The Puzzle of Prayer

I tend to think of seasons as four separate compartments to the year. Like nesting boxes in graduated sizes.

I forget that they are more like the Lego blocks in my son’s latest creation. Interlocking and overlapping. Difficult to pry apart.

Recently, I stood over the sink and ate a peach. It tasted perfectly peachy, and the juice ran in rivers down my right arm. Like a sunset, melting.

I held the fading summer sun in my hand, and watched gray clouds hauling themselves briskly across an autumn sky. Yellow leaves somersaulted across the grass.

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I also tend to think of prayer in separate compartments. Like the paper trays I keep on my desk.

There is the inbox and the outbox. There is a spot marked urgent and one for the less pressing overflow.

If I think long enough, I can assign each prayer a neat label. Answered. Unanswered. Ongoing. Expires in five days. The paper trail of prayer is clearly defined. Requests move in one direction. Responses in the other.

But of course prayer is nothing like my paper tray. Of course, of course, I tell myself. Of course it is so much more like standing in a chill autumn wind while you hold summer in your hand.

The truly astonishing thing about prayer is not that our prayers are sometimes answered. The thing that never fails to startle me, to wake me up and scatter the paper piles of my mind, is that even the prayers themselves are given.

First, the prayer like one falling leaf.

Then, the answer, like the taste of that sweet peach.

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On Friday, I breathed out the heaviness of the whole week with the thought It has been a long time since someone prayed for me.

That sort of thing was once a regular occurrence. I lived on a cushion of tightly knit community, and I rarely went more than a week or two without someone reaching out a hand. Someone holding out a prayer.

But two cross-country moves in four years have disrupted so many once-regular things. And every so often I let myself feel the jagged edges. Every so often I lean into them and breathe my own jaggedness.

Which is one way I know to pray without ceasing.

On Saturday a friend drove thirty minutes to come sit on my porch. While our children played, we talked.  And we prayed.

She reached out her hand. She gave me her prayer.

I responded, with surprise and with gratitude, Amen.

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Which came first? Like chickens and eggs. Like seeds and flowers. Prayers and answers are a puzzle I hope I never solve.

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This Life of Loose Ends

Summer came to an end at approximately five pm on Sunday night.

At five pm on Sunday night, I was sauteeing squash ribbons (that four out of four children would not eat) and flipping cheese quesadillas (that two out of four children would not eat) while hollering at the boys to clean their room and listening to the firstborn debate first-day-of-school outfits.

I was mentally prepping school lunches, signing an emergency-contact form for the oldest, and telling the youngest that now was not a good time for playing in the sink.

The youngest threw herself across the floor while I two-stepped toward the dinner plates.

And there, at utter loose ends in my kitchen, is when I knew summer was over.

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Summer may be chaotic and intense, but in summer there is less pressure to chase down every last loose end.

Did we eat popcorn for dinner instead of vegetables? Well, it’s summer. Tomorrow we shall raid the garden.

Did the five-year-old hop into bed with dirty feet? Well, maybe we’ll wash off with a visit to the creek tomorrow.

In Fall, we remember the calendar and the budget and the email inbox.

In Fall, the overgrown garden looks sad rather than abundant. In Fall, the baby’s hair is plastered to her forehead with applesauce instead of sweet baby sweat.

In Summer, loose ends twine like pea vines on lattice. They tempt us to stay up past our bedtimes. They draw us on to look deeply at sunsets and the freckles on our loved one’s nose.

In Fall, loose ends scatter themselves like beads from a broken necklace. We scramble and cry, but we know we will never find them all. We will never manage to gather the details. We will fail to live up to at least a few of our responsibilities.

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I long for my own little chore chart. With three neat rows and a gold star for each grid.

But there are no gold stars waiting for me at the end of my email inbox. No gold stars when I have packed three healthy, nut-free, school-approved snacks.

So here is a reminder – for me, for you – to hold on to summer’s lessons.

Let us remember where the gold stars live.

They live in sunsets and freckles.

They live at the ends of every loose strand of a young girl’s hair.

They shine in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome them.

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The Lives of Dry Bones (An Announcement)

“… unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.”

John 12:24

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It is the dream-come-true moment that lodges itself in our memories.

The day the baby was born. Or the day you wore the cap and gown. Or the day you moved in.

It isn’t that you’ve forgotten. It is only that time does heal and dreams-come-true are complicated. They ask so much of you. When you are changing diapers in the night or ripping out weeds for a new garden you do not have much energy to spare for looking back.

Which may be why I have written so much about dreams-come-true and so little of letting them die.

Because no dream lives that has not yet died.

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Some call this surrender. They describe it as letting go. Giving back to God. Release.

I prefer to call it planting.

