters. I don’t think that’s how prayer works. I pray for other people all the time with impunity because I think a) God can’t possibly have it in for everybody, and b) as long as my prayer isn’t selfishly motivated, it can’t backfire on me. By this same token I feel safe soliciting the prayers of other people on my behalf, as their hearts are undoubtedly purer than mine in any respect.

Also, I can’t think of the Monkey’s Paw without remembering that Simpsons “Treehouse of Horror” episode where Homer gets the monkey’s paw and in exasperation finally wishes for a turkey sandwich: “And I don’t want any zombie turkeys, I don’t want to turn into a turkey myself, and I don’t want any other weird surprises. You got it?” Then when the turkey sandwich materializes and he bites into it, he says, “Hey! Not bad… Nice, hot mustard… Good bread… The turkey’s a little dry… THE TURKEY’S A LITTLE DRY! Oh, foe, the cursed teeth! What demon from the depths of hell created thee! ” Which in turn reminds me how important it is to keep things in their proper perspective. This is where my prayers are at these days. Mostly I offer thanks and apologies. I try not to ask for anything for myself, but in the event that I can’t control my reflexes, I try to remember that whatever God has in mind, I must not kvetch about the dryness of the turkey.

Petitionary prayer: the monkey's paw of my faith


  1. So what finally happened this morning with the garbage truck and the school bus and your son?

  2. Latter-day Guy says:

    This post was awesome! Thank you.

  3. Cynthia L. says:

    Well I never put it together in these terms until now, but RJ, maybe the reason I love your voice so much is that it is a near perfect blend of O Henry and The Simpsons. Mmmm. Two great tastes that taste great together. And not even a little dry.

  4. Zefram – I eventually got him to get on the bus, but he wasn’t happy about it. I let the bus driver take command of the situation–she shut the doors, and they were off soon after, so apparently she got him to sit down and buckle his seat belt. I don’t know how much he screamed on the way to school–but no incident report was filed, which is all I need to know. :) He came home in a fine mood, so obviously he got over it.

    The garbage truck just went on its merry way.

  5. It’s a fascinating privilege to glimpse the insides of someone else’s prayer life. It makes me consider the various stages mine has gone through and its current limitations.

    I really enjoy your posts, Rebecca.

  6. Thanks, Rebecca, for sharing the end of the story. Or maybe I should say the end of this episode. If something has happened to change your garbage truck’s schedule (additions to the route, a new driver, etc.), you know this could happen again?

  7. I’m sorry you had to go through this but you made it into a delightful story.
    Hang in there with the autism issues – I feel for you. It is a magical thing when you come across people who know where the “reset” button is for these mystery children and can get them back on track after a complete short circuit incident. I’m glad he came home happy!

  8. From the OP: “(How many people have weak-willed children, I wonder, and how does one break into that racket?) ” Christopher Durang says Nyquil is the answer…

    On prayer, I’ve moved in the last few years from the laundry list to seeking His will, and found that it has made prayer more devotional for me.

    Great insights.

    Cool that your son has his garbage trucks. For years (years!) it was trains for ours. Now it’s guns. Not so much fun.

  9. Thank you for an entertaining and enlightning post, Rebecca. May God bless you with unlimited patience and awesome parental powers.

    Seems like you ought to get to know your garbagemen. One plate of cookies and a 30-second conversation (“Did you know that my autistic 7-year-old son just lives for your weekly visit to our neightborhood?”) would probably make your house the most important house in town for them. They might even let him sit in the truck. Or pull the lever that runs the Crusher.

    Punctuality may be a virtue, but it’s definitelly overrated. Watch Ferris Bueller again as a reminder that school is not as important as good mental health. I’d park Junior in front of the window every Wednesday morning and not depart for school until the blessed trash event occurs, even if it’s ten o’clock.

