The oddity of prayer


On Oct. 12, 1985, a captain with the New York City Fire Dept. pushed two of his men out of the way as a burning ceiling fell from above. The man’s name was named James McDonnell. He was 46-years old, and he lived about a half-mile away from us in Mahopac, N.Y.

Mr. McDonnell (as I called him) was trapped beneath the ceiling, and suffered burns on 65 percent of his body. An ambulance rushed him to Cornell Medical Center, and our town waited and waited and waited to hear some news. I think we all sort of knew his odds weren’t great.

Roughly 24 hours after the accident, my family attended synagogue at the Chavurah Beth Chai. I vividly remember my father approaching the rabbi beforehand and asking him to please say a prayer for our neighbor. Of course, he did.

Two days later, Mr. McDonnell died.

Twenty-five years later, I find those horrible series of days entering my mind. As many of you know, yesterday I blogged about a Haitian man, Lionel Michaud, who lost his wife, his 10-month-old daughter and his home in the horrific earthquake that has decimated Port-au-Prince. The response to the post was overwhelming—the photograph of Lionel is absolutely heartbreaking, and people responded with grief, dismay, anger, etc.

A couple of replies, however, genuinely confused me. They were the ones that said, “I’ll pray for Lionel Michaud.”

If what I’m about to write comes across as callous, it means I’ve done a terrible job of conveying this thought. But, well, what is there to pray for? Lionel Michaud was a young man with, I’m guessing, a beautiful life. He was married, he had a young child, they lived together in a home. And now—nothing. Nada. Nil. His world has been taken from him, never to be returned. So (and I’m genuine in this question), what exactly do people think prayer will accomplish? Are you looking to give Lionel Michaud peace of mind? Hope? Or is the sentence “I’ll pray for him” merely an automatic response; something to say when there’s nothing otherwise appropriate to utter?

I have no doubt that the intentions behind the words are noble. But do you who say, “I’ll pray for him” honestly believe it’ll do some good? And, if the answer is YES, how exactly? His loved ones are dead—what good can there possibly be? Furthermore, if God listens to your prayers, what does that say about Him? He killed a man’s wife and kids, but—because someone thinks good thoughts—he’ll turn around and help a defeated man recover?

Back in 1985, my father surely realized Mr. McDonnell wasn’t going to survive. But he asked for a prayer because that’s what you do in times of grief.

But does it make sense? I’m not so sure.

22 thoughts on “The oddity of prayer”

  1. That was a very thought-provoking piece. In fact, I went back and looked at my comment from your original post and realized I had used the word “pray” in my response. I’m not really sure why; I’m hardly a religious person and can’t remember when (if ever) I’ve actually prayed. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I can tell you that my response to the photo was,”How does a person go on after something like this?”

    Your point about automatic reactions in times of grief is extremely valid. When someone used to tell me that they lost a loved one, I always responded, “I’m sorry”, but thought, “Does that really help?” Only when I lost a parent did I realize that the simple expression of caring – whether it’s “I’m sorry” or a prayer – help provide a measure of comfort during a difficult time. While I don’t actually say prayers, I still hope that someday, somehow, Mr. Michaud’s life provides him some joy after this unimaginable tragedy.

  2. So true, Jeff. When 9/11 happened, one of my first reactions was: this will be the death of religion — how could anyone think a god could like innocent people die like that. I was shocked when people reacted with prayer and thought the same thing you did: why do people focus on the prayers that are “answered” (those that survive) and totally deny the prayers that are not (those who die in a totally random way).

  3. As a Christian, I’m obviously biased. However, much of prayer is completely selfish, especially in a time of tragedy. Sure, we’re praying ‘for’ someone else; but the real reason is to help US feel better.

    And you know what? I think that’s okay. Let’s say that we’re all wrong and that God doesn’t exist – the mere idea that we can trust someone bigger than us, one who understands and cares even when we don’t understand, is still comforting.

    And I can promise you that it’s not just us. There are countless Haitians who are gaining some sense of comfort, however how small, from their own prayers as well.

  4. I don’t believe God kills people. I believe he created and set this world in motion. I believe he gave us free will. I believe some terrible things just happen! When someone we love dies there is still our love for them, our memories with them, our history if you will. Behind that there is grief….not nada. Love never dies. I believe we pray for the person who has died….to make their way to heaven. We pray for the loved ones left behind to find some measure of comfort…and to weather their grief and find the strength to go on. Grief can cause depression and even cause someone to give up on life…even become suicidal. We are praying for the loved ones left behind to grieve and then be able to move forward. I do believe God answers prayers.

  5. God did not kill Lionel Michaud’s wife and 10 month old daughter. Just as he did not kill my Grandpa, my Grandma, my other Grandpa, my Aunt, my Uncle,my Mother-in-law, my Father-in-law, my Friend, my………well you get the picture. When I say I will pray for someone who has lost someone, I pray for their peace in the situation. It may seem to some and maybe even to Lionel like his world has been taken from him, but I do not think that is true. This is a horrible thing that has happened. I could not imagine my husband and kids not being in my life. I don’t know what I would do or how I would react. I do know that my faith in God would get me through it and anyone sending prayer my way would be accepted with open arms. I do believe God answers our prayer and sometimes we don’t like the answers. I know that if my husband and children were gone, they would not want me to curl up in a ball and not live my life. Just as I would think you would not want anyone in your family to. There are horrible things that happen. I have been through a few rough times, but my belief in God is what got me through it!!! Every time. I will pray for Lionel Michaud to have peace through this terrible time in his life. And if he believes in God, that he not loose his faith. That he has people in his life him to support him through all of this. And I WILL pray for that. I just did. In JESUS NAME, AMEN.

