December 4. Twenty-seven degrees Fahrenheit. I am hiking to Bell Canyon Falls. I had to get out of the house. As I climb, leafless gambel oak give way to fir and spruce, and one perfect tree sports Christmas ornaments. Wild boxwood and wild Oregon grape and aromatic sage, all perennially green, poke through the snow. A young woman passes me on her morning trail run, then stops to change her podcast (she explains). I tell her my podcast is just the ruminations in my own head, and she approves. They are my prayers, in the absence of the more traditional kind. Preparing to leave the house, Dad bird-shot me with questions: Will you be warm enough? (Yes, I am wearing five layers.) Do you have a hat and gloves? (Of course.) Do you have water, and food? (Always). Do you have good boots? (Yep.) Will there be snow and ice? (Undoubtedly.) Will you take my hiking poles? I am making good use of Dad’s red-and-black hiking poles, the same poles which a month ago helped me climb the flagstone paths to Pico Ruivo, the icy top of the banana-clad island of Madeira. Now they help me keep my footing on the ice and help me make my way up and down the boulder-stepped trail. My quadricep muscles scream with soreness, still recovering from four games of bowling with Hyrym, the equivalent of eighty left-leg lunges. I wonder if this is a hint of what Dad suffers when he rises in agony from a chair. Once again, I am hiking in the wilderness alone, and I am tempted to feel sorry for myself. But any number of people would have come with me if I had asked, if I had not been too shy and afraid to invite them. Therefore, I am alone by choice. I try to pray more formally as I walk the snow-packed trail, false-starting with piths like “help me not be sad.” Then I remember that Jesus’ modus operandum is not to rescue me from hardships. Indeed, I am in this world to experience adversity and to choose my way through it. Adversity is my teacher. How I confront adversity is entirely my choice. God will not take away my hardships or make my choices. Instead, He will help me see truth. He will offer strength and comfort. He will be near me even as I struggle. But he will not take away the struggle. To do so would rob me of my chance to choose and grow and become. A pretty, middle-aged woman with a wide mouth and a wider smile hikes past, and I am momentarily sad that I am hiking up and she is hiking down. Foolishness. I see splashes of red through the trees, and hear giggles, and four female Santas amble incongruously by, costumed in red tights, white-trimmed red coats, and red stocking caps. Okay, I did not expect to see that in the Lone Peak Wilderness Area. Two and a half miles up the mountain, the trail grows steep and my desire to see the frozen falls plummets, so I turn around. I lean heavily on my hiking poles to ease my knees down the boulders, and a young woman jogs past and calls out, “You should get some spikes,” and I see the spiked chains around and under her shoes. “Sixty bucks at Scheels.” Indeed, I should.
One might suppose that Dad, as a rule, feels good about his life, for whenever anyone asks him How are you? he responds, “I’m marvelously well, thank you.” Living so close to him as I have, I know this response to be a well-studied lie. How can he truthfully lie helpless in his hospital bed and truthfully represent himself as being marvelously well? Not for several decades did I realize that Dad is not necessarily doing well all the time, and at times might be feeling great distress, and that his rote response manifests an intentional positivity in the face of serious adversity. Mike, the physical therapist, brisked into the room with a How are you today, Nelson? And Dad whispered hoarsely, I’m marvelously well, thank you. Continue reading
Dad tore the glossy page from the Church magazine (the Liahona) and had Mom tape it to the wall of Dad’s rehab center room. But in the shadow of the armoire, the painting hung disappointingly obscured. “I made a mistake, Rog,” he mourned. “I can’t see Him. I should have left the picture in the magazine.” Without asking, I simply removed the picture from the wall and taped it to the armoire door, in the room’s full light, and Dad’s face lit up with pleasure and relief. “That’s so much better. Thank you, Rog.” The picture was a reproduction of Dad’s favorite painting of Jesus, who Dad adores and knows as his personal Savior and Friend. “You know, Dad, people are praying for you, in the name of Jesus, all over the world.” I listed some of the locations where friends and families assured me they were praying for Dad, and for Mom, including in the Church’s sacred temples: Utah, New Jersey, Colorado, Nevada, Washington, Idaho, Wyoming, Illinois, Virginia, California, and Texas; Cardston, Alberta, Canada; Brazil and Portugal. Next door and down the street. Larry texted me: “I just paused and offered up a prayer for your dad, your mom, and you. Please let them know we love them.” And at church, numerous people have shown genuine concern, and have reassured us with, “Nelson is in our prayers.” Hundreds of people are praying from the soul spaces of love and faith, in the name of the Divine, for Dad. I have felt too fatigued to pray much formally, to kneel and bow and form words in the normal pattern. Some would say I do not pray. But I do. I am a walking prayer, a driving prayer, a working prayer, a mealtime prayer, a mountain bike prayer, a hospital bedside prayer. At night, too tired and heavy to remain vertical, I contemplate the ceiling from my bed and open my heart and mind to the Divine, casting my will upward, not really caring if I connect, but just opening myself and giving myself to Whoever orders the vast Universe, offering up what little I have to give, giving thanks that Christ’s Kingdom continues coming, giving thanks for the privilege of being a small part of the Kingdom’s growing, using no words, being simply a willing consciousness. “Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire / Uttered or unexpressed.” (See Hymns of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, #145. Text by James Montgomery, 1771-1854.)
