"I have held many things in my hands, and I have lost them all; but whatever I have placed in God's hands, that I still possess." -Martin Luther

Monday, May 07, 2007

The Prayers of Benjamin Dobbs

Benjamin Dobbs thought he had asked for a great blessing. He had not really expected to receive an answer. For he had become quite cynical with God lately, and as he prayed that evening (head bowed in his hands) he waxed eloquent in anger and frustration.
God was not being reasonable.
It seemed that if poor sinful wretch-of-a-man Benjamin could think of these good things and ask them, then God should jolly well be good enough to do them. So great was his annoyance at God ignoring his helpful suggestions that he had come away from his prayers the night before with a feeling that crossed the line from consternated lack of understanding to disgust. Yes, he was disgusted with God. What good was an all-powerful being if he lacked the will or the desire to do good?
"Am I better than you?"
"My God!" he shook his head in disbelief, the motion turning his arms and shoulders as well.
"How can it be that I could do better? Will You not listen? I come in the name of Christ; is He not good enough? I ask for You to save human beings -- made in Your image -- from burning in Hell for all eternity. You save a few but why not more? I'm asking You for more, God! Could it be that I would do better than You?"
Something poked him in the back of the head and he leapt to his feet, the prayer forgotten as he turned this way and that to look for his assailant. But there was no one behind the damp wooden bench on which he had been reclining. Only a paper airplane lay on the concrete pad behind it. Benjamin looked up at the windows of Maclellan Hall suspiciously, but there was neither laughter nor movement in any that he could see. Most everyone had their windows shut. Benjamin stepped around the bench and picked up the folded sheet -- the plane was of notebook paper, and was already loosing its crispness to the misty cloud that wisped about. With a last glance in the first story windows that satisfied him that none of those lounging in the lobbies were in the least interested in teasing him, Benjamin sat back down and unfolded the paper, listening all the while, the muscles on his neck tense, for some sound to alert him to a repeat offense from the windows behind.
Dear Benjamin,
After considering your request it has been decreed that you will be allowed complete access to and sway over the will of God. Your prayers will be answered.

-- These words were written in thick black ink in the middle of the sheet.
Benjamin sat for a long time looking at the paper, and I would not have been surprised if a question mark had appeared floating over his head. Once or twice he glanced over his shoulder. Then, disconcerted and chilled, not just by the biting wind, he went back inside, and to bed.

"Good morning," murmured Benjamin's roommate, setting his tray down with a slight clatter.
"Morning Graybeard!" replied the other as he sipped his water, staring out through the windows into the fog. The cloud had settled in overnight, and Benjamin couldn't tell for the life of him if the rest of the campus even existed outside the windows. He noticed Graybeard noticing that he was daydreaming, and shifted uncomfortably.
"What's before you today?" he asked, to avoid any questions about what he was thinking.
"Well," Graybeard pressed on the center of his glasses with one finger, and began wrapping up bacon in a pancake. "I have a philosophy test in about twenty minutes which I am not looking forward to."
"Oh, that's right. How late were you up studying?"
"The sad thing is I've forgotten. Past two for sure."
"Yes. I don't know what I'll do about my paper. It's due tonight; I haven't begun it, and with not enough sleep tonight and the two nights before, I'll have to sleep this afternoon. I may ask for an extension, but I doubt he'll give me one.
"I'm sorry, man."
"Yes...what do you have?"
"Oh, nothing much. Certainly nothing to compare to what you have going on. I need to catch up on Calculus homework for this afternoon, though."
"Next week, but I'm pretty far behind studying."
"Busy with that Literature paper?"
"Yes -- hello Almsy! -- but it's done now. I finished it yesterday afternoon. I want to talk to you about what I wrote it on sometime when you're not busy, whenever that will be."
They both laughed.
"What about you, Almsy?" asked Graybeard.
"Oh, the usual. Enough work to kill a wild boar, you know."
"Kill and roast a wild boar," muttered Benjamin. Then he saw the time. "I've got to run. See you guys, and I'll...I'll be praying for you."
"Thanks bro!"
"Thank you, Benjamin; have a good day."
As Benjamin walked out of the Great Hall he knew he could wait no longer. Why not pray? He was supposed to pray about everything. And if it were somehow, somehow true, he had plenty of work to do!
Dear God, Please help Graybeard and Almsy to do well on their work. I pray that you would help Graybeard to work hard...to get a good grade on his philosophy test, and to stay awake this afternoon and be awake enough to finish his paper.
Nothing particularly unusual happened. He could not see the sun as he left the Great Hall. He could barely see three feet in front of him. But excitement beat hard in his chest. He wondered, and it hurt to wonder so hard.
Thankfully, his first class was interesting and he was sleepy, so he forgot and remembered, forgot and remembered, at the same time as his head sank and rose, sank and rose, until he focused all his powers on the class, and forgot his prayers completely.

