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Prayer Critic

               On Sunday morning, Arnold stood just offstage at Sunrise Church of the Lamb and looked over the morning announcements on his tablet. On stage, the praise team circled back for another attempt at the chorus of a new song they were trying to work into their regular rotation. For the second week in a row, the congregation was not catching on. They could not manage the numerous “whoa-oh-oh” passages in the song and Arnold did not think they would ever figure it out, doubted they even wanted to. This song, like many before, was doomed to be smothered and forced out by the monolithic body of music the congregation had decided they would accept for reasons that were inscrutable, and probably arbitrary.

                Arnold had done the announcements the previous week too, and usually that would mean that it was someone else’s turn, but clashing vacation schedules and illnesses had led to Pastor Maxwell texting him on Saturday night to ask him if he’d be willing to do them again this week. Arnold had accepted. Doing the announcements was not hard: the welcome was easy, reading the announcements that Pastor Maxwell had emailed to him was a little tricky depending on the typo situation, dismissing the kids to Sunday school was easy, and leading the congregation in a short prayer for God to bless the forthcoming sermon was easy.

                Behind Arnold, the door to the hallway opened and closed, causing a brief fluorescent light spill in the darkened wings of the stage. A moment later, Pastor Maxwell touched Arnold’s elbow. Arnold turned, the faces of both men illuminated from beneath by the gray light of Arnold’s tablet.

                “Hey, Pastor,” said Arnold. “I actually had a question about the couples’ dinner announcement.”

                “OK, sure, yeah,” said Pastor Maxwell. “What is it?”

                “Uh,” said Arnold. “Are you OK, Pastor? You look upset.”

                “No, no, I’m not upset,” said Pastor Maxwell. “It’s nothing to worry out. It’s not a big deal.”

                “What?” asked Arnold. “The couples’ dinner?”

                “Couples’ dinner?” asked Pastor Maxwell. He kept looking past Arnold to the stage and scratching his forehead, alternating between his right and left hands.

                “What’s going on?” asked Arnold. He looked over his shoulder at the praise band. Nothing seemed amiss. They were playing their last song. The band was making a bold attempt to insert the chorus of the new song as the bridge in a congregation favorite. The congregation was not having it.

                “It’s not a big deal,” said Pastor Maxwell.

                “The song?” asked Arnold.

                “No,” said Pastor Maxwell. “I almost wonder if I shouldn’t even tell you. If I should just let you go out and do the announcements as usual. Maybe that would be better. But it might also be unfair. Do you want to know?”

                “Want to know what?” asked Arnold.

                “The Prayer Critic is here,” said Pastor Maxwell.

                Arnold shuddered and he dropped his tablet, a small crack appearing in the corner of the screen.

                “Don’t worry about it,” said Pastor Maxwell. “Don’t worry about it.”

                “Can’t I just skip my prayer?” asked Arnold. “It’s not even the main prayer!”

                “No, you can’t,” said Pastor Maxwell. “It’s in the bulletin. If you skip your prayer, he’ll know and then he’ll write about it! Think about how poorly that will reflect on our church?”

                “This isn’t even my week to do announcements,” said Arnold. “I’m only here as a favor to you. I was trying to be helpful, I was trying to be a servant!”

                “Just do a good prayer,” said Pastor Maxwell. “Maybe he’ll like your prayer.”

                “He gave The Lord’s Prayer a 7.4 out of 10,” said Arnold.

                “I’m sure he holds Jesus to a higher standard than he holds you,” said Pastor Maxwell.

On stage, the praise band had wrapped up their set. “Take a few moments to greet each other,” said Zane, the worship pastor.

Arnold wobbled on his feet as the band brushed past him. A few of them looked at Arnold with concern. Were they just reacting to the expression on his face? Or had they seen the Prayer Critic seated in the congregation with his tinted glasses and his pen poised over his giant notebook?

“I’ll pray for you,” said Pastor Maxwell, clapping Arnold on the shoulder.

