In the aftermath of the devastating tornadoes which ripped vast swathes of Oklahoma from the earth and left almost two-score dead, folks across the nation have responded both by opening their wallets, and by lifting their hearts in prayer. Yesterday, almost 75,000 people used hastagged #PrayForOklahoma. Some of them were celebrities, but most were ordinary people who felt compelled to reach out and express their horror and their grief at what had befallen so many innocent people.
Some atheists were displeased, as they are wont to be. An article posted on CNN.com details their displeasure here. The overarching point that the featured atheists seemed to be making was that prayer, in and of itself, is of little consequence. “If all people are doing is praying,” wrote Hemant Mehta on his atheist blog, “it is worthless.” The article notes that Ricky Gervais, in response to the trending #PrayForOklahoma, tweeted “I feel like an idiot now … I only sent money.” Mr. Gervais joined some other atheists in using the hashtag #ActuallyDoSomethingForOklahoma, in a sort of counter-offensive against the popular #PrayForOklahoma that prompted his original outburst.
All this tells me is Mr. Gervais, and others like him, have a tragic misunderstanding of what prayer is supposed to do. And, in his misunderstanding, he fails to see that by praying for Oklahoma, we ARE actually doing something for Oklahoma.
Even in our interconnected world, the vast physical distances that separate us are not easily overcome. If you’re a person like me who spends much of his time working, turning off the TV and powering down the wireless router would render one totally insulated from the terrible events in Moore. It would make it easy to forget them. But prayer overcomes these distances and it keeps us mindful of their pain. When we pray for the stricken, we aren’t begging a Genie to reach down a mighty hand and suddenly cure their wounds, as Mr. Gervais seems to suggest. Rather, we are doing what we can to keep them in our hearts.
Prayer allows us, for a moment, to close our minds to the world swirling around us and to remember that others are suffering. It allows us to be mindful that there are still those who, in the words of the Bible, sleep in the dust. Mr. Gervais may not find this to be helpful, but to those of us who see our faith as a cornerstone of building a better world for ourselves and for our children, it is the most helpful thing we can do.
By opening our hearts through prayer and praying for the wounded, the dead, and those the dead have left behind, we remind ourselves that it is only through God’s grace—not because we are special, or better, or superior—that we are spared tragedy. We are reminded that on this earth, many times those who live and those who die hold equal merit and that we cannot use our health or our successes as a measuring stick to find others wanting. We remind ourselves, not to puff out our chests at our good fortune, but to be humbled by it, and by the presence of God.
By opening our hearts through prayer to the victims of tragedy, we allow ourselves to be reminded of how much work there is to do to cure this broken world—and we are reminded that it is our responsibility to cure it. We are reminded that simply turning away from tragedy is a great sin, for in our capacity to pray and in the safety to make our prayers, we know that God has not provided them to us so that we can be idle. Prayer, and a closeness of God, drives us to work towards restoring His Kingdom. For it was mankind which turned its back on God in the Garden, and not the other way around.
It is true that prayer does not fill the coffers of the Red Cross, but it can drive those who pray to put aside a wanted extravagance, and to donate to those who are deeply in need. Prayer will not put a new house on a frame, but it can drive a man to put down the remote control on a Saturday and to pick of a hammer at Habit for Humanity. Prayer will not end suffering but, in what is perhaps its most important blessing of all, prayer can and does give men and women who live in comfort the time to be reminded that there is a world of tragedy out there, and it can and does call them to action to fix it.