No amount of prayer has ever stopped or solved anything. There is evidence of that. No deity is, was or will solve real human problems…Because they are not concerned whether you are clothed, fed, sheltered, protected or able to follow your life’s ambition. Their only concern is with your “soul”, the one thing that matters least in the real world.
God does not defend the meek.
I grew up in a Christian home – my father was priest (not full time, he had a job) and dedicated to God’s work more than anything, my mother played the organ and sang in the choir. We went to church every Sunday and Wednesday, and cleaned the church on Saturdays. I was taught to pray to give thanks, pray for what you need, for protection and for peace and love and the Holy Spirit. I believed, trusted in everything they said and followed and found joy in doing everything “God” required of me. Absorbed by Sunday school stories and one of my favourite songs to sing as a child – “What a friend we have in Jesus…”. It just made me feel less lonely and as if nothing could go wrong. I even dreamed of becoming a faithful minister – Just like Dad.
I entered school as an awkward and quiet boy, who was small for his age. A classic introvert; emotionally sensitive, intelligent, curious and more interested in books and learning than kicking a ball on a field or making noise. Making friends was difficult, so I roamed the play ground, quite happy in my solitude, but still seeking company on the days I wanted to play marbles or just share the book I was reading. I became the target for bullies (classic indeed)- I have always deplored violence – but you can only run so far and so fast before you get caught up and suffer their attacks. It was never really one on one, bullies run in packs and while one chases, the other is about to corner you. I prayed for a friend, just someone who would stand with me. I needed that! One person who would help fend off these other boys so bent on showing their superiority through my submission.
All the while, the song kept playing in my head…
…Oh, what peace we often forfeit,
Oh what needless pain we bear,
All because we do not carry
Ev’rything to God in prayer!..
So, I prayed for a friend. Prayed to let these boys have some compassion, peace and just to leave me alone. I would have settled for indifference.
My pray was never answered.
I spent my time alone mostly. I befriended girls who are much more accommodating to a crying boy. This just makes you more prone to bullying. It was like this most of my childhood, up until my mid-teens… And still I prayed. I hoped that God would answer my prayer.
“Just a little peace. Just a friend. Just a little love…”.
Still the song went on…
…Are we weak and heavy laden,
Cumbered with a load of care?
Precious Saviour, still our refuge;
Take it to the Lord in prayer:
Do thy friends despise, forsake thee?
Take it to the Lord in prayer;
In His arms He’ll take and shield thee;
Thou wilt find a solace there.
Jesus didn’t bear the beating from the Elder’s twins and their cousin with me. They thought it alright to punch me in the gut, and repeatedly kick me while curled up in the aisle of the church.
I still remember vividly looking down that aisle to the church symbol fixed on the wall above the altar. The blue, orange, pink and pure white hues of light painting patterns around that symbol… The haunting glow of light filtered through stained glass makes you see things.. Like a path way leading some place far, or a hand reaching for you.
Over the sound of low curses and encouragement to keep kicking from the three figures over me, the feeling of my body curling tighter into a ball… and the tip of a girls high heel shoe making it through the gap of my thin arms… I prayed.
“Just make it stop. Please God, make it stop.”
Jesus didn’t come. He didn’t stop them. He didn’t even instil a sense of guilt or remorse. Some deacons came to separate them away from me. Then my father dragged me by the arm out of the church while I wailed in pain, and put me in the car with a reprimand – “Why are you fighting in church?”.
I stopped crying. Beaten. Hurting.
“But I was the one on the floor.” I wanted to say it, but I could only stop crying out of utter despair.
Jesus is an illusive friend – Yeah, he didn’t even come when I was getting the shit kicked out of me in his dad’s house.
“What a friend we have in Jesus?”. I hate that song. I hate that it reminds me of the cruelty people inflict on each other. I hate that I was convinced it would keep me safe. I hate that my father only thought of God’s house, while I nursed my bruised ribs.
