It doesn’t get much worse than the story of the West Virginia miners and their families.
I went downstairs to feed the cat this morning – listening to the BBC reporting that all but one had been found alive – referring to the ‘power of prayer’ and how well it had worked. I pondered how the family of the one miner reported dead might feel about the power of prayer and why it hadn’t worked for them. And by the time I came back upstairs it was being reported that they were all dead. It doesn’t get more tragic that that.
Am I being grudging about the power of prayer in these circumstances? I think that, as seems to happen in matters of faith, I believe two things at the same time which don’t altogether fit.
I don’t believe that God diverts tsunamis, stops earthquakes .. When I discussed these issues with my parishioners – and they arise constantly in pastoral ministry – I would also suggest that God does not protect us from the consequences of our own sins or the sins of others. The drunk driver will knock me off my bike because of the wrong choices he or she has made. But if that is all there is to the power of prayer, it is reduced to being something which helps you to cope with the consequences of pain, suffering, natural disaster, etc.
I find that I do also believe in God’s providence – a sort of fatherly watching-over-ness. I believe that it is the action of a loving God to want to shape and colour the multiplicity of choices, conscious and unconscious, which we and others make and which affect my own life and the lives of others.
I certainly claim and expect no special protection. I have never forgotten the large lady in Belfast who said to me at a moment when there was good reason to be frightened [and I was], ‘I’ll walk with you – I’ll be all right if I walk with you’. And I was looking at her friendly bulk as my protection. But I also think about the day when I was travelling quickly in the overtaking lane of the motorway and met a car coming towards me. No, I can’t deny that persistent belief in God’s watching-over-ness – nor the belief that prayer has a part to play in keeping us within it.