- Carolyn Arends Copyright Christianity Today International
- 2009 6 Jun
The relatives on my father's side were farmers—hard-working, plain-spoken people who understood and loved the earth and harnessed its power through sweat and skill and faith. I like to think that something of their noble, earthy spirit lives on in me, but clearly, it does not. I must confess that I am the poster girl for comfort-craving suburbanites everywhere. When I get close to the earth I so profess to love, it seems, well … dirty.
But it wasn't that way for my great-grandma Bittner. I met her only once, when I was very young. My parents decided it was time to embark on a pilgrimage to the family homestead. And so, in the summer of 1972, my brother Chris and I spent a wide-eyed week on the Bittner wheat farm in Yorkton, Saskatchewan.
A four-year-old possesses a mind's eye like a fun house mirror; the shapes of everyone and everything are stretched to larger-than-life proportions. To this day I can play back my memories like scratchy pieces of stop-motion film.
The wheat is militant, standing at attention in uniform rows until a prairie wind spots me in the distance and decides to put on a show. Stalks higher than the Empire State Building become Motown dancers, bending and swaying, swaying and bending for an awestruck audience of one.
My great-uncles are benevolent Goliaths with wide grins and huge, leathery hands. At the end of the day, they smell a little like ripe fruit. Their own children are no longer children, and yet when they enter the farmhouse, they are once more the dutiful sons of Grandma Bittner, who is all one could hope for in a family matriarch. Eighty-five laborious years have compromised her mobility (she seldom moved from her kitchen chair), but she is still a dominant figure. I'm a little afraid in her presence, but there is a softness beneath her severe strength. The Saskatchewan sun has turned her a golden brown, and she is as kneaded and plump as the fragrant loaves of bread cooling on her counters.
The Bittner wheat farm is pure magic, but I'm not purely happy. Even a four-year-old can tell when something is amiss, and I'm troubled when my uncles' open faces cloud over. I strain to overhear and understand their conversations. The crops are in trouble. No rain for months. We hoist Grandma Bittner into the car for a drive, and each field we pass elicits the same response. Too dry, too dry. My heart sinks further with every mournful shake of her heavy head. I've never heard the word drought before, but I'm sure it's not good.
In the cool of the evening, my great-aunts and uncles gather in the kitchen and bring my parents up to date on the latest family gossip. Chris and I grow restless; we go out to sit by ourselves on the front porch. We are sleepy and warm and somewhat intoxicated with our freedom, until all at once the universe begins to go horribly wrong.
First, a cloud of mosquitoes attacks. The air is thick with them, and they only want Chris. We are mutually hysterical, and the grown-ups come running to the rescue. They swat at the swarm and eventually manage to get Chris inside.
Now I am alone on the porch, still sweaty and jittery from my brother's ordeal. But before my heart rate can return to normal, a new onslaught is launched.
A white flash scorches my eyes. A second later, all is consumed in darkness. The wind begins to howl, enraged to be losing a shouting match with a thunder that is more terrifying than anything I've ever heard. The rain the heavens have been hoarding is released with a savage vengeance, pelting the roof and slashing at the windows, drenching me instantly. Even the sturdy old farmhouse has turned against me, violently banging the screen door open and shut behind me. The lightning strikes again and again, illuminating the holy terror that is my first prairie storm.
My parents find me inside the farmhouse, sobbing on the cellar stairs, my hands clamped over my ears. My father scoops me up and carries me into the safety of the kitchen. A flash of hot light illuminates my relatives for a moment. Inexplicably, they are sitting together, staring out the farmhouse windows with strangely calm smiles. "It's just a storm," they murmur. There is even quiet, gentle laughter.
I only cry harder. "Sweetheart," pleads my mom, "don't be afraid." I shake my head. I am afraid, but more than that, I'm sick with a guilt so crushing I can't speak under the weight of it. The family—both immediate and extended—is sympathetic, patient. They don't understand that the chaos outside is all my fault. "What is it? " they chorus. Several minutes pass before I summon the courage to confess my terrible secret: "I … prayed … for … rain."
Now the laughter is not so quiet. There is even a little applause. "Oh, honey, the rain is wonderful," someone says. Before I can catch my breath, the uncles are teasing me. Someone brings me some warm milk, and soon I can't keep my heavy eyes open, not even to watch the storm.
In the morning I awaken to the sounds of my uncles' hammers. They're repairing wind-damaged fences and still laughing, jubilant in the mud. The crops will make it after all.
The storm and the terror, the giddy relief and elation, the instinctual and unwavering belief that my prayer had saved the Bittner family farm—these are among my earliest memories. I consider them now with a sense of both wonder and dread that has only deepened over the years. The night the Prairie Drought of 1972 came to an end was the night I began to understand that there are forces even towering great-uncles cannot tame, forces so ferocious in their power that—especially if they bring you exactly what you need—they are likely to scare you silly.
I had already heard much about God in my young life—already, I think, learned to love him. But hearing the heavens thunder, I had my first taste of what it is to fear him, my first encounter with what I am now learning to call the mysterium tremendum et fascinans—the tremendous and fascinating mystery of God.
On the front steps of that Yorkton farmhouse, a holy secret was whispered into my soul: Prayer is the point of access, the place where the finite and the infinite intersect and converse. To pray is to enter at least a little way into the mystery, or—and this is even more dangerous—to invite the mystery to come to you.
And so, these days, I pray. Whether I am on a front porch in Saskatchewan or Surrey, whether I am praying from a surrendered or a stubborn heart, I speak with the God of Creation. I am ushered—sometimes reverent, sometimes willful, never worthy—into his presence, and when the language is beyond me, it is spoken on my behalf. I pray for the wisdom to learn more about prayer and the courage to pray the prayers that will change me. And in my best and bravest moments, when I ache to know more of the tremendous and fascinating mystery of God, I pray for rain.