                “Oh, thank you,” said Arnold, nearly crying with relief. “Thank you, Pastor!”

                “No, no, not like that,” said Pastor Maxwell. “I didn’t mean that I’ll pray instead of you. I meant that I’ll pray for you from here. I’ll pray that you pray well out there.”

                Arnold did not think that doubting the power of his own pastor’s prayer was the best state of mind to be in minutes before delivering the most scrutinized prayer of his life, but here he was. He tried to swallow, failed, and walked out onto the stage choking on his own saliva.


                Sunrise Church of the Lamb, Sunday morning, Arnold Hinlup, Post-announcements/Pre-sermon – 3.1.

                I did not stay for the sermon Arnold Hinlup’s prayer seemed intended to bless at Sunrise Church of the Lamb last Sunday morning, but if said prayer had any effect on said sermon, I have to believe that effect was deleterious in nature: dozing congregants, aimless digressions, and a joke too ribald for the pulpit leading to a steady trickle of aggrieved emails for weeks to come. This reviewer invites poor Pastor Maxwell to join me in laying his failed sermon – oh it must have been a failure – at the feet of Arnold Hinlup and his inept prayer.

                Regular readers of this column know that this reviewer cannot abide the too-polished, overwrought prayers favored by certain local religious luminaries, but if the alternative is to be Mr. Hinlup’s rambling stutters, then Heaven grant me contrivance every time! Rarely have I heard the word “prepare” pose such a trial to the tongue of man, woman, or child. Note the word’s mere two syllables. One could feel the relief in the room when Mr. Hinlup settled on “perpoor” (sp?) and moved on. And while this reviewer does not make it a habit to infer from bad prayers flaws in the characters of those who prayed them, a decent man would not have ended a prayer of the quality of Mr. Hinlup’s with an “amen.” Mr. Hinlup did end his prayer with an “amen” and several ironists in the pews echoed him.


                “Amen,” said Charity. She opened the Newsworthy Burger Kiddinner and looked inside. Her twin sons waited across the table, napkins tucked into the fronts of their matching shirts, small fountain drinks positioned near each boy’s dominant hand. Len was a lefty, Lex was a righty. Another customer, probably a first-time visitor to Newsworthy Burger, was complaining at the front counter about the unedited rap song playing over the restaurant’s sound system. Charity knew how effective the complaint would be.

                “Did we get any burgers?” asked Len.

                “I think so,” said Charity. “Sandwiches, at least. Two, I think. But one of them is in a box, not a wrapper, so I don’t know for sure what’s inside of it.”

                “I hope it’s not coffee beans like last time,” said Lex.

                Charity reached into the bag and extracted the items one by one, setting them out on the table in front of her so she could take inventory before attempting to fairly distribute the food to her boys. The twins were not big eaters. A single Newsworthy Burger Kiddinner was usually enough to satisfy both Len and Lex, but the contents of the Kiddinners were wildly variable no matter what was ordered, so making sure each boy got enough food that he liked could be tricky. Charity’s own bag of food remained closed and mysterious for the moment.

                “Are those fries?” asked Len.

                “Sort of,” said Charity. “But I don’t think they’ve been fried yet.”

                “Excuse me.”

                Charity looked up to see a broad-faced man wearing glasses with square rims and tinted lenses. His hair was fair, fine, and extremely combed. He held a huge notebook in one hand and a fat pen in the other. He wore a pale blue sport coat, pale blue jeans of the softest denim, and sneakers with thick soles. His smile was ingratiating.

                “Yes?” said Charity.

                “I’m sorry to interrupt your family meal,” said the man.

                “That’s OK,” said Charity. “We’re just figuring out what we’ve got.”

                “Ha ha,” said the man. ”That can be an adventure in this particular establishment.”

                “Yep,” said Charity. “Ha ha.”

                “One time we got coffee beans in a sandwich box,” said Lex.

                “Oh my,” said the man. “That’s not right at all.”

