I’m an English teacher. Additionally, I’m an over-thinker. When dealing with words and their various meanings and connotations, I can really get into an analytical conundrum. Throw into the mix that I’m a spiritual seeker somewhat akin to a rebellious outlaw, and you can only imagine how fast my head spins around some religious terms.
Take “god,” for instance. I don’t define “god” like most do. Hell, I don’t even capitalize the word, and that’s enough for some folks to consider performing an exorcism on me. I do not think of god as some separate being, some man in the sky who surveys the world he made. I believe in a divine energy that imbues all of creation which responds to our own energy in a way that some would consider god-like. Could you call that “god”? Well, sure. You can call it pickled herring, if you want. So when someone asks me this question, “Do you believe in god?”, I am in a bit of a quandary. If I say, “No,” then the assumption will be that I am a non-spiritual person, and nothing could be further from the truth. If I say, “Yes,” then the assumption will be made that I believe in the same picture of god that the questioner carries in his or her head, . . . and, 99% of the time, nothing could be further from the truth. See? It’s a dilemma.
I have had the same issue with the word “prayer.” I’m a meditator and generally prefer the silent form of communing with divine energy. I do believe in prayer. But, that word, too, I would need to define. (Damn my incessant need to avoid being misunderstood.) I do not believe that prayer is a request or appeal to some separate being, some man in the sky (that I don’t believe exists anyway). To me, prayer is the setting and declaring of intentions. Those intentions carry divine energy, and thus those intentions are often made manifest in the world around us. In other words, yes, I do believe that god answers prayer.
Allow me to give you two powerful examples from my own life.
In 1993, I was given the opportunity to return to college on a full-ride scholarship. I had wanted this for 10 years, and suddenly here it was. But, nothing good is ever completely free (even speech, but that’s a different blog post). In order to receive the scholarship, I had to go to school full time, and that meant I had to cut back on at least one shift a week at my bartending gig. Plus, there were the added expenses such as books which weren’t covered in the scholarship.
I remember very clearly the night that I sat in my living room working and re-working and manipulating and blowing up my budget in every way I knew how. I actually had the cartoonish pile of crumpled up paper behind me where I had thrown failed attempts over my shoulder. I tried everything, up to and including considering the possibility that I could actually live on .99 cent Totino’s Party Pizzas for the next few years. Nothing worked. Nothing even came close.
Finally, I stood up in frustration and began to pace back and forth. After a few minutes, I threw my hands up in the air, looked at the ceiling where all deities apparently live, and said, “Look. Here’s the deal.”
Some people start their prayers with “Dear Jesus.” Some begin with “O Mighty Isis.” Mine generally start with, “Look. Here’s the deal.”
My prayer went something like this: “Look. Here’s the deal. I refuse to believe that I have been given this opportunity just to have it yanked away from me. I refuse to believe that you are rubbing your hands together with maniacal glee in some corner of the universe getting evil pleasure from my inability to realize a desire so close at hand. So, here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to enroll in school. I’m going to buy the necessary books with whatever money I have on hand. And I’m going to do my very best. I will do my best at school, and I will do my best at work. But, you have to pay the rent.”
Some might say, “How dare you tell god how it’s going to be!” Well, first, I don’t believe there is a “man in the sky” who is getting offended by my frankness. Secondly, since my belief is that I was setting an intention, then I would say I did so rather emphatically.
I forgot about the prayer, for the most part. I enrolled in classes, bought my books, and started school.
The first week of school, I was standing in the first floor hallway of Crouch Hall at Tennessee State University (I’ll never forget it) when my pager went off (remember, it was 1993). I went to the end of the hall and called the number from a pay phone (again, 1993). It was my friend Heather. I had worked with her mother in the past in a job where I had written ad copy and press releases and other general corporate writing.
Heather said, “Hey, Deb. Are you interested in a writing gig?”
I said, “Uh . . . YEAH.”
Heather explained that she was dating a man who owned an industrial video company and his regular writer had been called out of town on a family emergency. She gave me his name and number.
I met Paul at his office that afternoon. He explained the script he needed written, and I assured him I could do it. We discussed compensation. Honestly, I was clueless, but Paul was a man of integrity, so he paid me fairly despite my ignorance about what “fair” would be in this situation.
