Don't dismiss the incredible power of prayer

Dismissing prayer is a tragically seamless task for those who have never experienced its powerful ability to sustain – and transform – the heart and soul.

But as the “thoughts and prayers” debate continues – especially in the wake of the horrific high school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas that killed 10 students and teachers and left 10 wounded – there are millions of people across the globe who would testify to the definitive power of prayer.

In fact, I’ve spent my career in media talking with people who have relied on God to overcome and cope with unimaginable pain and suffering. From overt miracles to simple stories of God’s love showing up just at the right time, their experiences have moved me.

On Friday, I wrote an opinion piece for Fox News that responded to the harsh rhetoric that critics often spew when they see people offering “thoughts and prayers” after tragedies like the shooting at Santa Fe High School.

The reaction to my claims was swift, with critics hitting back that there is no “evidence” for God and that I belong in a “straitjacket” for suggesting that God can comfort us in our greatest times of need. I didn’t engage many of these people, but the entire spectacle really got me thinking about how prayer has manifested itself in my own life.

I’ve certainly felt prayer work throughout various events and relationships during my 34 years. One of the clearest examples of God responding to my prayers came last year when our family suffered the loss of my wife’s grandmother, Mary DeNardo, who we all called Nana.

Nana was diagnosed with cancer just weeks before her death on May 19, 2017. Despite being 90 years old, she was in good health up until then, so the diagnosis took our family by surprise.

She was one of those larger-than-life personalities – a woman whose love and devotion to her family was unmatched. She wasn’t my blood relative, but was, hands down, one of my favorite people. She was supportive, loving and a source of life advice. We shared similar worldviews, often bonding over discussions about faith and current events.

My wife and I prayed endlessly for her healing after the diagnosis, hoping and praying for a miracle and for more time with her. In the end, our prayers weren’t granted in the way we had wished, but it quickly became evident that God was listening.

As I reflected upon “thoughts and prayers” this past week and publicly spoke about the power of invoking God, I remembered the stunning ways in which he showed up last year amid my own pain and sadness.

I’ll never forget visiting Nana in the hospital just a week before her death. My parents sent a bouquet of flowers to try and cheer her up for Mother’s Day, so I brought them to her.

With things looking grim, Nana looked exhausted and scared. She told me she was worried about what would happen and asked me to pray with her. Then she said something that I’ll never forget: “I just pray that God sends his angels to protect me.”

In that moment I didn’t think much of what she had said, but I prayed with her, imploring God to be with her and to sustain her during such a difficult and uncertain time.

After we prayed, we talked about Jesus and Nana thanked me. Then, I walked over to the flower bouquet that my parents sent. I opened a small, white envelope that accompanied it and started to read their note to Nana.

I was floored as I read the note aloud: “We love you Nana. Get well and happy Mother’s Day. May the Lord Jesus touch you with his glorious love and power. May his angels camp around you (Psalm 34:7) and protect you.”

Nana had just openly prayed that God would send his angels for protection, and here was a note that almost word-for-word encapsulated her plea.

“Nana, can you believe it?” I said, explaining the amazing irony that seemed much grander than a coincidence. Those words granted her comfort and I was so moved that I continue to cherish that tiny card.

As the days wore on, Nana received hospice care at her home. Soon, she slipped into a deep sleep. Our family continued to pray for a miraculous healing, God’s mercy and, above all else, peace. While we held out for a miracle, reality had set in.

What happened next, though, solidified my belief that there’s truly a God who loves us, who listens and who sometimes gives us small signs that can deeply comfort us. I remember going to Nana’s house on May 17 to say goodbye; I had to travel for work that week and was unsure of what would happen in my absence.

As I sat next to Nana’s bed, I prayed, and spoke to her, hoping she could hear me. I thanked her for everything she had done for us, for the love and support she had given to us – and I told her how much she truly meant to me.

It was an overwhelming but necessary experience, as I thought about what life would be like without her and I asked God to give her peace – the same peace she had asked for as she lay in the hospital bed just days earlier.

Then, I turned to my right and saw something that almost took my breath away: two pictures of angels guiding children across a bridge were on Nana’s bedroom wall, facing her bed. The images were more than familiar; they had been hanging in my parents’ house when I was a kid.

Years earlier, my mom asked me if we wanted the images. My wife and I didn’t really have a place for them and, frankly, weren’t big fans. But we took them and ended up giving the plaques to Nana, though she never mentioned what she did with them. At some point, she had apparently hung them on her bedroom wall.

As I glanced at the pictures, I felt an overwhelming peace. Tears streamed down my face as I remembered that Nana’s wish was for God’s angels to surround her and I knew in that moment that God was granting her the peace we had so desperately sought. That imagery of the angels guiding God’s children across the bridge left me with a deep solace.

We lost Nana two days later on May 19, 2017. It wasn’t the conclusion to her story that any of us wanted, but prayer sustained us, it comforted her, and it gave my wife and I the peace we needed to move forward.

It’s a small example, but one that shows the depths of God’s love for us.

Today, those pictures of the angels are now hanging in our house as a reminder of God’s love – and of the power of prayer in our lives. God’s there for us, even in our times of suffering; all we have to do is ask.