He did not remember again until Graybeard burst in at two that afternoon, and dropped his book bag onto the floor.
"Hello Graybeard."
"I (hello) have had quite an interesting morning. I'm not sure about my test, but I think I did well. It surprised me that I knew it so well though, so I think I may have been completely wrong on some parts and just thought I knew it. But I am certainly wide awake. I didn't even drink any caffeine at lunch. I had better shut myself in at the computer until the paper is done, before I collapse."
"Wow. Well, I'm glad it went allright and you're more awake. I'll try not to distract you too much.
"Thank you."
Benjamin got another half of a Calculus problem wrong, and then went outside. He paced behind Mac for a few seconds, then looked up at the sky, hands on his hips. The words were at the front of his mind, squeezing together as they tried to burst out. He wouldn't let them. He wouldn't be a fool.
Biting his lip he looked down at the ground, his heart burning. He loved them all so much. It was not wrong to pray. And whatever God willed would come. It was not up to him. Or was it?
"...you will be allowed complete access to the will of God..."
he shivered. He did not want to be fooled into not praying. No, when did he ever pray perfectly? Even if there was pride and self-reliance, he would ask in Christ's name. He had to pray.
So he did. He prayed simply at first, for people who were tired, down, depressed, overloaded, people he saw around the campus. But he could not keep them out (or in), and in a few moments they burst into his prayer. They were friends who were not believers, or who he was not sure were believers, and those who he thought were Christians, but were struggling so much to make it through each day. Before he knew it he was standing in front of one of the concrete supports, head leaning on it, knuckles brushing against it as he swung his hands at his sides, his thoughts and prayers moving from one to the next. He wondered if it were love or selfishness, whether he wanted them to love and live for God so that he would be happier, or so that they would be safe, or so that God would be glorified. With several his feelings bit hard into his heart, so that he clenched his teeth and wept. When he was done he praised God, asked for his glory in the world, and prayed, "In Christ's name, Amen," before going back inside and rushing to Calculus.

Benjamin decided at dinner that he had not been truly afraid for quite some time. He cautiously asked the first friend he saw whom he had prayed for, how he was doing. He was doing well, he said; quite well, in fact. Actually...the friend paused, looking down,
"God's really been dealing with me this afternoon. He's helped me to see things a lot better. And I just heard that the whole situation that was getting me down, you know, the one I didn't want to talk about? I've gotten good news about it, so I'm happy," he smiled.
Benjamin didn't remember what he said in reply. He was happy too, as he sat down at his table and listened to the gang chattering away, but also a little dazed. Then another friend sat down at the table. She was too far away for him to talk to, so he waited, listening, until in her conversation with another friend he caught the words he was beginning to expect he would hear.
"Life...good...God...helping...grades...professor said it was all right...I'm optimistic...trusting the Lord..."
A phrase floated in front of his mind, and before he swatted it down disdainfully it whispered itself to him.
"The prayers of Benjamin Dobbs availeth much."
He could not study that evening. He waited. He had not yet had any contact with the unbelievers or the backsliders he knew. He was used to wishing he could know how they were; used to thinking he was the center of the universe, and that unless he knew about their relationship with God, it must not exist. But this was overwhelming. In this, a more aggressive and gruesome form of his sin, he could see nothing to tolerate, as he sometimes could the milder case, as simply being his care for others. This obsession he fought, and fought, and fought. Two hours passed, and all he did was make small talk with his hall mates, pace, read his Bible, pray a little in short, desperate prayers for peace.
Graybeard gave him several updates. His paper was going quite well; in fact, it was almost done, and it was still three hours until it would be due. Another friend ducked in to proclaim that he had finished his lab early and was going to go catch up on his devotions. Benjamin almost giggled. He had prayed for those things specifically.
Benjamin prayed soberly in his bed that night, for his family, for his church at home, and for a few of his closer friends. Then, as he lingered between sleeping and waking, he dreamed of what it would be like if all those he had prayed for came to know and serve God. He fell asleep smiling, and his face was wet with tears.

