I would like to welcome you to my new short story series on prayer. I have gathered together some of my writings on the nature of prayer, in which I reflect on those who have influenced my understanding of what it means live a prayerful life. In each instalment I will introduce an individual who has impacted my understanding of prayer as an essential element of faith. I grew up within the Church as the son of a minister, and as a family we found ourselves changing denominations fairly regularly. In retrospect I think my father was trying to figure out where he belonged, and that his spiritual journey probably accounted for all the moving. In any case, because of this broad experience of Church life I have gotten to know a diverse range of Christians- many of whom have had their own unique insight into the nature of prayer. At times these people have guided me toward a fuller understanding of prayer as an act of discerning the will of God and orienting oneself in life, and on other occasions these influences have been distinctly harmful and toxic. This has necessitated an ongoing journey of unlearning (or reconstructing) the distorted ideas about prayer that I have, unconsciously, clung to for years.
These stories are my own reflections on these individuals and the lessons I have learned from them about prayer. In this first story I would like to introduce the delightful Bob. Read on!
I wish I could pray like Bob. It seemed that no matter when he was asked to pray- whether during weekly Sunday worship services or at prayer meetings- Bob managed to make it look completely natural yet still deeply meaningful. He had this way of speaking that is best described as a sort of gentle confidence. His tone was soft and calming, but there was also a subtle conviction present. His rich baritone voice might easily have been used to narrate guided meditations, and admittedly there were occasions in which I almost fell asleep listening to him evoke to spirit of God. Yet underlying his meek style was a clear belief that God was not only hearing him, but that he would tangibly act on his requests in one way or another. For Bob, Philippians 4:6 was literal truth, and this conviction meant that he was unafraid to ask God directly for things, no matter how minor. I admired this about him. The directness of his prayer requests often appeared absurd compared to the more prosaic offerings of other Church members who preferred to be more vague and obtuse in their petitions. I remember one occasion in which Bob asked God to personally ensure that a congregation members upcoming driving test would be successful. He went straight from this request to a much more serious petition for God to intervene in alleviating the suffering of persecuted Christians in the middle east. At yet another prayer gathering, Bob asked if God could provide enough performers for the November annual talent concert, as there was a shortage of registrations. He then continued with a prayer for the ongoing witness of the Church to the truth of the Gospel. For Bob, all of these requests were legitimate as he believed in a sovereign God who continues to act in human history.
A lifelong elder of his local Church, Bob had decided to start a Sunday morning prayer group as a way of both dedicating the service to God and to ask for God’s spirit to be present in worship. The idea was for the Church leaders and volunteers to meet in the fifteen minutes prior to the commencement of the service so that they might pray together. This seemed to be fairly standard Church practice, and he was surprised that no-one had thought of starting a prayer group before. He was even more shocked, however, when he found it hard to get anyone to come along. Bob expected that the Church leadership would be only too eager to set aside fifteen minutes before the service to pray, but it turned out they were busy with more important Church matters during this time. They all wanted to come, they said, but last minute preparations for the service had to take priority; the newsletter needed to be printed, the coffee and tea prepared, the power-point presentation switched on and the pews needed to be placed in perfect alignment lest old Margaret cracked the shits. Because everyone was caught up in this hustle and bustle, Bob most often found himself sitting alone in the prayer room, pleading with his eyes for someone to join him. When no-one came, he would say the Lord’s prayer and emerge into the chapel to join the other worshippers. It was a pitiful scene. This cycle repeated for a year or so until Bob had a bright idea: why not make the prayer time earlier? Instead of meeting fifteen minutes before the service, why not meet half an hour before? This would allow the leaders time to take care of their last minute preparations. This idea was accepted as a wonderful solution, and the leaders vowed to attend as a matter of priority. Initially this went well, but as time passed the leaders dropped off. Most of the time this was because they ran late, and by the time they got to the Church the service was close to starting. Bob took all this in his stride, and even though he must have felt lonely and dejected he persevered with his prayer meetings. Then, one freezing winters morning, he was joined by a new member of the congregation who had observed Bob praying and wanted to join him. This became a weekly commitment, and eventually the group grew to three or four people. It was admittedly a small number, but at least it was consistent. Jesus’ words to his disciples in Matthew 18:20 were at the forefront of the groups minds: ‘For when two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.’
