Chapter Three: Contact: Listening to the Voice Within
A man prayed, and at first he thought that prayer was talking. But he became more and
more quiet until in the end he realized that prayer is listening.
When I was out jogging one night in April 1999, I turned one of those corners into
a clearing, so that suddenly I could see the whole magnificently starry sky. At that same
moment a question loudly presented itself to me: Would I be willing to be just friends
with Belinda, whom I was no longer even in touch with? Although I definitely hoped she
and I would someday pick back up on the relationship we’d started to have three years
before, I’d finally stopped bugging her about it, and I didn’t think there was any way
she would contact me anytime soon. She was too young, too shy, too emotionally
damaged. So why was this very clear voice asking if I was willing to be her friend?
Another reason the question was strange was because I’d never considered being
Belinda’s friend instead of her lover. Since she and I had gone from teacher-and-student
to the beginnings of romance in the space of one day, we’d never been just friends.
In any case, the question was clearly not my own thought. And since it seemed to
be based on the idea of unselfish love, I recognized it as a communication from that
benevolent being who had long ago let me know he ran the universe. I answered right
away, Yes, of course I'd be her friend—I love her. Then I spent the next few blocks of
my run entertaining this quaint thought of being Belinda’s platonic friend.
But then it hit me that this meant I was going to have to be willing to be her friend
while she was involved with someone else. My answer quickly changed to No way!
In few more blocks, though, I saw that this was just the type of challenge I should
expect from this God who is love. And that rising to it—or trying to rise to it—would
mean I’d have to grow spiritually myself. So I asked God to help me with this, and
made up my mind to be on the lookout for lessons he might send to help me prepare to
be Belinda’s friend.
For the next couple of months, I spent quite a bit of time on this new project of
learning to be Belinda’s friend. There were so many things I needed to improve on!
Mainly, I needed to lose my possessiveness, and also to stop expecting Belinda to be the
“good self” she had been back at the very beginning of our relationship. Even though I
still believed that good self was in there somewhere, I knew she probably still wasn’t
ready to be that self most of the time.
Re the possessiveness, have you ever tried to quit being possessive about
somebody? Did you—like me—think it would be impossible for you to truly stop feeling
possessive—that the best you could do was to learn to act as though you didn’t feel
possessive? So what did you do? Did it work?
In my case, though I hate to complicate the issue, the truth was that in my
unregenerate state, I wasn’t even willing to pretend not to feel possessive about Belinda!
The very thought of giving up even just the external appearance of caring whether she
was with someone else or not was absolutely unacceptable to me. (Do you see what I’
m saying, whether or not you’re this bad yourself?)
But even though this was how I felt, I wasn’t about to be deterred on this project
of learning to be Belinda’s friend! I knew I needed to change, and knew that my making
this progress on losing my possessiveness was absolutely essential to the progress of
our friendship. So I asked God to help me do this—not to change me to where I didn’t
feel possessive anymore, but simply, at this stage, to change me to where I could
pretend I didn’t.
This required a difficult letting go of my desire to act possessive, which I was able
to do only by breathing deeply and opening myself to the heavens, just like I’d done
when praying for Belinda’s growth, described in the preceding chapter.
Once I was able to let do this letting go, then I was able to practice—with God’s
help—pretending not to be possessive about Belinda.
The way I did this was to imagine situations where Belinda wanted to be with
someone else instead of me, and then act like this was totally fine with me, even when it
really wasn’t. Like I imagined her telling me she was dating someone else, and practiced
saying, “Oh, that’s interesting. Who is she?” Being able to act like this, instead of either
voicing my anger or simply shutting down the way I had done in the past, seemed a
good skill to learn even if I was just pretending. (The fact of that last fact, with its slight
dishonesty, surprised me a little.)
Years later, I learned (as you’ll see when we get to it) that even deeply ingrained
feelings like my possessiveness could be changed, but only by getting God to change
my heart. At the present time, I hadn’t yet learned that truth, plus I probably wouldn’t
have been willing to let go of my feelings and turn them over to God anyway, so at this
time it was true that I couldn’t change my possessive feelings, only the way I acted—
and that only with God’s help.
I think this experience shows that God is always glad to meet us where we are on
our journeys, rather than expecting us to get to a certain point of development (or
“maturity”) before he’ll help. Have you ever refrained from asking God to help you with
something because you thought you weren’t being mature enough in the way you felt
about it? If so, has my story helped you consider trying again? I hope so, because it
really has been my experience, over and over again, that all God wants is for us to turn
to him, and when we do that, from wherever we are, God will respond.
One more thing about technique. In all this work I did preparing to be Belinda’s
platonic friend, in addition to taking plenty of those deep breaths and relaxing into God’s
power as I prayed, one new thing I did was to ask God to help me see Belinda’s and my
relationship his way, as part of the big picture, instead of my old way, which had been
based on my small-minded feelings of need and jealousy. I worked hard to make this
shift in my thinking, and the shift in turn really helped me with both the possessiveness
work and the work I did on not expecting her to be her good self before she was ready
To stay motivated through all of this work, which was spread out over lots of
days and moods!, I kept reminding myself that God probably wouldn’t have sent me the
challenge from the sky if Belinda and I weren’t actually about to have some type of
contact, one way or another.
