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“I don’t understand why people read fiction. It’s a waste of time; you don’t learn a thing.”

That was the opening of a conversation with a co-worker that happened over forty years ago. So many years back, but how could I, a passionate devotee of fiction, forget such a stupid comment?

My response, delivered with fervor, included three main points.

One, who says the only valid outcome of reading is education? I read for fun, for escape, to enter unknown worlds. To find joy, be scared, outraged or encouraged. There’s a universe of reasons for reading fiction.

Two, there is education involved in reading fiction! Historical fiction is a palatable way to learn about early times. Science fiction nudges me into considering the future. Contemporary novels put a spotlight on the world. The scenes and settings take me to places I’ve not been before. The lives of the characters teach me to understand relationships, both as I watch them succeed and observe them deconstruct.

Three, often the author, through her characters, says just what I need to read, or gives me just the words I want to say. Only a week ago, Lemony Snickett, in The Ersatz Elevator, provided me with the words I needed to conclude a sermon I was writing. Today it’s L.M. Montgomery, in Anne of Green Gables, who is helping me out with just the right illustration.

 Anne and her girlfriends are acting out Tennyson’s Lancelot and Elaine. Anne, as Elaine, is lying on an old raft turned into a burial barge by draping a black shawl. Anne lies with closed eyes, hands clutching a blue iris folded over her breast. Her funeral bier is pushed off into the river. Anne floats dreamingly until the raft begins to leak. Anne, “horribly frightened,” later says to her Sunday School teacher, “I prayed, Mrs. Allan, most earnestly, but I didn’t shut my eyes to pray, for I knew the only way God could save me was to let the raft float close enough to one of the bridge piles for me to climb up on it … It was proper to pray, but I had to do my part by watching out and right well I knew it. I just said, ‘Dear God, please take the raft close to a pile, and I’ll do the rest.’”

I’ve been thinking about prayer, assurance – and gumption. Anne summed that up for me.

A friend of mine, who has a solid church background but little interest in the church today, finds blind faith a major fault in contemporary religion. She believes the message is too often “trust, and the Lord will provide.” I believe she sees too few Christian believers taking on the action, the gumption step of prayer.

We, as a nation, are coming out of an incredible maelstrom: overwhelming disease, political decay, and overt racism. In addition, for those of us concerned about the future of the United Methodist Church, the denomination stays mired in inactivity over the very future of our connection.

All of those problems are overwhelming, gigantic. What we need is a number of brave Davids, ready to take on our Goliath-sized issues.

The story of David and Goliath, told in 1 Samuel 17, is of a young sheepherder, certain of God’s presence, who slew a giant. He took his sling shot used to frighten off the wolves and five smooth stones from the riverbed and killed the Philistine giant with a single shot. Prayer, assurance – and gumption.

To me, the core of this legend is that David, a small, weak opponent, took on Goliath, a much bigger, stronger adversary, and prevailed. Don’t think this says we are called to conquer the biggest threats. Rather, it says that we, with our own limitations, are called to take on challenges that seem too large.

Over thirty years ago, my assignment in a spirituality class was to write a “breath prayer,” a short prayer that could be easily said in one inhale and exhale. The words I strung together were these: “Lord, help me through this time.”

I honed my prayer a number of times, choosing just the right combination of words. I don’t claim they are especially beautiful, but I do know they convey exactly what I wanted to say.

“Lord, help me …” Don’t take my task away from me, don’t excuse me from responsibility of action, help me. “Through” … be with me, stay with me throughout this challenge. “This  time”… I ask for help only through this time. I don’t expect unending protection, unceasing immunity from whatever may happen next. Now, I need you now.

The most important word to me in this prayer is “help.” Help—to make it easier for someone to do something. Prayer, assurance, and action—with help.

In the past 30 years, I have inhaled/exhaled this prayer I created innumerable times, firm in the conviction “I can do all things through the one who gives me strength.” (Philippians 4:13)

Dear Reader, may you find the help you need to do what you are called to do.

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