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.
As a boy, Dad’s mother Dora prayed with him every night, saying, “Bless the cost and worn.” He thought it a good thing to ask God to bless the cost and worn, whoever they were—their situation sounded grim. Sometime later, Dad asked her, “Mother, who are the cost and worn?” She looked quizzical, confessing she did not know. They thought and thought and repeated the phrase together numerous times, eventually realizing they had meant to be asking in prayer for those who had “cause to mourn.” Of course, God knew their hearts, and what they meant to say, and who the cost and worn were—and doubtless He accepted their petition. Again as a little boy, Dad was asked in his church primary class to offer a prayer. He stood dutifully in front of the class and ventured, “Heavenly Father, help us to beat the Japs.” While one would never refer to the noble Japanese people in that fashion today, eighty years ago, in 1942, that very prayer was on the lips and minds of tens of millions of people. Even a seven-year-old boy felt the weight of the great conflict that was World War II, and asked his God to end it. I have heard many testimonials from young children who prayed to find something they had lost, and immediately seeing in their mind, or feeling an impression about, where the lost thing was, and finding it precisely there. I have felt tempted to pooh-pooh this puerile witness of the Divine. But then I remember that God loves little children (and wants us older folks to be like them)—He wants to bless them, and appreciates their simple supplications as much or more than my own more complex concerns. Children love and have faith and hope. And what sweeter exercise of faith could one encounter than a small child turning to God in momentary distress. An excellent pattern we would do well to emulate our whole life long. The next time I lose my car keys, I will pray to God to help me find them. Tonight, I will pray for the cost and worn.
Prayers of the Weak and Powerful
Our Father who art in heaven. Since I was about 12 years old, or maybe nine, or four, my prayer preamble has been “Dear Heavenly Father….” But I may in my lifetime have spent more time wondering about prayer than praying, though I am beginning to wonder if there is much of a difference. Mostly I ask whisperingly What is going on here? or sometimes utter an exasperated What in Heaven’s name is going on here? or on occasion send a belching What the hell is this? I kneel bed-side or sofa-side, like I am supposed to, though periodically on only one knee because it is more comfortable and because sometimes kneeling on both knees just takes too much out of me and I just cannot do it, and I bow my head, like I am supposed to, to show respect for deity and all that. And I say, Dear Heavenly Father . . . What is this all about? Continue reading
Prayer Rock by Laura Baker
Prayer has never come easy for me. I avoid it, put it off, wander in my thoughts, cut it short. Yet, I pray every day, because I have been told to, all my life. It’s what I should do, they said. I also pray because I want to believe that someone is listening and caring and responding. But really I pray because I cannot deny a subtle, loving presence that abides and sustains when I am prayerful. Prayerful through formal kneeling prayers as well as daily mindfulness.
For a family activity, we had each child choose a special rock from our faux riverbed, a rock to paint. Laura (now 20) painted this rock when she was a young girl. She gave it to me: a present for dad. I keep it on my nightstand where I see it every morning and every night. I call it my prayer rock. I reminds me to bend my knee and bow my head, in humility, in gratitude, in desperate supplication, in recognition of the divine.