  10. RJ, you started my day delightfully. You can find almost all truth in the Simpsons. Like you I’m scared to death to pray for anything specific. I’ve even tried reverse psychology on God (you know, don’t throw me in the brier patch) and He’s always on to me. But come on, you actually prayed for patience? That’s just like climbing to the top of a tall building in a thunderstorm and holding onto the lighting rod. Right now I’m praying that I can overcome pride and I’m hoping I can trick the Lord into giving me cool stuff to be prideful about.

  11. Kevin Barney says:

    Oh great, with that monkey’s paw image in my brain I may never pray again. But I loved the post, and the Simpsons bit sealed the deal.

    There is a special place in heaven reserved for all parents of autistic children. That’s not a particular cross I’ve had to bear, but my little brother is autistic, and how my sainted mother was able to deal with him all those years (he just finally went into a group home last year) is beyond my comprehension.

  12. Mark Brown says:

    Thank you for this post. Parenting presents us with some interesting challenges. It is probably a good thing we don’t know what they are or how hard they will be beforehand, otherwise the human race would die out in a generation.

    About halfway through your post I started thinking about that song by Garth Brooks — “Sometimes I Thank God for Unanswered Prayers”. You’ve achieved something magical when you can evoke O. Henry, The Simpsons, and country music.

  13. Kristine says:

    Also Gerard Manley Hopkins:

    Patience, hard thing! the hard thing but to pray,
    But bid for, Patience is! Patience who asks
    Wants war, wants wounds; weary his times, his tasks;
    To do without, take tosses, and obey.
    Rare patience roots in these, and, these away,
    Nowhere. Natural heart’s ivy, Patience masks
    Our ruins of wrecked past purpose. There she basks
    Purple eyes and seas of liquid leaves all day.

    We hear our hearts grate on themselves: it kills
    To bruise them dearer. Yet the rebellious wills
    Of us we do bid God bend to him even so.
    And where is he who more and more distils
    Delicious kindness?—He is patient. Patience fills
    His crisp combs, and that comes those ways we know.

  14. Dave (9) – The folks at our garbage-collection service already know us well–it’s hard to avoid noticing a 7-year-old chasing your truck around the neighborhood and jumping around with glee. The garbage man has brought my son little toy garbage cans with the company logo on it, and he always waves to us. They don’t leave us nasty notes about our recycling can being overloaded, either.

    As for school, I would be inclined to keeping him home to see the garbage truck, except that it’s very important to keep his routine as consistent as possible. As upset as he gets about missing the garbage truck, changes in schedule just compound the problem. Also, he loves riding the bus to school. It really was an O. Henry story–he was torn between his need to get on the bus and his need to watch the garbage truck. It all worked out in the end. And over the summer he’ll get to watch garbage trucks to his heart’s content (if such a thing be possible).

  15. Everyone – thank you for your kind words. (And thanks for the GMH, Kristine. He’s one of my favorites.)

  16. RJ, I always always always love your voice- and especially on this, for reasons personal and close to home. Wonderful piece.

  17. SLO Sapo says:

    Nice little slice of life. Somewhat off topic, but it reminded me of when my son and his family were living in San Rafael near a fire station. My then-three-year-old grandson had developed an obsession with fire trucks. One day he and I were walking on a busy downtown street when a fire truck raced by with lights blazing and sirens blaring. My grandson yelled out, “Fire fruck! Fire fruck! Fire fruck!” Without a whole lot of emphasis on the “r” in “fruck”.

    I was kinda praying for a hole to open up in the sidewalk and swallow us up, but it didn’t happen.

  18. “there’s nothing wrong with your life that couldn’t be fixed by being a better person” is a pretty wise statement. You guys might think I’m dumb for just figuring that out, but I worry a lot about my kids and extended family and one day, I had this flash of insight that I couldn’t didn’t have the power to make their lives better, but they did, if they made better choices, if they just chose righteousness, their lives would be better. Not perfect. It’s off the subject, but it struck me how you said it, thanks.

