Sunday, April 14, 2024

Sunday Post: Prayer

A few years ago I ghostwrote an e-book whose working title was Why Christians Pray. Ghostwriting contracts specify that the writer's outline and ideas are going to be rewritten--every single sentence may be rewritten--and published under someone else's name and title, so I have no idea what's become of that book by now. Today's poem contains some of the same thoughts.

Can God foresee all things to come
And hear each individual prayer
And balance all things so the sum
Affords each individual care?

Could, certainly. But that God does
Not choose to oblige all's just as plain.
Some people pray for sun to shine;
The sum of things still calls for rain.

This having seen, some cry "Retreat!
Rise above mere petition's prayer!"
They stretch too high. They lose their feet.
We see them fall. Beware, beware!

"Are prayers even heard?" someone might ask,
Almost an atheist from vexation.
That one's directed to the task
Of making prayer a conversation.

We may not get all that we want.
God is not Santa Claus, and nor
Have we always been good. Yet we 
Get much that we are working for.

For work is prayer, and prayer is work;
Though some things are not on the table,
Many are given to the ones
Who do as much as they are able.

If they ask blessing, then they ask,
"Lord, what must I do to receive it?"
And, given guidance to their task,
Set to work as if they believe it.


"Of all the people to write about answered prayer!" someone is thinking. "Has this writer not told us how many of her friends and family are dead, how many are ill, and how inadequate her income has been? Is her example not one we should try to avoid following in any way?"

I've avoided writing about my prayer life for that reason. 

There are misguided Christians who teach that the purpose of prayer is to teach us to want whatever we get. They think God wants us all to be Pollyanna, a fictional character of about a hundred years ago who shrieked "I'm so glad my leg is broken!"--causing all who heard her, no doubt, to want to break her other leg so she could be twice as glad. I don't want to be mistaken for one of those people. 

Bereavement is not a blessing. Illness is not a blessing. Poverty is not a blessing. I don't believe any good is accomplished by pretending that they are. 

This life tends to contain a mixture of good and bad things. Blessings and curses, if you will. People who pray often feel that they have received blessings that offset their misfortunes; this is part of the answer to their prayers. 

The other part is that, although Christians don't believe that God "is a collectivist," God has given us the gifts of choice and consequence, and set us here in relationship to one another. We are not told that all the answers to our prayers are going to come directly through ourselves alone. Nor do they. Sometimes we are called to be the answers to one another's prayers. Sometimes the effectiveness of our spiritual lives is greatly reduced by a selfish insistence that prayers and their answers are all about "just Jesus and me" and nobody else.

I have not been given all the answers to all the questions I, or anyone else, might ask, nor is this web site an appropriate place to talk about answers I have been given. It's not the place to discuss other people's lives or deaths or illnesses. I can say a little, in general terms, about my own life. So, readers beware...I feel a "testimony" coming on.

I believe that we can ask for guidance in our lives and affairs, and receive it. The Bible says that our "ears shall hear a voice, saying 'This is the way.'" A voice is not necessarily the Voice of God. By study and practice we learn how to "try the spirits" and recognize "whether they be of God." The "voices" that people who think in "hearing" terms can be said to "hear"--the thoughts in our minds--generally "are of" other people's interests, and our impulses to serve our own interests. God's will, the Highest Good, may be served at the same time that people's interests are served; there's nothing absolutely wrong about being human, with human bodies and minds. We are not given one infallible rule for knowing which of the voices clamoring "This is the way" is "of God." We are given the Law and the Prophets, the Gospels and the Epistles, to help us sort out true "words" and false ones. 

We have been given a great deal of guidance toward being able to heal ourselves and others. I think it's a mistake to imagine that we can always cure or transcend every illness, or that God will miraculously provide ways to keep every Christian's body in perfect health. We live in a mortal world. But we can do a great deal to ameliorate our mortal condition. 

Some of what seem, in hindsight, like early mistakes in my life were things about which I don't remember praying much. I didn't feel that I had choices to ask for guidance in making. Well, I had a limited selection of choices, none of which seemed very good to me at the time. I went to one church college, thought I might have done better at another one, took a summer course there and realized I was better off at the first one. I had a completely useless vaccination and was ill for most of two years. All that happened while I was young enough to be told that I must do this or that, while the other choices life offered all seemed to be classified as "rebellion" and come with less desirable consequences than obedience brought...and the consequences of obedience were undesirable enough. In any case, once I was ill, the people telling me what I must do all faded away. I reached legal adulthood and now all the human "voices" were asking me what I was going to do with the mess they had made of my life so far.

