I had read all the books, dog-earing and highlighting and underlining key points. We had attended all the classes. We had researched the best products and studied all conceivable scenarios. We had our route mapped out and timed. Being an intense rule follower, I had planned and practiced for this moment, covering all the bases like a devoted prepper drilling for the apocalypse. We would be masters at this whole child birthing and child rearing gig. Amazingly, the labor and delivery went beautifully (so much so that I don’t usually share my birthing stories with other moms because I expect they’d come at me with pitchforks, jealous at how easy it was for me).
Our first child, a daughter, came into this world on September 9, 1999. 9/9/99. She was pink and smooth and perfect, and all was right with our world. We went home on schedule to settle into our new lives. Two days later, however, we found ourselves back in the hospital, this time in a children’s wing, monitoring our baby girl for a possible infection. It was caused by the fact that I had tested positive for strep prior to delivery, and the birth was so fast that the nurses hadn’t had time to administer IV antibiotics to stave off any transmission to the baby.
At the same time, somewhere in the western Atlantic Ocean, Hurricane Floyd was churning, a massive Category 4 storm that had already hit the Bahamas and currently threatened the northeast Florida/ southeast Georgia coast where we lived. My parents, on top of coming northward from the Space Coast of Florida for the happy occasion of becoming grandparents, were now in evacuation mode as well. We watched for two full days as this massive storm covered the state of Florida on the satellite maps; we watched for two full days as the traffic on I-95 just outside our hospital room got more and more congested. Thankfully, our newborn showed no signs of infection, and because other hospitals in the area were being evacuated to this one, we were discharged. In my exhausted and worried state, I begged them not to evict us. I simply did not feel prepared to handle evacuating from a monster storm with a newborn that may or may not have a life-threatening risk. This was one scenario for which I had not prepared.
My husband returned to the hospital after sending my parents and our dog off to find a place along an agreed-upon evacuation route and packing a few important things in the vehicle. Then we started off; I was amazed at his planning and efficiency. He had thought of everything: he packed the insurance papers and important documents, extra clothing for me and the baby, diapers and wipes, burp cloths and nursing pads, photographs and my completed scrapbooks, which were so precious to me. Then we headed out in our Ford “Exploder” as we nicknamed it, joining all the other evacuees who had waited a little too long to leave. Sometime between packing and driving, my husband managed to make phone calls to people in our church, acquaintances really, to ask them if they had anywhere for us to go to with a newborn and a postpartum wife. “We’re like Mary and Joseph here, needing a place to stay,” he explained. A kind couple offered to let us stay with them in a place a little over three hours away. Actually, it would’ve been three hours on a normal day with normal traffic. In the standstill traffic and crowded back roads, however, this three-hour tour took over seven hours. At one point while driving, the Exploder was threatening to overheat, so Clint turned off the air conditioning to give the engine a break. I remember changing our daughter’s teeny tiny diaper in standstill traffic, her whole body fitting on the console between the driver’s and passenger’s front seats. As I sat there in the sweltering car, fanning a newspaper over her squinched, red face to help keep her cool, I began crying and wailing, “We’re cooking her brains!”.
Twenty-one years later, this sounds funny, but at the time, it most assuredly was not. In 1999 we were just beginning to have cell phones. You were charged by the minutes, towers were few and far between, and coverage was spotty at best. There was no texting, no smart phones, and no alternative ways to easily communicate, especially in such drastic circumstances. My parents knew the name of the town where we were heading, so they agreed to drive there and we’d try to meet up in the morning. They hadn’t booked anything ahead of time. When we finally, miraculously, connected the next day, we found they had slept in the Walmart parking lot, in the car. My 78-year old dad and my 61-year old mom and our dog. We fared somewhat better, but only through the lens of the relative. In my normal life, there was no way we would’ve ever considered the dive where we stayed, sharing a room with that kind couple from church. We did not care. We had a room, we had a bed, and we were safe.
It may come as a surprise to you, but believe it or not, but in all our child birthing classes, in all the books I had read, in all our practices and preparation, we had not prepared for this particular scenario. It never entered our minds to have a contingency plan to evacuate from a catastrophic hurricane with a newborn baby. You see, you can study and research, you can prep and drill, you can assume you have thought of everything, but as John Lennon sang, “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.” I used to take great comfort in following the rules. Doing things by the book gave me a false sense of control. A sense that if you played by the rules, you won the game. Perfection equalled success. Leaving no room for error meant that I had everything covered. But that’s not at all the way life works, is it? Life is complicated; life is messy. Because life is dynamic and ever-changing, there’s no way to perfectly prepare for any of it, really.
I was reminded again of this again a few months later, when at two o’clock in the morning I was nursing and rocking my daughter. I don’t remember what my concerns were, but I knew something was worrying me, and I knew I needed to pray. I desperately wanted to talk to God, but I was a pretty new follower of Christ and had lots of incorrect assumptions about Him. So I went to my default: if I could say the “right” words, in the “perfect” way, if I tried to be as good as I possibly could, then maybe, just maybe, God would listen to me and pay attention to my requests and answer my prayers. I struggled with phrasing everything perfectly, stuttered and stumbled as I tried to remember the “right” way to do it. As I spoke quietly in the night to a God that I wasn’t sure even knew who I was, God interrupted me. “Don’t try to be perfect; just talk to me.”
Suddenly, things got very real. It was unmistakable. It wasn’t an audible voice, and I’m not sure we as humans have adequate words to describe what happened. But this was clear: I sensed Him communicate with me. How it was expressed is less important than what He said. "Don’t try to be perfect; just talk to me.”
Could it really be that simple? Weren’t there some holy hoops to jump through, some i’s to dot or t’s to cross to make my prayer acceptable? There had to be some formula to it, some special checklist, some list of prayer criteria that, having once met them all, God would take my call. After all, that’s how it is with people, right? But God doesn’t have a complicated checklist that we have to meet, or a scavenger hunt that we have to complete, stumbling around and guessing at what we can do to get Him to listen. Listen to what God says to us in the Bible, His word to us.
The Lord is near to all who call upon Him, to all who call upon Him sincerely and in truth. Psalm 145:18
Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. James 4:8a
And this is the confidence which we have in Him: that if we ask anything according to His will,
He listens to and hears us. 1John 5:14 See what I mean? There’s nothing in what I just read to you that says you have to be perfect or get yourself cleaned up and presentable and “good enough” to talk to God. The truth of the matter is, we could never get good enough to talk to Him on our own, because He is completely holy and perfect, and we are so very sinful and flawed. But because of LOVE, God made a way for us to draw near to Him, and that way is through His Son, Jesus. Jesus is the only perfect person who ever lived, because He is God’s only Son. Jesus took all our mistakes and our imperfections and the bad things we’ve done, called sin. He took all those things on Himself, and when He died on a cross, He defeated all our sins and took away all our mistakes. His perfection makes up for all our imperfections, and because of that, God will draw near to us and listen to us when we talk to Him through prayers.
Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace (the throne of God’s unmerited favor to us sinners), that we may receive mercy [for our failures] and find grace to help in time of need [appropriate help and well-timed help, coming just when we need it]. Hebrews 4:16
So you see, there are no magic spiritual words, no elaborate plans, no fancy vocabulary needed. I believe God’s encouragement is the same to you as it was and is for me:
“Don’t try to be perfect. Just talk to me.”