Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Interview with a Stranger

Interview with a Stranger (learning why I hated prayer)

I know why you’re running.

You try going off the path to avoid the stranger, but his words catch you off balance and you skid to a halt. Some of the ducks that had waddled up on shore take flight in a flash of wings. The stranger stands calmly, and only glances at your tank top and shorts, and the sweat glistening on your skin from the shortened run. You take a quick look along the pathway, but it’s quiet today, and there’s no one else in sight.

Do I know you?

Yes. You don’t remember me yet. But you will. I was a minister once, like you.
You shake your head, and start to run around him, when he calls out again.

I never used to like prayer much, either.

This time you stop and turn slowly. Twenty minutes ago you stood in front of your mirror and convinced yourself that you needed a run. You hadn’t prayed in a long time, and even your time in prayer was leaving little but the salty taste of unfulfilled dreams. So you’d stopped. Your life had been a swirl of events lately, and you could feel the footsteps of discouragement coming closer. A run always helped, but how could this stranger, know any of that?

The sun flashes off the swirling water and you shiver as the wind blows hard against your moistened skin. It couldn’t be true, could it? Prayer is something you do. Something you’re supposed to do. It’s never even mattered if you like it. Of course, no one has ever thought to ask you either. An elderly couple is walking their dog, and you smile at them as they pass. Maybe this stranger knows something you don’t. It couldn’t hurt just to talk.

You move closer.

He smiles when he sees you turn and you walk along the path together, although he stays just behind your left shoulder.

You haven’t prayed much lately, have you, Steve?


You can’t be present without time in the Presence, he says.

It sounds like he’s quoting a bumper sticker, and he waits to see whether you’ll accept it. Two seagulls cry as your presence forces them away from some bread someone has left for them near the path. You don’t even see them.

He starts talking. His voice is softer, steadier than you remember, although you still aren’t sure how you know him.

When he was a kid he was scared of his father. He grew up in a traditional Catholic home. Prayer was nothing more than an apology. And appeasement. He says that last part ruefully, as if he still feels sheepish about it. God was angry and very disappointed with us humans. With him. Again he smiles, although this time it is tinged with regret. When he first moved to a Pentecostal church, he felt different. Free. It wasn’t like the Catholic Church at all.

What does that have to do with prayer? You ask, unable to hold your tongue.

Our faith rests on our image of God, he says, unperturbed by your question.

You bite back a sharp retort. You hate his abstract answers, but he’s pulling you in deeper somehow.

You move closer.

People in the Pentecostal church prayed, he says, loudly and often, but what surprised him was how ritualistic they were. In their own way, even more than the Catholics. He hated their rigid belief structure, the way they hid behind the language of the church. It didn’t seem like they were free, he said, it seemed more like they were afraid. And he’d known fear quite a bit when he was younger, not just with his family, but in a lot of ways.

You motion for him to sit with you on a bench near the water. You watch the wind lifts tiny caps on the waves as the afternoon sun gleams off the river like a thousand crystals. Is he right about the fear?

You move closer.

I wasn’t able to minister anymore, he says, and so I left. His chin drops to his chest and tears lay trapped in his eyes. I didn’t know who I was anymore. I didn’t know how to relate to my wife or the people around me. As he tells you what he’s lost, you want to cry for him, too.

He wipes his eyes but doesn’t stop.

My wife and I argued so much, he says, that I would often leave at night and go to a coffee shop or a sports pub just to avoid conversation. When I came home she was sleeping. Always sleeping. She didn’t care. Years later he learned that she was never sleeping. Always awake. The memory haunts him still.

Another elderly couple walks by but this time you can’t take your eyes off the stranger. He’s gotten to you, you realize. You need to hear his story.

You move closer.

Three years pass, he says, and he realizes that when he goes out, when he drinks, when he’s loud, when he’s talking a mile a minute, it all feels the same. He stopped going to church, but he goes back. He doesn’t know what else to do.

He smiles again and asks you a question.

Have you ever felt separate from your own life? As if your body was living and you, the real you, was somewhere else? Or maybe dead?

You frown and then nod. You know that feeling all too well.

He waits for you to answer, but instead you stand up and start walking again. He falls in beside you. The smell of freshly cut grass and the afternoon buzz of insects bring a quick sense of pleasure, but the frown returns when you realize that he’s watching you. And for the first time you realize that his story may be painful for you. But you need to hear the rest.

You move closer.

I have run most of my life. We all run in some ways, but I didn’t understand that I was running. And even when I learned the truth, it was so hard to stop. Any distraction was better than facing the truth.

You want him to be quiet. Your stomach is clenched tight as you turn onto your street. You can’t stop him. If you don’t face it today you never will. You take a deep breath.

You move closer.

Did you know that God loves you?

His question startles you so much that you lose your balance and nearly fall off the sidewalk.

Of course I know that.

He smiles, this time with an enigmatic twist to it. Well, he says, I said that too. I just didn’t believe it. I couldn’t stop running until I accepted that. Everything changed when I stopped trying to earn God’s love.

You frown. He is starting to sound like a hippie, like being a Christian means no work. No effort. He grins at your expression, and you realize he is doing it on purpose.

You move closer.

The funny thing about prayer, he says, is that it used to be easier. Easier to cry and moan and yell and scream and chant. But talking isn’t prayer. Prayer is also quiet. Prayer is listening. Prayer is confrontation.

What! Your voice carries down the street. You just said prayer was listening and quiet. You just said you don’t have to earn God’s love. How is prayer confrontational?

He smiles and nods.

When you see God, you see yourself. When you see yourself, you see you sin. When you see your sin, you see your need for God. Prayer, time in the presence of God, forces you to face yourself. It forces you to own your decisions. To own your sins. And to own God’s love. Perhaps more than anything, it forces you to be present in your own life.

You realize that you’re standing inside your apartment, but you don’t remember going up the stairs or letting him in. Despite your churning stomach, you brace yourself to let him finish. Besides, you’re starting to remember how you know him. Why he seems so familiar.

You move closer.

So why do you pray, I ask.

This time it’s his turn to be startled.

Without prayer, we are blind. We lose the big picture. The eternal picture. Without prayer, temporal things become eternal, and life becomes heavy. The greatest thing about prayer is the more we learn to lean on the Creator, and the more we own the details of our life, the more freedom we enjoy. It’s a strange paradox, but the more we commit to the big picture of what God wants, the simpler life becomes. And we can not only enjoy our life, but be fully present in it as well. He pauses. You know what I’m talking about, Steve.

He smiles and suddenly you recognize him. Same eyes. Same face. Different smile. Softer.

The floorboards creak as you step closer to the mirror, and the stranger disappears. He's right. I know what he’s talking about.

I step onto the balcony and watch the trees sway in the summer breeze. Slowly I peel off my running shoes as I begin to pray.