Prayer of the Bear - Boring

A pious old man prayed five times a day while his business partner never set foot in church. And now, on his eightieth birthday he prayed thus:

"Oh Lord our God! Since I was a youth not a day have I allowed to pass without coming to church in the morning and saying my prayers at the five specified times. Not a single move, not one decision, important or trifling did I make without first invoking your Name. And now, in my old age, I have doubled my exercises of piety and pray to you ceaselessly, night and day. Yet here I am, poor as a church mouse. But look at my business partner. He drinks and gambles and, even at his advanced age, consorts with women of questionable character yet he's rolling in wealth. I wonder if a single prayer has ever crossed his lips. Now, Lord, I do not ask that he be punished, for that would be unchristian. But please tell me: Why, why, why.... have you let him prosper and why do you treat me thus?"

"Because," said God in reply, "you are such a monumental bore!"

A. De Mello Prayer of the Frog p. 20


Just A Little Thing

It’s just a little thing, hardly worth worrying about you might think. Yet like a slow, dripping tap eventually it got to me, disturbing my peace of mind. It’s this ‘forgiveness’ thing, and ‘have mercy’ thing, and ‘I’m not worthy’ thing. The traditional Anglican liturgies are stuffed full of penitential utterances.

Karl Barth, the great Swiss theologian, was once asked when he became a Christian. He replied, “In 33 A.D.” Barth, like many Christians, believed that God’s action in the death and resurrection of Jesus forgave once and for all humanity’s sin.

In other words, when a person today asks for God’s forgiveness she or he can be assured that their sin was taken care of in 33 A.D. In a liturgical setting the priestly absolution is merely stating what has already been done nearly two millennia ago.

It seems to me that Christians need to accept that, stop repeatedly saying sorry, and get on and live joyous lives. Indeed by repetitively repenting they seem to be casting doubt on the effectiveness of the atonement. You either believe you are forgiven or you don’t!

Now there are some, like me, who don’t agree with Barth. I think that God has always loved and forgiven humankind – right from the beginning of time. It didn’t just suddenly get switched on in 33 A.D. Good Friday to Easter Sunday was a manifestation of that consistent love and forgiveness, shown for example in Jesus’ kind words to his persecutors and in the restoration of his disciples.

Either way, with or without Barth, continually saying you are sorry is not really what God needs or wants to hear. God is much more interested in us living our lives in the spirit of Jesus: loving, laughing, and having lots of fun.


Travelling Bear

The metaphor of journey is used in relation to spirituality. We are often guided in our early years, learning one travelling tradition, and then finding it unsatisfactory and leaving it, maybe never to journey again. But more often than not I suspect most people do travel again. Some will travel with companions down a well-known road and be satisfied. Some will travel on a less-known path. Others will leave the known altogether and head out across the fields or over the seas.

On the journey beliefs are like cairns. Useful things, marking the path others have followed, bringing travellers to this point. We need to remember the beliefs, the cairns, of the past and learn from them.

Some people camp around cairns, building churches or theological colleges on the spot. After awhile however, especially when the discussions seem to be about who’s got the biggest cairn or how to make the spot more comfortable, many move on. Beliefs are not an end point.

Faith is not belief, or having beliefs. Faith is that urge to move on. Faith is about taking the risk of leaving the familiar to journey into the unfamiliar. Faith though is not irrational in the sense that it is unreasonable or folly, though to some it will seem so. Rather faith can come after carefully weighing up of the options, the known verse the unknown, and then taking a step.

Lastly the spiritual journey has no end point. You don’t necessarily find God at the end; or heaven; or even self-fulfilment or contentment. Some would say that you find these things along the way. I’m not so sure. Sometimes they can be quite elusive. There are few guarantees in the spiritual life.

The person who is comfortable camped with a set of beliefs, enjoying the security of certainty, is not to be pitied. When new events or knowledge shake their world they will try hard to incorporate those things within their camp. I envy them in some ways. That is until they start imposing their beliefs on others.