A former Biology professor, Bob looked at the world through eyes of wonder. In one of my early conversations with him I learned that his hobby was whale watching from the vantage point of Bronte Beach. Each winter Bob would sit on the balcony of his seaside apartment and scan the ocean with his trusty Nikon binoculars. Oftentimes, his dearly loved wife would join him and they would sip chamomile tea and pass the day in meaningless chit chat as they waited for a coveted glimpse of the elusive creatures. ‘It’s a warmer winter than last year,’ Bob would say absent-mindedly. ‘This time last June it had already got down to 17. 23 degrees at this time is basically is basically unheard of.’ Bob’s patient and loving wife Doreen was used to his preoccupations with weather, and would usually change the topic to something more suitable. ‘I think we need to pop down do the shops and get more milk,’ she would say. Or, ‘did you head they’re knocking down the old scout hall on Mason’s road to make way for more apartments?’ Bob would only faintly register Doreen’s chatter, nodding along with her primarily as a way of keeping the peace. Doreen got rather stroppy if she felt Bob was ignoring her. He learnt this fact approximately two weeks into their marriage after he had been blatantly ignoring her repeated requests to fix the blown light globe in the upstairs bathroom. On that occasion, Doreen’s way of finally getting Bob’s attention was to adopt the role of a military sergeant and yell the house down whilst Bob was in the company of a fellow biology lecturer. With the marriage currently in its thirty ninth year, the threat of similar treatment should Bob disregard her remained an ever-present possibility. Feisty though she was, Bob loved Doreen deeply. Their marriage had been a happy one.
Some days Bob got lucky and spotted a mammoth whale splashing its tail around for a few precious seconds. When he did happen to catch a glance he made sure he had his long-lens camera ready- just in case it would appear in the same proximity again. Despite his status as a ‘senior citizen,’ Bob liked to keep up with technology. He was part of a whale spotters group on Facebook, and if he happened to get a snap of a humpback he would upload it to the ‘Bondi Whale Spotters’ group page. The approving comments of fellow watchers made him feel good- as if he was connected to something beyond himself. Most days, however, these majestic creatures of the deep remained elusive. The rarity of actually spotting a humpback whale hardly mattered to Bob. He was a patient man by nature, and in any case the joy was in the waiting. It was common for days and even weeks to pass without spotting anything other than dedicated winter surfers or passing shipping liners. Throughout these extended stretches of time Bob would supplement his whale watching with newspapers or the crossword puzzles that Doreen got for him each week at the local newsagent. He needed to be careful that he didn’t become so immersed in these extra-curricular activities that he missed a precious sighting. Not that he was excessively worried about missing any action, mind. Over years of multi-tasking crosswords, chatting with Doreen and scanning the ocean, Bob felt he had developed a sort of sixth sense for knowing when a whale was about to appear. Although it might sound absurd to the more skeptical-minded, Bob maintains that he gets this sort of peculiar nervous feeling in his stomach just before a whale would appear. He might be immersed in some kind of cryptic crossword when the pit of his stomach would suddenly feel empty and tingly. When this happened he would immediately look up and out to the ocean. There he would see the tail of a majestic humpback rising from and descending into the water, almost as if it were waving to Bob and acknowledging some form of telepathic connection. This phenomenon had happened too many times for Bob to write it off as coincidence. Let the sceptics and atheists say what they will.
It’s true that I had my reservations about Bob’s belief in a radically interventionist God. I found most of what he said through prayer to be either utterly trivial or far too ambitious. I remember one occasion in which Bob was using the liturgical prayers of intercession to ask God to heal Judy’s shingles; the latest outbreak of which had been worse than usual. ‘Dear Lord God,’ Bob earnestly pleaded, ‘we just ask that through your mighty hand you will heal Judy of her shingles and that she won’t ever have them come back again.’ At the time I remember asking myself why the God who seemed to overlook the holocaust should feel that shingles were a condition of sufficient magnitude that he would be obliged to act. I wondered what it might say about the nature of God who would see to it that Judy was healed, only to remain a voyeur to the problems of systemic injustice, corruption and greed facing the world.
