and so i stay to follow.

“But didn’t you say just a moment ago that you had prayed for this kind of clarity? For an answer?”

I catch my breath in the middle of my monologue about “hearing God’s voice.” It’s a late Thursday night in February and I’m barefoot, on the phone with my teacher-turned-friend Bonnie, who has interrupted me with her candor as I pace the prettiest strip of campus.

I had just told her about a conversation with a friend about following well, about the fact that I am utterly clueless about any kind of post-grad plan:

“I want to be obedient,” I told this other friend (and even thought I meant it), “I want to go where I’m supposed to.” I paused to think of the scene in the second book of C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy, as his Green Lady character remarks on the divine command to stay away from the grounded “Fixed Island;”

“If I try to make the story about living on the Fixed Island, I do not know how to make it about [God.] For if I make it that we are living there against His command, that is like making the sky all black and the air so we cannot breathe it.”

As it is, I do not know how to make the story about Him, thinking as I continued,

“But I’m not sure what direction to step in. How am I supposed to obey if I don’t know what to do?”

Until Bonnie pointed it out, I somehow hadn’t seen the connection between that conversation and the one I’m currently having, bare toes prodding the decorative lettuce somebody decided would beautify the place. As it clicks into place, I realize that perhaps the best and hardest thing about friendship is that you get called on your crap a lot more often than alone, more often than you would like.

“Yeah, I guess I did,” I answer her finally.

So why am I freaking out about this?

Because God doesn’t just straight-up, as-close-to-audible-as-you-can-get, talk to you on the back porch of the coffee shop that doubles as your second home when you’re reading Luther of all people, telling you to stay in Waco of all places, for the sake of that Episcopal parish, of all things.

That kind of thing doesn’t happen, right? First of all, I’d have to get over the phrasing of “God told me.”

Really? He did? Well that’s nice.

And if He was going to tell me something, wouldn’t it be to, you know, do something else, maybe something bigger? More specific? Like plant a church, not just go to church? Or leave the country, not stay in the same county?

Amidst the cynicism, a fierce assurance is somehow planted deep, and it is this coupling that makes me feel like a crazy person the whole week.

And He knows this, too. Tomorrow, next week, you will not feel this way. You will doubt your ears, your heart. Write it down, tell someone–confess it, now.

I do not do this right away. I wait several hours, then call my mother, who (at least in this moment) does not think any of this sounds crazy at all. She is more supportive than I am. I get off the phone as my friend Preston climbs into my car. I tell him too–shaking, chattering, riled up–and he acts as if this is the most natural thing, like he expected it. One by one, friends and strangers nod in encouragement when I tell them, either in quiet response to a question or as a blurted announcement all its own.

Or in rambling phone calls under the green light of Pat Neff Hall.

Bonnie, too, accepts all of this with ease. She tells me that it sounds like this is what I was wanting, that it is an answer, and I wonder why it feels different than I had thought it would. In this moment, a string of words from another conversation, another winter, another issue float before me:

Maybe the brave thing is to stay.

And for an instant, one of few, I consider that perhaps the voice on the coffeeshop back porch isn’t just my unwillingness to pack up and leave, that maybe following involves lingering, that Waco might not be the Fixed Island.

And so, I stay.

Prayer is not a cell phone.

Here are my cards on the table: until the last few years, I have more or less treated prayer as something that happens to me—it is something that takes me by surprise, and at times, it is something that I am doing before I realize what is happening.

This may be good in moments, very good, in fact. But it is fair to say this is an inconstant sort of prayer life, one that is difficult to maintain, even two days in a row. And as I learned from Teresa of Avila this month, even saints experience “spiritual dryness” on a semi-regular basis.

Very simply, one thing has led to another, and I know it is important for me to do this praying thing on a regular basis. Even when I don’t feel like it, even when it feels like I have not a clue what I am actually doing, even when I wish I could say I did something more tangible, like make toothpaste tubes.

And sometimes, I feel a little lost.

I think I forget that He sees the struggle and the floundering, the myriad ways and days that I try to open my heart, to acknowledge Him rightly, to commune. That even on days when the field looks barren, the verses seem distant, the stirrings seem muddled, He knows that, too, sees that, too.

He knows. He sees.

It’s not like He’s waiting by the phone, wondering why it hasn’t rung as I drive through a tunnel or frantically shove the battery back in after I’ve dropped my cell for the tenth time that day.

Alright, so I might not actually think about it in quite those 21st-century/anthropomorphic terms, but perhaps that’s something of the sentiment, in effect. (This faulty metaphor may also have something to do with the countless phone troubles I’ve had lately.)

“O Lord, you have searched me and known me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down
and and are acquainted with all my ways.” Ps 139: 1-3

“So [Hagar] called the name of the Lord who spoke to her, ‘You are a God [who sees me].’”  Gen 16:13

“But the Lord was with Joseph…” Gen. 29:31

“And [Jesus] said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.’” Luke 8:48

He knows. He sees.

I think there is something the fumbling that can be blessed, too, and that my clumsiness doesn’t shoo Him away somehow. And, as Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “The categories in the Prayer Book,” for example, “are for sharpening my intention, not for winning God’s attention.”

To be clear, I think there are some types of prayers that are more faithful than others, and I’m not talking about written vs. spontaneous vs. intercessory vs. contemplative, and so on. Rather, at the core, there are thoughtless prayers and ones with the best kind of intentionality; there are those that seek and praise Who He Is, and those that, at best, express a self-referential love. There are those that acknowledge His holiness, and those that only make Him out to be my tame imaginary friend who tells me I’m pretty when I’m having a bad hair day.

And then there are motions and surprises and trips to the grocery store and laughter and brisket sandwiches and tears and songs that can fit these categories, that can be prayerful, too.

These things I do believe.

But in stubbornness or shortsightedness or even forgetfulness, I often neglect to bring even these things to Him. Perhaps it is because it seems to be a strange inversion—how do I begin to (as a friend put it this week) “pray about prayer?”

I think one of the most vivid pictures C. S. Lewis offers in Mere Christianity is on the question of what it means when we talk about God helping us:

When you teach a child writing, you hold its hand while it forms the letters: that is, it forms the letters because you are forming them. We love and reason because God loves and reasons and holds our hand while we do it.

Maybe there is something mysterious and trusting about asking Him to grip my hand a little tighter, because the letters I’m forming seem more jagged and wild and lost today or this month. And they still might not flow well, and I still might not get the answers I want.

Maybe there is grace in the request itself, and that is a good place to start.