Faith beneath the stars

People

February 29, 2024

Illustration of a man drinking coffee on a cloud

Early morning coffee and a spiritual tradition

by Jim Dodson

Every day between 3:30 and 4 a.m., I take a cup of coffee outside to an old wooden chair beneath the sky where I sit, look, listen, think and pray.

If you’ll pardon the expression, it’s something I’ve done religiously for at least two decades, regardless of season and weather, bitter cold or bright summer night. Fog, rain, snow or sleet — almost nothing keeps me from my early morning rendezvous with the universe.

I call it coffee with God.

Between you and me, it’s probably the only time in my day when I can be assured, with the faith of a mustard seed, that I and the world around me are reasonably OK.

Between God and me, you see, it’s something very personal. 

After sipping coffee and eyeballing the night sky for a bit (I’ve seen several shooting stars over the years — probably a few UFOs, too), I listen to an app on my smartphone called “Pray As You Go,” a daily scriptural meditation produced by the Jesuits In Britain. 

That puts me in the mood to chat with God about whatever is on my heart or mind. 

Sometimes it’s worries about the state of the world, which always seems to be coming apart at the seams and can clearly use as many healing prayers as it can get. The news out of Israel this year has been like watching the Old Testament come to life. It’s an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth until everyone is blind and toothless, as Mahatma Gandhi supposedly said. Dear God, I ask, will we ever learn to give peace a chance? 

Sometimes it’s thoughts and worries about our far-flung children that occupy my coffee time with God. One of them is always up to something that tends to keep the old man up at night. The good news is, they’re all smart kids with very good hearts. I have faith they’ll figure it out in time. They may even learn that praying is good for the soul and usually works wonders. Some atheists even pray — just in case.

Most of my morning prayers, however, are focused on simple gratitude. 

I give thanks for my amazing wife, our good-hearted kids, and the possibly undeserved good fortune I’ve enjoyed in this life. I often give thanks for other things great and small, including, but not limited to, unexpected blessings, birds at the feeder, good Samaritans, golf buddies, wise book editors, phone calls from old friends, rain for my garden, our crazy young dogs, our cranky old cat, afternoon naps and people who say thank you. 

Meister Eckhart, the 13th-century German mystic and priest, said that if your only prayer is “thank you,” that will be enough.

I rarely ask God for stuff, except maybe a little help finishing a book or finding patience with idiots who run red lights or drive too fast through the neighborhood. The world is moving much too fast. The truth is, I probably need to slow down, too. 

Critics of faith like to say there’s no such thing as a personal relationship with God. 

They argue that we human beings are simply a collection of random molecules floating aimlessly through a cold and empty universe. I’ve lived long enough to know that’s simply not the case. I can’t, frankly, think of anything more personal than a relationship with a divine source whose name is different in every language but the same in loving spirit.

This probably explains why I’ve naturally felt God’s presence since I was a little kid growing up across the rural South. In the absence of playmates, I spent most of my time alone outside immersed in nature, looking at birds and bugs, taking hikes through the woods, building forts, watching clouds pass overhead, listening to the love songs of the bullfrogs and the crickets, reading adventure stories on hot summer days beneath shady trees. I never felt alone for an instant. In fact, I felt accompanied by a large and loving presence that clearly cared for me and probably kept a sharp eye on whatever funny business I was up to. 

Maybe this is why Jesus was so keen to have little children come near him. As we age, we lose that sense of natural wonder. 

It also may explain why, as an adult, I’ve never been terribly keen on public praying, even the lovely prayers and familiar creeds we recite at church every week. They’re written by other well-meaning people and meant, I suppose, to help us catch God’s ear. 

Between us, I don’t think God has a hearing problem. 

Besides, as Jesus advises in Matthew 6, when you pray, go into a dark closet, shut the door and pray in secret, for God sees you and knows your heart and will openly reward you. 

With coffee in hand, I like to think of my early mornings outside beneath the stars — which are always there, even if you can’t see them (kind of like God) — as my own great, big private prayer closet. No need to even shut the door. The world at that hour is normally so dark and quiet that I can whisper to God about anything on my mind. And the strangely wonderful thing is, God whispers back. 

One of the worst things that’s happened to faith and prayer across the ages is the unholy marriage of religion and politics. Both are man-made institutions that thrive on telling people what is the correct thing to believe, and what isn’t. Often, when the two get together, all hell can break loose for anyone who dares to believe differently. Near as I can tell from many years of whispering to and being whispered to by some large and loving divine source, God is probably not a member of any particular denomination, sect, tribe, religion, political party or NFL booster club.

I happen to be a follower of Jesus but find deep inspiration and comfort from the prayers of every faith tradition, a reminder that we’re all just ordinary folks down here on an ailing planet trying to help each other find the way home.

One of my favorite books is called Heaven on Earth: Timeless Prayers of Wisdom and Love by Stephanie Dowrick. I found it a decade ago in a London bookshop and have probably purchased half a dozen copies since to give to friends who regularly pray — or ought to. 

It’s a marvelous collection of prayers from every spiritual tradition.

One of my favorite prayers comes from the ancient Bhagavad Gita: “Whichever God you worship, I will answer your prayer. Whatever path you take, I will welcome you.”

Funny how similar that sounds to Isaiah 41: “Do not be afraid, for I am with you. From wherever you come, I will lead you home.”

Easter arrives on the last day of March this year, a month named by the Romans for the God of War. Easter’s message is one of rebirth and forgiveness.

I pray it’s time we forget war and find peace at last.  SP

Jim Dodson is a New York Times bestselling author in Greensboro.

Illustration by Gerry ONeill

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