                “They didn’t even grind it first,” said Len. “Mom said they haven’t even sold coffee here for years."

                “Ha ha,” said the man. “Yes. Yes.” He paused, tapping his pen against his notepad. “Anyhow, the reason I’m so rudely interrupting your meal is that I happened to be sitting in a nearby booth finishing my meal when you sat down here, and I couldn’t help but overhear your simple, charming prayer of thanks for the food.”

                “Oh,” said Charity. “Yeah, the boys usually make sure I don’t forget.”

                “Are you a subscriber to The Multioak Interpreter-Tribune?” asked the man. “Or do you read it on occasion?”

                “I know of it,” said Charity. She felt her defenses preparing to rise at a moment’s notice.

                “Are you familiar with a column called ‘Prayerspectives?’” asked the man. “It’s written by Cecil Pulmage.”

                “The Prayer Critic?” asked Charity. “I know of him.”

                “I am he,” said the man. “I’m Cecil Pulmage, writer of ‘Prayerspectives.’ ‘The Prayer Critic’ as some call me, although I myself do not favor that title.” He opened his notebook and wrote something across the top of the page.

                “What do you want from me?” asked Charity.

                “I would like your permission to use your name in my review of your prayer,” said Cecil. “I intend to give it quite a good rating, if that inclines you to agree.”

                “No,” said Charity. “You can’t review my prayer in the paper.”

                “That’s not what I’m asking,” said Cecil. “I don’t need your permission to review your prayer. I only need your permission to use your name. If you don’t grant me permission to use your name, then you’ll be anonymous, but I’ll still be reviewing your prayer. I’d rather give you credit by name. As I said, your prayer was simple, but charming. I intend to give it quite a good score.”

                “I don’t want you to review my prayer,” said Charity. “I don’t care what score you give it, I don’t want you to score it at all. Giving prayers scores and reviewing them is ridiculous and wrong. It’s perverse.” As she spoke, Cecil took notes. “What are you writing?” asked Charity.

                “Is that your final decision, then?” asked Cecil. “You will not allow me to use your name in my column?”

                “No,” said Charity. “Absolutely not.”

                “And what about the names of your sons?” asked Cecil. “I could refer to you as ‘the attractive mother of Hobart and Fletcher,’ or whatever their names are. Unless I’ve somehow guessed correctly and their names actually are Hobart and Fletcher, in which case I will use those names.”

                “Absolutely not,” said Charity. “Get away from our table.”

                “Or what?” asked Cecil. “You’ll tell management to remove me from the premises? Look at where we are, Miss. You’d be lucky to find a manager who isn’t stoned out of his or her gourd. I must say, over time I’ve learned not to judge people’s character based on the quality of their prayers, but your prayer fooled me. It led me to expect a more charitable spirit.”

                Charity looked across the table at her twin boys. They watched her with worried eyes, struggling to make sense of why this strange man would want to upset their mother. Charity held their gaze for a moment, then gave them the secret hand sign. The boys sprang from their chairs, rushed The Prayer Critic, and began to furiously kick his shins, each boy using his dominant foot: Len a lefty, Lex a righty.

                The Prayer Critic fled the restaurant, hobbling across the parking lot to his car and zooming away. Charity tried to order ice cream cones for the boys, but the girl at the register said “no” and wouldn’t explain why. Instead, Charity bought the boys popsicles from a gas station on the way home.


Newsworthy Burger, Tuesday afternoon, Anonymous, Pre-meal – 2.6

Those who have eaten in the dining room of Newsworthy Burger in Dalcette know that it is often – always – a disorderly, tumultuous experience. It would seem at odds with one’s expectations for a place of prayer: the quiet church sanctuary, the peaceful forest glen, the familiar bedside. How touching, then, to witness a young mother with her twin boys praying over their meal amidst the uproar of that infamous establishment, expressing gratitude to their God for an order erroneously assembled, as it most certainly was. How disappointing, on the other hand, for this reviewer to perceive within the simple charm of that prayer a latent contempt for all those not in on the prayer who happened to observe it. And how further disappointing for that latent contempt to leave latency behind and become manifest in the form of an attack command issued to the children, little boys all too eager to heed their mother’s appeal to their basest impulses.

