Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Jesus, Take the Wheel!!!

Jesus, Take the Wheel!!!

Man:  God, how long is a million years to you?

God:  Only a minute

Man:  How much money is a million dollars to you?

God:  Only a penny

Man:  Can I have a million dollars?

God:  Sure, wait a minute.

My mother, who was born at the Holy Name of Jesus Hospital in Gadsden, Alabama and who has a southern accent so thick and incomprehensible that even southerners can’t figure out what she’s saying, has a tendency to blurt out the phrase “LORRRRD HEPPP!” in moments of tremendous astonishment. My sisters and I think this is so hilarious that we often call her up with shocking information just to hear her say it.  I’ll eagerly ring her up  and say “Mom, my friend Stephanie is getting married on Saturday to a seven-foot tall transvestite named Amanda Hugandkiss and get this - Amanda is a minister at the Pentecostal church.” to which my mother will reply, at top volume, so you have to hold the phone a yard away from your ear to avoid being deafened:  “LORRRRRRD HEPPPPPP!!!!!”

I think it might mean “Lord, help me” - like maybe - this information is so profoundly weird that I simply cannot absorb it.  Help me, Lord, to take it in without fainting dead away.  Mom has said it all her life, and she looks at us like we’re nuts when we try to discern its meaning.  She just says “Well it means Lord hep.  What’s the problem?”

The strange thing about “Lord hep,” even though my mother totally plays it for laughs, is that in a roundabout way, it’s a prayer.  Yes, a prayer.  It’s an appeal to God for some kind of assistance, and I am 100% sure that God laughs his you-know-what off every time he hears her say it. How could he not? 

Ever since I was a little kid - even from age 4 or 5 - people have asked me to pray for them.  When I went to the Pleasant Valley South Baptist Church with my sainted grandmother Zelda, people gave me prayer requests.  “You have your Grandmother’s gift.” they would say, as they dug around in their purses or pockets for a stick of Juicy Fruit gum with which to bribe me for my prayers.  My Grandmother had a hotline to God, they said.  She went to church every five minutes, volunteered at the hospital and did nursing home visits out the wazoo.  She was the holiest of holy rollers and was widely regarded as the most immaculate, crystalline Southern Baptist lady anybody ever did see.  I, on the other hand, was not.  I was a sinner from day one.  I broke a boy’s nose on the bus to daycare because he was bothering me, and I punched a bully in the stomach on the playground because he had punched me in the stomach the day before.  I hid in the school bathroom from 10 to 11AM, for three weeks, to avoid going to math class because I hated math (I still do) and I told lies all the time.  I almost got suspended because I was flipping off the camera with BOTH HANDS in the marching band picture in the yearbook. In elementary school I was two grades ahead in all my classes (except math of course) and I was arrogant enough to often sit in class thinking “why are some people soooo stuuuuupid???”  Yes, Lord.  I admit it.  I had those evil thoughts.  

Still, people gave me prayer requests.  Even when I was a teenager and stopped going to church at age 17 because I was running with a rough crowd and sinning all over the place, the prayer requests never stopped, and I never stopped praying.  I prayed every day, many times a day, for my own needs and for other people, even when I was so sinful that I would say “Yes” whenever my sister Autumn offered to put the baldness and the fatness curses on all the boys who were mean to me.  (Side note:  Autumn’s curses seem to have worked very well.  God forgive me.)

I was in my mid-20’s when I realized why people asked me to pray for them.  It wasn’t because I had some special gift - it was simply because they did not know how to pray, or they felt that God didn’t want to hear their prayers.  I started telling them “You know, I will pray for you but I don’t have to.  You can also ask God for this.”  Most of them would say “Nah, God doesn’t like me.  He won’t help me.”  or the most popular of all non-religious excuses: “I’m too much of a sinner.  I’m going to hell, but at least my friends will all be there.”

Anybody can pray, really.   No matter how awful you might think you are, God still loves you and he wants to help you.  Do you really think that because you stole something or you are struggling with a drug problem, God won’t want to heal your mom’s cancer?  Come on.  God’s not a jerk. 

People also think that if they do tentatively ask God to help them, they’ll do it wrong and mess everything up.  They think “Well what if I pray for God to heal Mom’s cancer, and then I go out and get drunk that night and she dies?  Then her death will be my fault.”  It’s not that complicated.  God answers prayers, as it’s been said by theologians far and wide, in only three ways:  He answers yes, no, or “wait, I’ve got something better for you.”  When we pray for healing and someone dies, that is a yes.  He healed that person by releasing them from their pain and sickness, and he took them into heaven - the next phase of life.  If you pray for healing and someone dies, that prayer has been answered but not in the way that you expected.  

That’s the weird thing about God.  He exists in a realm where time, space, people, energy, matter, all that stuff is irrelevant.  The way we perceive our needs and the outcomes of situations in our lives is just a primitive, microscopic squeak in God’s ear.