  6. In times like these, where 100,000’s of people die in an earthquake, it is hard to believe that God exists. Its hard to accept the idea of prayer. I would agree with the last person who suggested prayer is more about the relationship with God. I’ll probably get some flack for suggesting this, but I’ll go ahead and do it anyways. Jeff, I encourage you to take the next month and pray every day to God. Ask him why he lets people suffer like this, and ask him to reveal himself to you. Express your frustrations, disappointment, whatever. Tell him of your hesitation to prayer. If you don’t sense anything in 30 days, then fine. At least you tried. But you’ll never know unless you try. A well thought out blogpost, by the way.

  7. Jeff, you have a knack for bringing up excellent questions that would take thousands of pages to answer (like this one about theodicy). It is impossible to make this so brief, but I will give you my best stab from a Christian perspective.

    The prayer is that God will bring comfort in the midst of devastation. Yes, God could have prevented it. Yes, God allowed it to happen. Yes, we live in a broken world with untold suffering, grief and heartache.

    I believe that Jesus was both God and man. He was an afflicted man of sorrows considered smitten by God. He was an innocent man who was pierced, crushed, bloodied and slaughtered on behalf of those who killed him. God is not distant when it comes to suffering. God is right in the midst of suffering and feels suffering in a way that we could never fully comprehend.

    The ways of God are beyond me. However, I have seen evidence and believe in both his goodness and sovereignty. I also believe in the promise of a place where there will be no more sorrow, death, suffering or pain. My hope is not in this world. My hope is in what comes afterward. Lionel’s hope is that his family is already in this place and that he will rejoin them in time.

    “It is said of God that no one can behold his face and live. I always thought this meant that no one could see his splendor and live. A friend said perhaps it means that no one could see his sorrow and live. Or perhaps his sorrow is his splendor.” – Nicholas Wolterstorff

  8. Jeff–

    I was very critical of you in a piece on my website recently (TODAY!) but this is a very intelligent and thoughtful entry, and one of the reasons why you’re even worth the time of a criticism unlike a lot of sportswriters out there.

  9. It’s weird to see so many people on here defending a God that, according to the Christian/Jewish/Muslim propaganda, created a world in which massive natural disasters and crushing poverty are possible or, for most people in the world, completely normal. If God is so great, why didn’t He do a more competent job of creating a planet that was just, peaceful and fair? Jeff is absolutely right. Praying to an imaginary God that did such a shoddy job of creation, to me, seems like a big waste of time.
    I do hope that their belief in this Biblical fairy tale brings some emotional relief to the people of Haiti. However, it will do absolutely nothing to change the miserable circumstances that they will have to exist in for a while.

    1. I’m confused. I was actually being serious. If you don’t enjoy my blog, you don’t have to read it. No one is forcing you, so why come? Doesn’t make sense, what with 8 million other blogs out there.

  10. PS – Sounds like you could use some sensitivity training yourself.

    Brian – It goes back to free will. According to the Christian system of thought, life on earth was perfect before Adam and Eve partook of the forbidden fruit. God gave them a choice to follow his one command or not and warned them what the consequences of disobedience would be. After they blew it, sin, death and disease entered the world. This is why Jesus had to enter the world – to “reverse the curse” so to speak. This way, by believing in his perfect sacrifice/undoing, the righteous demands of a holy God are satisfied. The other options were for God to make blind followers or for God to not be holy. But God is holy and gives the freedom of choice.

  11. Let me get this straight, Mark. Some naked woman ate an apple she wasn’t supposed to eat because a talking snake told her to thousands of years ago, and because of this egregious broach of the Lord’s rules, your “loving and forgiving” God lets planes be flown into buildings and huge earthquakes occur in impoverished countries.
    I’m not meaning to make fun of a system of belief that, I’m sure, helps you deal with your day-to-day life, Mark, but you know how stupid and ridiculous this idea seems, right??

  12. Brian,

    I totally understand where you are coming from. The OT gets even more ridiculous (talking Donkeys, etc.). It does sound like a bunch of hooey. However, there is a lot of evidence for Jesus and he had a lot to say about the OT. I firmly believe that he was real. I don’t have the space to get into it all, but don’t get me wrong – my eyes are wide open.

    Take care,

  13. Jeff…great post.

    Here’s my issue with prayer:

    In normal times, I could care less if another person takes the time to pray. They can do whatever it takes to make themselves feel better about their existence.

    That changed in February when I was diagnosed with Cancer. Throughout the last 11 months (the anniversary of the diagnosis is tomorrow), I’ve had countless people tell me that I’m in their prayers.

    “Thank you,” I’d tell them.

    Never once did I pray–and if I did, to whom would I pray?

    Now that I’m in remission and successfully–so far–underwent a stem cell transplant–I’ve had many people tell me the prayers worked.

    WTF are they talking about?

    Of course, I reply, “yes, they must have.”

    See, I’m not one of those people that will dash someone else’s dreams. If they want to believe it was prayer that helped me (temporarily) beat this disease, so be it.

    But, the reality is seven months of high-dose chemotherapy got me to where I am. Seven months of not tasting my food–when I was hungry enough to eat–got me to where I am. Seventh months of pain and sickness got me to where I am.

    Then, it was the month in the hospital for the stem cell transplant (along with more high-dose chemotherapy) that got me to where I am.

    I returned home the day after Christmas.

    “It’s a Christmas miracle,” so many said to me.

    A Christmas miracle? Again…putting my pain and suffering aside to credit prayer and miracles for getting me home?

    If prayer worked…people wouldn’t get sick. They wouldn’t die. KIDS wouldn’t get sick and die. They do.

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