Monday, August 10, 2009

In this house of prayer

“Grandpa. Sometimes I don’t feel like praying.” Nick said.

“When I’m not in the mood to pray, I find that praying puts me in the mood to pray. Sometimes, when I begin to pray, I’m agitated, distracted, out of sorts. It can take me ten or fifteen minutes to withdraw from the world and work myself into a prayerful frame of mind,” he answered.

“Don’t you ever find prayer boring?” Nick asked.

“Not nowadays. Maybe I did when I was younger. It’s hard to remember back that far. We pray for different things at different times. We pray for different things at different times of life,” he answered.

“I feel like I have to pray for certain things every day. Squeeze everything in. Like going down a checklist. Crossing off the items. I do it out of duty, but it feels mechanical,” Nick said.

“I think it’s natural for younger folks to ask God for more things, while it’s natural for older folks to thank God for more things. When you’re young, you have your whole future ahead of you. So there’s a lot to ask for. When you’re older, most of your life lies in the past, or in the world to come. So there’s less to ask for, and more to be thankful for,” he answered.

“So you have a different checklist than I have?” Nick asked.

“I wouldn’t call it a checklist,” he said. “For me, my time of pray is a world apart. I withdraw from this world and enter into another world. Then I return to this world refreshed,” he said.

“So you don’t have to pray about certain things every day?” Nick asked.

“What’s the rush? I like to pace myself. Spread it out over several days,” he answered.

“Where do you pray,” Nick asked.

“Depends on where I’m living,” he answered. “Since I moved here a few years ago I’ve been taking that trail through the woods. You know the one.”

“Why do you go there?” Nick asked.

“It’s calm, quiet, and pretty, but not too pretty,” he said.

“Why does that matter?” Nick asked.

“Well, I don’t know that it matters to everyone. Just to me. If it’s too pretty, that’s distracting. But if it’s too ugly or noisy, or busy, that’s also distracting.. I like a nice quiet place to pray,” he answered.

“What makes that place special?” Nick asked.

“Well, life is like a journey. My prayer life is like a journey. And the trail is a journey. God has filled the world with similes. Living similes–etched in time and space and sound. The trail has a beginning, middle, and end. A long, winding trail. You can’t see how it ends from where you begin. You can’t see around every twist and turn. Just like life. The trail is shaded by the trees. Then, at the end, you come back out into the light. Like the afterlife,” he answered.

“So you pray in the same place every day?” Nick asked.

“Depends on where I’m living,” he answered. “When I was still living in my hometown, I’d pray in different places, depending on who or what I wanted to pray about. If I wanted to thank God for the father he gave me, I might go to the junior high school where my dad used to teach. It had a nice campus. A nice kind of place to walk about and pray. I’d go there during summer break when no one else was around. Just brown grass and bumble bees. There’s something evocative about an empty school. Empty playground. Empty classrooms. It gives you sense of time. The passage of time. The lifecycle. Life, death, and immortality. It felt natural to pray about my dad where he used to work,” he answered.

“But you can’t go there anymore,” Nick said. “Didn’t the school burn down?”

“True. I can’t hop in a car and drive there anymore. But I can go there in my mind’s eye,” he said

“Is that what you mean by entering another world?” Nick asked.

“Yes, that’s right. When I pray, I tell a story. The story of my life. I give thanks to God for the life he’s given me. And when I pray, I take a trip. A journey through time and space–with various stops along the way. I see what I pray about,” he answered.

“What do you mean?” Nick asked.

“I begin at my grandmother’s house. I used to go there as a boy. And I thank God for my grandma. For the way in which God brought her into my life when I was a boy,” he answered.

“When you pray about your grandma, what do you pray about?” Nick asked.

“She was a bridge–a spiritual bridge. At that time she was the only relative I knew who was truly devout. So she helped me make it over that chasm in my life. Make it to the other side. Make it to the next stretch in my pilgrimage–long before I knew I was a pilgrim. God has always provided a bridge whenever I needed one. People he brings into my life for a season,” he replied.

“Where do you go from there?” Nick asked.

“From there I go down the street to a little Jewish delicatessen my parents used to eat at when I was young,” he answered. “We went there until the proprietor had a heart attack.”

“Why do you pray about that?” Nick asked.

“It reminds me of how transitory life is. I’m sure the store changed has many times by now. And that’s a warning to us–not to take life for granted. To live every day with a view to our latter end,” he replied. “So many people pour the best years of their lives into something utterly ephemeral. A hundred years from now it’s all gone. They are gone. No one remembers. No one cares.”

“Where do you go from there?”

“From there I go down the road to the cemetery, where my grandma was buried with my granddad. I never knew him. He died before I was born. But I thank God for him, because he touched my life–through my mother and grandmother. I look forward to seeing him. To meeting him for the first time. We’ll both be young again. He can tell me about his life, and I can tell him about my life,” he answered.

