Prayers

“I thought you wouldn’t come”

“Long story.” He said, removing his jacket.

“You don’t have to sit with me, you know.”

“I want to. Besides, you don’t have a partner yet” He said, and asked me to scoot over a bit more.

As I didn’t want to make a huge issue about this business anymore, I said nothing, merely moved and made him more room. After the welcoming remarks and repeating the invitation to pray in groups for the sake of the newcomer, all thoughts turned to prayer again—and far away from me.

“That was close.” I said out loud, greatly relieved.

Tony said nothing. He simply glanced at the others and took in the soft murmur of prayer. “Everybody’s praying.” He whispered, “Do you want to go first, or do you want me to start?”

“What?”

“Pray.” He leaned in my direction, bowed his head and closed his eyes. I realized he meant it as an order, not as an answer to my question.

I began to protest “I don’t—I…”

He began, interrupting my protests, “Jesus Christ. I know you are alive and you reign in heaven. I pray for strength and deliverance from the devil and his fiery darts. I ask for courage to do what’s right, and I claim the power of your cleansing blood to purify me. Forgive me . . . ”

He paused here for a protracted time. I, who had kept my eyes open looking this way and that, now began studying his face with growing unease. His brow was furrowed, and his chin was sunk low on his chest. Fortunately he didn’t cry. He rallied himself and continued on, “And I also pray for my friend Tanya. We all come from different places and backgrounds, so I don’t know what troubles her. Please give her the power of your Holy Spirit to resist temptation. In your name I pray, Amen.”

“Amen” I said, unwittingly—and felt silly at catching myself doing it. But I was glad that he was done. I sat back in my couch and expected him to do the same, but Tony kept his attitude of prayer. He kept it so long that it was just plain weird…

“Tony. It’s ok… you can sit back now. We just wait until the others are done”

“Your turn” He said with his eyes still closed

“I don’t pray. I can’t. You don’t know I—”

“Just do it. If not for you, pray for me. I need it.”

The duration of my inner debate was not long—but it felt like it. It was so—so—awkward. How could I pray for Tony? And what for? I never even prayed for myself since that fiasco back when I’d asked for a miracle (a fat lot of good it did me)—and longer still before that. And why was the prayer time longer—much longer—than it usually took?

Tony kept his head bowed, as if waiting for me to start

I sighed loudly.

“Fine,”

Where to start?

I closed my eyes, and remembered way back when my grandmother had taught me to pray, which was peculiar—because I could not remember much from infancy.

Fold you hands like this. Yes, like that. Very good. Now bow your little head. Close your little eyes. That’s it. Now repeat after me . . . “Our Father in heaven…”

“Our Father in heaven,”

Hallowed be thy name,

“. . . Hallowed be thy name,”

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done. . .

“. . . Thy kingdom come, thy will be done . . . ”

Nothing more came. That was all I remembered, though I strove to recall the rest of the words, but I couldn’t.

What could I do?

God, what can I say?

I grasped for words, but I literally had nothing—nothingto say aside of my usual litany of incoherent rebellion.

I was on my own now.

“God. I have nothing…much to say to you . . .  just . . . ” I sighed deeply once more and continued this most difficult task, “Please . . . just listen to the prayers of the people here . . . Listen to them . . . And I pray for Tony here too, who is suffering. Amen”

“Amen” Tony repeated, and then sat back.

But I wasn’t looking at Tony now. Tony, the study group, the church, the whole city block was now a thousand miles away from me.

Because my heart and my mind were millions of light years away. Prayer had awoken the fierce and gnawing pain of loss and now all my bones and joints, my muscles, my innards, my fat, and even my overstretched skin ached as if cold, damp, sorrow had taken possession of me. And that feeling was exactly like that day—years ago—when I had told God that he and I were through.

And how sad, how cold, how vast, friendless, and empty the world had seemed, the day I’d lost my faith in prayer–that day that Grandma died.

 

part 14 of If You Only Knew

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Tony

We were late on Monday for some random reason. When we got there, Elder Banks was about to conclude testimony and prayer time.

Zuri took her seat on the circle–as usual. I went to my corner, briefly scanning the room.

Tony wasn’t there.

Figures. Well, this is–after all–the last place anybody would want to be at…

I plopped on my couch as usual; the old frame squeaked in protest under my weight.

“…and now let us turn each other and claim the power of intercessory prayer. Turn to a brother or sister next to you, and pray for each other for a few minutes.”

I was not alarmed. They had done this before many times. That day, however, Elder Banks was filling in for Zuri who had come late. He must have felt the spirit or something, because he walked up to me, and with an evangelist’s booming voice and expression addressed me, “Daughter. Please join us in prayer.”

“Uh?” I squeaked.

“Come. You can pray with…let’s see…is anyone in need of a partner?”

The silence was eloquent.

Zuri was about to speak up when Martha and Horace—the oldest people in the room—said they wouldn’t mind having a third.

No. No. No. No. No…

Diversion saved me, however. It came in the way of a new arrival dressed in an elegant business suit.

What the–

“Why, welcome brother!” Elder Banks said stepping forward to greet him with a hand shake.

At first I didn’t recognize the newcomer. But then I realized that it was Tony walking in and taking a seat next to me on the vile, pink, couch. He flashed a smile at me and greeted me cordially.

