by Jeffery Young
Prayer in the Dirt
“Are you there God? It’s me, Jaxon.”
The man was just a kid. To me, at least. To everyone else he would be about nineteen. He had never grown up. Not really. He pressed his dull green eyes shut, little fleshy dams for tears and months of stress. He was dirty. The fatigue of constant fighting evident in the deep rivets, cuts, and bruises that criss-crossed his face. They were a part of him now. Even if he ever left the trenches the scars would remain, inside and out, as natural as his freckles.
The mud had become the baptismal pool of the trenches. Our Bibles, well, they were bulletproof vests secured fast between our hearts and .303 rounds. Many young souls had shown me, proudly, the indents of shrapnel and remnants of lead lodged deep into their pocket Scriptures.
I couldn’t help but cry.
“I know I haven’t been the man I’m supposed to be, God, and I know you sent your only kid to die for me. I really appreciate it-” He took a shaky breath, his whole body quivering as he prayed, “-and I’m so sorry you had to do that.”
A siren screamed nearby. I shifted my knee, pressing the mud ever deeper through my clothes. Men shouted and bullets flew overhead as the enemy charged our lines. An explosion, a grenade probably, popped nearby. Dirt rained down on us.
Jaxon stopped talking, opening one eye to see what was going on. I put my hand on his shoulder, the other clasped firmly to my open pocket Scripture, “Don’t stop now, keep praying, you’re almost there!”
He nodded, closing his eyes again, “I’m sorry that I didn’t listen to you when I was younger-to Brother Charlie-”
I felt my body tear as something seemed to jump up and bite my chest right where my Bible would’ve been. I dropped to both knees, putting my other hand, Bible included, on Jaxon’s second shoulder.
“Keep your eyes closed kid. Focus on God. Not on all this.”
Something warm bubbled from my chest.
Jaxon continued his prayer.
It was six years ago when I first met Jaxon, a little boy at the age of thirteen. His parents were divorced, his father remarried to a Baptist woman from Charlotte and they decided to drag Jaxon, kicking and screaming, to church. It was the type of decision that started in a heated argument, yelling and lines in the sand, and ended with the father and son caving in. His biological mother turned to drugs, prostitution, and hadn’t been seen outside the sheets of some back alley since.
It was obvious he didn’t want to be here. Our youth room was small with a dirt floor and one open wall. According to Pastor Steve, it had been a vegetable stand until the previous owner, a local farmer and deacon named Mr. Finley, decided to sell out and move west. The church bought the land, building a new, shiny parsonage and a couple of shacks for storage on it. They never knocked the old vegetable stand down, thank God, so when they hired me as the new Youth Minister, just a guy working through seminary, I turned it into a mini-church for the teens to meet in.
Jaxon looked shady. Like the kind of kid who puts his nose where it doesn’t belong. He stuck to the shadows of the shack, keeping his distance from the other kids. His hair and face were dirty; like he had been working in the fields that morning, but I knew, from his father who dropped him off, that they didn’t own a field, let alone work one.
He found a cool patch of dirt and sat down, ignoring little Marcy who offered him a chair. I watched him for a while as I played a game of marbles with some kids. When asked to join us, he’d simply shake his head and stick his eyes to the dirt.
“Hey kid, you’re Jaxon, right?” I asked, squatting down next to him.
He stuck his finger into the dirt, drawing little circles and ignoring me.
My legs hurt, so I switched to one knee and stuck my finger into the dirt as well, digging little trenches. I drew four straight lines in the sand. Then another. Then another. Carving over and over through his circles.
He pulled his hand back into himself as if bitten by an ant, frowning, “Why are you doing that?” He asked angrily.
I smiled, “Have you ever worked a field before?”
He stared at me.
“You know, have you ever planted a field before? Plowed? Planted seeds?” I drew a few more lines, slowly, deliberately, while Jaxon watched.
He shifted uncomfortably after a minute or two, then whispered, “No.”
I smiled to myself, “Do you know why folks plow a field in straight lines, instead of curved?”
He shook his head.
“You can fit a lot more of the good stuff on straight lines.” I drew a few more to emphasize my point, “Luke chapter nine; sixty-two, do you know what it says?”
He didn’t answer, he didn’t need to.
“It says, and it’s Jesus talking here, ‘Anyone who puts a hand to the plow and then looks back is not fit for the Kingdom of God.’ Do you know what that means?”
I looked up at him, he was staring at my face now, brows knit in a deep frown, “No.”
“You know how to plow a straight line?”
“Well, what you gotta do, now, is keep your eye on the other end of the field. Your goal. God- if you will. That’s how you get the straightest lines. The best results. Keeping your eye on the prize, so-to-speak, rather than right in front of you or behind you.”
He cocked his head ever so slightly.
“What Jesus is saying here, is that a man who looks behind him- at the lines he’s already plowed, at the life he’s already lived- a man like that can’t make a straight line in God’s field. And do you know what happens to people who can’t make straight lines in God’s field?”
“They go to hell.” He spat to the side.
I shook my head, “Nope. Only folks who refuse to enter God’s field at all go there. These folks- those who are too focused looking behind them, to their past, instead of their future with God- they make crooked lines. And you remember what I said about making crooked lines?”
He nodded, “They don’t get all the good stuff.”
I smiled, “Exactly. Life is a lot like plowing a field or running a race. You want the best out of it? The best results? Keep your eye on the finish line. Keep your eyes on God.”
Standing, I patted his shoulder gently. Then walked away, leaving him to draw crooked crop circles in the dirt, deep in thought.
“-I’m ready to listen now. I should’ve. I should’ve before, God. I wish I would’ve.”