Prayer did not make me friends. It did not protect me from the bullies; even those in the house of the Lord.
God does not shelter the cold, the weary, the homeless.
I often went with my father when he was preaching in the informal settlement areas. The abject poverty of the people there was something I became starkly aware of at a young age, the differences of where I lived and where they lived haunted me. In one of those areas, their church was an old stable, converted to a community centre, it wasn’t in great shape, and when it rained the roof leaked… But the people came in summer and in winter regardless. Dedicated to God’s word. They had little in terms of fancy clothing and many shared a single shack with their entire family, sometimes two families. (Think of a room made of zinc roofing sheets, 3 meters by 3 meters of floor space, all built on caked sand – that is still an entire home today for many – and then consider that a family is usually three kids and a mommy).
One year, a freak winter storm ripped the roof off the centre and a wall collapsed, and that was the end of the centre… We had church outdoors till a couple prefab school rooms were placed in the settlement. That same storm destroyed many shacks and ruined any possessions these dedicated, loyal servants of God had. These families would be sleeping, basically outdoors in the weather. And being in the heart of a High Veld winter is like standing inside a bone-dry, ice cream truck fridge with a desk fan blowing on low… And that’s if it doesn’t rain.
We prayed during services. Thanked God that we could come together to hear his word. I understood some of the local languages at that age, and over heard the prayers for shelter, warmth and protection from the cold. The mothers were less concerned for themselves and more for their children… I was young, I didn’t know what we could do – I prayed for them, even the people that didn’t come to our church. I asked my father what we could do, he said “If we try to help one, we’d have to help them all.” It seemed heartless at the time, but I understand now, you don’t always have the resources to help everyone. You can’t choose when everyone is in need.
I prayed some more.
The people of that settlement rebuilt their homes. They salvaged what they could from the mud and – I don’t know if anyone died, but we had a funeral there a while later – they continued with their lives, coming to services when my father came.
Prayer did not save their homes. Prayer did not keep them warm in the cold, dark of winter.
God does not feed the hungry.
At the primary school I attended were kids from wealthy families, middle income families and poor families. I was used to just being a kid with other kids, I didn’t see rich or poor. But, when you spend an entire day with other kids, you start seeing how they live. While the rich kids got rands and rands of spending, I’d have my 20c and be totally thrilled with that. The poor kids, however, had nothing for spending, nothing for lunch. They reminded me of the congregation in the informal settlement. They were always grateful when just after thanksgiving we brought the extra vegetables from the altar decorations to share.
I couldn’t imagine going an entire day without food… But…I couldn’t help them all.
I prayed that they get something to eat, that their parents could afford bread.
We prayed at school assembly that the hungry, the cold and the poor receive the blessings of God. When I didn’t want my lunch, or I had some extra spending for the tuck shop, I’d give a random, familiar kid my lunch. Or get my dad to pack me a couple extra slices. I did that, even when the school got a feeding scheme, but the scheme only went on so long, before it was stopped.
I only had so much, and could only share with one or two a day. I prayed for them at home before I went to bed.
They were still hungry when I got to school the next day. They were still hungry when I was in high school. They are still hungry now.
Prayer does not fill stomachs. Prayer does not grow more food. Prayer will not cure hunger.
We are subject to this world.
I don’t share this to get some pity or receive praise… I’m writing this because I see a world that has become so convinced that god will come down upon the earth and sweep away the sorrows and the afflictions, while smiting your enemies… If god/gods/deities/and my illusive, imaginary ‘friend’ do exist, they are not motivated to give some of their awesome power to raise us out of the harshness of this reality.
The natural forces that apply themselves to both threaten and provide for us, we are part of that natural force, and as physical beings we can impact this world – We can build or destroy.
Only We can solve our problems.
Only We can feed the hungry.
Only We can share a blanket…
And We can be a true friend.
Friends who face the bullies together. Friends who help rebuild the homes that are lost. Friends who will share the feast on our tables, no matter how small our table is.
“What a friend I have in you!”