The Jesus Prayer: A Play in Three Acts
"Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me."
Remember that.So I have formally decided to name my new car Delilah, because she is beautiful but she's betrayed me and I can't trust her anymore. The list of pickles into which she has gotten me is getting longer and more maddening by the day, and the memory of one of the more harrowing of said pickles is still tender, as it took place not two months ago on the way back to George Fox from a job interview in Portland.
Act 1: Delilah
|You guys tried that picasa photo editor? Really easy way to make your car look like it's in a comic book.|
The interview was for a position in Young Life's Associate Program, a dream job of mine except that it would require me to live wherever they might place me, rather than in Springfield where I had resolved to go after graduation. My interviewers and I reached this impasse at the end of my interview, them telling me I would have to live away from home and me trying to humbly communicate that I must return home, that home is where I felt God calling me.
I left the interview feeling that it had been pleasant enough but ultimately a waste of time, and this frustration gave way to despair as my car began to sputter and stall as she and I ambled through the thick traffic going out of Portland. I pressed my fingers hard against the steering wheel and ground my teeth together each time the traffic came to a complete stop, and felt my heart leap and sink with each deep metallic rattle in the engine, audible even from the driver's seat. I feared (rightly so) her coil might burn out somewhere en route, leaving me high and dry on the highway.
Oh I forgot to mention, Delilah needed a new coil, immediately after needing a new fuel pump, immediately after needing new motor mounts, immediately after needing a new starter, immediately after needing a new rear main seal. Yes by this point my $1,200 car had cost me well over $2,200 and was still not running how she ought to. I knew about the coil prior to this little excursion but couldn't afford to fix it until later that week and needed the car for this one run to Portland, a quick ride by all accounts (twenty-some minutes each way). And like an idiot I was sure she could make it for me. My confidence, unsurprisingly and not for the first time, was misplaced.
Following each lurch of the traffic flow Delilah coughed more pitifully than the time before. After some thirty minutes of fitful idling we were able to achieve a few dozen miles per hour but by this point she was sputtering violently and her accelerator wasn't accelerating like an accelerator should. As I felt the engine approach death I floored the gas pedal to avoid being rear ended, but I knew I would still have to pull over sooner rather than later. The trouble was I was in the middle of four wide lanes which were rapidly merging and separating and there was no clear path to a safe patch of shoulder. So I merged in and out, hitting the blinkers and hazards manically as smoke began to pour out from the sides and front of Delilah's hood. There wasn't much I could do about it at this point though, so I kept flooring the gas hoping the short bursts of acceleration would carry me off the freeway. And sure enough, by the grace of God, I managed to veer onto an exit ramp to Beaverton where I pulled into a gas station and cried into my hands for a few minutes.
The gas attendants were helpful enough. They let me park in their lot, lounge with them in the store while I hatched a plan, and were even kind enough to direct me to the nearest place where I could buy a phone charger (if I was going to be stranded in Beaverton I was not going to be without a phone). So I embarked on what ought to have been a half hour walk to Fred Meyer, dressed in full interview garb in the balmy 80 degree weather.
Round trip the mission set me back about an hour and a half, as I grew slower and groggier with each heat-stricken step. Once I'd returned to the gas station I plugged in my phone, stripped down to my skivvies (the shorts and t-shirt I wear under everything, which I ought to have remembered before I made the long walk to Freddy's) and weighed my options. I called a Young Life colleague whose AAA had saved my skin months before when I blew out a tire on the way to a school retreat, but he was out of town this time and suggested I purchase my own membership. I tucked this nugget of advice away as a last ditch option and considered the alternatives.
What alternatives? You're not from here. You have no one to help you here.
So there I sat near the entrance of the store in a Captain America t-shirt, basketball shorts, long black socks and dress shoes, looking like a royal dope. My preoccupation with the task of getting a charger had temporarily staved off my worry but now that I had time to sit and think about it I had to fight back waves of anxiety, fear, and the persistent loneliness which seems always to paste my other dark feelings together.