It also seemed just like God to have put the matter to me as a question, leaving it
totally up to me to decide whether or not I wanted to take on the project. I’d always
believed God gives us this freedom because he wants us to take responsibility for our
All this seemed to fit together so well that I started feeling downright joyful as I
kept on with the work of learning to be Belinda’s platonic friend.
Around this time, one of my main problems was trying to get a desirable class to
teach for the fall semester. Linguistics the previous fall had been simply a stroke of
luck, and once it ended, there wasn’t anything else they needed me for. They’d gone
out of their way to offer classes to my friend Anne, who hadn’t been with them very
long either, and I wanted them to do that for me, too, but they didn’t.
Ouch. I didn’t want to go back to teaching comp again, but I didn’t want to give
up my teaching career altogether, especially since I’d gone to all that trouble at LSU to
become competent in the classroom. I tried everything I could think of to get the
administrator to change his mind—letters, phone calls, talking to other people—but
nothing worked. I also worried quite a bit, and not prayerfully at all. Ouch indeed—
that's exactly what Jesus said not to do!
By the grace of God, though, just when my worry was peaking, I had the sense to
go to the wedding of a kid I’d coached in swimming twenty years earlier. I had to go
out of my way to do this, because I lived with and took care of my elderly, wheelchair-
bound, Alzheimer’s-patient mother, and her sitters were off that day, but this family
was special. Kate Woods and her four brothers had all grown up to be doctors or
lawyers, and as adults most of them lived in the rural Mississippi county their parents
were from, serving the residents there instead of making more money working in
Jackson or some other city. Even more to the point was the fact that everyone in the
family had tons of energy, optimism, and good cheer. The idea of going to the wedding
just to get some inspiration from them didn’t occur to me consciously I don’t think, but
I think my unconscious mind (which I believe is another way God talks to us) knew I
needed a dose, and badly!
A few minutes into the reception, I was reminded that another part of the Woods’
appeal was that they had great senses of humor, which I hadn’t yet realized was as
important—or nearly so—as those other qualities, although I did appreciate it on a
surface level. What happened was that I was talking to the mother of the bride as we
watched the bride and groom dance, and I commented that this guy seemed much
better suited to Kate than her previous boyfriend had. The mother replied, “And the
previous one, and the previous one, and the previous one!” Ha, ha. For a “nice” girl,
Kate had had a lot of boyfriends.
A few minutes after that conversation, I started to feel as though the abundant life
these people partook of was available to me, too, if only I would open myself to it.
The main thing that happened was that the brother I’d known the best, who edited
and published a newspaper on the side of his small-town medical practice, motioned to
me to come sit with him while he ate a plate from the buffet. All this modern-day
Renaissance man had to do was ask, in complete innocence, what else I was doing
besides caring for my mom and editing. I saw instantly that I couldn’t justify “Nothing”
in my own mind, let alone his. The only excuse I thought I had—that I was too busy—
simply didn’t hold water, because I knew Luther thought I was a less selfish person
than that. My schedule still left me some time to somehow do something to serve the
Another thing I didn’t realize till years later was that this altruistic outlook is the
secret to that abundant life!
In any case, the whole wedding experience was one of those times when I felt
such an outpouring of faith, hope, and love that anything seemed possible. (Have you
ever had an experience like that yourself?)
I knew my feelings weren’t going to last forever, but I recalled some advice from
C. S. Lewis: the faith and hope we feel in our best moods has just as much basis in
reality as do the worries and negativity that we feel in our bad moods. So it made
perfect sense for me to try to carry over my feelings to other settings, and to try to act
on them in any way I could.
Armed with this great tip for preserving my faith, I was ready to start living up to
the wedding euphoria by figuring out what it was I was supposed to do next. I started
soul-searching that very night, determined to pray, think, and listen to God until I knew
exactly what it was I ought to do.
To my joy, I found that this act of listening to God—and of opening myself to
anything God might point me toward—was not only the key to finding out how I was
to serve the world; it also made me incredibly happy in itself.
One day not long after the wedding, I was going through my mail in a totally
casual way when suddenly I froze at sight of a plain white envelope, carefully addressed
and return-addressed in Belinda’s familiar tiny printing! At first I was scared to open it!
I got up the nerve only by deciding that it was probably some kind of request for help,
like a rec for grad school or something, and that God had prepared me with the friend
lessons so I wouldn't be offended.
Well, so much for that theory! Instead, Belinda wrote that she had temporarily
given up dating and had recognized the value of intellectual friendships, such as the one
she’d like to have with me, now that I’d finally “let that episode of our lives [i.e., the
passionate month] pass into history.”
Belinda had written out of the blue! Just because she wanted us to be friends! I
should have been nothing but thrilled.
At first, though, although I was excited to have heard from her, I was also
bothered because another thing she said was that she was still in love with Audra.
