Praying with Kingfisher Persistence
Eugene Peterson watched contemplatively from the shore of his Flathead Lake home on a Montana summer day. A kingfisher perched on an overhanging tree close by, scanning the water, waiting for the movement of fish, occasionally risking a dive… but consistently coming up empty-beaked. Every energetic splash into the water ended in defeat. Peterson counted: it took the kingfisher thirty-seven dives before he finally speared a fish.
Peterson’s observations made me curious; is that normal, or was he simply watching a really incompetent bird? He is a kingfisher, after all — the king of the fishers. Wouldn’t that superlative warrant a bit higher success ratio? I mean (for fishers of the human variety) 2.7% is not going to get you on the cover of Field and Stream.
It’s often quoted that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing again and again and expecting a different result. But can’t perseverance look uncomfortably similar? If Peterson’s kingfisher had pleaded insanity after thirty-six tries, he never would have gotten dinner.
So what can this bird teach us about the task of perseverance?
The Fisher King
Although there are 116 species of kingfishers spanning six continents, North America north of the Rio Grande is essentially home to only one: the Belted Kingfisher. Its range covers pretty much the entire continent, including such a pervasive presence in Canada that the bird was once featured on the five-dollar bill. Simply put, if there’s water nearby, you’ve got a good likelihood of hearing that telltale raucous rattle call.
The kingfisher carries itself with a namesake nobility. Wherever it perches, it exudes confidence, even a little haughtiness. Its crest is ragged, yes, but ragged in the way of a stylish boy-band haircut. Watching it atop its perch — usually very prominent and often centrally located — you get the sense that it owns the pond, and the rest of the fauna are there by its permission. Perhaps part of the kingfisher’s air of nobility is its larger-than-life head and beak, balanced on a surprisingly thick neck. On its perch, the bird honestly looks top-heavy.
But the “top half” is even more impressive in flight. The kingfisher has a remarkable capacity for hovering, maintaining its position above a pond as it scans for food. Played in slow motion, it’s evident that its prominent head and beak don’t move an inch. Keeping the head steady allows the eyes to more accurately survey the water. So while the wings, tail, and body are exhausting themselves with the aerial version of a P90X workout, the thick neck absorbs all the movement, and the head and beak stay absolutely still. A Riverdance performer would be proud. Seriously, you simply can’t believe how NOT-moving that head is. (Watch the video of this Pied Kingfisher and see for yourself...).
So, back to Peterson’s struggling bird. Is 0.027 a common batting average? Not even close. In various studies and even doctrinal dissertations, kingfishers have demonstrated up to a 50% success rate when diving off a branch, or 20% from a hover position. For perspective, consider that a typical Osprey, renowned for its laser-focus eyesight, on average only manages a 25% fishing success rate. And the spastic Brown Pelican is only 4% accurate in its first year, though mercifully improving with age. (To be fair, if I put my own fly-fishing efforts on the scale, let’s just say I’m grateful most of my fish come from the seafood counter.)
And so it appears that the kingfisher’s hunting capacities are significantly above-average. This leads us to a highly scientific conclusion: Peterson’s kingfisher was having a really bad day.
Can you relate? Sometimes the tasks that normally come easier seem to bear an unnecessary difficulty. It should be easier than this, we say. It’s common to experience regular seasons of inexplicable letdown, longing for the days when the fishing hole was more obliging. Maybe we hit a difficult patch of financial demands; suddenly every appliance in the house mutinies, demanding repair or replacement at the exact same time. Or maybe we go through a season of dryness in prayer, struggling to feel any sense of connection with the presence of God. Or possibly the normally free-flowing conversation with one of our children hits a rough patch, and we struggle to create a dialogue. Or we suffer a health setback and discover that the routine maneuvers of our day have been slowed by pain, weakness, or decreased stamina. Like the repeated plummet of the kingfisher, we slog through with a sore head and an empty belly.
How do we endure through these seasons? We pray. But how do we endure in prayer itself? It’s not hard for our prayers to sometimes give way to disillusionment. And yet Jesus encourages us, like the kingfisher, to keep diving until you get a fish.
Jesus describes two scenes of embarrassingly intense perseverance. In one, a man pounds unyieldingly on a friend’s door asking for some groceries to entertain a guest (Luke 11:5-8). In the other, an oppressed widow annoys her way into receiving justice from an otherwise uncaring judge (Luke 18:1-8). In both stories, the protagonists are persistent, unyielding, awkwardly brazen. The Bible describes their actions as “shameless audacity” (Luke 11:8). And yet in both examples, Jesus commends this behavior, applauds it, and even uses it as a model for our prayers. It appears that Jesus encourages unapologetic persistence.
We don’t do this in arrogance, of course. Father truly does know best, and our persistence should still be coupled with humility. But nonetheless we’re encouraged to pray with verve. Is it possible that God wants our prayers to look less like the qué será será of lazy fatalism, and more like the scrappy tenacity of Bill Murray in What About Bob?
Jesus emboldens his followers, telling them “that they should always pray and not give up” (Luke 18:1) and personifying this statement with parables of urgent door-pounding. He follows one of the stories with these familiar words: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Luke 11:9). The verbs here are continuous in nature; it could be translated, “Keep on asking, keep on seeking, keep on knocking.” Keep on diving, confident that God knows how to give you a fish when you need it (Luke 11:11-13). Keep knocking as you keep trusting in the character of a good Father.
The Perseverance of (God with) the Saints
Our invitation to persevere in our relationship with God is grounded in the realities of a king who perseveres with us. My faith tradition often cites a doctrine referred to as “the perseverance of the saints” — the assurance that God won’t abandon the work of his saving hands but promises to finish what he started (Philippians 1:6, John 10:28, etc.). The phrase itself is a bit humorous to me; that wording gives us far too much credit. My life is a testimony to radically inconsistent faithfulness, bearing all the success of a spastic pre-adolescent pelican. Mercifully, our final hope isn’t grounded in our perseverance with God, but in God’s perseverance with us. Through all our failure and rebellion, God traces a consistent story of persevering love all the way to a cross that says — to his first disciples and to us — “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (John 13:1). Beyond the grave, and all the way to the final throne, he remains just as faithful.
I recommend we forever rename the doctrine “the perseverance of GOD WITH the saints.” After all, he’s the consistent one, not me. He never lets go, never gives up. Your Fisher King (Mark 1:17) has shown himself committed to you over and over again, thirty-seven times and more.