The bushes are rounded, the water drained from the coiled garden hoses. The witches and scarecrows have moved into the dark basement, while the pilgrim couple watches the neighborhood from the front porch. The first snow fell before the leaves fell, and now the leaves have fallen, too. I raked mounds of big yellow sweet gum leaves from the gutter and across the sidewalk onto the lawn, as Dad wished, so he could vacuum them up with the riding mower. But the piles of leaves were much too deep for the mower. Advancing along the sidewalk, I raked the leaves into a neat windrow, as if for bailing, like hay, and each sweep of leaves onto the windrow rustled with the sound of small waves cresting and falling to lap gently at wet sand on a beach. I could hear the ocean in the raking of five-pointed leaves. The truth is, I expect God to bless me. I believe in his generosity. I believe in his intention to enrich my life, even if with adversity. I believe he will bless every human being with exactly those blessings that human needs in each moment for that human’s spiritual progress to the extent of that human’s willingness and ability to receive. The arrival of providence does not bring an accompanying ease, but rather an urgent invitation to be more than we have been. I believe that as I search for opportunities to enrich the lives of others, those opportunities will be provided, enriching my life in return. I believe God wants me and my children and all his human children to succeed, and will help us as we allow. Success, of course, as he defines, not as I define. He may bless me with hardship (he will bless me with hardship) just as he will bless me to grow through and heal from hardship, improving and ennobling in the process. I am learning that God is trustworthy. And I am learning, so slowly, to listen to his voice as he instructs me and guides me to love and to forgive and to serve. I hear his voice in the raking windrows of sweetgum leaves. And I left plenty of loose leaves to be sucked up by the lawn mower Dad managed to clamber onto and ride triumphantly and humbly across the lawn for the last time this year.
The Bible teaches that God knows what we will pray for before we pray. The value of prayer, therefore, cannot be to inform God of our desires and thoughts and needs, for he already knows them. Rather, the value must come in the act of turning our hearts heavenward, expressing our needs either in fury or humility, mustering gratitude for blessings in spite of adversities, and exerting faith in the impossible and unknown. Still, prayer has never come easily to me. My scattered thoughts bounce off the walls of my brain until my short patience is spent. Based on the example of the Lord’s Prayer, I do manage to acknowledge God and express love and respect for him, and I thank him for bringing his kingdom to the earth and allowing me to be a small part of slowly building it. Then I launch into what I want and what I need, which usually devolves into begging on behalf of my children and family for their growth and well-being. Emerging from my bedroom to brush my teeth one night, I heard Mom talking to herself in her bedroom. But then I overheard some of her words: “Roger is not feeling well. Please bless him to sleep soundly. Please bless him to get better. Please bless him to be able to go to choir practice and to church tomorrow.” I had already decided I did not want to go to choir practice or to church, but to sleep and rest. But now someone sweet and loving was beseeching God on my behalf, and I could not allow laziness and apathy to prevail over her sincere prayer. So, I willed myself to get out of bed and be the answer to her prayers, and I confess to asking God to helping me answer her prayers on his behalf. Against expectations, I ended up enjoying choir and church, and feeling a little better. When Dad awakes after his late-night reading, he shuffles to his sofa, covers himself with a quilt Mom sewed, closes his eyes, and points his heart and mind and silent words to God in prayer, and he stays there until he feels he has been heard and answered. I have walked in on him a time or two, thinking he had dozed, but he looked at me and exclaimed, “Rog! Come in! I was just talking with Jesus.” I have come to believe that prayer is not delusional or wasted effort, but rather a powerful expression of the hope of faith, and the necessary exercise of the muscles of faith, faith that works change within us and nudges us toward goodness, love, and light. Given that, I keep at it. Maybe prayer will come naturally to me someday. Maybe this essay is my prayer.