Regular readers of this column will know that few qualities of a prayer are more likely to be lauded herein than those of simplicity and charm, but when these qualities are employed as cover for fundamentally exclusionary, unwelcoming, isolationist prayers, they curdle on the pray-er’s tongue and stink to high Heaven where, this reviewer imagines, the odor makes certain interested parties who may happen to be there, who may in fact be seated at the right hand of The Father, at least a little hesitant to intercede on the behalf of that odor’s source. Congrats, Anonymous, on not praying like a Pharisee. The opposite of congrats, Anonymous, on praying like a complete jerk.


Lisa was touched by the turnout for the candlelight vigil in memory of her husband and his brother. Over two hundred solemn and reverent people had gathered in Playful Park in Multioak, lighted candles in hand. Lisa stood with her friend Bev at the foot of the small flight of steps leading up to the stage organizers had built near the playground in the middle of the park. Some vigil-goers had climbed up onto the playground equipment to gain a better view of the stage, but they had not done so in a manner that seemed remotely frivolous.

Lisa took a deep breath to steady herself. She preferred not to cry. The candle in her hand gave off faint warmth, which was unwelcome in the humidity. Bev squeezed her free hand. Lisa looked up at the fat, late-summer moon above her and recalled how her husband had always refused to look at the moon when directed to do so, but how she would sometimes catch him sneaking a peek.

“You’re strong,” said Bev. “You can do this.”

“I know,” said Lisa. She mounted the stairs and crossed to the microphone stand positioned at the front of the stage. She took the microphone and the hushed vigil-goers found a new level of hushedness to which they could descend. There were no lights on the stage other than Lisa’s candle. She knew she must look to the vigil-goers how they looked to her: a silhouette with a faintly glowing face.

Lisa raised the microphone to her lips and said, “I want to thank all of you for coming. The last month has been the hardest of my life, but with the support of this community, I’ve made it this far. And with your continued support, I know I’ll make it even further.” She smiled. “Let me just take a minute to look at your faces. Let me take a minute to drink all of you in.”

Lisa let her eyes drift back and forth over the vigil-goers. Some she recognized, some she did not. Some held their candles close to their faces so she could see their encouraging eyes, some left their somber faces veiled in shadow. Some looked uncomfortable, like they didn’t know how they should look. Lisa appreciated those people too. She appreciated those people more because those were the kind of people whose discomfort at events like this could have easily prevented them from showing up at all.

                “I love you,” said Lisa. “I love all of you.” Her eyes blurred and she blinked it away. “All right, we’re going to have a few minutes of silent remembrance, but before we do that, I’ve asked my friend Bev to lead us in a prayer. And I know people here might be different religions or not religious at all, so this isn’t going to be a super religious prayer, just something to focus us and calm our minds and calm our hearts. Bev isn’t a preacher or anything like that, but she’s a kind, generous, spiritual person and her wisdom has been a source of hope and healing for me from the very beginning of…all of this. She was actually with me when I got the phone call, so she was the first person to comfort me, to hold me, and I think it’s only appropriate that she be the one to lead us in prayer here tonight.”

                Lisa turned to the side of the stage and gave Bev a nod. Bev trotted up the steps to the stage, crossed to Lisa, and gave her the best hug she could manage considering three out of their four hands held candles and a microphone. Then Bev took the microphone from Lisa and stepped to the front of the stage. “Hello,” she said, her voice rich and full. “I’m so honored that Lisa asked me to do this tonight. I’d just like to reiterate that this prayer is in no way intended to exclude anyone here who is not religious or who does not express their faith or spirituality in this way. Regardless of your beliefs, I think communal prayer can be a powerful way to bind people together, to forge connections between us, and to focus on a common purpose. With that said, please bow your heads, and I know it might be difficult with the candles, but if you’d like to hold hands with someone next to you, even a stranger, then please don’t hesitate to-”

                “I have every right to be here,” said an angry voice somewhere in the crowd. “This is a public event.”