“Hey, kiddo”

There was a murmur of surprise when it was understood that I, the mocker, had been the one to invite the new arrival.

I suppose that—being the good Christians that they were—they’d come to underestimate the power of the God they served, otherwise how could they fail to remember that He can use any situation and any person—even me—for his good pleasure?

For I’m sure it was his pleasure that Tony should be drawn to know and serve him.

* * *

Let me fast-forward fifteen years.

Tony has since then finished college and attended the seminary. He works as a Chaplain in the same hospital I work at and spends much of his free time at a youth shelter mentoring neglected youth to steer them away from a life of addiction.

Furthermore, he also bears the title “Doctor” as he recently earned his PhD—He’s even published two books.

I didn’t know what Tony would eventually become when I first saw him crying his heart out in church–not even that day he arrived at the Study Group. I didn’t even imagine either that Tony would be the person who would help me believe in the power for prayer again.

Life is funny like that. God certainly has a knack for surprising you.

I certainly was surprised by him the first day Tony went to the Bible study group.

 

part 13 of If You Only Knew

Coming in From the Rain

I did not enjoy Wednesday prayer meetings. But since the church was vast and only the front was lighted up, it was easy for someone like me who sat at the back pew, to walk out and wander about. Unfortunately, when it rained hard I was forced to remain indoors.

So it was one rainy evening that another person joined me at the back pews. It was a twenty-something-year-old guy so drenched from the rain his shoes made squelching noises when he walked. He behaved peculiarly. During prayer time he hugged his damp form, rocked softly, and cried, emitting shaky high-pitched wails at times. When the small group of singers took the stage and began leading out the hymns he got on his feet, lifted his arms and continued saying stuff as he sang along and wailed betimes.

I felt uncomfortable. Almost scared. But before I could move and join Zuri at the front pew, the meeting was done, the church lights flickered on, and we stood facing each other for a short beat.

Deep-set eyes under dark, thick eyebrows. Sharp-featured. Short. Incredibly thin and pale.

I opened my mouth to say some inane apology, but he blinked, and fairly ran to get out of there.

 

part 11 of If You Only Knew

Hounded By His Presence

That autumn I was nearly always upset.

I was broke.

I hated the cold and the rain.

I was still attending the church meetings—hating them, hating Zuri, hating God.

I hated myself even more, though. If only I’d been more careful this wouldn’t have happened. If only I could just stop, then I could go, bang on Zuri’s door and her to get lost with her church and her prayer meetings.

She was convinced that only with the help of God would I ever be free–How I wished I could prove her wrong.
But I couldn’t. I was only a dumb animal. I had no self-control, and no strength to refrain from destroying myself. The intelligence I had been given was absolutely wasted on me– Or so I thought.

“How long?” I’d asked that fateful afternoon she found me out
“Until you stop destroying yourself like this”
“How would you know that I actually stopped? I could just lie to you.”
“You’re right. I wouldn’t really know. You could lie to me. But in the end your life trajectory will show it. And besides, you could never lie to God.”

While on the subject of self-hate, I really hated myself for clinging on to my belief in God. Millions of people–indeed, whole countries–had abandoned the idea of a god. So why couldn’t I? Why?

And why couldn’t he just leave me alone? The knowledge of an all-knowing and omnipresent deity hounded and tormented me. Worse, He had begun to make himself present there on the bathroom floor in those moments when every thought or trouble should have been erased from my mind. My heartbeat and breathing could become dangerously faint, but even then I could sense it…

His presence, which had followed me down into my darkness.

 

part 9 of If You Only Knew

If You Only Knew

I lay on my back on the linoleum floor, unblinking and unfixed eyes staring up at the stained white ceiling of my bathroom.

The house was silent.

Minutes—or hours—later, I came to myself again, feeling that overwhelming feeling of nausea and guilt that always overtook me back when I was an addict and the buzz inevitably ended…

God, I did it again… I can’t believe I did it again…

I believed I’d gone far too deep for remedy; I no longer even cried. There was only an immense disappointment. I hadn’t even lasted a whole month before relapsing…and I had tried so hard…

I cleaned up the mess as best as I could and jumped in the shower, trying not to wince was the scalding-hot stream punished my body. Then gasping as I finished it up with a blast of cold water.

Smelling clean and feeling fresh, I brushed my teeth and combed my slick, long, black hair. I put on clean clothes—a tee-shirt, shorts. My glasses.

By the time my mother came home and the slanting rays of the summer afternoon filtered through the tree in the front yard, I was already clean, sober, and sleeping. I was the typical 17-year old loafing around at home during the summer.

And no one who knew it. Not even the one person that knew me best, suspected what my mother and father could never guess at…

That I wanted to die and end my sorry, good-for-nothing, disgusting, worthless, life.

* * *

When I was nine years old it began: the self-hate. Early in my sophomore year I’d talked to the school shrink, and she’d explained it all without much success. What I did know was that it had its roots in my childhood, and that it was somehow all tied up with an unabated appetite.

Mara, my mother, had seen the early signs when I was nine; children are so transparent. Furthermore,  it takes time and practice to be able to hide things from your mother and to lie successfully to your family. At nine I could not explain away the stray slip of paper and the black writing it contained. She gave me a good and long talking to, and that was the end of it.

But not for me.

 

part 1 of If You Only Knew

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~ 300 words for Wednesday’s Word Count. Don’t really know where this story will lead…