You can't afford another major fix, I reminded myself. And I was right. I'd already borrowed six hundred dollars from very gracious friends to get this thing running; surely the grace would run dry soon.
While the phone charged I used its GPS to see how many miles separated me from my "home." Nineteen. Dammit, according to my Young Life friend AAA's standard membership would only cover fifteen miles of towing. So I let the phone charge halfway and resolved (like a maniac) to try my hand at driving the wounded beast.
By some miracle she started up when I turned the key. By some even greater miracle we managed to make our way out of Beaverton, catching every green light and maintaining speed enough to avoid stalling. If I can just make it four miles, I thought, I can pay AAA to tow it the rest of the way. I'll worry about the money later.
Worrying later. Pfft. A fool's errand for a basket case like me.
The miracles started to stack up as Delilah maintained her pace out of Beaverton and on into Tigard. Soon I'd passed four miles and decided to try my luck with the rest of the journey. Tentative hope began to swell within me as each mile ticked by, and I'd achieved something like surreal peace when I reached the hills between Tigard and Sherwood. Those hills, Lord help me, the first one almost did me in.
As the road's slope began to rapidly increase I noticed the sputtering return. Moment of respite officially past, I resumed my frantic pounding on the gas pedal, and just before my anxiety won the day something occurred to me. A thought, a slight memory. Something I'd read.
Madeleine L'engle, recording her account of the time a truck t-boned her and a friend out of the blue:
"The ancient words of the Jesus Prayer, Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me, surfaced in my mind. They have been with me for many years, like a deep, inner fountain. When I wake up in the night they are there—those strong, affirming words. They were with me as I sat in the crumpled car."
And they were with me and my dying car as we ascended that first hill. Aloud I frantically repeated, "LORD JESUS CHRIST HAVE MERCY ON ME!" and sure enough the gas caught and Delilah puttered up the hill.
Then the next hill: Sputter, stall, LORD JESUS CHRIST HAVE MERCY ON ME, catch, putter, over the hill.
And then the next.
And before I knew it we came scooting into the streets of Newberg. *pause for applause*
I'd gotten cocky by that point too, sure God must love me best of all, that is until D's engine coughed hard and died, five blocks down the road from my mechanic.
LORD JESUS CHRIST HAVE MERCY ON ME!
Nothing, The car still wouldn't start.
I pressed my head against the steering wheel, prompting the horn to let out a long whine. I'd come all this way just to get stuck down the street from my mechanic, absolutely dead in the water. So I heaved a deep sigh, hopped out and tried to push my car over to the side of the road as those behind and to the right honked and swerved to miss me. To my left a little redhead girl of about nine or ten sat on her porchswing watching me grunt and push in vain. After an uncomfortable length of time she ran inside, I presumed to fetch an adult, and emerged with what appeared to be her grandfather.
|In my memory the guy looks just like Bobby Singer from Supernatural.|
Later I found out that his name was Randy, that he was her much-older father, and that her mother was a drug addict who'd abandoned the family. He weaved this melancholy yarn as he helped me push my car into a parking spot, took a look at her engine and called my mechanic, whose personal cell number was on his speed-dial (Newberg is a very small town and our God is a very big God). After we'd made arrangements to get Delilah where she needed to go I sat on his stoop and listened to his story, a story I could tell had not been shared in some time. I offered bits of mine too, but in a rare moment of sensitivity to the Spirit I knew that this was a time for listening.
Prayer doesn't work like magic, I know that. It was never the words themselves that kept my clunker running but the mercy of God for which I prayed. And I was frustrated when she finally died so near home, but I know now that Jesus Christ answered my prayers with those few precious moments with Randy and his daughter. I prayed for God's mercy and, beautifully, the mercy He sent down was not all for me. It was for them too.