I offer to you two short poems on prayer. Fitful, imperfect, but sincere prayer.
YES, I PRAY
Do you pray morning and night? they asked.
I wondered, Do I?
I pray all the day long.
My life is a prayer.
Living is a prayer–
a sacred expression of dreams, frustrations, loves, and straining efforts;
a reaching out to the One who can reveal the mysteries hidden deep within;
a cry of faith and despair, of struggle and the hope of victory;
an ever truer reconciliation of heaven and earth.
Yes, I pray.
I am here, and
I am listening.
Snow Canyon called to me. I could not wait to finish my law classes in nearby St. George and head into the canyon for an evening hike. I chose the Hidden Pinyon Trail, a popular trail over and through twisting redrock slots and boulders, past blooming prickly pear cactus, Mormon tea plants, black brush, and flowering yucca. I felt lonely and disconnected in my relationships, wondering who I was and questioning about god and life. Arriving at a ridge line 300 above the canyon floor, I sat cross-legged on a patina-stained ledge, raised my staff with both arms to heaven, and called upon the universe for answers. This poem attempts to convey the experience that followed. The photograph above is a Utah Agave plant with its bloom growing seven feet tall in Snow Canyon.
Father of earth and sky—
manifest Thyself unto me.
Child of earth and sky—
see my writing in the rock,
in the swirling veins of cemented sandstone,
in the lichens’ greens and grays.
Hear my voice in the warbles and trills of song birds,
in the lonely quail call.
Smell my wisdom in the breeze-born sage
after desert’s summer shower.
Taste my nature in the pure water
pooled in pocks etched in stone over a million years
by grinding wind and splintering ice.
Touch my mind as you touch with whisper touch
the stunning, delicate cactus bloom,
as you cause the fine red sand to sift through wondering fingers.
Feel my heart as you cry
and reach for the sky
Ancient peoples walked and farmed and hunted on this land that we now call Erda. They fled to the desert wastes ages ago, making way for my ancestors to farm the fertile fields. But Harvey’s property possessed a connection to the ancient traditions. And he invited me to a part of that connection for a moment. Inside the turtle lodge, we left the world behind, left our carnality outside, and sought the Divine Presence through prayer, heat, song, privation, and the smoke offering of the peace pipe. (See Rabbit Lane: Memoir page of this blog, Chapter 7: Turtle Lodge post, for a full discussion of the turtle lodge sweat ceremony.)
HOUSE OF OFFERING
The rocks glow,
like a cluster of orange suns,
shimmering in ferrous shadows
with pulsing heat
in the mid-day darkness
of the stick-framed, skin-clad lodge,
House of sweat,
House of cleansing,
House of song.
Sing of the weathered ancients!
Sing of the laughing children!
Sing of the beasts and the rivers, the woods and the wind!
In this dark other-world:
House of hope,
House of healing,
House of dreams.
Dream of the grisly bear and the bison!
Dream of feathers flying and eyes!
Dream of circles and fire and roads to choose!
Sprinkle now the water,
fill the house with steam,
and renew the chanted song.
Ascend now the burning bark,
fill the house with smoke
pulled from this pipe
and offered up from this
House of prayer,
House of offering, to the
House of God.
—How can we get closer to God?—
—In airplanes . . . and helicopters! Vvrroooom!—
(Caleb-3 to Dad)
Harvey’s property was special to the Indians. They needed a place to perform their ceremonies, where it was quiet, where animals and nature were close, and where Indians were welcome. Harvey’s place fit the requirements. The Skull Valley Band of the Goshute Indians had established Harvey’s land as an official Indian worship site. Local Indians of several tribes set up a turtle lodge and held their sacred sweat ceremonies there. Harvey invited me repeatedly to attend a ceremony. Resisting what I didn’t understand, I politely put him off. One Saturday, though, I reluctantly agreed, admittedly nervous to attend. When I came home several hours later, the children found me exhausted, my hair sweaty and matted. I took a big drink and a shower, then flopped down on the couch. They begged me to tell them all about the Indians and their turtle lodge. I sighed wearily, then told them of my experience with the sweat ceremony. Continue reading