Magazine article The Christian Century

Desperate Prayers

Magazine article The Christian Century

Desperate Prayers

Article excerpt

IN LATE OCTOBER, as the "perfect storm" that was Hurricane Sandy came barreling toward the northeast coast, my wife and I were in Atlanta watching the Weather Channel with mounting concern. Our cherished home on the Chesapeake Bay, the place of our sabbath rest and treasured summer memories, was almost directly in the path of the tempest. As the predictions of destruction grew dire, I found myself uttering an involuntary prayer, "No, God--please, no!"

This was not a mature prayer; I knew that immediately. After all, we were safe, miles away from danger, while millions of people were actually in harm's way. And here I was uttering a hoarse and self-serving plea for a house. How could I do that, even reflexively? When the morning light revealed that our home was undamaged, any smug thought that my prayers were answered was completely undone by horrific news footage of death and devastation in the land.

Some would say that my prayer was not only selfish but downright naive. The very idea that God might somehow act in the middle of a natural disaster is a relic of a primitive worldview. Pat Robertson may try to steer hurricanes with prayer, but thoughtful people of faith do not. When Texas governor Rick Perry asked citizens to pray for rain in the midst of the drought, a Dallas newspaper asked ministers what they thought. One pastor opined that while such praying might widen the compassion of those who pray, it was silly to believe that God might be somehow be affected. "By now," said the pastor, "it is my hope that we ... have evolved beyond asking the rain gods to pour down upon us." If you really want to change the weather, he said, work on environment issues.

I get that. Crying out to God in the midst of a drought or a hurricane without also doing what we can to control greenhouse gases can be empty piety. But I also wonder if a zeal for human action without a meaningful understanding of prayer is simply a kind of functional atheism.

In her essay "God of Power and Might," Cambridge theologian Janet Martin Soskice suggests that contemporary problems with intercessory prayer include the assumption that prayers are addressed to a Wizard of Oz kind of God, a divine "occasional fixer." This is "a God who would strike York Minster with lightning, a God who could be cajoled or flattered by intercessory prayer" to reach into the natural order and make adjustments.

But this is not, argues Soskice, the God of the Christian tradition, the God of Augustine, Anselm and Aquinas. …

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