                A murmur traveled through the vigil-goers and some nearer the stage turned and craned their necks to see who was causing the disturbance.

                Lisa peered into the crowd, but couldn’t make out what was happening.

                “Excuse me,” said Bev into the microphone. “Is something wrong?”

                “The Prayer Critic is here!” shouted someone from the back.

                This sent another murmur through the crowd, this time with a tone of obvious displeasure. Someone even booed.

                “I have every right to be here!” shouted Cecil. “This is a public event. You advertised this event as being open to the public in the very newspaper that employs me!”

                “Sir, please leave,” said Bev. “This event is open to anyone who wants to be here to remember the deceased, but that’s not why you’re here.”

                “There were no such stipulations in the advertisement,” called Cecil. He didn’t have a candle so Lisa couldn’t see his face, but he wasn’t hard to spot. The people near him had backed away as if he carried an infectious disease, leaving him an indignant figure lit faintly and inconsistently from all sides.

                “We didn’t think we’d need to stipulate that people intending to disrupt the vigil wouldn’t be welcome,” said Bev. “Please go. You’ve already done enough damage. And I don’t just mean tonight.”

                “And what do you mean?” asked Cecil. “What damage is it that I have done?”

                “You’ve harmed prayer,” said Bev. “You’ve taken something beautiful and you’ve disfigured it.”

                “Oh, I see,” said Cecil. “So prayer is beyond scrutiny? Is that what you think? Or maybe you think no one should review books or films or restaurants or albums or weddings or – ”

                “No one should review weddings!” said Bev.

                “Wow, OK,” said Cecil. He scoffed. “So now I see where you’re coming from. Now it’s all coming clear to me.”

                “I won’t pray until you leave,” said Bev. She was an almost supernaturally patient person, but Lisa could tell Bev was getting angry.

                “Why?” asked Cecil. “I try my best to be as objective as possible. Of course, that isn’t really possible, but if your prayer is good, then you have nothing to worry about. Unless you know your prayer is going to be in some way lackluster, in which case I believe I owe it to my readers and to the deceased in whose remembrance you claim to be praying to hold you to account.”

                More booing broke out among the vigil-goers. Someone shouted, “Go home!” Someone else shouted, “You suck!” It seemed increasingly likely that the candlelight vigil in remembrance of Lisa’s husband and his brother was going to end in violence.

                Bev shifted her candle to the same hand as the microphone and pulled her phone from her pocket. Then, holding the microphone at an awkward angle so the candle wouldn’t burn her face, she said, “If you don’t leave, I’m going to call the police.”

                “Try it,” said Cecil. “I’d be thrilled to have tonight set precedent for journalists everywhere.”

                “Give me the mic,” said Lisa.

                Bev looked at her with concern, pity, reluctance. “Ignore him, Lisa. I’ll handle him. Don’t let him get to you.”

                Lisa snatched the microphone from Bev’s hand, and with eyes dry as bone dust, stepped to the very edge of the stage.


                Playful Park, Friday night, Lisa Weisler, Candlelight vigil – 0.4

                Does content matter? Regular readers of this column will know that this reviewer prefers to focus on the stylistic qualities of a prayer, its presentation, its delivery, its form. This reviewer finds that critiques of a prayer’s content are better left to theologians, an approach that has served this column well over the years. There are times, however, when this reviewer must factor the content of a given prayer into its final score. There are times, for example, when content can elevate the score of an otherwise drab prayer up to three or four whole numbers. There are also times, unfortunately, when content can drag an otherwise excellent prayer right down into the cellar with the redundant prayers, the cliché-ridden prayers, and the lectures disguised as prayers. Context, it should be said, also matters, as does the pray-er’s intention. There are many factors this reviewer must consider when evaluating any prayer, no matter how small or inconsequential. Prayer is mankind’s attempt to speak with the divine, after all. Should not the attempt to attach a numerical score to such a noble effort be a complex, laborious, agonizing process? Regular readers of this column have no doubt surmised that, for this reviewer, it is.