I prayed. I asked, even besought, suggestions from older people. Their suggestions didn't work too well. One morning I woke up with the message, "Arise and go to Maryland," echoing through my mind. I called someone in Maryland, asked about jobs there, and was told about one that sounded good. I went up there and was promptly baited-and-switched to a work-for-rent situation in a house where I didn't even want to rent. Then I was temporarily homeless for a few days. "Well, God, here I am in wonderful Maryland! Why?" One day when I asked that question--I asked it several times that summer--a sort of vision came to me: other people. People I did and did not know. I remember thinking that one face had to have come from the cover painting on a new book on display at the library, of all things! That was the face of my adoptive sister, whom I met next winter. I was in Maryland to benefit from being near some people there, and so that some other people would benefit from my being there  It was just a momentary, vague visual impression on my mind, not the sort of experience some people imagine as the result of a vision quest, which I had not done; it was also a true vision. 

I wasn't strong enough to keep a job for long, so I did temporary jobs, a day here, a day there, a lot of days sweating out the infection in bed. Despite good typing and spelling scores I looked too ill to get steady temp work, so I advertised typing and odd jobs. People were selling typewriters, mostly Royal Standards, off cheap. I bought one, then another one in case that one broke down, then some more for subcontractors as business expanded. The humorist Richard Armour was once tagged in a magazine as "the Man with Five Typewriters." In the 1980s I had a dozen, including a word processor with floppy disks. At any given time in December people were using most of them. The odd jobs network was a wonderful thing. It lasted about twenty years. 

As people started buying computers and doing their own typing I expanded my odd jobs repertoire. A housemate and I started doing massage when an older couple who called themselves massage therapists cheated us out of money. Neither of us had any training, nor did we think massage was effective enough to be worth the trouble, but at least we weren't frauds like them, and also we were younger and cuter than they were. They needed to be submarined. So they were. I saw that massage can in fact have medical benefits, bought some books and took some courses, and became one of Washington's more respected practitioners, before greedheads started demanding that we invest in lots of local licenses.

In my late twenties both of my parents became ill at the same time. I went back home. Mother recovered and went back to work. Dad went blind, moved into a retirement place, paid me to come in and clean and read the mail. It wasn't much of an income. I could make as much money on a weekend trip to Washington as I did in a month, even of steady minimum-wage work--home nursing, or fundraising for the Salvation Army--at home. So I divided the time for a few years. I was a young woman, I met men, eventually I met one who seemed worth holding on to. "Lord, is it possible that, much as I like my solitude, I could be happily married to a fellow introvert? Is it possible that, if I were in the city, my natural sister would come home and help Dad? Wouldn't he rather 'see,' or at least hear, his grandchildren? Hasn't Sister herself admitted that she needs to do something beyond just being, or having been, a Beauty?" I would have liked to persuade myself that a pleasure was a duty. But a phrase from the Bible came to mind. "By permission, not by commandment." Even while I was prospering in the city, there were indications that I ought to have spent more of that time at home. 

In my thirties, when I went gluten-free and experienced good health, there was no room for questions about it. I was blessed. I had the life everyone wanted. Self-employed, successful, happily married, making good money just by having fun, with job duties that included reading, writing, editing, walking in nature parks, giving back rubs to celebrities, going to parties, supporting charities, shopping, and taking road trips. Even the clothes that I enjoyed wearing, which also happened to be the look my husband loved, happened to be in fashion. It reached the point where I actually prayed: "It is enough. I'm grateful for all these blessings and don't want to lose any of them, but God, I don't think I could stand any more." 

So there were a few years when those blessings continued, no less and no more. Then my husband died, and his ex-wife attacked the odd jobs network. I needed more work during the crying-every-single-day stage of widowhood, but I was getting less. We'd never been sued but now we had an enemy who was using threats and blackmail to try to prevent me, particularly, from getting any jobs at all. People who were intimidated by the ex were saying "You can't fight this woman! She's evil." People who were not intimidated were saying, "If you want to fight this woman, you're going to have to be as tough and mean as she is. Kidnap the sick patient she's claiming to care for out of her house, and make the patient testify against her. Turn in all the evidence of her tax fraud, insurance fraud, Social Security fraud, and other fraud. She's made a lot of money as a private nurse whose patients all died after putting her name in their wills--and two of them were young: have her investigated as a serial murderer. If she can be deported, get her deported." I kidnapped no patients but I did mail in the evidence to get her deported, just for safety's sake. I thought that that, and just going to court and demonstrating that she had no right to sell the house my husband had been paying for, would protect my income from work and rental property. The crying-every-day stage would pass, and being a widow would be like being a bachelor.

