Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Gail Almighty...not so much!

A few months ago, I saw a movie starring Jim Carrey called, “Bruce Almighty.” He happens to be one of my least favorite actors, but I’d heard interesting things about the movie, so I rented it, watched it, laughed at some parts, was offended at others, but overall I wasn’t terribly disappointed. For anyone who hasn’t seen it, the premise is that Bruce is elevated to the position of God for a certain amount of time and has to deal with all that being God entails. He loves the power to move morning traffic out of his way, the alterations he produces in his wife’s physique, the ability to walk on water, and uses those powers freely. The most provocative scene in the movie for me, however, is when he sits down to answer the millions of prayers that were being offered. People all around the world in all kinds of situations are constantly raising all kinds of prayers. To win the lottery. To be healed of some disease. To pass a test. To be pregnant. To not be pregnant. The list goes on for endless pages on his celestial computer screen. Suddenly Bruce doesn’t feel so Almighty. He realizes that it’s not gonna be possible to read each one and give an individual answer. So he says, “Yes” to every request thinking that then the prayers will stop for a while. Well, that doesn’t work out too well either. In the end, he rightly concludes that he’s not God, could never be God, and gladly returns the reins of the world and even himself to God – who happens to be Morgan Freeman in a white suit. Hmmm… Lately, I have been receivinglots of prayer requests myself. Children with cancer and other illnesses. Marriages on the rocks. Job loss. Family members and friends serving in one war or another. Children estranged from parents. Parents who won’t take responsibility for their children. Pregnant teenagers. Barren adults. Ill parents. Rebellious children. Imminent divorce. Imminent death. To win a baseball game. For the health of a pet. The state of our nation. The state of our world. The list goes on and on. To some extent I am honored that so many people know that I’m, in their words, “really religious.” In truth, I take my faith very seriously and spend a lot of time praying for other people. But there are times when it feels overwhelming. There is so much pain and heartache, loss and loneliness, brokenness and emptiness in this world. In the past few months, I have come to an obvious realization, one that I should have figured out ages ago, but I’m a slow learner. Here is my “aha” moment in a nutshell: Every one has a story. No matter the size of the house, the age of the car, the shapeliness of the body, the spotless faces of the children, the immaculately manicured lawn, the educational degrees, the size of the bank account, there is always a story. There is a broken place, a scar, a trauma that is just below the surface. I remember that on the morning of my father’s death, as we left the hospital, I was watching the people in the halls, the elevator, and in the parking lot there at King’s County Hospital. I wanted to scream out: “My Father Just Died. Don’t You Care?” But they were in the hospital too. Either someone they loved was there, they themselves were about to check in, or they worked there. In any case, this probably wasn’t going to be an easy day for them either. As I made my way up to Brooklyn this past summer to mourn the loss of my dearest uncle, I looked around on the plane and the train and wondered if anyone else was on their way to a funeral. I thought the same thing on my way to a wedding a month later. I look at faces in the mall, in the supermarket, and in Barnes and Noble. I sometimes see tears about to fall. I sometimes see dark shadows and bruises behind sunglasses. That’s the obvious stuff. But what about all the silent screams, the inner turmoil, and the secret sorrows? There is always a story, and there is always a prayer request attached to that story. I know some people think it’s crazy to pray. If God cared, why would all this stuff be going on? If God cared, why doesn’t He just fix it all? Well, some of what ails this world is self-inflicted. Smoking, obesity, unbridled anger, jealousy, obsessive controlling behavior, addictions of all kinds, pollution, drunk driving, rampant consumerism, racism, corruption, self-centeredness, wastefulness, personal, corporate, national, and international greed - all that stuff, it kills. It makes us sick and it kills us. We can fix a lot of that stuff ourselves. The rest of it, I just don’t know. When my dear friend asks for a reason as to why his eight month old daughter might soon die of cancer, I have no answer. When another friend asks why her ex-husband refuses to send child support for any reason other than his selfishness, I have no answer. When I read of the rape and prostituting of children as young as infants still in diapers, I am without words. I sometimes wish I could tap into a little of what Bruce Almighty had. I’d like to try my hand at being “Gail Almighty” for an afternoon, but then again, I’d most likely blow it just like Bruce did. I used to think I needed to make a list of possible solutions for each of the problems I’d hear. So I started such a list and freely offered it to God in my startlingly na├»ve prayers. Do this, Fix that, Make him happy, Heal her of what ails her, Get them back together. But what do I know? How do I know what the best solution really would be? Now I usually just say the words of that Mr. Mister song of ages ago: “Kyrie Eleison down the road that I must travel. Kyrie Eleison on the highway in the night.” Lord, have mercy on us. Lord, have mercy on that sad woman, that lonely man, and those confused children. Have mercy on my friends, family members, and their friends and family members, all of whom have a story, all of whom are on the highway in the night. Lord, have mercy on us as we make our way through the darkness that is all around us and is often inside of us. Have mercy on the people committing random acts of vandalism and arson in our neighborhood. Have mercy on the busy, the overwhelmed, the underpaid, and the unemployed. Have mercy on the ill, the dying, and those who love and care for them. Have mercy on the homeless, the hungry, the unloved, the forgotten, and the imprisoned. Have mercy on the victims of war and rape and devastation in the Middle East and Africa and all over the world. Have mercy on all of us, O Lord I pray. I don’t understand how or why prayer works, but with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength, I believe that it does. It must do something because people who don’t profess personal faith of any kind, people who claim to have no interest in faith, God, or religion at all, will often ask for prayer of someone who does believe. Not only when they face a crisis or hear of a tragedy, but also when they hear wonderful news, even the most adamantly anti-religious among us will impulsively say, “Oh, my God.” He hears that simple, heartfelt prayer as well as the long, wordy ones. As for me, when the titles of the countless stories I have heard flow onto the second, third, and fourth pages of my heart, when the list of needs is longer than the time I have to read through them, I lift my hands in surrender to The Truly Almighty One, and say, “Kyrie Eleison.” Lord, have mercy.

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