                On Friday night at a candlelight vigil dedicated to the memory of her deceased husband and her husband’s deceased brother, Lisa Weisler, in front of over 200 Multioak-area citizens and with the aid of audio amplification, cried out for God to smite me. She did not stop there. With a remarkable lack of humility and a great deal of specificity, she went on to demand – yes, demand – of God that my body never receive a proper burial, that no one mourn my passing, and that my fate serve as a warning to any of the students at Multioak High School who may have been inspired by my popular Career Day appearances. While Ms. Weisler’s prayer lacked neither eloquence nor Old Testament fervor, the content was offensively corny. Had I actually been struck by a lightning bolt or swallowed by the earth or consumed by fire, I would have been willing, if such a thing is possible, to spare Ms. Weisler’s prayer an extra point or two from beyond the grave. But as I was not, Ms. Weisler will have to settle for the validation afforded her by the candle-waving simpletons who hollered their support for her on Friday night, delighted, as they were, to forego the remainder of their obligatory collective moping.


                Cecil had never met his fiancée’s family before. He and Josephina had gotten engaged so quickly after meeting that there just hadn’t been time to meet her family before Cecil proposed. Not that it would have taken much time. Josephina’s parents were lifelong Multioak residents and all three of her siblings still lived in the area. But Cecil and Josephina had been so focused on spending time together and getting to know each other that it didn’t even occur to Cecil that he hadn’t met her family until after she agreed to marry him.

                Josephina’s parents’ home was modest and old-fashioned. At 45, Josephina was only a few years younger than Cecil, but her parents appeared to be much younger than his. And Josephina was their third child, so they must have gotten started a lot earlier than Cecil’s parents had. Cecil knew he wasn’t in the best shape, but if he had met Benny, Josephina’s father, in any other context, he would have assumed he and Benny were of the same generation.

                “I know it’s early,” said Benny. “But we’re old. We like to eat early. So we’ll serve the food in just a few minutes. We were gonna eat outside, but it looks like there’s a big storm rolling in, so we’ll just crowd around the dining room table.”

                “Fine with me,” said Cecil. “I had a light lunch.”

                “Do you want a beer?” asked Gil, one of Josephina’s brothers.

                “Sure,” said Cecil.

                Gil went out to the garage and returned a moment later with two cold cans of beer. He handed one to Cecil. It was already open, which irritated Cecil, but he assumed Gil meant it as a courteous gesture. “Thanks,” said Cecil. He took a long drink.

                Josephina stuck her head out of the kitchen. “We’re almost ready. Everyone should gather in the dining room.”

                It was not as crowded in the dining room as Benny had made it sound like it would be. The table was easily large enough to accommodate the seven adults, and Josephina’s nieces and nephews were happy to eat in front of the TV in the basement.

                Benny stood at the head of the table, hands resting on the back of his chair, and said, “Let’s say grace before we get the food out here. Cecil, you’re the prayer expert, would you mind doing the honors?”

                Everyone in the dining room looked at Cecil. He said, “Oh, no, I’m just a critic.”

                “But doesn’t that mean you know what makes a good prayer?” asked Josephina’s sister.

                “Identifying and articulating the good qualities in someone else’s prayer is not the same as praying well,” said Cecil. “I do the former, not the latter.”

                “So you don’t pray?” asked Donna, Josephina’s mother.

                “Not publicly,” said Cecil. “There’s too much risk involved. If I were to pray poorly in public, that would damage my standing with my readers. My position as an authority on the subject would be called into question, even though, as I said, critiquing prayer and praying well are two completely different skills. Even if I were to pray well, it may not be to someone’s taste, or I would be held to an unfair level of scrutiny because of who I am, or people who I have upset with past reviews would take the opportunity to hurl disingenuous criticisms at me in an attempt to delegitimize my influence over the prayer scene in this area.”