Well, I was wrong about the house. It was easy to prove that my husband had never missed a payment, that the ex had no share in the house and had never been invited into it, that instead of having a will he'd divided his wealth among real estate and bank accounts with a relative's name on each title, that the ex had taken over the payments on a much bigger house, and that my husband's clear intention had been to leave our house to me. But his name was on the title as the sole owner. My husband had absolutely refused to give anyone "power of attorney" over his estate. His doctor and I had reminded him that the law recognized a "limited power of attorney" that would have allowed either the doctor or me just to pay his bills, but he wanted to pay his own bills as long as he could sit up and hold a pen to sign a check, and we hadn't argued. The ex produced a "power of attorney" document that lawyers recognized as foreign, but valid, and "vicious." My husband would never have signed such a document and, funnily enough, the signatures were on a separate page--as if they'd been signed to some other document. Oddly, although the document had a notary's seal on it, the signatures of my husband's name, the ex's name, and the notary's name were all clearly done by one hand...hers. And I never could find that notary. A Maryland judge, a very young woman, new to the job and looking as if she might have been blackmailed rather than bribed, upheld the ex's sale of our house for three times its value. I received notice that I was going to be evicted on a certain day, was advised to stay in the house but started shipping and storing some of my belongings anyway. A month before the date on the official notice, a deputy sheriff and a crew of foreigners came to the house and started setting the rest of my belongings on the front lawn.

"God, why, when I've spent twenty years building a network, have You let it fall apart like this? Even if I had the house, without renting out rooms I couldn't have afforded to stay in the city. Where were the renters? Where were the job orders? Did You want me to be as tough and mean as my enemy?"

A clear impression came to mind. "It was all your work. Others profited from it without having invested in it. People who have not invested in a thing are not motivated to protect it. You put your energy into a place that is not your home, where you were called to sojourn not to live. You came back to the city by permission, not by commandment. Your home, your responsibility, and your people are not in Washington." 

About the renters, specifically, I came to believe that I was shown that I ought to have had faith and opened the house to survivors of Hurricane Katrina. I had felt unable to cope with them. My neighbors had wondered whether that was due to race prejudice. It was due to regional prejudice--"I can't even speak their language, neither French nor English, much less cope with the grotesque tropical diseases they probably have! Why aren't they being sheltered closer to their home?"--while Mother was renting to a survivor who found work easily, paid rent promptly, and spoke good English with a slight Maryland accent. God and the Red Cross might have sent me one of that kind if I'd shown a little more courage. 

I knew well, even as I piled my things into the moving truck, that my people's besetting sin is that they don't invest in their own young people. Though Carter Woodson's book was called The Mis-Education of the Negro, he went to Berea College and his ideas are equally applicable to mountain people. Poor neighborhoods become more prosperous when neighbors support one another's ventures, however small and unpromising those may initially seem. They become really bad neighborhoods when neighbors resent and undermine one another. "God, my people don't know what poverty is. That is how it's even possible that they think they are poor. Like the contemptible servants in Jesus' parables, they all seem to want to take the money they were given, bury it in the ground, sit on it, and alternate between begging for handouts and cheating on their taxes while they sit, and then they complain that they've lost their children and grandchildren."

What came to me was, "Widows are not to depend on the church or on anyone else before the age of seventy, which was understood to mean the age at which they become disabled. Let the younger widows remarry. Beyond that, it is possible to do well and do good in your town. If people don't choose to support or invest in your work, that's their problem, for which they will eventually be sorry. Meanwhile you have the best of all possible places to wait for whatever opportunities to do well and do good may come in." So I have, and so I've done. I immediately met someone with whom I could work, whom I was willing to remarry when one obstacle was cleared out of the way; then he became unable to work, and the hack writing I'd been glad I didn't need to do for money suddenly became my primary source of income. 

Even at forty, and much more at fifty, marriage is not about "falling in love" and raising a family; that season of life is over. It's about money and home nursing. If I ever do manage to feel any physical attraction to anyone else, it'll be someone who wants to share my life and work, but at my present age I'm not particular about whether any remaining partnerships in my life are called marriage or business. I know that what they'll actually be about will be home nursing, and if I have a choice it will be guided by who's likely to need less of that. I do not intend to depend on any younger man to do home nursing or anything else for me. It would make more sense to depend on any of Mother's cousins to leave me any of the oil money. 

Meanwhile, I'm not exactly carefree about having so little income of my own. Neither am I careworn. I was blessed with that "Irish" outlook: one might as well laugh as cry. I'm not ashamed of living in poverty, though it certainly does make it more difficult "at least to be clean." At least I live within my means and earn what I get. I am the same person who started a business with twenty-some dollars and kept it going for twenty years. God has provided for me, all these years. What God has provided has definitely qualified as crumbs. Whenever God wants me to accomplish more than the sparrows do, I'll know it because God will provide more than crumbs. 

Meanwhile, I still pray about other things than myself. For reasons that are obvious when we think about them, nobody's prayers use God to get whatever the person asks for. If that sort of thing were possible it'd be witchcraft, and then of course, for one thing, we'd see a drastic decline in the number of men who speak disrespectfully to women and an equally dramatic increase in the number of toads. (Worldwide.) I have seen some things that looked like answers to prayer. What they were, I have no right to publish.

There are four Gospels in the Bible. The "prosperity gospel" is not one of them. Practicing the Bible's teachings generally leads to prosperity in business. Sometimes it doesn't. People are not better or worse Christians because they have fat years and lean years. All the same, public declarations of faith, public warblings about prayer, tend to sound saner when they are done by people who are prospering. 


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