Jason Wright: Sincere, earnest prayer is a conversation
A few days ago, my 11-year-old son and I explored the forest behind my mother’s home in Albemarle County. It’s the same land I navigated as a young explorer years ago.
The deeper we disappeared into the dense woods, the more I sensed we weren’t just walking into the trees. We were walking into the past.
When I was my son’s age, I had a good friend who spent many summer days at my house. He had a single mom and, it seemed to me then and now, a complicated life. We made good co-pilots and enjoyed our adventures together.
One afternoon, we set out to conquer the edges of our property — and beyond. We packed all the essentials: Moon Pies, a thermos of Country Time lemonade, drawing paper and troopers with plastic parachutes secured to their blue backs with rubber bands. We also tossed in a package of matches — just in case.
An hour into our expedition, after we’d crossed our property lines into the acres of mysterious forest, we arrived at a small clearing that years later would become someone’s front yard.
In it we found a huge tractor tire that might have been sitting there longer than we’d been alive. I remember that its treads were larger than our heads and it had plants growing in, around and through it.
We tried lifting it, because that’s what boys do. We then dropped it because we didn’t want to get our clothes dirty. (Alternate theory: We let it fall because it was ridiculously heavy and I’ve seen Ramen noodles thicker than our biceps were back then.)
We ate our nutritious lunch and then asked the question we’d regret. “Would this old tire burn?”
The match lit easily. Before long, the tire was a caldron the Olympics would have envied.
We panicked and threw what we had on the flames — lemonade. It didn’t help.
As smoke filled the air, I suggested we kneel in prayer and do what I’d seen my parents and church leaders do many times when they needed divine intervention. I don’t remember the exact words, but my spiritual memory tells me it was short and simple. We’d made a horrible mistake and needed a heavenly hand — fast.
We were a long way from help and this was several years before cellphones became a necessity of life like air, water and Facebook.
We debated whether to wait and watch or run for help. But before we’d decided, the flames began to thin and the smoke slowed. We mumbled to ourselves. Though we didn’t discuss it, I’m certain we were both whispering prayers that cut through the smoke even after we’d stopped uttering the nervous words.
The moment was a mixture of awe and gratitude. Whether just good fortune or a blessing from above, the fire petered out. Though smoke continued to dance skyward, it was clear the threat had petered out, too.
We jogged back to my home, filled two empty milk jugs with water from the hose and returned to the clearing in the woods. The smoke had diminished to nearly nothing, like the end of the last driveway firework at the Independence Day barbecue — just a reminder of what had been.
Each of us emptied our gallon jugs of water anyway and watched the closing credits roll. It was the ending we’d prayed for.
The walk home was slow, but joyful. We’d been blessed. Or had we?
I shared this experience with my son not far from the spot where it occurred. The ground around us was green and lush, like a children’s book illustration. The thick air was dripping with that infamous East Coast humidity.
It was all so similar to how it looked and felt on that day.
“Do you think a fire could have really spread out here?” my son asked.
“We will never know,” I told him.“Maybe, maybe not.”
What I didn’t tell him is that I’d wondered the same thing many times through the years. Had luck, nature or prayer prevented a forest fire?
At the end of that memorable day from my childhood, I’d prayed at my bedside truly believing there was someone on the end. It might have been the first time I recognized that sincere, earnest prayer isn’t a monologue, it’s a conversation.
Wrapping up both my story and our walk in the woods, I explained that it’s impossible to know whether the wet, green conditions, natural clearing or sheer luck would have taken care of my foolish childhood choice. And, of course, I made clear this wasn’t an experiment to repeat.
I also offered that it doesn’t really matter. The experience had been a blessing.
What if the forest around us was never at risk?
What if the blessing wasn’t that a fire never spread, but a lifetime of faith that prayer could battle the other fires in my life?
Like everyone else, I’ve had many other prayers end differently, with answers I did not want or that took years to unfold and understand. But through every adversity, trial and poor choice, the fires have never consumed the forest — or me.
I may never know what prevented that forest fire. And that’s just fine with two boys from the past, and another boy from today.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or www.jasonfwright.com.