Audra? You thought Audra had just been a mean-spirited little drug buddy whom
Belinda would have been glad to be rid of? Well, I thought so too, but now Belinda said
that during the passionate month and afterwards, she had “selfishly decided to keep
obscure” from me the fact that she had truly loved Audra. Now, she said, she was still
struggling to get her out of her system, even though they’d been broken up for two
years. Belinda explained that although Audra had been bad for her, she was still
“enthralled” with her anyway—I guess like you would be with a wicked witch or
somebody like that.
What bothered me so much about this was not really the fact of Audra but the fact
that it seemed to indicate that Belinda was being her cynical self. (How else could she be
enthralled with someone like Audra?) Even though I’d promised God that I wanted to be
friends with Belinda no matter what she acted like, I’d been assuming that if she
contacted me (as opposed to us just bumping into each other), then that would mean
she was being her good self, not her cynical self. I didn’t realize she might want to be
friends with me even before she was done being the cynical self. Reality was turning
out to be more complex than my imaginings!
In any case, I still acted like I wanted to be friends with her. I wasn’t about to
pass up this opportunity to get us back into each other’s lives.
Another complication was that I decided the shy Belinda couldn’t possibly have
written me out of the blue merely to get back in touch. She must secretly want things to
heat up again, but she’d just said that stuff about Audra just to protect herself. Yep, that
made lots more sense.
Don’t ask me why I completely ignored the fact of God’s friend lessons! I guess I
was just so excited to have actually heard from the one woman who had ever
reciprocated my romantic interest without worrying about being gay that that was all
my mind could focus on. I think the take-home lesson is how easy it is for us humans
to do really stupid things without realizing it. (Have you ever done anything as stupid as
me ignoring the huge fact of God’s friend lessons, even after I’d worked on them for
On a certain level, though, I did remember the friend lessons. If I hadn’t, I
probably wouldn’t have given the letter the time of day because I would’ve been
offended by Belinda’s invitation for us to be intellectual friends. I would’ve taken it as
an insult, or something. So God’s challenge had done some good.
In any case, this tendency of mine to project my own thoughts onto Belinda’s
letters (instead of just reading the damned things and thus accessing her thoughts) was
to continue for years and do plenty of harm.
But there I was with my answer to why God had spoken to me from that starry
night sky two months earlier. (Actually, I think he tries to contact all of us frequently,
but most of the time we don’t pay attention.) And there I was with God’s response to
my commitment to the project of learning to be Belinda’s friend, even if I did seem to be
ignoring it now. Pretty soon, I started feeling really excited about this new phase of
Belinda’s and my relationship.
One more thing about the starry night sky. Most nights are starry, and even if God
doesn’t yell at the top of his lungs to us the way he did to me that night when I was
running, the setting is nonetheless a great one for trying to “be still and know that I am
God.” And then turning our troubles over to God instead of worrying about them. I just
go outside, or look out the window, and take long, slow, deep breaths as I exhale my
troubles into the Creator’s arms. The key is to relax and trust that God will help you if
you just get out of the way and let him.
By “get out of the way,” I mean refuse to allow your small-minded concerns—
such as my possessiveness, for example—to distract you from connecting with God.
Other examples of our small-minded concerns are our fears about any of the
million things we’re likely to feel fearful about—such as money, or the future, or
health—or our anger, or any other negative emotions that keep us from paying attention
to God. (What are some of yours?)
A few days after I got Belinda’s letter, everything suddenly seemed to fit together.
I saw that the prayer relationship with God that I’d been working on all these decades
was itself worth writing about in order to share with others. That was God’s answer to
what I was supposed to do with my free time.
Over the next few months, as I tried to get the writing project started, I struggled
a good bit with uncertainty about the decision. I mean lots of different times, and lots of
different kinds of doubts. But I think this type of questioning of ourselves and God is a
good thing, because it forces us to cement the decision in our minds.
As I did this questioning, what worked best was for me to start out by humbly
asking God to help me think clearly. Then I considered what signs there were that this
was something that fit the big plan.
There were actually quite a few signs. First of all, my heart was in the project in a
way it hadn’t been in anything in a long time. Second of all, I asked several friends and
relatives for their feedback, and they all said they thought it was a great idea; I
remember my lifelong friend May saying the reason she thought so was because I’d
“always been so interested in psychology and religion.” And finally, an article I’d
worked hard to tailor to a particular linguistics journal got accepted for publication,
meaning I could quit academics possibly forever and still know I’d done something to
disseminate my dissertation.
As I talked to God about all this, I found myself submitting my will in a way I’d
never done before. Instead of my former approach of “What do I want to do?,” I
looked at myself objectively as a small (but significant) creature in its own particular
position in the universe and asked, “What should this creature do?” This fundamental
switch not only led to answers but also made me feel more connected to—and useful
for—the world than ever before. I was also tons happier than I had been all those times
when I’d wracked my brains trying to figure out exactly what it was I “wanted” to do.
The take-home lesson from all of this seems to be that truly listening to God
instead of to my own little will turned out to be the way to go. I mean big time.
What’s more, I really think you can do it, too!
to Chapter Four