Of course, I felt bad about this and assumed that my response to Bob was just my usual cynicism talking. The experience of growing up within the Church as a son of a minister exposed me to some of the harsher realities of what the Church can be like, and I had internalised these memories as constant reminders of the imperfect nature of Christian gatherings. Whenever Bob or anyone else prayed, I put my lack of faith in their words down to the simple fact that my own past had excessively tarnished my belief in prayer, and that the problem was entirely mine. I felt as if I wasn’t a yet a real Christian, and perhaps never would be. The past felt too strong and too cemented in my psyche for it to be overcome . I also felt a sense of naive embarrassment in response to my internal thoughts about God. Despite my theological education I have always wrestled with those obvious questions that never really go away: if God is sovereign, why does he allow evil? If God hears our prayers, why doesn’t he appear to act? Theologians call this line of questioning a ‘theodicy,’ which is a fancy way of trying to understand that which is ultimately incomprehensible.
Nevertheless, I knew there was lots I could learn about prayer from Bob, even if I thought his expectations of God were more in line with Freud’s idea of God as being a wish-fulfillment rather than sovereign provider. The thing is, it wasn’t so much the content of Bob’s prayers that intrigued me, but the way in which he prayed. It was a kind of physical devotion to the task of prayer that made him fascinating to me. Leaning forward on his seat with his hands resting on his knees, Bob would close his eyes and begin to address God in that gentle yet confident manner that was so distinctive. His reading glasses would be resting on the end of his nose, threatening to fall off should he lean forward another inch or two. They were the older style of glasses that had a chain attached, commonly seen on bus drivers or librarians. These only enhanced his image as a somewhat eccentric professor. As he moved into the heart and soul of his prayer, Bob’s cheeks would flush red- a reaction perhaps to the intensity of his inner feelings. Occasionally his mouth would make a sort of grimace as he emphasised a particular word or syllable: power, glory, spirit, love. It was always a bit dangerous to look at Bob when he did this, as he actually looked like he was maniacally grinning like the Joker in Batman. If I happened to catch him mid-grimace my own instinct was to laugh, which would of course have disrupted the spirit of seriousness one must have when approaching God (so I am told). I did my best to stifle any potential giggling through exaggerating my own ‘serious’ prayer pose; feet on the floor, eyes closed and head tilted upwards in a attempt to show that all my energies were focussed heavenward.
What I found most alluring about Bob’s prayers, however, was the way in which he would bring to God the same sense of longing and wonderment he felt when scanning the ocean on the lookout for a humpback whale. Bob’s words always reflected a visual element- what one might in fact call a cinematic approach to prayer. He would always commence his prayer by thanking God for the beauty of the created realm, be it the ocean, mountains, birds or plantlife. But rather than simply list all the things he was thankful for, Bob would take the time to describe in detail that which was the object of his gratitude. Of a bird he might say, ‘God, thank-you for the glorious Rainbow Lorikeet and its striking colors of red, blue, green and yellow. We thank-you for the joy a birds melodic chirping brings to our lives. We know that you provide for their needs and have promised to do the same for us.’ If he was describing a physical place Bob took even more poetic licence, offering through his prayer a stunning array of adjectives that truly evoked a sense of place and time. Bob had a real passion for the outback, and he would often describe the land of Australia in such a vivid way that one was transported through the visuals evoked in the mind.
It has been years since I have prayed alongside Bob, but I can still vividly picture him leaning forward, sedulously petitioning his God. Although I remain on a different page theologically, Bob taught me that prayer can be done in the same way a artist develops their craft. When learning the piano, for example, one begins with orienting oneself with the basics of the instrument; the individual notes, scales and chords. Once these skills are mastered the student gradually begins the lifetime process of finding their voice on the instrument and their own particular way of transcribing their emotions, thoughts and observations into melodic form. Bob applied this principle to prayer. It’s clear he was familiar with some of the more orthodox forms of petitioning God, but his passion for and observance of the world around him made his prayers unscripted, deeply emotional and laced with gratitude. In the same way true art is meant to be enjoyed through sharing it with others, Bob’s prayers were an invitation for others to join together in a process of noticing the complexity and diversity of the world; a world that God had ultimately created. Through listening to his weekly prayers, Bob gave me fresh hope that prayer could mean something. In the face of this I could feel my cynicism slowly start to destabilise.