Saying My Prayers & Writing That Damn Novel

 

Saying My Prayers An

 

I studied English in college, which means I could occupy you for hours talking about the novel I’ve been writing ever since. This plight may bore you, but I’ll have you know that it torments me. An unfinished novel is like a distant friend you’ve been meaning to catch up with; one that calls every, single, day:

“Hey, its been a while, let’s get to it!.”

“ ‘Ello, how ‘bout we work on some character development?”

“It’s you-know-who! Plots don’t write themselves…”

“Any day now…”

“You’re dead to me.”

So it’s about time I get to writing that damn novel.

And I have, I’ve been working on it. I sit at my desk, I think, I ponder, I clack, clack, clack away on the keyboard. And then repeat. After about two hours of this I take a deep breath, lean back and absorb the profundity of my efforts:

“The-“

And thus deflated I abandon my characters, the plot, the scene…all of it for, oh- about three months or so. At which time, the damn thing has nagged me so incessantly I sit down and try again.

My struggle is (almost) Dickensian, I tell you.

I recall a recent evening walking by the water. It was a calm day; the ocean was as smooth as a mirror, returning the sunset’s rays back into the sky. A family was skipping rocks from the shoreline. I sat and watched them for a bit.

The manner of a rock across the surface of water is something magnificent. It smashes into it, sending ripples and changing the water momentarily before lifting off again. But then it’s gone and within seconds the water is as it was before, as it’s always been. The ripples have been absorbed into the water itself, nothing’s changed despite everything that’s happened.

I have to admit that sometimes I can’t bring myself to pray. Part of the problem is I’m not even sure what prayer is: intentional thoughts? Psychic text messages? God’s spam mail? A scene from a Norman Rockwell portrait?

Still, I want to pray. But the cynicism weighs in, like a child who’s getting ready to skip a rock and realizes “what’s the point? It’s going to sink eventually.” And when this happens I can hardly bring myself to pray for any of my own concerns, let alone ask others to do the same. Save your breath, I wanna say. Or, more importantly: save God’s time.

It’s not that I don’t believe God hears prayers or perhaps even that God isn’t there; I just have trouble believing he should care about me. I can’t bring myself to believe that in a time of ISIS, Ebola, rampant sexual slavery and a suicide every seventeen minutes… I can’t believe that amidst all these pressing concerns God would or should put everything on hold because “Wait– I’ve got another one coming in. Oh! It looks like someone has a headache and a case of the Monday’s. Genocide in Syria can wait!”

If I were God, I wouldn’t care about me. Not in relation to everything else, at least.

But then I sit down to write that damn novel. I lift my fingers to the page full of notions I haven’t touched in weeks. I stare at the words representing places and characters. And I can’t help but feel like I’m one of them; I’m just a character in greater story and it’s being written as we speak.

Which is not to say that God doesn’t know what he’s up to; any wanna-be novelist will tell you that the book’s almost done: “I just have to write it.” So God moves apart from time, having woven the intricacies of a grand narrative already in his mind. But perhaps he’s just not gotten to writing it yet.

And if that’s the case then I can bring myself to believe, as CS Lewis once put it, that as a being outside of time God hears all prayers as such. My requests are not another phone ringing off the hook in an operator’s room, one that’s already inundated with requests. Rather God has all of infinity to address my prayers, after the all of infinity he has to address to more pressing concerns of ISIS, Ebola and AIDs. Mine are not competing for his attention; the rock will skip but the water will remain the same. Everything will happen in its time, and the author controls that time.

And so there’s times when I sit and wait. I watch rocks skip across the water and I say my prayers, whatever that means. But if I can’t, if I find myself unable to pray, then it’s about time I start writing anyway. Maybe that’s grace, the time I’ve been given.

Maybe.

Rest assured, it’s the only way I’ll finish this damn novel.

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When I Pray & Fight About Lighthouses

My wife and I spent last weekend up the coast in Maine. We had some spare time on the trip home, so I took a detour to a lighthouse that she hadn’t seen yet. It just so happens that it’s one of my favorites.

The lighthouse is unique in that it consists of a building with a short tower topped by the light on its southern side. Because it sits at the end of a rock pier stretched out into the bay, the lighthouse itself isn’t very tall. From the start of the pier it doesn’t look as though there’s anything at the end other than a desolate shed; the building blocks the rest from view.

My wife noticed as much when we began walking towards it.

“Isn’t this beautiful?” I asked.

“I don’t see a lighthouse,” she replied, like the fading wa-wa of a trumpet in a comedy routine.

“It’s right there.”

“No it’s not.”

“I’m pointing right at it.”

“That just looks like a shed,” she informed me.

I shot back with Pharasitical rebuke: “The lighthouse is behind it.”

She accepted this, though not without noting: “Huh, that’s pretty short. I’ve seen lots of lighthouses out in Wisconsin. That’s not what they look like. But its cool. I guess.”

My wife is possibly the sweetest person in the Milky Way. But in that moment I could have tossed her into the ocean like she was Jonah in the storm. The audacity of her comparing my beloved lighthouse to a mere Midwestern replica felt like being told that my favorite dog was really, for all intents and purposes, a cat.

When I pray, my thoughts are scarce and sporadic, like fireflies igniting on an early summer’s eve. They swing on the pendulum between “Lord, please save the kidnapped children in Nigeria” to “Lord, forgive me for being so angry about my phone dropping calls.”

Sometimes my prayers spring forth simply in walking and breathing. They arise when I am heading up the hill to class or perhaps finishing a run in the early morning. I step tentatively, attempting to wrap my head around the object of my prayer, firing off conscientious brain waves in every imaginable direction. Sometimes I think of acquaintances and pray for them. Even then I am not quiet sure what to say. “Lord, I pray for so-and-so today” is the common go-to, which seems to be a statement with similar sentiment to the thesis of a history paper being “the thesis of this paper concerns history.”

I try to pray for myself, for the world, for everything. I really do. But I want to know that I am actually praying when I pray, that my words and thoughts are actually going somewhere, into some ear, rather than just floating around and zapping through the neurons in my own skull. It isn’t the possibility of God’s nonexistence that concerns me, but the arrangement of my proposals. What mortal is there that hasn’t worried about the format of their submissions, wondering (at least secretly) if they’re all being sent back as rejects into the spam box of our hearts that we’re too afraid to open?

Luther is quoted as saying: “I have so much to do that if I don’t spend at least three hours a day in prayer I would never get it done.”  It is not so much his dedication that I admire, but the faith behind his focus.

I want to act in faith, but I also want to know that the direction of my mind is to a lighthouse on the coast with the sun setting behind the clouds, not just an empty shed. But sometimes such assurance eludes me and I haven’t the faintest idea what I’m even aiming for.

What if the main object in prayer, George MacDonald asked, is the supplying of our great, our endless need- the need of God himself?

Eventually, as we walked further out, my wife conceded that the entire scene was, in fact, beautiful to behold. Unaware that I was scanning the scene in search of a plank for her to walk, she approached me and took my hand as we continued towards the end. As we got closer, she saw the weather vane on the tower lift itself above the roof like a shy child from under the covers.

“Ah, there’s the lighthouse,” she said. And I kissed her on the forehead, despite myself. So we continued walking, like amateur artists approaching a famous painting in a museum, thus bringing it into focus.

And so I keep praying. I walk, I breathe, I think. I formulate requests and praises, allowing them to float heavenward as mist on a mid-spring morning.

Because I know its there. And someday I’ll see the lighthouse.

Someday. I’m sure.