Act 2: That One Scene in Alien
At first I thought the deep, sharp pangs in my gut were just nerves, so I dismissed them and went about checking items off on my graduation checklist with frenzied determination. By the time my family had arrived for the ceremony, though, it was clear something was seriously wrong with me, as the pain had remained and intensified. Come hell or high water I was determined to graduate, though, so I pressed on toward the goal. And the days were mostly alright, but the nights prior to and after the big event I spent in a hotel room with my mom, sister and grandma, writhing and moaning in my bed.
|It was kinda like this but... more painful. And messier.|
I don't remember much from the actual day-of, apart from my first thoughts immediately after graduating, which went something like:
So you graduated. Cool. This stomach thing'll probably kill you though, so don't get too excited.
And this voice only got louder following graduation as the days passed and the pain persisted. By the end of the week it was coming in waves, each met by a ghostly moan emitted from deep within my belly. For a week and a half my mom's living room (where I'm crashing between stabler living situations) sounded like a haunted house, and each day I grew more panicked. I'd never been stomach-sick this long before. Nothing was... passing through my system if you catch my drift, and I couldn't keep solid food down so I was on a strictly liquids-only diet. Then came the hunger, and it mixed with the pain which mixed with my persistently negative inner dialogue, echem, monologue, and it all was starting to take a toll.
You're screwed. You have no insurance and this stomach thing is dangerous. It will kill you.
In the midst of one of those moments of purely intense pain, of weakness and fear, my mind floated back to Delilah's and my turbulent trip a few weeks before. I remembered the prayer and again in deep desperation cried out:
LORD JESUS CHRIST HAVE MERCY ON ME!
And I kept saying it, for as long as I was sick. Only I didn't say it aloud, unless I happened to be home alone, lest my mom or sister overhear me. Can you imagine hearing your son/brother, sick on the couch, start screaming such a thing? It would have scared them half to death, and it was my turn to be half-deathly. So I chanted the words in my mind, grateful for God's telepathic abilities. At the cresting of each wave of cramps I would say the prayer, desperately thinking LORD JESUS CHRIST HAVE MERCY ON ME, and it kept me sane. It kept me for the whole week and a half until one morning when I woke up with a calm stomach (and a busted molar, but that's a story for another day).
Act 3: Deeper Cuts
But letting go has never been a strong point of mine, especially when it comes to friendships. It eats away at me when I sense the people who matter most getting tired of me. It messes with my sense of worth, makes me feel fundamentally unlovable. So when I noticed this one particular friend had stopped answering my calls and texts, seemingly without reason, it bothered me. It's not just that I'll miss him either, if he totally pushes me away, it's that these scenarios bring to surface all the lingering issues of abandonment and rejection left from my less-than-ideal childhood. Which isn't my friend's fault. But it's not exactly mine either.
Maybe I should warn people before we ever even become friends. Maybe I should wear a sign that reads "Warning: Gets Old Fast."
Clearly, this is an old and complicated issue for me. The long and short of it, though, is that watching my friendships fall apart makes me feel desperate, and a few days ago, it was in one of these moments of desperation that I again remembered the prayer. So I prayed, this time quietly and with much more intensity, "Lord Jesus Christ, please have mercy on me."
And sure enough, He did. He gave me comfort, came down and sat with me and let me cry on His shoulder. He told me He loves me, and reminded me of the dozens of people in my life who genuinely love me too. He was right there beside me, not literally, but truly.
You see, as much as my grief over these friendships can make me feel hollowed out, and it does, the Jesus Prayer fills me up again, as it reminds me that it is "no longer me who lives, but Christ who lives in me" (Galatians 2:20).
Every now and then I think I hear Delilah's engine rattle like it did on that day in Beaverton, and it brings to mind again my mantra, the ancient prayer which saved Madeleine L'engle from the trauma of her collision, and which saved me from becoming overwhelmed by my own car trouble. And which eased the agony of my stomach virus, and which guards my heart at it most vulnerable. The miracle of this little prayer, that it heals pain, physical and emotional, existential and circumstantial, that it makes the impossibly intense moments survivable, is proof enough that God is real, good and important. And that He loves us. Oh, how He loves us.
“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”