The Grace of Rain

Praying for Rain

Dear Will:

“I woke this morning to the sound of rain.”

That’s how this letter was supposed to begin. The forecast was unambiguous. But when I opened my eyes and listened, I heard no rain. As usual. It seems there is NEVER any rain around here. Just ten days ago we hit 95 degrees, which is what passes for autumn here in Southern California. Our hills go from brown to browner, awaiting the seemingly inevitable wildfires that will finally turn them black. So when the forecast mentions even the possibility of rain, we do our best to hide our skepticism, watching the horizon, hoping, praying for just a little moisture, just this once.

As day began to dawn, I lay in bed, pondering our plight. We generally consider ourselves lucky to live in this desert paradise, where sunshine is the norm. Last Saturday I was hiking in the local hills and it was glorious: just-the-right-kind-of-warm, clear (!) blue skies, a gentle breeze. Elsewhere in the country they talk about bomb cyclones and the polar vortex, so we get no sympathy when we worry about another day of too much sun. Last night it dipped into the 40s here, which (I know) sounds pretty dreamy if you live in, say, Billings, Montana, where it’s not expected to get above 27 today. But it says here that the average November temperature in my town is 74 degrees. So yeah, we’ve got it pretty rough.

People are not likely to be any more sympathetic in Seattle, where they get fewer sunny days than wet days in a typical year. That’s 155 days of annual precipitation for them and around 34 for us, but I’m pretty sure you have to count foggy mornings in June to get to our total to 34. Earlier this year (March 5, to be exact), California was declared drought-free for the first time since December, 2011. That’s 376 weeks of drought—a stretch of truly biblical proportions. So perhaps you’ll understand why we constantly yearn for moisture without actually expecting it to come.

I acknowledge that in these matters we are the product of our own choices: the decision to live in a naturally arid environment, the preference for modern conveniences that contribute to a warming climate, the refusal to make meaningful compromises that might mitigate the consequences of our self-indulgence. It makes me wonder: How can I expect God to step in if I am not myself prepared to step up? Then again, how often do we truly deserve the blessings that He grants us anyway? Hasn’t he told us that hope is one of the three great virtues? Hasn’t he always invited us to trust in Him and in “good things to come”? Isn’t the whole idea of grace that He blesses us in spite of our manifest unworthiness?

And so, with “hope smiling brightly before us,” we pray for things beyond our merit, relying on a loving Father to hear our cries and reward our hope in spite of it all. To help us find a job when we screwed up the last one. To heal us of self-inflicted afflictions. To mend that which we have broken. To send the rain we need but perhaps do not deserve.

As I think about it, I woke this morning only to the promise of rain. And that promise was just enough to light within me a glimmer of hope that it might be so. I finish this short note to you listening to the fulfillment of that promise: pit-pat, pit-pat, pit-pat. The rain we long for, the rain we need. One more thing to give thanks for today when we say grace.

PW

A Call to Prayer

Praying Together

Dear Will:

It’s not every day you get invited to hang out at the local mosque. Not if you’re a Christian like me anyway. I wasn’t even sure there was a local mosque, and it turns out there are four or five within 15 minutes of my house. So when Dana and I heard about “Open Mosque Days,” we were all over it. I hadn’t been inside a mosque since high school, and the only thing I remember from that visit was a large room with a beautiful rug. (I was such a deep thinker at 17.) I can tell you already that our visit to the Islamic Center of Yorba Linda will prove to have a more meaningful, lasting impact.

As we arrived we were greeted enthusiastically, given a brief tour, and then joined a handful of others for a brief overview of the basic tenets of the faith, including the Five Pillars of Islam. As if on cue, soon we heard the call to prayer, which gave us the opportunity to witness one of those five pillars: Salat. We thought of Moses as we removed our shoes and were welcomed into the prayer hall. I was especially moved by the simple motions performed by each person prior to beginning their prayers as they signaled a casting off of worldly things and an opening up to God.

After prayers, our new friends sat patiently answering our questions about what they believe and why, and it shouldn’t surprise you that we saw more meaningful similarities than differences in our beliefs. Dana and I left the mosque with a variety of homemade treats, our own copy in of the Quran (in English), and an invitation to return to join in a typical Friday afternoon worship service. We were so touched by the warmth and kindness extended to us that, as we embraced our Muslim neighbors and said our goodbyes, we knew that we will certainly find opportunity to return.

Later that same day, we met Dana’s brother David and his wife Annette for dinner. The two of them are currently presiding over the California Arcadia Mission for our church, so it’s a treat for us when a window opens up in their crazy schedule and we can rendezvous for dinner somewhere. As we settled in to eat, David’s phone buzzed. It was, it turned out, an electronic call to prayer. At 4:55 pm every day, everyone in the Arcadia Mission (and, I presume, their families around the world) pause to pray together, wherever they may be. And so in that restaurant we bowed and gave thanks to God for food and family and life itself, praying also that their young missionaries might be protected and inspired in their work; that those they meet and teach might come to understand and believe the truths that they share; that God might watch over and uplift all who live within the area, especially guiding the pure in heart to the Gospel of Jesus Christ; and that the families of those missionaries might be sustained and comforted as well. Such a simple, powerful act of faith and unity. I felt a pang of regret that we had not done something similar with our son throughout the time he served as a missionary in Argentina and Paraguay.

