She’s an astronaut, a space walker, a scientist of scientists, way up there in the cosmos, first floating free for some time, just on a tether, then, after some drama, getting into a tiny space capsule, into her driver’s seat of sorts.
She is bright and pretty and has a one in ten million view of creation, the blue and brown and beautiful globe to her one side, the vast expanse of black space on the other.
She would likely never use that word: ‘creation.’ That would imply a Creator. And if there ever was a God, surely her times have proved him dead long ago.
But this astronaut is far from home, far from anyone, really. Her mission has fallen apart. She realizes that there’s no way back now. And, after all her heroics, she’s about to die.
She talks to herself. She babbles. Cries. From a deep place inside, in that tiny space capsule.
“I’m going to die,” she finally says aloud. She fights back the grievous tears.
“Of course, we’re all going to die,” she continues, talking to nobody and everybody. “But I’m going to die today!”
And then the rest of the horrible truth comes to her. “And nobody has ever taught me how to pray.”
This, a scene, maybe the best, from an Oscar winning movie that is not about religion or prayer or even science, but that’s simply about life, about any of us who are moored or tethered in one way or another, for some time or another, to this earthly home.
My Bride and I, for a date the other evening, watched this movie, Gravity, for the first time. We talked about it later. Just her and I.
A couple of nights after that I was putting Jon to bed. While doing so, we had watched a few minutes of Hockey: A People’s History, the CBC production from some years ago.
When out of nowhere, very unrelated, Jon said, “Dad. If you were to meet God and you could say anything to God and you had seven words, what you say?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “What would you say?”
“I’d say, ‘Thank you for making me.’ “
Then Jon realized that was only five words, so he corrected himself.
“I’d say, ‘Dear God, thank you for making me.’ ”
Huh. Seems like a rather fine thing to say. A prayer, really. The sort that, if you only have one shot at a prayer, if you’re lost in space somewhere, would likely be a perfectly acceptable prayer. Just, as I imagine, it would be here on Earth.
Thanks for that, Jon.
On prayer, danger and flying into it all
(The Hamilton Spectator – Saturday, August 17, 2013)
HAMILTON, CANADA ✦ It’s a strange world, especially here on what is, for all I know, my deathbed. It’s malaria and I’m dreaming. Or maybe in the fight of it I’m actually hallucinating.
I see a friend, a writing mentor, a bear of a man, the sort you can disappear into when he hugs you. He’s an American who’s never been to Africa, no not once. But he’s somehow made it over the ocean and through the walls to kneel at my Ugandan bedside.
“What are you doing here?” I ask.
“I’m praying for you.”
“Why?” I ask.
“I’m a Christian.”
“I’m a Christian,” he says. “And, well, this is just what we do for each other.”
This friend, I discovered later, had prayed for me. But maybe, for the religious and irreligious alike, our real prayers are somehow spoken between our prayers. This is how my father once put it.
Whatever the case, I share this story – I’ve had malaria three times – with a long-time friend and his wife visiting our Hamilton home. They’re in Canada for a respite from their 20-year work in Pakistan.
“But I doubt my life was in danger. Not really. Not like yours,” I tell my friend’s wife, who once had malaria spread to her brain.
She doesn’t say much. Nobody does. Nobody has to. We know the risks. We get the same questions. “You live where? Really? Is it safe?”
Shortly later my wife Skypes from Hamilton to Yemen. In broken Arabic she wishes other friends, our former Yemeni landlord, a Happy Eid. “When will you visit?” Dr. Ali asks. I chime in, “We want to come today!” Mrs. Ali joins the joy of the moment. Then Tazbeer, their daughter. She’s now engaged. Where have the years gone?
That time in Yemen comes back: the warm Arab hospitality, the waves and yells of “Welcome!” on the streets of Sana’a from strangers who barely know an English word. Then the day an Islamic extremist murdered our three American friends, a bloody day that spilled ink into the papers, especially this paper since my wife skirted death only after her last-minute change of plans.
Is it safe, then? No. It can be any summer day and an exploding train will destroy your town, or a snake will strangle your sleeping boys, or your husband will drive off in his truck for just a minute and be murdered by sunrise. No, the terrible truth of it is that life itself is not safe.
This is why we pray, any of us, in one way or another like my father said, with or without words, whether we’re pious or whether we think it’s all mumbo-jumbo. We murmur our quiet desperations because any of us need to leave bed and eat breakfast and walk into the thick of it, a world that’s not safe because somehow it’s not meant to be.