“What’s the next stop?” Nick asked.

“A hamburger joint my dad used to take me to as a kid,” he answered.”

“Why to pray about a thing like that?” Nick queried.

“Because we should thank God for the little things in life. God is present in the little things–as well as the big things. God blesses us in so many little, ordinary ways. Looking back on it, I’m sure the food at that hamburger joint was very nondescript. Just like any other hamburger joint. But it was special to me because I was young, and it was something he did for me. At that age, you look up to your dad. He’s this godlike figure. At that age, it doesn’t take much to make you happy. If your dad does some simple little thing for you, that makes your whole day. I try to find the sacred in the mundane. It’s there–if take time to stop and take a good look,” he replied.

“And what’s the next stop along the way?” Nick asked.

“I go back to my old junior high school,” he replied.

“Why,” Nick asked.

“For me, that was a special time and place. That’s where I came of age. Adolescence is a turning-point in a man’s life. An irreversible, one-time event. Becoming what God designed you to be. As a boy, you looked up to your dad. Now you’re becoming you’re dad. That’s an exciting experience for a boy,” he replied.

“Anything else?” Nick asked.

“That’s the first time I had a fear of death,” he answered.

“In junior high?” Nick asked. “But at that age, death is so far away. Why would you be afraid of death at that age?”

“Yes, in one respect it seems odd to be afraid of death at that age. But in another respect, it’s only natural. Adolescence is the first time in life that you begin to think like a grown-up–because you’re growing up. So you think ahead. What will you do with your life? What will you do with you’re allotted time on earth? Life is short. How will you arrange your time to make the most of it? So it’s natural to start at the end and work back from there. To think about the end of your life, and how you’ll fill the time in-between,” he replied.

“And that made you afraid?” Nick asked.

“It overshadowed my life,” he replied. “The idea that my life would never add up to anything. Time was going to blot it out, as if I never existed. And something else,” he said.

“What’s that?” Nick asked.

“It made me see the world in a different light,” he answered. I had a happy childhood. Loving parents and relatives. A nice place to live. It’s easy to think the world cares about you. We treat the world like a friend. But as I thought about dying, it suddenly hit me that the world wasn’t like that at all. There was no one there, behind the screen–smiling back at me. But then I had another experience.”

“What experience?” Nick asked.

“One day, during lunch break, I was outside in the courtyard, by a fountain. It was a warm, sunny day, so I decided to have lunch outside–while the other kids were in the cafeteria. Then, out of the blue, I had a sense of God’s presence. It was the first time in my life I ever felt that way. I never felt that way before or since. But for a few minutes, it’s as if the clouds parted, and God was shining down on me,” he said.

“Do you think that’s for real?” Nick asked.

“If you mean, could it be a figment of my imagination? Sure,” he answered. “But here’s the catch. Now that I know there is a God, it doesn’t really matter. Even if that was some sort of hallucination, it’s still an experience God gave me. So I thank God for that experience.”

“Anything else?” Nick asked.

“There was something about that school I couldn’t quite put my finger on at the time, but now that I think about it, I think it had something to do with the elevation,” he answered.

“What do you mean?”

“Our home was down on the water, but my school was up on the summit,” he said. When you’re up on high ground, it’s as if the light is different. The sky is different. The rarified ambience. It reminds me of the mountains in the Bible. Mountains were holy places.”

“Where do you go from there?” he asked.

“Across the street to my elementary school,” he answered.

“So you’re going back in time, from junior high to grade school. Isn’t that confusing?” Nick asked.

“As I say, my prayer is a story. The story of my life. I tell it the way I see it since that’s how these places line up on the map, in real life,” he explained. “If I were walking or driving, that’s the order in which I’d see them.”

“Why do you pray about your time in grade school?” Nick asked.

“We only discover God’s story for our lives by living each day at a time. We only find out what he planned for us after it happens–moment-by-moment, hour-by-hour, day-by-day, and year-by-year. So we need to look back, from time to time, to appreciate the goodness and the wisdom of God’s story for our lives. To thank him for his providential care. It’s like reading a story. If it’s a good story, it’s worth reading more than once. The more of the story you read, the better you grasp the earlier parts of the story.”

“So when you think about grade school,” what do you think about?” Nick asked.

“I think about the little things I took for granted at the time, like when my parents used pick me up after school,” he answered. Just to know there’s someone waiting for you is a blessing. The day will come when that person may be gone. Death is so abrupt. When someone dies, they die all at once. It’s not as if, when they die, you go from seeing them every day to once a week, then once a month, then once a year. No. You may have seen them several times a week, year after year–then they’re gone. The separation is instant and remitting. At least in this life,” he said.

