This proverb reminded me of a joke I heard a long time ago. I don’t remember it word for word, but the premise was something like this:
A woman is caught in a devastating flood. Eventually, the water is so high that she must escape to the roof of her house. While sitting on the roof, she decides to put her survival in God’s hands and starts praying to God to save her.
After a time, a neighbor with a boat notices her on the roof and says, “I can rescue you,” but the woman says, “I appreciate it, but God will save me.”
As she waits on the roof, the water gets higher and higher, but a little later, a rescue helicopter comes with an offer of help. Yet again the woman says, “no thanks. God will save me.”
Eventually, the house is overcome with water and the woman drowns. When she gets to heaven, she asks God, “I prayed and prayed for you to save me on the roof! Why didn’t you save me?” to which God responds, “I tried to. I sent the helicopter and the neighbor with the boat.”
I understand if some of you may have found this joke insulting, but allow me to argue that even if it is a little over-the-top and insulting, there is some seriousness to it. I think the point this joke was intended to make fun of was society’s oversimplification of religion.
We have all heard of other extreme and not-so-funny examples of this oversimplification in real-life. In my local area a couple years ago, the parents of a little girl with juvenile diabetes were sentenced to prison because they prayed for God to save the child when she went in to diabetic shock instead of seeking medical care for her. She died as a result.
But there are plenty of less extreme examples of times in which we have all been guilty of oversimplification. I am speaking here not as any kind of theologian or expert on religion by any means. I am just your average college student who happens to be blind, but I can speak as someone who was guilty of buying in to this oversimplification myself.
One day as a teenager, I was flipping through channels when I came to a religion channel that sounded interesting. As I watched, I would find out the show I tuned in to was The 700 Club. For awhile, I was enjoying the show and found the testimonials of people who had come to Jesus inspiring. But then they had a segment where someone prayed over people who were afflicted with physical blindness from eye conditions and they supposedly got their sight back.
“Anyone afflicted with blindness, close your eyes and pray with me,” someone said, “and your sight will be restored.
The rational part of me knew that this was a sham. If it was that easy, every blind person would have done it already and there wouldn’t be any blind people in the world. And yet I am ashamed to admit I did it. Not surprisingly, when I opened my eyes, I was still blind. I never watched that show again.
But I fell in to the miracle trap again. I was watching a news report earlier this year about a church in my state that is believed to be the site of an apparition of the Blessed mother. The news story also said it was believed to be the site of miracles and specifically sited the story of a man who came in on crutches and left the church without them, a knee injury completely healed. Usually, I would have begged and pleaded to stay home when my family wants to tour a church, but ever since hearing that this church was the site of miracles, I was consumed with this weird mix of excitement and hope. After doing further investigating on the church’s web site the day before the trip and finding that other miracles included the restoration of sight to blind people after family members prayed a novena at the church, I felt like a child on Christmas Eve.
Deep down, I knew that miracles by definition were rare and inexplicable. Also, I was always taught that God has a purpose for all adversity. Yet when I walked out of that church and playfully quoted a line I used to put a nurse practitioner at the eye doctor in her place a couple years ago when she asked me if I had noticed any changes in my eyes, (“I’m still blind!”), the truth was I did feel let down. My parents said prayers, but we were only there for one afternoon, not long enough for a novena which I learned was an intense form of prayer that spanned several days. I never told my parents, but for 48 hours after the trip, I abandoned rational thinking, researched novenas and longed to go back to the church and see if “we just didn’t do it right.” If only we had time to do a real novena, I could be running down our country road swinging both arms at my side in jubilation, untethered from the cane, dog harness or human elbow. As I wrote in an entry back in March called What Would Seeing Feel Like? it wasn’t that I was depressed about being blind, far from it. I have been blind my whole life, so being blind is normal for me and I am very happy and well-adjusted. But I have always secretly wondered what it would be like to run down a street hands free or stand on a hilltop and see for miles. Fortunately, that week I had an internship interview to prepare for which distracted me so the feeling wore off quickly, but it was sobering to realize that I was behaving no better than the woman in the joke that began this entry, or even the parents who didn’t seek medical help for their child. I had misconstrued the purpose of prayer, buying in to the myth that prayer is synonymous with magic.
Alright, most of you probably cannot relate to my experience either, so let me ask you this. Have you ever had a job that you loathed for inadequate pay, long hours, no sense of fulfillment or all of the above? Did you ever pray to God for guidance, asking him to send you a sign that would make it clear whether you should stick it out or quit and find something that better suited you? When he sent signs that you should leave–depression, no appetite, an inability to sleep at night–did you still insist on sticking it out and not search for something better? I know of so many people in this situation.
Have you ever continued practicing the faith you grew up with because it is familiar, but in reality you are just going through the motions with no passion? When you felt pulled by another faith that ignited a spark in you, were you unable to take a leap of faith (no pun intended) and let the spirit lead you to try something different on a long-term basis? I know of people in this situation too.
All of these situations are very different, I realize. But I feel like the moral in all of them is the same: prayer is not synonymous with magic.
It would be wonderful if a divine being could swoop down and save our lives, literally and metaphorically. It would be wonderful if all afflictions in this world could be erased through a simple prayer or if we could literally hear a voice telling us what we should do rather than having to settle with an ambiguous feeling that something “just isn’t right.”
I admit I still struggle with the “prayer should equal magic” thinking, but I am slowly realizing that since God knew the purpose he had for us before we were even born, prayer is really about asking God to be with us for whatever life throws our way. I have also come to believe that God should not be thought of as a physical being but as a spiritual force that sends us the signs that a circumstance in our lives isn’t right for us, inspires the helicopter pilot to go rescue the lady from the flooded house or helps the blind person to recognize and accept that He has a purpose for their blindness and live out this purpose instead of fantisizing about what isn’t meant to be. It is up to us to recognize these signs and “move our feet” accordingly.