This is also why our response to global terror chatter, which recently cranked up public fears, can do as much harm as good. The news can have very little to do with daily life in so-called terror states where diseases and driving, in fact, will get you more than anything.
Meanwhile, here you’re more likely to die from falling off a ladder than from any shoe-bomber’s plot. Still, we sheepishly remove our footwear at airports. Just like we fearfully drive our kids two blocks to school when they’re more likely to win millions than get abducted.
This is our strange world, where it’s harder than ever to know what’s real and what’s not.
Now my family, including the kids, are about to return to Uganda, a back-and-forth life my wife and I started in those Yemen years just after 9/11. Some people will pray for us. This will maybe even save our lives. For this we’re profoundly grateful.
And we’re also thankful to fly to a place where the curtain is pulled back a bit, where it’s more plain to see that life is a gift and death is imminent and the days between are meant for a joy that would otherwise be harder to find.
Prayer is challenging the impossible
(Christian Week – December 2011)
KAMPALA, UGANDA ✦ Remember Kienan Hebert, the three-year-old in one of Canada’s biggest feel-good stories of 2011? Kienan was abducted from his B.C. home and later returned by, of all people, his abductor.
Twitter and Facebook lit up. Christians proclaimed God is alive and well and listening to prayer.
One wrote the Toronto Star online: “To those who aren’t aware that God answers prayer, I show you the return of Kienan Hebert. Now if we prayed on an ongoing basis for the protection of children and for those disturbed in mind and spirit, abductions like this would rarely occur.”
Now come to Uganda and consider my personal top story of the year. It unfolded soon after Kienan’s return, and also involved an abducted boy, a seven-year-old Ugandan likely to be killed in a ritual sacrifice.
His father, Richard, a family friend, phoned me in desperation after little Moses vanished from his village home. Richard cried for help like only a heartsick father can. My wife and I gave money for radio announcements. I e-mailed friends in Canada: “Please pray for Moses.”
Like some others, I feared the worst. But just before midnight that night—before my e-mail appeals to Canada were even read—Moses was saved.
His abductors had put him on a truck, then a boda-boda (motorcycle taxi) that took him some hours to the Ugandan-Kenyan border. But when border police saw the boy crying hysterically, the boda driver got nervous, left Moses and took off.
Police then brought the traumatized boy to a hospital. Days later, after hearing the radio ads, a politician phoned me. I called Richard. He went to the hospital. The miracle was complete.
When I later told Richard about hundreds of praying Canadians, he gently smiled and said, “I never knew.”
Meanwhile, after I updated my friends, my inbox filled. Many said “Praise God!” Some said Moses was destined to become a great man. One friend said she literally cried. I later organized a celebration at a Kampala club, the first time Moses was ever in a swimming pool.
Yet for every Kienan or Moses, is there not a Tori Stafford? Or a Kristen French? Or a you-fill-in-the-terror? What about those prayers? Did they fall unnoticed?
It’s a fair question to ask ourselves during these joy-filled outcomes, because it’s what others ask when Christians trumpet God’s answers to prayer.
And what of the many Ugandan children murdered in so-called juju rituals? Perpetrators and witchdoctors believe that ritual murders can bring big success, especially with money. Don’t Uganda’s Christians pray against this evil?
They do. In 2009 they held a national prayer and fasting campaign of 40 days. Yet since 2007, it’s believed thousands of Ugandan children have disappeared. At least 400 have been trafficked to the United Kingdom for rituals there, but saved by British police, according to the BBC.
Many Africans don’t like to talk about this. They fear just acknowledging juju can attract harm. And children in this culture aren’t always respected. An educational cartoon strip in Uganda’s national daily is tellingly called “We know you love your children, but …”
So if courts and politicians don’t push hard against ritual killings, if police aren’t empowered, what chance does prayer have? As a spokesman for Uganda’s Anti-Human Sacrifice Police Task Force put it, “We’re limited.”
Does this mean that prayer can’t change the impossible? Not at all. I’m especially intrigued how prayer isn’t bound by time. Those Canadian prayers for Moses, I believe, affected his rescue days earlier.
But prayer is no magic wand. If it was, God wouldn’t be God. We would.
And when Christians pretend to know too many answers and not enough mystery, we don’t help anyone. Sometimes it’s better to simply cry with those who cry. Isn’t that what Jesus did? He mourned our broken world.
Prayer should also never discourage us from using every human means at hand. The Christmas season reminds us of this, how when murder threatened young Jesus, his family fled.
For Kienan, that human means was an Amber Alert and media blitz. For Moses, it was screaming his lungs out. Thank God Moses did exactly that. And Someone heard.