Thursday, July 14, 2011

When God doesn't Answer

      Jesus told people to ask for things from God and to expect results.  Some of those who took him up on it--the poor, the maimed, and those broken down by illnesses or failure--had suffered most of their lives.  Others were just weary of grinding out their days for insufficient pay and having tax collectors cheat them out of a sizable piece of it.  Often enough Jesus delivered on his extravagant claims.  His closest associates left their employments to announce a new world founded by God.  The alienated and depressed heard them gladly.  Politicians, insurrectionists, and the religious authorities never seemed to quite comprehend.

      Human beings have shared in the progress of God's order breaking into this world, and many things have changed since Jesus said, "Whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you receive it, and you will."  But the new world is still in the making, and Jesus' perspective is so inspiring that we forget how hard the material is that is being remolded.  When we ask for something and don't get it, or get just what we wanted to avoid, we can't remember having signed up for this kind of program.

      It helps to remember the night Jesus sweated blood, asking God for a way out of the dismal human spiral into suffering.  His prayer seems to have gone unanswered.  He was lynched, and cynics taunted him on the cross.  Having healed others, he died like a criminal at the hands of authorities he claimed to supersede.  If he could not escape the downward pull of mortality, how are we to appeal to God in faith?

      When my uncle was suffering with cancer, I prayed for him.  I believed what Jesus said about prayer.  I thought I could change something about the progression of his disease, but he died within a week of the night I began asking God to intervene.

      Alvin and his wife, my mother's sister, had three sons and two daughters.  Our families got together fairly often, usually in the summertime, while I was growing up.  One of the boys was my age.  We were friends from the time we were so small that walking through dew-covered grass in the meadow near his home we would get soaking wet.  By the time my uncle had been in the hospital for several months, my cousin, Ron, must have given up on him.  He didn't go to visit his father anymore, perhaps because he had decided he would rather remember him as he had been, than to see him failing under drugs with an oxygen tube in his nose.

      If anybody deserved a break, it was my uncle Alvin.  He was a gentle man who had struggled, if meekly, all his life to support his family.  A good mechanic, he had spent many years on the floor of his marginally profitable gas station in Kalispell, Montana.  Verna, my aunt, said they would have been wealthy people if everybody who owed Alvin money had paid him.  He fixed people's cars and trucks without asking too many questions.  They needed transportation to get around the roads in Flathead County, especially in the wintertime.  Loggers had to get to work in the woods.  Everybody depended on others for something.

      Alvin worked behind the faded glass of his Husky service station until some of his children were on their own.  When the opportunity came, he moved to a better location on Main Street.  I don't know why he sold out--too many years of fumes and cold floors maybe.  He bought some lumbering equipment, and went into business milling 2X4s with his oldest son, Rick.  For a while they were able to make a go of it.  But things couldn't have been all that great.  I remember hearing that they had to sell some of their furniture.  They must have had quite a few yard sales.  My mother once said they even sold their daughter's doll.

      We lived three hundred miles away when I was a kid.  Later we moved to Oregon where I went to high school.  The next thing I knew, Alvin was a car salesman, back in town.  It seemed a shame because Grandpa had said that after few years working in the woods he looked real good.  Now he was selling Datsuns.  There were a lot of people he knew from his years as a mechanic who were buying Japanese cars.  There must not have been too many of his friends who remembered him, though, when they bought their cars.  He and Verna moved from their house on two acres of land at the edge of town and to a house near the train station.

      A lot of years had gone by since our families picked huckleberries on a hillside along a country road and Verna made a delicious pie from them. The last time I saw Alvin alive, my parents and my sister and I were visiting just before Christmas.  He was in the hospital.  He didn't have much color other than the blue veins at his temples.  The little hair he had left was white.  Dad played a game of cribbage with him.  Verna said it was the best medicine he'd had for a while.  Everybody tried to keep a positive attitude, but when we left, he said goodbye to me in a way that left no uncertainty about what he meant.  That's when I started to pray.  I loved him.  How much good it had done, I hadn't realized until now.

      Some of the most earnest praying I have ever done was for my uncle Alvin, while my family and I were waiting out a ground blizzard in Browning, Montana.  Browning is in the middle of the Blackfoot Indian Reservation at the base of the east slope of the Rocky Mountains.  Verna had come along with us to spend Christmas in Wolf Point where she and my mother had grown up.  We were on our way back with other family members who were able to get away from their rural winter chores to help Verna in whatever way they could.

      Nobody felt very good about reaching our destination.  We had left Christmas behind us.  Reunions in our family, especially in Montana, were not tiresome obligations.  Where we lived people needed each other.  Most of my relatives still wait out the winter on farms separated by miles of frozen rangeland where the temperature is often below zero.  Our convoy of cars ran into trouble between Cut Bank and East Glacier, Montana.  It's spacious barren country, and we could see the blowing snow at the base of the mountains from thirty miles away.  The sky was blue over the Rockies, but a ground blizzard loomed just ahead.

      It was like driving into a fog at first.  In a few miles the sun was blurred by hard driven snow that pelted the windshield.  I was uneasy about another day in Kalispell and wanted to get over the mountains and head home before a storm hit that could delay us for a week.  This was just blowing snow, but the road was getting harder to see all the time.  I drove for a while, following the white line along the shoulder.  My father and I drove in shifts at the rate of about ten miles an hour.  There had to be an end to it.  The horizon had been visible not too many miles back, but this wind was getting to be more than an inconvenience.  It was twenty below zero outside, and you couldn't see beyond the barbed-wire fence and snow drifts along the road.