It took me three days to write the script. I held on to it for an extra week so Paul wouldn’t think it would be too easy, but hey, this was in my wheelhouse. The check Paul gave me the day I delivered the script was . . . exactly nine months of rent. One school year.
I took the check directly to my landlord, who also happened to be a friend of mine. I told her that I wanted to pay nine months of rent in advance so I wouldn’t have to worry about it through the next two semesters. She informed me that landlords often give a discount when renters pay several months in advance. Without me asking for it, she gave me a discount on my nine-month rent payment that exactly equaled what I had paid for books.
So, the other day I was mowing my yard when I just happened to be thinking about this event in my life from 19 years before. As I recalled this magical moment, I wasn’t filled with wonder at the fact that it had worked; instead, I wondered why I didn’t do it more often.
Just that morning I had expressed to a dear friend that I truly, honestly, absolutely, completely, for realsy wanted to stop smoking for good. I know how to quit smoking; I’ve done it thousands of times. It’s the staying quit part that is so challenging.
Smoking saps my energy and kills my motivation. Smoking takes at least three whole notes off the top of my singing range (but it is gracious enough to add them to the bottom). Most importantly, I’m generally convinced that the surgeon general is probably correct, and I have this deep desire to live a long time.
So I rode my garden tractor around the yard speaking these words out loud. “Look. Here’s the deal. I desire and need to quit smoking. I want a healthy body. I want an unclouded spirit. This behavior does not serve me in any way. It is damaging and dangerous and debilitating. I want it to be gone from my life. I need some help. I need strength of character or will power or inspiration or whatever it will take to keep me focused.”
And then I let it go and just kept mowing. (Sidebar: I am certain my neighbors have binoculars and watch me doing this sort of thing regularly. Talking to myself is my spiritual gift. I have learned to embrace it and no longer attempt to mask it with a fake cell phone call.)
Three minutes later — I so totally kid you not, it was three minutes — I heard a strange sound from my mower, turned around in my seat, and discovered that a little old man on a John Deere was puttering along about 10 feet behind me in my own yard. I pulled up under a shade tree and cut off the engine. He did the same.
He told me his name was Billy and that he lived two doors down and across the road. These are the things I learned about Billy in the 10 minutes we chatted: He had lived in that house 20 years. His family used to be in construction and had built most of the interstate highways ’round these parts. He has been married five times; four of his ex-wives are dead, at least that he knew of. The one living ex-wife came back to see him about seven years ago, “but she wouldn’t let me touch her.” I also learned that he had turned his mower over driving over to see me, and sure enough, the hood of the engine was cracked and Billy had a bit of blood dripping down his arm. Billy’s real regret about that, however, was that he had spilled half the Jack Daniels out of his insulated mug. He wasn’t too worried about the blood; he said he bled easily because he was on blood thinners, and he had the beaten and bruised arms of a man on Coumadin who wasn’t very careful. I also learned that Billy was going to be 70 in November (he didn’t look a day over 97). I learned all of this while Billy chain-smoked three cigarettes.
The interesting “coincidence” is that Billy was telling me all this on my father’s 70th birthday, the same father I had just struggled to keep up with as he scrambled over boulders and down the side of a ravine to reach the bottom of Ozone Falls just two days earlier.
I had spoken my intention out loud (and I think that part is important, at least for me), and within minutes, the man I have lived down the road from for a decade decides THIS is the time to be neighborly and introduce himself. The man who is a walking, talking example of what poor choices might look like was sitting in front of me 90 seconds or so after asking for inspiration. The man who is a stark contrast to the healthy specimen of aging that is my father presented himself to me as an answer to prayer.
Forget the smoking part. This is NOT a moral judgment about smoking. For anyone who smokes, I so get it. It’s about speaking your intentions. It’s about voicing your needs. It’s about prayer.
I don’t think I could say, “Look. Here’s the deal. I need to win the lottery.” I think intentions or prayer or whatever you call them must come from a pure heart and must somehow serve you on a deep level or help you in serving the world. I think they are most effective when they are true representations of the reality of your life. And I think you must approach them with an I’ll-do-my-part attitude.
But, I have indeed learned that (dare I say it?) god answers prayer. Though, I might need to explain to you what I mean by that . . .