I know for myself and many others that we have no option but to take leave of the familiar camps and travel on. Not for any reward. Not for any peace of mind. Not for any higher calling. We travel simply because that irrepressible spark of life and love within us gives no other choice.


Prayer of the Bear - Mr Paget

“Our Father which art in Heaven...” He prayed on bended knee. I, too, knelt beside him there on the sitting room carpet. He prayed fervently, a prayer as etched into his memory as breathing is to the rest of us. His head bowed and his eyes closed.

My eyes, however, were wide open and worried. Mr Paget was very frail and I feared that he would topple over. At the prayer’s end I helped him back to his chair. And so it continued week in and week out praying with Mr Paget until he died.

What strikes me now is how he pushed himself. Pushed himself beyond his comfort zone, literally off the edge of the chair. To get down on his knees was extremely difficult, and to get up even harder. But he wouldn’t compromise when it came to prayer. So off the edge he went, risking failure, risking embarrassment, risking injury.

Some might say, “What a silly old man!” Some might say, “That’s the shackles of tradition for you!” Others, unkindly and ignorant, might call his prayer: “Ritualistic habit.”

I wonder what he thought about when he prayed. Maybe his family long dead. They were an impressive brood. Maybe he thought of his family in this country, and their ups and downs. Maybe he thought about people in need, or the nations of the world, or the world in his neighbourhood.

Yet I suspect he tried to think of nothing except remaining open to the presence of God.

There is a book, a one-time best seller in the U.S., called The Prayer of Jabez. The five phrase prayer simply says “Oh, that you would bless me indeed and enlarge my territory, that Your hand would be with me, and that You would keep me from evil, that I may not cause pain” [1 Chronicles 4:10]. The author, Bruce Wilkinson, in the style of ministerial verbosity, expands this prayer into ninety nine pages.

Unlike the “Our Father” it is a ‘me’ centred prayer. It appeals to the indulgent kind of spirituality where prayer focuses on oneself and one’s concerns. Is it any accident that we don’t hear in the Bible again of Jabez?

Those who like simple methods for maximum results have latched onto the book, praying and interpreting the prayer to fit 21st century needs. As one reviewer put it, “It’s very evangelical and very American, this whole notion that if you know the right technique, the right form, that prayer will be efficient and effective. Kind of like golf.”

Maybe they should copy Mr Paget’s technique. Not the bended knee, but the bended ‘me’. Not the right form, but the right heart. Receptive to that which is beyond the ‘me’, and before whom the ‘me’ diminishes.

“For Thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, forever and ever. Amen.”

Lieutenant-Colonel Humphrey Paget died in 1985. His beloved brother Bernard was the Archbishop of Central Africa, his father, Francis, was the Bishop of Oxford, his grandfather [after whom the disease was named] was Queen Victoria’s Surgeon-General... to say nothing of the women in the family!!


Prayer of the Bear - Fire Contd

After many years of labour an inventor discovered the art of making fire. She took her tools to the snow-clad northern regions and initiated a tribe into the art-and the advantages-of making fire. The people became so absorbed in this novelty that it did not occur to them to thank the inventor who one day quietly slipped away. Being one of those rare human beings endowed with greatness, she had no desire to be remembered or revered: all she sought was the satisfaction of knowing that someone had benefited from her discovery.

The next tribe she went to was just as eager to learn as the first. But the local priests, jealous of the stranger's hold on the people, had her assassinated. To allay any suspicion of the crime, they had a portrait of the Great Inventor enthroned upon the main altar of the temple; and a liturgy designed so that her name would be revered and her memory kept alive. The greatest care was taken that not a single rubric of the liturgy was altered or omitted. The tools for making fire were enshrined within a casket and were said to bring healing to all who laid their hands on them with faith.