                  The dining room was silent. Outside, the early evening darkened as swollen clouds rolled in overhead.

                “Ha ha,” Benny finally said. “Well, now I’m a little intimidated to pray ‘cause I’m worried what you might think of it, Cecil. I’m worried I might be reading about how bad my prayer was in ‘Prayerspectives’ on Monday morning.”

                “You don’t need to worry about that,” said Cecil. “Even if I did review your prayer, I wouldn’t use your name without your permission.”

                Another silence filled the room.

                “Well, maybe anyone who wants to pray can pray silently at their seats,” said Donna.

                Benny shrugged and sat down. Everyone else followed suit. No one closed their eyes or bowed their heads or folded their hands.

                “Is no one going to pray?” asked Donna. “No? Well, I guess I’ll go get the food, then.”

                As Josephina’s family passed hot dishes around the table, the rain arrived. From Cecil’s vantage point, he could see the fat droplets striking the table on the patio outside with such force that they spattered into mist. “Everything smells and looks delicious,” said Cecil.

                “I’m just glad you’re not a food critic,” said Donna.

                Cecil thought everyone was being too sensitive, but he didn’t know them well enough to hash this out with them yet. He wanted to focus on making a good impression. He was marrying into the family, so there would be plenty of time later to set everyone straight.

                The rest of the evening went well. With no further discussion of prayer, most of the tension evaporated, and by the end, Cecil felt comfortable and Josephina seemed pleased. After saying good night to Josephina’s family, Cecil dropped Josephina off at her house, drove home, parked his car in his garage, entered his house…


                Cecil awoke chained to a tree at the top of a hill in a thunderstorm. It was night time. He did not have his glasses on. From what he could see, which was almost nothing, there was no one else around. Cecil’s arms were down at his sides, his hands had been stuffed into the pockets of his pants, and the chain bound him to the trunk of the tree from his ankles to the middle of his chest. The branches overhead did little to protect him from the rain as the wind whipped it against him. His clothing was soaked through. A sizzling crack illuminated the hillside around Cecil, followed immediately by a roar of thunder that made his ears ring. The storm was right on top of him. A jolt of fear cleared the fog inside his head and Cecil realized where he was. He knew which tree he was chained to, he knew its name. It was Rod, so named because its immense size, its position alone atop Bill Hill, and chance had caused it to be struck by lightning many times in its hundreds of years of life. “Rod” was short for “Lightning Rod.” Though Rod had somehow survived every strike, Cecil knew that he would not be so lucky if it happened again while he was chained to Rod’s trunk. Whatever happened to the tree, Cecil would be fried. Surely that was what whoever had chained Cecil to Rod in this storm had intended.

                Cecil struggled against the chain, but he could only wriggle enough to scrape his back against Rod’s rough bark. Lightning flashed again, and this time, Cecil saw the bolt strike among a stand of smaller trees near the foot of Bill Hill. The ensuing thunderclap swallowed his terrified shout.

                What could Cecil do? It was clear he couldn’t escape the chain. Screaming for help would accomplish nothing. If anyone was close enough to hear him in this storm, it was probably whoever had chained him here. And if they had stayed close enough to hear him scream, it was probably because they hoped his screams would give them further satisfaction. Whether still lurking about or long gone, Cecil knew what they were up to. That awful Lisa woman’s prayer at the candlelight vigil hadn’t been enough to prompt a smiting, so someone was trying to smooth the way, removing as many barriers to a smiting as they could. Someone was trying to force God’s hand. Was it Lisa herself? Had she hired someone? Was this the work of someone else who had been at the vigil? Or was it simply someone with a longstanding grudge against Cecil who had been pushed over the edge by the ‘Prayerspectives’ review of Lisa’s prayer?