In that public setting, our prayer may have lacked the ritual and ambient reverence of what we had experienced in the Islamic Center. But the chance to pause and commune with God was no less meaningful. I felt something especially powerful about the collective nature of such prayer. There was something about knowing that, at that very moment, others were making similar pleas to the Almighty, something that helped me feel a oneness with brothers and sisters around the world.

Muslims have a chance to feel that sense of extended community five times a day, at specific intervals dictated by the position of the sun in the sky. That suggests that at any given moment of any given day, thousands or even millions of Muslims are facing Mecca and worshiping God together. And it makes me wonder: How might our individual lives be different (and the world for that matter), if all of us—Christians, Muslims, Jews, God-fearing people of every race and religion—paused at a designated time each day to give thanks and praise to our Creator, to solicit together greater peace and harmony throughout our troubled world? What if every day at the same time we poured out our hearts as one on behalf of the poor and the afflicted and offered our mutual commitment to be a bit less selfish and a lot more kind, more generous with what we have and more humble about all that we lack? What if we united daily in collective supplication, appealing for less contention and more generosity of spirit while pledging our personal commitment to make these things possible in our own remote corner of this vast and varied world? Imagine how such a prayer of brother-and-sisterhood, offered in faith and hope, might begin to change the way we think and interact with one another. It would not be enough to make all of that actually happen, but it would be a start.

I think that’s an experiment worth trying. Perhaps we could even start tomorrow. Say maybe around 4:55 pm?

PW

Look What Happens When You Wander Around Outside

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Dear Will:

Bryn and I were on the third day of a five-day backpacking adventure in the Western Sierras, deep within Sequoia National Park. We had spent the day hiking through Big Arroyo, up and over Kaweah Gap, past Precipice Lake (made famous by Ansel Adams) to the shores of Upper Hamilton, where we joined a handful of other tired and stinky backpackers who were settling in for the night. It was such a tranquil setting that a group of deer thought nothing of wandering through the scattering of tents as they nibbled on the surrounding foliage. Further down the valley you could see the sun glancing off of Valhalla, an iconic slab of granite that fills the dreams of rock climbers and photographers and, I suppose, rock-climbing photographers as well.

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Fresh mountain water gurgled past our campsite, spilling from Precipice to the Hamiltons and beyond. You could certainly find worse places to spend a summer night.

Once we had set up our tent, I sat lakeside—resting my throbbing legs and shoulders, taking in the magnificence of the place—when another backpacker ambled by with fishing pole in one hand and a wiggling rainbow trout in the other. (Perhaps. I know for sure that it was colorful and it was a fish. Beyond that, I’m guessing.) As he passed, I couldn’t resist a friendly tease. “If you’re going to feed all of us,” I told him, “you’re going to have to catch a lot more fish than that.” He chuckled and said that he was taking orders. Alas, our dinner that night would be much less exotic than his: dehydrated beef stew (about as delicious as it sounds). But when you’re tired and hungry, you’ll take your calories however you can get them, so under the circumstances the stew was good enough. We were full, at any rate. Plus, for dessert Bryn and I split a Snickers bar. Not bad at all.

Turns out that stew was merely antipasto. Soon after we had finished licking our sporks, the fisherman approached, and with a grin he presented us a fresh fish of our own, already cleaned and ready to cook. (He actually had taken my order!) We were flabbergasted. And delighted. He seemed as pleased to give the fish as we were to receive it. Although Bryn and I each got maybe three bites out of that tiny trout, the gesture made it the second-most-wonderful thing* we ate on the entire adventure. I’m smiling even as I recall the moment our new friend unveiled his surprise gift.

That brief moment of unexpected kindness is typical of what I experience just about anytime I find myself out among other nature-lovers. I can’t say exactly why it is, but on my morning hikes in the nearby hills those with whom I share the trail are unfailingly cheerful and polite. The mountain bikers will thank me for stepping out of their way and cheerfully advise me of how many others are following in the group. “Have a great hike” someone will say to me, maybe a dozen times in a three-hour hike. That generosity of spirit seems universal. And maybe a little surprising, given that a hiker like me is probably a nuisance to mountain bikers. But still there is a sense of community that you cannot miss, an apparent understanding that in the outdoors we share and preserve and try to “leave no trace.” We help each other. We do our best to get along. And in the backcountry, fresh air and clear water seem to intensify that equanimity.

And so it was a fitting close to our adventure when on the final morning, as I braced for one last serving of somewhat under-cooked instant oatmeal (bleckh!), Bryn presented me with the ultimate trailside treat: a clutch of freshly gathered thimbleberries (her favorite!).

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She had spied the somewhat mythical berries the previous day as we made our way up through Bearpaw Meadow, down past a grove of redwoods (super cool) and finally up a steep incline to our campsite beside Cliff Creek. Apparently she had found yet another patch of thimbleberries near our campsite that morning. Those precious red treats, “superior to a raspberry in every way” according to my companion, filled my bowl with just the right tang and crunch to make that gray mush (dare I say?) delicious. It was so kind and generous and wonderful that I can state unequivocally: Best. Oatmeal. Ever.*

Like the fish (which I think we can agree was definitely a trout), those thimbleberries—or perhaps I should say the gift of those berries—was a simple reminder of who we are, or should be, or simply could be if we chose more often to wander around outside and share whatever we find along the way. Might not be a bad idea to start today. Who’s with me?

PW