The High Priest himself undertook the task of compiling a Life of the Inventor. This became.the Holy book in which her loving kindness was offered as an example for all to emulate, her glorious deeds were eulogized, her superhuman nature made an article of faith. The priests saw to it that the Book was handed down to future generations, while they authoritatively interpreted the meaning of her words and the significance of her holy life and death. And they ruthlessly punished with death or excommunication anyone who deviated from their doctrine. Caught up as they were in these religious tasks, the people completely forgot the art of making fire.

adapted from A. De Mello The Prayer of the Frog p.7


Prayer of the Bear - One Ring

In the mad scramble before leaving the country I found a ring. It was lying in an ice-cream cartoon amongst pens and paper clips at the back of the drawer, waiting to be rescued. It is about 50 mm wide with dolphins interspersed with paua [abalone]. I slipped it on my little finger where it has snugly stayed ever since.

It reminds me of the sea. The beautiful shell reflects the colours of the ocean. The dolphins symbolise the movement, the wonder, playfulness and freedom of the sea.

They call to mind too a phrase from a Colin Gibson hymn titled ‘When the Road Runs Out’. Gibson is talking about those times in our lives where we go past the familiar, where the usual markers are no longer there, and where we find new understandings of life and God. In the final verse, when the pilgrim is journeying by sea, he uses the phrase ‘the dolphin Christ’.

I’ve now worn this ring for three days. It reminds me of home. It is a compass for my heart. Wearing it is a prayer.


Prayer of the Bear - Fire

Personally I have this thing about fire. I like it. From the open fires and camps of my youth, to the power of ritually lighting candles before a service, fire invites me into God. Many religions and ancient rituals use fire. Associations with warmth, hope, and the continuance of life, abound. But the power of fire is, thank God, beyond words. It invites me simply to enter into the flame of it and, often, into the darkness around.

Many of us live bombarded by words. From the moment I get out of bed, from remembering and making decisions regarding children to clearing the overnight emails, from reading the columnists to meditating on the scriptures, from organizing with staff to listening carefully to the person sitting in my office … my brain is going… frequently flayed by information and demands. The volume of noise can be tremendous. My experience is a very common one in our community.

Is prayer just another noise? Another demand?

Jamie likes to dive, anytime, any boat, any way. On a recent expedition to the Poor Knight Islands he spent at least six hours under and on the water, swimming and floating in this wonderful reserve. He enjoyed the colourful, uncontaminated submarine life. He enjoyed exploring, each patch of sea life being a little different from the last. He enjoyed the effect of the sun filtering down into the water. But most of all it was the six satisfying hours of being in a near noiseless zone. He returned home spiritually renewed.

There are a variety of renewing experiences that can happen every day: When one pulls open the curtains and inhales the rays of the morning sun… When one runs, cycles, or swims, and feels the body quiver with pleasure… When one sips and smells the aroma emanating from the cup… When the stirrings of rage against injustice pulsate through the bloodstream… When the warm wash of empathy floods over us… When the fire burns low in the hearth and the glow warms the soul… Each of these experiences connects us with the God who flows through us and beyond us.

They are prayer.

The Travels of Lucky Bear: Up in the Air

Lucky Bear is up, up, up in the air. Bound for England and beyond. Whoopee!

Lucky tries hard to empathise with the frequent flyers of this world as they bemoan the drudgery and tiresomeness of overseas travel. Lucky tries… but to no avail. They are so lucky!! Stuck up high in the sky, waited on, fed, and entertained [once you ask your 9 year old how to operate the screen control]. It’s hard to find a down side.

It’s like the lady who regaled Lucky the other week about the paid help. The gardener pruned the roses too short. The nanny had car troubles. The cleaner missed the upstairs loo. Lucky looked empathetic [it is what bears are good at] but really when 90% of the world can’t afford anything of the sort some people need to get a little perspective. A new Lenten discipline: get a job cleaning loos in a city office block. A new definition of ‘holy shit’?

Perspective is what you have up here in the sky. Whoopee! Now back to my third movie and fifth drink. Lucky bear!!!!