                Lightning struck somewhere behind Cecil, but so close that he thought he felt the heat, the crackle in the air, and the thunder rang out like the whole sky was a gong. Cecil curled his toes inside of his shoes and felt the squelch of his sodden socks. Rain streamed down his face and he licked at it with his tongue. All Cecil could do was hope that Rod wouldn’t get struck by lightning and wait for the storm to pass. But neither of those things, when he thought about it, felt materially different than doing nothing. No, in terms of things he could actually do, there was only one thing to do, and it was not something he usually felt comfortable doing, he was certainly not in the habit of doing it, but what else could he do?


                Bill Hill, Saturday night, Cecil Pulmage, Thwarting of attempted human sacrifice – 10.0

                Regular readers of this column may know that a perfect score has never before been bestowed upon any prayer reviewed herein. Some will roll their eyes at the fact that this reviewer’s prayer is the first to receive a perfect score in this column. They may roll their eyes or do anything else with their eyes that they like. If one can allow for the fact that a perfect prayer is possible, then this reviewer’s prayer of this past Saturday night must surely qualify as such.

                Outcome-based prayer criticism has always seemed a fool’s game to this reviewer. Assuming that God exists – and as an agnostic, this reviewer assumes no such thing – but assuming God does exist, what assurance would we have that His prayer-evaluation criteria match our own in any way? He would, for example, possess the power to evaluate a pray-er’s motives directly, whereas this reviewer is forced to guess at motive based on outward signifiers, a skill refined to a high degree of reliability over the years, though necessarily limited. To provide a simpler example, perhaps God likes a bunch of thee-ing and thou-ing in a prayer, whereas this reviewer finds it ridiculous. But most importantly, how would we know that the form of the prayer factors to any degree at all into God’s decision on whether or not to grant it? To put it in even simpler terms, why should this reviewer be obliged to give a favorable review to a drunkard’s weepy, slurred plea for God to help him find his car keys just because he does, in the end, find his car keys, which happened to be in their usual place in the front pocket of his soiled jeans the whole time? Or why should this reviewer be obliged to give a negative review to a child’s beautiful, direct request for God to bring his grandparents back to life just because they don’t break out of their coffins, claw their way up through the dirt, and hitchhike home from the cemetery?

                But let this reviewer tell you readers something of which this reviewer is certain, and please allow this reviewer to switch to the first-person point of view in order to do so: I should be dead. I was chained to Lightning Rod – better known as “Rod” – at the top of Bill Hill throughout Saturday night’s violent thunderstorm. I could not move. I was all alone. Lightning struck all around me, but never struck Rod, and I emerged from the ordeal unscathed but for a sore shoulder and a runny nose. Someone within the reach of this column wanted me to die, and, furthermore, wanted to attribute my death to divine retribution for this column’s alleged affronts to the sacred. But I have news for that someone: while chained to that accursed tree, I prayed for protection, I asked God to spare me from the lightning. And I was protected. And I was spared. And while you may reasonably doubt my ability to objectively rate the form of my own prayer, I ask you to consider the fact that I am now comfortably seated in my office, typing this column and sipping coffee, and I am not a smoldering corpse lashed to an ancient tree with a silly nickname. So, for those of you to whom the outcome of a prayer matters, the outcome of my prayer is that God has definitively confirmed that He loves “Prayerspectives” and wants to it to continue exactly as is for the foreseeable future. And for those of you for whom the outcome of a prayer does not matter, I hope that you have enough faith in me to trust me when I say that my prayer was extremely good, the best, in fact, that I have ever heard. In all ways deserving of a 10.0.



Discussion Questions

  • Describe a prayer that you would rate as a 1.8 out of 10.

  • Describe a prayer that you would rate as a 6.5 out of 10.

  • Describe a prayer that you would rate as a 2.9 out of 10.

  • Describe a prayer that you would rate as a 9.3 out of 10.

  • Describe a prayer that you would rate as a 4.1 out of 10.

  • Describe a prayer that you would rate as a 9.6 out of 10.