But - He hears it.  I’ve also had people say to me “I have another prayer request, but I don’t even know if I should give it to you.  I feel like I’ve already bothered God too much.”  Again I ask you - what kind of a jerk do you think God is?  You could ask him 900 things a day and he’d handle all those requests. God’s love is infinite.  It’s not like a food-sampling stand at Costco.  You don’t have to be embarrassed about asking for as many samples as you want and you don’t have to worry about get barked at by some indignant woman in an apron and rubber gloves.

Pray away, people.  You don’t have to have any kind of special formula, either.  Everybody gets hung up on that.  It’s not like a genie from a bottle, or the forest imp from that fairy tale “The Ridiculous Wishes,” where you have to word the request just perfectly to avoid ending up with a sausage for a nose.  Just ask.  Ask simply, and keep asking.  Ask every day if you want, for as many days as you want.  As you’re asking, God will be patting you on the back and saying “Ok, don’t be shy.  Spit it out.”  

Some ethical types have asked me, wide-eyed, if their prayer is too selfish.  I think we all know exactly which prayers are obviously really selfish.  “Oh Lord, Won’t You Buy Me a Mercedes Benz?” is a good example.  If you’re afraid a prayer is borderline selfish but you’re not entirely sure, go ahead and ask anyway and tell God that.  “Hey God, I know this might seem awful, but could you possibly give me a parking space close to the door at Shoprite?  If this is too selfish I understand, but I’m just thrown’ it out there.  I don’t want to schlep in the rain.”  Sometimes, too, God says no and later you thank him for it.  I’d like to trot out my favorite quote here for the umpteenth time, from Billy Graham’s wife Ruth: "I'm glad God doesn't answer ALL my prayers.  If He did, I would have married the wrong man - several times." 

And yes, you can talk to God in a messy, crazy, informal way.  He is God, so he understands.  You don’t need any kind of special formula or King James thee’s and thou’s and PhD language.  It’s good to start out thanking God for the nice things he’s done for you, then asking forgiveness for any bad things you’ve done, and then putting in your request, but you don’t have to.  Sometimes you can just blurt out “God, please let this piece-o-junk car start when I turn this key.” and lo and behold, the car will start.  I can vouch for this.  My car stalled in 114-degree heat, along with 20 or 30 other fellow travelers’ cars, when Warren Jones and I were driving across the desert outside Palm Springs on my way to join the Convent.  We looked at each other in complete despair and I closed my eyes and said silently to myself “God, I know I’m a sinner and a total idiot most of the time, but could you please let this car start?” and it did.  We drove past all those other stalled cars, from California to Florida, then I drove up to New Jersey, and that car has never stalled on me since.

You don’t ever have to achieve the lofty prayer techniques of contemplation and meditation that - if prayer were a video game - would be like, level 95 character prayer skills.  You don’t have to levitate and get pierced in the heart with a spiritual sword or flip through the frilly, pretty pre-fabricated prayers of the fancy Episcopal Book of Common Prayer.  Just talk.  God listens.  

You’re not too sinful to pray, or even to go to church.  If churches didn’t accept sinners, nobody would be able to go to church.  We’re all sinners.  Sin, in my understanding, isn’t “anything that is SUPER fun!!!!!”  Sin is the tendency to do something that is psychologically unhealthy to you, or to others.  If you’re sinning, you’re doing something that harms you or somebody else, and since God loves us, he doesn’t want to see us get hurt.  I sin when I get overly anxious and worry myself into three weeks of acid reflux, or when I roll my eyes and say “Okay, I guess we’ll do it the STUPID WAY” when I’m forced to work in a group and I get out-voted, or when I put myself down.  When you’re lost in unhealthy behaviors and you’re worn out and sick of your situation, God is right there and he wants to help you.  He knows that when you ask for forgiveness for your sins - even if you are sincere and you want to change - there’s a big chance that you’ll go right back to doing that same thing and you’ll be asking his forgiveness again.  He doesn’t get disgusted and leave you in the gutter.  You can call him up.  He hasn’t blocked you on his iPhone or - horror of horrors - unfriended you.  

Everybody can keep sending me prayer requests.  I’m fine with that.  I love praying and I’m very grateful that it also happens to be my job.  Just put in your own prayers, too, along with mine.  When we pray for the same thing together, amazing things happen.  Our prayers put positive energy towards a situation, and God is that positive energy.  

In lesser moments of astonishment my mother utters, in a low and serious voice, “Thayyy lawwwwww.”  I think this means “The Lord” but I can’t be sure.  She doesn’t know either.  All she knows is that it is the only appropriate response when she’s confronted with semi-unbelievable but not Lord Hep-level information. God thinks that one is pretty funny, too.

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