I wrote the following essay 18 months ago, at a time when Jessica and I were struggling to make ends meet. This is part 1. Part 2 will post tomorrow.
It’s Tuesday morning and I am sprawled out in the middle of my living room floor preparing to supplicate with God. I’m alone. My wife, Jessica, is at work, and Elias, our son, is at daycare. Other than the low roar of our condo’s HVAC system, the house is quiet and peaceful. The room smells good. Earlier this morning, Jessica lit a sugar-cookie scented candle, a Christmas present from a friend. The air smells yummy, like Keebler’s elves are baking something uncommonly good in our kitchen.
As soon as my nose hits the carpet, I immediately feel closer to God. I don’t exactly enjoy praying this way, but I don’t mind, really, just as long as God enjoys seeing me uncomfortably spread out facedown next to the coffee table.
I take a couple of deep breaths, and as soon I’m ready to begin making my requests known unto God, I realize that the shades on the windows are open, which normally wouldn’t be a problem since my condo is on the second floor. But this morning peeping through my windows are three painters standing on ladders. They’re all dressed in white zip-up coveralls and holding paintbrushes, cell phones, and one of them is pointing at me. I stand up so I can close the blinds. I feel embarrassed, but then oddly I begin feeling a bit holy, as if God might be pleased that strangers caught me talking to him. But as I shut the blinds, the painters start laughing and saying things about me to each other in Spanish. I feel embarrassed again. I turn the shades and return to my prayerful position.
I don’t normally lay prostrate when I talk to God. Most of the time I pray standing up or kneeling down or while sitting upright. Occasionally, I talk to God while reclining against the bed’s headboard or the couch cushions. But this combination of sprawling and praying is relatively new for me. I picked it up a few years ago when I started taking yoga classes.
My yoga instructor Mr. Davis looked more like a pastry chef than somebody who could touch the floor with his elbows, but he was a delightful human being with a warm presence. At the beginning and end of each class Mr. Davis lied facedown at the front of the room and invited us to join him for a few moments of reflective silence.
“Lay on your mats and stretch your bodies as though somebody is pulling your feet and somebody else is pulling your arms.” I loved hearing him talk. His voice poured out of his mouth like it was heavy whipping cream, smooth and rich and full of calories. “As you breathe, I want you to imagine the most glorious place you’ve ever been, maybe it’s a beach or a hillside or that ‘perfect spot’ in your backyard. I want you to dwell in that warm place. Forget all about your cares and concerns. Just bask in the delight of your own paradise.”
My paradise was a private beach along the coastline of Bar Harbor, Maine. I’d vacationed there as a teenager and believed it was the most beautiful place on earth. In the beginning, pretending like I was lounging on Maine’s rocky shoreline made me feel a little icky, like I was a wealthy traveler gawking at vacation porn in Conde Nast Traveler.
But in time, with practice and concentration and an unhealthy amount of ibuprofen to help hide the soreness in my hamstrings, I was able to release my inhibitions and relax on a beach that was more than a thousand miles away. Sometimes my imagination became free enough to touch its sand, smell its salty air, and feel its crisp breeze against my face.
Mr. Davis encouraged us to practice visiting our favorite vacation spots at home. But whenever I visited Bar Harbor at home, in addition to the stretching and meditating, I added “talking to God.” I did that just in case one of my Christian friends caught wind that three times a week I was going into my bedroom to relax and eat lobster on a beach in Maine.
Today my reasons for “going to Maine” are shallow.
I feel almost shady lying here preparing to ask God to grant me financial wisdom, which is my holier way of saying that I need him to write me a check. But that’s what I need. Jessica and I won’t be able to pay our mortgage without God’s providence. Now, I don’t feel as silly as I did years ago when I whispered prayers to God for parking spots at the mall during the Christmas season. The difference in my mind is that I really need this money. I didn’t need the parking spot.
So I begin to pray. I don’t start my prayer by begging of course. I’m too spiritually self-conscious to begin my prayer with a request. Instead, I begin by offering God a salutation. Then I whisper some words of affirmation. And as I begin to feel more comfortable, I add a few sentences of self-deprecating humor just so he knows I don’t take myself too seriously. Then, after some moments of silence, I pop the money question.
And then I try to explain.
I’m not asking for a lot of money, God, I say aloud. I pause and begin doing arithmetic in my head so I can offer God an exact dollar amount. I like my prayer requests to be specific. Plus, I don’t want God to know that I know that he knows that I’m being completely selfish by requesting more than what I need. A lot of Christians might say that giving God exact details is a big waste of time since Jesus said that God already knows what I need before I need it. And I do think that’s a valid argument, but one that is hard for me to acknowledge since I still need money in order to pay my mortgage. I admit that perhaps offering God particulars is a lack of faith on my part. Still, I do it for my own benefit and also just in case there’s a discrepancy between what I need and what God ends up writing the check out for.
I sigh and begin praying again. I only need two hundred dollars, God. But I need it soon. If there’s any possibility of receiving it by 1:45 on Thursday afternoon, that would be really helpful. If I don’t get it to my bank before 2, I’ll need an extra twenty-five dollars to cover the late fee.
I stop praying again. This time because it occurs to me that I might be asking God for a lot. Oh, I know that two hundred dollars doesn’t sound like a lot. And certainly, I believe with a large portion of my heart that God is more capable than Western Union of putting cash in my hands fast. My problem is that I also know it’s Tuesday morning, which means God has just a little more than forty-eight hours to write a check and get it to my mailbox using the US Postal Service. I admit, I’d probably be more confident if God used direct deposit or PayPal or heck, went retro and dropped cash like manna out of the sky. But I’m not a Pentecostal, so it’s difficult for me to envision God answering my financial prayer request without somehow involving the post office.
But God’s processes for answering prayer requests confuse me sometimes. When I factor my current need into “God’s perfect timing,” “his ways aren’t my ways,” and “a day is like a thousand years to the Lord, and a thousands years is like a day,” I figure there’s a decent chance that, at some point between the next seventeen seconds and 2000 years, God will answer my prayer. And even then, he might say no. I don’t often doubt that God is capable of doing great and mighty things on my behalf, what I struggle with is believing that it’s mathematically plausible that any of those things will work out for the good of my mortgage.
Still, I pray.
People ask me why. I hate that question because sometimes I wonder the same thing. I don’t know how to answer. That’s because I don’t understand God’s politics regarding prayer. I have lots of questions. How does he choose when to perform a miracle and when to say no? Does prayer change his perspectives about things? Does seeing me down on my face rather than sitting upright make a difference? Is he more inclined to heal a man who is sick but prays than to heal a man who is sick and doesn’t pray? Do I really want to know the answers to these questions? I’m not sure. For me, the answers might only raise more questions and complicate the ones I’ve already asked. So maybe I should just keep praying.
But you know, on a macro level, questions about prayer are easy to ask. They’re big, broad, and come across arrogant most of the time. But the really hard questions happen when our perspective is zoomed in; when we’re close, personal, and can feel the effects of an answer.
To be continued.