    I like #9’s suggestion. Garbage men are so under-valued and get little appreciation. My Jessie, who’s now 32, loved the garbage truck as well and the men would let her ride with them down the street! I have the cutest pictures of her hanging on at the age of 4, with a scruffy, scary looking character carefully watching her as she just lorded it over the other kids, waving as she went down the street on the garbage truck.

    They aren’t allowed to do that anymore, of course.

    I believe in prayer, the swallow prayer, sometimes they’re answered, but often, I’m feeling so desperate and those prayers are sort of screaming begging hopeless prayers and then I get so mad at God.

  19. Darwintroll says:

    Having 4 autistic children myself ( yes you read that correctly) I have learned something for myself. God doesn’t answer prayers most of the time, if at all. He shouldn’t really have to. After all, when we get down to the precipitate, why should we be depending on him for anything. Solve your own problems by reading your situation and resolving to find a workable solution. It may never be the best, most efficient, most economical…but then your problems don’t ever really call for such monumental solutions. It is really nice to think ” This situation is beyond me, I need an big red easy button. Oh yeah I can petition the great creator and he can solve it for me.” What a defeatist attitude. I am reminded of the scene in The Count of Monte Cristo, when the Abbe Faria is regailed by Dantes reguarding his academic accomplishments in prison. The response is poignant.
    “What are you thinking of?” asked the abbe smilingly, imputing the deep abstraction in which his visitor was plunged to the excess of his awe and wonder.

    “I was reflecting, in the first place,” replied Dantes, “upon the enormous degree of intelligence and ability you must have employed to reach the high perfection to which you have attained. What would you not have accomplished if you had been free?”

    “Possibly nothing at all; the overflow of my brain would probably, in a state of freedom, have evaporated in a thousand follies; misfortune is needed to bring to light the treasures of the human intellect. Compression is needed to explode gunpowder. Captivity has brought my mental faculties to a focus; and you are well aware that from the collision of clouds electricity is produced — from electricity, lightning, from lightning, illumination.”

    I have learned to rely upon my own faculties for solutions. Such action breeds stronger resolve to refuse defeat at the hands of fate. Thus I stop being an apologist for God when things don’t go “right” for me and my prayers remain unanswered. Reguarding autistic children…play out their interests when they have a melt down. It can be an amazing distractor. More importantly, don’t coddle them. They need pressure to achieve illumination.
    Sorry about the long post…I’d be suprised if anyone even reads this far.

  20. Well, I don’t know what I’d say to a person who has a more mystical (and positive) experience with petitionary prayer than I have. I don’t doubt the validity of their experience; it’s just not mine. I don’t think we’re all here to learn the same lesson. In parenting my children, I’ve noticed that one child responds better to certain tactics and another child responds better to other tactics, so I imagine that principle applies to God’s children as well. He loves us all equally, I suppose (so I’ve heard), but he doesn’t treat us all the same.

  21. annegb (18) – My son would LOVE to ride on the garbage truck. He would love it better than Disneyland. It’s probably a good thing he can’t do it; his life would be all downhill from there.

  22. StillConfused says:

    When my son was a baby he decided to throw a fit in a grocery store. So I just laid down beside him and threw and even bigger one. He never dared throw a fit in public again. So when all else fails, remember the “embarrass the child” option.

  23. TaterTot says:

    Nothing to add, I just wanted to say thanks for this post. I really needed to hear it today.

  24. I really loved this Rebecca, I feel it too. Also, don’t pray to understand Christ better. Hoo boy, that was a rough year.

  25. Playing the Embarrass the Child game does not _I repeat NOT_ work with Autistic children.

  26. What lovely post. My older brother is autistic, and I have my own favorite melt down memories.

    I think the current pattern of “thank you for/bless me with” fosters the God-as-Magic-Genie idea too much. For me, the Lord’s Prayer has been the most helpful corrective. One help-me-out-with-temporal-things petition, and daily bread is a pretty minimal request. The rest is all forgive me, help me forgive others, help me avoid temptation, and I acknowledge God’s will, power, and glory.