It had rained again in the night, but the fog was beginning to clear when Benjamin got up the next morning. He typically did not check his email until after his morning classes, but this morning was different. At least Benjamin hoped it would be. He argued with himself that even if God had answered his prayers it might be a while until he heard from his friends, especially the ones back home. But even as he promoted the sensibility of not checking his emails until a time when other people might have been awake for long enough to actually write him, he checked them anyway. There was the announcement of the next chapel speaker, who had a very dry-sounding topic. Benjamin prayed that the speaker would come in with Christ foremost on his mind, and that he would explain his topic and its relationship Christian living clearly. There was an email from a professor about an upcoming test. Benjamin prayed for all the students to do well, and then tossed in a prayer for their general health as well. Then there was an online newslink from home. He read it, since he had a few extra minutes before he needed to eat breakfast.
Apparently, there had been a massive Earthquake in Central America. It was expected that thousands had died, and even more had been displaced. Benjamin eagerly prayed for the people of the region, and then logged onto Facebook. He had one new message. It was from a dear friend back home.
The first line was confusing, a general greeting and something about wanting to let him know because it was so amazing...
Benjamin stopped jiggling his foot and rotating back and forth in the computer chair. He didn't notice it, but he was holding his breath as he pored over the rest of the message. Another friend, not a close one at all, but one of those who didn't even profess to be a Christian had apparently been born again; was exuberant about Christ, rushing around telling everyone; it was totally strange to see him so exited about Christianity, wrote Benjamin's friend, when before he hadn't cared a whit...Benjamin closed his eyes, suddenly fully awake and full of energy. He wrote a message back, thanking the friend for letting him know, and went to breakfast, praising God.

At breakfast, his friends were eager to discuss their spiritual lives. Taken-aback, Benjamin found himself wanting to jump into the conversation and just be quiet and listen at the same time. He had prayed that their conversation would be more worthwhile.

That afternoon he pulled his red-backed journal out of the second drawer of his chest, "My Prayer Journal" it said on the cover, and flipped past more than a decade of brief updates on his life, the very first in his parents' hands because he had been too young to write them himself. Finding the end of the last entry, he put the date at the top, transcribed the message from the paper airplane, and began writing down all the answered prayers. Every friend he ran into had changed, just as he had prayed they would. He was indescribably happy. The only thing that bothered him was that he wanted to tell his friends, and he knew that they would think he was insane. He could show them the note, of course, but what would that prove? They already knew how silly he was, now they would think he was insanely arrogant and looking for attention and glory. This was only made worse because he knew that, at least to some degree, he was.
He was just about finished when he remembered the Earthquake, and wrote down his prayer for protection and comfort. As he considered the event a rush of thoughts wafted through his mind. He had better start paying attention to the news. With his new power, it was his responsibility, no matter how terribly prideful it sounded to say it, to keep track of what was going on in the world so he could pray.
He spent two hours in the computer lab reading the Drudge Report ©; and he found plenty to pray about. A few wars, a genocide, several famines, a depression, two revolutions, multiple instances of persecution, and a forest fire all vied for his attention, and he sent them all on up to God to fix them. The sheer breadth of what he was praying for amazed him.
He smacked himself on the forehead with the heel of his hand. "Aids!" he gasped, and spent the next few minutes praying against that epidemic.
Then he saw an article about the Earthquake he had prayed for that morning. There had been a second Earthquake. Many more had died, including relief workers, and even a pastor who had been comforting the survivors. Fires had broken out.
Benjamin was displeased, and a little bit panicked. He had, after all, not prayed against the occurrence of another Earthquake, but he was a bit miffed at God for getting around his prayer. He had prayed that the people would be comforted and rebuild well. Now he prayed specifically that the disasters would end within the next twenty-four hours, and that no one else would die, and that the relief workers would be effective. Satisfied that he had made himself crystal clear to God, he went to dinner.

His cell phone rang as he was trying to catch up on his homework that evening and wondering if it was ethical to pray that he would do well on a test he hadn't even studied for. It was a friend from back home; one who had been struggling. Benjamin could barely hide the fact that he was not at all surprised the friend had just gone through a season of serious conviction and repentance and was now doing much better. Thankfully, despite expecting it beforehand, he was still quite happy for his friend, and he allowed that emotion to take the forefront and hide what would probably have been confusing, and perhaps offensive to his friend -- the fact that Benjamin was the one who had started things rolling. Obviously, God had done the work, thought Benjamin to himself as the conversation continued, and God had even been the one to delegate the authority to him, but he, Benjamin Dobbs, had prayed down the blessing all the same.
He put his phone on its charger when he finished his conversation, but then took it off again and put it in the pocket of his pajamas. He wanted to be available as soon as anyone else wanted to call.
"A friend from home?" asked Graybeard from where he sat at his desk behind Benjamin.
"Yep. I'm so exited...he's doing great. Better than I've ever known him to be, actually." He felt the pang of loneliness. He wanted to tell Graybeard everything.
"That's wonderful. You know, that seems to be true of a lot of people up here. I don't know if it's just that a lot of my friends have come to an easy part of the semester or what. It seems to be as much in their spiritual lives as in academics."
"Yes. I've noticed it too," said Benjamin, hoping he wouldn't say anything dishonest.
"Really? Well, it's certainly encouraging. Sometimes I expect everything to be horrible, at least until Heaven. It's nice to know God has good things planned for this life."
"Yes," said Benjamin, and he was glad Graybeard could not see the broad grin that took over his face.

