By Jason Wright
Like many Americans of all faiths and backgrounds, I like to pray often. You probably do, too. We pray at church, over meals, at bedtime, before road trips and when life presents a need that only heaven can meet.
There is power in prayer, and I believe that if we only ask, our creator is often just waiting to say "yes."
Except when he isn't.
This Sunday I had the pleasure of attending church in Front Royal. I'd been told by several friends of a woman in the area who enjoys my columns and had long wanted to meet me. But the weekend's sloppy weather and a husband with chronic health problems made a trip to church that day unreasonable.
I've been fortunate to meet many of my readers at firesides, school assemblies, book signings or other events around the country. But the print and online reach of the newspapers that run my columns is far greater than my arm, and, despite my best efforts, I'll never shake hands with everyone I'd like to.
When I'm that close to someone who makes my job possible, how could I pass up the chance to meet them?
So, after church, I asked for the address and directions and set out to find my new pal, Sally Atkins.
I'll admit, I was a bit concerned that the area had been under a freezing rain warning all morning and when I got to my car, icicles hung from my mirrors.
I'll also admit that concern turned to worry a few miles later when I saw the steep road I'd need to climb. But it seemed the ice on the road sign double-dog dared me to continue, even though I was driving one of the least winter-worthy cars ever manufactured.
Always up for an adventure, I simply couldn't turn around. Instead, I took the turn onto the narrow road I'd been told would eventually end at Sally and Gilbert Atkins' property. I began sliding almost immediately and backed down the hill for another run with a little more speed. I made it 10 yards higher up the hill, but again the tires spun and the car slid back.
I tried again, this time from a slightly different angle and in new tracks. I aimed for the leftover crunchy snow from a recent storm, but the results were no different.
I couldn't help but laugh. I would've had more traction in a toboggan.
Smiling from my sandwich of misfortune and overconfidence, and sitting smack in the middle of the road, I did what most of us would have done -- I prayed. If the Lord wanted me to visit Sally Atkins, surely he could safely get me up the hill.
Naturally, I expected a "yes." Why not?
Feeling at ease, I took another attempt that ended precisely as the others. So I took another, this time stabbing the gas in short bursts and wriggling the wheel back and forth. I climbed a few inches farther, perhaps, before the tires begged me to stop.
I thought, "Huh, so that's a 'no' then?"
I backed my way down the road, spun around -- insert proper use of literally -- and held my breath as the car skated like Apolo Anton Ohno down to the main road below. I was fortunate to catch enough traction to avoid diving down an embankment into the woods. It probably wouldn't have killed me, but it surely would have left a mark.
Safely off the road in the only flat spot available, I wondered why climbing the mountain hadn't been easier.
What was I missing? Was there something I couldn't see?
Curious, I stepped out of the car and looked up the hill. "I've come so far," I thought. "And whether Sally wants to meet me or not, I'd sure like to meet her."
So, obviously, I began the hike in my suit and loafers.
When I got around the corner and passed the point the car had called it quits, I learned two important things. First, I'm more out of shape than spilled gelatin. And I still can't decide what hurt more -- my lungs or my thighs.
Second, and more importantly, I realized that even if I'd cleared the spot that had bedeviled me, I never would have cleared what waited ahead. It didn't get better, it got worse.
I walked on, sliding not so gracefully, but never hitting the ground. A few clumsy minutes later, I knocked on Sally and Gilbert Atkins door and heard the "yes" I'd been waiting for.
Was it worth the hike? Oh, was it ever.
Sally, Gilbert and I visited for nearly an hour. We talked about everything from God to kids, from writing to weather, and from why she's not on Facebook to why there's a stuffed bobcat on a shelf holding a squirrel in its mouth.
I was inspired at all Gilbert has overcome with health issues and at his positive attitude. I marveled at Sally's insightful commentary on faith, children and teaching. I reminded her how loved she is on heaven and Earth and how her church family can't wait to see her again.
Sally was overly generous in her praise of these columns and kind beyond measure. She even regretted not having shoes to lend me for the downhill ski trip.
When it was time to say goodbye, I hugged Sally and listened as she thanked me profusely for visiting. The honor was all mine, I insisted.
Not surprisingly, the trip down the slope went by in a blur. After another adventure getting the car turned around and back onto dry roads, I was homeward bound.
Driving away I could think of nothing but how merciful the Lord had been with the simple answer "no."
What if I'd made it by the first problem only to discover the next?
What if I'd ended up in a ditch or the trees waiting for a tow truck instead of meeting super Sally Atkins?
How many other "no's" have I heard that I mistook as unanswered prayers?
I prayed again that night and had a longer list of thanks than usual. I thanked heaven for freezing rain, mountain roads, Sally Atkins and one of the most beautiful words any of us might ever hear -- no.
Jason F. Wright is a New York Times best-selling author of 10 books, including "Christmas Jars," "The Wednesday Letters" and "The 13th Day of Christmas." He can be reached at email@example.com or jasonfwright.com.