      We made it to Browning, but the reports we got from people who had come over the pass from the west were not encouraging.  Neither was the thought of a night in the only hotel in town.  The women didn't think the place looked all that clean.  It was New Year's Eve and this was an Indian town.

      Well, there were a gang of us, and the buckskin-faced people at the desk seemed alright.  We packed our suitcases into the hotel for the night--one very rowdy New Year's Eve!  A lot of Indians in Montana spend every day in a bar.  New Year's Eve on their turf can be quite a party.  Dad and the rest of the men tried to be sociable.  My grandfather, who was traveling with us, was enough of a "rounder" back home that he knew all the bar-room Indians in Wolf Point on a first-name basis.  The women set up coffee klatch in the dining room.  I stayed in the hotel room where I did my wrestling with God.  Most of the time I spent face down on the mat.  Why should my uncle matter to God any more than the rest of the people in the hospital?  But Jesus said, ask, and you shall receive.  Did my tears help?  Remembering the man in his good years?  His family?  The love you don't dredge up until it's too late?

      The faith I could work up must have been as significant as a grain of mustard seed.  Asking God for a break for my uncle wasn't anything for which I could "ask amiss, to spend it on my own lust."  St Paul knew me well enough to predict I would have lusted enough by that age to last a lifetime.  I didn't think I was any better than the Indians whooping it up in the bar.  But even a mortal father doesn't give his son a stone when he asks for bread.

      The celebration petered out about two AM.  At least the whooping and hollering stopped.  There were a few "die-hards" still hanging around in the morning when my father and I went downstairs.  We were on our way out to see if the car would start, when a couple of drinkers stopped us on the stairs.  One young buck smiled a broken-toothed greeting and nudged Dad with the bottle he was holding like a dead chicken in his fist--an invitation to have a drink.  Dad wiped the mouth of the bottle with his hand and took a slug.  He told me later he didn't drink much, but he didn't want to chance getting them riled up about his being too good to have a drink with them.  They grinned and slapped Dad on the back.  Everybody said happy New Year.

      The car was frozen solid and covered with snow.  It wouldn't start even after grinding the engine until the battery was too weak to turn it over any more.  I went back inside to tell Mom and my sister not to bring down any luggage yet.  We sort of laughed when I told them about the incident on the stairs with the Indians.  When Dad came in from the car, he had talked to Verna.  How was Alvin?  "He's better this morning," Dad said emphatically.

      We got a push from a service station attendant who was doing quite a business with his pickup.  The bumper on the vehicle was reinforced with a plank padded with sections of old tires.  At five bucks a push he was doing all right that morning.  We drove over Mariah's Pass to Kalispell.  Verna spent the last hours with Alvin before he died.

      At the funeral, I was still stunned, but there were hopeful signs I couldn't fully grasp at the time.  Fifteen or twenty of us arrived at the funeral home together and were shown to the family pew.  While the organ music played, we slid across the wooden bench and squeezed together in too little space.  Even Verna giggled a little before time and place hit her again.  The minister's sermon was uplifting.  He told us that Alvin had said his amens to the Bible readings and prayers that had been delivered to his bedside the previous week.  Alvin had been a fiddle player, and one of the fellows from the fiddlers' organization he belonged to, played a hymn that cut into me like a knife.  Nobody who had ever been to a fiddlers' contest with Alvin could hold back the tears.  An apprentice undertaker was ingratiating with Verna in a way that rubbed everybody the wrong way, but she patted the young man's hand and went to the casket.  She held on to the edge of the box for a long time before the cover came down on his body.  We waited until somebody finally helped us out.

      Alvin and Verna were both Norwegian.  Their family grew up with the stoic resolution that seems to go with the territory, whether in Norway or northern Montana.  My mother's people all have it.  Alvin's sons handled their father's death as they did other things.  Ron survived two tours of duty in Vietnam.  He came home with scars that made him glad to go back to work in a sawmill.  Lee was drafted too and managed to get home again.  Both of them handled the family luncheon without showing too much grief, though it was harder on Lee.

      The fiddler was there.  I remember an encounter he had with my uncle Earl.  Earl is barrel chested and has a grip that can hold back a bucking horse.  His upper body strength compensates for one underdeveloped leg, the result of childhood meningitis.  Smiling, he shook the fiddler's hand and said something like, "Still sawing away, eh?"  The fiddler chuckled.

      Sunlight filtered through the sheer draperies Verna had made and hung at the windows.  There was something transparent about the mourning in this house.  People grieved, but they were not overcome by grief.  I think a lot of them had prayed, maybe not that Alvin would survive his ordeal, but that God would be God and work out his will mercifully.  Some may have felt Alvin had endured enough.  I don't think there was anyone at the luncheon who didn't believe he would live again with the one who said, "I am the resurrection and the life."  Faith is implicit for those who pray.  Earnest prayer deepens faith.

      God didn't, explicitly, answer my prayer.  When Jesus faced death and prayed for a way out of it, the Father denied even him what he asked in order that he might defeat death for himself and for us.  My uncle and his family got along without my prayers before Alvin's death and could have managed the end without them.  But if I had hardened my heart to the spirit's impulse, I might not have known, as I do now, how important these people are to God, and how important they are to me.

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