Benjamin leapt from the top bunk, took a step towards his chest, tripped over his backpack and fell flat on his face in the middle of the dark room. Something glowed in front of his face. Surprised, he jerked his head back from the carpet, to find that a sheet of notebook paper lay glowing on the floor in front of him. Hurling insults at himself for not thinking to pray that he would wake up rested and non-delusional in the morning, he clambered to his feet, his knees now just as numb as the arm he had been lying on, and used his remaining good limb to turn off the alarm that was rapidly escalating. In the relative quiet that followed he could hear the construction workers beginning their day of building the new dorm room outside his window. The glowing sheet of paper was still on the floor. He leaned over a picked it up, mmphing as the blood rushed into, and back out of his head. There were letters in thick black ink on the page:
Dear Benjamin,

You have forgotten that whether I use one event to effect many, or many small events on individuals, I am always motivated by the needs of individuals. Your prayers are becoming far too general. Please pray for precisely who you would like to me to help or hurt, and I will decide on the method.

Benjamin pondered the meaning of this for quite some time. He skipped his Bible-reading to check his email, and found another news article from home.
Of all the nerve, he heard himself think. A third Earthquake had struck. He looked up other news. The wars had not ended. The famine continued. God was being nitpicky, and if Benjamin had been indignant when God didn't answer his small prayers before, he was livid when God failed to answer his big ones now.
But he was not a complete fool. He pulled his anger under control. No matter if God decided to delegate his authority to him, God was still God and he was still just Benjamin Dobbs. "I'm sorry Lord," he whispered.
The door to the computer lab opened, and in walked Nathanael Booth. "Good morning, sir," he entoned to Benjamin, as he checked over the printer, "finishing a paper?"
"No, reading the news." The loneliness struck again, and this time he saw a way to share his struggle without being explicit. "I'm a bit sad this morning Nathanael. I prayed about those Earthquakes, you know?"
"Yes, I've heard a bit about them."
"Well, there's been another. It's discouraging when God doesn't answer your prayers."
"Indeed it is," replied his friend thoughtfully, eying him. "Of course," Nathanael loaded a new ream of paper into the printer, "we can't really expect precisely what we pray for to be best. He knows what he's doing. If we were in charge of everything we'd probably botch it all up. Well, I've got to go see about Mills. Cheerio!" He tipped his hat and sauntered from the room, putting on his leather gloves, leaving Benjamin to roll his eyes and sigh. That had not helped.
He turned back to the computer. He was responsible for these people. They needed him to pray for them. So he prayed.
Lord, please help each of these individuals through this hard time. Help them to know you better. Comfort them by your Word. Send people to preach to those who don't know you, and to encourage those who do.
When he finished the prayer he felt much better. It seemed that all might be well again. He headed for breakfast.
Someone had postered the campus for a birthday. He paused, confused, as he passed the first poster in Mac lobby. His picture was on it. But it wasn't his birthday for another three months. In fact, the poster didn't even say happy birthday.
Dear Benjamin, it read under the picture. He stared at it, shivered, and walked quickly out the door into the cold morning. There was another poster on one of the front supports.
Your prayers are still too general.
He walked even faster. There was another, on a bench. He wondered who else was reading these.
You are still not praying for individuals.
He tore the page off the bench. The paper ripped straight through his picture. He hurried on. There were at least half a dozen more posters lining his path in front of Founders and Mills. By the time he made it into Carter Lobby, past the girl vacuuming the floor, he had a handful of torn posters clenched in his hands. He dropped down into a sofa and squeezed his eyes shut hard, the message running through his head.
...You see, dear son, you do not know their names. I care for people by name. If you are to direct my will, you must give me your requests for each of them, and I will answer. Because I work in individuals, not generalizations.

"God," he whispered after a while, "You know I cannot know their names. I could never, never pray for everyone and everything."
He did not notice the sun rising, carving swaths of dusty light through the lobby.
"I can't be responsible for praying for everyone. Lord, you know all their names. You can take care of them all. You know every bad thing that's about to happen. I can only pray after they've already come. Father, maybe it would be better if you decided how best to answer my prayers, because you know better than me."


  1. Nice story Joben! It was very good and I enjoyed reading it. I especially like that God signed His letters to Benjamin just "Love". Don't forget to pray for our Graybeard who is in Kenya at the moment!

  2. All my "Aww, poor Benjamin..." moments aside... wow. That truly is a hard lesson to learn.
    You might want to touch up the editing a bit... there are a couple times when Benjamin is referred to as Joben. Or did you do that on purpose?

  3. No, I did not. Thank you for mentioning it.

  4. There. That should be better.
    Yes, one of the great things about basing these on real people and places is that I can make life seem so much harder for me than it really is. *smiles*


A soft answer turns away wrath,
but a harsh word stirs up anger.
The tongue of the wise commends knowledge,
but the mouths of fools pour out folly.