Growing up in the Midwest in the 1960s, we had a term for people too stupid to live — prayer stupid. The not-all-too-sensitive meaning was that prayer was all that was left for these folks — they had no other options. Their guardian angels were beaten, tattered, and torn — having worked overtime with these drive drunk, stick a fork in the light socket, cross the street without looking, play golf in a lightning storm clueless children of God. Three recent incidents resurrected the term “prayer stupid” in my vocabulary. Forgive me if I am off-base here.
Meet Jason. Nineteen years old, pierced, tattooed, spiky-haired, Jason decided to go rock climbing in southern California — in an area clearly marked “Keep Out.” Jason was chased away by two security guards, but found a way to get over two fences topped with barbed wire, to a crumbling ledge overlooking a 400 foot drop. Just as Jason began his descent, a passerby called to him to come back, but Jason offered a middle-finger salute and ignored the concerned citizen. About 100 feet down, a handhold gave out and Jason found himself trapped. Two emergency rescue teams were dispatched — one for the initial rescue, and a second because a member of the first team fell, breaking a leg and suffering a serious concussion. After a harrowing five hours, Jason was finally raised in a harness by helicopter. Once on solid ground, a newscaster interviewed Jason. With a sincere look on his face, Jason said, “I owe this to God. He really took care of me this time!” Too bad God didn’t keep you from endangering your life and the lives of others, Jason. Too bad God let the rescue worker fall. Glad God let you completely off the hook for ignoring the rules, flipping off concerned people, and doing something completely selfish and stupid. Isn’t God good to let you waste exorbitant amounts of money and resources through your own thoughtlessness? Not just stupid. Prayer stupid.
Sheila from Mississippi has to cope with the recession just like the rest of us. Single mother of three — a five year old, a three year old, and a two year old — Sheila has to work afternoons and evenings and doesn’t need a babysitter because “Candy (the five year old) is very mature for her age.” Apparently, Sheila leaves her two youngest daughters in the care of their older sibling. When Sheila came home to find her apartment burned down and her children in protective custody, she was mystified. “Every day when I left home I prayed that God wouldn’t let anything bad happen. I don’t know why he would do this to us?” Sheila lamented to a news reporter. Sheila, it certainly makes sense to leave a five year old in charge of two toddlers. Who could question the wisdom there? Obviously it is up to God to keep them safe since there is no one else in their life capable of doing it… Sorry God did such a poor job. Prayer stupid?
Martha, a seventy-five year old Appalachian woman suffered the tragedy of losing her husband, son, and grandson within a few hours of each other. She was, however, surrounded by the love and attention of her new church — a snake-handling congregation that she recently joined… and finally talked her family into attending with her. “I never realized how little faith my family had,” reflected Martha. “This was a terrible way to find out.”
These are tragic stories — essentially because they are all so unnecessary and the consequences so easily avoided. In each case, misplaced faith led to problems. Simplistic and self-serving worldviews usurped prayer as a personal wish-list or way to give God orders. The lack of personal responsibility in each case is alarming — the people themselves did nothing wrong. It was all up to God for good or ill.
I often wonder what people think prayer is actually all about. When people pray that the hurricane will miss them with no regard for who it will hit, I wonder what it is they think they are doing. When people attribute the recovery from cancer of one “faithful Christian” to prayer, ignoring the dozens that die, I wonder what it is they’re thinking. When “loving Christians” encourage other “loving Christians” to pray that someone should die, or incite them to firebomb a clinic or assassinate a doctor, I wonder about their sanity. Using prayer to abdicate personal responsibility or to promote a personal or political agenda is not only “prayer stupid,” but “stupid prayer.”
I hope we as United Methodists are studying, teaching, exploring, practicing and discovering the fulness and power of prayer. It would be great to think that UMs are becoming prayer savvy — not using prayer for selfish, narrow-minded or hurtful purposes — but bringing prayer into the 21st century in life-affirming, positive, and healing ways.