Last Saturday night, when his wife, Maureen asked the Lord for sunshine during the youth retreat, Paul Berg was uncomfortable. He was pretty sure the Lord didn't want to be hassled with your and my little hangnails. He didn't say a word about it, but neither did he sit and sip his coffee as he usually did once the kids got up and the dust settled. Instead, the minute the amen passed Maureen's lip Paul started clearing the table.
He didn't say a word because he figured God was irked by Maureen's little world. f she got the sunshine she pray l d for, then some poor farmer down the pike wasn't going to get enough rain for his sweet peas. It was that simple. You pray for the little junk you want, and you're likely to poke a stick in someone else's eye. Besides, Paul told himself, the Lord's got bigger things to think about.
Maureen remained at the table, a hot cup of coffee at her lips. "I'm just hoping it doesn't rain all weekend," she explained to Paul, who was busy tossing ice cubes down the disposal. "How'd you like it if the kids got rained on the whole time?" she said. "Is it a sin to ask?"
He shrugged his shoulders.
They'd had this conversation so often before that it had already been registered as an unsolvable conflict in their marriage. She knew he got aggravated when she prayed for her hairdresser's daughter's head cold (with the prom this Friday!) and her boss's losing the Ambience marketing contract. She could sense his restlessness during her all-too-frequent supplications about turning thirty-nine big ones just a week from next Wednesday.
"Those are really piddly things," Paul said. "Little piddly stuff. Just like Luella Compton all over again."
"Paul!" Maureen said angrily. She knew what he was referring to, and it embarrassed her to be lumped in with Luella Compton- even though she had some sympathy for the woman's earnestness. Each Sunday Pastor Willy led them in a time of communal prayer, and every single week Luella Compton prayed for something Paul characterized as bizarre or piddly: the tiny sparrows nesting in her yard light, the joy of central air, the perfect V of geese she'd seen flying north.
"Luella just feels deeply," Maureen said, swinging around to face Paul as he worked.
"You call that deep?" he said. "Three weeks ago she wanted us to remember the dandelions, remember? 'We all hate them this time of year,' she said, 'but they're really so yellow and so sweet.' "
"Well, she's right," Maureen said, "We do hate them."
"Do we have to remind our Lord?" he said. "Is that what prayer is all about?"
"You just don't like that Joysand- Concerns time. That's your problem, Paul Berg. It makes you nervous." She pulled the last of the grapes from the cereal dish she'd put out after the meal was over. "Just because you don't l i k e"
"It's all right," he interrupted. "But it irritates me sometimes to be talking in church about Roger Compton's prostate."
"You're so uptight," she told him, spitting out a seed that wasn't supposed to be there. "Why can't you just loosen up?"
"It makes me nervous," he said. "I don't know what good it does. Maybe Luella gets her kicks that way, I don't know. Maybe it gives people a chance to be heard. Maybe that's not so bad."
Later that same night Paul's mother called from Indianapolis to tell him the most devastating thing he could have imagined. She told him his sixty-year-old father- her own husband for the last forty years-had left her for a woman he'd met at a ski-lodge business meeting.
"He what?" Paul said.
His mother could do nothing but cry.
Paul put his hand over the bottom of the receiver and motioned Maureen upstairs for the extension.
"Now tell it to me, Mom," he said. "Pull yourself together and say it again. What happened?"
Nothing changed the second time through. With enough tears to wash out the wires all the way from Indiana, Paul's mother explained that her husband had come home that afternoon, sat her down at the table, and simply told her he didn't love her anymore. He said he'd found a woman who brought him so much joy and made him feel so alive.
"Do you want me to fly out?" Paul asked.
Her voice was adamant. "I've got Gloria and Sandy and their families. You just stay there and wait. I'll call again," she said. "I'm just so confused."
When Maureen came downstairs, she found her husband standing at the kitchen table, both arms down in front of him, palms flat on the table, as if his father were seated across from him there on the other side, listening to the raging sermon Paul was delivering in his mind.
"I can't believe it," she said.
He turned to her, speechless.
'I'm sorry," she said, taking him in her arms.
From the family room some throwaway lines from the Golden Girls were making her nauseous. Paul stood with his chest leaning against her, limp in her arms, like he'd never felt before. He wept, a child, a little boy.
At church the next morning Paul thought only of his father's sin through the whole confession and assurance. He and Maureen hadn't told anyone yet, but they had agreed that they would. They both believed it would be silly to treat what his father had done as some kind of secret. But no one, Paul was sure, would ever understand. His sixty-year-old father, a grandfather twelve times, had gone off-like a cinema playboy in a scarf and a fringed leather jacket-with some floozy chick. Paul felt too angry to worship.
Pastor Willy came off the pulpit just as he'd done weekly since he'd joined this congregation. "Any requests this morning?" he asked, then smiled, as if by his own confidence he could draw someone to stand. "Does someone have special thanks?" he said.
All during Ed Greving's explanation of his son's surgery, Maureen kept hold of Paul's hand, squeezing it in a way that let him know very clearly what she wanted him to do.
"I'm sure all of us will be thinking of you and praying for Josh," Pastor Willy said, and he nodded.
When Grace Thomkins asked that all of them join her in thanking the Lord for her daughter's great newjob in Oregon, Pastor Willy raised a fist and shook it happily, like a rookie linebacker after a sharp tackle.
When Timmy Willekes asked if people would pray for good weather for the youth retreat, Pastor Willy said he remembered a party when he was in high school when it rained all afternoon and they played volleyball in the mud. "It was about the best time ever," he said, "but we'll remember you too."
Maureen tucked her elbow closer into her husband's side.
Dan Billings wanted to be sure that everyone would pray for the victims of the plane crash in the mountains. He told them he'd been at the airport in L.A. and had never seen so many people crying.
That's when Paul told Maureen to do it. "Go on," he told her. "Do it for me. I just don't think I can."
Everyone in Valley Church that Sunday thought Maureen Berg's prayer request came in with the voice of the Lord. She spoke so slowly and the church was so hushed that nothing else mattered for just that minute, nothing at all. They were all astonished.
And Pastor Willy didn't say a word once Maureen sat down. He simply started into prayer, the shortest prayer he'd ever given after Joys and Concerns.
After worship, Luella Compton was the last to speak to them.
"Paul," she said, "my father left when I was twenty. Maybe it's not the same, but I was old enough to understand." She took his hand in hers and held his arm with the other. "It's tough enough being a parent to kids," she said, "and now you've got to be one to your father."
The look she gave him right then was more than a smile. Her lips stiffened bravely, encouragingly, as if she were sending him off to war. "You're going to need the Lord," she said. "I'll pray for you every day because I know what it's going to take."
That afternoon, Paul told Maureen how right then, right at the moment Luella Compton had released his hand, he had thanked God for that look on her face, that sturdy smile, like some field general full of confidence and going to battle for the Lord.
Just for the look, he said, just for the way she nodded. That was the whole piddly little prayerthank you, Lord, for her face.
That was the whole thing