Prayer of the Bear – sharp

An efficiency expert was making his report to Henry Ford. "As you well see, sir, the report is highly favourable, except for that man down the hall. Every time I pass by he's sitting with his feet on his desk. He's wasting your money.

Said Ford, "That.man once had an idea that earned us a fortune. At the time I believe his feet were exactly where they are now."

There was an exhausted woodcutter who kept wasting time and energy chopping wood with a blunt axe because he did not have the time, he said, to stop and sharpen the blade.

A. De Mello Prayer of the Frog p.32


Prayer of the Bear - silence

An old woman would sit motionless for hours on end in church. One day a priest asked her what God talked to her about.

"God doesn't talk. God just listens," was her reply.

"Well, then what do you talk to God about?"

"I don't talk either. I just listen."

The four stages of Prayer:
I talk, you listen.
You talk, I listen.
Neither talks, both listen.
Neither talks, neither listens: Silence

A. De Mello Prayer of the Frog p.24


Prayer of the Bear - holy space

A church building is in essence a holy place. It has been made for, and over the years imbued with, prayer. It’s in the walls as much as in any words. It’s in the activity and the inactivity, the music and the quiet. It’s in the mother trying to delicately negotiate some reasonable silence with her two year old. It’s in the enthusiastic server blowing candle-wax over the altar cloth. It’s in the smile that one parishioner offers another. When the knees bend or the hands outstretch, when we listen or laugh, eat or drink… we eat and drink of God. The totality of church is a prayer, and it has the potential to cradle and hold us no matter where we are in life.

Priests and parishes can do a lot of weird and wacky things. If you have the opportunity to travel around a number of churches you’ll know what I mean. Each place has its own colour and culture. Sometimes you feel you’ve just touched down in Outer Mongolia. It’s called “the wonderful diversity of Christianity”. Yet there are some limits to that diversity. One such limit I believe is when a church is no longer a place where people can touch with the God who touches them. Places where prayer is defined too narrowly, or where there is too much noise from engorged egos, or where the demands are too severe.

When it came to church Tom Bathgate was different man. On any other day of the week he was a talker. He talked an awful lot - to anyone and everyone, regardless of whether they were listening. He would talk to strangers, friends, people pushing supermarket trolleys, and guys having a smoke outside the TAB. They all knew him and felt part of his world. But when it came to church, he would sit there quietly, not talking to God but soaking in the silence. His wife wished he would pray more often.


Prayer of the Bear - Tom Bathgate

It was towards the end of the evening service that we heard the noise. A low rhythmic rumble. Discreetly, without being seen to be seeing, attention turned to Mr. Bathgate. Like the rest of us he was kneeling in prayer. Yet unlike the rest of us his head was slumped forward onto the pew in front, and he was snoring.

While we can make all sorts of jokes about sleep-inducing prayers, to say nothing of sermons, and feel empathetic towards Mr. Bathgate, there is a serious theological question to consider: Do you have to be awake to pray? Or, put another way, does prayer have to be an activity of the mind?

I have a friend who walks. Beaches are her favourites. The longer the better. She walks out for hours at a time. Sometimes she talks as she walks. Sometimes she thinks. Sometimes she doesn’t think at all. Her body moves, feeling the sand, the sea, the air and the ions. She returns re-stored. Spiritually renewed.

Does prayer happen just when she verbally addresses God? What about when she listens? Are concerned thoughts prayers? Are musings prayers? Is the physical act of strolling itself a prayer? Is feeling the breeze on your face, filling the sails in your heart, a prayer?

You can’t divide her walk up, you can’t divide prayer up, and you can’t divide her up.

Which brings me back to Mr. Bathgate. He likes the old evening service with words he’s heard most of his life. He comes into the shadowy, aged, holy space of the parish church. He smells the stone, inwardly etched with generations of prayers. He feels the ambience of candlelight, beautiful glass, awesome space, and quiet music. Without saying a word or thinking a thought he feels the presence of God permeating his pores. Just to be present is to pray.