    Even if all of our petitionary prayers from “please help me find my keys” “please let the garbage truck come” to “please heal my son” don’t pan out the way we thought, I take the Savior’s model to mean that ALL of us get our requests for forgiveness granted. All of us get help avoiding temptation and forgiving other people (though perhaps how that happens may be more like your patience example). And all of do better when we acknowledge God’s will and power and glory as we live our lives.

    If your most common answer is “There’s nothing much wrong with your life that couldn’t be fixed by you being a better person.” I think that fits. But I take the lord’s prayer to mean that we ALL can ask for help in becoming a better person–we’re not always left to pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps to become better–in fact, I don’t think we are meant to be.

    God-as-provider-of-divine-grace is different to me than God-as-magic-genie, though it is hard to articulate the difference.

  27. This post reminds me so much of Foreskin’s Lament by Shalom Auslander. (very irreverent, a little risque, but hilarious) One line from that book has stuck with me:

    “I believe in God. It’s been a real problem for me.”

    Thanks for this post.

  28. philomytha says:

    You have perfectly and eloquently described my dysfunctional relationship with prayer. I usually just think of it in these terms:

    If I don’t pray, something bad will happen.
    If I pray, something bad will happen.

    It’s so stressful.

  29. John Taber says:

    This is something I’ve actually been pondering a good bit lately. Here’s how I’ve framed the question: What need does an all-knowing God have of feedback? That is, I can see praying to find out God’s will, but I don’t see the point of trying to influence it.

  30. living in zion says:

    I loved, loved, loved this post. Thanks for the reality check.

    I have my own twist on unanswered prayers. When things aren’t how they are supposed to be, I add the problem to my mental list of “Things To Discuss With the Big Guy Someday” .
    I have laughed myself silly thinking about little me standing in front of a huge golden throne (I envision Abraham Lincoln’s statue in Washington D.C., only in gold) , with my scrolling list of “What Were You Thinking??” questions. It doesn’t matter if/how my questions are answered. I feel better just thinking about my voice being heard. It is stupid but in my brain it works.

    I say special prayers for everyone I know who has Autistic Children.

  31. living in zion says:

    #22 does not get it.

    Thank goodness I haven’t seen a parent on the floor in public throwing a fit. I would probably call 911.

  32. britt k says:

    I’ve said that “just kidding about asking for patience” prayer…and done the getting answers to prayers that are change yourself, fix it, you have a brain, be patient…type…


    do you think it works if we sneak each other our prayer lists and pray for each other? ;)

  33. I wonder if the garbage company has any flexibility w/their perhaps if you spoke w/them, they could arrange for your street to be among the first. Thanks for the perspective you shared. Personally I loathe the large rumble of our garbage truck- just as it is soooo very noisy. I am glad your son finds such enjoyment in that truck!

  34. #29: “This is something I’ve actually been pondering a good bit lately. Here’s how I’ve framed the question: What need does an all-knowing God have of feedback? That is, I can see praying to find out God’s will, but I don’t see the point of trying to influence it.”

    Maybe on some things God has made up his mind, and on other things He’s waiting to see what you or I bring to the table. Maybe in some situations there is a range of righteous things one can pray for, and likewise a range of loving ways that He can answer those prayers.

    What do you think, Rebecca?

  35. “God-as-provider-of-divine-grace is different to me than God-as-magic-genie, though it is hard to articulate the difference.”

    The difference is in whether what you ask for is actually going to help you and everyone that help would also impact.

    Believe it or not, God really doesn’t have anything better to do than love and care for us. We are His children. He tells us Himself when He told Moses, who also thought man was nothing:

    “For behold, this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” Moses 1: 39

    Our prayers are always answered. Sometimes with miracles. Sometimes with silence. When we can see the answer in the silence is when life is full of miracles.

  36. Wow! Beautiful post, Rebecca!

  37. Its kinda wonderful things ahead of our faith.

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