“Where do you go from there?” Nick asked.

“To my childhood home,” he answered.

“Why do you go there?” Nick asked.

“God has implanted a homing instinct in the human heart,” he answered. “A metaphor for heaven. A yearning for eternity. Returning from exile.”

“What do you pray about?” Nick asked.

“So many things,” he said. “We were living on the water. Across the lake was a navel air base. From our place I could see the hanger, and other miscellaneous buildings. As a kid, I was always curious about what it looked like up close. It was very tantalizing from a distance.”

“Then what?” Nick asked.

“The navy moved away. It became a public park. I grew up. So one day I drove there. I wanted to see it from the other side,” he answered.

“And what was it like?” Nicked asked.

“A bit of a letdown,” he said. “You imagine things look smaller at a distance. Bigger up close. But when I finally went there, it seemed smaller than I expected. Maybe that’s because everything seems bigger when you’re a kid. And the deserted buildings were rusty and weather-beaten. On the other hand, it would have been a fun place to grow up. To play hide and seek with other boys. Play war games in the bunkers–just like the grown-ups. Go swimming on a hot day with your friends.”

“So you’re sorry you weren’t able to do that?” Nick asked.

“It doesn’t make me regret the life I had,” he answered. “I wouldn’t swap what I had for something else. But it tells me that the road not taken can be just as good as the road we took. Even in a fallen world, there are so many different stories that are equally good. Equally fulfilling. Equally worth having and living and doing. God’s goodness is so wide and deep and varied. He diversifies his goodness in so many different ways. Each story is unique. We have so many reasons to be grateful.”

“But not everyone has a happy life or childhood, like you did,” Nick said.

“True,” he replied. “We all have different things to pray about. Be thankful for. But God made some of us like Abraham. God blessed us so that we could be a blessing to others.”

“So what’s the next stop along the way?” Nick asked.

“My old high school,” he answered.

“What do you pray about?” Nick asked.

“Many things,” he answered. “For one thing, I pray for some of my classmates. I haven’t seen them for almost forty years. But I have my yearbook, so I still pray for some of them.”

“Why?” Nick asked.

“I think we should pray for some of our age-mates,” he answered. “If every Christian generation prays for some of its contemporaries, for some lost souls in each generation, that adds up from one generation to the next. The pilgrim path is not a secret trail which we should keep hidden from view.”

“Yet you said you hadn’t see them for almost forty years,” Nick responded.

“But that’s the nice thing about prayer,” he replied. “Distance is no barrier to prayer. I can pray for anyone anywhere. So I’m like a secret friend.”

“Do you pray for everyone in your yearbook?” Nick asked.

“No,” he answered. “We have to choose whether we spend more time on less of something, or less time on more of something. I prefer to pray for same people year after year. I’ve had to live in a number of different places over the years. And I think I should pray for at least one person in every place I ever lived. God brings different people into our lives at different times of life–for a few years here or there. We can’t pray for them all. But I make it a mission to pray for some. To take them along with me on my pilgrimage of prayer.”

“Do you expect to see them in heaven?” Nick asked.

“I can’t count on that,” he said “I have to leave that in God’s hand. But I’m sowing seeds of prayer for the harvest to come. And I look forward to what God has in store.”

“Seems to me like it would take a long time for you to tell your story every time you pray,” Nick said.

“I don’t have to finish the story every time I pray,” he explained. “I tell the story over several days. I pick up wherever I left off. When I’m done I start over again. Prayer is like that, you know. A lifelong conversation with God. It’s interrupted by the necessities of life. But we resume the conversation.”

“Doesn’t it get tedious to repeat the same story?” Nick asked.

“Not for me,” he answered. “When I thank God for the story of my life, I’m thanking him for his story. This is the story which he wrote for my life. A story which includes other stories. Stories of my friends and relatives. And as I thank God for all the good things that he’s done in my life, and the lives of those I know and love, it reminds me of blessings I’d long forgotten. Causes me to see the unforeseen goodness of things which were onerous to me at the time they first occurred.”

“Isn’t there a danger of clinging to the past?” Nick asked.

“I don’t pray about the past because I long for the past,” he said. “For me, it’s like widows and widowers who visit the cemetery every day. You don’t live in a cemetery. But you continue to go there because you’re waiting–waiting for God to call your number. Waiting to rejoin your loved ones. Hoping for the best. Hopeful prayers. Prayerful hopes. So, for me, prayer is a world within a world. An inner world leading me into the world to come–as the shell of a fallen world falls away, and the blossom of the better world flowers forth.”


  1. Thanks, Steve. There's a lot of good counsel there and a lot of significant concepts.

  2. When I first started reading Triablogue, I'd skip over your fiction stories. But these are the best part of it all. Thanks Steve.