First there is the dream. It seems to have come at once from somewhere deep within and somewhere so far beyond yourself that the only explanation is divine. God has whispered, and your eyes are now open.

That is the seed.

Then comes the next day. Which turns out to be not all that different from the day before. The dream appeared to be so real, so startling and immediate, but life seems not to have noticed. Life is much the same as ever.

We each have our own way of living these days. Some of us wrestle and rage. We cry and we grip and we will not let go until, utterly spent, we drop the seed and we bury it.

Others of us begin to doubt almost immediately. I can live without this, we say. Maybe it was never meant to be, we tell ourselves.

This is how dreams die. How they are buried in dark dirt.

This is how we live with dry bones.

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Waking up is difficult. Resurrection, even of the figurative sort, can be painful.

T.S. Eliot warned us:

April is the cruelest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain.

It is painful to dream again. To risk a broken heart. To walk through a valley of dry bones and say I believe.

But, oh friends, I am convinced. It is the only way to live.

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I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them. … Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe into these slain, that they may live.

On Monday, an envelope stuffed with papers arrived in my mailbox. I knew it was coming, but I still caught my breath when I saw it there.

It sat on the kitchen table while we gathered groceries and medications and swimsuits. School begins on Monday, but we were squeezing in one small family vacation before calling summer quits.

Late at night, with our bags packed and our kids in their beds, I read the papers. I signed the papers. There was no time to visit the post office, so I packed the papers with everything else the next morning.

We drove north toward Ithaca, New York. The Finger Lakes, they call them. It’s a storybook landscape of mountains and water and red Dutch-style barns. The kind of landscape I found only in books when I was a child growing up in Texas.

Just the right landscape for a dream-come-true.

Now that I’ve left those papers at a post office in Ithaca I can tell you this:

Dry bones do live and this autumn and winter I’ll be writing a book.

I’ll be writing a book for Revell, a division of Baker Publishing Group.

This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. … Then you will know that I am the Lord.

And I pray, Let it be to me according to your word.

Let it be, let it be, let it be.

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Following Christ to Ferguson

It must have happened eight or nine years ago. One particular day about midway through the decade we spent in that southside Chicago neighborhood.

I know this because my firstborn will soon turn eleven, but that day her stout little legs just managed to reach the sidewalk. We were sitting with my husband and a friend on the front steps of our apartment building.

Our little girl hopped up and ran a short burst down the sidewalk, and I heard him. Our friend. He had his eyes on our daughter when he whispered to my husband,

She isn’t afraid of me.

And I heard his surprise and his pleasure.

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Our friend was black, and I wish I could say that I didn’t understand his words. That it took me a moment to grasp what he had said. But I understood instantly, and instantly I was ashamed. Ashamed that what should have been a given, a starting point, was, instead, a gift.

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It would be simpler if I could say that our friend did not deserve fear and end my story there. If I could outline in a few easy words the injustice of a culture that perpetuates the association between black men and danger. Because it is deeply unjust.

I could remind you that he was our friend. I could tell you that he wrote poetry and loved his children, and we could share the satisfaction of our outrage.

But the full story is more complicated.

Yes, he was our friend, but he was unemployed. He was sometimes homeless. He was a recovering drug addict, and he had only recently been released from prison.

And now when I tell you that he used to hang out with my husband in the living room while in the kitchen my daughter and I filled a bag with food for his children, you might wonder if we should have been afraid.

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When I am feeling especially desperate I tend to pray this: Jesus, where are you?

I pray these words as if I don’t know the answer, but today I am remembering the answer he has already given. In Matthew 25 he tells us where to look.

If you are seeking Christ look for the one who is hungry. The one who is thirsty. Listen for the stranger knocking at your door. Watch for the criminal, the one who is or has been in prison.

In other words, searching for Christ is anything but safe.

Our king has aligned himself with the suffering, and suffering is messy. Wounded people can be explosive and ugly in their anger and in their pain.

They might say hurtful things.

They might even throw Molotov cocktails.

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My Pennsylvania neighborhood is peaceful and green. I am sure Jesus meets with me here. I am convinced he makes a home with us even on ordinary, suburban streets.

But I am sensing an invitation to travel somewhere else. To a place where suffering is no longer polite and hidden but erupting in deeply messy ways. Perhaps it is only a figurative journey, a journey I will make in my thoughts and prayers and in my storytelling, yet I still hesitate.

I hear Jesus speaking the words he once spoke to Thomas. I hear him saying Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side.

I always imagined it to be a straightforward request. Reach out. Touch. Now I see that in reaching out we might be carried farther than we ever intended. Our reaching might draw us right out of our circles of peaceful green and on toward wounded people in troubled places.

Not because we have solutions. Not because we know what to do. Or even what to say.

Only because we are following a wounded Lord. And we want to be where he is.

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