The sound of machine gun and rifle discharge made it hard to hear. I could feel a throbbing in my chest, a BOOM BOOM BOOMING as my heart punched my ribcage.
“Lord. I am a sinner. I deserve hell and nothing more-”
He paused, I shook his shoulder encouragingly, “Keep going, kid.”
“-but I believe you sent your Son to die for me. To give me a second chance with you, in your field, and I want to enter your field, God.”
I smiled to myself, my vision blurring as little Jaxon shifted in and out of focus. From the young man, taller and stronger than ever before, to the little scared boy playing in the dirt of the youth room.
Whatever had bit my chest hopped down and pinched my thigh, then scratched my ear. I slumped forward towards Jaxon. Putting my head on his shoulder in prayer.
He stopped praying, “Are you okay, Brother Charlie?”
I smiled, “Keep your eyes on God, kid. Keep praying. Almost there.”
I felt him shake his head, “I accept you, Lord, as my savior and invite you into my heart as King of my life. Let me work in your field- even if I don’t always make straight lines- and help me to put my eyes on you so I can live the way you want me to.”
A year had passed since that first day in the vegetable stand. Jaxon showed no sign of change. He was fourteen now, growing a little taller and taking care to wash himself for the ladies. He began to play with the other kids, often flirting with the girls or playing basketball with the boys. I watched him play, watched him grow, as I read a newspaper.
Things weren’t going well overseas. It looked like there would be war soon. I prayed against it.
“Hey, Charlie, pass the ball!”
I looked up from my daze, Jaxon was standing a few feet away with his hands up. The ball had rolled next to me after bouncing off the rim. I picked it up and tossed it to him, “Down for a game of COW?” I asked, pushing myself to my feet.
He nodded. I took the first shot, a solid 3-pointer from the side, no backboard, no rim.
“Think you can make that?” I grinned.
“Of course!” He stood where I stood. I watched him eyeing the hoop. He swayed on his feet, his hands in the wrong spot on the ball, and he pushed with all his might. The ball soared high- right towards the hoop and-
“Damn! That’s a C!”
“Yes sir.” He responded, earnestly, taking a spot on the free throw line etched into the dirt. The ball slammed into the backboard and into the net. I copied his movements, sinking the basket.
“Man- you’re good.”
I chuckled, “What can I say? This isn’t my first game of COW.” I took the same spot as before, a solid side 3-pointer with no possibility of using the backboard. The ball flew up and straight in, same as before.
Jaxon frowned, taking his spot and shooting, hands wrong, feet swaying, the same as before.
Needless to say; he missed.
“That’s an O!” I jested. He grunted, unamused, taking a bank shot off the left side- my weaker side.
“Oh man- I don’t know if I can make this-” I shot, hitting too far off the bank and hitting the rim. The ball spun and rolled until sinking into the net like a flushing toilet. “Lucky shot!” I laughed.
Jaxon took the rebound, tossing it to me, “I think you’re cheating.”
I chuckled, “Cheating? I’m not even sure how to cheat at COW.” I took my same spot, 3-pointer, no backboard, and sunk the basket like I had done every time before.
Jaxon was angry now, huffing over to the spot and taking aim at the rim. I stopped him mid-shot.
“Hey kid, if you keep shooting the same way- nothing will change.”
He huffed, “Whatever.” But made no effort to shoot.
“Here, try this.” I took the ball and modeled a shot for him, showing him where my hands were and telling him what to do with his feet. “Care to try it my way?”
He nodded, taking the ball and shooting. The ball sailed overhead, blocking the afternoon sun as it sank into the basket. Jaxon pumped his fist, “Yeah! Take that old man!”
He turned to high five me, I slapped his hand, “Great shot!” I couldn’t help but smile, “If you keep doing the same thing over and over again- don’t expect different results.”
I told him this same thing the day I visited him in DJJ another year later. Then again when he ran from home and was arrested, a second time, for assaulting a police officer. His downward spiral was quick, sudden, but the signs were always there. Jaxon had always been standing at the starting line of a life not worth living, he just refused to leave it until his father pushed him. The divorce of his dad and the Christian woman was the catalyst, his dad’s subsequent turn to alcoholism the cause. It wasn’t two weeks after the court settled custody that Jaxon was taken from his dad and put into foster care. From there- he raced downhill.
“-and please forgive me for making the same mistakes- over and over again- and expecting life to get better. I blamed you when I should’ve blamed my actions and changed them. Lord, I accept you as Savior and Lord of my life, Amen.”
I didn’t hear most of Jaxon’s prayer. Something warm filled my ears, streaked across my face, and soaked my leg. It was cold, on the outside, but I felt a little warmth in my chest as I heard him say ‘amen.’ He never wanted to pray when he was younger, never would close his eyes. So much had changed.
We opened our eyes.
“Good to go, brother!” I smiled.
He pushed me back, ignoring the dirt and blood, “We need a medic here!” He laid me to the ground. “Medic! Medic! The chaplain is hit!”
The clouds swirled overhead, gray and foreboding against a beautiful baby blue background. Dazzling beams of sunlight danced off the silver edges of each storm cloud. I wondered what Pastor Steve would think, had he been alive, about what I had done today. Or dad. Or mom. I wondered what they’d say.
I wondered what He’d say when I saw Him for the first time.
I couldn’t hear the gunfire anymore, or feel the pounding in my chest as Jaxon pulled my head against him. I could tell he was crying.
“No tears, Jaxon. I’m so proud of you.”
“I- ” I tried to say something, I’m not sure what, but I felt my mouth fill with a cold paralysis. My arms fell limp, slamming into the mud and dirt beneath us.
I felt the coolness of the Earth.
The loose sand.
As the world above me faded into nothing, I drew four straight lines in the dirt. Then another. Then another.